Some Lapse of Time

Man having nightmare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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