Saturday 20 August 2022

Possibly The Worst Year In Sci-Fi Cinema

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

The 1971 Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo ballot was filled to the brim with mediocrity. Despite having the benefit of hindsight and an internet to help us learn about films eligible in that year, our cinema club couldn’t have produced a better list of nominees.

Despite Joan Crawford's performance, Trog is not
up to the standards we might look for in a Hugo finalist.
(Image via IMDB)
We scoured the internet for other options. Doomwatch was influential, but an absolute bore. Skullduggery was a hit, but beyond risible. David Cronenberg’s first movie Crimes of the Future shows promise, but is still the unfinished vision of a young creator. Fans had slim pickings when nominating that year — which may in part explain some of the more … unorthodox choices they made.

It was the first year that audio recordings made it on the ballot, and as much as we are fans of being format agnostic, we wish that the distinction of being the first comedy album to get a Hugo nod had gone to a more worthy entry than Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.

Expressing a sentiment that was common at the time, John Baxter wrote: “Written SF is usually radical in politics and philosophy; SF cinema, like the comic strips, endorses the political and moral climate of its day.” While we’d suggest that Baxter was a little too generous towards prose SF, having watched and listened to the 1971 shortlist, it’s clear that there’s some merit in his indictment of screen offerings.

The shortlist was an eclectic one in some ways. It had one theatrically released American movie (Colossus: The Forbin Project), one television movie (Hauser’s Memory), one British movie (No Blade of Grass) one spoken-word comedy album (Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers) and one prog rock concept album (Blows Against the Empire).

While this relative diversity of formats could be praised for a willingness to consider various forms of storytelling, to our eyes it looks like Hugo voters were scraping the bottom of the barrel. Writing in Science Fiction Review, Fred Patten suggested that the entire shortlist “is not worthy of consideration.”

Paul Kantner's Blows Against the Empire has
a relatively simple premise that hasn't aged well.
(Image via Futurama)
Blows Against the Empire, recorded by Paul Kantner and some of his Jefferson Airplane bandmates, loosely tells the story of a bunch of San Francisco hippies who steal a starship to go off into space and create a new, better civilization on another planet. The story also seems to focus on a baby that Paul Kanter was having with Grace Slick. To be perfectly blunt, the storytelling offers the height of self-indulgent self-aggrandizement that reflects the worst artistic impulses of the Altamont generation. The majority of the songs contribute nothing to the narrative, and although music may appeal to some listeners, as a piece of science fiction it is dreadful.

Ever so slightly less perplexing a choice for a finalist is Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, the third album from Los Angeles comedy troupe Firesign Theater. Although it seems fairly scattershot at the beginning, it slowly becomes clear that the album is telling the life story of a single character named George Leroy Tirebiter, through flashbacks and television. The comedic style has aged poorly, and we wonder how it ever could have been appreciated. The degree to which the work counts as science fiction or fantasy was also perplexing.

Hauser’s Memory, a made-for-television adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s novel of the same name, is a competent if boring spy adventure in which scientist Hillel Mondoro (played by NCIS-regular David McCallum) injects himself with evil brain juice in an attempt to recover secrets that are vital to national security. As the cerebral spinal fluid infects his mind with the memories of a Nazi scientist, Mondoro is compelled to commit a series of crimes, and finally dies. It’s slow-moving, uses excessive crossfades to depict the disorientation of the protagonist, and treads many similar plot points of the author’s previous and much superior novel, Donovan’s Brain.
Sharp-eyed Canadian political
buffs may recognize that the role
of Joseph Slaughter in Hauser's
is played by the younger
brother of Deputy Prime Minister
Erik Nielsen. 
(Image via IMDB)

Viewers of the era were somewhat more generous, with Hank Davis writing in Yandro that Hauser’s Memory was “The next best thing I have seen this year.” Of course, this assessment needs to be taken in context.

Tying into the nascent environmental movement, No Blade of Grass updated the John Cristopher novel The Death of Grass to make it clear that the demise of all plants from the Gramineae family is caused in part by pollution. There are some interesting scenes that foreshadow later post apocalyptic films like Mad Max, and the bleak premise is followed through to a logical conclusion. It’s an uneven effort that has some high points — such as the sadly realistic depiction of an incompetent British government sacrificing millions of people — but it is bogged down by brutal misogyny and clumsy foreshadowing.

Given the distasteful treatment of women in the movie, it’s hard to recommend No Blade of Grass to a modern (or truth be told any) audience.

The most redeemable work on the Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation ballot in 1971 was certainly Colossus: The Forbin Project. From opening scenes exploring a mountain-sized computer, the movie draws in the viewer to a world that becomes quickly dominated by an artificial intelligence designed to bring peace. It’s a great concept that’s mostly followed through on. Eric Braeden is excellent in the lead role of Dr. Charles Forbin, though the supporting cast is mostly merely filling space.

Contemporaneous reviewers generally agreed with this assessment. Richard E. Geis, writing in Science Fiction Review, named Colossus as the only noteworthy science fiction film of the year. Kay Anderson was somewhat more effusive with her praise, writing in Yandro “For my money, The Forbin Project is better than 2001 … Reviews around here are calling it a masterpiece, and I’ll drink to that.”

The pickings were slim, but in some places you could see the seeds of better things to come, though it might take years — even decades — for these themes to flourish. No Blade of Grass was not in the same league as the environmental parables that would be released later in the decade, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see how it was a stepping stone in the evolution of SFF cinema. Likewise, the concept of a science fiction rock opera concept album may be old hat now, but in 1971, Blows Against The Empire was doing something new. These films — and albums — may be mediocre, but they were pushing the medium forward.

By this point, the Hugos had attempted to recognize works of stage and screen on a dozen occasions, and for a third time in that span Worldcon attendees decided not to present a trophy. Not for the first time, the audience laughed and cheered in approval at the announcement of no award. Thankfully, we can find no record of any representatives of any of the five finalists being in attendance for the ceremony, so they were spared this indignity.

Several members of our cinema club may have ended up voting for no award (though others dislike no award on a matter of principle). Either way the consensus was clear: this was a terrible year for science fiction told by screen or sound.


  1. It is a shame that SKULLDUGGERY was so bad (Burt Reynolds apparently agreed, claiming the director ruined a good script) because the source material, Vercors' novel Les Animaux Denatures (best known in English as You Shall Know Them) is extremely thought-provoking, and quite interesting.

    1. The only Vergers novel I've read is Sylva … and while it's well written, I found it occasionally distasteful. Have never gone back to read more of his work.

    2. You Shall Know Them is also occasionally distasteful, I have to say. But also thought-provoking. But I do think a very good movie COULD have been made from it (Vercors occasionally distasteful passages (at least the worst of them) were hardly essential to the novel.)

  2. As for BLOWS AGAINST THE EMPIRE, I note that Kantner plagiarized Mark Clifton and Alex Apostolides for the lyrics from "Mau Mau (Amerikon)" that run "Hide! HideI Witch. The good folks come to burn thee. Their keen enjoyment hidden behind a gothic mask of duty." No credit given, of course.

    1. Not the first time the Jefferson combine had take text from an SF writer; "Crown of Creation" on the album of the same title has lyrics from John Wyndham (Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris)'s Rebirth a/k/a The Chrysalids -- though apparently they had the good taste to ask him first.

  3. I'm sure you were young once, just not in 1970.

    I remember a crowd of us looking for a place to hold the Ranquet during Torcon 2 in 1973, and as we were trawling up Yonge St., there was a small group reciting to each other whole passages from Firesign Theatre albums.

    1. That's more than fair. (The folks in the cinema club who worked on the post range in age between 30 and 60, and the youngest two were the most harsh in their assessment of Don't Crush That Dwarf.)

      It seems to me that "I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus" succeeds more as a science fictional narrative, and is a less perplexing Hugo finalist.

  4. "Viewers of the era were somewhat more generous, with Hank Davis writing in Yandro that Hauser’s Memory was “The next best thing I have seen this year.” Of course, this assessment needs to be taken in context."

    Dredging up memories of the year... yeah. That was a pretty grim time for TV. It wouldn't have to work too hard to earn that praise.

  5. Count me as another vote in favor of Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers - I think it's their masterpiece. However, since part of the Firesign Theater's modus operandi was that if all four of the members thought a bit was funny, then it didn't matter whether anyone else got it, I don't think I could muster an argument that would persuade the Hugo voters who preferred "no award." Nonetheless - given its self-aware treatment of the media landscape, Joycean wordplay, deliberately scrambled layers of metafiction, and ahead-of-its-time deconstructive genre-bending (and -blending) - there's a sense in which Dwarf/Pliers could be viewed as an audio equivalent to '60s/'70s "new wave" sf. (Yeah, I'm aware that's not necessarily a virtue for everybody.)

  6. I'm surprised you're so down on Colossus. It's a long time since I saw it, but I recall it as a classic of the "computer knows best" genre.

    It's interesting also that Hugo nominators of 1971 were largely limiting their choices to... science fiction, something that would seem like complete insanity to Hugo nominators of 2022. 1970 seems to have been a big year for horror, with lots of Hammer films hitting the cinemas. Despite my love of gothic horror I have somehow not seen any of them, but I suspect The Vampire Lovers (sexy adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla) would have met the approval of broadminded nominators who were willing to look beyond SF.

    It's not a Hammer film and I do not have first hand experience of it, but it is possible that Roddy McDowall's Tam-Lin would also have deserved nomination. And only anti-ape prejudice could have denied Beneath the Planet of the Apes a place on the 1971 dramatic presentation ballot.

    British TV of 1970 also offers a couple of things that would have merited a place on the ballot if nominators had been able to look beyond North American fare:
    1. Doctor Who had just shifted into colour and unveiled a new Doctor. The four stories broadcast in 1970 are all genuine classics; "Inferno" would be my particular nod for the Hugos, and not just for Nazi Liz.
    2. The Owl Service was a TV version of Alan Garner's children's fantasy novel and is pretty edgy fare for something aimed at kids. I can't imagine anything like this being shown to children now.
    3. While I have not seen it myself, the BBC's Play for Today "Robin Redbreast" is widely cited as a foundational folk horror work and would surely have been a worthy contender for best dramatic presentation.
    4. Possibly the Gerry & Sylvia Anderson TV series UFO deserved a nomination; I've not seen it properly myself but it had some great tie-in merchandise.
    5. Nigel Kneale seems to have had an off-year in 1970, but he did write "The Wine of India", broadcast that year, with a clear SF theme. I've not seen this one myself (I think copies of it may not survive) but given what he had done previously and would go on to do I'd be surprised if it was not better than almost everything that made it onto the actual ballot.
    6. It is almost certainly the case that at least one of the Clangers episodes first broadcast in 1970 would have been good enough to make the final ballot had anyone in America seen it.

    And beyond anglophonia, there are some fun-sounding 1970 Japanese films, but I have not seen them myself.

  7. I suspect the nominators were right not to place Hercule in New York on the ballot, but perhaps they should have found a place for The Dunwich Horror.

  8. Yes Dunwich Horror wasn't bad. I'd go for Colossus although it isn't great. Thumbs down on nominating albums.