7 Popular Motifs of Cheap Science Fiction

Since last week’s article about the glory of cheap science fiction, the switchboard at The Outland Institute has been running hot. Poor Glynnis has been swamped with calls, all saying much the same thing – “I’m all ready to make some cheap science fiction – I’ve got a camera, some actors and a clever script that uses Martian terraforming as a metaphor for the war in Iraq – but I don’t know what special effects to use”. They usually go on to say that their film’s budget is three fifty cent stamps, and that Glynnis has a lovely telephone manner (it’s true, she does).

So as a follow-up to last week, let’s look at some of the common elements you can find in cheap science-fiction. You can even try these out at home!


What is it? Hardly a special effect at all, all you need is a shot of your actor looking intense, a voice-over with a lot of reverb and voila! Spooky.

Where can I see it? Sapphire and Steel, Cally in Blake’s 7, The Tomorrow People, The Champions.

A Scary Wind

What is it? It could be the full force of a psychic power out of control – or just a couple of fans. Only you can tell!

Where can I see it? Quatermass and the Pit (and the film version, Five Million Years To Earth), Patrick, Doctor Who: The Daemons.

Explosive Collars

What is it? Future prisons are expensive – you need fences, towers, robot guards – but not if you have explosive collars! Cross the prison’s perimeter and the collar activates, leaving the prisoner with no further need of a hat. Do away with all that tedious set-building while also giving your film some cool futuristic sadism.

Where can I see it? This one’s surprisingly common, examples include Battle Royale, Cleopatra 2525, Wedlock (aka Deadlock), The Running Man, Blake’s 7: Bounty.


What is it? Want a scary monster but can’t afford to make one? Have you considered making it invisible? It’s not just monsters this works for, either – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home used invisibility to get around the expensive tedium of landing a spaceship in Golden Gate Park. Doctor Who‘s Planet Of The Daleks goes one better – the Spiridons are invisible, but they also like to wrap themselves in purple fun-fur (after all, they’re invisible, not nudists). So you end up with a lot of extras wrapped in fun-fur, but underneath? They’re invisible. Honest.

Where can I see it? Doctor Who: Planet Of The Daleks, Planet Of Evil, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Forbidden Planet, any version of The Invisible Man.

(In this clip from Planet Of The Daleks, the Doctor and some Thals are pretending to be invisible men wearing purple fun-fur, but come undone due to shoes. Oh, shoes!)

Or you could try –

Alien Point-Of-View

What is it? Like the above, this gets around the monster problem by placing us inside the suit. Simply grease the camera lens, or add an unusual filter, and you can film screaming vixens to your heart’s content. It’s not quite as cost-effective as invisibility – you will need to reveal an actual monster at some point, usually near the end of the film. But you can postpone audience disappointment by anywhere up to 80 minutes!

Where Can I See It? A lot of Roger Corman monster films, any of the many Alien rip-offs (Forbidden World aka Mutant, Creature, etc), The Nightmare Man.

Here’s some clips from Doctor Who And The Silurians that show how it works:

Portals Of Light

What is it? Alfred Hitchcock once said “there is never anything more frightening than an unopened door”. What a shame he never made any science fiction. The next step, however, is to open a door to find blinding light streaming in, obliterating anything beyond it. It’s mysterious, awe-inspiring, frightening. And always cheap. No sets to build, no CGI to key in – just a really big light.

Where can I see it? Again, a very common one. Good examples include the original cut of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (before they added the terrible “aliens at a disco” ending), Communion, Doctor Who: Arc Of Infinity.

Future Architecture (aka Multistory Carparks, Business Parks, Convention Centres etc)

What is it? Again, not an effect per se, but a way of giving your film some futuristic design cred. Rather than building sets, just find some corporate architecture and suggest we’ll all be living in call-centres soon. Offices, carparks, art galleries, sporting facilities, you’ll be surprised how many buildings will do. Here’s the Vancouver Public Library appearing in Battlestar Galactica:

You can see Jon Pertwee battle Ogrons around London’s Hayward Gallery in Frontier in Space, and even Kath & Kim have used the Australian Centre Of Contemporary Art to represent the future. Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes was filmed largely in the Century City Shopping Centre in Los Angeles, and Mad Max features a scene shot in a Melbourne University car park.

Where can I see it? Where do you start? Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, Fantastic Voyage, Doctor Who: Sunmakers, Revelation Of The Daleks, Frontier in Space.

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10 Responses to 7 Popular Motifs of Cheap Science Fiction

  1. Tim says:

    Don’t forget the Big White Void option, in which our heroes are moved sideways outside space and time into a (cheap) featureless white void. It filled a whole episode of Doctor Who: The Mind Robber (1968) when another story fell through and left a hole in the budget.

    And while they’re in that void, they could battle, I don’t know, invisible telepaths. While walking against a scary wind.


  2. Sam says:

    And not just restricted to cheap science fiction, but period costume drama too – I remember Sally Potter saying in a Q&A that they couldn’t afford a steam-train for Orlando – but amazing what you can do with a soundtrack and a smoke-machine.

  3. びっくり says:

    Awesome. Makes me want to go out and buy up a few DVDs to watch ASAP.

  4. Narrelle says:

    They used the old exploding collar trick in a couple of episodes of Angel set on an alternate world, which made me feel very nostalgic. Actually, that whole humans-as-slaves story line was kind of Planet of the Apes. And then Cordie ended up being hailed as a princess. Well, before they were going to make her mate with the Gruselag and then kill her. It was all so very 1930s schlocky SF, but with vampires!

    Also, you mustn’t forget that you can easily make someone “alien” by painting them a funny colour and/or insisting that they never use contractions when they speak. Cally was humanoid but always said “I do not understand” and “I cannot agree” and “I would like to have a proper part, please, so I will leave this series and fine a real job”. Spock was green. As I recall, he *also* never used contractions, so that made him *doubly* alien.

  5. fozmeadows says:

    Ah, the Pylean exploding collars. God love ’em. I was wondering where I’d seen that done. Swirly voids (as opposed to white ones) feature prominently in the Key to Time arc of the old Tom Baker Dr Who, which I’m watching at the moment. There was this whole thing in hyperspace, where hyperspace was just…blue. And swirly. Also, they used little flahes of light as a race of tiny nano-robotic judges. V. cheap. Although, they do make up for it with fun plots and good dialogue. (Although Mary Tamm as Romana could be less helpless.)

  6. Sam says:

    Or if faced with the daunting expense of period costume and science fiction, just make the science fiction disappear altogether. The adaptation of Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm dropped the video-conference phones, zeppelin taxis, Mayfair slums and the Anglo-Nicaraguan War of Gibbon’s 1930s ‘near future’. Perhaps it was because they could only afford the steam train…

  7. outlandinstitute says:

    Hello people – Big White Void, good call there Tim. I think Hyperspace/Swirly Voids is also a good choice, fozmeadows.

    I had a few more on my original list that I didn’t include in the article, which were coloured skies (I couldn’t seem to find any examples when I went looking for that one), and perspex tubes which I just forgot to include (some good perspex tube work includes the Doctor Who stories Pyramids Of Mars and Destiny Of The Daleks, and the videoclip for Video Killed The Radio Star).

    Narrelle: I think Data didn’t use contractions either, did he? Honestly aliens and robots, they’re not that hard.

    Sam: Seriously, there are zeppelin taxis in Cold Comfort Farm?

  8. Narrelle says:

    Oh, I forgot – all alcoholic drinks in the future are green. Sometimes they are blue, but mostly they are green. It’s like alcohol vanished for a thousand years and then they found the recipe for Creme de Menthe and Blue Caracao and thought “Let’s stop right there. What else could we possibly want?”

  9. Sam says:

    yes some sort of airships in the novel, that apparently caused the demise of British Rail, making it even harder to get to Cold Comfort farm.

  10. Ed Coonce says:

    How about a future where extreme tiddleywinks is a contact sport and Satan lives with his daughter Amanda in East Hell, a neighborhood on the other side of Quaintsville? A future where intelligent chimps roam the city, and armed girl scouts hold up a liquor store? It’s all on my website, http://www.bergenbugle.com.

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