The Tunnel Under the World

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:

  1. The Machine Stops
  2. The Tunnel Under the World
  3. Level 7
  4. Lambda 1

Next stop – colour!

The Midas Plague

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:

  1. Thirteen to Centaurus
  2. Stranger in the Family
  3. Time in Advance
  4. The Midas Plague
  5. The Dead Past
  6. The Counterfeit Man
  7. Some Lapse of Time
  8. Sucker Bait
  9. No Place Like Earth
  10. Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come..?