There’s something grimly fascinating about an unwinnable competition.
In many ways, it’s the idea that no matter how good you are as a competitor, how clever or skilful or athletic you are, there’s always someone just one step ahead of you, ensuring you fail, from the fixed fairground coconut shy to former Daily Mirror editor Roy Greenslade making it impossible for readers to win the Spot the Ball competition.
Sometimes though, a competition is unwinnable not through deliberate cheating, but a contrivance of circumstance. And those, arguably, are the best, because the hosts set out to make a competition that could be won — that with just the right knowledge, and a bit of luck, and a prevailing wind, would see someone walk away with that big cash prize, or that medal.
Which brings us to Murder in Space.
There’s certain shows from my childhood that are engrained on my memory with a sense of place and time. And there’s two shows that are burned into my synapses like they’ve been branded there with hot irons. Both are from the front room of my late grandparents, up a close in Drumchapel, sitting on the none-more-seventies carpet.
The first is the mid-80s Jasper Carrott vehicle Carrott Confidential, and especially Jasper walking the corridors of TV Centre, passing a succession of contrived, vaguely topical sight gags, before walking into the studio and perching on the edge of his stool to begin that week’s routine.
And the other is this particular televisual space oddity:
For those who haven’t seen it, it was a co-production between a host of TV companies around the world, including ITV franchise Central, via the Zenith production arm it then owned.
In Canada and the USA, it aired on pay-TV channels as a special event. Here in Blighty, we got it as a big Tuesday night event on ITV on August 13 1985,
In the build-up it was heavily trailed and previewed across the network, in the TV Times, and by TV-am’s resident reviewer, Jimmy Greaves:
The gimmick behind Murder in Space was that the conclusion wasn’t shown. At least, not on first transmission. Instead, the film cut off the final fifteen minutes, and challenged the audience to try and work out exactly who had offed the various members of the crew of the space ship. The reveal would not be made until all the partner television networks had aired it, avoiding any spoilers or competition fixing.
As the New York Times claimed when the film originally went out:
The conclusion of the movie, we are assured, has yet to be filmed and the script, written by Wesley Ferguson and seen only by a handful of people, remains in a secured vault. Cast and crew will then be reassembled to film the finale, which will be shown on Sept. 14
Whether or not that’s actually true is unknown, but it is notable that the conclusion (which you can see in the final ten minutes of the full film above) was shot in one set, with just two cast members revealing the result via a series of flashbacks.
Despite Jimmy Greaves’ dig at the IBA in the clip above, UK punters actually got the chance to win a not-unreasonable £10,000 for solving the murder. Across the pond, meanwhile, the stakes were significantly higher – US viewers could scoop themselves $60,000, while in Canada the prize also included a holiday in Europe and a trip on the Orient Express.
Viewers could phone in with who they think was the killer, send in their solution via a coupon in the TV Times, or use the form in the back of a tie-in novelisation which would give punters the chance to puzzle through clues in printed form.
On paper, it was a bold and imaginative piece of television — interactivity before interactive TV, with each country able to run its own results show on the same night to ensure nobody leaked the answers out first.
Sadly, at least for the Canadians, things didn’t quite go to plan…
Nobody worked out whodunnit. Nobody sussed out who the murderers were. And when you’re hosting a high profile, nationwide competition to determine just that, is quite the failure. As the Canadian B-movie website Canuxploitation amusingly reveals:
Although all entries have been reviewed, no one submitted the correct solution to the mystery of who committed the murders on board the Conestoga.
Since First Choice Superchannel had no winners in Canada, they must bring the official contest to a close. However, they were so overwhelmed by the interest shown by their viewers…they asked the judges to advise them as to who came closest to answering the questions.
In the end, a lucky — or unlucky, depending on your point of view – Ontario resident was deemed the nearest the bull, and won a year’s subscription to Superchannel for his efforts, which might have been somewhat less impressive than the Orient Express trip originally up for grabs.
Things went slightly better here in the UK where the top prize was won, revealed to the nation as part of a TV programme a month later, hosted by Anneka Rice and, somewhat bizarrely, Roger Cook. Sadly Central failed to use their cloud to have Cook doorstep the murderer in his inimitable fashion.
It perhaps didn’t help the good people of Canada – or, indeed the other competitors in the UK who sussed out some, if not all, of the murderers on board the doomed spaceship Conestoga – that Murder In Space was really not very good.
Despite being written, under a pseudonym, by Richard Levinson and William Link – the creators of such shows as Columbo and Murder She Wrote – the pan-continental production is a convoluted and cheap-looking mess, with 70s spaceship style sets and props, and model footage lifted from Battlestar Galactica.
It’s pitched as some kind of orbital Murder On The Orient Express, with Post-Cocoon Brimley, Ironside (disturbingly, with hair) and Martin Balsam manfully attempting to drag something from the cliche-heavy script, although their efforts are largely drowned out by a score which could at best be described as enthusiastic, and at worse as melodramatic.
However, the rest of the cast — mainly Canadian actors putting on Allo Allo accents to portray a series of flimsy European stereotypes — have pitched their performances somewhere in the vicinity of bad soap opera, and still fallen short.
It’s every inch the cheap and not that cheerful TV movie you’d hope a major international competition wouldn’t be, and getting through Murder in Space now is a more painful experience than any of the on-screen homicides.
Yet for some reason, it remains one of my strongest childhood TV memories. Perhaps to a seven year old, it was actually a gripping and involving drama. Or perhaps it was just that big yellow thumbprint at the start…
PS: I’ve deliberately not included the murderer’s identity — or identities — here. Write in if you work it out before Ironside and Brimley’s big revelation in the film, and you probably won’t win a prize either.