Journey to the Far Side of the Sun
Gerry Anderson’s feature – directed by Robert Parrish – nurses a dynamite premise without a clue where to take it. Which might be why it spends 45 minutes building up to its titular journey, and once the reveal occurs – which is pretty much self-explanatory, if you mash the UK and US titles together – it’s at a loss for what to do… So it blows everything up. As such, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is a showcase for that Anderson staple, Derek Meddings model work, and such hardware abounds. This isn’t a fun trip, but it is a trip.
Ross: I propose a complete duplication of matter. A situation where every single atom, every molecule here, is duplicated here, except that it’s in reverse.
Apparently, the premise of the mirror Earth was viewed as clichéd and uninspired by critics at the time but… well, how many movies about mirror Earths are there? It sounds more like a case of critics kneejerk deriding anything with science-fiction allegiances. Plus, it was Gerry Anderson, who made kids’ shows.
The Andersons’ screenplay was rewritten by Donald James, wherein the leads still died, but the order was reversed, with Colonel Ross blinded on impact and Dr Kane surviving until he didn’t (perhaps a reason for the switch was Ross being Roy Thinnes and Kane being Ian Hendry, with considerations of the US market always high on the priority list, even when such casting was anathema to charisma: see Space: 1999’s main protagonists). Securing Robert Parrish as director was less to do with any specific suitability than his being “a name director, so we signed him up immediately” (he’d filmed the Sellers bits of Casino Royale, and his last two full features were comedy flops Duffy and The Bobo).
The parallel Earth has been done many times, of course, though not so much on the big-screen until the multiverse became all the rage. Star Trek had its mirror universe (Mirror Mirror), The Twilight Zone gave us The Parallel and Doctor Who delivered Inferno the following year; they were marked out by “evil” versions of the worlds we were familiar with, however (an early Doctor Who submission, Malcolm Hulke’s The Hidden Planet, was never made, but concerned a “world identical to the Earth but whose orbit around the Sun is diametrically opposite to our planet’s, and which has therefore gone undetected”. There are differences between the two Earths, however, such as four-lead clovers predominating, glass refracting oddly and – quite absurdly – women being the dominant sex).
Journey to the Far Side of the Sun takes its mirror very literally; the only difference between these two Earths is that everything is mirrored, from writing, to internal organs, to the side of the road they drive on. That “underwhelming” reveal might have worked fine, were there somewhere further to take the story, but simply letting Ross get back in a spacecraft – that then goes wrong – most certainly wasn’t it.
There’s a certain irony that, when it was screened in the ’80s, the reversed negatives of the mirror Earth were deflopped picture; I did think it might have been interesting if we discovered the characters we spend our entire time with up until then were from the mirror Earth. I even wondered – I had seen this before, probably forty years ago – if there’d be a reveal that Ross and Kane’s opposite parties survived the crash on our Earth, but all we get is EUROSEC director Webb (Patrick Wymark in maximum grouch mode throughout) confined to a nursing home in his dotage, rolling his wheelchair at a mirror in the hope of breaking through (we cut on the crash sound, but it would be much more fun – again the movie is too damn literal – if we’d cut before it). John Carpenter, in Prince of Darkness mode, ought to have run with this for a remake.
There have been comparisons in approach to 2001: A Space Odyssey (the vague psychedelia, the model work) and Planet of the Apes (the twist reveal regarding Earth) and even Solaris, but none of those really pass the sniff test. Any hints at the trippy (actually drug-induced here) are tepid at best. Indeed, much stronger is tug of the corporeal.
Kane: What’s it like up there?
2001 heralds the glorious triumph of NASA-imbued space on the way to a fully-fortified transhumanist future, whereby mankind is propelled to his ultimate evolved state by machine intelligence; man becomes god. Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is set in 2069, but it depicts a decidedly less impressive advancement, one of cramped spacecraft and abject loneliness. If spending time up there isn’t outright inimical – Ross’ wife Sharon (Lynn Loring, Thinnes’ actual wife) suggests “you went up there a man, but you came back less than a man”, that he is sterile – it’s the death knell for a contented marriage (she’s having an affair, and using contraceptives on the sly. He gives her a good slap). No one is very nice in this world.
We’re introduced to Dr Hassler (Herbert Lom) stealing secrets on Operation Sun Probe (which reveals the data regarding the opposite planet); he’s promptly shot dead for his pains by George Sewell. Webb is despotic in his desire to get ahead – initial apathy towards a mission changes when it’s realised there’s a Cold War impetus – insistent that the ill-equipped Kane join the expedition. He professes not to trust computers, but that’s only when it suits him.
For their flight – a mere three weeks there and three weeks back – Ross and Kane are given wrist implants (very transhumanist), hooking them up to heart, lung and kidney machines that will also sedate them so they sleep on the journey. If they seem to be on a quick trip, the 2018 Parker Solar Probe allegedly took two months (at 430,000 mph). Your common or garden jet plane would take about 19 years. This is all, obviously, assuming the Sun is out there in the vacuum of space, rather than part of the firmament.
Ross: What I’m trying to say is, these two planets have a physical connection. One is the mirrored image of the other. But unlike the reflection in the mirror, they both exist.
The mirror theme has been more evocatively invoked in other movies, with both Dust Devil and the aforementioned Prince of Darkness taking a more pronouncedly horror tack. While Journey to the Far Side of the Sun plays it straight, everything about the construction suggests an intrinsic link between the reflective worlds; it encourages a metaphysical reading, rather than a scientific reading. This is the inverse, verging on antimatter; such a take is even encouraged by the concern over reverse-polarised electrical circuits (the two worlds, or universes, are incompatible on a core level).
When Doppelganger docks with the Phoenix, there’s “tissue” rejection; a systems malfunction leads to an ultimate crash. These are worlds that ought not collide. Webb, in his ailing state, may actually perceive something more clearly here, that Anderson’s concept is closer to the probable realities of the Mandela Effect and the Seth Material (those not qualifying as the physical universe, per se). One may, in theory, find one self in an altered state, experiencing a probable reality where the key notes are all recognisable, yet there are subtle differences to “reality” due to different choices a probable you has taken (this applies to probable Earths too).
Webb: It would seem I’m not the Jason Webb that you know, only an impish doppelganger.
Journey to the Far Side of the Sun’s noteworthy for its extensive roster of familiar faces in lead and supporting roles. Hendry was, of course, John Keel in the first season of The Avengers; by this point he was, per Anderson “pissed as a newt”. You wouldn’t know it from the performance, although Hendry is visibly not the guy he was at the opposite end of the decade. Patrick Wymark was also said to slur his lines through heavy drinking (he died the following year). Thinnes was ex of Invaders (it finished the year before). Sewell, Ed Bishop and Vladek Sheybal would all appears as regulars in Anderson’s U.F.O. which ran for a season the following year (Jeremy Wilkin, of Revenge of the Cybermen, and everyone’s favourite Philip Madoc, would also appear). Nicholas Courtney had recently made his debut as the Brigadier in Doctor Who.
Journey to the Far Side of the Sun bombed on both sides of the Atlantic. It seems Universal had no confidence in the film, delaying its release for a year before finally letting it out, unsuccessfully, on the back of the faked Moon landing. There’s a still a lure to the premise that made it so memorable when I first saw it, but the grimdark decision to kill everyone off surely didn’t help its prospects any more than its inspiration starting and ending with “the same but in reverse”.