By Frederick Pohl
Adapted by David Campton
I can remember reading Frederick’s Pohl’s short story in an anthology many years ago and loving it, especially its shocking conclusion which felt very fresh at the time. Since then the idea of a protagonist discovering his seemingly ordinary life is in fact an elaborate construct has become a regular in books, television and cinema. Not just in SF but also thrillers. The Tunnel Under the World is an entertaining episode that feels oddly reassuring after watching three extremely dark episodes set in enclosed futuristic environments of one kind or another.
Guy and Mary Birkett have a pretty comfortable life in an modern urban town, which is dominated by the local chemical plant where Guy works. At least it would be comfortable if there weren’t so many intrusive advertising campaigns, from the front page of the morning newspaper to a loudspeaker car driving by blaring out slogans. Who is Mr Swanson, the man who keeps trying to contact Guy and tell him that tomorrow doesn’t exist? Why does Guy have an increasing sense of deja vu? Why does he wake up screaming every morning?
This is as close to the feel of The Twilight Zone as Out of the Unknown has come so far. With its suit-wearing executive hero, I was reminded of the Richard Matheson episode A World of Difference in particular, although it has a different theme. The SF mystery is delivered at a steady pace and plays fair with the viewer, building up its clues and strangeness in a well-constructed fashion. The Groundhog Day element is established early on, but the ultimate reason for it is still a good surprise and well achieved for the effects of the time. Television regular Ronald Hines is fine as the increasingly concerned Guy.
Ever since WWII, science fiction writers have frequently worried about the increasingly scientific appliance of propaganda and advertising. George Orwell wrote about the Ministry of Truth in 1984, and oppressive advertising campaigns have become something of a shorthand for futuristic dystopia. This story reflects a fear of men who believe they can control society through clever messages, and worse, the worry that such people could be right. Towards the end, the industrialist Spelman talks about his political ambitions, with the inference that he will gain power through propaganda rather than principles.
In the same way that television drama writers often fail to create believable youth culture on camera, so made-up advertising campaigns always seem extra phony. It my be that Mad Men cracked that problem, but I haven’t seen it. It is a shame, because it does take away a little from the story, because the adverts seen and heard in the series are so annoying. It’s also a little odd that no one watches television either in a sixties household. It is also slightly ironic that the most effective sales technique is still the old-fashioned personal touch, when Guy and Mary are both persuaded to buy fridges.
For a story that is all about a character questioning the reality of his surroundings, it’s a shame the house set has got a severe case of wobble on it. Most noticeably early on, when Guy reassures his wife that “At least this house is sturdy enough” and knocks on a wall that visibly quivers! It’s a shame because it undermines a later scene where Swanson discovers a brick wall that is actually wallpaper covering metal. The pressure of Sixties ‘as live’ recording also leads to actress Petra Davis noticeably stumbling over lines as she wakes up for the third time. A suitcase which is meant to hit Guy on the head clearly misses, forcing him to pretend to fall unconsciousness for no evident reason.
Late on in the story a rather charming robot appears, looking like two Bakelite radios placed on top of each other, with eyes on tubes that expressively extend and retract as it talks. I was glad to see they went to the trouble of creating this puppet for a relatively short amount of screen time and it is a fun moment.
Ultimately the story is about that modern feeling we’ve had since the industrial age began that we are not so much individuals as components in a system designed to exploit our humanity and make us permanently dissatisfied consumers, always being manipulated. Despite my nit-picking about the production, it’s a very enjoyable SF tale with a great final reveal. It is such a shame that most of this second season is missing from the archive, because Out of the Unknown really found its feet this series. Nevertheless my ranking goes as follows:
- The Machine Stops
- The Tunnel Under the World
- Level 7
- Lambda 1
Next stop – colour!