Film (1967). Amicus Productions. Directed by Montgomery Tully. Written by John Brunner, based on the novel The Wailing Asteroid (1960) by Murray Leinster. Starring Simon Oates, Zena Marshall, Charles Hawtrey, Patricia Hayes, Stanley Meadows. 75 minutes. Colour.
The head of a project to use a radio telescope to listen for signs of intelligent life, Dr Joe Burke (Oates), is rewarded for his efforts, just before his funding will be cancelled, when he picks up a strange radio signal. He recognizes the signal from a childhood experience: while on an archaeological expedition in France as a child, he was given a strange cubical box found at the site, and upon accidentally breaking the box and touching its granular blue contents, he had a dream about a world with two moons and the sound of the signal in the background. He sends a response to the signal, which originated from an Asteroid, and the asteroid then sends a Spaceship to his observatory that captures Burke's building and carries it to the asteroid (which is actually an enormous Space Station). The accidental space travellers within the building are Burke, his colleagues Sandy Lund (Marshall) and Ben Keller (Meadows), accountant Joshua Yellowlees (Hawtrey), there to audit the project's accounts, and food vendor Mrs Jones (Hayes). When they arrive, the five people pass diagnostic tests administered by a roving Robot, are briefly teleported (> Matter Transmission) to a world with two moons and green-skinned, humanoid Aliens who threaten them; upon their return to the station, they figure out how to access the information in many cubical boxes resembling the one Burke received as a child. They learn that the makers of the station had battled with an evil alien race which reduced their intelligence to the level of savages; but some survivors were able to set up a series of stations to protect other races from their attacks. The signal that Burke picked up was sent to recruit people to man the local station and defend the Solar System against an approaching alien armada. Instructed by the boxes, Burke and the others successfully fire the station's missiles to destroy the alien Spaceships, then use the teleportation device to return to Earth, at the scene of the archaeological site, whereupon they are "attacked" by boys wearing toy spacesuits.
The sf talents involved in its creation (novelist Leinster and adapter Brunner) ensured at least that The Terrornauts would have an imaginative and original plot, but the finished product is disappointing, primarily because the uninspired comic relief provided by the clueless Yellowlees and Jones becomes the film's centre of attention. As others have noted, the film resembles early episodes of Doctor Who in both its juvenile ambience and unpersuasive special effects. Yet this is also one of the rare films in which an alien civilization is discovered by means of signals detected by a radio telescope – the most probable way that humanity will actually garner evidence of extraterrestrial life – and the tiny boxes in which the departed aliens store information might be deemed a prescient anticipation of the personal Computer, as first observed in sf in Leinster's 1946 story "A Logic Named Joe" (March 1946 Astounding) as by Will F Jenkins. Left unexplained, however, is why an advanced alien race which has mastered teleportation would continue to rely so heavily upon spaceships. [GW]
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