The Little Black Bag

Nurse demonstrates hi-tech tool

by Cyril M Kornbluth
Adapted by Julian Bond

This short story seems to something of a favourite with television producers. It was featured in the USA anthology Tales of Tomorrow (1952) and a year after Out of the Unknown‘s adaptation, it appeared in Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Sadly the Out of the Unknown version is incomplete, missing about twenty minutes but there is enough to form a fairly clear impression.

A futuristic medical kit from 2450 falls into the hands of Roger Full, an alcoholic disbarred doctor. Inside the case are tools which can carry out almost miraculous cures for any illness not matter how severe. His Russian call-girl friend Angie sees the kit as a chance to become rich through cosmetic surgery and escape the London underworld. Full has his own dreams: of redemption, a place in history and changing the world. Meanwhile in the distant future, the time travel agency is monitoring the equipment and waiting to take action.

C.M. Kornbluth was a member of a group of SF writer friends who included Issac Asimov and Damon Knight. A prolific pulp magazine contributor, he died at the height of his success at 35, due in part to his heavy smoking. The Little Black Bag is his most famous work. The original is actually a prequel to his other best known work The Marching Morons, set in a future where most of humanity are idiots and are guided by a secret minority of intelligent ‘helpers’. That is the reason the medical kit is so easy to use by a man in 1964.

From what we have, this seems like an average story with a pretty straightforward plot, as the weak Roger regains his self-respect through the box, but fails to understand just how desperate and ultimately ruthless his partner in crime is. It is a shame that Angie is such a two-dimensional harridan whilst Roger is so reasonable because it renders the debate over the black bag pretty black and white. It would have been better if Angie’s background, fears and motivation for being so obsessed with money had been explored. As it is she is simply a greedy short-sighted woman.

Veteran character actor Emrys Jones, familiar to Doctor Who fans for playing the Master of the Land of Fiction, has a sensitive voice and is ideally cast as a flawed idealist. Geraldine Moffat frequently played hard-faced glamour women in film and TV, perhaps most famously in Get Carter. John Woodnutt makes the most of his supporting role as a Harley Street doctor.

The gadgets are fun and well realised by the special effect department of time. The future scenes are amusing to me for some reason. Something to do with the white polo-necked, sunglass wearing fashions of 2450 that make me smile. It is not clear why the technicians do not simply deactivate the kit as soon as they know it is missing.

Although the ending is missing, it does not take much working out what happens. It is a shame given the work on the other missing episodes that a little more restoration could not have been done to fill in the blanks. It would be intriguing to know what is in the missing sections.

I’m afraid the simple plot and lack of shades of grey in the characters make this a fairly hard episode to write much about. So I’ll sign off here.

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.

Beach Head

large eyed alien sitting in pod

by Clifford D Simak
Adapted by Robert Muller

Clifford D Simak is not as well-known an author as he once was, perhaps due to lacking a famous film adaptation of one of his works. Yet he was one of the major figures of the so-called Golden Age of science fiction, alongside the likes of Asimov, Heinlein and Clark, winning three Hugos, two Nebulas and several lifetime achievement honours. His work is notable for its quiet religiosity and recurring use of the rural Wisconsin landscape where he lived. His work has rarely been adapted for other mediums. Before Beach Head, the only example was The Outer Limits translating his uncharacteristically violent tale”Good Night Mr Jones” into the second season episode The Duplicate Man. Beach Head is much more typical of his style, a contemplative tale about the hubris inherent in the space exploration genre, as typified by Star Trek.

Even before they arrive on planet 0243/B, an Earth expedition is already troubled by the increasingly odd behavior of its leader, Commandant Tom Decker. A veteran of thirty seven interplanetary missions, Decker’s sour personality seems to tipping into some kind of depressive mania, and the ship’s new medical officer and sole female crew member Cassandra Jackson is bearing the brunt of it. Expecting to find only the usual minerals and low level lifeforms, the scientists are amazed to discover 0243/B is home to an intelligent alien race, the first ever encountered by human space travellers. But their excitement turns to fear when the aliens’ first translated words are “You will never leave. You should not have come. You will die here.”

Beach Head is the first of four reconstructed lost episodes in the BFI box set. Combining a sound recording from 1969 with publicity photos, photoshopped images and CGI animation. Doctor Who fans will recognise the style. Indeed this episode was created by many of the talents behind the well-regarded Loose Cannon reconstructions of missing Doctor Who stories. They have done a creditable job at retelling the story, especially considering they only had a handful of photographs. It helps that the early robot sequences lend themselves to CGI, since the man-shaped robots are faceless and identical. Thanks to their many hours of work, we have a taste of what looks like one of series’ best-looking space opera stories.

If you like Ed Bishop, a familiar face and voice from Gerry Anderson’s shows, not to mention 2001 A Space Odyssey and countless British drama series, you are going to love Beach Head, since it feels as though two-thirds of this episode is made up of Decker declaiming his bitter philosophy to the crew. It seems what he has learnt from his years of exploring space is that there is nothing in the galaxy that cannot be simply explained by basic human science, no extraterrestrial problem which his ship’s sophisticated technology cannot overcome. When Dr Jackson tells him she was inspired to become an astronaut to explore the unknown, he scoffs, “There is no Unknown. Only the unexpected.” Initially he talks about the emptiness of their mission, discovering worlds with nothing on them but rocks and poisonous insects. After they meet the aliens and hear their ominous yet oddly passive warning he becomes at first paranoid, then fatalistic, believing their indifference to his Earth ship is a sign of their superiority. By the end of the drama he gives an explanation of sorts for his behaviour, that he has developed a sensitivity about dangerous planets, which is an oddly romantic notion and a sign of how his initial boorish pragmatism has been dented. His relationship with Cassandra Jackson remains ambiguous, hovering between attraction and distrust.

The nameless aliens are a rather endearing race with their large eyes, slightly goofy looking rubbery bodies and unhurried manner. The scene at the alien village is deliberately undramatic, but memorable for the sight of these beings in their cocoon-like houses. It would be the perfect cover for a SF novel. They are also a clever sleight of hand. We and the ship’s crew concentrate on them and expect them to produce the danger. Too late the explorers realise that the real threat comes from an unexpected environmental effect.

Whilst the robots from another lost episode The Prophet enjoyed a new lease of life in Doctor Who, the robot servants in this story have been lost to posterity outside of this reconstruction and that’s a shame because like the aliens, they are entertaining. Aside from their blank globe heads, their brightly coloured torsos remind me of the later Doctor Who robot the Kandyman. An early scene sees the first pair pulling parts out of crates and reassembling more of their brothers, a neat and realistic idea.

Whilst most spaceship interiors in the series have been rather humdrum and conservative, designer Tony Abbott creates wonderful futuristic cabins and corridors with large sweeping curves, funky inflatable furniture and plenty of colour. They are of their time but they still look impressive now, in the same way the sets of The Prisoner have aged well.  Similarly the alien planet’s surface, with white translucent foilage and trailing cobwebs is excellently realised and looks as good as any of Space 1999‘s alien worlds would in a few year’s time.

The BBC felt confident enough in this production to enter it into the Festival Internazionale del Film di Fantascienza, but it failed to repeat the success of the previous year’s The Machine Stops. Perhaps part of the trouble was that whilst visually appealing and rich in atmosphere, the plot lacks the growing tension and drive of that earlier gem. Beach Head deliberately ends in an ironic low-key manner. Our human adventurers finally face the alien unknown and find it uncaring as it defeats them, leaving them marooned and helpless. Too late they understand the mystery of why the natives of this world are sophisticated, yet have such a primitive stone-age lifestyle. Judging by this reconstruction, this episode is a creditable example of thoughtful literary SF.

The Last Lonely Man

Two men sitting at a bar

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.

The Tunnel Under the World

Husband sits on bed talking to his wife

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!

Level 7

Young couple in futuristic control room

by Mordecai Roshwald
Adapted by J B Priestley

The Bomb and the Cold War cast a long shadow over post-war science fiction, especially in film and television. It gave an atmosphere of suspicion and a down-beat feeling about our future and our endeavours to many a story, whether the subject matter directly addressed nuclear war or not. Just like Dr Strangelove, Level 7 is satirically concerned with the minds behind the military, government and armageddon, but finds that mentality considerably less amusing.

It was an audacious plan. Take the brightest and best young members of the armed forces, screen them for suitability and seal them 4500 feet beneath the ground in a secret underground world, the lowest level of a vast bunker. Here they would control the nuclear arsenal of the country and be able to retaliate against the enemy in complete safety from any nuclear reprisal. Level 7 was now their whole world for the rest of their lives, computer designed to be perfect, where the 50/50 split of men and women would eventually marry and raise the next generation of dedicated operators and Level 7 citizens. Everything has been planned for, nothing can possibly go wrong…

At first it seems this episode is going to be another story of an enclosed artificial society going off the rails because of its internal flaws. For a while it follows that pattern, with X127 (Keith Buckley) discovering that he and his eventual wife R747 (Michelle Dotrice) have very little room to be individuals or experience much of what humanises us. Then World War Three begins and a new story takes its place, the arrogance of military leaders who value winning and jingoism over human life, learning too late that the fallout of a nuclear war does not care about sides, and it is far too powerful to be safely managed.

Level 7 works better as an allegory about the horror of nuclear war and the fact that no side can win, rather than a realistic story, since it never really deals with all the practicalities of such a scheme. In Roshwald’s original novel, we start inside the bunker when it has been running successfully for years and protagonist is indoctrinated to this odd society thus skipping some awkward questions. The television episode by contrast deals with the beginning of the plan, when the inhabitants arrive having been told they are going on a training exercise for the weekend. Abruptly the doors are locked and they are told they are never going to return to surface again or have any contact with their old lives. Furthermore their names are changed to numbers and they are told never to use their own or other’s names again. This is pretty extreme and yet not one of the volunteers protests or panics. Granted some seem to have volunteered, but it is clear many of the soldiers had no idea when they arrived. It is explained that one of the criteria is that none of them are married or have children, but it seems incredible that they are all prepared to go along with an plan that they have been deceived into. Even the most rebellious character we meet, X117 (David Collings) merely grumbles about the situation as if it was a delayed flight. Furthermore surely some of their families would start to ask questions when their sons and daughters disappeared on a top secret mission without warning?

The way the planners have assumed that a 50/50 mix of men and women will simply pair up may seem naïve but I regard that more as a satirical joke on the ridiculous attitude of military mind, rather than a mistake of the writers. Another clever plot device is the two man safety protection for the launching of the missiles. Initially the General (Anthony Bate) explains that the two operators who must simultaneously press their buttons to launch the missiles, are there to ensure human judgement takes precedent over that of the strategy computer. The simulated drills quickly prove that the opinions of the operators are immaterial. The system in fact depends of them obeying like robots. When X117 refuses to press his button during a drill, the button is pushed anyway by the General and  X117 is punished ultimately with a lobotomy for disloyalty.

When the nuclear contamination inevitably seeps into the bunker, despite the confident predictions of the military experts, rather than weeks of vomiting, sores and cancer, it arrives as a rather poetic paralysing death. Again this fits an allegorical story rather than a hard science one. Aside from saving the production a lot time consuming make-up, it does create some chilling scenes of rooms filled with frozen bodies.

Watching these episodes in order, perhaps the biggest problem with Level 7 is that is echoes several earlier stories in content and message. So it does not have as much impact as it might have had, having already seen Some Lapse in Time, Thirteen to Centaurus and The Machine Stops. It is handsomely made with some effective sets by Norman James and good direction from Rudolph Cartier, the director behind those earlier SF television touchstones Quatermass and 1984. An intelligent, inevitably depressing, argument against anyone who believed that a nuclear war could be anything other than mutually assured destruction.


Lambda 1

Man screams as sinister face appear on TV screen

by Colin Kapp
Adapted by Bruce Stewart

Sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone, even if the results are not particularly successful, because it show you are trying to grow and hopefully you will learn something from the experience. Mixing trippy monochrome fringe theatre visuals with Airport movie melodrama, Lambda 1 is a very odd fifty minutes.

In the far future, international travel revolves around TAU vessels, which can pass into “atomic space” and travel through solid rock. One routine journey between Sydney and London however becomes a nightmare when the ship becomes trapped in the hallucinogenic realm of omega mode. As passengers and crew become increasingly manic, creating a new religion and attempting to murder, it is up to a troubled pilot Paul Porter and his psychologist friend Eric Benedict to pilot the original experimental TAU ship on a desperate rescue mission.

Most episodes of Out of the Unknown are based on stories which have some kind of comment to make on society or technology. Lambda 1 however belongs to that thread of SF which is all about a sense of wonder, of characters facing a bizarre cosmos and vistas quite unlike Earth. Undoubtedly this episode’s best moments are the atomic space depictions. Strange half-melted faces fill the screen, a twisted figure lies in desert, a forest of trees with human arms. None of it is “The face of madness!” as one character cries out, but it is beguilingly earnest in its oddness, and its BBC television centre sensibility.

Sadly most of the running time is not spent gazing at surreal landscapes, but rather watching a cast who are all at sea with dialogue nobody really understands. The fantasy science of Tau with its “modes” and a textbook worth of made up jargon would be a challenge for even the most experienced Star Trek cast member. Who can blame the actors for metaphorically closing their eyes and just running wildly at the script, hoping that speaking loudly and fast will get them through? I’ll single out Charles Tingwell for special mention as the alcoholic TAU cruiser captain, slurring and roaring out his lines as if he’s playing a drunk in a Two Ronnies sketch. The human drama moments are equally over-played like a bad daytime soap. When Porter learns that his estranged wife is not only onboard the stricken vessel, but pregnant too, the moment made me laugh out loud.

So Lambda 1 does not really work at all but I am glad they tried. There is an elegant opening shot which deserves a mention. A long panning shot revealing space-suited figures standing seemingly randomly about a chilly moor. Together with the music it sets a promising tone of oddness, even if it has little bearing on the plot, but the subsequent scenes introducing the passengers and crew in the passenger lounge dilute that tone. As an episode it is not so much bad as – what was that all about?



The Machine Stops

Dying people in a futuristic set

by E M Forester
Adapted by Clive Donner and Kenneth Cavender

It is remarkable to think that the original short story was written in 1909. Right now there is probably a student somewhere writing a SF story about a world where people spend all their time looking at smartphone screens or VR goggles, interacting with others solely through an advanced Internet, and suffering by losing all contact with the real world. That student will probably think they are responding with an original take on today’s First World culture, but The Machine Stops got there first. At one point the rebellious Kuno states that The Machine has destroyed relationships, at which his mother points at her console and says, nonsense she has over a thousand friends. An obvious joke about Facebook, but made in 1966. The story remains a prescient warning about the dangers of over-reliance on technology and its potentially dehumanising effects. E M Forester wrote his cautionary tale as a response to H G Wells’ utopian visions of a hi-tech future. Although to be fair H G Wells himself wrote about the dangers of scientific progress, alongside his more optimistic predictions for technology. Out of the Unknown’s adaptation of the story remains one of its best and most celebrated episodes

The distant future. Following an unexplained apocalypse, humanity lives underground inside a highly advanced technological system which covers the world, called The Machine. People live most of their lives alone inside cubicles, which provide for their every need, communicating only by video or intercom. Procreation and deaths are organised and carefully balanced by the Central Committee. Rationality, science and humanism are the keystones of this civilisation, but secretly many have begun worshipping The Machine, treating their rule-books like bibles. One day university lecturer Vashti receives a message from one of her sons, Kuno, pleading with her to visit him and telling her his plan to visit the surface. When she eventually does travel to his cubicle, he tells her a shocking tale of what happened when he broke the rules and used a secret tunnel to reach the outside world.

This is a simple story and message in many way, yet it has the power and depth of a classic fable. Part of its appeal is the remorseless logic of this society. There is no evil dictator or sinister alien race ultimately behind The Machine, just a succession of decisions made by people ever since they took shelter underground. Personal choices made by individuals to use technology more and more, to increasingly distance themselves from unpredictable others with a barrier of safe electronic communication. That’s a society we can all too easily understand (says I as I write this blog entry). Paradoxically even with the information about The Machine’s workings written down, every generation increasingly relies on the automatic systems. Vital skills and responsibilities become dulled or lost completely. The Machine itself is not a monster. It does not even have a consciousness. It is simply following its programming to maintain an underground society and logically that includes breeding humans to become increasingly passive and weaker so that they fit into the system easier. Early on we learn Kuno has been denied reproductive rights because the computers have detected him building up his muscles and becoming too active. Such a reductive system is leading to an inevitably grim conclusion for supposedly civilised humanity. E M Forester’s story has had a big influence on science fiction. Films like THX 1181 owe an obvious debt to it and the general scenario of a complacent technologically advanced society being undone by itself, except for a few young rebels who question the status quo it is a very familiar pattern.

Producer Irene Shubik described this production as one of the hardest jobs she ever had, with its budget stretching requirements for complex futuristic sets, robot tentacles, a monorail, and much of the story set in a small room with a seated actor talking to nothing. Yet director Philip Saville and his team succeeded brilliantly. This is an episode where everything comes together. Its sets and costumes are effective and have not dated too badly compared to many designs seen in season one or say Doctor Who. There is an interesting organic quality to their shapes, despite being entirely mechanical in appearance. Saville’s direction is bold, using fast cutting montages to convey the characters’ confusion, theatrical noir-ish lighting inside The Machine and crisp cold photography on the sunlit surface. The robot tentacles could have been risible but actually come across as menacing as they slither over the grass, thanks in no small part to the electronic sounds created by the Radiophonic Workshop. Incidentally, a particular throbbing sound effect heard at the opening of the episode will be instantly familiar to Doctor Who fans as the background to the Land of Fiction.

The performances are sympathetic to the material too. Established film and stage actress Yvonne Mitchell is excellent as Vashti. Amongst her other credits, she played Julia in the legendary 1954 BBC adaptation of 1984. From the start her haughtiness and complacency is subtly undercut by moments of nervousness and doubt. Even as she sings the praises of life under The Machine, we sense this is a hard but brittle carapace to cover her fears. There’s even some drollness. Complaining to a friend about her request for euthanasia being rejected, she sighs “I am the most unfortunate of women!” It’s just a shame that towards the end as she is marvellously depicting first her growing hysteria and then maternal tenderness, her bald cap is distractingly evident. Michael Gothard is a familiar face from countless British film and television roles, perhaps most famously as the henchman Locque in For Your Eyes Only. He equally impressive as the robust yet slightly hysterical free-thinker Kuno. This angry young man could come across as petulant but Gothard gives him heroism in the way he strives on when obviously being afraid during his escape attempt. Together, the two leads prevent this story become a dry discussion, thanks to their relationship, antagonism with an undercurrent of yearning to be closer. Elsewhere a subtle point is made by Nike Arrighi, who plays the stewardess aboard the airship Vashti uses to travel to meet Kuno. Being regularly exposed to the outside world, albeit flying high above it, her whole demeanour is noticeably more relaxed and natural. A well observed cameo.

This episode subsequently won First Prize at the Fifth Festival Internazionale del Film di Fantascienza (International Science Fiction Film Festival) in Trieste on 17 July 1967. Incidentally BBC Worldwide did consider releasing Out of the Unknown on VHS in the 1990s’ and this would have been the first episode released, in a double bill with another story, similar to the way Blake’s 7 was being sold. However the disappointing sales of Adam Adamant Lives! and Doomwatch discouraged the idea.

The final downbeat conclusion with flailing, crawling inhabitants and flickering lighting is theatrical yet still haunting. I raved about Thirteen to Centaurus a few weeks ago, but right now I think The Machine Stops is the best episode I’ve seen so far.

The Midas Plague

Angry man talks to robot

by Frederick Pohl
Adapted by Troy Kennedy-Martin

Graham Stark is probably best remembered for his various roles in the Pink Panther movies. He had a long busy career as a character actor, but it is rather intriguing to see him as the lead for a change as Morrey, 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 than any kind of serious SF prophecy, this story is pretty entertaining even if it stretches its 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 that such questions are never raised.

Troy Kennedy-Martin was already building up a reputation as television writer, with a couple of Wednesday Play‘s under his belt. He provides a script full of entertainingly bizarre comic logic, particularly the courtroom scenes, where Morrey finds himself repeatedly up in front of his stern father in law. The scenes with the black fedora wearing People’s Revolutionaries are an entertaining caricature of the Socialist Worker party too. This 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 mechanical 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. British film legend 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 address the audience with a rueful sigh. Rather underlining the whole comedy sketch feel of this installment.

PS. So ends series one of Out of the Unknown and I think it has been fascinating so far. Certainly more pluses than 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. The Dead Past
  4. Some Lapse of Time
  5. Time in Advance
  6. The Midas Plague
  7. The Counterfeit Man
  8. Sucker Bait
  9. No Place Like Earth
  10. Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come..?

Thirteen to Centaurus

Intense young man standing next to computer panel

by J G Ballard
Adapted by Stanley Miller

I looked up this short story on and was surprised to see it described as untypical and even generic. Yet to me this episode is filled with the familiar J G Ballard theme of a protagonist who deliberately succumbs to a strange new world, in search of another reality. There’s also a protagonist who feels alienated from his own society, despite having no obvious reason for it. Stanley Miller took this already rich short story and turned it into a gripping TV drama with a haunting conclusion and possibly the most fully realised episode of the first series.

Thirteen men and women live in a metal world and seem to believe it to be the whole of reality. But young unusually bright Abel has worked out that there must be something more. Dr Francis has noticed this and lets Abel in on a secret – their world is actually a spaceship heading to a far distant planet, a planet which no one currently aboard will live will reach, but a future generation will. Dr Francis however is keeping a deeper secret from the rest of the crew. He has a secret exit to the outside, because the spaceship is in fact an elaborate simulation on a military base, designed to test whether humans are capable of a multi-generational space mission. Now a new commander has arrived – with orders to shut the experiment down.

You might think I have been thoughtless to  reveal two twists in my synopsis but one of the impressive parts of Thirteen to Centaurus is that it is not built on such revelations, but on the situation and people created by it. Following its own ruthless story logic, the plot investigates  the problems created by a grandiose sociology experiment, whilst cleverly using potential plot holes about the practicalities of creating a spaceflight on the ground.

Apparently the original crew of the ‘ship’ were volunteers but their grown-up children are fully indoctrinated into this artificial world. It seems remarkably immoral and it is not surprising that public opinion has soured towards it. If this story was being adapted a few years later, it is possible a Truman Show reality television angle might have been incorporated into the plot. As it is, we are told that the public are kept updated by regular reports. In one of the episode’s few moments of humour, we learn that there has been audience discomfort at the way the inhabitants have split along class stereotypes – an aloof, aristocratic captain and his son, a sensible, ‘middle-class’ of engineers who basically run the ship, and incurious subservient catering workers. In another satirical instance, the controllers of the project debate marriage as a way of distracting Abel and stunting his intellectual curiosity.

The stakes of this experiment are driven home when General Short calls a meeting of the officers and explains that he has been sent to oversee the project’s closure. Even he allows that it might take a year or more to safely acclimatise the subjects to reality, without them going mad. Public scrutiny has obviously made the authorities circumspect. Even as events become increasingly alarming, no one suggests breaking into the ship.

Dr Francis is a man who seems to be nominally in power, but at the story unfolds it is clear that he has lost his distance. Intellectually and emotionally he is almost as bound to the spaceship as its inhabitants. He regards Abel as his star pupil, his intelligence and intuitive discoveries is proof of Francis’ social theories and the success of the project. His interest in seeing how far this boy can develop, coupled with over-confidence in his influence over the ship, leads him to be far too indulgent to Abel’s suggestions, even when the young man suggests experimenting with the conditioning machine. In the original story, Abel is younger and we see much of the story from his point of view. As a result his actions seem more innocently motivated by dogged curiosity. From the third person viewpoint of this episode, Abel takes on a much more sinister aspect early on, to the point where the doctor seems amazingly naive to give him so much control. Not to mention allowing himself to be the guinea pig. Perhaps subconsciously he wants to submit to this simpler world?

Design-wise the production stands up fairly well. Aside from a one man lift near the start which grinds alarmingly loudly and drowns out the dialogue. The interior of the ship is fairly bland, lots of smooth walls broken up by banks of flickering instrumentation. A striking exception though is the rotating gym, an octagonal room where silhouetted figures exercise whilst a soothing woman’s voice reinforces their worldview, that there is no other world but their’s. The outside world is largely represented by mission control, where I can forgive the unflattering and slightly fetish-looking futuristic military uniforms worn by the personal. The cast are all excellent, hitting the right balance between naturalism and the slight theatricality this drama of ideas needs.

Religion takes on a slightly larger role in the television version. The episode opens with the crew singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” as the old captain’s body is interred, but there’s no discussion on what they understand of the lyrics. Surely it must sound like gobbledygook to them? Especially when we later discover that Abel initially has no real understanding of the idea of God. Its use is the only significant issue I have with the storyline and I wonder if it was just used as a shorthand for “funeral service” without really thinking it through. Later on, Abel does get religion, but with depressing inevitability, starts using it as a justification for his actions, suggesting that this is something built-in to many human spiritual ideas.

What makes this episode so rewarding is the way its big story concepts are explored and are married with richer than normal characterisation. The replica society seems stunted and odd but still practical and controllable at the opening. Yet it spirals out of control in an entirely logical and believable way, each step having a rational justification on its own. This script knows that people often do not have simple motivations. Abel ultimately discovers that the ship is a fake, but still decides to carry on with the mission because it has become a religious article of faith. It is ambiguous whether his climatic mental conditioning of Francis is to take revenge on the doctor or to save his soul. Similarly, has Abel had a kind of breakdown on learning the truth or has his intellect rationalised the revelation within his new religious beliefs, in the same way that many people of faith handle today’s scientific discoveries? So Abel is acting quite rationally, according to the strange way he has been raised. Either way the sight of Francis twitching on the conditioning bed, whimpering “Abel, this is humiliating!” as his identity is altered is one of the most haunting scenes so far in the series. Perhaps because we and him understand exactly how immoral this procedure is that he has inflicted for years on the crew, for the greater good. It’s a satisfying ending that also thrillingly open as to what will happen next.