Alien War at the Trocadero in London

The year 1986 was memorable for many reasons; the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explodes, Argentina wins the World Cup in Mexico and Madonna released her album True Blue. And seven years after the original Alien was released, a sequel snuck onto cinema screens, leaving every male aged 14 to 40 desperately wanting to be a Colonial Marine, wielding a Pulse Rifle or one of those spectacular Smart Guns.

Prior to a pinch of publicity right before the new film’s release, no one ever expected Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi epic would spawn a sequel. Its simplicity was the key to its success, as one murdering xenomorph was replaced by a homicidal horde. An armed-to-the-teeth squad of kick-ass Colonial Marines soon found that even with all their firepower, they’re outmatched in a rescue operation that quickly goes awry.

Imagine then, being able to visit to the atmosphere processing plant on LV-426, running through the dimly-lit corridors, running in fear of your life because not far behind you is an 8ft tall alien biomechanoid with razor-sharp teeth and immense physical strength. That’s exactly what Alien War, at London’s Trocadero, offered. From October 1993 for three years, the paying public had a chance to experience the environment from Aliens for real. The entire basement level at the Trocadero entertainment complex in Piccadilly Circus was transformed into an identical replica of the colony complex, complete with metal grating underfoot and pipes lining the ceiling overhead. For the princely sum of just £7, you were terrified beyond belief for 20 minutes.

Any self-respecting British geek, sci-fi fan or film nerd whose ages starts with a four today, more than likely indulged at least once. A recent request on Facebook turned up fans of Alien War that had visited several times, one even said he’d been “at least six times”.

It was the brainchild of John Gorman and Gary Gillies and originally opened at the Arches in Glasgow in April 1992. It had a short run as a mobile event at various exhibition centres in the UK and finally took over the entire basement at the Trocadero.

“We had people who were doing it several times in one day. People who would come out of it and go straight back into the queue to do it again,” says Frodo Allen, one of the original cast members of Alien War. “We had some real super fans, and we still get them. We still, I get regular messages from people telling their stories of their first and sometimes the 15th experience of going around Alien War.”

The basic premise was that members of the paying public were treated as VIP guests visiting a bioweapons R&D station, the primary location for all of Weyland-Yutani’s top secret product development. It isn’t meant to actually be LV-426, but it has the same off-world colony aesthetic, since it’s built and run by the same corporation. Groups of 10 entered the complex and were going to be shown, among other things, live specimens…that is until there’s an incident resulting in containment failure and the escape of all the live specimens. From that moment onwards, it becomes a simple race against time to survive.

Allen played one of the Colonial Marines, responsible first for accompanying the visiting VIPs and then trying to herd them to safety.

“I was teaching acting to the children of Gary Gillies, one of the creators, so he asked me if I was interested in getting a role in the project and I jumped at the chance, because well, you do if somebody offers you the chance to be a Marine from Aliens.”

The prototype version that first opened in Glasgow was on a much smaller scale with smaller numbers. However, when the Trocadero “total reality” experience, as it was known, opened, Sigourney Weaver, Lance Henriksen and Brian Glover were in attendance. Starburst magazine said of Alien War at the opening in October 1993, “It appeals to man’s most basic fears: the dark; the unexpected; claustrophobia; the unknown; and, of course, immediate death. The production design is first class…while the aliens themselves are on the whole, surprisingly convincing, thank to clever lighting and sound effects. And the experience contains an ingenious surprise; the attraction’s most memorable moment.”

Sigourney Weaver

Sigourney Weaver and Lance Henriksen at the opening night – sadly the police didn’t let her use a real flamethrower

With something as fun as this, the actors playing both the marines and the aliens couldn’t resist the temptation to mix it up a little.

“One of the things that was fantastic with Alien War is that we shook it up. We changed it regularly, so there were always new scares being thrown in. And each of the marines who took a group around, although there were certain beats that they had to hit, they had a free rein to make it their own, to play with it in their own way, to decide whether they were going to be stern and aggressive, or more friendly, or more protective. So, every time you went back there was a chance for it to be a different experience.”

The marines originally carried blank firing M4A3 replica pistols. However, for the upscale Trocadero experience, an innovative electronic system called Soundfire was developed to allow the weapons to sound like those used in the film Aliens. The system consisted of high-quality, replica M41A pulse rifles with infrared transmitters and small strobe lights (to simulate muzzle flash). When the trigger was pulled a signal was transmitted to receivers hidden in the scenery. A computer system then plays gunfire sound effects to speakers in the correct area of the set. The system also played other sound effects such as the Alien screams, additional human screams and so on. With such a complex, next generation sound system, there were naturally a few bugs to begin with, but once these were smoothed out, it proved extremely successful.

The tension was further heightened by the use of more actors as plants, or stooges, in each crowd that went through. Since no one was expecting this, it was used to great affect and needless to say, they were each killed off in an utterly horrific manner.

“Our favorite trick was as a tour was going round and a door opened, you would then shoot the marine in the face and take over the tour. Declaring that perhaps, he was infested with a chestburster, or whatever reason you could come up with. Just to throw in those scares. We’d sometimes have another survivor come screaming out of a dark corner in the middle of a tour who needed to be protected and taken elsewhere. Yeah, we would throw in some things right down … from just chucking in a couple of extra alien scares, that wouldn’t normally be in there, right down to putting a plant with the touring group from the very moment they would enter the briefing, who could then be horribly murdered in front of them. So, yeah, we liked to mix it up.”

Sadly however, like a young movie star overdosing and being taken from us too early, its runtime was cut short when, after just three years, Alien War was closed following a serious flood at the venue in August 1996. There was so much damage to the extremely advanced audio and visual effects equipment that the experience was deemed too expensive to repair.

That didn’t stop Allen, Gillies and others trying to relaunch it though.

“About two years ago, Gary got in touch regarding a separate project. After a few meetings I said we should be reviving Alien War if we’re reviving a scare attraction project. It’s the perfect timing, there’s new alien movies coming out. There’s definitely an audience for it. And the Crystal Maze had been revived through a crowd funding basis and was looking to be a huge success.

“We pulled in a couple of backers and we started making the plans to revive it. We got in touch with 20th Century Fox and started negotiating with them. And it was all going fabulously…and then as often happens with these projects, the plug was just pulled. We were just suddenly told no, with no explanation. Just, yeah, we don’t want it anymore.”

“And then just a few weeks ago we spotted that Alien Escape has opened at Madame Tussaud’s in London. So, it would seem that we were negotiating in parallel with them negotiating with Merlin, the parent company of Tussaud’s. Who, we knew had always had their eyes on the Alien War format. So, I mean we wish them all the best and all luck to them, but I guarantee it won’t be as scary as Alien War would have been.”

Indeed, the idea of Alien War had also caught the eye of Disney, not long after it opened at the Trocadero. ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter was a “theater-in-the-round” attraction in the Tomorrowland section of the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World Resort that opened 18 months after, in June of 1995. It proved very popular and was finally closed eight years later in October 2003, however, it was slightly different in that the audience were strapped to seats through most of the experience.

“We were very keen to revive it. I thought the timing was perfect for it. We’d worked on fantastic designs, I was working with a very talented robotics engineer who was going to develop some of the fantastic animatronics we were going to have in the system. We were going to seriously upgrade the audio technology and incorporate speakers into the Pulse Rifle so we could have full mobility again and feature alien attacks absolutely anywhere in the compound, including facehuggers, because the technology exists now.

“Such a shame.” Yes it is. Alien War still very much remains in the memory of those who took part and perhaps one day, it might live again.

Now…read on for an idea of what the experience was actually like

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