Sunday 21 March 2021

Hugo Cinema Club: A Return To The Zone in '61

This blog post is the fourth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

In 1960, the spectacle of director George Pal’s adaptation of The Time Machine wowed mainstream 
Season Guest of Honour 
Robert A. Heinlein at the 
convention (Image via Fanac)
audiences. At the time, it was one of the highest-budgeted science fiction movies ever made. The movie’s superb special effects had earned Gene Warren an Academy Award, and its prop design was echoed in films for decades.

It was widely expected to win the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award at Seacon, the 19th Worldcon held in Seattle, Washington on the Labour Day weekend of 1961.

Also on the shortlist for his second season of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling decided not to make the drive north to attend the awards ceremony, telling fans in Los Angeles that he expected The Time Machine to win the award.

There was a smattering of boos from the audience when they got to the Best Dramatic Presentation category of the Hugos, reflecting the continued disquiet about whether or not the Hugos should recognize film.

But there was some degree of surprise and laughter when presenter Harlan Ellison called up Bjo Trimble — “herself a resident of the Twilight Zone” — to accept a chrome rocketship trophy on behalf of Serling.

With the benefit of hindsight, we are very glad that The Time Machine did not win the award. On a simple storytelling level, this is arguably one of the least compelling works to have appeared on the Hugo 
Strong on style, weak on substance
The Time Machine is insufferably
narrated and glacially paced. 
(Image via Letterboxd)

Images from the movie are among the most recognizable images of classic science fiction cinema; the design work on the machine itself, the makeup of the morlocks, and numerous other details have stood the test of time. However, a movie is more than a series of well-made images, and The Time Machine is an uncompelling example of blockbuster cinema.

The script adapted from H.G. Wells’ novel is ham-handed, relying on a narration that offers redundant description of the action, and sluggish exposition. The glacial pace of this movie cannot be overstated. It opens with 20 minutes of irrelevant chatter between four upper-class men musing about politics. Almost two minutes of screen time is spent on the main character closing a door.

Worse than the pacing, The Time Machine side-steps Wells’ social criticisms of class and labour. Gone from this movie are the musings about the troglodytic Morlocks as avatars for the working class, as are the depiction of the feckless Eloi as being the descendants of a rich overclass. Instead, we are presented with a less challenging rewriting of the story to cast the Eloi-Morlock conflict as a clash between Russian Communism and American Freedom. The result is toothless and hollow.

By contrast, many of the qualifying episodes from Twilight Zone’s first and second season (those that aired in 1960) are influential genre classics: “The Eye of The Beholder,” “The Hitch-hiker,” and “Mirror Image” are all great pieces of well-constructed storytelling. When contrasted with The Time Machine, their elegant use of pacing and respect for the audience becomes even more apparent. Most of all, in this stretch of broadcast, the allegorical nature of Twilight Zone came into sharper focus: “The Monsters Are Due On
Mr. Dingle The Strong” is a 
low point for Twilight Zone. It is 
sillier than even this image suggests.
(Image via

Maple Street” may be the high water mark of the entire series as Serling ratchets up the tension slowly in a parable about xenophobia and paranoia. It is a master-class in television writing and acting that seems as relevant and timely today as it ever has “There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, be found only in the minds of men … And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”

But while the high points of Twilight Zone’s second year were exceptionally high, even as early as this second season, there were signs of inconsistency. There are enough duds like the repetitive “Mr. Bevis,” and the appallingly sexist “The Chaser,” to make us wonder whether the series as a whole deserved to be recognized as a whole. Certainly, it’s difficult to take the baseball-playing robot episode “The Mighty Casey” very seriously.

Had we been voting members of the 1961 Worldcon, we would have voted for Wolf Rilla’s Village Of The Damned. Faithfully adapted from John Wyndam’s The Midwich Cuckoos, the movie depicts a community’s reaction to an unusual group of 61 children who are all born simultaneously after an unexplained phenomenon. Over the course of nine years, it becomes clear that the Children are telepathic alien brood parasites who pose a threat to humanity. The child actors in the movie deserve special kudos for pulling off a relatively difficult set of roles. Martin Stephens, who was 10 at the time of filming, plays David Zellaby (the most prominent of the Children) with a malevolent calm.
American religious groups 
protested against Village of 
The Damned
, because
impregnation by alien parasites
was too similar to virgin birth.
Not a joke.
(Image via YouTube) 

The production had been a tumultuous one; after the death of the actor who had been contracted for the lead role, and bowing to pressure from religious groups, MGM handed the project off to their small British wing. The movie was shot on a budget of £82,000 (about £900,000 accounting for inflation) and completed in just six weeks. Slated for a small number of showings in London in June, it became an unexpected hit by word-of-mouth, and was rushed to the United States that August.

A large part of the movie’s success can be attributed to the careful way that director Wolf Rilla develops the sense of menace. Nothing is ever over-explained, but rather small pieces of information are offered and the viewer is allowed to build their own conclusions. The denouement and resolution of the story are left as ethically ambiguous as the novel. It is a movie made with integrity and cleverness.

The Twilight Zone was a worthy winner of the 1961 Hugo Award, although with the benefit of hindsight it might have been nice for the awards to recognize a wider range of artists and creators rather than awarding a Hugo to the same show that won in 1960.

But at the very least, although Village Of The Damned didn’t win in 1961, the movie had the unique distinction of making a return appearance on the Hugo ballot the subsequent year…

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