Return to the Unknown

It has been a real pleasure to watch and review this British Film Institute box set of Out of the Unknown. Just to wrap up this series, I thought I would take a look at the collection itself – seven DVD’s in a sturdy plastic case and cardboard sleeve. We have been particularly fortunate that after announcing the release, the BFI listened and cooperated with a group of classic television enthusiasts to produce a remarkably complete collection, for a programme which is missing so many episodes. The four reconstructed episodes, eleven commentaries, photo galleries, interview with director James Cellan Jones and the forty two minute documentary Return to the Unknown are all high quality fan contributions. Many of these contributors also worked on the Doctor Who DVD range, another series featuring a very high standard of extras.

In fact Return to the Unknown has a format familiar to any one who has collected the timelord’s adventures. A collection of talking heads filmed against white, interspersed with vintage photos, BBC documents and apposite video clips. It is a warm tribute to all four seasons, with plenty of fond reminiscences and little in the way of controversy. There is predictably alot of anecdotes about the relatively primitive production facilities of time but also the way BBC2 encouraged innovation. Interesting to note with Head of Drama Sydney Newman overseeing the series, he once again set up a science fiction series with a young female producer Irene Shubik, assisted by a veteran BBC man George Spenton-Foster, in the same way that Doctor Who began with Verity Lambert and associate producer Mervyn Pinfield. At times the narration does irritatingly present opinion as fact, for example that the surviving episode of season three The Last Lonely Man was also one of the finest. Mark Ward – author of the excellent guide to the series published by Kaleidoscope, contributes as well but he comes across as a little too enthusiastic and uncritical, seeming to describe every episode he mentions as “one of the best ever dramas”.

Without the time to cover the whole series in depth, certain episodes are singled out for more detailed treatment including The Machine Stops, Second Childhood and the Issac Asimov robot stories.The best part of the documentary for me were the intriguing clips from the missing episodes. Wendy Craig is on good form as the reluctant new owner of a handsome robot servant in Satisfaction Guaranteed. Several recoloured scenes from Liar! suggest that it was particularly good story and that Ian Ogilvy gave a brilliant performance as Herbie the telepathic robot. Even the striking end credits of The Fox and the Forest and Andover and the Android are tantalising. We learn that the former was only broadcast the once due to the unusually high repeat fees demanded by Ray Bradbury. In fact, another nice touch to the documentary is that the end credits are done in the same striking graphic design as those of the first two seasons.

Most of the contributors to the documentary also turn up in the commentaries, moderated by comedian and writer Toby Hadoke, a safe pair of hands for these, having hosted a fair number of the commentaries of the later classic Doctor Who DVD releases. He always does his research, has a deep knowledge and love for British telefantasy, and also possess an engaging manner which usually brings out the best in his speakers. As a result the commentaries are all of a pretty good standard, even if the passing decades means the contributors rarely have detailed memories of the filming, beyond one or two particular moments. Although often the onscreen action will provoke some extra thoughts, even if it is just amusement at the costumes.

The image galleries on every disc are impressive, with all the episodes getting some coverage. James Cellan Jones, director of Beach Head gives an informative interview but I could have used some photos to break up the static shot of him talking. What I did not realise until I looked him up was the length and success of his directing career, from Compact in 1963 to Holby City in 2001, by way of many TV movies and mini-series. The Deathday film inserts, which are seen on a television in the background of the episode, do not add anything beyond adding to the box set’s feeling of completeness. Finally there is the excellently written booklet by Mark Ward, as well as a useful episode guide. From this 42 page booklet we can learn enjoyable trivia such as the original intention to have Vincent Price introducing each episode, in the way Boris Karloff had for Out of this World. That the series might have been called 12 Tomorrows. Or that record producer and well-known science fiction fan Ian Levine tried to revive the series in 1981.

This box set is one of the highlights of the BFI’s television range and it is hard to see how it could be much improved upon unless more episodes are uncovered, which seems unlikely now. Picture and sound quality have been restored to a good standard and the inclusion of the reconstructions is a pleasant bonus. It is still quite a pricey set but for fans of BBC science fiction and the so-called golden age of science fiction represented by Asimov, Bradbury, Wyndham et al this is great viewing.

You can read more details and learn where to order it from on the BFI site.

Below is a complete episode guide and a checklist of all my episode reviews, in case you would like to read more of them. Thanks for checking with me and the encouraging comments. I will be back to this blog with more cult reviews in the future, but my next posts will be concentrating on my current theatre work.

Season 1
No Place Like Earth
The Counterfeit Man
Stranger in the Family
The Dead Past
Time in Advance
Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come..?
Sucker Bait
The Fox and the Forest
Andover and the Android
Some Lapse of Time
Thirteen to Centaurus
The Midas Plague

Season 2
The Machine Stops
Frankenstein Mark II
Lambda 1
Level 7
Second Childhood
The World in Silence
The Eye
The Tunnel Under the World
The Fastest Draw
Too Many Cooks
Walk’s End
Satisfaction Guaranteed
The Prophet

Season 3
Immortality Inc
Liar!
The Last Lonely Man
Beach Head
Something in the Cellar
Random Quest
The Naked Sun
The Little Black Bag
1 + 1 = 1.5
The Fosters
Target Generation
The Yellow Pill
Get Off My Cloud

Season 4
Taste of Evil
To Lay a Ghost
This Body is Mine
Deathday
The Sons and Daughters of Tomorrow
Welcome Home
The Last Witness
The Man in My Head
The Chopper
The Uninvited
The Shattered Eye

 

The Uninvited

by Michael J Bird

So here the series ends, as far as we can know it, since the final episode The Shattered Eye is long since missing. And a series that had been conceived as a showcase for the best of literary science fiction finishes with a ghost story.

George and Millicent Patterson about to emigrate to Botswana, and are spending their last night in their old, virtually empty flat. But their night turns into a frightening ordeal as they are assaulted by visions which gradually tell the story of a controlling husband who abuses and eventually murders his wife.

It is difficult to review this episode fairly, since we only have a handful of publicity photos which omit most of the cast, plus the soundtrack. The reconstruction therefore illustrates the audio with pages of the original camera script. It is a shame there was not the time or money to re-type the script, since the faded copy we see is quite hard to read in places. Still I would rather have this version than omit the episode altogether.

Although essentially a supernatural story, The Uninvited did remind me of Sapphire and Steel with its limited interior setting and use of an electronic howl to herald each visitation. The events could be explained as some kind of time rift if you cared too. It is difficult to judge how frightening it might have been since it would have depend a lot on how good the visual shocks in the script were realised.

In a season that has generally featured fraught relationships, it is rather lovely to listen the genuinely loving and affectionate marriage of George and Millie, played with easy naturalism by John Nettleton and June Ellis. The fact they are so likeable and committed to each other, definitely amplifies the horror when it begins because I really did not want anything tragic to happen to them. June Ellis was incidentally the wife of producer Alan Bromley. It is almost a shame that Brian Wilde is remembered for playing ineffectual comedy characters in Porridge and Last of the Summer Wine because he excelled playing sinister, slightly pathetic villains, whether the abusive husband Ramsay here or Mr Peacock in Ace of Wands. The moment where he advances on Millie, telling her she must be punished is unsettling even on audio.

Writer Michael J Bird had already written the controversial To Lay a Ghost for this season. He was something of a specialist in writing contemporary dramas with a supernatural flavouring, penning Maelstrom, The Dark Side of the Sun and The Aphrodite Inheritance as well as guest scripts in quite a few long running BBC series. Whilst this episode is lost, interestingly Michael J Bird rewrote his script as In Possession for Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense in 1984. Another missing Out of the Unknown episode The Last Witness was adapted by Martin Worth for the same series, retitled A Distant Scream.

Perhaps the only criticism I can make of The Uninvited is that it would have fitted comfortably into any of the Seventies supernatural anthologies, such as Dead of Night. It demonstrates that Out of the Unknown had lost its distinctive identity and unique selling point. So it was not surprising that indifferent ratings and incoming new executives with fresh agendas led to it not being picked up again. Survivors, Moonbase 3 and Doomwatch would keep the flag flying for BBC adult-aimed science fiction through the Seventies. Eventually, just as Out of the Unknown sprang from in part from Armchair Theatre, so Play for Tomorrow would spin-off from Play for Today. But that is an article for another time.

I’ve not quite finished with this BFI boxset. Coming up next is a review of the brand new documentary Return to the Unknown and the other extras included in this impressive collection.

The Man in My Head

by John Wiles

More by accident than design, due to the intervening episode The Last Witness being lost, The Man in My Head continues the theme of the misuse of psychology and drug therapy which Welcome Home began. Not only that but its criticism of the military mind, with its emphasis on obedience and the chain of command, and the way most of it takes place in an underground complex, it also recalls season two’s Level 7.

It is the ultimate in covert operations.A crack team of commandos on a mission to infiltrate and sabotage a hydro-electric power station, where each soldier has been subliminally programmed to only know the next stage of their mission when they hear a tone on the radio.They have been equipped with specialised personas and skills tailored for this mission. Not only that but they have been programmed with a backup cover story in case they are captured, which they will utterly believe when it is activated. It looks foolproof on paper, but when the team hits an unexpected accident, doubt, paranoia and identity crisis are soon eating away at them.

With most of the action taking place in a single large set, there’s very theatrical feeling to this episode. Perhaps that explains the slightly larger than life performances from most of the cast. That brand of over-emphasised, reaction heavy acting that science fiction often encourages. Its not necessarily a bad thing but it lends an artificiality to the episode that makes its final revelations not as much of surprise as it could have been. Yet theatrical does not mean it visually flat. Director Peter Creegan makes great use of dramatic camera angles from above and below and the whole production is dramatically lit with the cast’s sweat gleaming faces lit quite noir-ishly in half-light.

Tom Chadbon is excellent as Captain Brinson, the initially cool leader who becomes increasingly unravelled as his leadership and even his personality is challenged by the casually superior Hine, the older scientist who has been working undercover at the plant. It’s a trivial point maybe, but as we reach the end of the series, it is sort of nice to see the return of the dodgy blond moptop wig that was such a staple of the first season. This time it is Kenneth Watson who gets to sport it as Hine.

John Wiles was an experienced television writer with many credits to his name, from Dixon of Dock Green to A Horseman Riding By. He also been a script editor on several BBC shows and produced Doctor Who during  most of the later part of William Hartnell’s era, despite not a great fan of science fiction. He had already provided one story for the fourth season – Taste of Evil – which is now lost. His script is clever in the way it shows how a seemingly logical idea as subliminal programming is filled with pitfalls. Especially when one of the men Fulman triggers his backup programming and becomes a soldier who has accidentally crashed landed in an enemy territory, looking on in bewilderment as his comrades seemingly prepare to carry out a random act of terrorism.

Ultimately the real villains of this piece are the military officers who regard these soldiers are little better than cheap robots who are ultimately disposable. In fact there is an inference that these men and one woman may not even have been real soldiers originally. As a story it still feels quite relevant and is probably the existing episode from this season which could be most easily remade today. It manages to do some fresh with old what-is-real / what-is-imaginary concept that underpins a lot of the fourth season. Unlike Welcome Home, which is based around the mystery of what has been done, The Man in My Head shows us its box of tricks at the start, yet still tells a story with some unexpected twists.

Welcome Home

by Moris Farhi

It is less a case of whodunnit than of howtheydunnit in this entertaining paranoia story. Moris Farhi MBE is definitely a renaissance man. Author of several novels, including the multi-award winning Children of the Rainbow, poet, acclaimed writer on Jewish history and philosophy, campaigner for writers imprisoned by oppressive regimes, and jobbing scriptwriter on television series from Return of the Saint to The Onedin Line. His late wife Nina Farhi (nee Gould) was a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and I wonder how much input she had on this story, which involves a psychiatrist abusing his power.

Dr Frank Bowers travels to his new cottage after a long convalescence in hospital following a car accident. To his shock, neither his wife Penny or his friends recognise him, and worse another man is living in his place, who tells him patiently that he is the real Frank Bowers.

This is a much more enjoyable example of the twist followed by twist thriller than Deathday was. There is always a danger with this kind of story that the plot become too contrived and reliant on characters acting very stupidly, but Welcome Home stays just about on the right side of logic. One of its most satisfying revelations is about Bowers’ flashback dreams, which are portrayed through time lapsed photos. We later discover that this is not just a stylistic choice by director Eric Hills, but actually a clue in plain site as to what is really happening.

Casting Anthony Ainley as Frank Bowers One, as he is named in the credits, is a clever idea because at the start he generates distrust. Later most famous for playing recurring villain The Master in Eighties Doctor Who, Ainley had a flair for the sinister and Frank Bowers initially seems very suspect indeed. When talking to his doctor and then later on the train, his smile is a bit too wide and his bonhomie has touch of mania about it. As he desperately tries to prove his identity, only to be thwarted at every turn, first by circumstance and then by what seems to be a deliberate conspiracy, he does begin to engender sympathy though and by the end he has become a tragic protagonist.

On the other hand Frank Bowers Two, played by Bernard Brown, first appears as a self-assured, patriarchal personality and pretty much stays like that for the whole story. The only crack in his certainty is when Penny begins to be sympathetic to the other Frank, making him accuse her of being attracted to a younger version who more openly needs her, something he says he hadn’t considered before. Bernard Brown had a long television career of playing lawyers, doctors, officers, and other authority roles. It soon becomes clear that he is the driver behind whatever is happening, but the tension comes from trying to work out what his plan really is.

Special mention should go to Norman Kay’s sinister electronic incidental music, which frequently recalls Doctor Who, another show Kay worked on. In fact thanks to the music, the outdoor filming around a weir rather reminded me of a Jon Pertwee era story.

As with much of the fourth season Welcome Home is more concerned with telling a dramatic story than exploring a concept or issue. It does however touch on the misuse of science and medicine, at a time when psychiatry and other therapies were becoming a popular subject. In shares some DNA with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for example. Although only tangentially science fiction it carries a warning familiar from many short stories – that people who concentrate too much on a future greater good, and justify immoral actions in the short term, frequently suffer severe consequences – and so do the people around them.

 

 

Deathday

By Angus Hall
Adapted by Brian Hayles

Angus Hall was not impressed with the BBC adaptation of his 1969 novel. Nearly twenty years later during a correspondence in the letters page of the BBC’s cultural magazine The Listener, about the recent BBC2 25th anniversary programming, the author wrote in about the absence of any mention of Out of the Unknown in the celebrations. “I still shudder at how my perfectly respectable ‘psychological thriller’ Deathday was turned into a grotesque ‘other-worldly’ travesty by the programme-makers. I trust that Out of the Unknown remains unknown to all present and future television viewers.” Now I have never read his novel so I cannot directly compare, but I can certainly sympathise with with his disappointment because this was a poor instalment. Hall incidentally wrote over twenty books in the crime and horror genre, amongst them Crime Busters, and Devilday, which was adapted into the cult Vincent Price/ Peter Cushing movie Madhouse.

Adam Crosse is a failure. Stuck in a dead-end reporter job for the local paper. Popping pills. Married to the bitter condescending Lydia. When he discovers his wife has taken a lover and that she does not really care that he knows, his frustrations murderously boil over. Afterwards he begins an elaborate cover-up, trying to cast suspicion onto a current serial killer known in the papers as The Kitchen Killer.

I’ve deliberately kept the synopsis short this time because if I told you much more you could probably guess the ‘twist’ a mile off, just as I did. That is one of the problems with this story. The other is that as a study of a mentally ill murderer, this episode comes off a parody of Dennis Potter as its inadequate middle-aged protagonist.

Actually thinking about it that is one of the problems with the whole ‘psychological thriller’ genre that the Seventies and early Eighties used to love so much – it demonises and trivialises mental health issues. Not to mention providing an excuse for some lazy writing. Whilst the story gives us a few motivations for Crosse’s actions, his wife’s infidelity, his sexual inadequacy, the conflict between his desire to be an alpha man and his essentially passive subservient personality, too often the reason for what happens comes down – he’s a nutter.The other big annoyance I have with the genre ever since Les Diaboliques is that the question – is it real or is the protagonist imagining it? – is actually a pretty boring one that often drains the story of tension rather than creating it.

One later section I had assumed must be happening in his mind, is where Crosse goes driving at night and picks up a sexy blonde woman. Or rather she just jumps into his car at the traffic lights. I thought she might be a prostitute but its soon established she isn’t. Apparently she is just a spirited party girl who does things on a whim and for some reason decides a one night stand with a portly creepy older man would be fun, which stretches credibility to breaking point. In fact it would have only made sense if she was a fantasy but she was real. There is also an unexpected bit of gratuitous nudity as she undresses and explores his bathroom on her own, which felt oddly out of place.

The appalling decor could be a clever reflection of unhappiness in the Crosse and  Gregory households, but I suspect is just a case of hideous BBC Seventies set design. Everything seems so brown. Even the dream sequence looked ugly.

It is another episode where thirty minutes would have been more than enough. Ultimately Crosse is not a particularly interesting murderer and his mental unravelling has no sense of tragedy, since he did have much going for him in the first place. Again this overall tawdriness may be the point of the story, but if you want to see a drama about a hollow man who finds that even murder cannot free him from a modern hell of mediocrity and poor taste, catch American Psycho instead.

 

This Body is Mine

by John Tully

Probably the most obviously science fictional episode of season four, yet it’s strength comes from the character drama. In fact with a little rewriting, much of the plot could work equally well as an espionage yarn or a crime thriller.

Allen Meredith is a brilliant research scientist who has accidentally discovered a process to transfer a person’s mind into another body, whilst experimenting with a mind reading device. His mild, bookish personality means he has been taken advantage of for years by his arrogant boss Jack Gregory. His strong-willed wife Ann convinces him to kidnap Gregory, swap bodies and embezzle thousands from the business. The process is a success but Meredith soon finds that stepping into another man’s life is lot harder than just memorising the name of his wife and his date of birth. Particularly when he discovers Gregory is involved in multiple affairs and in debt to a gangster too. Meanwhile the combination of Gregory’s alpha male personality in her husband’s body proves irresistible to Ann and together they plot to steal the money and start a new life.

There’s a trio of excellent performances at the heart of this episode. Jack Hedley is splendid at convincingly playing both the powerful Gregory and the unconfident, desperately improvising Meredith trying to act a tough businessman. His craggy features, often lending to his casting as officers and other authority types, are marvellously expressive as he reacts and bluffs his way through the day. Jack Carlton, a regular face in British films in 50’s and 60’s is almost as good in the mirror role, especially as his seduces Ann to his side. There is some interesting ambiguity as to how genuine his feelings for her are. Alethea Charlton perhaps best known for her roles in ITV period dramas, as well as two appearances in early Doctor Who, including Hur the cavewoman, is excellent at bringing sympathy to Ann, in what could have been a cardboard hard-boiled role. Through her we come to understand that her plan is the result of years of frustration (of many kinds) as well as ambition. Even though she betrays her husband, she visibly blooms in her attraction to Gregory. Thanks to the way the actress plays it, her howl of despair when she realises her dream of a new start has been crushed by her husband’s mistakes is played as a genuine tragedy, rather than a comeuppance. It was sad to discover that she died from cancer only five years later.

Meredith’s increasingly calamitous evening and the day as he tries to be Jack Gregory have almost a black comedy element. His attempts to embezzle the money are laughably ham-fisted and almost immediately discovered, but since everyone thinks he is Gregory they assume he must be having some kind of breakdown. On top of that he inflicts a painful night on himself by not knowing that his target has health problems, and he is ill-prepared to deal with all the emotional scenes from the women in his life. By the end of the day he has unintentionally destroyed Gregory’s career!

This is an entertaining story but not too much depth to it. It’s certainly stronger that The Last Lonely Man in dealing with mind transference but the science fiction element is ultimately a gimmick for a story about a con that goes badly wrong. So even in this episode, it shows that the fourth season was less about exploring SF concepts and more about tales with a twist.

To Lay a Ghost

by Michael J Bird

Plenty of changes came with Out of the Unknown‘s fourth and final season in 1971, and a new title sequence was just the start. It is an effective montage of surreal imagery that creates an uncanny mood without being too random. An infinite series of opening windows, a flower a hatching from an egg, a face pushing out a white surface. Helping immeasurably is the haunting music – Lunar Landscape by Roger-Roger, which had previously been heard in The Prisoner. More significantly, with Irene Shubik now departed and no more of her curated scripts left in the cupboard, this season saw a decisive move away from science fiction towards the supernatural and psychological suspense. This redesign was suggested by Head of Plays Gerald Savory although publicly in the Radio Times, producer Alan Bromley suggested that the reality of NASA’s Apollo programme had taken the gloss from stories set in space. Personally I think that was a rather spurious argument, not least since it ignores the fact that many of the series’ were set on Earth and that the genre encompassed far more than spaceships. To be fair though it is true that the early Seventies did see a resurgence of public interest in the supernatural.

A more likely reason for the change in style was the increasing difficulty in finding stories to adapt which were feasible on their budget, timeframe, and which did not repeat previous episodes’ plots. Already they had had to remake two old ITV Out of this World scripts  in the third season. It’s significant that only one episode this season was adapted from a literary source, Deathday by Angus Wilson, with all the rest being original teleplays. It would be simpler for Bromely and script editor Roger Parkes to approach a TV writer and ask for a supernatural story, that read a hundred or so short stories and novels in search of material, which then had to be adapted for the box. Interestingly Irene Shubik herself would venture into the same psychological realm herself with the 1973 BBC2 anthology The Mind Beyond.

Newly married Eric and Diana arrive at their new home, a large detached renovation in the middle of the countryside. On the surface their life is perfect, they are both beautiful, in love, he is a successful photographer, and Diana feels a special connection with the old house. But there are shadows too. Diana was raped by a stranger when she was a schoolgirl and the trauma has left her terrified of intimacy. A strange figure starts to appear in Eric’s photographs, always watching Diana. Then she starts sleepwalking and even attempts to kill Eric whilst in trance. Can psychiatrist and ghost hunter Dr Philimore help them exorcise this ghostly intruder?

To Lay a Ghost is an uncomfortable watch, even more so today than I think it was in 1971, due to its strain of misogyny and victim blaming. Yet at the same time it is very well made episode (with one exception) especially the outdoor filmed sequences. Ken Hannam gives these a real cinematic sense with the way he uses the camera to stalk the characters, quite literally during the point-of-view opening where the rapist follows short skirted Diana through the woods. The studio interiors are more traditional but still keep the atmosphere of unease going. That one exception is a moment when the ghost throws a light stand at Dr Philimore. The camera lingers on Peter Barkworth clearly standing waiting for his cue to duck. The climatic scene where the ghost moves in a series of flash images is simple but very effective.

Once the disturbing prologue depicting Diana’s sexual assault is over, most of the episode settles into a fairly conventional modern haunted house drama. The mysterious figure appearing in the photographs, and Diana’s attacks of sleepwalking (and sleepwalking attacks) eventually prompt Eric to look into the history of the house and discovering a historical murder involving the mistress of the house and the gardener – Thomas Hobbs. Peter Barkworth arrives as an avuncular ghost hunter, sets up his equipment and encounters poltergeist activity.

Diana is played by a young and exquisitely beautiful Lesley Anne Down, near the start of her career that would lead on to movies and a long career in Hollywood TV mini-series and soap operas. By contrast Iain Gregory, playing Eric, was almost at the end of his. Soon after appearing in Out of the Unknown he left the acting business to become an acclaimed sculptor in ceramics.

It is in the final quarter that the episode becomes really objectionable and I have to warn you that to explain it I am going to have to spoil the ending in the next paragraph or so.

Eric tells Philimore about Diana’s frigidity, a legacy of her schoolgirl trauma. He says has always tried to be understanding about her refusal to have sex. To which Philimore replies, “Yes I think that’s the problem.” He has diagnosed that Diana can only be aroused by a man who rapes her, that in fact she has been sub-consciously looking for a man to abuse her. Her latent psychic sensibilities have made a connection with the ghost of the predatory Hobbs. When Eric tries to make his wife leave the house she starts acting like an evil femme fatale, taunting him for his reluctance to force himself, before laughing mockingly as he angrily leaves. The episode closes with Diana’s excited pleadings as Hobbs’ ghost approaches her.

Whilst it would not be impossible to write a drama about a woman with such mental health problem, it would need to be far more sensitive and researched than what we have here. To Lay a Ghost treats Diana’s desire for abuse as a cheap twist to a conventional ghost story. Playing into the fictional porn fantasy that women want to be dominated and violated is tawdry and possibly dangerous. Even if the episode depicts the ghost as sinister, there’s an underlying judgement that Diana has brought her suffering on herself by her deviance. This episode left a decidedly sour taste in my mouth, despite its impressive technical qualities.