Mission: Alpha Centauri

The Making of a Small Town, Sci-Fi Classic, by Andrea McCarty

Andrea McCarty
Archivist and Researcher
anm@alum.mit.edu

 
In 1967, a group of eighth grade students at the Blue Hill Consolidated School in Blue Hill, Maine shot a Super 8 film called Mission: Alpha Centauri. The film tells the story of a group of teenagers who embark on a space mission to explore Alpha Centauri, the second closest star to Earth. The film follows the astronauts during the preparation for their mission, their journey through space, and finally, their encounters with life on Alpha Centauri. The end of the film portrays the astronauts and the Alpha Centaurians coming together in a utopian gathering, complete with cheerleaders, a pony, and an astral princess. Mission: Alpha Centauri, with its space exploration and utopian themes, campy style, technology-filled mise-en-scene, and Kirk and Spock-like characters, seems heavily influenced by science fiction shows on network TV at the time, such as Lost in Space and Star Trek. The film was created during a time of increased interest in space travel in the United States, as well as during the burgeoning hippie movement in America. In the late 1980s, John Bannister donated the film, Mission: Alpha Centauri to Northeast Historic Film, a regional film archive in Bucksport, Maine. The film is sometimes shown to local audiences as a prelude to feature-length science fiction films at the Alamo Theatre.

In March 2004, Brian Jacobson, Karen Schrier and Andrea McCarty began their own mission—to document reflections on the making of Mission: Alpha Centauri twenty-seven years later. At the time, we were graduate students in the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program; the project grew out of an assignment for Professor Henry Jenkins’ course on Media Theories and Methods. At the suggestion of Karan Sheldon, the three of us began to look at Mission: Alpha Centauri, and set out to interview the cast members, now in their 50s, about their memories of making the film. This was all made possible by the fact more than ten members of the 8th grade class still make their homes in the Blue Hill area. On a cold and rainy weekend in March 2004, we managed to videotape five of the main cast members about the film. Later, we interviewed their teacher, David Nason, about his goals for the film as a class project.

The interviewees were skeptical at first, and wondered why three graduate students would want to interview them about a long-forgotten eighth-grade class project. Yet they were welcoming, taking time out of their weekends to dredge their memories for anecdotes and opinions about the film. We later cut the interviews with footage from the original film to create a video piece titled Mission: Mission Alpha Centauri. This piece, along with the original film, was shown in Jenkins’ class and at the 2005 Symposium on Amateur Fiction Film at Northeast Historic Film.

On first look, Mission Alpha Centauri comes off as a rather crude film. The handheld camera is shaky, interior scenes are underexposed and the sound is out of sync with the image. David Nason, the 8th grade teacher at the Blue Hill Consolidated School, shot it on Super 8 film, and the sound was recorded separately on 1/4” reel-to-reel audiotape. The students did all of the editing and synced the film themselves. At the time, Super 8 was a relatively new format, first marketed by Kodak in 1965. David Nason received his camera as a Christmas gift; until filming Mission: Alpha Centauri, he had only used it to photograph his own family. Nason was intrigued by the possibilities of using the camera in the classroom. Having completed most of the school’s mandatory curriculum, he wanted to engage his eighth graders in a creative project. Super 8 became a standard for student filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s, both for younger students and college students. It was easy, inexpensive and produced good results. Super 8 came in a cartridge that was easy to load, and its image was brighter than standard 8mm film. Mission: Alpha Centauri is one of many films from that era created by students and young people; how many of these films will survive is not known.

The goal for the 2004 interview project and the video piece was to document the participants’ memories and experiences working on the film, as well as their views on the project from the vantage point of adulthood. We set out to capture their stories about creating this film at a time before home video recordings were ubiquitous. We were curious to learn about the opportunity that the teacher, David Nason, offered these teenagers for creative expression, and how this played a role in their educational experiences and personal development. We also wanted to learn about why the students chose to create a science fiction film with those particular themes, characters, costumes and style. We were interested in understanding the historical and cultural context for the film, and thinking about how the students may have interacted with current events, media objects and cultural values, and how these may have influenced their work. Although some of the participants claimed to remember little of the film’s actual production, all of the interviewees contributed remembrances, analysis or speculation as to the value of the experience. The interviewees seem to raise just as many question as they answer; the video piece produced for our class aims to provide a good basis for discussion of the relationship between amateur media and commercial media, and of the possibilities for media in the classroom.

What’s Valuable to Document?

As we conducted the interviews, we were struck by the initial reticence of our subjects. Some of this was certainly due to Yankee reserve, busy schedules and slipping memories. But we also had to overcome some skepticism as to the value of our exploration. Why is an old film made by a bunch of inexperienced 13-year-olds important? When we first contacted our subjects, many of them claimed not to remember anything about the film. A few potential subjects turned us away with that claim. Yet after a few minutes of conversation, most of our subjects could recall at least a few vivid memories of the experience. With some of the interviewees, we discussed the relative value of the film almost forty years later. Is the film valuable to anyone except the participants and their families? Or could the film have a larger value as a cultural artifact, as part of a larger film history? Northeast Historic Film has decided that the film does indeed have a larger value, and has committed to 35mm preservation for Mission: Alpha Centauri.

Cultural Influences:

This film, created by teenagers, reflects something about their mindset, and what was important to them at the time. Their teacher, David Nason, was careful to mention that he gave the students free reign to express themselves creatively during the filmmaking process. Nason said that the space theme, the costumes, the music (a version of This Land is Your Land by the New Christy Minstrels) and the story came from the students themselves. He said that he was not trying to influence the theme of the film, nor was he watching space-themed TV shows at the time. For their part, the students were all quick to remember a strict division of labor. Some tackled portions of the script as writers, others were in charge of costumes, music or technical jobs. While some took leadership roles, all were involved in the collaborative classroom project and brought something to the film.

How Might This Film Be Different Today?

In contemporary classrooms, digital technology is becoming more prevalent, and many students today already have experience with video cameras and digital editing software at home. This was not the case for the Blue Hill students in 1967; none of the in the 1967 class members had any prior experience with filmmaking or Super 8 cameras. For many of them, the project was a whole new experience. David Nason added that this 13-minute class project took at least a month to complete. He was free to introduce this project because he felt that the students in the class were very advanced and he had already covered the basic 8th grade curriculum. The film was screened only once at the end of the year for the students and their families. It was screened again twenty years later by a few of the participants, after Northeast Historic Film made a transfer to video. It’s interesting to think about what today’s technology makes possible, after looking at a student film from 1968. Given a month of class time and digital equipment, today’s student film would probably look more polished and a lot different. Each student would probably be given a copy to take home on DVD, providing many more opportunities for screening and access. Clearly, there is a lot to be gained from new technology. Yet Mission: Alpha Centauri reminds us that the goal is still the same. Much can be accomplished with very basic tools, a collaborative spirit and a good imagination.