Sunday, 15 December 2013

CONTROLLING THE HORIZONTAL AND THE VERTICAL THESE LAST FIFTY YEARS (GREAT SF TV CREDIT SEQUENCES OF OUR TIME)


And on the subject of classic title sequences for SF TV (like we were) here's a kind of annotated mixtape. For those who got here late, the original hypothesis was that they tend to chip from two quite distinct blocks - 'Doctor Who' and 'Star Trek'. Like all such hypotheses, this is likely to be less an eternal truth and more a way of framing things which might take us somewhere.

But let's start at the beginning. Which of course means the legendary, pioneering ’Outer Limits’ intro. And it's classic line I've so shamelessly co-opted for the header. Though based on the conceit that alien forces have somehow taken over your TV, of course it's based on the early Sixties idea that TV is itself something strange and alien.


’The Twilight Zone’ is perhaps a little less classic, but it's Magritte-like floating door unlocked by “the key of imagination” is even more surreal. With the unlocking door reference, it should be remembered in those days people often stored their box-like TVs in cabinets, closing the doors on them when not in use.


'The Quatermass Experiment' is perhaps the other great pioneer. The idea that the show was merely a prototype for 'Who' is an absurd simplification. However, with it's smoke and dissolving titles, it has some of the chaotic dissolving forms of 'Who.' It heralds a world in a permanent incohate state, one which makes the above two clips suddenly look ordered. Here you can be pretty sure no-one is controlling the horizontal or the vertical. But it's the martial classical theme tune which is the main difference, vaguely celestial but more cultured. The theme tune for a self-styled “thriller” for the viewing pleasure of proper grown-ups, not some sci-fi show!


...then by way of a contrast, 'Wagon Train In Space.'


I kid! Even if you're Oxford, you can still admit it when Cambridge have a good team. It is a classic in it's on right. Even if it took things in a direction I was less interested in. Partly it's the font they use, modernist and slanty yet elegantly solid, and so easily recognisable. (Those who think I may be a bit damning with faint praise over 'Star Trek' may be interested in an exchange between myself and Prankster in the comments section of Andrew Hickey's blog.)

'Time Tunnel' might initially seem the most 'Who'-like of all. Don't be fooled! It's tunnel is more disco lighting than shamanic experience, it's theme tune and graphics more spy movie than SF. (Surrealist spy shows, such as 'The Avengers' or 'The Prisoner' are probably another genre, if inevitably an overlapping one.) While both 'Who' and 'Star Trek' used bold, classic fonts to identify themselves, this screams “Sixties!” at you. It's fun, I wouldn't deny, and it was probably effective enough to plant bums on sofas. But it's not classic...


...or adventures closer to home. Whatever else you could say about him, Gerry Anderson knew how to put together a dramatic credit sequence. With it's pumping jazzy score and classic line “anything can happen in the next half hour”'Stingray' could grab any child's attention. Growing up in a black-and-white household, I never knew about the clever 'Oz'-like shift into colour until many years later.


Meanwhile in Australia... As John Lydon once said “is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? It ain't!” I even knew as a child 'Phoenix 5' was terrible, but felt compelled to watch it anyway. (Though I was then too young to know the term 'kitsch value', I could still apply it.) It seems keen to mash 'Star Trek' up with 'Lost In Space', with the crew doubling as an honorary family unit.

It's hard to hear that Brit narrator and not imagine it read out by Paul Hogan. Their adversary would seem to be Bela Lugosi, only cheaper. I suppose it gets dark in space a lot, handy if you're a vampire. And I love the line about “their computeroid, Carl”! No relation to Robbie the Robot, nothing for lawyers here...


Could you even parody that stuff? Some were brave enough to try...


’Blake’s 7’ is a rare attempt at a composite, with the patented iconic faces and objects which fill the screen then recede, with some post ’1984’ dystopianism. (Yep, masked cops and CCTV cameras, the future’s going to be that horrific!). All topped off with a borrowed Death Star. But the military music ultimately makes it more a successor to ’Star Trek.’


'Tomorrow People' came faster-paced and with a funkier theme to signify you were tuned into ITV, but the comparisons stand. One of the great credit sequences of the era, for a show which had everything going for apart from (alas) it's actual content. Perhaps the main difference is that ’Who’ feels quite music-led, as if the sometimes abstract images are visualising the sound. It seems to signify a universe in primal chaos.

This is not only more visually oriented but quite self-consciously references Dadaist collage, especially the John Heartfield hand. The music is more musical, which isn't really a compliment. You could play it at a disco, whereas to hear the 'Who' theme you'd need to leave behind life as we know it. It's like one came from alchemic electronics boffs, and the other from Art School grads eager to stick something modernist on the screen.


With it’s gravitas-exuding omnipotent narrator and geometric shapes, ’Sapphire and Steel’ perhaps stems more directly from 'Outer Limits' and ’Twilight Zone’ rather than first going through ’Doctor Who’. (Recall the way that both started with a simple geometric line in space.)

Unlike the Doctor, the very definition of the gentleman amateur, they were kind of cosmic police agents. But they were mysterious and non-human... in Steel's case, significantly non-human. So, as with 'Blake's 7', we get a sort of hybrid. Weird floating faces cohabit with star fields, against a theme tune that goes from eerie to martial. I always used to try and spy out that hooded head in the background on our family's cheap black-and-white TV, without significant success. Presumably some kind of cosmic Fat Controller, sending them out on their missions...


'Sky' is clearly 'Who' derived but uses some clever effects to unsettle, some quite simple such as jumping between musical progression and stasis. It simply never occurred to me before watching this, but we're so used to credit sequences with on-screen actor/character introductions (“starring... as...”) that with-holding that information creates a great sense of mystery in itself. The last shot, a psychedelically filtered image of trees against the sky, probably sums up the show's visual identity the best.


The next batch weren't even science fiction shows, but they are about the uncanny so I like to think they expand my point rather than undermine it. 'Raven' had a mystic Arthurian storyline, with one of the spaciest theme tunes of them all (could you even call it a tune?), a credit sequence that's more like being in a trance - and it still manages a futuristic font.


'Escape Into Night' has a double credit. (You have to watch a bit of intro before the second one.) The first, with it's dramatic classical theme (from Vaughn Williams) is quite post-'Quatermass' while the second is almost the exact opposite – much more simple, much more sinister. (Never actually seen this show, it looks like an influence on the 'New Who' episode 'Fear Her', but much better. Though perhaps that isn't hard...)

It's so nostalgic to see the ATV ident again. Announcing colour but being in black and white – just the way I remember it!


'Into the Labyrinth' uses a fairly crummy 'horror comics' font, but it's neat the way it uses the uneven-ness of a cave to convey it's own version of the cosmic tunnel. Note how the theme music opens with a fanfare to pull the audience in, then moves onto the spooky voices.


Not that every entrant was a medallist. If 'Star Trek' was the anti-'Who'<, 'Ace of Wands' is the anti Sky. Faces- check! Hands – check! But what happened to that all-important uncanniness? A risibly limp pop-folk theme is no real replacement for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. And as for the faux jollity of that font, the Comic Sans of the Seventies...

The Fool/Knave/Trickster figure was prevalent in this era. (Think for example of the Beatles' 'Fool on the Hill'.) With 'Who', at least the Second and Fourth Doctors were examples. But this looks like the scrag-end of it all. Reminds me of crusties juggling in Brighton's North Laines. Move on...


But with ’Box of Delights’ the sinister, uncanny title sequence is back – and counter-intuitively but quite fabulously set to a Christmas carol...


What were we saying about hands? 'Who' even managed to cast a shadow over adult TV. 'Survivors' was admittedly linked to 'Who' by writer Terry Nation. But t's the same faces and objects veering in and out of focus. But what chiefly strikes home is the spilled beaker and the spreading stain. It both carries forward and inverts the cosmic tunnel. Both are as if random to us, beyond our control or comprehension. But here the stain spreads the plague. It's not a call to adventure but a warning, a reminder to us of how limited we are.


...and again with the... well pretty much all of it. 'Day of the Triffids' focuses almost entirely on human faces, but the unearthly light and the unsettling music transform them into something spooky. Like the stain, it's kind of inverted in effect. Rather than their appearing mysterious, we wonder what they can be looking at to get them so afeared. Notably, the Triffids appear only fleetingly and as shapeless heaving blobs, cousins to the stain above. (Alas they weren't so fleeting in the actual show, but that's another story.)


'The Omega Factor', another adult show, combined espionage and horror elements more than SF. But it still contains’Who’ elements aplenty, such as heads and titles filling the screen only to break up. Perhaps the most signifying thing is the initial electronic pulses giving way to a more standard spy theme.


...which is more than enough to be going on with. The terminally deranged may want to try out myYouTube playlist of TV credit sequences. Not merely confined to 'Who' derived or even SF.

Coming soon! Okay, next time moving on from this stuff...

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