Alternative 3 - a TV Hoax? Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Alternative 3 - a TV Hoax?

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On 20 June, 1977, Anglia TV, a British television company, broadcast a programme called Alternative 3 as part of its Science Report series. The presenter announced that the intended subject of the show was to have been the 'brain drain' of scientists from the UK. Subsequent investigations had then led them to discover a major conspiracy that involved creating a colony on Mars, populated by the world's best minds.

After the broadcast, the production team - as well as newspapers - quickly made it clear that the show was a hoax, but the legacy of Alternative 3 persists and it has become firmly embedded in myth by those who believe the show uncovered a real conspiracy.

Synopsis of Alternative 3

The show opens with presenter Tim Brinton talking direct to camera about how an investigation into Britain's brain drain led its researchers in some unexpected directions, starting with the disappearance of a number of scientists. They later discover unanswered questions surrounding the death of the eminent scientist William Ballantine, a specialist in the Earth's climate.

Ballantine warns that the planet is heading for environmental disaster due to industrial pollution. Scenes of drastic changes in global weather patterns - from freezing temperatures, severe droughts, erupting volcanoes to earthquakes - are depicted. These upheavals apparently convince Ballantine to conclude that the world is heading towards a new Ice Age.

Following a clandestine meeting with an American named 'Harry' (who later mysteriously disappears), the programme investigators are tipped off to speak to one of Ballantine's colleagues, Professor Carl Gerstein. Gerstein then tells Brinton that world leaders were warned of impending climate disaster as early as the 1950s, but he is reluctant to say much more.

Reporters also reveal evidence of a cover-up involving NASA's Apollo missions. An ex-astronaut named Robert Grodin agrees to a studio interview with Brinton via satellite. Grodin becomes increasingly agitated throughout the interview, particularly when William Ballantine is mentioned. The satellite connection is then suddenly lost without explanation.

The team follow up on the Grodin interview by sending a reporter to speak to him at his home in America. Grodin appears very much more relaxed and after drinking heavily becomes even more ready to talk. Eventually he reveals that the Apollo missions were a NASA public relations exercise to cover up their real activities. Following this, it is revealed that in spite of the Cold War, Russia and the US had been working closely together and had made a number of secret landings on the dark side of the Moon.

Professor Gerstein is interviewed for a second time and connects the loose threads of the investigation, explaining that World leaders had weighed up the options to deal with the impending climate disaster and arrived at three possibilities. These were:

  1. To drastically reduce the Earth's population.
  2. To build underground facilities to shelter parts of the population until the catastrophe subsides.
  3. To transport the world's best minds off the planet to Mars, using the Moon as a landing station.

This third alternative was the one that the world leaders adopted and which, as a consequence, would also mean abandoning the remaining human population on Earth to fend for itself.

The final claim of the programme is that the US and the USSR sent an unmanned craft to Mars as early as 1961, and cunningly decoded video footage of the landing apparently substantiates this.

After the programme was broadcast, Anglia TV was flooded with up to 10,000 calls from people wanting more information, and newspapers the following morning compared the hoax to Orson Welles's  War of the Worlds. The callers presumably missed the show's copyright date of 1 April, 1977 which was boldly displayed in large white text as part of the closing title sequences.

The Cast

Shane Rimmer....... .Bob Grodin (astronaut)
Carole Hazell....... Investigative journalist
Gregory Munro....... Colin Benson (reporter)
Richard Marner....... Dr Carl Gerstien
Ivor Roberts........... George Pendlebury
Fibi Nicholas.......... Harry's Girl
David Baxt............. Harry
Tim Brinton............. Himself (presenter)
David Ambrose.........Programme writer and deviser
Christopher Miles.... Director and deviser

The Book of the Show

By 1978, public interest in the spoof had begun to wane – but this was to change when Nick Austen (who was the editor of Sphere Books) commissioned Leslie Watkins to write a book version of the show, naturally called Alternative 3. Watkins was not connected to the programme in any way but David Ambrose and Christopher Miles (who devised the show) were also named as co-authors for copyright reasons.

The book is an expanded version of the TV programme with some character changes and some 'real' people written into the plot. The book also expands on the environmental problems and the theme of the missing scientists. Another significant change was in the first alternative considered by world governments. Rather than reducing the size of the Earth's population, this is altered to the use of nuclear weaponry to blow holes in the upper atmosphere so that 'pollution could escape into space'.

Watkins also used the interesting technique of putting quotes in the mouths of some of the real people mentioned in the book. For example, Otto Binder, who was a genuine member of the NASA space programme, is given to say that significant sections of conversations between mission control and Apollo 11 (which took Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to the Moon) were censored. According to Binder (via Watkins) Aldrin is supposed to have said to mission control:

These babies were huge sir...enormous. Oh God, you wouldn't believe it! I'm telling you there are other spacecraft out there... lined up on the far side of the crater edge... they're on the Moon watching us.

It is worth mentioning that Otto Binder, as well as having worked for NASA is also a science fiction writer.

Alternative 3 and Conspiracy Theorists

The joint impact of the television show and the book provided fertile ground for conspiracy theorists to use the narrative for more intricate intrigue. This was possible in part because Science Report was a documentary series respected for its well-researched programmes, and including Alternative 3 as part of this oeuvre gave it some credibility. The presenter of the whole series, Tim Brinton, also fronted the hoax show, so his 'authority' as a reliable television presence lent it further credence.

The hoax TV show also touches on aspects of the real world and resonates with its audience through half-remembered facts, which with the right interpretation could be seen as evidence supporting the veracity of the story. This device is cleverly adopted in the first two alternatives. The option of exploding nuclear devices in the atmosphere did occur in 1958 under the name of Operation Argus. The aim, however, was not to punch holes in the stratosphere but to test the hypothesis that such high altitude nuclear explosions could disrupt radio communications which would be a useful wartime tactic.

It had been in the public domain for some time that underground facilities had been built as a response to the paranoia of the Cold War era. Conspiracy theorists could point to the existence of facilities such as Camp David, Sentralanlegget in Norway, the underground bunkers in Whitehall in the UK and even the Nordic Seed Vault as evidence that the second alternative had been attempted. If both alternative one and two could be said to have been tested, then for the conspiracy theorist this gave plausibility to the existence of a third.

Some conspiracy theorists also find it suspicious that there is no master copy of the original programme in existence. Due to a fire at Anglia the master copy and all related documents were destroyed, which according to some suggests a crude attempt to hide the facts revealed by the show. There is however a next generation copy1 in the possession of Christopher Miles, (the director) and there are a number of online locations2 where it can be viewed.

Apart from the content of Watkin's version of the story, there are other elements surrounding the book that add to the related, burgeoning mythology. Its publishers (first Sphere, then Penguin) categorised the book as fiction based on fact, and in the USA some copies were classified as world affairs. The sporadic availability of the book in stores also added to its intrigue and to the belief it was being suppressed.

Watkins has fuelled the debate about the factual content of the book by his ambiguous stance. Initially, he was insistent the book was fiction but later appeared to change his mind. In a letter to a Ms Dittrich, the owner of a bookstore called Windwoods, he says:

In fact, the amazing mountains of letters from virtually all parts of the world - including vast numbers from highly intelligent people in positions of responsibility - convinced me I had accidentally trespassed into a range of top secret truths

In the same letter he says he had begun work on a non-fiction sequel, but during his move from London to Australia, and then to New Zealand, nearly all the documents relating to the new book had mysteriously disappeared. Again, in the same letter he says:

I have reason to suppose my home telephone was being tapped and my contacts who have experience in such matters were convinced certain intelligence agencies considered that I probably knew too much.

Was Alternative 3 a Hoax?

Unless viewers are determined to do so, it is very difficult to arrive at any conclusion other than that the show was intended as a prank. Firstly, the original broadcast date for the show was 1 April, 1977 but due to strike action and scheduling errors the date for transmission was moved back to 20 June. Clearly Alternative 3 was intended as an April Fool's joke.

Secondly, most of the participants in the show, except for Tim Brinton3 (who appeared as himself) were actors and some were recognisable faces at that time. Shane Rimmer who played astronaut Bob Grodin was well known for a number of television roles, most notably perhaps as a voice in Thunderbirds. He is also a well known science-fiction writer. It is also worth noting that there never was an astronaut in the Apollo missions named Bob Grodin. The actor Richard Marner who played Dr Carl Gerstien was also a recognisable actor and would later play Colonel Kurt von Strohm in the British sitcom 'Allo 'Allo4.

Those who wish to believe in the premise of Alternative 3 also overlook the basic flaws in the show's storyline. For instance, it would be much simpler and much more efficient to build structures on Earth rather than transporting the 'elite' to Mars, where the challenges of dealing with the Martian environment would be at least as great as the challenges of facing an Earth-based Ice Age. It is also extremely unlikely that the technology to get people to the Moon existed as early as 1961, not to mention to Mars.

Conspiracy theorists have attempted5 to counter some of these points by arguing that the use of actors and the hoax nature of the show allowed global governments enough scope for deniability so as to protect themselves and at the same time avoid public panic. They also argue that this in turn enabled the programme makers to include enough factual content to warn the more astute who could then prepare for the imminent environmental disaster the best way they could.

The evidence presented by conspiracy theorists is often constructed from spurious, disconnected pieces of information. The gaps then filled with mere personal speculation conveyed as facts. There can be little doubt that Alternative 3 was no more than an April Fool's joke that has been dragged into the world of modern-day mythology. It has now become not only a conspiracy theory in its own right but the foundation of numerous other conspiracy theories.

1A copy of a copy of the original.2Try a search!3Brinton later became a Member of Parliament.4Sadly Marner died on 18 March, 2004.5In the form of logic used by conspiracy theorists.

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