In 1977, a year after NASA landed its first unmanned probe on the surface of Mars, Anglia Television decided to round off its Science Report documentary series with an April Fools gag purporting to show evidence of a fully-fledged scientific colony being developed in secret on the red planet since the early 60s. It is either unfortunate or enormously serendipitous (depending on one’s perspective on such matters) that an industrial dispute delayed broadcasting from its original April 1st slot to a date several months later and thus accidentally kick-started one of the most notorious science fiction hoaxes since the Mercury Theatre’s War of the Worlds. Like Orson Welles’s earlier broadcast, sound and music played a crucial role in Alternative 3, and when the show’s producers set about deciding upon a composer, they plumped for a certain Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno.
1977 was a busy year for Eno, beginning with live performances with The 801, followed by collaborations with Cluster and David Bowie in Germany over the summer and topped off with the release of his last album of song-based solo material for several decades, Before and after Science. But it’s worth remembering that, having left Roxy Music four years earlier, Eno still only had a small number of production credits to his name and Alternative 3 is one of his first films. Most of the tracks that accompany it on the following year’s Music for Films album were then still just composed for ‘imaginary films’ (even if many of them would later be snapped up for use in actual movies). So despite only a brief mention (‘eerie synthesizer soundtrack’) in David Sheppard’s 2008 biography, Alternative 3 stands right at the pivot of Eno’s move away from rock stardom and towards some supposedly more legitimate and perhaps even respectable trade.
In fact, Eno contributes just one three-minute track to the documentary, and even among the other miniatures of Music for Films it sounds remarkably slight, almost apologetic compared to the grandiosity of the ‘Sparrowfall’ trilogy that precedes it. Just a bed of deep bass drones, with something like the bleeps of submarine soundings and some reversed ‘found sound’ over the top, all drifting in the heat haze of reverb. But its staggered exposition over the course of the film proves a fecund choice.
At first, all we are given is the shimmer of suspended high frequencies, providing, as it were, the question mark that binds together the initial presentation of the ‘mystery’ of the missing scientists. As the plot thickens, so too do Eno’s sound masses: a bass note of menace accompanies the talk of coming environmental catastrophe; a wavering, flanged synth line introduces the NASA angle, soon the beeps of mission control’s dialogue with its astronauts join it; the first springs of melody rise with the lift-off of an Apollo spacecraft, and the suspicion of covert Soviet-American collaboration – in space!
Only, at the very end of the film, with the full story finally revealed – and, with the credits providing the actors’ names, the ‘mock’ nature of this ‘doc’ finally admitted – are we given the full extent of Eno’s piece – and still the music seems to pose an unsettling question mark, as though expressing dissatisfaction with such a neat tying up of loose ends, of the sort later exploited by former Scientologist Jim Keith’s paranoia-baiting Alternative 3 Casebook.