Wednesday, December 10, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Day After Tomorrow (1975)

NBC aired this obscure genre pilot in prime time as a so-called “Special Treat” in November of 1975, even as Year One of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson TV series Space:1999 (1975-1977) was being broadcast in syndication around the country.

Today, it’s easy to tag The Day After Tomorrow (or Into Infinity, an alternate title) as an Anderson production circa the mid-1970s. The special effects by Brian Johnson are top-notch for the era, the camera-work (by veteran Frank Watts) is nothing short of stunning, and the script by the late poet Johnny Byrne captures the mystery and awe of outer space (not to mention the human experience...) in a powerful, even lyrical fashion.

However, The Day After Tomorrow also serves as a rather interesting production “bridge” between Year One and Year Two of Space:1999. The hard-hitting, hard-driving musical score is from the late Derek Wadsworth, who contributed the themes for Year Two. And overall the production is a little more colorful (less minimalist…) in color and costume than 1999’s sterling Year One.

Some props, miniatures and sets also look familiar from Space:1999 Year One. Namely the “bridge” of the main ship, Altares, closely resembles like the bridge of the Ultra Probe from the episode entitled “Dragon’s Domain.” Other props -- the colorful computer panels, for instance -- appear to have been utilized extensively during Year Two. Even the sound effects are familiar to those who know 1999 well.

So what we have in the 60-minute pilot The Day After Tomorrow is essentially a hybrid: a Year One style “awe and mystery of space” narrative, but one conveyed in the more colorful-looking/sounding Year Two fashion, if that makes sense.

The Day After Tomorrow commences in the near future at Space Station Delta (a re-dressed Darian space ark from the 1999 episode “Mission of the Darians.”) Delta serves as a “jumping off point” for destinations beyond Earth’s solar system.

A UN shuttle docks with the station, one carrying the crew of the first “light ship,” Altares to their new berth. The Altares crew consists of Captain Harry Masters (1999’s Nick Tate), chief scientist Tom Bowen (Brian Blessed), and his wife Anna, the ship’s doctor (Joanna Dunham).

Uniquely, Harry’s teenage daughter Jane (Katherine Levy) and the pre-adolescent Bowen boy, David (Martin Lev) are also full-blown crew-members on Altares. This is because of Einstein’s “time dilation” theory.

Since the Altares’ main engine has harnessed the “power of the photon,” it can travel at light speed., meaning that time will pass normally for the crew, even as decades – nay centuries – pass for people living back on Earth. In such an environment, parents would be younger than their children on the event of a return trip. Which would be weird...

The family that explores space together, stays together.

After a pre-launch countdown that includes a check for “human stress factors,” the Altares departs Space Station Delta bound for Alpha Centauri. Despite experiencing incredibly g-force stress during the voyage, the crew survives the acceleration to light speed (while noting such phenomena as meteorite showers and a Doppler shift).

The crew votes to continue forward into the great beyond after reaching Alpha Centauri. Upon re-activation, however, the photon engine breaks down, stranding the Altares in the gravitational pull of a Red Sun that is experiencing “an abnormal expansion rate.” In other words, it’s about to go supernova.

Over Jane’s objections, Harry undertakes a dangerous mission in the reactor room to repair the photon drive. He succeeds just in the nick of time, but soon after there is even more danger. The Altares is pulled into a rotating black hole and hurled into a “new universe.”

I’d like to report that there’s more to the story of the Altares than that, but there isn’t. It sure would have been nice to see a regular TV series pick up where the pilot leaves off (with the crew exploring a new solar system…) but alas, this was the last we heard of Captain Masters and his team. Maybe they ran into the crew of the Palomino?

All kidding aside, this straight-shooting Gerry Anderson pilot represents a sort of high-tech, science-minded update of the whole Lost in Space format: a ship lost in the interstellar sea, her crew…a family (or families), trying to survive and stick together.

Only here there’s no Dr. Smith or Robot (not even Brian the Brain...) around making trouble.

Even after thirty-three years, The Day After Tomorrow makes for a claustrophobic, action-packed hour, with almost all the action occurring inside the compact quarters of the Altares (think of a 1999 Eagle, basically…).

All of the incidents encountered by the crew have a solid basis in real science, per the network, because the program was intended to be “educational” and for children. But, in typical Anderson (and typical Byrne) fashion, matters tend still toward the mind-blowing, the trippy, the amazing.

For instance, the climactic trip through the black hole is a psychedelic, Kubrickian wonder, a montage dominated by double images, slow-motion photography and the use of a creepy distortion lens. Pretty powerful stuff for a kid’s show. As the script notes, “it’s a universe not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.”

The writing voice of humanitarian and historian Johnny Byrne is present here in other ways too. A voice-over narration (provided by UFO’s Ed Bishop), for instance, comments on what future Earth is like:

“They came from a world where natural resources have been squandered, where pollution and the haphazard destruction of the environment has put the future of humanity in jeopardy.”

Yet despite such a trouble-prone world, the characters in The Day After Tomorrow are still very human; and – as is the case in Space:1999 – there seems to be an underlying aura of Apollo-Age optimism about the future of man and the future of the space program.

In series' like Space:1999 and The Day After Tomorrow it goes without question that man will create spaceships and voyage to other worlds. Of course there will be trouble and accidents along the way, but the stars are always our destination.

The trained space-men of these productions don’ know what they’ll countenance in space, how to interpret it, or even how they’ll survive it, but they grit their teeth and get through it all without histrionics. “Nobody knows what it’s like to travel through a black hole…so don’t panic,” barks one astronaut in The Day After Tomorrow.

As a life-long admirer of Space:1999 (not to mention Anderson productions such as UFO and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun), I enjoyed The Day After Tomorrow for what it is: a time-capsule of once state-of-the--art science fiction. The whole production brought me right back to the mid-1970s. That was a time when we knew – we just knew – that interplanetary space travel was around the next corner.

Like Space:1999, The Day After Tomorrow makes that eventuality seem exciting, a bit scary and very, very believable.

In 1977, Star Wars introduced Wookies, Banthas, droids, laser swords and a swashbuckling, fairy tale sweep to the genre of space adventuring...for better or for worse. Focus on science evaporated and science fiction films and TV series’ went in a new, more fantasy-oriented direction. More action-packed/less mind-blowing. More thrilling/less psychedelic. More imaginative in one sense, perhaps…

…and ultimately less “real.”

But even today – every now and then – I miss the moog music, the unisex costumes, the intricate miniatures (and utilitarian, modular space craft design…) as well as the trippy sojourns into realms of Inner/Outer Space offered by productions like Space:1999 and The Day After Tomorrow.

I guess I’m just the Seventies Space Kid at heart.


  1. Anonymous11:27 AM

    Alright! I have this incredibly underrated show on DVD from Fanderson and it's great to see someone give it its due. It does hold up pretty well for its age, and in fact, my 10 year old tech savvy son loves it. Nick Tate was great, although his American accent had yet to gain the credibility it certainly has now in all his voiceovers. TIme to pull it out again....

  2. Hi John!

    Just found your Blog today (added it to my Blog list - my first and only so far!).

    Anyway, I had this telefilm on VHS a few years back and didn't find it near as good as you do. All the elements were there, from actors to crew, but the whole was never greater than the parts for me.

    I was hoping otherwise.

  3. Hey Tony!

    Welcome to the blog! Glad you found it, and glad you're sticking around.

    I wonder if The Day After Tomorrow would have benefited from a longer running time, perhaps. Some more time to flesh out some of the good ideas...


  4. Anonymous8:48 PM

    From the style of its sets, special effects, and costumes, 'The Day After Tomorrow' almost seems like a lost episode of Space:1999. Dragon's Domain featured the journey of the Ultra Probe. This film followed the adventures of the somewhat similar Altares Probe. If you look closely, the matte painting of the space station appears to be the heavily reworked painting of the Darian interior from 'Mission of the Darians". Some of the constellation clusters in the space scenes also showed up in the second season of Space:1999 (starting with the second season title sequence's nebula to the left of the two planets).

    I just wish that 'The Day After Tomorrow' would recieve a wider DVD release. Most people only know the title from the ho-hum 2004 disaster film. Your review makes me look forward to seeing it again!

  5. Very interested in this one. I've been hesitant to pick it up, but based on your review I may give it a shot after all. The images look intriguing.

  6. Anonymous7:13 PM

    I'm a bit of a Seventies Space Kid, myself, John. I, too, have many fond memories of this 1975 NBC classic.

    Overall, another excellent review.

    Keep up the good work.

    Chris Dalton

  7. Anonymous11:50 PM

    What I found eye-opening about this film was that I saw where so many year two S:99 elements came from. I think a lot of the stylistic changes we saw in year two were already born before Mr. Freiberger came along. I think Gerry Anderson had more of a hand in year two then he liked to admit over the years.

  8. Anonymous7:25 AM

    My friend Brad and I thought we were the only people in the world who had heard of this show! Back then all I had was an audio copy on cassette (long since lost) as proof it relly happened. I too miss the thoughtful sci-fi of Star Trek and season one of SPACE 1999. (even the original Battlestar Galactica was better than some of the shit thats on today!) At least there's Dr Who and my Star trek DVDs!

  9. Anonymous10:56 PM

    Where can we obtain a DVD of this show. I remember it too when I was a kid.

  10. John, just discovered your blog today and already commented on Strange New World. Following up info on that led me serendipitously to this movie that I have been honestly looking for for over 25 years. I knew I had seen it but I was only 8 and didn't know the title or anything about it. Library books and other references gave me nothing but then I really didn't know what to search for. My dad, who was exactly my age (45) then, watched it with me but must have thought it was just more space crap because he doesn't remember it at all.

    I remember having my mind blown by this movie. It's apparent realism made it all the more appealing to me and I have never completely forgotten it. I mostly remember the wild, psychedelic imagery when they got sucked into the black hole and the feeling of forging on ahead come what may.

    You said it best by saying you are a Seventies Space Kid. I am proudly one too. The earnestness of the space shows of the early to mid 70's and the vision of Gene Rodenberry and especially Gerry Anderson made my childhood adventures in sci-fi playtime deeply real and optimistic. As I said on the other comment, our current pop culture has almost completely forgotten this era. Most pop references go back no further than Star Wars and that is a sharp sword in my chest since Star Wars really took sci-fi into a different direction that it really hasn't returned from.

    Thanks for this blog and and I am now a lifetime fan of yours!