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Fear of The Stranger

The Stranger. Image supplied by ABC iview.

Australia’s screen memory is pretty sketchy prior to the 1970s, but our fear of otherness—and of learning from the past—is legendary. ABC iview’s refresh of The Stranger, a 1960s children’s sci-fi, brings these themes into better focus.

On 1 December 1948, the body of an unidentified man was found on Somerton Beach, just outside of Adelaide. Wearing a clean, expensive suit and polished shoes, he carried no ID and no identifying marks. The labels had been cut out of his clothes. His suit was of American tailoring. International circulation of his photograph yielded no luck. The only words to his person were written on a tightly-wound slip of paper tucked into his pocket, bearing a Persian phrase, Tamám Shud. “Ended.” This historical figure, known as the Somerton Man, resembles closely the lead character of The Stranger.

The story of the Somerton Man is a typically mid-twentieth century bit of intrigue. In post-war Australia, outsiders were simultaneously feared and desired. “New Australians” arrived with the burden of their pasts—and that of their nations—heavy on their backs. No one truly starts again, and no one escapes their history. But what about a man with no name, and no past?

In January, ABC iView surprised viewers with a long-neglected reflection of White Australia’s mid-century psyche. The ABC’s forgotten science fiction serial The Stranger, unavailable since its premiere in 1964-65, is a slow burning, schlocky adventure serial about immigration, trust, and otherness, and a glimpse at a screen history that, despite the abundance of streaming film and television available to us, is scantly represented in the public domain.

The Stranger, written by children’s writer GK Saunders, painstakingly remastered and strikingly vibrant despite its obscurity, enters the near-empty field of sixties Australian TV classics. There are often very good reasons for this unavailability, be it the lack of interest in creaky old Australian police procedurals and soaps, or the ugly cultural attitudes many programs of old display. It’s unlikely, for instance, that we’ll ever see a restoration of Saunders’ other kids show, the sci-fi series Wandjina! (1966), which attributes Aboriginal mythology to alien visitation and uses White children in blackface as Aboriginal characters. The past can be an uncomfortable place.

The ABC has presented the restored Stranger under the banner RetroFocus, though it’s the only series to be presented as such—the rest of the RetroFocus material on the ABC website is vintage short video content and quaint articles, including hot topic questions like “Should husbands help with the housework?” and footage of 1950s parents looking after their baby-boomer infants. (In 1958, one couple let a camera crew film their first days as new parents).

Australian science fiction has long punched above its weight, but our line has always been apocalyptic terror, like Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach, and the Mad Max series (1979-present). These nihilistic Australian stories subverted the ad men and immigration officials’ clean-cut, fresh-faced image of Australia with a view of the country as the literal end of the world.

The Stranger is unexpectedly far more subtle (and far more prescient) than all of that looking back on. It offers a dissection of Australia’s complicated relationship with outsiders and pasts, a grappling with the contradictions in the national identity. It’s entirely possible the show wasn’t made with these concerns in mind—but to contemporary eyes, they’re present and fascinating.

It opens in full film noir garb: suburbia and a torrential downpour. A lone figure in a suit walks slowly to the shelter of a doorway and eases himself onto the ground. Blank-faced, he knocks three times, closes his eyes and slumps backward.

The mysterious visitor is welcomed into the home of a Sydney schoolteacher and his plucky children, and quickly ingratiates himself into the goodwill of the family. Played elegantly by Ron Haddrick, he is White, heavy-browed, intense, tall, thin, and respectfully dressed: at once kind and imposing. He has an inscrutable accent and no knowledge of his own past but he seems vaguely European—he speaks fluent, accented English, but also French and German. Is he Swiss, his rescuers wonder, this benign and neutral figure?

His suit, fresh-pressed and dry just moments after he comes in from the rain, might be more to do with a continuity error than any creative intent, but the implication stands: Australia is a warm, kind nation. Pasts slip away, and a man without a past, teflon-coated, dry from the storm, steps into a new identity:

“The name for a new man is Adam,” he reasons. “And perhaps I come from this land you say, Switzerland. I am Adam Suisse. There. It is made, my name.”

Though he comes up with the name on spur of the moment, it is accepted immediately. “Adam” quickly ingratiates himself into goodwill of the family, and becomes a teacher at the school. In class, he adopts a British accent and controls the students with ease—sixties Australians are perfectly at home with being told what to do by a sturdy British accent.

So far, it’s a parable of the New Australian. But the show treats this blind acceptance with noir-ish cynicism, knowingly playing into our fear of the outsider, and weaving a thread back and forth between assuring us of Adam’s benevolence and threatening us with his otherness. In Episode 2, one of the child leads puts it to the Stranger that “it’s better to face up to the past even if it’s not pleasant. You don’t have to go back to it if you don’t want to.” These words carry a sting in the context of the White Australia policy still in place at the time, and the collective amnesia around our historical treatment of Aboriginal Australians, an affliction which has only deepened over the decades.

And yet Adam’s foreignness is simultaneously cause for suspicion and paranoia. His students claim he’s hypnotising them, allege he’s a spy, and ransack his apartment looking for evidence of his real identity. Who was that other fellow he was speaking to, they demand of him, “and why doesn’t he speak English?”

The Stranger is not, of course, from Switzerland. He’s an alien from the planet Soshuniss, now destroyed by climate catastrophe, and he’s on a reconnaissance mission to find a new home for the last remnants of his race. Will the Australians provide him asylum? The children seem sure they will. The adults, however, don’t.

“All our knowledge is your knowledge,” Adam tells the Earth-dwellers. “We will share all things and teach each other many things.”

“This man has two children at home,” he says of Varossa, his fellow alien emissary. “We have no country.”

It all feels eerily familiar. It’s a reminder not just of science fiction’s tendency to predict the future (sci-fi writers have been warning of climate catastrophe since the nineteenth century), but of the historical patterns that re-emerge across the decades. In the sixties, Australia already had an uneasy relationship with asylum seekers, and even already had a policy of offshore processing on Manus Island.

The show’s contemporary relevance isn’t a fluke. The Stranger is made with passion, and is full of wonderful moments of mood and tension. Catching a train to the Blue Mountains for reasons unknown, Adam is filmed with angular, skewed camerawork. The children follow him through the bush to haunting stock music. The camera tracks through the hills as cascading water drifts windblown onto the rocks. In the penultimate episode, a chase scene atop the Parkes radio telescope is shot with grit and movement.

For all its contemporary relevance, The Stranger will be a challenge to those used to modern production values. The edits are primitive, the performances stagey, and the special effects of course veer between ropey and ingeniously effective. But the quality is surprisingly high, compared to the perfunctory dramas we typically see from Australian television of this era. The narrative is shot through with Cold War paranoia and burgeoning globalism, and any technical limitations are texture befitting the mid-century story. Filtered through a grainy black and white, oddly skewed picture—perhaps a result of the “kinescope” method of preserving video, where a film lens was literally pointed at a video monitor, often with imperfect results—it all merely adds to the paranoid feel.

The ABC’s restrained promotion of the series touted it as “Australia’s answer to Doctor Who”, but this is both short shrift and erroneous. It bears little resemblance to that show, which hadn’t even aired in Australia when The Stranger premiered. It does wear other influences plainly. It’s got shades of Twilight Zone and American film noir, and it shares more than a title with Orson Welles’ 1946 thriller The Stranger, in which Welles plays a schoolteacher who we discover is in fact a German war criminal on the lam, and a solid American Nazi hunter (Edward G Robinson) unpicks his past to bring him to justice. The Stranger’s protagonists, a gang of typical Australian kids—the kind that speak in near-British accents, wear suits on weekends, and look suspiciously mature—are straight from Enid Blyton. But the main ingredient is something straight from the psyche of White Australia, a rot that remains today.

While we are inherently scared of outsiders, we’re also distrustful of our own shadows. The children of The Stranger distrust Adam’s secrecy and his foreign ways, but perhaps most tellingly they’re equally suspicious of his love of the Australian landscape, typically coded as a gothic, treacherous hellscape. “What’s with all this bushwalking business?” asks one. “What’s the big attraction?” As Adam describes a perfectly normal interest in the outdoors, birds, sunshine and solitude, a moody string section alerts us to the alienness of this place, portraying the attitude of appreciation of it as something bizarre.

Today, in our third decade of housing asylum seekers in offshore prisons, the image of the Somerton man without a past slumped against the seawall has re-emerged in the national consciousness, with numerous true-crime podcast analyses and a song by Australian indie rock group The Drones, which draws on the contemporary relevance of the case’s imagery. The Stranger offers a new chance for reflection on these issues from a historical perspective.

Why then, has it been forgotten until now? Australia, a perpetually “new” nation, mythologises much about its past, and erases the rest. That attitude extends past the political. Much of our screen history has been overlooked in favour of focusing on a handful of classics. But the continued relevance of The Stranger proves that there is value in dredging the archives for lost classics that give us an insight into not just the past, but into how little we have changed.