Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Among the various, internationally-produced space operas that hit cinemas in the wake of Star Wars, the low budget Canadian effort, The Shape Of Things To Come, is among the most derided. Borrowing the title from H.G. Wells' novel in an apparent, desperate bid for some sort of legitimacy, TSOTTC is frequently dismissed as one of the worst science fiction films of its era - if not one of the worst space flicks ever. And there is no question that it's a threadbare affair with a banal script right out of a 1950s comic book.


Okay, we all know that I am way too forgiving when it comes to 1970s space opera - hence, the existence of this blog. But I'm not going to apologize for trying to find entertainment in even the worst of the genre, nor am I going to feel guilty (well, not too guilty) when I actually kinda like a film like TSOTTC.

The plot of The Shape Of Things To Come bears no resemblance whatosever to the Wells novel, nor the 1935 William Cameron Menzies movie classic of the same name. In fact, the plot makes little sense at all....

It's "the tomorrow after tomorrow," and the planet Earth is a wasteland, devastated during the great robot wars. What's left of humanity has colonized the Moon, living in great in domed cities, including New Washington. Presumably due to lingering radiation poisoning from the wars, mankind's continued survival depends on an anti-radiation drug called "Radic Q-2," which is regularly shipped to the moon from its planet of origin, Delta-3. Unfortunately, Delta-3 - evidently in another solar system entirely - has been taken over by Omus (Jack Palance, who played a similar character on Buck Rogers that same year), a nutjob robot scientist who has ursurped the rule of the legitimate governor, a platinum blonde named Nikki (Carol Lynley, The Poseidon Adventure). Omus remotely crashes a delivery ship into the New Washington dome and informs stately Senator Smedley (John Ireland) that there will be more such "attacks" if the lunar citizens don't cater to the would-be tyrant's will.

"Our society has no place for a dictator—not even a benevolent one," proclaims a defiant Doctor John Caball (Barry Morse, Space: 1999), the scientist hero of the piece. Oddly, neither he nor the other citizens of New Washington seem to object to deferring all authority to their master computer, Lomax, though, which dismisses a proposed counterattack on Delta-3 on the grounds that it would be somehow "imprudent" (i.e. "prohibitively expensive").

Undeterred, the noble Doc Caball, his loyal son Jason (Nicholas Campbell), beautiful cyber-tech named Kim (Eddie Benton, a/k/a Anne-Marie Martin), and an odious comic relief robot called "Sparks" set out on Caball's new and untested spaceship, the Starstreak, on an unauthorized mission to Delta-3, intending to stop Omus and rescue the red jumpsuited colonists from his waddling robot army.

Ummmm.... First off, why does Omus crash the supply ship into the dome? Wouldn't it have been more economical and just as effective to simply withhold the drug shipment? (Actually, since it's Palance, I guess he just likes the drama). Second, why live on the moon? Couldn't domed cities be built more easily on Earth and offer the same protection? Or why domed cities at all? Earth still appears to be habitable. For that matter, if Ridic Q-2 is so vital to humanity's survival, why not just move everyone to Delta-3? After all, it looks to have an environment exactly like Earth's.

Okay, here's where I come to the film's defense: a lot has been made about the decidedly non-alien Ontario location work that stands in for both Delta-3 and the post-Apocalyptic Earth. While I do have to wonder why TV hack director George McGowan chose to use what appears to be the same autumnal fields and woods for both planets (don't they at least have rock quarries or gravel pits in Canada?), it's really no different than the mundane Canadian locations we recently saw ad nauseum in the Battlestar Galactica remake. In fact, the city of New Washington in TSOTTC looks a frak of a lot like Caprica on the new BSG.

Anyway, yeah, the script is stupid, and the locations are dull, and the robots are clunky as shit. The direction of the action sequences is flat-out awful. TSOTTC is - inarguably - not a good movie.

But (and you knew there would be a "but"), in all honesty, I don't hate, or even particularly dislike, the flick. I actually rather dig the costumes and production design - the uniforms and sets are very much in the style of the other space operas of the period, like Buck Rogers or Space: 1999. Maybe a little cheaper, but not terrible. And, yeah, it's amusing that everyone's got Honeywell computers, but then, the original Galactica crew worked with Tectronics equipment - hey, you use what you can get.

Veteran actors Barry Morse and John Ireland both deliver professional - if unenthusiastic - performances, while the always-entertaining Palance chews scenery with his usual aplomb. Nicholas Campbell and the usually-competent Carol Lynley both appear to be stoned - although that could just be bad direction. Anne-Marie Martin (going by "Eddie Benton" here) is as earnest and appealing as always. Of course, I'm prejudiced - I've thought she was a smart and sexy babe since seeing her on Sledge Hammer! in the 80s.

Barry Morse, in an interview around TSOTTC's DVD release, admitted that the cast/crew were facing an losing battle. "It soon became apparent that it was a production that was, shall we say, reaching rather further than its financial facilities might allow," Morse explained. "I don't think anybody could have anticipated that certain effects would be so... unconvincing, I suppose is the kindest word."

Honestly, though, I think the special effects - at least the miniature stuff - are just fine. They're not Star Wars or Galactica quality, but they're about on the level of Space Academy or Space: 1999. The Starstreak is a good looking ship and nicely designed/detailed, the sequence where the New Washington dome is repaired by three little spaceships is kinda cool, and both Omus' base - and Delta-3 itself - blow up real good. It's a shame that they apparently couldn't afford any animated laser beams, though.

There are a some funny bloopers that make it into film, too, most notably, a Styrofoam beam that bounces hilariously off Palance's head during the fiery climax!

I vaguely recall reading in Starlog and/or Future magazines that Sylvia Anderson of UFO and Space: 1999 fame was originally slated to produce the movie in England (which may explain Morse's involvement), but she must have bailed early, leaving the production in the hands of schlockmeister Harry Allan Towers, who seized quickly on Canadian tax shelter laws that subsidized local filmmaking. Between his notoriously "economical" business practices and McGowan's lethargic, TV-movie direction, it's amazing that the film is as watchable as it is.

Well, I find it watchable, anyway. So sue me.

Back in 2004, Blue Underground released The Shape Of Things To Come on DVD with a really solid 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and Dolby Digital mono audio in both English and French. They even scraped up a few extras: a French theatrical trailer, an English TV spot, and a poster & still gallery. Although the company has been slowly re-issuing most of its library on Blu-Ray, there's been no announcement of TSOTTC being released in HD as yet.

Anyway, I'm not going to try too too hard to convince anyone else of the film's merits - although I clearly think it has a few - but I do enjoy pulling the DVD off my shelf every once in a while. It's not as much giddy fun as Starcrash, nor as slyly satirical as Battle Beyond The Stars, but I can find some pleasure in it.... and, you know, I don't really feel guilty about it at all.

BUY: The Shape of Things to Come


  1. I remember seeing this and thinking..."THIS is what Barry Morse did instead of Space: 1999: Year 2?"

  2. I though I had at least heard of (if not seen) ALL of the 1970's SF films, but I admit I had never heard of The Shape of Things to Come. Thanks for the tip.

  3. This is basically what I imagine the world of the TSR RPG Star Frontiers to look like.

  4. I remember the name and the poster, I am sure I saw it at the cinema when it came out, but I have absolutely no recollection of the film at all!

    I wonder if the DVD is available in the UK...

  5. The look of it and the presence of Barry Morse make it seem like this would be awesome to watch. I just Netflixed it, even though almost EVERY single review on there gives it only one star!

  6. A lot of the movies I love are lucky to get one star from most viewers.

  7. I just discovered your blog and it has some interesting things on here. I just watched this movie last week thanks to Netflix and while I didn't think it was the worst Sci-Fi movie I've seen, it was ok. Also interesting to note was that Anne Marie Martin used to married to Michael Crichton. And actually She was the best part of the movie.

  8. Actually looks a bit more like it may have (also?) been shot in Quebec in the screenshot in the 'office'. That dome in the back ground looks like Terre des Hommes here in Montreal...

  9. I saw this when it came on Showtime in the early 80's. I think my friends and I were astounded that nobody in the show used a laser gun. The red-shirted colonists only had spears and shields to fight off the evil robots. Even as 10 year olds, we were jaded by Star Wars and Buck Rogers. In our eyes, it was lame. But thinking back to it now, it seems a bit nostalgic, so I'll give it a try again and enjoy its camp.

    I really miss Jack Palance!

  10. Out of sheer boredom I decided to check out the movie. It kind of looked like a 1950's film with a 1970's production design. I think the only parts I liked was the performances by Barry Morse and Jack Palance. I think it would've fared better as an episode or a movie version of Jason of Star Command or perhaps Buck Rogers.

  11. ...There's two point about this flick that tend to not get mentioned:

    1) Barry Morse reportedly did this flim to pick up a check to fill in the gap between his last two Space: 1999 checks. When Barry and "Lord" Lew Grade had their tizzy over Grade wanting Morse to accept a pay cut, Morse balked and walked. To piss Morse off, he had his studio accountant hold up Barry's last check for something like *six* months, and even then shorted him. Barry needed some quick cash, and as we all know actors sometimes have to stoop that low in order to keep the lights, water and gas turned on. Times like this I wish I still had my minitape of my interview with Jon Pertwee on the subject of Lew Grade. You will believe a well-mannered Time Lord can swear like a sailor :P

    2) ISTR some commentary going on in the convention grapevine about these guys possibly getting sued over that one spaceship design featured above, with Paranoidmount claiming they'd swiped the design from that aborted Star Trek: Planet of the Titans relaunch - the one that Ralph McQuarry did that most fans agree would *not* have pleased very many fans who wanted the *real* Enterprise back.

    Anyway, good article about a bad film. Keep it up!

  12. As a big fan of the seventies sci-fi stuff of my home and native land, I must admit I by far prefer the wonderfully WTF but unfortunately unavailable on DVD "Starship Invasions" (heck, I find the sixties cartoon "Rocket Robin Hood" more fun!), although I still enjoy "TSOTTC" even it is mainly for the spaceships and robots.
    Yes, even though I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it, I'm a Sparks fan.
    I mean despite being so-called "comic relief", he's as heroic as anyone else in the cast (he certainly has more personality than the male members that's for sure!), and he is the one in fact who saves the day at the end while all the humans are standing around with their fingers up their aspirations.
    And hey, he does have that silly but still kind of cool power of teleportation of "bi-locational transference" ("BLT" for short!), even though it's obvious the producers came up with that because there is no way anyone in that costume could otherwise get up stairs or climb up into the back of a jeep!
    Speaking of costumes, admittedly the ones for the evil warrior robots were better, with added menace given to them by the guys in the sound effects department (did you happen to notice there is a brief battle between the sound of the bad bots and the one Sparks makes when he teleports when Omus tries to regain control of his rebellious creation towards the end of the flick?).
    Speaking of sound, I do want to point out there is something wrong with the music track on the other wise excellent Blue Underground DVD release. The score sounds much better on the original VHS release, and if you want to check out the difference, give a listen to the French trailer that comes with the disc.
    Oh, and a bit of trivia about the movie that comes from an old issue of Starlog... while the special effects guys were really great at building miniatures they had no experience with blowing them up, so rather than cutting them up on the inside for safety they just packed the solid models with explosives and then set them off. When Omus' base blew it sent jagged shrapnel everywhere, burying itself into the surrounding walls (they were lucky no-one was hurt or killed... although at the time they were just happy that they didn't damage the camera!).
    Speaking of damage, I don't know about anyone else in the cast, but the movie apparently didn't do any to the career of Nicholas Campbell who played generic young hero Jason Caball. He's now one of the most respected actors up here in Canada for his title role in the gritty cops and coroners drama "Da Vinci's Inquest" (1998-2005).
    Finally, I do want to point out something that nobody else seems to have noticed... the moonbase computer Lomax was right! Not only was the Starstreak not ready for spaceflight as it predicted, the heroes imprudent mission to stop Omus on Delta-3 only succeeded in getting New Washington's top scientist killed and the only source of the anti-radiation drug Radic Q-2 in the universe completely destroyed!!
    Oh well...


  13. Blue Underground announced it for Bluray later this year. I'll buy it. I love cheesy space operas too.

  14. Blue Underground have set The Shape of Things to Come (1979) for Blu-ray and DVD release on 8/30/16