Return to the Unknown

It has been a real pleasure to watch and review this British Film Institute box set of Out of the Unknown. Just to wrap up this series, I thought I would take a look at the collection itself – seven DVD’s in a sturdy plastic case and cardboard sleeve. We have been particularly fortunate that after announcing the release, the BFI listened to and cooperated with a group of classic television enthusiasts to produce a remarkably complete collection, for a programme which is regrettably missing so many episodes. The four reconstructed episodes, eleven commentaries, photo galleries, interview with director James Cellan Jones and the forty two minute documentary Return to the Unknown are all high quality fan contributions. Many of these contributors also worked on the Doctor Who DVD range, another series featuring a very high standard of DVD extras.

In fact the documentary Return to the Unknown has a format familiar to any one who has collected the timelord’s adventures. A collection of talking heads filmed against white, interspersed with vintage photos, BBC documents and apposite video clips. It is a warm tribute to all four seasons, with plenty of fond reminiscences and little in the way of controversy. There is predictably alot of anecdotes about the relatively primitive production facilities of time but also the way BBC2 encouraged innovation. Interesting to note that with Head of Drama Sydney Newman overseeing the series, he once again set up a science fiction series with a young female producer Irene Shubik, assisted by a veteran BBC man George Spenton-Foster, in the same way that Doctor Who began with Verity Lambert and associate producer Mervyn Pinfield. At times the narration does irritatingly present opinion as fact, for example that the surviving episode of season three The Last Lonely Man was also one of the finest. Mark Ward – author of the excellent guide to the series published by Kaleidoscope, contributes as well but he comes across as a little too enthusiastic and uncritical, seeming to describe every episode he mentions as “one of the best ever dramas”.

Without the time to cover the whole series in depth, certain episodes are singled out for more detailed treatment including The Machine Stops, Second Childhood and the Issac Asimov robot stories.The best part of the documentary for me were the intriguing clips from the missing episodes. Wendy Craig is on good form as the reluctant new owner of a handsome robot servant in Satisfaction Guaranteed. Several recoloured scenes from Liar! suggest that it was particularly good story and that Ian Ogilvy gave a brilliant performance as Herbie the telepathic robot. Even the striking end credits of The Fox and the Forest and Andover and the Android are tantalising. We learn that the former was only broadcast the once due to the unusually high repeat fees demanded by Ray Bradbury. In fact, another nice touch to the documentary is that the end credits are done in the same striking graphic design as those of the first two seasons.

Most of the contributors to the documentary also turn up in the commentaries, moderated by comedian and writer Toby Hadoke, a safe pair of hands for these, having hosted a fair number of the commentaries of the later classic Doctor Who DVD releases. He always does his research, has a deep knowledge and love for British telefantasy, and also possess an engaging manner which usually brings out the best in his speakers. As a result the commentaries are all of a pretty good standard, even if the passing decades means the contributors rarely have detailed memories of the filming, beyond one or two particular moments. Although often the onscreen action will provoke some extra thoughts, even if it is just amusement at the costumes.

The image galleries on every disc are impressive, with all the episodes getting some coverage. James Cellan Jones, director of Beach Head gives an informative interview but I could have used some photos to break up the static shot of him talking. What I did not realise until I looked him up was the length and success of his directing career, from Compact in 1963 to Holby City in 2001, by way of many TV movies and mini-series. The Deathday film inserts, which are seen on a television in the background of the episode, do not add anything beyond adding to the box set’s feeling of completeness. Finally there is the excellently written booklet by Mark Ward, as well as a useful episode guide. From this 42 page booklet we can learn enjoyable trivia such as the original intention to have Vincent Price introducing each episode, in the way Boris Karloff had for Out of this World. That the series might have been called 12 Tomorrows. Or that record producer and well-known science fiction fan Ian Levine tried to revive the series in 1981.

This box set is one of the highlights of the BFI’s television range and it is hard to see how it could be much improved upon unless more episodes are uncovered, which seems unlikely now. Picture and sound quality have been restored to a good standard and the inclusion of the reconstructions is a pleasant bonus. It is still quite a pricey set but for fans of BBC science fiction and the so-called golden age of science fiction represented by Asimov, Bradbury, Wyndham et al this is great viewing.

You can read more details and learn where to order it from on the BFI site.

Below is a complete episode guide and a checklist of all my episode reviews, in case you would like to read more of them. Thanks for checking with me and the encouraging comments. I will be back to this blog with more cult reviews in the future, but my next posts will be concentrating on my current theatre work.

Season 1
No Place Like Earth
The Counterfeit Man
Stranger in the Family
The Dead Past
Time in Advance
Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come..?
Sucker Bait
The Fox and the Forest
Andover and the Android
Some Lapse of Time
Thirteen to Centaurus
The Midas Plague

Season 2
The Machine Stops
Frankenstein Mark II
Lambda 1
Level 7
Second Childhood
The World in Silence
The Eye
The Tunnel Under the World
The Fastest Draw
Too Many Cooks
Walk’s End
Satisfaction Guaranteed
The Prophet

Season 3
Immortality Inc
Liar!
The Last Lonely Man
Beach Head
Something in the Cellar
Random Quest
The Naked Sun
The Little Black Bag
1 + 1 = 1.5
The Fosters
Target Generation
The Yellow Pill
Get Off My Cloud

Season 4
Taste of Evil
To Lay a Ghost
This Body is Mine
Deathday
The Sons and Daughters of Tomorrow
Welcome Home
The Last Witness
The Man in My Head
The Chopper
The Uninvited
The Shattered Eye

 

No Place Like Earth

I enjoy SF TV anthologies a great deal. American television has tended to dominate this field from The Twilight Zone downwards, but the BBC has provided a handful of worthy entries, none more so than Out of the Unknown. As I was growing up it was a series that was an intriguing mystery for me. Mentioned in passing during articles on Doctor Who but fairly undocumented in the main. Certainly never repeated. I caught up with a few episodes in my tape-trading days but I never thought that an official box set would emerge as handsome as the one that has.

Beginning in 1965 and running for four seasons on BBC2, Out of the Unknown was the brainchild of producer Irene Shubik. An experienced story editor who had worked on the acclaimed ABC anthology Armchair Theatre, she had a long-standing love of literary science fiction and felt intelligent, notable short stories and novels would make good thought-provoking television drama. She probably also wanted to prove that SF could deal with adult dilemmas, as well as simple juvenile escapism.

I recently received the British Film Institute’s splendid Out of the Unknown DVD box set for Christmas. A talented team has not only expertly restored all the existing episodes in the BBC archives, but added four reconstructions of lost episodes, created some interesting looking extras and finished it off with a scholarly booklet on the history of the series. So I thought it might be a fun idea to share my thoughts of the series with you as I watch it.

No Place Like Earth
by John Wyndham
Adapted by Stanley Miller

What is it about most anthology titles sequences that they tend to the sinister? It’s hard to think of any that do not have a feeling of impending threat to them. Out of the Unknown is no different, a sequence of abstract images (including a fear-struck man’s face) whilst Norman Kay’s music features a swooping harp and muted horns that end on a note of suspense. Man is definitely not going boldly to the final frontier here, he is treading warily. It is an effective opening though and feels very much of its Sixties era.

Earth has been destroyed and the remains of humanity are surviving on several small colonies. One of them is Mars, where Bert drifts along the canals, trading his repair skills for provisions and dreaming of the old days. Annika, the mother of one of his favourite Martian families is keen for him to marry her eldest daughter, but Bert is restless. His answer seems to come when a ship arrives from Venus, recruiting men to create a new Earth on that planet. But he soon finds that Venus is far from the brave new start he hoped for.

Based on two Wyndham stories stitched together, Time to Rest and No Place Like Earth, this opening installment still feels a bit padded out. Apparently producer Irene Shubik was unhappy with how the episode had turned out and wanted to launch with The Counterfeit Man by Alan E Nourse but was overruled by head of drama Sydney Newman who preferred using a more famous author. With its canals, noble savage Martians and a jungle Venus it is clearly a whimsical science fantasy and old-fashioned even by Sixties standards. The elegiac theme of Bert’s nostalgia for an Earth that never was recalls to something of the later chapters of The Martian Chronicles, except Bradbury’s stories are richer and their fantastical elements are more clearly shown to be a deliberate style of the novel with his re-imaging of Mars as the American mid-west. It’s not a bad story by any means and well-acted, but it often just plods and everything is spelled out when it could have been left as subtext. The biggest offender is an elderly Venus colonist who gives a long long speech describing the oppressive crooked society that has arisen on Venus since the Earth’s destruction. However Terrance Morgan is a good lead as the idealistic dreamer Bert and it is fine to see a young bewitching Hannah Gordon as Zaylo, the Martian maid who wants to domesticate him.

Designer Peter Seddon’s set for the Martian ruins is an excellent creation, recalling Egyptian and Mayan architecture. The spacesuits and Venus overalls are somewhat cartoonish by comparison but the realisation of the primitive native Venusians is quite clever in using stocking masks to obscure their faces.

Reading the booklet I discovered this episode under-ran by six minutes. It did not feel like that. I think better is to come.