Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Neglected Gem #88: Alternative 3 (1977)

Alternative 3: Host Tim Brinton.

The hour-long television documentary Alternative 3 was shown in England in 1977, under the incomparably bland title “Science Report.” Though broadcast on the night of June 20, the program’s closing credits dated it April 1. Many missed the hint. Written by David Ambrose, directed by Christopher Miles, produced by Anglia Television, and broadcast by ITV, Alternative 3 was probably the most successful planned media hoax since Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds radiocast. The two works have much in common: each was fiction disguised as documentary, blurring the two in ways that were innovative and, some felt, pernicious; each locked into existing fears – in one case, foreign invasion and world war; in the other, government conspiracy and global catastrophe – and foreshadowed developments to come.

And each was taken as real by thousands, despite being labeled hoaxes by the hoaxers themselves. According to journalist Steve Marshall, writing in Fortean Times, the show “had been hyped with trailers before the screening, ensuring a healthy audience on the night.”
Shown in what was an established weekly drama slot, the hour-long programme purported to be a serious investigation by “Science Report,” an entirely invented strand that had an air of authenticity. Presenter Tim Brinton was well known as an ex-newsreader, familiar from many current-affairs programmes. For many viewers that night, there was no reason to believe that Alternative 3 was not true.

The day after the broadcast saw a storm of protest from the British press. . . . The Daily Express, which led with the story, claimed that thousands of irate viewers had “protested in shock and horror,” jamming both their own switchboard and ITV’s. Accusations of “irresponsible broadcasting” were rebuffed by ITV and Anglia, who had announced that the programme was a hoax only an hour after it was transmitted. The press reaction rumbled on for several weeks, and Alternative 3 was never shown on British TV again. 
Along with the phone calls came an avalanche of letters, many from people claiming the producers had stumbled onto an actual conspiracy and chastising them for not going far enough with it. Some requested meetings for the passing of secret information, real information: life imitating art. Though Alternative 3 had successful foreign showings from Canada to Japan, it was never aired in the U.S. due to a law “making it illegal,” as Marshall writes, “for broadcasters to disguise fiction as fact.” (I, like most Americans, first learned about the film and its controversy from Marshall’s 2007 article, published in coincidence with the picture’s release on DVD – a restoration of the one surviving original copy, a 16-millimeter print belonging to director Miles.)

The missing scientists.

The set-up of Alternative 3 is enticing. Host Brinton tells us that what began as a report on the “brain drain” of scientific and technological specialists which had been plaguing England since World War II became an investigation into the recent disappearances of several people in a variety of occupations, from research scientist to chemist, novelist to historian. Their absence is linked to increasingly chaotic global weather patterns including widespread drought, heat-wave epidemics, and an increase in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. “The earth’s climate was moving toward a radical change,” says Brinton – and how. He explains the greenhouse effect, a concept which, though posited in the early nineteenth century, was far less familiar to us forty years ago than it is now. A trail of conspiratorial breadcrumbs leads from there to a few intensely paranoid or dissolute witnesses, and expert testimony on the viability of space colonization in the face of Earth’s rapid and inexorable depletion.

The trail leads into outer space. It’s pointed out that the Soviets, after early triumphs in rocketry and satellites, essentially withdrew from the space race after the early 1960s, leaving the Americans to put men on the moon and plant their flag in the cosmos with a highly publicized series of manned space flights. But was all that a smokescreen for something more secretive and less heroic? A scenario forms in which the U.S.-Soviet détente of the Seventies is due not to a balance of diplomacy and nuclear power but to a longstanding agreement with the two superpowers collaborating on a secret colonization of Mars. Finally, a video is discovered and descrambled showing active life on the putatively uninhabitable red planet. All of which seems not only to explain the missing people – they were whisked off as elite members of the new colony – but also to validate the charge, persistent then and now among hardcore conspiracy theorists, that the 1969 moon landing and subsequent Apollo flights were neither more nor less than staged fictions in a monumental cover-up. (The latest product of this venerable crackpottery is the new film Moonwalkers, appearing on Netflix.)

Alternative 3 is several things at once: interpretive science, imaginative fiction, prophetic event, and clever hoax. It’s for astral scientists – or really, at this date, scientific historians – to determine how technically well-grounded the film is; but as speculative fiction, it earns respect by never violating its circumscribed scope of possibility: that is, by not going bonkers. Its presentation is unhysterical, its few dramatic flourishes set in a frame of dour expertise and bureaucratic process. Judged as prophecy, it’s perhaps more canny than visionary. As Welles’s War of the Worlds has been called “prophetic” of World War II, an event which was after all the inevitable result of conflicts unfolding in plain sight, so Alternative 3 would seem to “predict” the phenomenon of climate change – which many were already well aware of, even if the public at large did not know or care until recently.

The greenhouse effect.

Lastly, as a specific type of hoax, it deserves a spot of honor in the genre of pseudo-documentary. This is despite the fact that, seen today (or even in 2007), its veil of illusion is pretty transparent: camera setups are too obviously planned, numerous small details are inauthentic, and the acting is clearly acting. (The producers had wanted to use non-actors, but were compelled by the UK actors’ union to hire professionals; viewers with facial-recognition ability and some background in English movies of the period will spot bit players from Performance, The Shining conspiracists, take note! – and Maurice.) Today we’re on the far side of This Is Spinal Tap, The Blair Witch Project, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and their many children; we’re savvy to the tricks of mock-doc and “found footage,” hip to the human grain of real versus pretend non-actors – the telltale stumbling speech, wandering gaze, and edge of embarrassment that still distinguish the untrained and attention-shy from the post-Method actor working hard to “do ordinary” (in Miles’s phrase, quoted by Marshall). We’re therefore bound to see Alternative 3 as a rather clumsy example of the very thing it helped originate.

But in its pioneer context, the film’s faked reality is quite faithful to the look and feel of informational documentaries – particularly those dealing with bizarre, paranormal, or conspiratorial topics—as they were in the Seventies, from The Mysterious Monsters (1976) to the TV show In Search Of... (1977-82). (Segments of Curse of the Blair Witch – a mock-doc addendum to the namesake horror movie – recreate the style exquisitely.) The handheld camera and swish-pans we now take for granted were in the Seventies solely the province of cinema-vérité; something more formal and polished (albeit dressed up with cheesy reenactments and spook music) was sought for commercial broadcast or wide theatrical distribution. Such films were framed just this conventionally, with the same awkward blocking and general absence of existential candor; the subjects, pinned to their interview chairs or laboratory landscapes, were invariably stiff and unnatural, as if having been instructed to “act like themselves.” For all its apparent lack of rigor in cultivating the naturalistic details of a falsified reality, Alternative 3 is in harmony with its movie genre, its subject matter, and its point in time – and so will doubtless be most entertaining to viewers with deep affection for all three. For those people, and for dedicated or passing students of the media hoax and other public outbreaks of the bizarre, Alternative 3 is a treat, and well worth seeking out.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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