by Frederick Pohl
Adapted by Troy Kennedy-Martin
Graham Stark is probably best remembered for his various roles in the Pink Panther movies. He has had a long busy career as a character actor, but it is rather lovely to see him as the lead for a change, in this broad satire on capitalism and consumerism.
Free energy and robot labour means that future Britain should be a paradise for everyone. In fact, it has become an insane looking-glass world of oppressive consumerism. Whilst the rich one percent can enjoy simple, fulfilling lives, the poor majority are forced to constantly consume new furniture, cars, clothes and more, their houses crammed with goods and servant robots. Downtrodden junior executive Morrey and his wife Edwina are typical suburban prisoners of this life, until Morrey has had enough. He steals prototype “satisfaction circuits” from work and illegally modifies his home robots to become twenty four hour super-consumers on his behalf. In a world where ration avoidance is a crime, how long before his deception is discovered?
I have not read the original Pohl story so I do not know how farcical it is, but this television episode is firmly in Beyond the Fringe territory. Indeed, the opening scene, where Morrey is upbraided by his boss Wainwright for not consuming his allocated amount of food and goods, and being threatened with fewer working hours, is almost a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore skit in itself. Taken as an absurd comedy rather any kind of SF prophecy, this story is pretty entertaining even if it stretches it’s premise to almost dreamlike proportions. The most obvious element missing from this scenario is resources. Where is all the material for the factories coming from? What has happened to the pollution in such an industrialised society. It’s a reflection of how low environmental concerns were in most people’s consciousness back in 1965.
Troy Kennedy-Martin was already building up a reputation as television writer, with a couple of Wednesday Play‘s under his belt already. He provides a script full of entertainingly bizarre comic logic, particularly the courtroom scenes, where Morrey finds himself perpetually up in front of his stern father in law. The scenes with black fedora wearing People’s Revolutionaries are an entertaining caricature of the Socialist Worker party too. The satire rarely has laugh-out loud moments, but it is consistently amusing.
The scale of this episode, with a large cast of humans and robots apparently gave the production team quite a few headaches. The robots, all men in one-piece overalls with robot heads, are a simple design but effective, their mechnical caste system is indicated by the amount of detail in their faces, a neat bit of visual storytelling. Peter Sasdy directs it all cleverly, using some interesting overhead shots to emphasise the claustrophobia of Morrey and Edwina’s goods packed home.
Stark is excellent in as the everyman hero, quietly seething as a procession of house robots move around him in an early sequence. Later on he keeps our sympathies as he becomes a secret revolutionary and grows in confidence. Sam Kydd is equally good as the cheerful cockney burglar Fred. He puts items into other people’s houses rather than taking them out. Anne Lawson performs well as Morrey’s frustrated wife Edwina, although her character is basically a foil for him.
Ultimately Morrey discovers that rather like The Matrix, his whole society is essentially designed to exploit humans and organised to serve the remorseless logic of the robots. The solution initially seems childishly simple, but ties in with the cartoonish nature of the whole drama. The real ending comes next when, faced with life without labour-saving robots, the revolutionaries start compromising their ideals, leaving Morrey to break the fourth wall with a rueful sigh. Rather underlining the whole comedy sketch feel of this instalment.
PS. So ends series one of Out of the Unknown and I think it has been fascinating so far. Certainly more pluses and minuses and I love the respect with which the team have been approaching the genre. Here is my ranking of the existing episodes so far:
- Thirteen to Centaurus
- Stranger in the Family
- Time in Advance
- The Midas Plague
- The Dead Past
- The Counterfeit Man
- Some Lapse of Time
- Sucker Bait
- No Place Like Earth
- Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come..?