Little Lost Robot

I have to admire the BFI for digging out some real obscurities for their fantasy and science fiction range of releases. Having done a splendid job restoring and releasing all the existing Out of the Unknown episodes in a box set, they have also brought out a single disc containing all the remains of its 1962 ITV predecessor Out of this World. I recently received it as a Christmas present. The brainchild of ground-breaking TV producer Irene Shubik, and an off-shoot of the prestigious ITV series Armchair Theatre, Out of this World was a thirteen part anthology of science fiction stories, mostly adapted from the page. Sadly only one complete episode still exists – Little Lost Robot.

Top robot psychologist Susan Calvin is summoned to a spacebase orbiting Saturn, where she is shocked to discover that the local robots have had their most basic rule, “No robot may harm a human or allow a human to come to harm,” reprogrammed to allow them to work on a secret military project. Now one of the robots has taken an engineer’s angry command to “Get lost” literally and has disguised itself amongst twenty-one identical robots due to shipped to another base. Susan must track down the fugitive before an intelligent robot capable of murder escapes.

It is an entertaining episode, even if it doesn’t quite capture the cleverness of Isaac Asimov’s original short story. In the original, part of his celebrated collection I, Robot, Susan Calvin explains the because the First Law has been changed to “No Robot may kill a human”, the Second Law “A robot must obey, where that order does not contradict the First Law” has now taken precedence. In fact as long as the robot is obeying “Get lost!”, this means the Third Law “A robot must preserve its own existence where this does not contradict the First or Second Law.” is now its driving motivation. Making this robot a determined escape artist that will use all its superhuman abilities to avoid being discovered.

This logical dilemma is never properly explained, in fact Asimov’s famous Three Laws are never fully stated. Rather people talk in more vague terms about the robot being dangerous due to its reprogramming. It seems an odd oversight for an episode with plenty of time for discussion and the usually fastidious Irene Shubik in charge. What this adaptation does add is more emotion to all the characters, especially Susan Calvin. In Asimov’s stories she is famously cool and logical, rather like Mr Spock but on television she is much more anxious and even flirtatious towards the end. There’s even a classic example of “mansplaining” as the supposed top expert in robotics has some elements described to her by her male assistant. At least she gets in a dry retort to him. The Chief Engineer is also developed into a character who resents the robots for their seeming air of superiority.

Production-wise the play can be regarded as good for its time. All the sets have a stage backdrop quality to them, but at least they are solid and practical and not in the slightest Flash Gordon-esque. The robots themselves do look as if they have been made for a school production but their blank, slightly Cyberman-like, faces are effective in close-up. The costume also forces the actors to waddle along, which is regrettably humorous. The production has that filmed-as-live-theatre style of direction which was typical of most television drama of the time. Yet for me at least the episode never drags.

Boris Karloff introduces and concludes the episode as the Host. He did quite a few of these hosting roles in later life, his mellifluous voice and urbane presence ideally suited the job. The most famous of these show was probably Thriller and another was a supernatural series called The Veil. His contribution here is probably about a minute long. Aside from Boris the rest of the cast is filled with actors who were familiar television faces of the time. Susan Calvin is played by Maxine Audley, probably best remembered now for her part in the notorious horror movie Peeping Tom.

As I said earlier very little of this series still exists, nevertheless BFI have done their best with the extras. Little Lost Robot is presented as a film print and a VIDFIRE version to replicate the way it would looked in 1962. Collectors of the Doctor Who DVDs will know the latter process as it has been used on nearly all the black and white episodes. There is interesting commentary featuring producer Leonard White and actor Mark Ward, hosted by Toby Hadoke, who has done similar duties on Out of the Unknown and Doctor Who.  Two further episodes exist as audio-only recordings: Cold Equations – a classic drama about an astronaut who discovers he has a stowaway on board who threatens his whole mission, and Imposter – a man is accused of being an alien construct, the only television adaptation to date of a Philip K Dick story. Both have been cleaned-up as much as possible and are presented here. There is also a PDF script of another missing story Dumb Martian. Finally there is an excellently written eighteen page booklet on the history of the series and the thirteen stories.

This DVD makes an excellent companion piece to Out of the Unknown, especially now it has come down in price to under £10. It is fascinating to watch this rare bit of British science fiction history and respect ABC for producing adult SF at a time when it was pretty rare on television.

Flying Down Under – K9 The Series

Created in response to the popularity of Star Wars‘ R2-D2 and C-3PO, the Doctor’s robotic dog companion has had quite a busy life of his own. He has enjoyed a 1982 BBC spin-off Christmas special, toys, books, and numerous celebrity cameos. For years his creators, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, tried to get a fully-fledged K9 television series on-air and finally succeeded in 2009, no doubt helped by runaway success of the revived Doctor Who series. This boxset collects all 26 episodes of Brightspark’s Australian children’s television series, which was sold to several territories including Channel 5 in the UK. It is essentially a slipcase containing the two previous UK DVD releases.

London in the not too distant future where the government has become increasingly authoritarian. Robot policemen are on the streets. A secret branch of the government called The Division deals with alien incursions. Professor Gryffen works for The Division at his home laboratory, investigating confiscated alien tech, especially a time/space teleporter recovered from a UFO discovered in the Arctic. One night his experiments are violently interrupted, first by homeless teenage hacker Starkey, then a time/space portal opening up and unleashing a pair of reptilian warriors called the Jixen, pursued by K9. Overwhelmed by the Jixen’s attack, the robot bravely self-destructs to save the humans. To their amazement he then regenerates into a new sleeker form which can fly. K9 may have lost some of his memories but he is still super-smart, loaded with gadgets and loyal to his new “master” Starkey and his friends Jorjie, Darius and the Professor. Together they fight new alien invaders and the sinister plans of the security department, aided and abetted by Jorjie’s mother June, head of The Division.

The obvious comparison for this series is The Sarah Jane Adventures, the CBBC Doctor Who spin-off which also featured K9 in its later seasons. On the whole K9 – The Series is a more childish lightweight programme, its characters rarely having the depth of the regulars surrounding Sarah Jane Smith. Its format of individual 25 minute stories, compared to the two part story format of the British series, also means that most of the stories are pretty straightforward, with rarely much space for the characters to grow. But then something remarkable happens in the last ten episodes – it suddenly becomes much better in every department. Looking at the credits there is no obvious new writer or producer. It’s simply as if the team metaphorically drank a can of Red Bull and suddenly got inspired. From “The Cambridge Spy” onwards, the adventures are more exciting, the humour is actually funny and whilst the regulars do not get much richer, they do become more likeable and the acting become less stiff.

“Angel of the North” is the only episode written by veteran Doctor Who and Wallace and Gromit writer Bob Baker and it is definitely the highpoint of the series. The artic base which discovered the Fallen Angel UFO comes under attack from revived alien monsters. Atmospheric, well-paced and featuring some welcome insight into Professor Gryffen, it is the one story that really recalls the feel of Doctor Who. Other highlights are: “The Lost Library of Ukko” which is the only story to feature an alien planet, where Starkey and his regular Division enemy Thorn become trapped, forcing them to work together.  “The Curse of Anubis” where K9 meets a race of Ancient Egyptian-themed aliens who he helped free from slavery in the past. Unfortunately they have turned into tyrants themselves. Soon he and nearly everyone else aside from Darius have been brainwashed into believing K9 is a god. And the aforementioned “The Cambridge Spy” where Starkey and Jorjie are accidentally sent back to the 1950’s and become involved with a suspected traitor.

The series has something of the look of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, with its young cast, bright colours and fairly stagey looking interiors. Its tight budget means that a surprising large ratio of its stories involve going underground so that the same tunnel set can be redressed again and again. Having most of the Division scenes take place inside what looks the back of a van is also distractingly cheap-looking. Sunny Brisbane looks nothing like London either. The aliens vary in quality from fairly credible rubber monster suits like the Jixen to stuff that wouldn’t be out of place at a Halloween party. On the plus side the title music and CGI opening sequence are quite catchy.

Originally it was announced that K9 would have a new voice but following a fan backlash, K9’s original voice – actor John Leeson –  was hired. Personality-wise this K9 has become more of a smart-alec and has lost a bit of his fusty, slightly pompous academic manner which he had in Doctor Who, but he is still recognisable as the same character. Most of the regular actors have gone on to have decent careers in the last few years but it has to be said their performances here are often quite wooden. Daniel Webber (11.23.63, The Punisher) in particular as Darius labours with a pretty poor attempt at a Cockney accent. But the wooden spoon has to go to Connor Van Vuuren as villainous Division agent Drake. My jaw dropped every time this guy was onscreen, seemingly unable to deliver a single line convincingly. He was about as menacing as the Innkeeper in a school nativity. It’s no coincidence that Drake’s eventual removal coincides with the late upswing in quality. The best performance belongs to experienced TV and movie actor Robert Moloney as Professor Gryffen, even though he is a pretty stereotyped eccentric Brit scientist who drinks tea and dresses a bit foppishly.

These four discs are pretty light extras-wise, with only text profiles of the regular characters spread across them. It is a shame that the behind the scenes programme that is apparently on the Australian release was not included, since there is relatively little information available about this series.

K9 – The Series is to quote another SF series – mostly harmless. Not as good a spin-off as The Sarah Jane Adventures or Torchwood, but better at least than the lamentable K9 and Company. It is cheap, cheerful and there is nothing to offend a family audience, although small children may find the lumbering dinosaur-like Jixen a bit scary. As far as I know it is not currently available to stream anywhere, making these DVD’s your only way of seeing it. Doctor Who fans might like to buy it out of completeness but have better be advised to set their expectations to low.

I wrote this review for the Ciao shopping site but it was rejected because this DVD set is now out of print. So I thought I might as well publish it here. Hope you enjoyed it.

Feature: Celebrating HG Wells’ 150th birthday on audio

I am a big fan of science fiction radio drama and this is an excellently curated list of choices. – Gareth

In October 1938, Orson Welles’ broadcast of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds caused consternation in America. To mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of the celebrated writer, the ed…

Source: Feature: Celebrating HG Wells’ 150th birthday on audio

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 to and cooperated with a group of classic television enthusiasts to produce a remarkably complete collection, for a programme which is regrettably 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 DVD extras.

In fact the documentary 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 that 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 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 is on a mission to infiltrate and sabotage a hydro-electric power station, where each soldier has been subliminally programmed to only remember the next stage of their mission when they hear a tone on their 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 kind of over-emphasised, reaction heavy acting that science fiction directors often encourage. 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 if the episode had been made on film and filmed in a realistic location. Yet theatricality does not mean it is 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 I’ll admit, 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 the script for one episode in 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.

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.

The Yellow Pill

by Rog Phillips
Adapted by Leon Griffiths

I’ll admit I’ve always had a fondness for interrogation style dramas. Two people duelling with words and strategies. The Yellow Pill is a great example of the genre. You carp that it is not particularly televisual and could have worked equally well as a radio play or on the stage, but that is a compliment to the quality of the dialogue and the clever short story it is adapting. Viewers of the time might have recalled watching the same story a few years earlier when ITV’s SF anthology Out of This World, story edited by Irene Shubik, adapted it in 1962. In fact Out of the Unknown was remaking the very same script, written by Leon Griffiths.

Psychiatrist Dr John Frame’s usual day is interrupted by Inspector Slinn, who wants his professional opinion on Wilfred Connor, a murder suspect. Slinn wants to know if Connor is genuinely mad or faking it. When Dr Frame begins to question Connor he is surprised to find the young man seems to sincerely believe that he is in a spaceship, tied to his chair, and that it is Frame who is hallucinating that he is a doctor. Connor tells him that they are astronauts who have just had a terrifying encounter with aliens, causing Frame to go temporarily mad. As Frame tries to make Connor accept that he is the one who has retreated into a fantasy world, he is increasingly unnerved by how much the suspect seems to know about him.

Prisoner and interrogator dramas are a staple of television drama. Stories in which the protagonist discovers their normality is a fiction is a regular plot device in science fiction. The Yellow Pill nevertheless feels pretty fresh and original.  It is an imaginative idea and well played by both men. Underplayed in fact for most of the episode. Francis Matthews, well known for playing urbane heroes, is a picture of smug complacency at first as Dr Frame, and it is quite satisfying to see him slowly crumbling. Stephen Bradley is calm, reasonable and in control almost to the end as Connor and he’s deliberately more sympathetic. In a subtle touch the broadest and most stereotypically aggressive character is Slinn, played by Glynn Edwards, something of a regular policeman face on television.

Since this is a SF series called Out of the Unknown, the question of which man is correct become obvious in retrospect. In the original short story the climax is a little more complicated by an extra twist. The truth is revealed, but one of the men is so convinced by the other’s illusion that he goes on to commit suicide. Another curious little alteration by Griffiths is that the aliens in the story are described as blue lizard men, whilst in the television script they are recalled as amorphous vaguely men-shaped blobs. Dr Frame’s secretary/mistress in the short story is seemingly his perfect woman, where as in the television adaptation she is attractive but a much more realistic person who is unhappy with their relationship as it stands. It is a good move since it makes the question of whose reality is real more nuanced.

Since this is something of a talking heads drama, the photo reconstruction probably does give a fair impression of what this lost episode would have been like, even if we lose the fine detail. I ended up watching it twice after being interrupted the first time and I still enjoyed the back and forth of Frame and Connor’s debate, even when I knew where it was heading, thanks to the performances and the way the clues are fed into the story. So my viewing of what remains of the third season ends on a high note. I have said before that it is a shame so much of this season is missing, since it seems to have continued much of the confident style of season two, with the added bonus of colour and increasingly sophisticated productions for its science fiction tales. The fourth and final season would see a significant change in style and content. More on those episodes soon.

Rating the existing episodes:
1.Beach Head
2.The Yellow Pill
3. The Little Black Bag
4. The Naked Sun
5. The Last Lonely Man