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Sci Fi Week: The Alien Slugs and Porn Warriors of New Zealand’s TV Sci Fi

José Barbosa wraps up Sci Fi Week by examining New Zealand’s TV science fiction, which peaked in the ’80s and has rarely been seen since. He wants to know why. //

As we know Television is traditionally considered the production budget equivalent of a ratty two dollar shop that sells mobile phone covers and velvet rugs: it’s all made with glitter and duct tape. Money is tight in TV and in New Zealand those budgets are so tight they displace internal organs, worse if your programme has a spaceship or two in it.

But because of the tightwad nature of TV there’s perhaps no other industry where the New Zealand knack for resourcefulness is tested week after week and in such a public way.

That spit and staples spirit is even part of the plot of 1985’s A Fitting Tribute. Made for the About Face drama anthology series and adapted from a CK Stead short story, this one-off episode stars actor Lucy Sheehan. She plays Nicky, a solo mum who fills her days pinching meatballs from her workplace and traipsing around suburban parks with her toddler, Christopher.

Two years ago his father, Julian Harp, became a New Zealand hero by achieving human flight without the aid of an engine. Unfortunately when he took off from the Auckland Domain he never came back. The last Nicky, or anyone, saw of him was a dot in the sun.

Since then New Zealand has gone bonkers for Harp, murals of him looking to the sky are everywhere, as is the slogan “who says kiwis can’t fly?” or ‘aim high with Harp!’ Politicians invoke his example in their speeches. He’s a hero to everyone for putting New Zealand on the map, but no one knows how he did it. Except for Nicky. She stole umbrellas for Harp’s wings, she suggested the crucial method of taking off backwards that got him in the air. She was there when he rolled down the domain hill on the funeral gurney, picking up enough speed to soar over the trees.

Nicky is completely ignored and dismissed by history’s account of the Harp ascension. Fortunately she’s more than happy to let us know how it really happened. The direction by Greg Stitt (who co-wrote the script with Alan Smythe) is spot on and never boring – which is exactly what you need for what is basically a twenty eight minute monologue.

He never resorts to flashbacks either, the closest he comes is filming two Harp copycats perched on a roof wearing goggles and shaky-looking wings (earlier Nicky watches an ambulance cart off the body of an unsuccessful wannabe). Stitt’s direction helps Sheehan’s great performance, her Nicky is just kooky enough to make us wonder if she’s fabricated her relationship with Harp to survive her otherwise banal life.

In the end that doesn’t matter because the whole country is chest deep in its own Harp folk tale. What A Fitting Tribute is really concerned about is how we construct our mythologies and co-opt them for our own purposes. “Who says Kiwis can’t fly” was 1985’s “100% Pure.”

Appearing briefly in a news report the Prime Minister uses Harp to obscure a only hinted-at economic disaster. The PM is played by the actor Bill Johnson who four years earlier inhabited the role of the patriarch of a family of alien slugs living under Rangitoto island.

Johnson played Mr. Wilberforce, a evil shapeshifter plotting the destruction of the world in Under The Mountain. His performance was so strong that a generation of New Zealand children suffered intense communal and simultaneous trauma and all grew up to be property developers. Most impressive about his work in the mostly wordless role was that he continued to be terrifying even when the transformation scenes basically amounted to him standing on a set and having what looked like cold snot poured over his head.

Under The Mountain’s considered a pearl among a slate of creepy, sci-fi kidult dramas that New Zealand seemed to excel in producing. Night Of The Red Hunter, Children Of The Dogstar, The Boy From Andromeda – They all depicted a dangerous world where children battled the sinister forces of evil, usually under the nose of unsuspecting adults (they also more often than not involved the writing talents of Ken Catran).

They also contained one aspect I consider to be the calling card of all great New Zealand TV sci-fi: being really fucking weird. Weird in a pyramids-over-the-houseplants, crystals-in-the-windows, UFOs-are-thought-forms kind of way. The two kid protagonists of Under The Mountain are red haired twins who also have psychic abilities. There’s a great scene where they try to develop their telepathic abilities by imagining chucking pebbles into each others brain. As a kid I spent hours trying the same thing with the unsuspecting mind of my brother. In the end I gave in and used my mouth and language to tell him he was a dorkalitus.

Like all those old series, Under The Mountain took what was familiar and made it terrifying. I like to imagine Maurice Gee cracking a big shit-eating grin when he came up with the central idea for the book the series was based on. Rangitoto Island was always an unsettling leviathan on Auckland’s horizon: its full name means The Days Of The Bleeding of Tama-te-kapu.

Couple that with Auckland’s numerous odd volcanic cones and you have a city surrounded with unease. Gee must have been feeding on that air of menace the day he passed a misty Mt Eden and mused about what lived under there. From that came the story about how the lava tubes under Rangitoto were in fact the tunnels of alien slugs deadset on annihilating the earth.

Finding the horror in normalcy is a regular motif for sci-fi TV. It is cheap, but it doesn’t mean it has to look half-arsed. This Is Not My Life was only granted one season, but the 2010 series is probably the best looking sci-fi TV made in New Zealand. Receiving a healthy amount of its parental genetics from The Prisoner and Lost, This Is Not My Life took the fresh New Zealand urban suburb and slipped darkness under its front door. The fact the series was filmed in Omaha, where John Key chooses to spend his kiwi holidays, probably says it all.

Alec Ross wakes up in the small town of Waimoana with no memory of who or where he is and doesn’t recognise the people telling him that their his family. He flips out and belts out the door in his gruts. This gave fans of the actor Charles Mesure a decent look at his definition. It also gave the world the daintiest prickles-in-the-lawn walk I’ve ever seen televised.

It’s soon clear there’s a lot of dark stuff happening under the surface and Alec has to uncoil the mystery of why his memory is gone and who is really running the show. The fictional Waimoana is a newly hewn town which is written a bit like what the rest of the country thinks Grey Lynn is like.

Here the residents are predominantly Pakeha, contented, middle class and bathed in political correctness: greetings are always in Te Reo and everyone’s into organics. The clothes and decor are generally all different hues of pastel blues and pale greens, it resembles living in a town designed by Tampax. But it looks beautiful: shots are composed with care, always designed to emphasis Alec’s incarceration in Resene’s latest range.

This send up of middle class-ness has clever moments. As Alec tries to escape the town his car tells him he’s run out of carbon credits and turns home. Everyone works on transparent future computers as no one can afford to buy paper. It turns out that in the future reams of 80gsm A4 are like truffles.

It’s unclear how the audience is supposed to take all this. Are we supposed to roll our eyes at efforts to curb pollution and include Te Reo in everyday life? We’ll never know if the big bad was biodynamic farmers with gauged earlobes as This Is Not My Life was denied a second season.

If This Is Not My Life was the slick faux mohawk of New Zealand sci-fi, then Wad Wax: The Vaseline Warriors was definitely its short and curlies. Aired  in the early ’00s as part of the now infamous Back Of The Y show, Vaseline Warriors was a Mad Max parody set in a post-apocalyptic world where bands of frustrated men fight over dwindling precious resources: wank mags and vaseline. Everything Chris Stapp, Matt Heath and the rest of the Back Of The Y team did was executed full throttle with balls in your face excess. Bill Ralston famously described the show as “puerile, vile, horrible and disgusting, a piece of decaying faeces.”

It wasn’t a bad summary at all. Vaseline Warriors refers to a roving band of vaseline stealing road bandits led by a guy in a gorilla suit. Stu Wadman (sporting a huge right arm overdeveloped from masturbating) is led to a pub populated by a group of men who “haven’t had a wank in two years” due to the constant raids by the Warriors. The pub’s owner makes his beer by drinking turps and pissing it into a jar. His yeast infection helps round out the ale’s full bodied taste. Wadman fights a huge robot made from air-conditioning tubes in the “Lubradome.” You get the idea.

Back of The Y ate up dick jokes, shitty costumes and dumb stunts for breakfast and loved every second of it; Wad Wax was the strongest example of that in action. To seek any sort of deeper theme in Stu Wadman’s story than just pure love of of the infantile (and the love of getting away with it) is probably a waste of time. However, it does seem to depict men as brutes, constantly fighting with themselves and their base desires.

This nightmare wasteland only came about when every woman was executed in an effort to stop men “bickering and showing off”. Without women the world turned to custard in mere handful of hours. Of course, it can also be read as a deeply sexist take on the Garden of Eden where original sin was created by a woman. Whether that all matters or is even applicable is, as always, up to the viewer. What can’t be denied is that the Back Of The Y crew look like they’re having an awesome time. They were able to impart to their audience that pure joy of just dicking around with a camera. That is a depressingly rare thing in New Zealand television.

There’s more TV I could mention – the pure insanity of 1985’s The Dominant Species, a documentary about how humans use cars told from the point of view of two sub-titled aliens; the convoluted clone thriller Typhon’s People written by the late Margaret Mahy (and starring Alfred Molina!) or even Mike Hosking’s end of show monologues on Seven Sharp, otherwise known as New Zealand’s finest two minutes of speculative fiction.

However, there comes a point where you just have to move on.

If our TV sci-fi heritage isn’t exactly overburdened with examples, I think we can agree that there has, at least, been some memorable shows. Nonetheless, it would be pleasing to see some new local sci-fi that isn’t made principally for children. This Is Not My Life had the right idea, but we need to get back on the wheel. ‘Our stories’ don’t end at the present. We need to explore what this country might become, that’s what a healthy culture does. Even better if it’s done with a bit of PVA and glitter.