Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (AKA Doppelganger) Review
The great irony of Gerry Anderson’s career is that he never liked working with puppets. Even at the height of his success in the mid-Sixties, when his production company Century 21 was pumping out hit after hit and revolutionising the entire genre, he was desperate to break out of the ghetto he had found himself in and make the kinds of films he was seeing in the cinema, the James Bonds or Harry Palmers, something a bit more adult. Unfortunately he was a victim of his own success, in effect typecast as “the puppet man” and every new show he made just reinforced that perception - why should he even want to do anything else when he was without peers in his current field? The sad thing was that in the following decade, when he did finally get his chance to work with actors who didn’t need a button to help move their lips, it turned out he wasn’t that good with them. While both UFO and Space: 1999 are fondly remembered (and, admittedly, some would go so far as to proclaim them on a par with his earlier work) the fact is the characters on those shows are often far more wooden than their stringed ancestors. Space: 1999 especially is a sterile, oddly aloof series to which it is very hard to warm and while they still have a large nostalgic following today their level of impact was nowhere near that of his earlier work.
Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (or Doppelganger as it was known on first release) neatly bridges the gap between the two phases of Anderson’s career. His first foray into live action cinema came about after the relative flop of his last two Supermarionation series, Joe 90 and The Secret Service but while the film might star Roy Thinnes and Herbert Lom rather than Troy Tempest and Scott Tracy it is very recognisably a production from the same stable. Both Derek Meddings’ model work and effect and Barry Gray’s evocative score could have stepped straight from an episode of Captain Scarlet (indeed, Barry re-uses some of his riffs from his earlier compositions) while the whole retro-futuristic look of the film, complete with space men in foil suits rubbing shoulders with girls running round in go-go boots, is very much of the same world in which all of Anderson’s creations lived. Unsurprisingly, then the overall visual style is by far the film’s greatest strength, and while a couple of Meddings’ effecs look inevitably primitive now, the film as a whole still presents a coherent and (relatively) believable world. No matter what other criticisms one can level at later Anderson shows he knew how to make a piece look good, and this was the first indication that those attributes could graduate from models to live action, with director Robert Parrish making full use of them.
Weaker by far is the actual script, co-written by Anderson and his then-wife Sylvia. The story, which tells of a parallel Earth discovered in the same orbit as our own world and the expedition which is launched to explore it is good solid sci-fi, the sort of stuff that kept the likes of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone in business (indeed, there is said to be considerable similarity between this film and an episode of Rod Serling’s series, The Parallel.) Despite having a solid premise however, it would appear that Anderson couldn’t quite decide on what story he actually wanted to tell. The first half hour develops along the lines of a Cold War thriller with an effective espionage plot that kicks things off in a nice, moody fashion. However, this is then abandoned once plans for the voyage kick in, leading to a ponderous middle section as the two astronauts, played by Thinnes and Patrick Wymark (who died soon after the film was released) train for their mission which slows the movie right down. The pacing of this sequence, including an interminable launch sequence not dissimilar to the equally slow one which opens Thunderbirds are Go! is strange, given that once our heroes arrive on the other world the rest of the movie is terribly rushed. It’s almost as though the Andersons didn’t quite know what to do with their premise, a sense enhanced by a vague subplot relating Thinnes’ romantic entanglements going nowhere, and an oddly nihilistic ending which doesn’t elicit pathos so much as mild irritation and a shrug of the shoulders.
Much of the reason for that muted reaction comes from the fact it is hard to care for the characters. The atmosphere of the film, obviously heavily influenced by the release of 2001 the previous year, is cold and clinical, keeping us at a distance from the characters and managing to remove any trace of empathy we might have felt towards them. This is reflected in the demeanour of Thinnes’ supposed hero, who casually slaps his wife around for no reason either relating to the character or the film, and the overall effect is to make a movie with no effective hero and therefore little for the viewer to hold onto. This problem is compounded by the fact a lot of the actors appear slightly hypnotised, failing to inject much life into their admittedly functional roles but which further detaches the audience from what they are watching. This overall tone could be excused somewhat if the movie was an intellectual exercise, but in this case any themes Anderson might have wished to put in are unclear and undeveloped, resulting in a film which has neither sufficient intelligence nor compassion to make it an especially attractive proposition. Much like Space: 1999 several years later, its biggest flaw is this aloof detachment which means that, together with a script not as disciplined as it should be, this is a film very easy to admire for its visual style but almost impossible to like.
This release marks the debut of the film onto Region Two DVD, having been available as far back as 1998 over the other side of the Pond. The Main Menu opens with a fun Thunderbirds-style countdown followed by a simple but effective front page. The Video transfer is bright and vivid, if noticeably grainy and occasionally blocky. There's also the odd dodgy-looking flesh tone, while the print used occasionally shows a little wear and tear with the odd speckles of white artefacts popping up, but overall it looks fine if not stellar. The mono Audio track is somewhat hollow and a little tinny in places, but perfectly adequate (although to get the full benefit from a Barry Gray score you really need a far richer soundtrack than the original version offered here).
The only Extra is the original theatrical trailer, which has a running time of 3:04. The film itself is subtitled.
On the cover of the box is a quote from the New York Times saying the film is “Original & Intriguing.” That’s code for “I didn’t like it much” but such an impersonal verdict is somewhat fitting for a film which is extremely stylish but is far too clinical to really enjoy.
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