Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hip Gnosis and Haunting of Interster

In the early 1980's, one of apartheid-era South Africa's ripostes to the cultural boycott imposed by the rest of the world on them was an investment in homegrown entertainment. An attitude of "whatever we are missing out on, we can do better" combined with a significant financial injection produced a number of films and television series with relatively high production values. The heights of which, are still being rescaled in some ways. The lifting of sanctions and the subsequent rescaling and reallocation of the previous financial investments as well as the access to a wider and richer international media has also called for a recalibration of so-called international standards versus the perceptions of yore. All the while South Africa strives for an identity and a best relative fit in terms of production for those stories yet to be told.

One of those productions was a television series called Interster. This was very much in the vein of Gerry Anderson's science fiction series of the 60's and early 70's featuring marionettes, such as Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. Set in a future Cape Town, South Africa (who had and still has no real space program to speak of) Interster was an inter galactic space trading company the apparent de facto centre of an international earth defence. No reference whatsoever is given to any super power nations as fortress South Africa alone defended all against a ruthless alien enemy.

While the older Anderson puppet shows were used as a template, some other ideas seem to have been pilfered from the more recent Buck Rogers in the 25 Century TV series. Characters like the robot Piki seem a direct lift from Buck Rogers own Twiki and the female protagonist Lydia and paternal Professor Zed are also both eerily familiar. Technologically, Interster was understandably a good decade ahead of Anderson's marionettes, employing Apple II computer controlled servo-puppetry and silicon rubber based skins as well as a wig maker credit! Somehow in it's search for realism and life like appearance the characters stumbled on their servos, trundling awkwardly into the dreaded Uncanny Valley.

Comparisons can certainly be drawn, in a fairly superficial way, with the musical hauntology concept mapped out by Simon Reynolds and others, as Interster does have a number of old-timey soundtrack delights:

Wide-screen analogue synthesizers scream out upon a bed of urgently strummed acoustic guitars punctuated by the dramatic dull thud of syn-drums during the title sequence.

Halcyon synth pop sounds perfectly canned and subtly piped out while the Interster staff relax in white, silken robes at the local nightclub Astra (which is alarming fitted with an intercom to receive orders from headquarters).

'Switched on Bach' turned up to 10 on the speed dial scurries around in the offices of traitor Dr Gorman's asteroid lair, all bedecked with fish tank and Beethoven busts, perfectly mirroring his calculating yet manic evil genius. All very 'Nintedo-esque'

Elsewhere, incidental music, often just warm, unstable analogue tones made even more irresistible by the noticeable billowing and aging due to the 'wow and flutter' of the original tapes, could often be mistaken for a Boards of Canada interlude.

Certainly, these are all good examples of the type of musical fodder employed by the aforementioned Boards of Canada and other similar artists in their musical re-imagined past and memory of an expected future.

However, deeper still than the music or quaintness of the future world is the menace or 'haunting' and this is where Apartheid-era South Africa's persecution complex takes center stage.

Firstly, our protagonists are not entirely sure who their real enemies are. Is it the humanoid but racially ambiguous Krokons, or is it the treacherous and self serving Dr Gorman, and what affiliation does he have to the so-called "freedom fighters"?

In fact there is in one episode a rather disturbing conversation between two of our heroes on the subtle differences between "freedom fighters" and "terrorists" and mention is made to a more universal objective treatment of these terms by the "Interplanetary League", who have also condemned Interster's cold war with the Krokons.

At this point, it feels as if for a brief second the fabric of 'Planet South Africa' is about to rupture and the producers could not quite decide whether they were making a piece of propaganda for children or an altogether more subversive bit of media.

Small hints at hidden agendas are quickly dispelled when you look at a number of far less subtle signifiers:

A lead character called Buks de la Rey

Spaceships directly referencing the Impala jets, as if to reassert the might of the South African armed forces.

Contact is made during another episode with a powerful sentient being, a giant hydrogen atom, the apparent physical manifestation of a radio active planet's consciousness (much like in Solaris) . This entity deems the South African earthlings more worthy and just than their enemies, the Krokons. This somehow manages to reinforce South Africa's nuclear program while at the same time displaying their righteousness in the eyes of a superior being or deity.

Interster's haunting comes from its history and its future. Not just the time in which is was made but the future it imagined for South Africans: Paranoid, persecuted, isolated and alone in the universe.

Happy Hunting...

All images taken from video stills from various Interster episodes Series 1 Part 1 viewed through an Educo(tm) diffraction lens and photographed with a Ricoh digital camera

Interster is available for purchase here


Great article here with screencaps, links to video clips

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