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February 2012

Journey To the Far Side of the Sun

cast: Roy Thinnes, Ian Hendry, Patrick Wymark, Herbert Lom, and Lynn Loring

director: Robert Parrish

101 minutes (PG) 1969
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Doppelganger, 1969

Journey To the Far Side of the Sun on DVD

A man gazing into a mirror; and the man in the mirror reflection... How can the two interact? First, the unmanned 'Operation Sun Probe' detects a new Solar system planet, previously invisible because it's on the far side of the Sun - same orbit, same orbital speed as Earth, but in 180-degrees opposition! Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark) is project director of the European Space Exploration Council (EuroSEC). Through his contrivance, NASA Colonel Glenn Ross (Roy Thinnes) is teamed with astrophysicist John Kane (Ian Hendry), and tasked with investigating this world.

Astronaut Ross is radiation-sterile, "less than a man," according to his spiteful wife Sharon, who is played by Lynn Loring, Thinnes' real-life wife! While sinister eastern spy Doctor Hassler (Herbert Lom) removes his spy-cam eyeball, with which he's filmed the 'top secret' documentation, before he's gunned down by security. All these involved sci-fi antics are animated by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, via ingeniously clean Thunderbirds style 'supermarionation' sets, and Lady Penelope style futuristic cars which blend easily into the live action. Yet, although it's supposedly set in 2069, there are golf-ball printers spewing sprocket-margined printouts adding an appealing retro-quality.

Of course, the idea of a contra-Earth, even then, was by no means new. John Norman's first novel in his epic Gor series - The Tarnsman Of Gor (1966) is set on a counter-Earth. And even then, it wasn't exactly new. A newspaper picture-strip series Twin Earths, devised by Oskar Lebeck, and imaginatively illustrated by Alden McWilliams, had run through the 1950s based around the identical premise. I read and enjoyed those 'Terra' strips when they were reprinted, some time later, in the Tarzan Adventures comic. While Rod Serling's March 1963 episode The Parallel, of TV's The Twilight Zone, relates how astronaut Major Robert Gaines returns home to a strangely altered Earth, only to conclude he's arrived on a parallel world. More recently, director Mike Cahill's Another Earth (2011) resurrects the intriguing idea as a kind of wish-fulfilment way of reliving and correcting the errors of your life on this world.

Meanwhile, there's a long slow 60-minute build-up before the EuroSEC/ NASA expedition even reaches its target, travelling through psychedelic dream-effects in hibernation cabinets. And the 2001 style balletic astronaut manoeuvring sequence now seems tediously unnecessary, although it might have seemed impressive then..? Eventually, a mini-shuttle takes them down into storm and an explosive crash-landing. Fortunately, it's not an antimatter dark-matter reverse-polarity twin-Earth, in which case they'd have been instantly annihilated. Instead, they are retrieved by what at first seems to be genuinely scary alien technology, but turns out to be Mongolian 'air-sea rescue'.

Planned as a six-week round trip, they seem to be back on Earth, with the mission terminated "three weeks after launch," or are they? The council director and staff are reassuringly the same. Except they drive on the "wrong side of the road," and the light-switches in his room are on the opposite wall. Kane lies critically injured, while Ross is released into his wife's custody. Until, when the label on his cologne bottle only reads correctly in the mirror, he realises that "everything is reversed."

He's on a duplicate-Earth, a through-the-looking-glass world. Is he mad? Drug-therapy can't break his story. Symbolically, he faces his reflected self in the mirror. It seems that two identical, but reversed expeditions have switched mirror-image planets. Only Jason Webb - or counter-Webb, believes his fantastic tale when, without hesitation, Ross reads a book aloud from its pages reflected in a mirror. Then, when Kane dies, his post-mortem X-rays reveal his internal organs to be located on the wrong side of his body.

With Webb's assistance, Ross sets off for home in a ship called 'Doppelganger', only to discover that docking with the orbital station is incompatible, due to opposing physics. Instead, he loses control and crash-lands into EuroSEC, everything is destroyed in the resulting explosion. Only Jason Webb survives, with the full story-arc related in flashback through his un-believed raving in a nursing home, before he rams his wheelchair into a mirror in a clear metaphor for breaking through to the alternative Earth beyond the reflection.

Filmed at Pinewood with location sequences shot in Albufeira along the Algarve coast, this film was part of the Anderson's irresistible upward trajectory, taking them from their humble 1950s TV puppet-shows, through the increasingly ambitious Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet & The Mysterons, into blending their supermarionation expertise, which had achieved supernatural levels of realism, with live action. The widescreen Thunderbirds Are Go provided the bridgehead to proper movies, for which this venture was the next logical evolution, a deliberate attempt to upgrade into proper grown-up/ adult material, with an appropriately greater sex-and-violence content.

The inclusion of Chicago-born Roy Thinnes, known to SF audiences as David Vincent from the cult TV series The Invaders was a calculated shot at the American market, with Hollywood veteran Robert Parrish (direct from the 1967 version of Casino Royale) directing the confused and frequently illogical plot with some flair. Derek Meddings, who supervised the special effects, went on to perform similar tasks with the space shuttle scenarios for the James Bond movie Moonraker (1979). But for the Andersons this project seemed to have a sobering effect. The subsequent small-screen UFO and Space 1999 TV series used techniques, and even sets from the movie, after which they reverted to less troubling puppet-work with Terrahawks. Yet, considering the constraints of the limited budget, Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun (aka: Doppelganger) really isn't too bad at all.

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