The Last Lonely Man

by John Brunner
Adapted by Jeremy Paul

My word the colours! The familiar title sequence takes on a new improved look as the third series moves into colour, becoming slightly reminiscent of The Tomorrow People opening even if the elements remain the same. Behind the scenes series three saw a gradual change of its production team. The series’ creator Irene Shubik moved on to co-produce the prestigious The Wednesday Play, but not before conscientiously commissioning a full season of scripts, before handing over to producer Alan Bromly and script editor Roger Parkes. So this third series still carries her imprint. It’s sad that this episode is the only complete surviving one of the season. John Brunner, British SF author of season one’s Some Lapse of Time supplies the story once more.

In the near future scientists have invented “contacting”, a way for the mind to live on after death by jumping into and sharing the brain of a volunteer. A year ago a new government was elected on the policy of a nationwide Contact scheme. But what about the man with no family or friends? How will he survive a fatal accident? Well-meaning James Hale meets such an unfortunate called Patrick Wilson, who persuades him to become his temporary “contact” until he can fix himself up with a friend. Too late James realises that Patrick is an unstable, paranoid wastrel, but before he can get the procedure reversed, the desperate man kills himself to ensure he stays in James’ brain. Now James and his wife Rowena must struggle with Patrick’s unpleasant and increasingly controlling identity.

The big problem with this story is that the scenario seems too contrived and unlikely. Not so much the mind transference itself, but the idea that the government, media, other institutions and just people themselves would not foresee many of the problems with the concept before implementing it. Different sexes sharing a body, different personalities, the number of minds jumping into further bodies increasing exponentially are just the starting issues. Even given people’s fear of death, it seems extraordinary that a nationwide system would be installed with so few safeguards. James and Patrick turn up at the clinic clearly drunk, but are processed with barely any checks as far as I could see. At the moment of death, when a person has multiple contact partners, there is no explanation about how they choose which one to be transplanted into. There are so many dangling loose ends in the idea it becomes quite distracting. At one point James and Rowena go to see a “pre-Contact” war film at the cinema, where the majority of the audience laugh uproariously at the sight of soldiers being mowed down by machine guns. If this story was set a few generations after Contact it might make sense, but just a few years later, it seems unrealistic that public attitudes would change so quickly. It is an unbelievable and clumsy way of indicating that life is cheaper now there is a guaranteed afterlife.

Another big hurdle is that it is hard to believe James actually allows himself to be linked to Patrick when latter behaves like an utter knob from the moment he appears. I haven’t read the original story and it could be there is more justification there. But on-screen the only charitable explanation is that James is both weak-willed and amazingly naive. Patrick comes into the the bar drunk, harasses a woman, nearly gets in a fight with her partner and then starts drinking heavily whilst whining a lot of self-pitying bile. As if that was not enough of a clue he is dangerous, whilst they are waiting for the operation he leeringly menaces the young girl next to him and blatantly lies to her boyfriend. Peter Halliday’s performance hasn’t a shred of charm in it, he plays Patrick as a creep. It would have been better if he had begun more reasonable and then really started to unwind the next day.

Despite this problem with his motivation, George Cole is excellent. His handles the personality transformation excellently, cleverly changing his body language and style of speech, then pulling back into moments of cold clarity. Especially noteworthy is the actual moment of the transference. There’s no effects, just Cole accurately describing a room he has never entered in a horrified voice, and it’s the highlight of the episode.

One of Doctor Who‘s most cherished directors Douglas Camfield directs, and once again shows he is the master of pace. Despite being a fairly dialogue heavy story set in a handful of mundane locations, the episode flies along and unusually feels shorter than its fifty minutes. The Last Lonely Man is entertaining to watch thanks him and his cast, but the sheer level of contrivance and coincidence leaves this instalment rather hollow.

Some Lapse of Time

A strange story this, mixing science with the practically-supernatural. I can see why it appealed to Irene Shubik for adapting to television, but ultimately it is a story that might have worked better at half an hour. It does feature a few sections where the plot is spinning its wheels and re-emphasising rather than developing. Infused with the Sixties’ Cold War fears and wariness of scientists in white coats, it is another fairly downbeat entry in an anthology that is definitely proving to have a pessimistic view of the future.

Nightmares haunt Dr Max Harrow, ever since his two-year old son died of the rare Hodgkinson’s disease. He dreams about savages, led by frightening old man clutching a finger bone, pursuing him. One night he and his wife Diana are awakened by a policeman calling at his door, who has found a tramp collapsed outside. To Harrow’s shock, not only does the tramp look like his dream tormentor, but he is suffering from Hodgkinson’s disease, a condition that should have killed him in infancy. Booking the tramp into the university hospital where Harrow works, the doctor becomes increasingly obsessed by the old man and his survival. What is the strange language he speaks? Why has he sought out Harrow? Worst of all, why is his body infused with dangerous levels of Strontium 90 radiation?

John Brunner wrote the Hugo and BSFA award-winning novel Stand on Zanzibar, a novel set in a polluted over-populated future Earth. He was also a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Some Lapse of Time reflects his regular themes of environmental destruction, nuclear danger and an uncaring, complacent establishment. Television adaptor Leon Griffiths was also quite politically aware himself. Yet when it comes to the politics, the script is unafraid to mock Harrow’s student-left, Dave Spart-esque speechifying via his boss Professer Leach, “Oh sorry I forgot. We’re the unfeeling monsters aren’t we? Only Max Harrow cares!”

In retrospect, this story comes across like a pacifist version of The Terminator. Instead of a killer robot sent back to violently change the future, Brunner brings back a ragged witness to simply testify about modern society’s self-destructive behaviour and its consequences. Despite his bloodied flint knife, the mutant old man with scarred features does not seem to have had any real plan. Indeed he is possibly even more of a victim than the persecuted Harrow. He only seems sinister in the context of the dream.

We open on a high, with a marvellous piece of nighttime filming. Flickering flames, dancing figures, a caveman suddenly producing a plastic baby doll and destroying it, half-lit staring faces, pointing fingers and shots through distorting lenses. Nothing else in the episode quite matches the drama of its opening. (Designed incidentally by a young man called Ridley Scott, whatever became of him?) Sharing Harrow’s dream is important for the rest of story. Without that evidence, this would be a very different story, of a recently bereaved father having a nervous breakdown. Most of the other SF elements come from his guesswork, until the very end when his theory is clumsily confirmed.

Of note amongst a cast of television regulars, it’s fun to see Pete Bowles for once not playing a toff or a villain, but wielding an ‘ello ‘ello ‘ello accent in the small role of the policeman who introduces the strange vagabond.

For an episode with a fairly sedate pace and room to explain itself, there are some annoying plot holes, mostly centred around the mysterious stranger’s Hodgkinson’s disease. After making a big deal out of it in the first half, once the Strontium 90 is detected, everyone seems to forget about it. Similarly Harrow blames military nuclear testing for Hodgkinson’s, but there does not seem to be any logical connection, just a prejudice on his part. His hatred of politicians does however lead to fine touch of the gothic when the maddened doctor steals an extracted knee bone from surgery, in order to bury it for the shamen of the future.

As with Stranger in the Family, the present day set stories in season one feel much closer to Out of the Unknown’s spiritual parent Armchair Theatre. Although it is a bit pedestrian once we reach the hospital, at least it’s a story that wants to say something.