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Thirteen to Centaurus

Author: • Jun 24th, 2007 •

Category: alternate worlds, features, film, filmography, inner space, Philip K. Dick, science fiction, short stories, space relics

‘Thirteen to Centaurus’, directed by Peter Potter, is an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1962 short story of that name, produced as part of the BBC’s Out of the Unknown series of science-fiction dramatisations. But at that time film and television was just not capable of delivering the frisson that the best SF literature provided (it would be arguably six years into the future before that could occur, with the dawn of Kubrick’s 2001), and Ballard’s suave imagination was clearly leaps and bounds ahead — as this adaptation demonstrates.

In Ballard’s story, we are introduced to a space station with a crew of thirteen, including the 16-year-old wunderkind, Abel, a boy given to questioning every facet of his existence. Abel is aware that there’s something beyond the limits of his perception, some vital key of knowledge that will explode the received worldview controlling life on the station. Yet every time he’s on the verge of a cognitive breakthrough, his logic blurs and fades, held back by the ‘conditioning’ that each crew member must undergo. This involves being subjected to ‘subsonic’ instruction — brainwashing — as the crew are kept in stasis, their minds preoccupied purely with the present and the working ritual of maintaining the station. Their conditioning ensures that the past, and indeed the future, is forever out of reach.

Yet Abel perseveres, conducting various experiments. He tells the onboard psychologist, Dr Francis, that he’s worked out the station is actually revolving, but he just can’t make that final mental leap to determine what that actually means as ‘his mind always fogged at a question like that, as the conditioning blocks fell like bulkheads across his thought trains (logic was a dangerous tool at the Station).’

Ballardian: Thirteen to Centaurus
Donald Houston as Dr Francis (still from Thirteen to Centaurus; dir. Peter Potter, 1965).

At this stage Dr Francis has no choice but to reveal to Abel the ‘truth’: the Station is actually a ‘multi-generation space vehicle’ on its way to Alpha Centauri. He tells him that generations have lived and died aboard the ship on a voyage that will take hundreds of years to complete, with only the remnants of the last generation living to see their destination. The coverup, that the space ship is in the guise of a space station, is presented to Abel as a necessary psychological safeguard to ensure the crew does not go mad with the knowledge that they will never live to see Alpha Centauri.

Ballard then introduces a rather clever double twist, a further layer to be unpeeled: we come to understand that the ‘space ship’ is actually a self-contained dome on Earth, an experiment conducted to test the psychological effects of space travel before an actual mission to Alpha Centauri is sent. The ‘conditioned’ crew of course are blissfully unaware of this, simply believing that they are on a ‘station’ of some kind out in space, with their sole purpose simply being to maintain it. This is not really a spoiler: it’s a necessary detail revealed at the beginning of the story, as the narrative switches to the government nabobs outside the ‘ship’. As they endlessly discuss the merits of the experiment, which has been going on for 50 years, and whether it should be discontinued, Dr Francis comes in and out of the ‘ship’ as he pleases, unbeknownst to the crew. He’s in on the experiment, which is being followed closely by the public, who, Ballard writes, are beginning to ‘feel that there’s something obscene about this human zoo’. There are further twists in the tale, which I won’t spoil for those who want to watch the adaptation or read the story for the first time. However, it should be clear that the notion of a group of people living and working together under the public glare is remarkably prescient with regards to the current reality TV/Big Brother phenomenon.

The story also puts me in mind of Philip K Dick. The very idea of an artificial world presided over by god-like technicians and featuring a protagonist slowly becoming aware that his perception is a construct — all of it beamed to the world at large — is of course a feature of Dick’s novel Time Out of Joint (1959) and the film that ripped it off, The Truman Show (1998). But more than that, a spaceship crew immersed in artificial stimuli is the conceit of one of Dick’s most corrosive, darkest visions, the 1970 novel A Maze of Death. In all of these sources, potent philosophical debates — free will; the illusion of choice — are always whirling around the narrative core.

‘Centaurus’ is a curious entry in Ballard’s career because on one level it seems generic; then when further layers are unpeeled, its narrative texture feels a little derivative, in a Phildickian manner of speaking. Yet like a fragment of a hologram, encoded within this seemingly minor entry in the Ballardian canon is the data that would inform Ballard’s entire career right through to the present day. Ultimately it is unmistakably, undeniably Ballardian.

Ballard has often spoken of how his childhood in Shanghai was ripped asunder by the advent of war and his family’s incarceration under the Japanese, an experience that taught him that ‘reality is little more than a stage set, whose cast and scenery can be swept aside and replaced overnight, and that our belief in the permanence of appearances is an illusion’. This faith in illusion — or rather, this willingness to accept the logic of illusion — is the subject matter of ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’. Another thing: when Abel chooses to write an essay on the station, entitled ‘The Closed Community’, the resonances with the gated communities of Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes echo throughout the decades.

Ballardian: Thirteen to Centaurus
James Hunter as Abel (still from Thirteen to Centaurus; dir. Peter Potter, 1965).

But the kicker is when Dr Francis willingly becomes an astronaut of inner space. Defying his superiors’ orders, he re-enters the ‘spaceship’, having made the decision to live and work with the crew for ever more (he won’t be able to leave again, as the penalty for unauthorised entry into the station is 20 years in jail). When Colonel Chalmers tells Francis he’ll be ‘deliberately withdrawing into a nightmare, sending yourself off on a non-stop journey to nowhere’, Francis replies, ‘Not nowhere, Colonel: Alpha Centauri’. Francis, therefore, is the classic Ballardian protagonist, deliberately immersing himself into the realm of the mind, casting off the restraints of reality and authority, in order to see what brand of human emerges on the other side. However, he discovers there’s far more to Abel than he ever thought…

‘Thirteen to Centaurus’ was published in the same year as Ballard’s classic novel The Drowned World. They are very different in subject matter, of course, but there is one startling similarity: both Kerans in The Drowned World and Abel are haunted by dreams of a beating, burning, amniotic sun that threatens to overwhelm their senses and, indeed, reality.

We’ll come back to that burning sun, but now let’s move on to the TV adaptation. Scriptwise, it’s a very faithful translation of the story, although the sets have about as much imagination as a caravan site. Still, there are some campy thrills to be had from the slightly spooky scene in the recreation room, where the crew relax and work out on ‘futuristic’ gym equipment while a spooky authorial voice intones maxims like ‘There is no other world than this. There are no other creatures but the Chosen Ones’. It seems a conscious Orwellian reference that wasn’t there in the original (the brainwashing occurs on a subsonic, subliminal level in Ballard’s story).

Ballardian: Thirteen to Centaurus
‘There are no other creatures but the Chosen Ones…’ (still from Thirteen to Centaurus; dir. Peter Potter, 1965).

James Hunter, who plays Abel, looks good — he’s so pretty as to be unearthly — but over eggs the pudding with his stiff facial expressions and wooden bodily movements. I would have thought a little more subtlety would have been required to play such a complex creature as Abel. Plus he flubs his lines on occasion, prompting me to wonder whether the show was shot live — does anyone know? Meanwhile, Donald Houston plays Dr Francis with a drunken, shouty bluster, whereas the Francis of Ballard’s story is more thoughtful and low key. There are also some funny moments where you can just tell an actor is waiting around the corner to walk on and speak their line; at one stage Hunter blunders into a scene a second or two before cue.

There’s also some heavy-handed religious symbolism glued onto the dialogue that wasn’t there in the short story. At one stage, Abel refers to himself in the third person, saying the burning disc of his dreams is ‘the Eye of God and Abel is his servant’. In actual fact there’s a good deal of secular weirdness in Ballard’s slow-burn original, and it’s tempting to imagine what contemporary American science-fiction series like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits might have done with the story in terms of lighting, set design and even acting.

All the same there’s some very effective ambient sound design throughout, and an abstract-jazz score by Norman Kay over the striking pop-art credit sequences — the music is redolent of Krzysztof Komeda’s scores for the early Polanski films and that’s high praise indeed. There are also a few narrative nips and tucks in Stanley Miller’s script that actually improve on Ballard’s story. In the source material, Francis lets slip that there are 14 on their ‘way’ to Centauri, prompting Chalmers to wonder aloud if Francis is adding himself to the original crew of 13. In the adaptation there are 12 crew members, with Francis’s slip of the tongue making it 13; this of course adds far more gravitas, more ambiguity, to the story’s title, ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’. There’s also more material linking Abel’s first incarnation as the questioning, naive innocent to his metamorphosis as the driving force behind the virtual world of the ship; in the story Ballard jumped from one to the other with little regard for continuity (but maybe this was the literary equivalent of the Godard jump-cut, and thus forgiven…). Abel is much more messianic in the TV version, and in this regard James Hunter’s acting is far more effective as his Abel gleefully turns the tables on Dr Francis than it is portraying the young innocent.

Ballardian: Sunshine
Staring at the sun: scene from Sunshine (dir. Danny Boyle, 2006).

There are some hyper-current resonances in both adaptation and source that are worth noting. I was struck for example by the scenes in Danny Boyle’s 2006 film Sunshine, where a couple of crew members are haunted by dreams of the sun. This seems more than a coincidence and more like a homage to Ballard, especially since elements of Sunshine have been lifted and stitched together, Frankenstein style, from various SF influences (Solaris, Dark Star, Alien, 2001). And especially since the screenwriter is Alex Garland, an avowed Ballard acolyte. Garland has said that the idea for his previous script — for Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) — came from Ballard, while his 1998 novel The Beach is virtually a rewrite of Ballard’s Rushing to Paradise. You’d think, given the sun dreams, that the obvious reference point would be the more well-known source — The Drowned World. But what I want to know is this: since Sunshine is set on a spaceship peopled with a psychologically damaged crew, haunted by dreams of the sun, is it actually a homage to ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’? If so that’s the most obscure Ballard nod I’ve ever seen. Kudos to Mr Garland!

Finally, let’s make like Dr Francis and step back into the real world, where we learn that:

The European Space Agency (Esa) is after volunteers for a simulated human trip to Mars, in which six crewmembers spend 17 months in an isolation tank. They will live and work in a series of interlocked modules at a research institute in Moscow. Once the hatches are closed, the crew’s only contact with the outside world is a radio link to “Earth” with a realistic delay of 40 minutes.

But, while Esa says it will do nothing that puts the lives of the simulation crew at unnecessary risk, officials running the experiment have made it clear they would need a convincing reason to let someone out of the modules once the experiment had begun.

“The idea behind this experiment is simply to put six people in a very close environment and see how they behave,” Bruno Gardini, project manager for Esa’s Aurora space exploration programme, told BBC News.”

That sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? Might I suggest that Mr Gardini reads ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’ (not to mention the mind-blowing A Maze of Death) before the project gets underway?

It might just come in handy when things go pear-shaped.

Simon Sellars

+ ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’ — BBC site.

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5 Responses »

  1. Decent Twilight Zoni-sh adaptation… Very moody. Amazing what they could do with such low budgets.
    Who’s Pedro? 😉

  2. Hmmmm, dunno about that. As I wrote in the analysis, I reckon The Twilight Zone would have made a better fist of it.

    (Pedro’s the chap who YouTubed this rare artifact, and who first alerted me to its online presence.)

  3. […] Re: Any idea of the name of this British SciFi drama? Here's an entry about the short story: http://www.ballardian.com/thirteen-to-centaurus. […]

  4. Can’t agree that TZ would have done it better – they were as wont to be preachy or wooden as anyone else at the time. Not that this is a faultless production (it’s too slow, really, extended by the long discussion scenes, which could have been edited a lot – they go over the same ground repeatedly and rarely introduce new ideas), but the sets and production design are top notch – the “outside” set is well realised, as is the drab interior – the biggest issue is the girl on the rowing machine who obviously can’t use it, flailing the oars round and round, while sliding the seat back and forward, but not ever attaining a proper rhythm.

  5. Regarding the TV programme, in the sixties and seventies, studio time was booked in blocks of time and it was limited by budget and duration of episode. You were probably expected to do an hour’s episode in one session and “as live”. Due to time restrictions, retakes were generally not done. In the theatre, actors get weeks of rehearsals whereas in TV back then it was more like days. And the camera and sound crews probably got less rehearsal time – hence the missing of cues and stumbling over words, and shaky camera movements.

    And jock123, that woman really had no idea of how to row, but in her defence, she had never seen a real boat and clearly had poor conditioning on that front.

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