The legacy of Alternative 3 vastly overwhelms its actual content. As writer David Ambrose notes in the interview on Soda’s DVD release, despite the many pointers to its hoax status (not least the cast list running over the end credits), the fake documentary has been credited as an exposé and even a suppressed text, with an unforeseen life far beyond its initial status as an elaborate (and delayed) April Fool’s joke. The general gist of such arguments even now is that, while the makers weren’t knowingly putting the truth out there, they had unwittingly hit upon an actual (alternative) history of the space programme.
The argument for Alternative 3’s content being an intentional “leak” appears to be that, by making a hoax documentary, the powers that be set up instant inoculation against future claims through the precedent of it being proven nonsense. If this were the case, one might argue for the ruse’s effectiveness as it has achieved exactly that end. Although, more persuasive against such a reading is that the airing served to focus attention in a direction no one had been looking hitherto.
There are precedents for agenda-led fare, naturally, from wartime propaganda pictures to those availing themselves of government or military co-operation in exchange for revisions of content. But it’s also the case that writers will frequently say of a work that, with hindsight, it was entirely coincidental that they reflected or predicted events of which they had no knowledge (The Lone Gunmen pilot, shown six months before 9/11 and featuring a plan to hijack an airliner and crash it into The Twin Towers has been dismissed as such by Frank Spotnitz). The consequence in cases where murky goings-are suspected may be that the conspiracy theorist will doubt the author’s innocence (in the case of those working for Murdoch’s Fox, perhaps understandable, for Yorkshire Television less so); they must have been bundled in to the all-consuming plot, subject to the dictates of their puppet masters.
All that would be assuming Alternative 3 possesses a kernel of truth to its narrative, of course. In terms of the unofficial exploration of space, the subject can lead to its own chicken-and-egg theorising. Are those with tales of secret space programs and arcane histories of Nazi interplanetary capabilities (relating to their purported Bell craft technology), explorations of lost worlds and contact with occult forces drawing on a legacy of popular fiction (from Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo and The Land that Time Forgot, right up to Indiana Jones and – God forbid – Iron Sky)? It’s engrossing subject matter and a fascinating, all-consuming rabbit hole to leap down; in one way or another many Nazis went underground, be that verifiably (through integration into the US space programme) or more elaborately (from Gregory Peck cloning Hitler in Argentina in Boys from Brazilto fleeing defeat and establishing bases under Antarctica, where they fought off Admiral Byrd’s Operation Highjump in 1947).
This kind of alternative reading of history leads one quite smoothly to Alternative 3’s idea of a secret landing on Mars on May 22, 1962 evidencing life there, and of activity on the dark side of the Moon (not broached in the doc, but that’s where the aliens lurk out of sight).
Leslie Watkins is reported as saying of the accompanying Alternative 3 book that it was fiction “based on fact. But I now feel I inadvertently got very close to a secret truth” which involved his suspicion of being wiretapped; Jim Keith’s Casebook on Mind Control and UFOs: Casebook on Alternative Three supports Watkins’ notion to an extent, pointing to a joint US/USSR space programme, the mysterious deaths/disappearances of scientists, and the deception of the public concerning advanced technology (although the doc doesn’t get into claiming this is at the behest of an all-powerful ruling elite).
If one looks, one can find circumstantial support of the doc’s basic tenet, including the popularly cited claim from Ronnie Reagan (although the Alzheimer’s card can be waved to dismiss anything he claims) regarding discussion with space scientists “It was fascinating. Space truly is the last frontier and some of the developments there in astronomy etc. are like science fiction, except they are real. I learned that our shuttle capacity is such that we could orbit 300 people”. Then there’s Laura Eisenhower, Dwight’s granddaughter, claiming she was offered the chance to join a Mars colony (bound to be dismissed as the ravings of a New Age hippy fruitcake, of course), Gary McKinnon’s hacking expedition that bore the fruit (cake) of discovering references to “non-terrestrial officers” in government computer systems (but he was stoned out of his (fruit) tree at the time, so perhaps not credible; still, credible enough to have the US demanding his extradition) and Corey Goode’s attestations that it’s all true, all of it, and more besides.
Then again, Ambrose’s wry recollection of his experience reading The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time, finds him confessing how much he enjoyed the book and quite convincingly told and researched… up until the point it cites Alternative 3 as factual book and suppressed documentary. It’s exactly the kind of literalness that would induce anyone willing to entertain the “truth by coincidence” reading a wide berth.
Besides the most readily recognisable conspiracy lore points in the doc, there’s the more winning side product of legitimate factual points that lend it a prescient underpinning. Principally among these is the one the makers – understandably – wish to congratulate themselves on, that of the ecological time bomb (although, in Alternative 3, the Greenhouse Effect is leading to extremely hot winters and cold summers, “the next step to an unavoidable Ice Age”). Alternative 3 can claim its place as a prophet of climate change, although, to put it in its place, this is a decade that was already exploring the subject in No Blade of Grass in Silent Running. More to the point, though, such back patting isn’t why the doc has attained such longevity; it’s all about the conspiracy.
The disappearances Alternative 3 takes as its starting point, “sudden and inexplicable, without trace”, are, we are told, the result of an abandoned documentary about the scientific Brain Drain from Britain. In a particularly colourful piece of introductory spiel, former BBC news presenter Tim Brinton notes how that particular investigation hit a blank wall, “A blank wall, below where I’m standing now, of Terminal 3 of Heathrow Airport”.
For much of the running time we follow Gregory Monroe’s rather wooden reporter Colin Benson (nice sheepskin coat, though) as he pursues the trail of these missing individuals (“Is he on acid or something?” Colin immortally asks of an antic interview subject, having barged into his house like he’s the precursor of The Cook Report) and the space scenarios it leads to, but it’s Brinton’s gravitas that really sells the deception, complete with accident sites that are “peculiarly unclear” and a videotape exhibiting “the ceaseless noise of space”.
In some respects the (reported) flurry of public belief that followed the broadcast seems barely creditable; as one can see only the contrived and stagey nature of the interviews and presentation, until one recalls that a lot of genuine ‘70s documentaries have very mannered presentation, and that the (oft-compared). No bones were made about Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast being a dramatisation and still people fell for it. There’s the Doctor Who-like incongruity of vast cosmic plots set against grey British terraces. But there’s also really rather good use of stock footage to support the climate change thesis, along with intentionally degraded film stock for parts of the documentary itself. Few of the talking heads have much in their presence to persuade you they are other than actors, but it’s the conjuring trick of what they’re reeling off that’s the key.
Just the name “Alternative 3” is evocative and tantalising, much more so than initial title “Disappearing People”. (Alternatives 1 and 2 involve cutting the population and consumption of resources respectively, according to Dr Gerstein, “The third – maybe not so crazy”, although the Wikipedia page gives 2 as establishing underground shelters to house a select few in order to escape the environmental apocalypse; it’s notable that both Alternatives 1 and (the Wiki) 2 have been posited as agendas of the secret controllers of the world.
The most memorable interview subject is astronaut Bob Grodin, played by readily-recognisable Canadian actor Shane Rimmer (Dr Strangelove, veteran of Doctor Who, voice of Scott Tracy and a mainstay of multiple Gerry Anderson productions, Bond films and Supermans as well as A Very British Coup; generally available as an ever-present Yank-in-UK-residence for hire), who runs with the suggestion that the Apollo astronauts discovered they weren’t alone when they landed on the Moon.
In Bob’s case, rather than encountering E.T.s, it’s a pre-existing lunar base (“Those Apollos, they’re just a sunscreen to cover up what’s really going on out there” which is pretty much what those claiming a secret space program say, albeit that NASA compartmentalisation means they aren’t even aware of the advanced technology they don’t have available to them). It has to be said, though, that Rimmer has one of his big scenes stolen from under him thanks to the cameo from his then girlfriend, former Miss Norfolk Linda Cunningham (“She’s not my daughter, right”).
Tim Brinton: Fear, suspicion, unanswered questions. Possibly murder. What are we dealing with?
The Apollo missions are “to keep you bums happy, stop you asking questions about what’s really going on out there”, leading to the memorable description of the lunar exploration as “Two men on a bicycle on the surface of the Moon”. Which beckons the theory that the Moon landings were faked as the technology was insufficient to get there and back, as mooted by Dark Moon, and obliquely touched on by Capricorn One, where faults in the design mean the mission has to be faked. I particularly liked the suggestion that the Viking probe footage might be faked (so exploring similar territory to Capricorn One) in which it is pondered why, having spent so much money getting to the surface of the red planet, they should equip the probe with a camera with a range of only 100 metres (“the average size of a large film studio”).
Another popular subject in conspiracy lore suggests the Cold War frostiness between the US and USSR was just big sham (“None of us can understand how the peace has been maintained for the past 25 years” comments Alec Linstead’s G. Gordon Broadbent; great name). The illustrious professor posits that there is, at the very highest level in East-West diplomacy, “an operating factor of which we know nothing”. While more popularly this banner is waved in favour of the Illuminati transcending such trifling details as national boundaries, Broadbent – in a very tickling bit of speculation – suggests “It could just be that this unknown factor is a massive but covert operation in space. As for the reason behind it. Well, we’re not in the business of speculation”.
Tim Brinton: International co-operation? In space? A space shuttle? But shuttling what, to where?
Ambrose and director/co-deviser Christopher Miles pay due passing reference to the matter of economics (it would be more economic to explore space from space, rather than expending resources getting there in the first place, therefore a Moon base as a means to ferry people to Mars makes sense) and also throw in references to the in development space shuttle and the superpower co-habited Skylab (“But what are they all doing up there in space?”)
Tim Brinton: You mean go to some other planet?
Dr Carl Gerstein: I mean, get the hell off this one while there’s still time.
Alternative 3 is an “attempt to ensure that at least some of the human race survived” the imminent demise of planet Earth, which, in some versions of secret space programme, is the line fed to those in hermetically operating off-world bases as a carrot to get them up there (in sustainable communities). The idea of a great space escape would be popularised in Moonraker two years later, with Hugo Drax planning to do for the final frontier what his predecessor in Bond villainy Stromberg panned for the oceans, but this selling the lie idea has also been seen in the recently recovered Patrick Troughton Doctor Who, The Enemy of the World, in which an underground community live under the illusion that the earth above is a radioactive nightmare.
Alternative 3 concludes with an intimation of life on Mars (again, the makers take credit for finding water there), taking in terraforming (of a sort, anyway, with a nuclear explosion delivered from Earth leading to hibernating life on the planet awakening, the polar icecaps decreasing and vegetation developing). Red Planet would pick up the terraforming idea 23 years later, and Mission to Mars, as most other Mars pictures have – barring the pop-referencing “pure science” of The Martian – suggested a formerly inhabited planet. Of all the elements in the doc, the sight of a skittery creature (a Khan bloodsucker?) is perhaps the most glaringly contrived, what with a conveniently discovered microcircuit providing decoding and enabling a view of aerial photography of a verdant planet surface when combined with the earlier videotape.
Cast members include Richard Marner (best known as Colonel von Strohm in ‘Allo ‘Allo). Alec Linstead (who appeared in three Doctor Whos, most memorably the first Tom Baker story), Phoebe Nichols (most recently appearing in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) and Norman Chancer (Local Hero). Brian Eno’s aural contribution is particularly choice and atmospheric. Ambrose, fittingly for someone engrossed in the Philadelphia Experiment, went on to co-pen The Final Countdown, and Miles’ work includes films That Lucky Touch (with Sir Rog), The Clandestine Marriage (Nigel Hawthorne) and an early movie lead for Ian McKellen in Priest of Love.
Presumably Preston B Nichols and Jerry Deloney’s character in Slacker devoured proclaimed the doc as absolutely true without noting the “April 1 1977” at the end; you’d be hard pressed to come across Alternative 3 and proclaim it a masterpiece of hoodwinking. It doesn’t even really try that hard. What it does have going for it is a wealth of great ideas, feeding off topical themes (or ones not as topical as they ought to have been, environment-wise) and the general distrust in government that had burgeoned during the previous decade. It also, in however nascent a form, employs techniques that would be identified with the subgenre of the fake documentary during the following decades. Alternative 3’s a very cosy and innocent piece of conspiracy play, but one that manages to tap into something vaster and more enduring. Whether its subject matter brushes up against, in some shape or form, tangible but entirely elusive goings-on, or amounts to no more than enticing conceits seized upon by the popular imagination, it isn’t going away.