The Dead Past

by Issac Asimov
Adapted by Jeremy Paul

Even without his name on the credits, I could have guessed this was an Asimov tale, since it has his common themes of extrapolating a scientific fantasy theory in a realistic fashion, and linking it with the idea of a group of experts manipulating society with sociological techniques for its greater good. It’s a model that can be found in novels like End of Eternity, Caves of Steel and the Foundation series. Furthermore the plot is essentially a series of debates between scientists and other experts, a form he uses in a lot of his stories. It is an odd bird of an episode, starting as criticism of science that is led by politicians and big business, moving into time travel of a kind, then ending up with a twist that this story’s apparent villains might have been in the right after all.

In the not too distant future, Arnold Potterley is obsessed with proving his theory that ancient Carthage was not the barbaric civilization that history has painted it. Unfortunately he cannot get any access to the famous Chronoscope, despite his impeccable credentials.The Chronoscope is a device which can project pictures and sound from the past. The government owns the only model and publishes a monthly report based on its discoveries. Potterley persuades a young physicist called Jonas Foster to ignore the strict rules which effectively control all scientific research in the future and investigate the abandoned field of chronoscophy, with the goal of building his own private machine in the basement of his house. However when he does, the two men make a series of unhappy and far-reaching discoveries.

There are some fascinating ideas in this episode that have not really dated at all. In fact the basic story would fit perfectly into an episode of Black Mirror. Potterley initially thinks of the machine as a way of studying ancient history, but his wife Caroline is only interested in revisiting her own history, those years containing their daughter who died at a tragically young age. But even Potterley can see the seductive dangers of reliving the past. “Watching those years, over and over until you go mad?” he tries to warn her. “Parents looking for their children. Children searching for their dead parents. Old men trying to relive their lost youth! Mankind would be living in the dead past!” But it is government minister Thaddeus Araman (a very Asimov name!) who points out the even greater danger of the scope. “What is history? History is one second ago.” This time machine has become the ultimate surveillance device, worse the ultimate voyeur tool, able to show anything from anyone’s life with no possible prevention. In today’s CCTV, social media and selfie obsessed world, the idea has even more resonance. In light of this, the government’s attempts to quash any possible research into the device seem very understandable. However the fact that they keep their machine working and clearly make lots of use of it, weakens their moral authority. Of course their intentions are ultimately doomed, scientific knowledge can always be rediscovered. There’s also a small sub-plot warning about the dangers of scientific research becoming too bureaucratic, individual scientists becoming too specialised and methodical in their knowledge so that they cannot make inspired connections.

Potterley is an interesting character. His pompousness and infatuation with Carthage is rather comical, but there is something slightly unnerving about him too with his clipped tones and buttoned down emotions. It is a fine performance from George Benson. His co-star James Maxell has the drier part as Foster, his dialogue filled with most of the scientific language and his character less defined. But he makes us believe in this conventional young man who imagination is fired and who finds an unexpected reckless streak within himself. Amongst all this discussion between intense academics are two outsider characters who bring some colour to the story. Willoughby Goddard is splendidly dyspeptic as Foster’s veteran journalist uncle and acts mostly as comic relief. Sylvia Coleridge gives a sympathetic portrait of repressed grief playing Caroline Potterley.

An enjoyable play of ideas rather than action. The Dead Past ends on a memorably downbeat image suggesting that Potterly and Araman’s worst fears are coming true. A sequel set in this world of potentially total surveillance by everyone would be challenging but exciting. Perhaps the closest we’ve come to it on television is my favourite Black Mirror episode The Entire History of You. I’m looking forward to the future Asimov adaptations in this anthology.

5 thoughts on “The Dead Past

  1. Hi Gaz, I’m really enjoying these reviews and this episode sounds amazing… It’d be interesting to imagine the machine in the hands of today’s government, or The Party in Orwell’s 1984. Did I say interesting? I suspect I mean terrifying…

    Look forward to the next review!


    1. Thanks a lot Tim. Delighted you’re enjoying my posts. Yes it’s a disturbing thought. And look how Black Mirror anticipated Dave Cameron and the pig! This series of reviews is getting some great responses, which means a lot to me. More to come soon!


  2. I found the George Benson twist/subplot, about fearing his wife would discover he’d killed their daughter with an unattended cigarette, strangely moving. It also tied in with the Carthage/Moloch theme of child sacrifice by fire, giving an even more sinister edge – apparently the producer kept the Moloch statue in her house for decades afterwards! It would’ve creeped me out.


    1. It was a good moment, well acted. One thing I forgot to mention was the opening. The nightmare followed by the close up of the statue had an unexpected horror vibe for a SF series.


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