‘Journey to the Far Side of the Sun’ (1969)

❉ Mark Cunliffe revisits Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s space oddity, recently released on Blu-ray.

“Encouraged by Lew Grade to pitch an idea they had for a one-off TV play to Universal Pictures’ London head Jay Kanter as a possible feature film, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (or Doppelgänger as it was originally known) is a clear sign of the Andersons trying to stretch their muscles and produce something different than the puppet animations they were best known for.”

Whilst 1967’s They Came From Beyond Space was predicated by Amicus and Milton Subotsky’s intention to make science-fiction that children could watch, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun sees Gerry and Sylvia Anderson – best known for their Supermarionation children’s adventure serials like Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons – attempt to replicate their telefantasy world not only for the big screen, but for adult audiences.

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (or Doppelgänger as it was originally known – it was released under that title in Europe but, over time, the US release title has become more familiar) is a clear sign of the Andersons trying to stretch their muscles and produce something different than the puppet animations they were best known for.

Encouraged by Lew Grade to pitch an idea they had for a one-off TV play to Universal Pictures’ London head Jay Kanter as a possible feature film, the husband and wife team outlined a story concerning the discovery of a new planet orbiting the path as the Earth but on the other side of the Sun. The film would depict a a joint European-NASA mission consisting of two astronauts (one American, one British) who discover that the planet is a mirror image of Earth – a doppelgänger.

Legend has it that Kanter was decidedly unimpressed by the Andersons’ pitch but, spurred on by the success of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, suspected that there may be something in serious-minded sci-fi and requested that ITC regular Donald James help write the screenplay with the Andersons, as well as holding out for director approval.

Coming off the back of the almighty flop Casino Royale (the 1967 spoof for which he was only one of five credited directors) may not have made Robert Parrish seem like a sound prospect, but Kanter was nonetheless satisfied that such a veteran journeyman director, who began life as a protégé of John Ford no less, had agreed to helm the picture. American actor Roy Thinnes was cast as Colonel Glenn Ross of NASA, whilst Ian Hendry, the former star of The Avengers, was selected to play British astrophysicist, Dr John Kane. Patrick Wymark, a familiar face to British TV audiences for his role of a business mogul in The Power Game and The Plane Makers, signed on to play to type as Jason Webb, the director of EUROSEC (the movie’s fictitious European Space Exploration Council).

With its discovery of another Earth just behind the Sun, the plot of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun owes a lot to the Counter-Earth theory first hypothesised in Greek philosophy by such heavyweights as Philolaus and Aristotle. Whilst the notion of a mirror planet lying undetected beyond the Sun has been proven as bunkum, ignoring as it does gravitational distortions that would immediately highlight its existence to our planet’s astronomers, the theory gained great currency both in UFO claims and in science fiction drama. Anyone expecting a big-budget, live-action Thunderbirds from this, the Anderson’s only feature film, would be disappointed by this esoteric, reflective and really rather downbeat tale.

The film is set in 2069 (exactly one hundred years from the film’s release, this was a really in thing to do in late twentieth century sci-fi) see EUROSEC determined to discover the secrets of this mysterious planet before an unnamed enemy nation (as represented by a briefly cameoing Herbert Lom who, having caught spying on the project with his artificial eye containing a mini-camera is brutally assassinated by EUROSEC head of security, George Sewell) beat them to it.

After some bureaucratic arguing that feels like Brexit all over again (The French wince at the projected cost of ‘three thousand million pounds’ whilst the Germans are the ones to finally put the kibosh on it much to Wymark’s apoplectic chagrin) it is revealed that NASA may help fund their endeavour, but only if one of their own is on board. In a film about a mirror-Earth it seems only fitting that the notion of American finance and an American on the team mirrors the experience of the British film industry at the time.

Ross (Thinnes) and Kane (Hendry) are duly launched into space for a six week round trip which they’ll sleep through, only awakening at the half way mark to land on the new planet. However, the landing goes disastrously wrong. Coming to from the crash, the injured astronauts find themselves seemingly back on Earth…until that is Ross notices some subtle differences. The writing is back to front, people drive on the opposite side of the road, handshakes are performed with the wrong hand. Everyone looks and seems the same, but the world around them has ‘flipped’. Maybe they reached the new planet after all?

Despite its intriguing (if impossible) premise, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is a bit of a laborious experience. The production was fraught with artistic differences with Gerry Anderson seemingly falling out with everyone and this seems to have seeped into the film as a whole. The film is very slow moving and populated with characters either barking information at one another or looking for all the world(s) like they want to be somewhere else. The big twist regarding the Counter-Earth is also squandered when it’s revealed that the only significant change is people drive on the other side of the road etc.  I mean, you get that in other countries anyway! How about a world where the Nazis won WWII or America was still part of the British Empire? That one would at least offer the switcheroo of NASA relying on EUROSEC’s Brit heavy organisation for funding, right? Nope, none of that. Here’s someone shaking hands differently, instead. That’s your lot.

It’s also impossible to shake the feeling that you’re watching a Poundland version of something more successful, be it Kubrick’s 2001 – both films end with a feeble, aged version of a principal character – or even spy capers like Billion Dollar Brain (1967), whose Maurice Binder title sequences this clearly imitates.  To that end, it’s not unlike how the Andersons approached their children’s TV serials – producing spy/action adventure wholly suitable for kids – but this feels redundant when they’re clearly positioning themselves in competition with these more mature players.

The decision to show violence (Sewell pumping bullet after bullet into Herbert Lom), nudity (Loni von Friedl’s secretary disrobes for the shower in a sequence Sylvia Anderson claims was her then husband’s desire to show that he was part of the swinging sixties) and weighty, adult domestic themes such as Ross being unable to have children due to his exposure to radiation and how that impacts upon his relationship with his wife, played by Lynne Loring (Gayle Hunnicutt was originally cast but left due to sickness), all point to the Andersons trying to move away from their image of being in the business of simply entertaining children.

Unfortunately for Gerry Anderson, no one seemed duly interested in his desire to grow up and it may have rankled with him that the best thing about Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is arguably the very thing he will forever be known for – the model work. Derek Meddings delivers something that is still eye-catching and impressive to this very day, with robust and tangible creations that will always score better in my eyes than any flimsy CGI. Much of the models, props, costume and locations would later be used in the Anderson live-action series UFO, which also reunited several of the cast here. That’s right, the Andersons more or less went back to what they knew best – and thank our stars for that.

This is a bare bones Blu-ray release from Fabulous Films with extras that include the original theatrical trailer and a reversible (ho ho ho) sleeve with gorgeous artwork by Graham Humphreys.

‘Journey to the Far Side of the Sun’ is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray from Fabulous Films Ltd. Cert PG. Running Time: 102 mins. RRP £9.99 (DVD)/£14.99 (BR). Click here to order from Amazon UK (We Are Cult is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program.)

❉ Mark Cunliffe is a regular contributor to The Geek Show and has written several collector’s booklet essays for a number of releases from Arrow Video and Arrow Academy. He is also a contributor to Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s, now available to buy in paperback, £19.99, and as a full colour Ebook (PDF format) £6.99.

Screen caps sourced from DVDbeaver.

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  1. Fine review! At least I’ll know what I’m in for if I choose to watch this film.

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