Out Of The Unknown – The Pioneering British Science Fiction TV Series

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The classic and literary BBC sci-fi series from the 1960s.

While American shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits are – rightly – seen as the pinnacle of 1960s science fiction anthology shows, there was another series, made by the BBC in the same era, that deserves just as much appreciation. That Out of the Unknown has never quite found that appreciation – despite a BFI box set released a few years ago – is down to several reasons. The most significant is the constant problem surrounding British TV of the era – namely that many episodes are missing, believed wiped. Like many important TV shows of this time, a number of episodes of the series were wiped because videotape was at a premium and no one placed any value on these shows (you’ll be unsurprised to hear that sports broadcasts rarely befell the same fate). On top of this, there is the fact that, as was standard procedure at the time, the show was shot on a mix of film (for exteriors) and videotape (for interiors), the latter inevitably looking either weak and blurry or flat and garish by modern standards, and this does put many viewers off. But we would suggest looking beyond the technical and instead appreciating the storytelling – because Out of the Unknown featured many impressive episodes that ought to be seen as science fiction (and horror) classics.

But before we get to the series, we need to hop across the channels for another series.

Out of This World was broadcast on Saturday nights in 1962. Produced by ABC – who was the most science fiction-friendly of the ITV companies – it was produced by Irene Shubik, who was determined to make an adult, intelligent science fiction series, adapting the work of major writers in a major step away from juvenile shows like Pathfinders in Space. Each episode was introduced by Boris Karloff – an old hand at this sort of thing after his Thriller series – and the show was critically well-received – all the more depressing that it is now lost.

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This sole surviving episode is based on Isaac Asimov’s Little Lost Robot, one of the stories featured in his I, Robot anthology (and the only one to have any narrative connection to the film of that name). Shot on videotape, it has a crudeness of approach – in common with most British TV of the era, the theatrical traditions and the habits formed in the world of live TV included a determination to keep going no matter what, so if someone fluffs a line, they simply have to make the best of it. The low budget also means that the robots are rather crude affairs, and in the single scene where one of them has to do something dramatic, the costume unfortunately rides up, revealing a rather too human form underneath. That the show works so well despite these problems is a testament to both the original story and the determinedly serious approach with which it is adapted.

On a space station near Saturn, a frustrated scientist, Black (Gerald Flood) tells a robot assistant to ‘get lost’ – which it promptly does, secreting itself in with a cargo load of identical robots. This might not be a problem normally, but it seems that the robots on this station have been modified, reducing their subservience to Asimov’s three laws of robotics. While they are still forbidden to harm a human being, they are no longer forced to act to prevent a human being harmed. Quite why this modification took place remains a rather woolly plot point, but it does mean that the robot could be a threat if shipped out with the rest of the robots in the cargo hold. Yet to scrap them all would be a disastrous setback for the mission. Enter Robot Psychologist Dr Susan Calvin (Maxine Audley), a cold and officious character who admits right away that she cares little for humanity but does care about robots. Her mission is to find out which of the 21 robots is the rogue – a difficult task, as the robot in question seems determined not to be found and is not inclined to obey further orders.

The most obvious way of doing this seems to be to put a human in danger and see which robot fails to respond. But of course, our rogue is too clever to fall for that and responds in exactly the same way as the others. And so begins a cat and mouse game, as Calvin and the space station staff try to devise more cunning ways of tricking the robot into revealing himself.

This is fascinating stuff, with sharp performances and an intelligent screenplay more than compensating for the rather clunky sets, dodgy robot costumes and technical fluffs. The robots are, of course, dreadful, there’s no getting away from that. Even in 1962, these men-in-cheap-suits must’ve looked clunky. But the story is strong enough to ensure that after a while, they seem less grating, simply because we have been sucked into the mystery. And they are kept, for the most part, as static figures, which at least reduces the awkward moments where they have to walk.

The show asks challenging questions – the laws of robotics are, it would seem, more an agreement than an obligation, no matter what the humans might think. Certainly, by the end, there is the fear amongst the characters that the example of this rogue robot – seem by the others – could lead to trouble, despite the programming. The robots are, as Calvin points out, smarter and stronger than us – it’s only the law that keeps them in check, and if they can override the law, who knows what the results would be?

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Irene Shubik’s move to the BBC saw her revive the idea of a series of intelligent science fiction stories, based on existing literary works from the likes of Isaac Asimov, John Wyndham, J.G. Ballard and others. Such an idea would never make it past the ratings-obsessed committees these days, but in 1965, the series was greenlit and lasted four seasons over six years.

There are twenty surviving episodes from four seasons, and these are consistently high quality, with even the weakest stories having a certain something about them. The first two seasons are in black and white, and very much still in the theatrical tradition – these dramas were rehearsed and then shot almost as live, with multiple cameras. This gives a certain staginess at times, in common with most BBC drama of the period (and, indeed, far beyond it) – but once you get used to that, it isn’t an issue, and by and large, the quality of the stories is enough to draw you in and ignore the wobbly sets, theatrical performances and occasional fluffed lines.

The series opens with John Wyndham’s No Place Like Earth – not the strongest story, truth be told, but pushed to the front because of the author’s name recognition factor. A tale of disgruntled Martian settlers after the Earth has been destroyed, it does have a certain similarity in feel to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and is entertaining enough. But the subsequent episodes are rather better. The Counterfeit Man is the story of a shape-shifting alien that takes the form of a crewmember on a spaceship, with the ship’s doctor determined to expose it by driving it to the point of madness. With David Hemmings as the alien and a neat twist, this is fantastic stuff. Stranger in the Family tells the story of a young man with mysterious persuasive powers who is being chased by seemingly shady government forces, and Isaac Asimov’s The Dead Past is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ tale of an inventor who discovers a way of viewing the past in a future totalitarian state.

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Perhaps the first season highlight, Time in Advance posits the idea that you can be jailed for a crime you have yet to commit, leaving you free to carry it out upon release. Okay, it makes no logical sense – you’re still serving the sentence whether it’s before or after – but the story explores the idea of long-held resentment and what happens when those desires are frustrated by circumstance or your own sense of the futility in vengeance, as well as the way a license to kill can be used by corrupt third parties. Edward Judd and Mike Pratt play two men who are free to murder but discover that it isn’t as easy or straightforward as they think. It’s an impressive tale, well directed by future Hammer Films helmer Peter Sasdy.

Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…?
Is a whimsical tale of a man who cultivates intelligent plants, and grows increasingly dark as it goes on. The plants are suitably weird looking, and Milo O’Shea is impressive as the mentally unbalanced horticulturalist.

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Sucker Bait is another Asimov story, but perhaps the weakest of the first season with its tale of space colonists and Mnemonic Service operative Mark Annunzio (Clive Endersby) falling out on a mission. It fails to grip the imagination and rather fizzles out as a story. Some Lapse of Time, on the other hand, is another impressive story (by John Brunner) that sees time periods colliding and growing madness from doctor Max harrow (Ronald Lewis).

J.G. Ballard’s Thirteen to Centaurus is a fascinating tale of manipulation and control, with a space mission to colonise a new planet – taking place over several generations of travellers – proving to not quite be what it seems. The series ends with the comic tale The Midas Plague, a satire on consumerism where the more you have, the lower you status. Frederick Pohl’s story, complete with boozing robots, is slight but amusing and shows that the series wasn’t afraid to not take itself seriously from time to time.

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Series 2 opens with The Machine Stops, a dystopian tale of a future world where human contact is frowned upon and machines provide everything a person needs. But what would happen if the machines stopped? Unsettling and provocative, this E.M. Forster story is a great way to open the series.

Lambda 1, however, is a not especially gripping tale of space travel via atomical displacement. It’s not bad, but it feels a bit uninvolving. Rather better is Level 7, dramatised by J.B. Priestley of all people, and following the gradual decline of the staff of an underground bunker after World War 3, as they slowly realise that everyone else is dead and the radiation they assumed they would be safe from is gradually seeping down to them.

Frederick Pohl’s Tunnel Under the World is a biting satire about consumerism, with a couple reliving the same day over and over again, with only the relentless advertising that they see and hear changing. It’s a witty and provocative story with a neatly comic ending.

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For series 3, the show was shot in colour – but despite this, only one episode remains. At least it’s a fine one. The Last Lonely Man takes place in a world where the fear of death has been eliminated by ‘contact’ – a system that sees your consciousness transferred to another person the moment you die. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a Contact, life is rather terrifying. After a few beers, James Hale (George Cole) is persuaded o take on contactless loser Patrick Wilson (Peter Halliday), and quickly comes to regret it as he finds out just what sort of man he is. But before Hale can have him expunged, Wilson kills himself. A dark, paranoid tale, this John Brunner story is exactly what you want from science fiction television.

For the final series of Out of the Unknown, it was all change, right down to a new set of opening titles. In the wake of the Apollo Moon landings, it was considered that tales of interstellar travel wouldn’t seem so exciting any more, and the series moved into horror territory. It would be untrue to say that science fiction was abandoned, though, despite what some people have said – at least three of the surviving four episodes are as much sci-fi as horror, though of a more internalised, psychological style. No more trips out into space here – instead, it journeys into the human mind and uses mostly original stories rather than adaptations.

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The first surviving episode of this season is the controversial To Lay a Ghost. It’s ironic that this episode survived while others didn’t, because frankly, there is no chance of this ever being shown on British TV again – it would cause outrage with its suggestion that not only could a woman enjoy rape, but might actually want to experience it again. The woman in question is Lesley Anne Down as Diana, who we first see as a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl being raped by a tramp in the woods. Some years later, she’s married to Eric Carver, though her ongoing trauma means that they have never consummated their marriage, no matter how gently he tries to persuade her. When they move to a country cottage, it soon becomes apparent that there is a malevolent spirit in the house – one that is using Diana to try and kill Eric. But she refuses to leave, and it soon becomes obvious why, as we discover that the ghost is an executed murderer and rapist, who has designs of Diana – designs she is not exactly upset about.

This is controversial stuff, to say the least, and the final scene is either genuinely unnerving or wildly misogynistic, depending on your point of view. Either way, it seems likely that this episode will be the cause of much vigorous discussion whenever it is seen. Even the title seems to be a tasteless pun.

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A theme of ‘betrayal by women’ actually seems to run through the surviving episodes. This Body is Mine is the tale of scientist Allen Meredith (John Carson) who perfects a mind-transfer device and tricks shifty businessman Jack Gregory (Jack Hedley) – who has been ripping him off for years – into using it. His plan is to use the businessman’s body to pay himself a big chunk of cash for the new invention, but he reckons without the assorted shady deals, mistresses and other aspects of the man’s life that will get in the way. Meanwhile, in Meredith’s body, Gregory is showing the scientist’s wife Ann (Alethea Charlton) he sort of good time that her dull husband could never dream off – will she really be keen on a switchback? Wittily satirical and with a fine, punchy ending, this is an impressive episode.

Deathday, based on the Angus Hall novel, is a tale of twitchily dull journalist Adam Crosse (Robert Lang), who finds his extraordinarily unpleasant wife Lydia (Lynn Farleigh) has been cheating on him and winds up murdering her. To throw the police off the scene, he invents Quilter (John Ronane), a character who has been sending him mocking letters – but then Quilter somehow becomes a real person. With a fine, unbalanced performance by Lang, a spot of nudity from Susan Glanville, a slick visual style and a twisting, if sometimes predictable story, this is a solid episode.

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Morris Farhi’s Welcome Home is another impressive psychological shocker, with Anthony Ainley as Bowers, a man who travels home after a hospital stay to find his wife Penny (Jennifer Hilary) no longer recognises him, and worse still that there is another Bowers (Bernard Brown) living in his house and claiming to be him. As other friends also claim not to know him and colleagues who do recognise him suddenly wind up dead, it seems as though Bowers is the subject of a massive conspiracy. But there’s more to this tale than meets the eye.

Mind games are also at work in the complex and sometimes almost incomprehensible The Man in My Head, where an army unit who have been pre-programmed with various personalities to suit each task at hand are sent to a foreign country to blow up a dam. As their mission hits blocks, the programming starts to unravel, leading them to not know what is real and what is fantasy. It’s a strange, difficult show and the final twist is something you’ll see coming a mile off, but it’s oddly effective nevertheless.

Out of the Unknown suffered from many of the problems that befell BBC genre production – a distrust of the genre by higher-ups, a somewhat inconsistent production schedule and general indifference to the series by the corporation – how else can we explain the shockingly poor treatment of the show into the 1970s? But if you have the opportunity, it is well worth checking the series out – while technically inferior to its better known American contemporaries, it is every bit their equal, and a rare exploration of literary fantasy drama on television.

DAVID FLINT

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