❉ Don Klees reviews the special edition DVD release of “the boldest science-fiction film of all time”.
“Even if world events hadn’t conspired to keep its thematic concerns far too relevant, Threads would still be a harrowing piece of drama. As anyone with a cursory knowledge of British television knows, it’s also a landmark in the medium. The newly released DVD edition from Simply Media, effectively showcases both aspects.”
The melting milk bottles stand out the most. There are some moments still to come that might be more troubling, but the dissolution of this particular symbol of civil society somehow embodies the 1984 BBC film Threads more than any other. It stands as a testament not just to the content of the production but also the mindset of those making it. On-screen apocalypses are if anything far more prevalent – and far easier to depict on a grand-scale – than they were during the “Cold War”, but the makers of Threads understood the effectiveness of letting simple images speak volumes.
Even if world events hadn’t conspired to keep its thematic concerns far too relevant, Threads would still be a harrowing piece of drama. As anyone with a cursory knowledge of British television knows, it’s also a landmark in the medium. The newly released DVD edition from Simply Media, which combines a remastered version of the film with a variety of bonus features delving into the film’s background, effectively showcases both aspects.
Interviews with BAFTA-winners Andrew Dunn (Cinematographer) and Christopher Robilliard (Production Designer) as well as lead actress Karen Meagher offer fascinating accounts of Threads’ production. These features are most interesting, though, when discussing the cultural environment in which the film was made. This is similarly true of director Mick Jackson’s recently recorded commentary. His recollections and observations make it clear not just how personal this project was for the filmmaker but also how astounding it was that he got it made in the first place.
The latter element is neatly complemented by an interview with film writer Stephen Thrower. In addition to the exploring how the film echoed real world events, Thrower discusses its televisual roots in both Jackson’s earlier documentary A Guide to Armageddon and Peter Watkins’ infamous 1965 docudrama The War Game, which the BBC commissioned but ultimately declined to broadcast. While The War Game was shown in other venues – even winning an Academy Award in the US – for nearly two decades it stood as a symbol of the BBC’s reticence to address nuclear war in its dramatic output. That Threads not only broke this impasse but has also retained its impact are just two reasons the film itself is by far the most compelling part of the new release.
With a script by Ken Loach collaborator Barry Hines, Threads is typically discussed as a pinnacle of the BBC’s tradition of socially relevant dramas. Despite the obvious import of its subject matter and the documentary-inspired style, the film is perhaps best understood as the broadcaster’s boldest foray into science-fiction. Though crowd-pleasing adventure certainly had its place, as far back as Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, pessimism was frequently the BBC’s default mode for the genre. Even a popular space-opera like Terry Nation’s Blake’s 7 was ultimately the story of freedom fighters whose struggle against the totalitarian regime was inevitably doomed to failure.
Among the more down to Earth examples of the genre on BBC television, 1970s series Doomwatch and Survivors are steps along a winding road that leads to Threads. All three revolve around what writer Susan Sontag identified as the core concept of the science-fiction genre – not science but rather disaster. In her aptly titled essay The Imagination of Disaster, Sontag outlines a basic structure for films in the genre that applies comparably to television programs. Simply put, it involves the emergence of a threat – generally discovered by a heroic individual – followed by government deliberations, further destruction and ultimately some sort of resolution (albeit sometimes an open-ended one). All three of these programs invert that narrative to some extent, though, none do it as thoroughly as Threads.
Doomwatch is closest to the traditional approach, with Doctor Quist and his team typically solving each week’s dilemma in spite of occasional government interference. If Doomwatch offered smaller-scale disasters that could be resolved on a weekly basis, Survivors allowed for a major catastrophe and its aftermath to unfold from week to week. Aside from a more downbeat tone, its major deviation from genre norms was removing the government – and societal institutions in general – from the equation. Still, the broader narrative remained one of individuals heroically fighting for survival, with the prospect of something resembling a return to normalcy as an underlying theme.
In contrast to those episodic programs, Threads has no illusions about the pervasiveness of its apocalypse. The film is often praised in relation to the similar US TV movie The Day After for foregoing any sense of heroism or false hope. While there may be a bit of cultural chauvinism at work there, Threads’ willingness to follow its scenario to a conclusion that was logical as it was bleak is undeniably admirable. The government entities that are so important in traditional science-fiction dramas survive only slightly longer than it takes to outlive their usefulness in the aftermath of the attack. It soon becomes apparent that they were among the fortunate ones.
There are no heroes here. Even the ostensible figure of audience identification Ruth (played by Karen Meagher) is fraught with ambiguity. Viewers can see themselves in her struggle for survival, but it’s not a source of narrative satisfaction, let alone pleasure.
Whatever ideas any given science-fiction story explores, the underlying dynamic is between order and disruption. The potential for technology to go out of control with disastrous consequences is generally counterbalanced by a hopeful belief in its capacity to save humanity from its errors. By demonstrating the extent to which our technology has made us vulnerable and calling into question the rationale for hope, Threads denies audiences this comfort and is all the more troubling for it.
It’s also completely fitting. The moment this film ceases to disturb viewers would mark the start of something every bit as grim and lacking in humanity as the all-too plausible future world it envisions. There are very few films to which the assessment that everyone should watch it applies literally. Threads is one of them.
Special Features Include:
- DVD Audio Commentaries with Mick Jackson, and Karen Meagher and historian Simon Farquar (UK Exclusive)
- PDF of Radio Times articles and letters from original broadcast
- Documentaries: Shooting the Annihilation, Auditioning for the Apocalypse, Destruction Designer and Stephen Thrower on Threads
❉ Released on DVD 9th April 2018. RRP: £19.99/ Certificate: 15. Run Time: 175 mins approx. on 2 discs.
❉ We Are Cult are pleased to be able to offer our readers a special discount code to get 10% OFF all Simply Media titles available on their website, including ‘Threads’! Apply the discount code CULT10 to get 10% off all orders on the website www.simplyhe.com. If you apply the code at checkout you will get 10% off.