Thirteen to Centaurus

Intense young man standing next to computer panel

by J G Ballard
Adapted by Stanley Miller

I looked up this short story on and was surprised to see it described as untypical and even generic. Yet to me this episode is filled with the familiar J G Ballard theme of a protagonist who deliberately succumbs to a strange new world, in search of another reality. There’s also a protagonist who feels alienated from his own society, despite having no obvious reason for it. Stanley Miller took this already rich short story and turned it into a gripping TV drama with a haunting conclusion and possibly the most fully realised episode of the first series.

Thirteen men and women live in a metal world and seem to believe it to be the whole of reality. But young unusually bright Abel has worked out that there must be something more. Dr Francis has noticed this and lets Abel in on a secret – their world is actually a spaceship heading to a far distant planet, a planet which no one currently aboard will live will reach, but a future generation will. Dr Francis however is keeping a deeper secret from the rest of the crew. He has a secret exit to the outside, because the spaceship is in fact an elaborate simulation on a military base, designed to test whether humans are capable of a multi-generational space mission. Now a new commander has arrived – with orders to shut the experiment down.

You might think I have been thoughtless to  reveal two twists in my synopsis but one of the impressive parts of Thirteen to Centaurus is that it is not built on such revelations, but on the situation and people created by it. Following its own ruthless story logic, the plot investigates  the problems created by a grandiose sociology experiment, whilst cleverly using potential plot holes about the practicalities of creating a spaceflight on the ground.

Apparently the original crew of the ‘ship’ were volunteers but their grown-up children are fully indoctrinated into this artificial world. It seems remarkably immoral and it is not surprising that public opinion has soured towards it. If this story was being adapted a few years later, it is possible a Truman Show reality television angle might have been incorporated into the plot. As it is, we are told that the public are kept updated by regular reports. In one of the episode’s few moments of humour, we learn that there has been audience discomfort at the way the inhabitants have split along class stereotypes – an aloof, aristocratic captain and his son, a sensible, ‘middle-class’ of engineers who basically run the ship, and incurious subservient catering workers. In another satirical instance, the controllers of the project debate marriage as a way of distracting Abel and stunting his intellectual curiosity.

The stakes of this experiment are driven home when General Short calls a meeting of the officers and explains that he has been sent to oversee the project’s closure. Even he allows that it might take a year or more to safely acclimatise the subjects to reality, without them going mad. Public scrutiny has obviously made the authorities circumspect. Even as events become increasingly alarming, no one suggests breaking into the ship.

Dr Francis is a man who seems to be nominally in power, but at the story unfolds it is clear that he has lost his distance. Intellectually and emotionally he is almost as bound to the spaceship as its inhabitants. He regards Abel as his star pupil, his intelligence and intuitive discoveries is proof of Francis’ social theories and the success of the project. His interest in seeing how far this boy can develop, coupled with over-confidence in his influence over the ship, leads him to be far too indulgent to Abel’s suggestions, even when the young man suggests experimenting with the conditioning machine. In the original story, Abel is younger and we see much of the story from his point of view. As a result his actions seem more innocently motivated by dogged curiosity. From the third person viewpoint of this episode, Abel takes on a much more sinister aspect early on, to the point where the doctor seems amazingly naive to give him so much control. Not to mention allowing himself to be the guinea pig. Perhaps subconsciously he wants to submit to this simpler world?

Design-wise the production stands up fairly well. Aside from a one man lift near the start which grinds alarmingly loudly and drowns out the dialogue. The interior of the ship is fairly bland, lots of smooth walls broken up by banks of flickering instrumentation. A striking exception though is the rotating gym, an octagonal room where silhouetted figures exercise whilst a soothing woman’s voice reinforces their worldview, that there is no other world but their’s. The outside world is largely represented by mission control, where I can forgive the unflattering and slightly fetish-looking futuristic military uniforms worn by the personal. The cast are all excellent, hitting the right balance between naturalism and the slight theatricality this drama of ideas needs.

Religion takes on a slightly larger role in the television version. The episode opens with the crew singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” as the old captain’s body is interred, but there’s no discussion on what they understand of the lyrics. Surely it must sound like gobbledygook to them? Especially when we later discover that Abel initially has no real understanding of the idea of God. Its use is the only significant issue I have with the storyline and I wonder if it was just used as a shorthand for “funeral service” without really thinking it through. Later on, Abel does get religion, but with depressing inevitability, starts using it as a justification for his actions, suggesting that this is something built-in to many human spiritual ideas.

What makes this episode so rewarding is the way its big story concepts are explored and are married with richer than normal characterisation. The replica society seems stunted and odd but still practical and controllable at the opening. Yet it spirals out of control in an entirely logical and believable way, each step having a rational justification on its own. This script knows that people often do not have simple motivations. Abel ultimately discovers that the ship is a fake, but still decides to carry on with the mission because it has become a religious article of faith. It is ambiguous whether his climatic mental conditioning of Francis is to take revenge on the doctor or to save his soul. Similarly, has Abel had a kind of breakdown on learning the truth or has his intellect rationalised the revelation within his new religious beliefs, in the same way that many people of faith handle today’s scientific discoveries? So Abel is acting quite rationally, according to the strange way he has been raised. Either way the sight of Francis twitching on the conditioning bed, whimpering “Abel, this is humiliating!” as his identity is altered is one of the most haunting scenes so far in the series. Perhaps because we and him understand exactly how immoral this procedure is that he has inflicted for years on the crew, for the greater good. It’s a satisfying ending that also thrillingly open as to what will happen next.