Anthropocene TV by Adam Scovell

I. Cathode-Ray Foreshadows


“You’ve seen where this efficiency of yours leads. Wholesale pollution of the countryside. Devilish creatures spawned by the filthy by-products of your technology. Men walking around like brainless vegetables. Death. Disease. Destruction.” – Doctor Who: The Green Death (1973)


We stand in the world within a complex series of networks, systems and processes. It is only our action, repeated on a vast scale, which appears to place us outside these wild systems, rather than a part of them. It is a dangerous illusion. For we now live in the Anthropocene, the period in which human presence will ultimately leave a geological mark on the planet’s strata. Though only officially a part our language since 2014, the word renders temporal positioning difficult. It requires an openness to conceptual deep time and our minor moment within it in order to consider it fully. Robert Macfarlane, when discussing fictional responses to such environmental concerns, wrote in The Guardian in 2016 that the Anthropocene is:


“… the new epoch of geological time in which human activity is considered such a powerful influence on the environment, climate and ecology of the planet that it will leave a long-term signature in the strata record. And what a signature it will be.”


In part thanks to Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff Vandemeer’s Annihilation (2018), the Anthropocene is producing wider cultural questioning in other forms of media. In Lewis Gordon’s essay for Little White Lies, he first asks whether Garland’s film is the first true example of a cinematic examination of such themes, then concludes that it is not. Citing films such as Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972) and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Gordon shows that this has been a theme creeping into cinema since at least the later post-war years. In fact, such themes were adopted before we had the terminology for it. Environmental jeopardy and our role in its creation has been explored for many years. In particular, it was television that took up the mantle of this crisis, and even fielded solutions to a variety of ecological problems.

Many cult television programmes that delved into the speculative end of science-fiction touched upon problems which are now more obvious and more widely known today. Changing climates, poisoning of land, air and water, failure to generate renewable energy, mass plastic build-up, species extinction and a whole host of other issues were all explored in a variety of television series, especially in the 1970s. This essay is not simply about gathering such programmes together thematically. More problematically, it wonders why these issues persist – and have increased in magnitude rather than lessened, despite the evidence and awareness? Why are the stories we tell – or fail to tell – not strong enough to inspire change?


Many of these programmes here are dark and melancholic; environmental issues are almost always in some way tied with macabre despondency. The writer Timothy Morton has been addressing the psychological undertones within environmental collapse for some time, labelling it as Dark Ecology. He suggests that being aware ecologically (aside from being a normative position for everyone, even if actively harming or ignoring environmental causes) is both an uncanny and potentially depressing. He asks:


“What is dark ecology? It is ecological awareness, dark-depressing. Yet ecological awareness is also dark-uncanny. And strangely it is dark-sweet. Nihilism is always number one in the charts these days. We usually don’t get past the first darkness, the sweet one, through the second darkness, the uncanny one. Do not be afraid.” (2016).


If Dark Ecology finds progression in the melancholy, and the realisation of our natural role in a variety of global follies, then the TV programmes that foreshadowed the Anthropocene capture that same essence of impending doom. Of course, I don’t want to only apply Morton’s theories; I tap into the melancholy of Dark Ecology but also emphasise the gap in pre-digital environmental concerns. It is not totally hopeless, but the narratives of ecological crisis do reveal the psychological reckoning that comes with seeing and recognising destruction.


II. Pollution


One key aspect of the Anthropocene is the effect of pollution upon other life. It’s not simply the ubiquitous images of oil covered birds that often make the headlines but something quieter, something subtler, like the build-up of plastic in food chains; or even things entirely invisible, or how the build up of carbon leads to climate change. Rebecca Solnit, similarly to Morton, has suggested that we need new kinds of stories that, in both fiction and activism, properly convey the effects of such monumental changes but on a recognisably psychic level. She wrote in an essay for the New York Times that:


“…we should seek out new kinds of stories — stories that make us more alarmed about our conventional energy sources than the alternatives, that provide context, that show us the future as well as the past, that make us see past the death of a sparrow or a swallow to the systems of survival for whole species and the nature of the planet we leave to the future.” (2014).


These aren’t necessarily disaster stories but everyday stories of people and place, of recognisable industries and the equally recognisable impact of those industries. Even if they require some minor leap of period context, however, many older British TV programmes addressed such concerns when the merest glimmer of the problems first became perceivable.


Doctor Who, in particular, has always been a programme that questioned the political norms of environmental issues even when essentially a pulp enterprise. In Louis Marks’ story, Planet of Giants (1964), a seemingly typical science-fiction story clearly inspired by Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956) is used to question pesticide use. The travellers in this particular iteration of the programme are accidentally shrunk via a malfunction of the TARDIS, rendering their landing in a suburban country garden dangerous.However, the hazards of the local cat and running tap water are minor compared to the danger they are in from a new pesticide called DN6 which has indiscriminately killed all insect life in the garden.The house is owned by a governmental tester who has been charged with studying its effects. He is visited by the businessman in charge of the new research who, learning that the researcher will recommend discontinuation of the pesticide use, kills him to save his business. The episode is poignant for the era’s own problems with pesticide use, in particular DDT which decimated a number of food chains all of the way up to birds of prey. Tellingly, DDT wasn’t itself banned in the UK until some twenty years later, in 1984.


In the 1970s, Doctor Who moved towards tackling green issues more specifically. Most famously, this occurs in Robert Sloman’s (and Barry Letts’) The Green Death (1973); a late Jon Pertwee era story that all but solidifies Anthropocenic thinking in the same era that worried about population explosions and the death of the coal industry. The story centres on a decrepit coal mine in Wales, now being secretly used to deposit the waste product from a company, Global Chemicals. The chemicals have somehow caused a mutation underground and bred a form of giant maggot which festers under the earth; the land as rotten as a piece of old meat. More appropriately, the menace is both the monstrous spawn of the industry and the industry itself. Heading the fight is the local Professor Jones who is part of a nearby environmental commune trying to solve a number of problems including renewable energy and food shortages. As Jones suggests “Progress? Don’t listen to him. He means fatter profits for Global Chemicals at the expense of your land. The very air you breathe. Aye, and the health of you and your kids.” The Green Death is the epitome of the realisation that underpins Morton’s Dark Ecology and its ultimate melancholy. He writes that:


“We ‘civilised’ people, we Mesopotamians, are the narrators of our destiny. Ecological awareness is that moment at which these narrators find out that they are the tragic criminal.” (2016).


The story isn’t just another hip, environmental narrative typical in the post-hippy world of the early 1970s. At the heart of the industrial evil is one of Doctor Who’s famous foreshadows of the internet. The chemical factory is really run by the BOSS, a sentient computer whose plan is to connect up to computers all around the world in order to emit further control over people in line with company policy. Bureaucracy is as much the enemy as the giant maggots in the story. If we consider this as one of Morton’s “Hyperobjects” – things so vast in measure, temporally and physically, that they seem invisible and yet have very real-world effects – then the narrative is complete in its coverage of Anthropocenic problems and issues.


Doctor Who wasn’t alone in this questioning of technology, behaviour and effects on the environment. Based on Peter Dickinson’s trilogy of books, The Changes (1975) shows the world itself harmed by our technological progress, in particular with the disturbance of an Arthurian stone suggested as being at the centre of keeping the planet’s environment in balance.The damage is so great that the stone has exerted an unusual power over the populace who now are unable to be near any sort of technology without smashing it. Pylons, toasters and cars are all destroyed as its lead character, Nicky, voyages through the newly primitive, apocalyptic England in search of what caused “the changes.” Even if given an almost mythical twist, the narrative ultimately arrives at the imbalance caused by human progress, again building on the disjoint within humanity’s place in the natural world.


Perhaps most effective in regards to ecological narratives is Gerry Davis’ and Kit Pedler’s series Doomwatch (1970-1972) which explicitly was designed to find drama, science-fiction and even horror in genuine scientific problems of the era. The Doomwatch team are a science division in charge of solving these problems, a huge number of which have resonance in the Anthropocene. In Doomwatch’s very first episode, the series’ relevance becomes clear. The Plastic Eaters presents a very tangible attempt at trying to solve the world’s plastic problem. However, by creating a virus that destroys all plastic, a plane flight in which the virus has been released turns to disaster as the vital parts of the plane begin to melt all around. To show just how prescient the programme really is, it’s worth noting, as The Guardian reported recently, that in Japan a plastic eating bacterium was only recently discovered and harnessed this year. More troubling is the episode Project Sahara which follows a computerised personal checker in the midst of the development of a (potentially weaponised) spray that kills all vegetation, or in the episode Train and De-Train where the team investigate the deaths of hundreds of animals in Somerset. At a more simplistic level, Burial At Sea looks to the effects of dumped waste and the spread of its contamination, later making up a similar narrative for the Doomwatch feature film directed by Peter Sasdy in 1972.


The burial of things underground (or under the sea in Doomwatch’s case) became a horrific trait in 1970s television. Cursed items found themselves being dug up regularly, bringing dismay to many characters and societies. In Anthropocenic dramas, such burials and hidden dangers were explicitly to do with pollutive weapons and other secretive industries. In David Rudkin’s Play for Today episode, Penda’s Fen (1974), the fen in question is just as much a landscape secretly tarnished by an underground military base as it is a place of strange, folkloric visions. Directed by Alan Clarke, the play’s historical elements, gaining agency due to the instability of the main character, are matched by an undercurrent of issues regarding landscape. The presence of the dangerous military facility changes the vision of the landscape, not least when an injured hand casts itself over the opening titles and the beautiful Malvern Hills visuals, only to grab at barbed wire. Even when not obvious or even ignored, the staining of the environment continues.


The same thing happens on a greater level in Troy Kennedy-Martin’s later BBC series, Edge of Darkness (1985). The whole drama surrounds a conspiracy to bury a nuclear hot cell hidden under the fictional Northmoor in Yorkshire. This hot cell, thanks to the CIA and various police/government collusions and cover-ups, is now being housed secretly with violent attempts made to keep it hidden. The series was also influenced by James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis which suggests, somewhat controversially, that the Earth is self-regulating but that its various organisms evolve in tandem with their environment, perhaps even as one specific whole. Essentially, however, it is this act of burying, the act of accepting something deadly for monetary and political gains, that spurns the drama on. If Morton’s ideas of Dark Ecology suggest that acknowledging Hyperobjects is one of the keys to environmental progress, then Edge of Darkness builds its drama by pushing the acknowledgement of such objects underground, into the world of conspiracy where anything and everything is destabilised and questionable as fact or fiction.


What series like these and others show, is how such environmental awareness went unheeded. It’s not that these programmes were ahead of their time: it is more frustratingly, that we have moved on so little in how we deal with the monumentality of ecological issues and their increasing scarring of the strata of our planet; the danger has been growing but with far more fervour than our willingness to address it.


III. The Angry Earth


In his book Humankind (2017), Morton refers to “The Severing”; a disconnect or gap between humanity and the living world around us, owing to various industrial and agricultural practices, and also through general, technological distancing (amongst other things). Through our caring for the environment being explicitly mediated only by those with specific, indiscriminate contact, it tells of a blindness with which we fail to see the suffering and enforced changes upon differing species. In classic pulp television (and also cinema), this has led to one key aspect; a violent shout back from the natural environment, sometimes labelled by academics as Eco-Horror. The term is too broad to cover all of the material mentioned within this essay though, if it was to fit anywhere, it would be most comfortable in this section.


Films such as Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend (1978) – a film where a camping couple face an abstract foe in the entirety of the rural Australian environment and its wildlife – and even Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds (1963) – are regularly connected to such ideas of Eco-Horror; where Morton’s Severing is violently rejoined, not by us changing our environmental position, but by the natural world no longer refusing to be ignored, often as a reaction to the behaviour of the first section. As with most ideas in this essay, Doomwatch and Doctor Who are both cornerstones of this realisation. In Terence Dudley’s Doomwatch episode, Tomorrow, the Rat (1970) this idea of Severing comes to the fore. Experimental rats used in scientific testing have escaped. They are engineered to be far more intelligent than typical rats and pose a danger to London with their violent hoarding habits. It is fitting for The Severing because they were effectively created by a disjoint between the scientists and the animal; that they deemed it appropriate to experiment upon in the first place and not part of the same system is a clear link to Morton’s idea.


Such specific causes weren’t always necessary for pulp television, however, and Nigel Kneale’s Beasts episode, During Barty’s Party (1976), shows how such a narrative can work without specific blame laid at humanity’s feet (at least excusing the characters’ naivety).I want to, however, move away from such purely animal driven narratives as British television found far more abstract and innovative ways to show the planet fighting back. Such “Monster” films and television – narratives that use an exaggerated danger of wildlife such as Jaws (1975), Orca (1977) or Piranha (1978) – rarely touch upon environmental ideas explicitly. Kneale arguably handled such ideas more interestingly at any rate and other episodes of Beasts attest to this. In Baby, the corpse of an unknown creature has been used to curse the farmland all around, rendering the pregnant occupier of the cottage in which it was buried in danger. However, the creature’s mother, seen in the episode’s final moments suckling the strange foetus, seems to have returned because of the misuse and trapping of her offspring as much as being a more general horror scare/reveal. This reading is of course debatable.


Doctor Who moved away from such animalistic tropes effectively by first placing the emphasis on plant life and connecting it to industrial environmental practices. In Victor Pemberton’s story, Fury From the Deep (1968), a gas extracting refinery at sea is taken over by a sentient weed creature that has been disturbed by the building of the pipelines. Pemberton’s story, though now mostly missing from the archives, is rendered incredibly effective by the unnerving realisation of the creature’s power over people’s minds.In pulp media, if we cannot find our place within the ecosystem, the ecosystem will eventually force us to conform. The engineers it takes over become part plant with weed tendrils growing on their hands and the horrific ability to expel noxious gas from their mouths. Pemberton’s novelisation of the story for Target books is also incredibly effective in this sense, the prose almost dripping with the foamy pulsating qualities of the creature disturbed by the gas industry. In an age where pipelines are some of the politically charged developments, especially in America, Pemberton’s story is one of the era’s more prescient narratives.


Before Fury, Pemberton wrote a script which was rejected by the Doctor Who producers entitled The Slide – though clearly an inspiration for Fury, it was eventually dramatised as a separate serial for radio in 1966. The drama follows similar themes though is even more environmentally conscious without the necessity to tie in with typical Doctor Who narratives. A heat wave, which sounds like nothing less than climate change, is soon followed by an earthquake in Kent. The wildlife disappears and through the cracks in the earth, a sentient, deadly mud rises and begins to attack. Vaguely similar to the Hammer 1956 film, X The Unknown (albeit without the emphasis being on nuclear paranoia) as well as Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass II (1955) (though this particular abstract mass falls to Earth and is developed in a food processing plant), Pemberton’s work is some of the earliest which showcases effectively a sense of The Severing leading to a violent planet now imbued with a deadly agency. Don Houghton’s Doctor Who Episode, Inferno (1970), dealt with a similar threat too, though one without sentience; where the drilling down for a gas vital for the running of the country causes the planet to crack open (and, in an alternative dimension, be destroyed).


In the era of greater environmental awareness, the 1970s produced its own surreal response to ideas of the The Angry Earth. In the HTV children’s series, Sky (1975), this problem is faced head on by its writers, Bob Baker and Dave Martin.In the programme, a dimensional slip has caused Sky, a being from another dimension, to fall to Earth. The planet begins to fight the anomaly itself: to try and fix the paradox of the being’s presence. Not only does this mean that plant life and metrological aspects gain sentience in order to try and destroy Sky, but the environment even creates its own defender in the form of a humanoid called Goodchild who is as close as the programme gets to an enemy. Sky is from a period in Earth’s history after a cataclysmic environmental catastrophe called The Chaos which, with his knowledge of the future, renders him both ambivalent and angry at the 1970s generation and their reluctance to change their environmentally harmful behaviour. What these narratives show is that if The Severing is not in some way addressed and, if we’re not willing to reconnect to our environment outside of fencing small corners of it off for conservational posterity, those things who call it their home will eventually come looking for us. And we will feel their rage.


IV. A Problem of Stories


So what is there to conclude from looking at these dramas? Many were commissioned to propose problems and provide theoretical answers, the movement between the two creating drama. Before ‘climate change’ became a household term, climate was part of the problem in the programmes, questioning systems and our behaviour within those systems, and an ability to properly register the changes and deal with the consequences. As Solnit writes:


“To grasp climate change, you have to think in terms of species and their future. To know how things have already changed, you have to remember how they used to be, and so you may not notice birds disappearing from the skies, or hotter weather or more extreme storms and forest fires … Addressing climate means fixing the way we produce energy. But maybe it also means addressing the problems with the way we produce stories.” (2014).


A sense of collapse more than change is at the heart of many of these dramas, perhaps suggesting that the melodramatic turn of such environmental catastrophe has made it seem too big, incomprehensible or unsolvable to avert. Morton’s charged melancholia is far more effective as a primary instigator for behavioural change, even with its potential of causing widespread despair (or ambivalence). But within these television dramas are the first signs that the Anthropocene was coming, in a time when we may have still been able to turn the clocks back. It’s not that we didn’t heed their warning, it’s that we’ve never heeded such warnings. We cannot put fences around things for protection and watch as everything on the other side crumbles. The message of these programmes has always been that change is within us and that such problems are still ultimately about our disconnect with the world; the disconnect that breeds maggots underground, that hides hot-cells within the soil and that forces the planet to violently defend itself by any means necessary.


ADAM SCOVELL is a writer and filmmaker from Merseyside now based in London. His writing has featured in The Times, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies and The Quietus. He runs the website, Celluloid Wicker Man, and his film work has been screened at a variety of festivals and events. In 2015, he worked with Robert Macfarlane on a short adaptation of his Sunday Times best-seller, Holloway. His first book, Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, was published by Auteur in 2017 and he has just completed his PhD at Goldsmiths University. His next book, Mothlight, is to be published by Influx Press in February 2019.


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