by Nick Cooper © 1994-8

While at ITV company ABC in 1962, Sydney Newman - a lifelong admirer of the genre - initiated the Out of this World series of science fiction plays. He had earlier nurtured the prestigious Armchair Theatre, and wanted the same production quality and social relevance for the new series: "Good science fiction is always basically about a human being in a crazy or mythical environment," he told DWB in 1986 (#41-42), "usually the best environment is one that makes a comment on our world today." Producer Leonard White and story editor Irene Shubik achieved this so well that the first episode, an adaptation of John Wyndham's Dumb Martian, was screened in Armchair Theatre as a prelude to OOTW. However, only one series was produced and Newman soon left to become Head of Drama at the BBC.

With the start of BBC2 in 1964, Newman faced a 40% increase in output from his department, and Theatre 625 and Thirty-Minute Theatre became the new channel's drama mainstay, but also resurrected was his concept of a serious and socially-relevant SF anthology series, planned as thirteen sixty-minute episodes. Irene Shubik was hired as story editor and producer, with George Spenton-Foster (himself an SF fan) as associate producer. SF plays had, of course, previously been included in the more mainstream drama series, such as BBC2's Story Parade (The Caves of Steel) and BBC1's The Wednesday Play (Campaign for One), but this was the first time the BBC had attempted an anthology series, although the same had been done for crime stories in BBC1's Detective series, which acted a springboard for other series.

As with OOTW, Out of the Unknown would be a mixture of adaptations of SF stories by both well-known and more obscure writers, as well as original screenplays, and this presented Shubik with a problem when deciding which play to open the series with. Of the two main choices, The Counterfeit Man was a strong story by the "unknown" Alan Nourse, while No Place Like Earth was attributed to the famous John Wyndham, yet was actually an amalgamation of two stories by the author, with extensive "original" material by adapter Stanley Miller. The production had also gone well over budget when the designer had insisted on location filming in Scotland... so that his family could have a holiday! Against Shubik's advice, Newman decided to follow the OOTW precedent and go with the "name" story - Big Mistake Number One.

No Place Like Earth was scheduled for 4 October 1965, when the new channel was being transmitted to less than 60% of the country, but in reality very few had the new dual-standard 405/625-line TV sets capable of receiving it. It was heralded in the Radio Times as the first in, "An exciting new series of science fiction plays" - Big Mistake Number Two. The same title sequence was used for the first three seasons of OOTU: backed by Norman Kay's eerie theme music, ice crystals form across the screen; distorted images ripple, with complex patterns resolving into the form of a screaming face, dissolving into random patterns; a human figure falls repeatedly, lit by striped light; more random patterns become the pupil of an eye seen in extreme close-up, before the title "Out of the Unknown" zooms up and then folds away to black in vertical strips.

Fifteen years after the Earth exploded, Bert Foster (Terence Morgan) travels the canals of Mars as a tinker-cum-handyman, visiting the settlements of the peaceful and contented Martians, and spurning the company of other surviving Earthmen. At one particular settlement, Annika (Jessica Dunning) has him in mind as a son-in-law, but her attempts to manoeuvre him towards her daughter, Zaylo (Hannah Gordon), are cut short when a spaceship passes overhead, and Bert heads off in pursuit of it (this essentially covers the plot of Wyndham's Time to Rest story, except that at the end, sans spaceship, Bert temporarily does a runner from the threat of domestic bliss). The ship - the last one flying - has come from Venus, were engineers have succeeded in making it habitable for the colonists who managed to escape Earth before its destruction. With the carrot of human female companionship dangled in front of them, Bert and some of the men elect to leave Mars, but once on Venus they discover the true nature of the totalitarian regime. Expected to act as foreman to the native Griffa slave labourers, he instead kills his immediate superior (George Pastell as the brutal major Khan) in an argument and sneaks aboard the ship back to Mars, telling the crew (including Geoffrey Palmer!) that he has been sent to recruit Martian labour. After planet-fall, Bert blows up the ship and heads back to Annika's settlement and Zaylo, having finally come to terms with Mars as his true home and the gentle uncreative lifestyle he had not previously appreciated.

Unsurprisingly given the pre-publicity, the critics were unimpressed with the story. The "message" was not missed - it was just that it was told at such an excruciatingly slow pace that it didn't even approach the level needed to engage the audience. "[It] makes it social message clearly enough," said The Times, "Unfortunately it does so extremely slowly and with heavily sententious dialogue underlining what is perfectly clear without its assistance. There was little for the actors to do except strike attitudes." Holes were picked in Peter Seddon's design, although none noted the scientific "inaccuracies" in the plot (e.g. the existence of indigenous life on Venus and Mars, the latter's canals, etc.) - had they done so they might have realised that it was meant to be a fantasy rather than straight SF. When eight episodes from the first season were repeated in mid-1966, No Place... was buried in the middle of them, and this time it seemed to partially hit the mark: "As directed by Peter Potter," said The Times, "it was a slick piece of spoofing, if we must have that sort of thing."

"Science fiction," as John Wyndham once remarked, "as a classifier is only slightly more competent than a system of cataloguing books by the colour of their bindings," and OOTU reflects the apparently disparate and random nature of the genre in general, with many of the major themes cropping up in the series. Space travel is the most readily identifiable science fiction icon, yet only three episodes dealt with it directly (it was merely incidental to the plot of No Place Like Earth and - if overdone - Time in Advance), two of which having the isolated crews of Earth spacecraft apparently coming up against alien threats, but with quite different resolutions. In The Counterfeit Man, adapted from Alan Nourse's short story by Trevor Williams, a patrol ship[ is returning to Earth after a mission to the Jovian moon of Ganymede. Dr Crawford (Alex Davison) suspects that navigator Westcott (David Hemmings - a year before the film Blow-Up brought him international fame) is no longer human when a test shows his blood-sugar level to be zero (Nourse was a practising physician in the US). A second navigator (played by Peter Fraser, previously Susan Foreman's love-interest in the Doctor Who story The Dalek Invasion of Earth) appears on the edge of a breakdown, drops dead, and is found to have a zero blood-sugar count, while a repeat test on Westcott shows his to be normal again. Crawford suspects to Captain Jaffe (Charles Tingwell) that some alien life-form killed Westcott on Ganymede and took his place. He sets out to prove this, after first framing the suspected counterfeit with the theft of a collection of credits for the widows of the dead navigator. The subsequent unmasking of the alien and a further death from blaster-fire being deliciously gruesome, which could have appeared far worse if the series could have been made in colour. The spaceship interior also had a convincingly large scale to it, while the costume and make-up design - despite its faint neo-fascist overtones - was singled out for praise by The Guardian: "All had long, smooth, fair hair in the fashion of a short fringe. The makeup of the faces gave a strange resemblance to all. This space crew was one of the most original and well-executed ideas I have seen on television." This episode was generally better received by the critics than its predecessor, although the reviewer for The Listener was strangely confused by the ending.

Sucker Bait, adapted by Meade Roberts from Isaac Asimov's short story dealt more with the paranoia of alien encounter than the reality of it. A scientific mission to the lost Earth colony of Troas is totally confounded as to why it failed decade before. Also aboard the ship is Mark Annuncio (Clive Endersby), who is a Mnemonic, one of a few specially selected and rigorously trained children whose special talents for memory and intuition are desperately needed in a colonised universe which mere computers are inadequate for keeping track of everything that needs to be remembered. Although he is not an expert in any one subject, Annuncio knows more about the individual fiends of science than the officially-recognised "experts" on board, causing great tension between them. Arriving on Troas, none of the scientists can discover a reason for the loss of the colony, and when Annuncio does, it seems so mind-bogglingly simple that they refuse to believe it. A competent episode, Sucker Bait is let down by the highly scientifically-orientated plot, and the obnoxious character of Mark Annuncio. The interior of the ship appears unbelievably large, while the surface of Troas is too obviously based more on polystyrene than rock. In a supporting role, Burt Kwouk is given the opportunity to deliver a convincingly straight performance without the aid of a silly accent!

J.G.Ballard's Thirteen to Centaurus was also concerned with the stresses of isolated life in space, with them this time being counteracted with psychological programming designed to make the all but one of the thirteen inhabitants of "the Station" accept their routine as the only way of life they have ever known, their memories of Earth having been erased. The exception is Dr Fraser (Donald Houston - later to appear in Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts's boringly routine Moonbase 3 in 1973), who is responsible for maintaining the mental block, but he faces an ethical dilemma when a child born on the Station begins to question what is "outside," seeking knowledge which Fraser fears may send them all mad. Thirteen to Centaurus was the product of the same scripting/direction team responsible for No Place Like Earth, but this time with more success.

The season's two original screenplays also centred around alien encounters, but this time in a contemporary Earth setting. In David Compton's excellently chilling Stranger in the Family had Charles Wilson Jr - known as Boy - is a genetic mutant with immense telepathic powers, capable of making even the strongest-willed obey his command. His father and mother (Peter Copley and Daphne Slater) constantly move around so that Boy will not be recognised for what he is and exploited, but they have been tracked down by a group of mysterious government scientists led by Evans (Jack May). When Boy becomes besotted with a minor actress, Paula Wild (Justine Lord), one of the agents, Brown (John Paul) becomes more and more antagonistic towards him, especially since he earlier caused the death of a colleague (Joby Blanshard). He decides to kill Boy, with the inevitable result, while Paula's pimp-cum-agent, Sonny (Eric Lander) also becomes the victim of the mutant's murderous impulses. Sharing much with John Wyndham's novel The Midwich Cuckoos, Stranger in the Family goes for a similar downbeat although radically different conclusion, which is all the more surprising considering the events which lead up to it. Although featuring few obvious SF trappings, and with extensive contemporary location footage, Boy's environment is presented from his point of view, making it appear almost surreal to the viewer, while similar treatment of the "normal" human characters makes them appear more alien. The cast of this episode is rather remarkable in telefantasy term: Jack May went on to be a regular in Adam Adamant Lives! shortly afterwards, while John Paul and Joby Blanshard were leads in Doomwatch five years later. Justine Lord was later unrecognisable as The Girl Who Was Death in The Prisoner, and Peter Copley appeared briefly in Survivors. Compton later re-used his script less successfully for Hammer's 1969 ITV series Journey Into the Unknown.

A more comedic offering was Mike Watts's Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come...?. Henry Wilkes (Milo O'Shea) is an ordinary fishmonger with a fond wife, a dog, a Victorian house, and a large garden. Wilkes's hobby of the latter, however, extends to the cultivation of rare tropical plants, which he gives pet names and talks to. This cause his wife only fear: "Those flowers are wrong," she says, "They don't belong in this country and yet they survive in this climate, they live all through winter and never die..." Certainly she has cause for concern given that Wilkes has been feeding his blooms diced rabbit and huge does of vitamins.... The Day of the Triffids meets Gardeners' Question Time would seem an apt comparison!

Paul Erickson's adaptation of William Tenn's Time in Advance witnessed an unfortunate return to hoary SF clichés. A prison ship returns to Earth, and among the convicts on board are research engineer Nick Crandall (Edward Judd) and Otto Henck (Mike Pratt - later the former in Randall & Hopkirk [Deceased]), "pre-criminals" who had confessed to murderous intent seven years previously, and were sentenced to half the term they would have been given had they committed their crimes. The theory is that, exiled to the off-world colonies, many pre-criminals die before they complete their sentences, while others rethink their original plans and see the error of their intentions. Those who don't are issue with special licences to legally kill one person of their choosing, be it their original intended victim or not. The result is that the crime rate is dramatically reduced, whilst obviously officially-sanctioned murders do not need investigating. Back on Earth, however, Crandall and Henck - bonded in friendship having each saved the other's life off-world - discover that things have changed so dramatically since they left, and that they are under such intense media attention, that they both have to radically re-think the plans they have been brooding over for seven years. As with The Counterfeit Man, when murder is eventually committed, the results are messy and unexpected. Although the script does quite effectively question the nature of friendship and trust - both personal and professional - as intended, the episode encapsulates all the dramatic presentation problems which dog various episodes to varying degrees. Much of the action is set in the garishly-predictable Hotel Capricorn Ritz - all gleaming metal walls, impractical sunken bed and naff automatic drink dispensers - and the reasonably effective laboratory of the scientist whole stole Crandall's great power-generating discover years before. There is also the same tendency towards neo-fascist costume and make-up design seen in The Counterfeit Man, while Mike Pratt - as with other characters throughout the series - is called upon to deliver his lines in a ridiculously absurd accent. Writing in The Guardian, Mary Crozier thought the opening scenes of the prison ship's return to Earth credible, but that, "The great difference between this play and... The Counterfeit Man was that the characters were totally uninteresting and the plot incredible."

Time travel was a subject dealt with directly once in the first season, although some episodes did skirt around it. The Dead Past (again by Isaac Asimov, the most prolifically adapted author in the series, this time by Jeremy Paul), set in the 21st Century, featured a Chronoscope reputedly capable of viewing any event in the past. Professor Arnold Potterley (George Benson) wants to use it to support his studies of ancient Carthage, but the official in charge, Thaddeus Araman (David Langton in a commanding performance), refuses to let him near the device, so he hires a young physicist, Jonas Foster (James Maxwell) to build him a private Chronoscope in his cellar, with utterly unexpected and frightening results. Despite the setting of the story, Norman James's sets were far more restrained than those in other episodes, with the costume design in particular being for once a reasoned ,speculation, with none of the gimmicky dull conformity of The Counterfeit Man or Time in Advance . The rather unpleasant Some Lapse of Time has a doctor being haunted in his dreams by a mysterious savage figure who later turns up on his doorstep, unconscious and suffering from the same rare radiation-induced illness that killed his son. The final revelation that the savage was some kind of medicine man from a post-nuclear holocaust future was about as convincing as the Doctor Who story Silver Nemesis, with the only redeeming feature being the curiosity of seeing Ridley Scott's design work, which Doctor Who was so closely denied.

The only example of "conventional" time travel and a sadly lost episode was Ray Bradbury's The Fox and the Forest, adapted by Terry Nation (with additional material by Meade Roberts), set in 1930s Mexico. Bill and Susan Travis's (Frederick Bartman and Liane Aukin) enjoyment of a fiesta is disturbed by a stranger who greets them as David and Sarah Kirsten, and asks: "1938 must have seemed a pretty good year to you. Why did you choose it?" David and Sarah are government employees from the year 2165 taking advantage of the privilege of holidaying in the past, but the difference is that they do not intend to return. The stranger is one of a group of Hunters sent back to retrieve or kill such errant vacationers, and the episode reached a terrifying climax when a drinking party turns into the final trap.

The two remaining episodes were more light-hearted affairs. The Midas Plague was a satire on consumerism, set in a future whose inhabitants acquire so many possessions that, for example, they have their robots wear their clothes for them! In Andover and the Android, Roger Andover (Tom Criddle) must marry in order to secure an inheritance, but because his strictly organised life would be upset by an unpredictable human being, he acquires a sophisticated android, Lydia (Annette Robinson), to pass off as his wife. Unfortunately, Lydia begins to think for herself and her circuits become confused as she achieves something approaching humanity. "There were pleasant moments of social farce on the way to this sadly predictable irony," said The Times, "as well as an amusing send-up of cherished science fiction clichés." Highly popular, it was repeated on BBC1 a week after the series finished to give viewers "a taste of BBC-2."

Despite its uncertain start, OOTU had gained enough popularity with press and public alike that Shubik and Spenton-Foster were given the go-ahead for a second season. This time thirteen episodes would be made, although the length - with one exception - was cut back to fifty minutes.

The season opened with what is regarded by many as the greatest surviving episode of the series, as well as being the oldest work adapted. The Machine Stops was written in 1908 by E.M.Forster and is often cited as an attack on the utopias of H.G.Wells, although to say this is wholly the case betrays a fundamental misinterpretation and/or disregard for much of the work of the latter (e.g. The War in the Air is hardly optimistic). In the future, all mankind's needs are catered for by "the Machine," with each person living in their own isolated subterranean Room, although through the Machine they are, "in touch with all that [they] care for in the world." Humans have become atrophied by dependence on the Machine, which in turn prevents access to activities which might reverse this trend, and "protects" mankind from the horror of "direct experience" of the natural surface environment, leading to intellectual and emotional introversion. Many people have begun to deify the Machine, surreptitiously worshipping and praying to it. One such is Vashti (Yvonne Mitchell - Julia in the classic Nigel Kneale/Rudolph Cartier version of Nineteen Eighty-Four), whose son, Kuno (Michael Gothard), wants to illegally visit the surface. He finds a landscape he can barely survive in, not because it is harsh, but because he is so weak, although there is evidence that some people continue to do so beyond the reach of the Machine. Vashti, however, is only interested in the "new ideas" her studies can reveal, so Kuno presents her with one: "The Machine stops." She finds this horrifying and refuses to countenance it, but the Machine does indeed begin to falter and break down. The production is virtually flawless, with Norman James's impressively convincing sets complimenting a script which transcends the level even the most ardent devotees of science fiction expect of the genre.

The fall of humanity at its own hands was also the theme for the highly acclaimed Level Seven, the credentials of which almost surpass even those of the Forster episode, being adapted by J.B.Priestley (from a story by Mordecai Roshwald), with direction by Rudolph Cartier and ten more minutes running time than the rest of the series. The "Level" of the title is the deepest in an underground nuclear command bunker, to which X127 (Keith Buckley) - known as "H" - is sent after his final training, and where he will be one of two operatives always at the missile launch controls, ready to respond to an enemy attack. When this comes, the inhabitants of the bunker are entombed beneath a devastated surface, waiting for the radiation to seep down to Level Seven. Inevitable though the end was, The Listener commented: "the tension was inescapable, the excitement incontestable."

The same cannot be said of Lambda I, set in a distant future in which a new form of travel is through the Earth itself via sub-atomic space, known as TAU. The different atomic levels are known as Modes - Gamma, Delta and Epsilon - each more unstable than the previous, the effect on the human mind being so terrifyingly hallucinatory that passengers aboard TAU ships are protected behind "reality shields." A TAU transfer from New York to London goes wrong and the ship is plunged into the feared - but hitherto unproven - Omega Mode. On board is the pregnant wife of the London Senior Controller, Paul Porter (Sebastian Breaks), who is persuaded to mount a rescue attempt by psychologist Eric Benedict (Ronald Lewis), who is concerned about the effect of TAU on the human mind, and suggests using the original prototype TAU ship, The Lambda I, as a rescue craft. Travelling towards Omega, Benedict realises that it is not just TAU which acts on the brain, but that in turn the actual ship's stability in TAU is also affected by the state of mind of the crew and passengers. This episode fails because the concepts are so mind-bogglingly abstract that they dwarf the human drama of the rescue, whilst the monochrome presentation failed to do justice to the surreal TAU environment.

Season 2 saw few space-based episodes, while the success of Andover and the Android prompted several robot-orientated ones, although not all were played for comic effect. In Frankenstein Mark II, Anna Preston (Rachel Roberts) find herself up against a government cover-up when she attempts to investigate the disappearance of her scientist ex-husband. Convinced that he is in danger, even she is unprepared for the sight of the cyborg he has become at the end of the story. It is interesting to note that Hugh Whitemore's original screenplay was only commissioned after fruitless enquires on the part of the production team were made about adapting Algis Budrys's novel Who? (later adapted as a 1974 feature film), which has a similar theme.

More in keeping with Season 1 was Satisfaction Guaranteed, which essentially reversed Andover. Wendy Craig plays Claire Belmont, a housewife facing domestic and sexual complications when her husband arranges for her to take charge of TN3 - "Tony" (Hal Hamilton) - a robot indistinguishable from a human, and programmed to do housework twenty-four hours a day. In a darker vein was The Fastest Draw, with wealthy American Amos Handworthy (Ed Bageley) obsessed with keeping the idea of the Old West alive by hiring an engineer to build a machine against which he can prove himself to be as fast a draw as his frontier marshal father. The machine is programmed to be a fraction slower than Handworthy, but faced with a real moving target for the first time, he falters and is shot. The third robot-based episode was Isaac Asimov's The Prophet, featuring robot psychologist Dr Susan Calvin (Beatrix Lehman) telling a TV reporter about her strangest case, when a new automaton on a remote space station refused to believe that humans had created it, resulting in a fraught game of logic and bluff. The Calvin character had also appeared in an Out of this World episode (Little Lost Robot), played by Maxine Audley, while the robots which first appeared in The Prophet were later used in the Doctor Who story The Mind Robber.

Other episodes also dealt with technology backfiring on mankind. The World in Silence had Deborah Watling as a student in a college of the future using new teaching machines to take control of her fellow pupils; in The Eye, Anton Rodgers find himself falsely accused of murder by the "infallible" surveillance device of the title; while Too Many Cooks mixed the SF clichés of space empires and cloning to lighter effect.

Another standard SF idea was utilised in Second Childhood. In a TV quiz show of the late-70's (!), millionaire contestants compete against each other to bet a million in order to either double it, or win "the prize that is beyond price," rejuvenation. Charles Dennison (Nigel Stock) opts for the latter, but when he seduces the wife of the supervising doctor, the medic destroys the code for arresting the process, so Dennison gets younger and younger, until he is returned to his family a screaming infant. The two remaining stories dealt with deception in one form or another: an elderly lady being offered a free place in the retirement home run by Dr Saint (John Robinson - Bernard Quatermass Mark II) and a mysterious course of "treatment" in William Trevor's Walk's End; and Tunnel Under the World had Ronald Hines living the same day over and over again as a control in the studies of an advertising agency.

The Prophet was transmitted on New Years Day 1967 and - barring a repeat run of six Season 2 episodes on BBC1 three months later - it would have appeared to the average viewer that OOTU had finished for good. Both Shubik and Spenton-Foster left to pursue other projects (the latter, for example, to produce the first colour British telefantasy programme, The Metal Martyr in BBC2's Thirty-Minute Theatre) This ruled out the sort of smoother transition to a new production team which would have been possible had one of them stayed one on, but nevertheless behind the scenes, the cogs of the production process continued to slowly turn. Alan Bromly and Roger Parkes (both to later work on Doctor Who and Blake's 7 respectively) were appointed producer and script editor, although neither had previously worked on the series in any capacity.


Time in Advance Part 2

Out of the Unknown Episode/Archive Guide

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