[Oct. 31, 1961] A is for Atomic (UK TV Sci-fi… and the Tsar Bomba)


By Ashley R. Pollard

A is for atomic and apocalypse, and this month also for Andromeda.  Of the three, the most entertaining is the new TV series on the BBC, called A for Andromeda, written by Frederick Hoyle and John Elliot.  Hoyle is an astronomer and noted cosmologist who also wrote the science fiction novel The Black Cloud, while Elliot is novelist, screenwriter and television producer.

Andromeda gripped me from the very first episode, called The Message, the opening sequence being an interview with Professor Reinhart, explaining the project as something that had happened in the past.  The story cuts to the professor and his research assistants, Jason Fleming and Dennis Bridger, working at the new radio telescope at Bouldershaw Fell…in 1970.  If that’s not a hook that grabs your attention then I don’t know what is.  The episode title gives the gist of the plot — alien message — and the series title tells you where the aliens are from — Andromeda.

The second episode, The Machine, builds on the message and we discover it is the plans to build a better computer, which the British government decide to do at a military base in Thorness, Scotland.  Here the plot starts to twist and turn with Dennis Bridger selling the information to a slightly sinister corporate conglomerate called Intel (a clever name; someone should put it to good use).

The third episode, The Miracle, moves the story into Hoyle’s special area of interest: life from space.  You may have heard of his famous stellar nucleosynthesis paper of 1954 — Frederick Hoyle is one of the foremost scientists of his generation and a populariser of the philosopher Anaxagoras theory of panspermia, a controversial theory.  The story introduces Madeline Dawnay, a biologist, who joins the team to help with the creation of a synthetic life-form that the computer instructions have given them.  Dennis Bridger’s betrayal is discovered, and he gets his just desserts while fleeing justice…when he falls off a cliff.

In last week’s episode, The Monster, the story has moved forward to 1971, where we bear witness to the creation of a protoplasmic life form named “the cyclops.”  Fleming, our hero of the series, is skeptical of the machine’s agenda and worried that it can affect the minds of those who come into close proximity to the machine.  We are left wanting more, and next week’s episode title, The Murderer, certainly leaves us something exciting to look forward to!

However, this time, reality has the jump on fiction, excitement-wise.  It comes in the shape of what the press is calling the Tsar Bomba or Kuz’kina Mat’ — Russian for “Kuzma’s mother” — a reference to Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s promise to show the United States the true might of Soviet power during the United Nations General Assembly earlier this month.

Or more simply, the mother of all bombs.

The Russians turned their premier’s statement into a demonstration of their nuclear might at 11.32 Moscow time on October the 30th by detonating a 50 megaton bomb over the Mityushika Bay the Soviet nuclear testing range.  For those of you whose geography is a little hazy, this is just north of the Arctic Circle over the Novayo Zemlya archipelago.  The shock wave from the blast is reputed to have circled the Earth four times.  Reports of seeing the explosion came from a nearly thousand kilometres away from the blast site.

The size of the explosion is almost beyond comprehension.  The only way I can get my head around it is knowing that it’s the equivalent to ten percent of all the nuclear bombs detonated to date or ten times the combined energy from all the bombs dropped during the second world war.  Such numbers are frightening and make the threat from aliens trying to take over the Earth pale into insignificance by comparison.

Perhaps it is because the threat to all life on Earth becoming extinct is an existential one, now that we live in the atomic age, that we enjoy such outrageous fare as Andromeda.  When we consider such matters, our minds are overwhelmed by prime emotions, which reduce our reasoning to that of the hominids we’re descended from.  I would argue that science fiction allows us to discuss that which is too frightening to comprehend.

So whether A is for atomic, apocalypse or Andromeda is really not the question.  Rather, our need to tell stories to understand ourselves is the way we face the end of life.

6 thoughts on “[Oct. 31, 1961] A is for Atomic (UK TV Sci-fi… and the Tsar Bomba)”

  1. A very thoughtful analysis.  One can only hope that fiction dealing with the consequences of these horrendous weapons can help in some small way to prevent their use.

  2. I remember seeing mention of hams and astronomers deliberately searching for “space noise” before the war, but it was mostly with the intent of filtering it out to get clearer transmissions.  It wasn’t until after the war that the astronomers started to get much interest in the noise itself.

    When the Jodrell Bank radio telescope went operational a few years ago it became famous for being the first to confirm the Sputnik launch, and then for tracking some of the US satellite launches.  But being a science fiction fan, my big question was, “What if it picks up an actual signal instead of just static?”

    I guess the British Interplanetary Society and Hoyle first considered that a long time ago.  Atomic bombs and missiles are a big deal, and the new Soviet superbomb has captured the news… but if some radio telescope ever picks up a signal from intelligent life, the whole world will change.  Because then we’ll *know* we’re not alone… and a lot of social and religious structures may have a hard time dealing with that.

    Hoyle is an uneven writer, and I don’t have access to anything about Elliot.  Unfortunately, Britain might as well be on Mars as far as being able to get information from there.  But hopefully the series will make it to this side of the pond where someone can write up a good review; it’s unlikely such an esoteric thing would ever been shown in my broadcast market.  It’s not like someone could record the episodes and mail them to me.  Well, theoretically they could, but one of those video tape machines costs more than my car, and I’ll be paying that off for years to come…

    1. We are lucky to have an on-the-ground British correspondent at The Journey.  You are right that the gulf between our countries can be frustrating.

      Still, stuff does cross over.  I watched Secret Agent (Danger Man in England) over the Summer, and it was fantastic.

      1. I saw something about that show in one of my wife’s movie magazines.  It looked interesting, but we’re limited to what’s on the 2-1/2 TV channels we can get.

        Sometimes I get frustrated about the things I know are out there that I can’t get hold of, and wonder what might be out there I don’t even know about.

        Well, at least we have magazines and books…

  3. Well at least we can all rest comfortably knowing that the BBC will keep AifA in their video archives for decades to come so everyone can one day enjoy it. It’s not like they’d wipe thousands of video tapes just to save a little money down the road. C’mon, it’s the BBC!

  4. Let us be grateful that the Soviets did not implement another Cold War idea in their plans: To load a ship full of radioactive material, dock it in an enemy harbor, then detonate the whole thing. The ultimate dirty bomb. Apparently even the Soviet bomb makers were aghast at such a thing, thankfully.

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