by E M Forester
Adapted by Clive Donner and Kenneth Cavender
It is remarkable to think that the original short story was written in 1909. Right now there is probably a student somewhere writing a SF story about a world where people spend all their time looking at smartphone screens or VR goggles, interacting with others solely through an advanced Internet, and suffering by losing all contact with the real world. That student will probably think they are responding with an original take on today’s First World culture, but The Machine Stops got there first. At one point the rebellious Kuno states that The Machine has destroyed relationships, at which his mother points at her console and says, nonsense she has over a thousand friends. An obvious joke about Facebook, but made in 1966. The story remains a prescient warning about the dangers of over-reliance on technology and its potentially dehumanising effects. E M Forester wrote his cautionary tale as a response to H G Wells’ utopian visions of a hi-tech future. Although to be fair H G Wells himself wrote about the dangers of scientific progress, alongside his more optimistic predictions for technology. Out of the Unknown’s adaptation of the story remains one of its best and most celebrated episodes
The distant future. Following an unexplained apocalypse, humanity lives underground inside a highly advanced technological system which covers the world, called The Machine. People live most of their lives alone inside cubicles, which provide for their every need, communicating only by video or intercom. Procreation and deaths are organised and carefully balanced by the Central Committee. Rationality, science and humanism are the keystones of this civilisation, but secretly many have begun worshipping The Machine, treating their rule-books like bibles. One day university lecturer Vashti receives a message from one of her sons, Kuno, pleading with her to visit him and telling her his plan to visit the surface. When she eventually does travel to his cubicle, he tells her a shocking tale of what happened when he broke the rules and used a secret tunnel to reach the outside world.
This is a simple story and message in many way, yet it has the power and depth of a classic fable. Part of its appeal is the remorseless logic of this society. There is no evil dictator or sinister alien race ultimately behind The Machine, just a succession of decisions made by people ever since they took shelter underground. Personal choices made by individuals to use technology more and more, to increasingly distance themselves from unpredictable others with a barrier of safe electronic communication. That’s a society we can all too easily understand (says I as I write this blog entry). Paradoxically even with the information about The Machine’s workings written down, every generation increasingly relies on the automatic systems. Vital skills and responsibilities become dulled or lost completely. The Machine itself is not a monster. It does not even have a consciousness. It is simply following its programming to maintain an underground society and logically that includes breeding humans to become increasingly passive and weaker so that they fit into the system easier. Early on we learn Kuno has been denied reproductive rights because the computers have detected him building up his muscles and becoming too active. Such a reductive system is leading to an inevitably grim conclusion for supposedly civilised humanity. E M Forester’s story has had a big influence on science fiction. Films like THX 1181 owe an obvious debt to it and the general scenario of a complacent technologically advanced society being undone by itself, except for a few young rebels who question the status quo it is a very familiar pattern.
Producer Irene Shubik described this production as one of the hardest jobs she ever had, with its budget stretching requirements for complex futuristic sets, robot tentacles, a monorail, and much of the story set in a small room with a seated actor talking to nothing. Yet director Philip Saville and his team succeeded brilliantly. This is an episode where everything comes together. Its sets and costumes are effective and have not dated too badly compared to many designs seen in season one or say Doctor Who. There is an interesting organic quality to their shapes, despite being entirely mechanical in appearance. Saville’s direction is bold, using fast cutting montages to convey the characters’ confusion, theatrical noir-ish lighting inside The Machine and crisp cold photography on the sunlit surface. The robot tentacles could have been risible but actually come across as menacing as they slither over the grass, thanks in no small part to the electronic sounds created by the Radiophonic Workshop. Incidentally, a particular throbbing sound effect heard at the opening of the episode will be instantly familiar to Doctor Who fans as the background to the Land of Fiction.
The performances are sympathetic to the material too. Established film and stage actress Yvonne Mitchell is excellent as Vashti. Amongst her other credits, she played Julia in the legendary 1954 BBC adaptation of 1984. From the start her haughtiness and complacency is subtly undercut by moments of nervousness and doubt. Even as she sings the praises of life under The Machine, we sense this is a hard but brittle carapace to cover her fears. There’s even some drollness. Complaining to a friend about her request for euthanasia being rejected, she sighs “I am the most unfortunate of women!” It’s just a shame that towards the end as she is marvellously depicting first her growing hysteria and then maternal tenderness, her bald cap is distractingly evident. Michael Gothard is a familiar face from countless British film and television roles, perhaps most famously as the henchman Locque in For Your Eyes Only. He equally impressive as the robust yet slightly hysterical free-thinker Kuno. This angry young man could come across as petulant but Gothard gives him heroism in the way he strives on when obviously being afraid during his escape attempt. Together, the two leads prevent this story become a dry discussion, thanks to their relationship, antagonism with an undercurrent of yearning to be closer. Elsewhere a subtle point is made by Nike Arrighi, who plays the stewardess aboard the airship Vashti uses to travel to meet Kuno. Being regularly exposed to the outside world, albeit flying high above it, her whole demeanour is noticeably more relaxed and natural. A well observed cameo.
This episode subsequently won First Prize at the Fifth Festival Internazionale del Film di Fantascienza (International Science Fiction Film Festival) in Trieste on 17 July 1967. Incidentally BBC Worldwide did consider releasing Out of the Unknown on VHS in the 1990s’ and this would have been the first episode released, in a double bill with another story, similar to the way Blake’s 7 was being sold. However the disappointing sales of Adam Adamant Lives! and Doomwatch discouraged the idea.
The final downbeat conclusion with flailing, crawling inhabitants and flickering lighting is theatrical yet still haunting. I raved about Thirteen to Centaurus a few weeks ago, but right now I think The Machine Stops is the best episode I’ve seen so far.