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 that week's episode was the 'brain drain' of scientists from the UK, but during the show's investigations it became apparent some of these scientists had mysteriously disappeared. The show was later to discover their disappearance was connected to secret plans to create a colony on Mars which would be populated with the world's best minds, whilst the rest of humanity would be left to face an environmental collapse.
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
Alternative 3 opens with the presenter Tim Brinton talking 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 had warned that the planet was heading for environmental disaster due to industrial pollution, and we see scenes of drastic changes in global weather patterns, from freezing temperatures, severe droughts, erupting volcanoes and earthquakes, which apparently led Ballantine to the conclusion 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 tells Brinton world leaders were warned of the impending climate disaster as early as the 1950s, but 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 Ballentine 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 is much more relaxed and he becomes more willing to talk after drinking heavily. Eventually he says that the Apollo missions were a NASA public relations exercise to cover up its real activities. Following this it is revealed that in spite of the cold war Russia and America have been working closely together and have 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. World leaders had weighed up the options to deal with the impending climate disaster and arrived at three alternatives:
- To drastically reduce the Earth's population.
- To build underground facilities to shelter parts of the population until the catastrophe subsides.
- To transport the world's best minds off the planet to Mars, using the moon as a landing station.
Alternative 3 was the option world leaders adopted, and to abandon the rest of the human population to fend for itself.
The final claim of the programme is that America and Russia sent an unmanned craft to Mars as early as 1961, and unencrypted video footage of the landing apparently substantiates this.
After the transmission 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' War of the Worlds. The callers presumably missed the show's copyright date of 1 April 1977 boldly displayed during the closing title sequences.
The Cast of Alternative 3
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
By 1978 public interest in Alternative 3 had began to wane but this was to change when Nick Austen, the then 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 show with some character changes and 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 the first alternative considered by world governments. Rather than reducing the size of Earth's population, this becomes using nuclear weapons to blow holes in the upper atmosphere so pollution can 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 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 space craft 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 as a corner stone for more intricate conspiracies. 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 Science Report, Tim Brinton also fronted Alternative 3 so his 'authority' as a reliable television presence lent it further credence.
Alternative 3 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 has been in the public domain for some time that underground facilities have 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 gives weight to the existence of the third alternative.
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 documents relating to Alternative 3 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 of Alternative 3 and there are a number of online locations 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 mythology of Alternative 3. 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 to Alternative 3, 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 of Alternative 3 are determined to do so, it is very difficult to arrive at any conclusion other than it was a hoax. 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 Fools prank and its copyright date can be seen at the end of the programme as 1 April 1977.
Secondly most of the participants in the show, except for Tim Brinton2 (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 'Allo.3
Those who wish to believe in the premise of Alternative 3 also overlook the basic flaws in the show's story line. 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, particularly as this still presents problems which have yet to be overcome.
Conspiracy theorists have attempted to counter some of these points by arguing that the use of actors and the hoax nature of Alternative 3 allows global governments enough scope for deniability to protect themselves and 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 however often constructed from spurious, disconnected pieces of information weaved together by its own internal logic, and the gaps filled with little more than personal speculation conveyed as facts. There is little doubt that Alternative 3 is no more than an April Fools joke that has been dragged into the world of mythology to become not only a conspiracy theory in its own right but the foundation of numerous other conspiracy theories.