Within a few months of its premiere Alternative 3 began to take on a life of its own, generating rumors of government intrigue and secret plots to destroy the human race—except for really rich people. The most enduring myth is that all prints, promotional materials and even legal contracts relating to Alternative 3 were destroyed in a mysterious fire. To a conspiracy believer the words, “Destroyed in a mysterious fire,” are like waving bacon in front of a dog. But according to Miles it’s only an urban legend. “This is nonsense. There was always an analogue videotape in Anglia’s library. Unfortunately it was not very good quality hence the bad quality bootlegs being pirated. My 16MM print was the only one in existence, as TV stations always seem to lose their material. I’ve had that print digitally restored for the Soda DVD release.”
But Anglia’s most audacious action was authorizing a book adaptation of Alternative 3. Conspiracy theorists have long attributed the book to Christopher Miles and David Ambrose writing together under the pen name Leslie Watkins—a fallacy Miles was eager to correct. “We had several offers for the book, which David now regrets not writing. Leslie Watkins was a good Daily Mail hack in those days, so we let him do it based on our script of which he had a copy- for me that was a mistake. Both our names are on the cover however.”
In what can only be described as a fictional non-fiction book, Watkins embellishes the concepts of the ‘documentary’, even taking the revelations shared by the film’s fictional astronaut and attributing them directly to Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong! The book was like manna from heaven for conspiracy lovers, combining meticulously researched dates, events, quotes and even transcriptions of classified conversations while leaping from topic to topic like an ADHD teenager. The fact that absolutely none of these names, places or events stands up under even minimal research isn’t a problem; to conspiracy lovers that’s just further evidence of a grand cover up.
In the 1970s paperback arena this kind of playing fast and loose with facts wasn’t unheard of. A few years earlier, Charles Berlitz had stitched together unrelated reports of missing ships and planes, concocting his non-fiction bestseller The Bermuda Triangle. Although the only true fact in Berlitz’s book was the copyright date, it still spawned a modern mythology. Erich von Däniken achieved the same success in his bestseller Chariots of the Gods. In fact, von Däniken’s follow-up book, Gold of the Gods, was written while he was serving time in prison for fraud. Alternative 3 followed in that grand tradition, becoming a bestselling paperback with multiple printings, each feeding the fire of the growing conspiracy community.
But what boosted the television version of Alternative 3 to truly legendary status was the fact that it was almost impossible to see. While creating the television series Creepy Canada I discovered the difficulty and expense of researching conspiracies and paranormal events in that pre Internet era. Back then the only way to see Alternative 3 was to buy an insanely expensive ninth generation VHS tape from a black market distributor who might never ship it anyway. This scarcity only added to the film’s mystique, convincing true believers it was being suppressed by dark forces. Forbidden fruit is always the sweetest.
For years Alternative 3 floated in the conspiracy world’s whisper stream until it was unearthed by author Jim Keith for his 1994 book Mind Control and UFOs: Casebook on Alternative 3. Keith was either a devout conspiracy believer or an opportunistic writer with a gift for weaving rumors and hearsay into tasty prose. Either way, his books like Black Helicopters Over America: Strike Force of the New World Order, Saucers of the Illuminati, and Casebook on the Men In Black are genuinely entertaining. In Casebook on Alternative 3 he connects the film’s concepts with theories of the Fourth Reich, the illuminati, the Kennedy Assassination, Aleister Crowley, Nazi flying saucers, and secret space programs, creating a paranoid patchwork quilt that enthralled likeminded readers. Keith’s books made him popular with the conspiracy crowd, but it was his untimely death that turned him into a legend. In 1999, he fell from a stage at the Burning Man Festival severely fracturing his knee. He was rushed to a Nevada hospital but died during surgery when a blood clot moved to his heart. Keith’s fans still claim that government agents murdered him on the operating table, forever silencing the only man willing to expose the truth.
Keith’s standing in the conspiracy community combined with the Internet’s technical explosion spawned an Alternative 3 renaissance, turning it into a buzzword on hundreds of fringe websites. In the surreal “connect the dots” world of conspiracy thinking, Alternative 3 has been linked to gray aliens, time travel and even Atlantis. UFO author Timothy Green Beckley (who also wrote the 1984 Michael Jackson porn parody Driller) theorized that Alternative 3 was directly linked to the biblical Tribulations and the Rapture, which would be brought about by the arrival of aliens. All these theories are (of course) verified by word of mouth testimonials by everyone from NASA astronauts to Eisenhower’s granddaughter. Many of these quotes and facts are culled directly from Watkins’ paperback, which was pure fiction to begin with. Some websites even claim that the film’s final Martian landing footage is authentic and that the CIA secretly financed Alternative 3 as disinformation. Conspiracy author and lecturer Olav Phillips went as far as to crown Alternative 3 “The most dangerous film ever made.” And to think all this was spawned from a pair of intrepid filmmakers’ April Fools’ Day prank.
The face of television has changed radically since Alternative 3’s premiere. Now cable networks such as the History Channel and the Discovery Channel run documentaries such as Nazi UFO Conspiracy and UFO Crash Secrets without presenting any opposing “voice of reason” opinions. Meanwhile, on the nightly news, politicians quote “alternative facts” and government Twitter accounts spew criminal accusations without presenting evidence. By comparison Alternative 3’s conspiracy theories seem almost quaint. In a world where journalistic credibility has been thrown out the window it becomes harder and harder for viewers to filter truth from fiction.
As a pioneer in exploring the medium’s ability to manipulate opinions, Christopher Miles offers a bit of advice on separating fact from fabrication. “It’s become very difficult with the advance of CGI, which is much superior today as opposed to when Dr. Goebbels or Joseph Stalin simply airbrushed people out of the photo. Trump’s daily fiascos are an example- how are the public, especially the young or gullible able to differentiate? Today it’s more difficult with so many “blogs”, “Blags” and Bu****it, so fake news is everywhere, so maybe Donald may be right. The main things I would advise in order to test it is to try and see WHO sent the info, WHY they sent it and WHAT do they gain from it… look at the credits and stop fantasizing. I remember that during the BBC phone-in dozens of people claimed they saw flying-saucers in the film, proving that many people project onto the screen what they’d like to see, not what they actually saw.”
Alternative 3 offered its viewers plenty of clues that what they were seeing was fiction, including a prominent April 1st production date and a full set of credits including actors and screenwriter. Miles also recalls that even the title Alternative 3 is a play on words—a subtle wink that only one newspaper caught. “Only The Guardianewspaper spotted that there is no such thing as a third alternative – alter means one of TWO in Latin, so there cannot be a third alternative.” I’m officially crowning that the driest and most British bit of whimsy I’ve ever heard.
In retrospect, Alternative 3 is best remembered for it’s broadcast controversy and second life as a conspiracy theory, which makes it easy to neglect its other strengths. First and foremost, the film inspired and paved the way for all the mockumentaries that followed. It also explored the theme of manmade climate change, a topic that had previously only been touched on in 1973’s dystopian chiller Soylent Green. It even predicted water existing below the surface of Mars—a fact that wasn’t confirmed by NASA until 2012.
But Miles feels the film tapped into another, darker shared anxiety. “I feel there is a subconscious fear with the general public— the suspicion of an elite class which knows ‘more than us’ and who will be the ones to be saved. Look at Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart discussing the super elites today with their Super-Zips (zip codes of 95 or higher designated for the wealthy elite) living in enclaves insulated from the rest of the world, and the awful billionaires from Silicon Valley who are buying up New Zealand. Why? Do they know something about the apocalypse that we don’t? Alternative 4?”
Let’s hope Miles isn’t being prophetic this time because, as Elton John kindly pointed out, “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids. In fact it’s cold as hell.”
Christopher Miles has continued directing films ranging from award winning dramas such as the DH Lawrence Biography Priest of Love (1985) to genuine documentaries like Fire From Olympia (2012) and Love in the Ancient World (1998). He’s won the Golden Globe among other laurels and has lectured at Oxford and Harvard. Despite a busy schedule he still took the time to discuss Alternative 3 at length—a film that, I believe, holds a special place in his heart.
Since writing Alternative 3 David Ambrose has been the very definition of prolific, writing at least twenty screenplays, including the time travel favorite The Final Countdown (1980). He is also a gifted author of suspense novels including Superstition and A Memory of Demons as well as The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk, which is both a bang up action thriller and a deep study of human identity. Ambrose is still taking his readers to very dark and rewarding places.
Alternative 3 has been mercilessly pirated by conspiracy buffs, but a restored version is now available on DVD (Region 0 PAL) from British distributor Soda Films. This release, which includes a fascinating discussion with the creators, is slowly making its way to North American viewers.
I’d like to thank Christopher Miles for taking the time to separate the facts from the myths and for sharing the history of Alternative 3.
Alternative 3 photos courtesy of Christopher Miles. Additional photos courtesy of NASA. I’ll see you on Mars folks.