The Aliens have Landed!

This summer, aliens are landing in EC1. As the Barbican gets ready to transform itself into a mothership of a tribute to all things sci-fi, Melissa Crowther highlights what to have on your radar.

Clerkenwell is no stranger to weird happenings. No-hoper teens who suddenly find they have supernatural powers after being caught in a freak storm… Human-esque extra-terrestrials living among us in a ghetto… It’s all here, in the talented minds of the people at Clerkenwell Films on Clerkenwell Road.

A large part of the TV production company’s award-winning output over the last 20 years has been in the sci-fi realm. First up was Misfits, about those no-hoper teens, in 2009, which scooped a Bafta and ran for five series on E4. Then, last year, there was The Aliens, another E4 comedy-drama, about that ghetto.

Both shows seem to represent a very modern sort of sci-fi; the sort that is gritty, based in our reality, on our streets, and full of hot, current issues: racism, immigration, robots, cloning (even the ad campaign for The Aliens was styled in the vein of a political-party broadcast). The creatures who land here – and it is here, today’s Britain – aren’t strange, green and three-eyed, with long, grabbing tentacles. They look exactly like we do, hoodies and all, and it’s impossible to tell them apart from us. Thrilling stuff.

However, Clerkenwell Films can do the old sort of sci-fi, too, as it proved with its dramatisation of a series of short stories by HG Wells last year, for Sky Arts, to mark the 150th anniversary of the author’s birth. Though he was by no means the first to found the genre – many believe it all really began during the Renaissance, with Copernicus and Kepler, and then there are the likes of Mary Shelley with Frankenstein in 1818 – Wells, with his classics The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, is often dubbed one of the “fathers” of science fiction. Like Misfits and The Aliens, his work is highly political; his turn-of-the-century concerns being chiefly poverty and the class system.

Despite the fact that sci-fi most often as not taps into our deep-seated worries about the future (dystopia and world destruction), it has given us an immensely positive and rich cultural seam. Even if you’re not into the concept, it has a huge cultural significance – and, according to the Barbican, a growing popularity right now. Time- travel back through the years and you’ll flash past precogs and androids, aliens and E.T., invisible men and domineering apes. It’s inspiring and offers a wonderful visual spectacle.

It is this spectacle that the Barbican sets out to celebrate with its latest multi-stranded exhibition/ festival, Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction. Its mastermind, Swiss curator Patrick Gyger, who has made chronicling sci-fi his profession, says: “When I was a teenager, I was a prime geek… But now, it is unbelievable how such a fringe culture has moved into the mainstream.”

The main must-sees of the three-month extravaganza, which takes place across the whole Barbican complex (foyers and all), will be in the Curve gallery. It aims to take you on your very own chronological science-fiction odyssey, via books, drawings, props, magazines, art and film clips, including unseen footage. Keep an eye out for pieces on loan from the Museum of Popular Culture in Seattle – it’s owned by Microsoft squillionaire Paul Allen and there are said to be more than 100 items being sent over. And you won’t miss the “gallery of aliens”, an array of masks and costumes from cult films. They’ll all be looking at you…

Besides the displays, there will be new art commissions, themed concerts, talks held in conjunction with New Scientist magazine and Penguin Books, and video games to enjoy. But perhaps best of all, because it feels long overdue, the festival will also stage the Barbican’s first- ever outdoor screening (its previous ones have always been held at other venues). The Sculpture Court provides the setting – what better, bleaker backdrop for sci-fi? – and over the August bank holiday you’ll be able to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tron and Gravity.

The August bank holiday is often jinxed for good weather, to say the least. Looking on the bright (or is it dark?) side, if a freak storm hits, we may all become misfits.

“Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction” is at the Barbican from 3 June to 1 Sept.