Little Lost Robot

I have to admire the BFI for digging out some real obscurities for their fantasy and science fiction range of releases. Having done a splendid job restoring and releasing all the existing Out of the Unknown episodes in a box set, they have also brought out a single disc containing all the remains of its 1962 ITV predecessor Out of this World. I recently received it as a Christmas present. The brainchild of ground-breaking TV producer Irene Shubik, and an off-shoot of the prestigious ITV series Armchair Theatre, Out of this World was a thirteen part anthology of science fiction stories, mostly adapted from the page. Sadly only one complete episode still exists – Little Lost Robot.

Top robot psychologist Susan Calvin is summoned to a spacebase orbiting Saturn, where she is shocked to discover that the local robots have had their most basic rule, “No robot may harm a human or allow a human to come to harm,” reprogrammed to allow them to work on a secret military project. Now one of the robots has taken an engineer’s angry command to “Get lost” literally and has disguised itself amongst twenty-one identical robots due to shipped to another base. Susan must track down the fugitive before an intelligent robot capable of murder escapes.

It is an entertaining episode, even if it doesn’t quite capture the cleverness of Isaac Asimov’s original short story. In the original, part of his celebrated collection I, Robot, Susan Calvin explains the because the First Law has been changed to “No Robot may kill a human”, the Second Law “A robot must obey, where that order does not contradict the First Law” has now taken precedence. In fact as long as the robot is obeying “Get lost!”, this means the Third Law “A robot must preserve its own existence where this does not contradict the First or Second Law.” is now its driving motivation. Making this robot a determined escape artist that will use all its superhuman abilities to avoid being discovered.

This logical dilemma is never properly explained, in fact Asimov’s famous Three Laws are never fully stated. Rather people talk in more vague terms about the robot being dangerous due to its reprogramming. It seems an odd oversight for an episode with plenty of time for discussion and the usually fastidious Irene Shubik in charge. What this adaptation does add is more emotion to all the characters, especially Susan Calvin. In Asimov’s stories she is famously cool and logical, rather like Mr Spock but on television she is much more anxious and even flirtatious towards the end. There’s even a classic example of “mansplaining” as the supposed top expert in robotics has some elements described to her by her male assistant. At least she gets in a dry retort to him. The Chief Engineer is also developed into a character who resents the robots for their seeming air of superiority.

Production-wise the play can be regarded as good for its time. All the sets have a stage backdrop quality to them, but at least they are solid and practical and not in the slightest Flash Gordon-esque. The robots themselves do look as if they have been made for a school production but their blank, slightly Cyberman-like, faces are effective in close-up. The costume also forces the actors to waddle along, which is regrettably humorous. The production has that filmed-as-live-theatre style of direction which was typical of most television drama of the time. Yet for me at least the episode never drags.

Boris Karloff introduces and concludes the episode as the Host. He did quite a few of these hosting roles in later life, his mellifluous voice and urbane presence ideally suited the job. The most famous of these show was probably Thriller and another was a supernatural series called The Veil. His contribution here is probably about a minute long. Aside from Boris the rest of the cast is filled with actors who were familiar television faces of the time. Susan Calvin is played by Maxine Audley, probably best remembered now for her part in the notorious horror movie Peeping Tom.

As I said earlier very little of this series still exists, nevertheless BFI have done their best with the extras. Little Lost Robot is presented as a film print and a VIDFIRE version to replicate the way it would looked in 1962. Collectors of the Doctor Who DVDs will know the latter process as it has been used on nearly all the black and white episodes. There is interesting commentary featuring producer Leonard White and actor Mark Ward, hosted by Toby Hadoke, who has done similar duties on Out of the Unknown and Doctor Who.  Two further episodes exist as audio-only recordings: Cold Equations – a classic drama about an astronaut who discovers he has a stowaway on board who threatens his whole mission, and Imposter – a man is accused of being an alien construct, the only television adaptation to date of a Philip K Dick story. Both have been cleaned-up as much as possible and are presented here. There is also a PDF script of another missing story Dumb Martian. Finally there is an excellently written eighteen page booklet on the history of the series and the thirteen stories.

This DVD makes an excellent companion piece to Out of the Unknown, especially now it has come down in price to under £10. It is fascinating to watch this rare bit of British science fiction history and respect ABC for producing adult SF at a time when it was pretty rare on television.

Sucker Bait

By Isaac Asimov
Adapted by Meade Roberts

Mark Annuncio is a genius at making connections between often seemingly unrelated facts. He is one of a rare breed of humans called Mnenomics. He is also utterly unable to connect with other people, comes over as neurotic, rude, and requires a special handler who acts as his go-between with the rest of society. Now a set-up like that sounds a TV series all in itself. The brilliant but weird investigator and his “Watson” has been a popular formula in recent years. So it is a little surprising that Mark’s condition and his relationship with Dr Sheffield is just a side issue in this very science orientated episode. As with the earlier The Dead Past, Asimov is most concerned with the over-specialisation of scientists and the way that can cause them to miss vital discoveries.

Chartered spaceship the Gordon G Grundy is taking a party of scientists on a secret mission to the planet Troas, to discover what killed an entire colony. Amongst them is the intense and unpopular Mark Annuncio, raised to be a kind of human super computer. There seems to no obvious reason why the pioneers died. As outbreaks of mania begin affecting the scientists, the question arises, is the planet really inhabited after all by some kind of hostile lifeform?

Autism as a phrase may have been coined in 1938 but it is only relatively recently that it has come into the mainstream. Certainly watching this episode today, Mark clearly seems to be on the autistic spectrum, obsessed with learning facts, having no understanding of humour or metaphors, flying into violent anger when he is frustrated. What is disturbing is the suggestion that he has been deliberately made this way. Early on Dr Sheffield explains to the ship’s captain that mnenomics are raised in isolation from the age of five, trained to absorb knowledge and kept away from any human contact that might “contaminate” their minds and form normal patterns of behaviour. Even if the child was already diagnosed as autistic, this sounds like a horrific kind of child abuse, yet Dr Sheffield is unperturbed and the captain makes no protest either. There is a whole story just there and potentially a better one than the scientific investigation that follows.

Sucker Bait is a serious minded play of ideas rather than action. As with many Asimov stories it essentially a series of conversations between scientists about a fantastical problem. This leads to the cast manfully tackling a host of jargon filled dialogue. The summit comes in the scene where Sheffield, a psychologist by profession, tricks the arrogant leader of the expedition Cinam into panicking over a made-up theory about Troas’ twin suns causing psychosis. Actor John Mellion has to deliver a whole stream of made-up science and it no wonder he has to take quite a few deep breaths and look slightly glassy eyed at points.

The technology of Television Centre is also stretched uncomfortably. The set rattles alarmingly whenever someone walks on the metal gangway and clanking sounds can be heard distractingly off-camera in some scenes. The planet surface is a claustrophobic rocky set where the astronauts frequently seem to be weaving around each other since there is so little space.

At the end the revelation of what has been killing the colonists comes as something of an anti-climax. I remember reading this story and I think it works better on the page. It is logical and ingenious but the whole scene feels a bit flat. Perhaps in part because we have just found out that a potentially exciting climax involving mutiny and the scientists being marooned on the deadly planet all took place off-screen between scenes. Yet its last moments are quietly affecting. Mark, who has been played well by young Clive Endersby, stares out at deep space and confesses that this mission has made him aware of his own mortality for the first time. “And there’s so much left to learn.” he says plaintively. The captain, who earlier been so hostile to his odd passenger, allows him to remain on the command deck this time, counting the stars.