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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Quest for Love

An appropriate segue back from the 1930s to 1971 is Quest for Love (Q4L), a story about the world more-or-less stuck in the 30s. This humble british production was based on a short story by John Wyndham (who wrote Village of the Damned, and Day of the Triffids). Q4L stars Joan Colins. The story has a bit of science to support the fiction, but the story is largely a love story. The premise is not time travel, which had been done with some frequency. Instead, it's parallel universes.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Colin Trafford is a physicist with Imperial Physical Industries in London. He begins a demonstration of their Random Particle Generator. It goes awry and he is stunned unconscious. He wakes at the foot of some stairs in a posh London club. By a protracted set of scenes, Colin learns that he has become, or assumed, the life of another Colin Trafford. This one was a novelist, playwright, and a bounder. He finds that he has a reputation for being a drunk, hothead and womanizer. His old school friend Tom is in the parallel timeline too, but still has his arm. Since there was no war, he never lost it. Colin finds the famous physicist Sir Henry and explains what happened. Sir Henry believes him, but there's no tangible proof. The alternate timeline diverged in 1938, WWII didn't happen. JFK didn't die, but becomes the head of the League of Nations (which did not dissolve). London cars and fashions are more-or-less frozen in 1930s styles. Colin also discovers that he as a wife named Ottilie (Joan Colins). She loathes him (the other him) and wants a divorce. He's totally enrapt with her and slowly coaxes her into giving him a chance to show that he's not the Colin Trafford she knew. (which he isn't) She likes his new, polite manners, but it is the lack of a scar on his shoulder which convinces her that he's telling the truth. (Bad Colin got hurt at Oxford, but good Colin went to Cambridge and never got hurt.) They get intimate and are the happy couple. Tom is angry and protective of Ottilie, She's dying of a heart condition. Doctors in the alternate timeline don't know how to fix it, but Colin remembers that in his timeline there is an operation. Sure enough, she dies in his arms. Shortly afterward, he wakes in his 1971. After a bit of disorientation and no one believing him, he tries to "go back" by using the Random Particle Generator again late at night. He only succeeds in knocking himself out. Tom suggests finding Ottille in this timeline instead. This proves difficult, but Colin finally traces her to be a Tracy Fisher (her parents died in the war in his timeline, and she was adopted). Tracy is a stewardess for Pan Am and acting weak and sick. Colin races to find her before she can die again. He finds her while on a layover in London and saves the day. She recovers from the operation. He brings her white roses (her favorite in the other timeline). Zoom in on their hands touching. Tender music ramps up. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Sci-fi and romance are not a common mix, so Q4L is a rare example. Joan Colins plays her role with more fragile tenderness than was typical of her later reputation. The parallel universe theme was fairly new and fresh, compared to time travel.

Cultural Connection
For many, the essence of sci-fi is that it explores some aspect of the human condition -- usually via some science-derived (or contrived) circumstance. This was the case in the very early sci-fi story, Mary Shelley's Franenstein, which was thin on the science, and long exploring humanity. Q4L is similarly thin on science and long on exploring humanity. The creditably of the science was never the intent.

Based on the Book -- Actually, more of a short story titled "Random Quest" by John Wyndham, published in 1961. He wrote stories that became a couple of notable sci-fi movies, such as Village of the Damned ('60) and Day of the Triffids ('63). The screenplay follows Wyndham's story fairly closely, with some of the usual concessions to movie adaptations.

Cut Love Some Slack -- The core of Q4L is the classic lover's quest, older than Orpheus and Eurydice. That, and the constraints of a modest production budget, mean that the science part of the story will necessarily have some inconsistencies and omissions. The focus is love, not science, so much, so cut the story some slack.

Radium ex Machina -- As with so many sci-fi stories, science and/or radiation are used loosely as a dies ex machine to put the characters in whatever strange circumstances the author wanted. Colin's "Random Particle Generator" appears to have had no practical function. That is, other than to zap our hero into an alternate parallel timeline. Apparently, the machine isn't even necessary, as the Colins swap back without it.

Selective Transfer? -- One of the curious details in Q4L is that Colin's actually body makes the jump to the alternate time line, not just his consciousness. His clothes don't make the jump. But his long hair (which apparently both Colins' had, as no one questioned is sudden sideburns, or anything.), and the all-important missing scar from shoulder. So, it's not just that good Colin and bad Colin traded "essences", but actual bodies.

Nature vs. Nurture -- Curiously, Wyndham plays both sides of the nature/nurture debate. On the one hand, Colin A is kind and thoughtful. Colin B is selfish and boorish. Nurture, apparently, made the two very different men. Yet, Ottillie is presumed to be just as wonderful in both timelines. Nature is key. Imagine the tragic-romance story if when Colin A finds Tracy, she's a bitter, self-centered shrew. Wyndham, the romantic, must have seen women as intrinsically good (or bad).

Future Sameness -- Q4L's director, Ralph Thomas, tried to suggest different London in alternate-1971, but within the tight budget, there was only so much he could do. Thomas tried to imply a Britain which did not go through WWII, so stalled in "old world" styles. Men still wear 30s-ish 3 pc. suits and belong to wood-paneled clubs. Conveniently, young men in both 1971 wear long hair and sideburns. Automobile designs are the same too, though Thomas tries to use Rolls and Wolseley models to suggest that automotive "progress" was stunted.

Good War? -- Hidden between the lines of Wyndham's story, and Terence Feely's screenplay, is the notion that WWII was a good thing, it's own way. Without the war, Colin becomes a selfish cretin instead of a scientist. Fashion, design and architecture stay stuck in the 1930s. Medical science stalls too, in that the heart operation that saves Ottilie/Tracy is unknown in the warless '71. The "mod" styles of the late 60s never happened (a questionable "good"), since the prosperity of the post-war 50s didn't happen, so the rebellion of pampered youth didn't happen in the 60s, etc. etc.

Bottom line? Q4L is a moderate-quality film, created by folks comfortable in television. It is primarily a romance story and only secondarily a sci-fi. Wyndham's imagination still manages to shine through, despite the hobbling of a low budget. For most sci-fi fans, Q4L will probably not be worth tracking down to purchase. It is worth watching if it's available on television, or for free.


Randall Landers said...

How did Joan Collins do? Loved her as Edith Keeler in Star Trek, but her acting was often hit or miss.

Nightowl said...

I thought Joan Collins did a pretty good job in Quest For Love. Some of her later 'trademark' spitfire-ness could be seen, but she managed to portray some inner conflict well, and even some tenderness. She manages to convey some vulnerability too. Not oscar material, but well done.

That was a good episode of Star Trek. It also had that alternate timeline trope to it, now that you mention it.