I should warn you that there are going to be spoilers in this review.
The Counterfeit Man
by Alan Nourse
Adapted by Philip Broadley
Returning to Earth after a disappointing expedition to Ganymede, Dr Crawford, the ship’s medical officer, is shocked when a routine check-up reveals crewman Wescott cannot possibly be human. When a second test comes back normal, the doctor is convinced that they have an alien intruder which can copy humans down to a molecular level. With the reluctant help of Captain Jaffe, Crawford instigates a war of nerves on Wescott, hoping to force the shape-changing alien to reveal itself.
Given the concept of an alien metamorph which can disguise itself as anyone, many a writer would have gone for a whodunnit, raising the paranoia about who the intruder could be. This episode is certainly filled with tension but it is more that of a pressure cooker, slowly ratcheting up the atmosphere. We learn the identity of the ‘counterfeit man’ almost immediately, but tellingly we only know through the conclusions of Dr Crawford. This creates a different kind of tension in the first half, is the doctor correct? In most shipboard dramas, the doctor is a figure of calm reason and authority, but early on it becomes clear that Crawford is quite highly strung for an officer and no poker player, his voice cracking with emotion when he discusses matters with Jaffe. Wescott shows none of the obvious signs of alienness. His speech is natural, his gaze remains un-zombiefied, he only starts to look around suspiciously after he himself falls under suspicion of a crime we know he did not commit. Is Crawford persecuting an innocent man due to his own imagination? David Hemmings is excellent as the likable, increasingly angry Wescott, whilst Alexander Davion hits the right balance between authority and discomfort.
It’s striking looking episode with a large impressive spaceship control deck in gleaming white and chrome. For a story about stealing identities, the crew are strangely clone-like with their near-identical blonde wigs and uniforms. Watching the show with the sound off, you might think that the men (and they are all men, no token female presence here) would talk in a cold, formal fashion. In fact the atmosphere is much more reminiscent of sailors on a navy vessel. “There’s nothing more reassuring than the body of a woman!”, sighs one fellow early on.
But instead of launching into a rendition of “Nothing Like a Dame” at this point, we are treated to the only real weak spot of this episode, the mental breakdown and death of Donnie. Rather than harrowing, this moment is unfortunately quite funny as actor Peter Fraser shouts and staggers around the room, being studiously ignored by the other astronauts. It’s not surprising that Nigel Planer picked it out for his spoof acting class How to Be SF.
As Crawford’s campaign begins to take its toll, the production takes on the feel of experimental theatre. Long tracking shots and close-ups of Wescott looking strung out, soundtracked by some excellent stock music and radiophonic effects I’m pretty sure I’ve previously heard in the Doctor Who adventure The Moonbase. Eventually the story reveals its hand, and Wescott is revealed as an extra-terrestrial in an impressively gloopy special effect sequence, lit with pulsing lights.
If the story had ended here it would have been satisfactory, but a final act pushes it into excellence. With the spacecraft quarantined on Earth, Crawford returns to it only to find his worst fears confirmed, there was a second alien on board. Others might follow what happens better, but to me the climax is interestingly ambiguous. Was the second alien Jaffe, which is what Crawford accuses to the empty room, or does his own fear and paranoia lead him to accidentally release the second alien from its specimen jar when he blasts a workbench with his gun? Either way I was quite struck by the explicitness of the final laser-crisped body, horrible even in monochrome. The production also smartly keeps the aliens’ motivation obscure. We never find out why they want to infiltrate the ship or reach the Earth. This lack of information is intriguing rather than frustrating. Nothing would be clumsier than one of the beings giving a speech about their plans for conquest or tourism.
Let me give special acknowledgement to George Spenton Foster, who not only directs this striking episode, but as Associate Producer was also instrumental in getting this technically challenging series on to BBC2 in the first place. The Counterfeit Man is notable improvement on the opening story and has aged in quite a cool Sixties retro way.