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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Journey to the Far Side of the Sun’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you’re better off concentrating on the small details on your way to the apogee…

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun [aka Doppelganger] (1969)
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Directed by: Robert Parrish

Some of the best known (if not always the best) works of science fiction came out of British television in the 1960s. Doctor Who, The Avengers (no not them, the other ones), The Prisoner, all of them iconic works fondly remembered years later.

It’s out of this place and time that Gerry and Sylvia Anderson emerge:

Their use of marionettes and large scale models that blow up spectacularly (“Supermarionation” as they referred to it) enthralled younger viewers both at home in the UK and overseas. Even if their stories were simple and often simplistic, they certainly left a memorable mark.

Thunderbirds was probably the best known of their works, which included a show set somewhat adjacent to their setting 100 years hence, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, about a secret alien invasion of Earth. By the end of the 1960s, you couldn’t think of the Andersons or their production company, Century 21, without thinking of marionettes and models.

Caption “Gerry and Sylvia Anderson”

This was a problem for them, though; like most of the kids they entertained as they grew up, the Andersons got tired of playing with puppets. Gerry had always wanted to do work with live actors, and looked for any opportunity to transition like Pinocchio from puppet to human actors.

It’s a wish that he was granted by 1969, though like most wishes, there were still strings attached…

Please note that there will be some spoile- Ah, the hell with that; if the trailer just throws it all out there, no reason to dummy up ourselves…

We open cold as the score by the Andersons’ in-house composer Barry Gray explodes around us at the European Space Exploration Complex in Portugal. It’s sometime in the future, presumably 100 years hence; as no year is ever given in the script and every Supermarionation show claimed to be set at that time, it’s a working assumption as to when.

We watch as Dr. Kurt Hassler (Herbert Lom) goes through a security check, which includes credential check and a full body x-ray. He even jokes with security when they find he hadn’t put his pen in the tray for the x-ray of personal items, before he goes into the vault to look at the print outs of the data from EUROSEC’s Project Sun Probe.

When he’s finished, however, he goes home and gets ready to transmit what he’s seen to an enemy power. It ends up he did find a way to sneak in a camera, and it’s an ingenious method, too.

When Hasler’s finished, however, he goes home and removes his eye, containing the hidden camera he ingeniously snuck in past security.

Once he develops the film, he’s reviews all the plans and specs that he’s shot, readying them for transmission to an enemy power.

After the credits, we watch as EUROSEC’s director Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark) chairs a virtual meeting with the ministers of the other European governments that make up the organization, attended as well be a NASA liaison David Poulson (Ed Bishop). Presenting at the meeting is Dr. John Kane (Ian Hendry), who presents a startling find: Directly opposite Earth is another planet, a world about the same size as ours in synchronous orbit around the Sun.

Webb proposes that EUROSEC send a manned mission to this world, which can be done for the sum of three billion pounds. (This is about $66.6 B in today’s dollars; note that for comparison, the Artemis Project is so far projected to cost $93 B by 2025…)

Director Webb is a driven man who will use just about any method to get what he wants. When Poulson informs him that NASA won’t pony up $1 B for the manned mission, Webb discloses that EUROSEC has had a security leak, and that if they don’t want the other side to get there first, then the US needs to step up.

Webb then talks with his security team, Mark Newman (George Sewell) and Lise Hartman (Loni von Friedl), and works with them to set up a trap for the spy. This leads to Newman finding and killing Dr. Hassler. When Poulson is shown that a spy from the other side has already infiltrated the project, NASA ponies up the $1 B, on one condition…

That condition is that one of NASA’s astronauts lead the mission. The Americans send Col. Glenn Ross (Roy Thinnes), who comes over with his wife Sharon (Lynn Loring) to get trained on the equipment and prepped for the flight. He and Kane, the one person at EUROSEC that Webb both trusts and argues with the most, speed up their prep to get there before the other side (who we note in passing later are the Soviets, still around at this time). Soon are on the Phoenix, which will place the two men into suspended animation as the craft takes three weeks to get to this other world.

Now, for the math curious/challenged: The ship will cover the 292 million miles, half the distance of Earth’s orbit, going at a rate of just under 580 thousand miles an hour. This makes them going a little over 23 times the speed Apollo 11 clocked en route to the Moon, which for an SF film that’s not doing hard science is unrealistic but not entirely out of reach…

Speaking of somewhat relativistic, there’s a long sequence in the film where we have to watch the countdown for Phoenix that drags the pacing down. We go into the minutiae of the steps being checked off on the list before the rocket leaves the pad that some audiences likely found tiring, especially those that a few months earlier were glued to their televisions as the networks gave Apollo 11 wall-to-wall coverage.

So they finally get there after all that and the landing ship for the mission shorts out in a thunderstorm when they try to land. Kane is on death’s door, and Ross is confused when he’s confronted by EUROSEC, who state that he only left three weeks ago, accusing him of turning around to come back.

Of course, there’s another explanation it takes people time to accept: That there is a doppelganger of our world on the other side, where everything is the same there as it is here, but backwards…

It certainly takes them a while to figure this out, as we get this shot with the reversed EUROSEC logo eight minutes before the big reveal in the film. This might have made Universal just throw it all out there in the trailer, knowing that we were going to get it a lot sooner than the characters were allowed to. It may have also been assumed that this was too easy to see coming, as “Counter-Earth” tales were pretty much old hat by then. (When you have a plot point that’s been around since Philolaus brought it up, even the least engaged viewer is going to figure it out quickly…)

For that matter, there’s a lot in this premise that just doesn’t work. If everything is reversed, shouldn’t everything be reversed? Shouldn’t sounds be perceived as spoken backwards? Shouldn’t New York be a West Coast city? And why isn’t EUROSEC now CESORUE? Just where is the line drawn, anyway…?

In terms of time, the screenplay by the Andersons and Donald James feels bloated, likely because it had to be stuffed up. Originally proposed as a one-hour television play, the Andersons’ boss Lew Grade saw potential for this to become a feature film, and connected them with Universal’s newly opened UK acquisitions office. How it would have gotten to television is hard to imagine, though, as Universal received from Sylvia Anderson a 194-page treatment (!?!), a harbinger of the fights in production to come.

The production was a mess. Gerry Anderson did not get along with Robert Parrish, whom Universal insisted should direct even though he’d co-directed all the scenes with Peter Sellers in the 1967 Casino Royale and deserved a lot of the blame for The Bobo. There were many points they clashed over, such as Anderson’s insistence that Parrish insert scenes with gratuitous nudity, perhaps insisted on by Anderosn to put as much distance between him and his puppet past as possible.

The cast also provided lots of problems. Wymark and Hendry were both drinking heavily during the shoot, and it shows in the way they work off of each other. Thinnes and Parish were at odds with each other, while Thinnes and Anderson had touchy moments as well.

Somehow, despite this, the film came together and got some notice. It was by no means a success, coming out after the potential audience had just sat through Apollo 11’s flight, and were likely spoiled for better fare so soon after 2001 had come out. The movie did develop a cult following, though, more so due to its general esthetic and feel than for its overlong script, plodding direction, and uneven performances.

Part of that esthetic is in the small details that pop up. The film gives us full body and baggage x-rays, teleconferencing, and personal health monitors that act like rudimentary Fitbits, years before they became so common today. The pic even takes place in an organization that predates the founding of the European Space Agency by about six years. It’s the small details scattered through the film that makes this interesting, and certainly more watchable than it’d be if you only bothered with the main elements.

The sensibility for such gadgets and details would be carried forward by Century 21 from the shoot, along with most of the props, as the Andersons finally moved into doing more work with humans. These and some VFX shots from the film would be used in their next TV project, the live action UFO, about a secret alien invasion of Earth, along with a good number of the actors in new roles. All of which would lead to what the Andersons and Century 21 would be better known for come the end of the 1970s:

Their use of large scale models that blow up spectacularly would enthrall viewers both at home in the UK and overseas. Even if their stories were simple and often simplistic, they certainly left a memorable mark…

 

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