There have long been those radio programs, films, or shows that have blurred the lines between reality and fiction to the point that some people have taken them to be real and flown into a panic. The most famous of these is perhaps the 1938 alien invasion broadcast of War of the Worlds, by Orson Welles, but this is not the only example of this. On June 20, 1977, families across the UK sat down in front of their TVs to watch a series on Anglia TV called Science Report. It was a very well-respected, conservative science program that put out a factual series of serious science documentaries involving reputable scientists and facts. It was this reputation for hard, fact-based programming that made the show that was unfurling on screens across the country so shocking. The program, called Alternative 3, would meander down a twisted rabbit hole of dark conspiracies, mysterious disappearances, and bizarre tales of space travel that would leave people in a panic that is much talked about even to this day.
The program began quite spectacularly, reporting on the fact that there had been a large number of mysterious disappearances of physicists, engineers, astronomers, and others in related fields, which was at first thought to have been a “brain drain,” meaning that they were recruited by other nations, but which the program had purportedly found to be part of a far more insidious plan. The reporter, who was the respected former BBC and ITN newsreader Tim Britton, then explains that these scientists had been vanishing off the face of the earth and even turning up dead under mysterious circumstances. Some of these disappearances are presented with evidence, such as a mysterious videotape submitted by an alleged missing “Professor Ballantine,” which was delivered to his friend in the press shortly before his vanishing, but which is shown to contain mostly white noise and static, which is later claimed to have been part of a special encryption that required a decoding device to view. The program features interviews with family members of the missing people, fleeting interviews with co-workers who seem to panic about being on camera and run off, and it is all rather unsettling stuff. It is all presented rather ominously and in a completely serious tone, and already anyone watching would have been creeped out, but it gets better.
Through investigative research, it is then claimed that it had been found that the earth would be unable to support life for much longer due to catastrophic climate change, a growing population, and a lack of natural resources. It is presented as fact that our days are numbered, and that the scientific community has been racing to find an answer to our dilemma. In the show, this breaking discovery claims that the world’s scientists had in 1957 come up with three plans to avoid the unstoppable apocalypse. Alternative 1 is described as reducing the human population by blowing huge holes into the ozone layer, which would cause millions to die of cancer brought about by the UV light. Alternative 2 is to create underground cities for the last survivors to flee to, allowing in only those who are worthy and leaving the rest of humanity to die on the surface. Alternative 3 is described as a plan to get society’s elite off planet to bases that had already been built on the moon and Mars, with some regular citizens being mind-controlled and brought out for slave labor. Indeed, the show presents convincing looking evidence that the U.S. and Soviet governments had perfected interplanetary space travel and established bases in space as early as 1961, and that the Apollo Space Program had been a ruse to disguise the government’s true plans. Indeed, the program claims to have found that all of the disappearing scientists had actually been whisked away off-world to await the coming world-ending catastrophe, with those who refused or threatened to expose it all winding up conveniently dead.
All of this is presented in a very sober fashion by a physicist called “Dr. Carl Gerstein,” and there are several interviews offered up to back these claims up, such as one with “former Apollo astronaut” Bob Grodin, who claims to have actually seen one of these bases on the moon. There are also shown alleged conversations between the Apollo mission and mission control, and the Ballantine video is then decoded to show what appears to be a joint American-Soviet trip to a moon base in 1962. The whole thing is interspersed with realistic looking interviews with intellectuals, scientists, and family members of the missing, panicked interviews with “insiders” who do not want their real identities known for fear of retribution, fuzzy videos, photographs of bases on the moon and Mars, ominous charts, graphs, and animations showing the catastrophic effects of global warming back when this wasn’t even a much-discussed topic, shaky grainy camera work, and descrambled NASA recordings, all pervaded with such an utter sense of convincing sobriety and seriousness that when the 52-minute program ended people across the UK sat there in complete shock. Shortly after the program ended, Anglia Television was flooded with deluge of telephone calls from panicked people demanding more information, the switchboards were getting fried, and there was a minor hysteria going on, but it would turn out that, despite how realistically it had been presented, none of it had been real at all.
It would turn out that Alternative 3 was a fake documentary created by writer David Ambrose and director Christopher Miles. It had been meant to be aired on April Fool’s Day, but due to strikes and scheduling conflicts had not gone on the air until June 20. The creators of the documentary had gone through great lengths to make it all seem as realistic as possible, using the same kind of stock film used at the time to make it appear like a conventional documentary, actors that are largely unknown and with dialogue mostly improvised and unscripted, and a handheld camera style to lend it an air of authenticity. There are clear disclaimers in the program that it is fake, as well as credits that list all of the actors involved playing the various bogus scientists, government insiders, and astronauts, as well as the intended date clearly being shown in the program as April 1, and the TV station had assumed that most people would be aware that what they were watching was all fake. Writer Michael Barkun, author of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, has said of it:
Alternative 3 was clearly a hoax — and not only because it was intended for broadcast on April Fools’ Day. The interviews with supposed scientists, astronauts, and others were far too dramatically polished to have been spontaneous, and in any case, the episode’s closing credits named the actors who took the roles of interviewees and correspondents. Though artfully produced, the show’s counterfeit documentary style could scarcely have been expected to fool many. As an Anglia TV spokesman put it, ‘We felt viewers would be fairly sophisticated about it.
Nevertheless, the fact that it had aired on such a reputable science program by the serious presenter Britton, as well as the sheer convincing realism of it all, had caused this to fly right past most viewers, leading to the subsequent mass panic. Amazingly, even after it was all outed as an obvious hoax, people still continued to believe it was real, and a novelization put out by writer Leslie Watkins in 1978 would similarly be seen by some people as a real account. Indeed, this would all go on to spark a whole conspiracy theory that what was depicted in the film was based on reality, only done up to look like a hoax program to cover up the real elements. This was further fueled by a book by conspiracy theorist Jim Keith, who wrote in his book Casebook on Alternative 3: Ufo’s, Secret Societies and World Control, argues that many elements of the show are based on truth, and the film has gone on to be a catalyst for all manner of conspiracies of secret government space programs, bases on the moon and Mars, and vanished scientists.
Looking back at the original program now, it is rather hard to believe that it was ever thought of as real, even more so that it continues to be entertained as real by some conspiracy theories. It all looks pretty cheesy and fake in retrospect, but it still managed to earn itself a place among other similar programs such as Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, the UK program Ghostwatch, the alien abduction film UFO Abduction, and The Blair Witch Project, all of which also provoked responses ranging from doubt over whether they were real or not to full on panic. It is amazing that the Alternative 3 program has continued to be so much discussed and picked apart by conspiracy theorists, and it remains a curious example of programming that was taken way farther than it was intended to be.