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 matriarch 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 hostile 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.