Little Lost Robot

Susan Calvin looks at a 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 who 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 shows was probably Thriller, whilst another was a supernatural series called The Veil. His contribution here is probably about a minute long. Aside from Karloff, 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, which was the only television adaptation of a Philip K Dick story until the big-budget US-UK production Electric Dreams. 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 the BFI’s Out of the Unknown box set, 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.

The Naked Sun

Elijah Bailey and Gladia in the park

by Issac Asimov
Adapted by Robert Muller

I remember reading Issac Asimov’s SF detective novels as a teenager, so I was particularly interested in how they would adapt this story. Unfortunately, in compressing and simplifying the book’s plot to fit fifty minutes scripter Robert Muller loses much of what made the original so entertaining. The most obvious problem is that our hero Bailey has to make one or two almost magical leaps of deduction that are barely supported by the given evidence. It does not help that The Naked Sun is very much a sequel to The Caves of Steel, previously script edited by Irene Shubik for BBC’s Story Parade back in 1964. So certain aspects like Bailey’s relationship with robot partner R Daneel Olivaw are taken as read. The whole story feels like a continuation, with episode one missing.

New York detective Elijah Bailey is summoned to the planet Solaria to investigate the seemingly impossible murder of respected scientist Rikaine, the first crime on the planet for two centuries. Solaria’s population is a mere two thousand people and virtually all of them live solitary lives on their own estates with an army of robot servants, communicating with others via holograms and monitors. The only possible suspect seems to be Rikaine’s glamorous wife Gladia who was with him on one of her rare conjugal visits, but Bailey suspects she has been framed by someone else. Confined to his own house and suffering from agoraphobia thanks to living in an enclosed city all his life, Bailey and his android partner R Daneel Olivaw must break through the taboos of this neurotic society to uncover the real culprit.

Future Earth is regarded as a backwater in humanity’s galactic empire and its inhabitants regarded as little better than trailer park dwellers by ‘spacers’ and their descendants. So there is an irony in an Earth detective being required to solve a crime. This class distinction runs deeply through the story. Think Columbo where most episodes center on the shabby ‘tec outwitting a rich upper-class murderer. This episode is sadly missing the irony of a member of a despised segment of society investigating and exposing his ‘betters’. Also in the book, Bailey is unfit, agoraphobic and out of his depth in this strange robotised society, surrounded by suspects who physically and mentally superior. Although this element is still in the dialogue, with the detective frequently being dismissed as a “primitive”, casting a handsome and athletic Paul Maxell underminds it. Particularly when most of the Solarians are played by gnarled looking middle-aged men in bizarre wigs.The obvious exception is femme fatal Gladia, played well by actress/singer Trisha Noble, wearing a series of exotic space fashions.

Condensing the plot, Muller concentrates on the crime of passion and the theme of the spacers’ repressed humanity. Nevertheless the murder is part of a larger conspiracy which cannot be ignored entirely. However it comes across unsatisfyingly, dropped in almost at the end with a speech that goes something like. “He was the murderer, and by the way, he had a plan to conquer the universe with a robot army too.”

This time the robots are essentially men with dark glasses and monkish robes in vinyl. Amongst them I glimpsed one of Doctor Who‘s regular monster actors John Scott Martin.

Once again Derek Handley and his Loose Canon friends do a respectable job with reconstructing this lost episode, despite having even fewer photographs to work with and some missing audio too. Probably the biggest problem comes near the start, where due to reusing a single photo, Elijah seems to be grinning continually through the first five minutes or so.

The Naked Sun is a straightforward tale that covers some of the same ground as The Machine Stops with its warnings about over-dependence on technology and the importance of physical contact. I suspect I would have enjoyed it more if I could have watched the actual episode but at least this version preserves some evidence of what was the BBC’s most elaborate Asimov adaptation.

The Dead Past

Two scientists with futuristic machine

by Issac Asimov
Adapted by Jeremy Paul

Even without his name on the credits, I could have guessed this was an Asimov tale, since it has his common themes of extrapolating a scientific fantasy theory in a realistic fashion, and linking it with the idea of a group of experts manipulating society with sociological techniques for its greater good. It’s a model that can be found in novels like End of Eternity, Caves of Steel and the Foundation series. Furthermore the plot is essentially a series of debates between scientists and other experts, a form he uses in a lot of his stories. It is an odd bird of an episode, starting as criticism of science that is led by politicians and big business, moving into time travel of a kind, then ending up with a twist that this story’s apparent villains might have been in the right after all.

In the not too distant future, Arnold Potterley is obsessed with proving his theory that ancient Carthage was not the barbaric civilization that history has painted it. Unfortunately he cannot get any access to the famous Chronoscope, despite his impeccable credentials.The Chronoscope is a device which can project pictures and sound from the past. The government owns the only model and publishes a monthly report based on its discoveries. Potterley persuades a young physicist called Jonas Foster to ignore the strict rules which effectively control all scientific research in the future and investigate the abandoned field of chronoscophy, with the goal of building his own private machine in the basement of his house. However when he does, the two men make a series of unhappy and far-reaching discoveries.

There are some fascinating ideas in this episode that have not really dated at all. In fact the basic story would fit perfectly into an episode of Black Mirror. Potterley initially thinks of the machine as a way of studying ancient history, but his wife Caroline is only interested in revisiting her own history, those years containing their daughter who died at a tragically young age. But even Potterley can see the seductive dangers of reliving the past. “Watching those years, over and over until you go mad?” he tries to warn her. “Parents looking for their children. Children searching for their dead parents. Old men trying to relive their lost youth! Mankind would be living in the dead past!” But it is government minister Thaddeus Araman (a very Asimov name!) who points out the even greater danger of the scope. “What is history? History is one second ago.” This time machine has become the ultimate surveillance device, worse the ultimate voyeur tool, able to show anything from anyone’s life with no possible prevention. In today’s CCTV, social media and selfie obsessed world, the idea has even more resonance. In light of this, the government’s attempts to quash any possible research into the device seem very understandable. However the fact that they keep their machine working and clearly make lots of use of it, weakens their moral authority. Of course their intentions are ultimately doomed, scientific knowledge can always be rediscovered. There’s also a small sub-plot warning about the dangers of scientific research becoming too bureaucratic, individual scientists becoming too specialised and methodical in their knowledge so that they cannot make inspired connections.

Potterley is an interesting character. His pompousness and infatuation with Carthage is rather comical, but there is something slightly unnerving about him too with his clipped tones and buttoned down emotions. It is a fine performance from George Benson. His co-star James Maxell has the drier part as Foster, his dialogue filled with most of the scientific language and his character less defined. But he makes us believe in this conventional young man who imagination is fired and who finds an unexpected reckless streak within himself. Amongst all this discussion between intense academics are two outsider characters who bring some colour to the story. Willoughby Goddard is splendidly dyspeptic as Foster’s veteran journalist uncle and acts mostly as comic relief. Sylvia Coleridge gives a sympathetic portrait of repressed grief playing Caroline Potterley.

An enjoyable play of ideas rather than action. The Dead Past ends on a memorably downbeat image suggesting that Potterly and Araman’s worst fears are coming true. A sequel set in this world of potentially total surveillance by everyone would be challenging but exciting. Perhaps the closest we’ve come to it on television is my favourite Black Mirror episode The Entire History of You. I’m looking forward to the future Asimov adaptations in this anthology.