The Catacombs Catacombs Credits Guide
Johnny Byrne

The Troubled Spirit

I wanted to do the first science fiction ghost story and it would have all the classic elements of a ghost story but inextricably bound up with the high technology of science fiction.

"The Troubled Spirit" was a story idea that Sylvia liked very much. She was very interested in developing it with me, to the extent that she oversaw it in the way that Gerry normally oversaw the other tales that I was writing. In other words, when I was having story discussions it was usually with Gerry, but in this instance it was Sylvia.

I was interested in it for a number of reasons. I am interested in things of the heart and the spirit as well as of the mind, and there was also a bit of a challenge in trying to construct a story that would effectively be a ghost story in space. In this instance, as in all of the stories that I wrote, I tried to find a point of departure that the people who would watch it could lock into. In that context, there was a lot of stuff being written at the time about how plants could communicate with people. There were also a number of scientific theories being mooted that the human brain only engaged about 35 percent of its capacity. The rest of it was one great vast question mark and no one really could understand its potential. Taking all of those things and putting them into a technological context, it seemed reasonable to me that the Alphans could have a device that would boost signals that came from those uncharted areas of the brain. They could also log them and connect them up with plants, which were emitting signals of a matching kind. So we had, in effect, a form of electronic, technological seance happening on Moonbase Alpha.

It was to do with plants and how plants were the essence of the Alphans' continued survival on the Moon. The development of how they could feed themselves was obviously something that had to be continuous...without it they would simply perish. Anything that would enhance research and development into the production of food was essential, so on that basis it was a valid story. It was also valid on the basis of what was happening on Earth at that time in terms of the philosophical and scientific investigations into the nature of plant and human communications. So we took that as the starting point.

In the context of a seance, where normally there's a voice or a form of possession that is meant to take over the medium, what we conjured up is a vision of a Moonbase Alphan who is grotesquely disfigured. This Alphan is of a vengeful state of mind, claiming to have come back to avenge a horrible death. The key, the thing that gives the story its very interesting symmetry, is the fact that this Alphan is coming back to avenge a death that has not yet happened. At the same time, everything that the Alphans do to counter this dangerous presence in their midst is pushing it towards the death that it has come back to avenge.

Having gone through the process, first of all, of responding to its destructive presence among them...discovering why it's here and what its purpose is...they then have to go about devising a means whereby they can somehow exorcise it. And I mean that in the true sense of the word, because basically we're talking about Bell, Book and Candle, which I think Professor Bergman talks about in the story. The Alphans have to devise a form of electronic, technological exorcism, which they do, and the presence is exorcised as effective a way as we believe that a religious exorcism would clean out a hostile spirit here on Earth.

The story had a number of unusual features. For example, it had a very interesting sort of Indian Raga session right at the beginning, and I thought that was very exciting, very interesting, in the way that things were happening. It was one of those stories, unfortunately, that was bedeviled by Italian leading men who were brought in for reasons of finance and not for reasons of artistry or story. These were Italian leading men who were introduced into the series to reflect the money that was presumably being invested by the Italian co-financiers. The lead in "The Troubled Spirit," the vengeful spirit himself, was one of these. They were good actors, but they had difficulties speaking the English dialogue, and that made for difficulties on the set on the day. Carrying the emotional strand or the emotional baggage from one scene to another and developing it, an actor has to live in several different stages of awareness all at once, given the way that these things are shot. It's difficult to do that at the best of times and it was made doubly difficult, I think, by having actors who were not really being chosen for the role. Of course, their voices could be re-dubbed later, but the result is never totally successful no matter how brilliantly it's done. The dubbing was done in this instance by a man called Rob Rietty, who was a master of the art and to see him at work was quite miraculous.

Apart from that, "The Troubled Spirit" was interesting and I think as a story it had a very interesting construction, if you look at it purely in the abstract. As a ghost story, I think it worked within the context as well.

I always felt a special regard for this episode. Quite apart from the issues it raised, for me, the almost perfect symmetry of the story and the way it unfolded, more than justified the very hard work I put into it. As for a source - I think the theme of being haunted by yourself does feature somewhere or other - but whether in novel or folk I can't say. What I hope is original is the way in which Mateo's terrifying Doppelganger has returned to avenge a death which has not yet happened, and the way the Alphans, in combating it, are unknowingly driving it towards the event it has come back to avenge. To me, this seemed to intensify the horror and mystery of the story. I haven't returned to the theme, but I'd very much like to - looking at the story as it stands today, I strongly feel it has all that's needed to make a truly memorable high budget movie.

Comments by Johnny Byrne, abridged from an interview with Tim Mallett and Glenn Pearce and a 1982 interview with Carsten Andresen.