TIME IN ADVANCE - PART 2
by Nick Cooper © 1994-8
At the time Season 2 was being transmitted, there were still a large number of stories - in various stages of preparation - which Shubik and Spenton-Foster had at one time or another considered for the series. Significantly, twelve of the thirteen episodes which eventually formed Season 3 were first listed in BBC documentation as early as November 1966, with apparently only Brian Hayles 1+1=1.5 being commissioned by Bromly and Parkes.
Even so, it wasn't until early 1968 that things really started to move on the new series, with the first batch of three episodes (The Last Lonely Man, Beach Head and Immortality Inc.) having been recorded by the June of that year, eighteen months after the end of the previous season. The length of time between seasons may seem strangely excessive, but the reason for it may lie behind the commencement of colour transmissions. BBC2 had got the go-ahead to move to colour in 1966, at which time they only had one studio and one outside broadcast unit suitably equipped, but no colour video tape recorders, although there was a colour telecine. The new VT machines were acquired and programmes - notably prestigious adaptations of Thackray's Vanity Fair and Henry James' Portrait of a Lady - were recorded in anticipation of the colour launch in December 1967.
Had monochrome production of Season 3 been concurrent with Season 2, recording would have started in mid-1967, with transmission in October at the earliest, as per the first two seasons. This would have meant, however, that at least the last four episodes would have been screened after the colour launch. Recording all the stories in colour - possibly for transmission from December or January - would have been difficult given the limited resources available, which were otherwise tied up with the above-mentioned programmes. In addition, OOTU was acknowledged by production staff as being more expensive to make than non-genre drama because of the demands on design, special effects, etc., and so it is not unreasonable to deduce that it was decided that since so much money would be spent on it in the first place, it would be better to put it on hold until such time as it could be more easily done the greater justice of colour recording and transmission.
After the bias against space-based stories in Season 2, the third saw a return to a more balanced run-down of episodes, and one of the major themes this time was life after death, opening with Immortality Inc. In the far future, the rich can buy an extended lifetime, but this involved the transference of the mind into a younger body acquired from the past. One such body is that of Mark Blain (Charles Tingwell), who is more than a tad annoyed at the prospect of switching minds with some rich old git. The Last Lonely Man was also concerned with longevity. A future government has introduced the "Contact Service," whereby the minds of those who die can pass into someone still alive such as a relative, a friend, or other loved one. But James Hale (George Cole) is friendless and unloved, so who can he make Contact with? Donald Bull's Something in the Cellar had first been submitted back in 1966, and was the first and only episode of the series to boast a Radio Times cover. Milo O'Shea played an eccentric scientist who, haunted by the memory of his dead mother, builds a monster computer in his basement.
John Wyndham's Random Quest also featured a protagonist torn out of his familiar world. Dr Harshom (Noel Howlett) is visited by physicist Colin Trafford (Keith Barron), who is trying to trace an Ottilie Harshom, but the doctor tells him he is certain - because of the exceptionally rare surname - she does not exist. Trafford tells him that during an experiment, he was plunged into a parallel universe where World War II never happened, he had a career as a successful writer, and was married to a beautiful young woman who hated him - Ottilie (Tracy Reed). He persuades her that he is the alter-ego of her unloving and philandering husband, but after twenty-two days he found himself back in his own universe again, desperate to find the counterpart of Ottilie "here." Harshom tries to convince him that it was all a dream, but Trafford eventually tracks her down, discovering her to be the illegitimate daughter Dr Harshom never knew his son fathered shortly before being killed in a motor-racing accident at Brooklands. While no copy of the episode exists, it was directed by Christopher Barry at the same time he was commissioning John Cura to photograph all his Doctor Who stories.... Wyndham's story was very freely-adapted as a film by Terence Feely in 1971, with Tom Bell and Joan Collins in the lead roles, under the hideous title of Quest for Love!! In retrospect, it is surprising that so little of John Wyndham's work has been filmed or televised properly, with the total number of productions being counted on one hand. This seems an incredible shame given how timeless many of his short stories are, and how TV technology has now reached the stage at which black comedies such as Confidence Trick, Chinese Puzzle and especially More Spinned Again could be realised, requiring as the do a London Tube train arriving in Hell, dragons, and the spider form of the Goddess Arachne respectively.
Another example of time-zone shifting was The Little Black Bag, this being the medical kit of a doctor of the future accidentally sent back to the present day, where it fall into the hands of drunken and disqualified medic Roger Full. He is blackmailed into building up a successful cosmetic surgery practice by a vicious young woman, who then uses one of the instruments for a more sinister purpose.
Liar! Again featured Asimov's Dr Susan Calvin character, this time played by Wendy Gifford. RB34 - Herbie - (Ian Ogilvy) is to be demonstrated to the Press to allay public fears of the growing number of robots. But Herbie has a "fault" which makes him telepathic and, because he is programmed not to hurt humans' feelings, he tells them exactly what they want to hear. Season 3's other Asimov story was The Naked Sun, which has Baley (Paul Maxwell), a detective from Earth sent to investigate a murder on the planet Solaria, where all the inhabitants live in isolation and communicate with each other via three-dimensional viewers. This causes Baley more than a few problems, compounded by the hostility of the dead man's wife (Trisha Noble) to his enquiries.
A story which also concerned off-world colonisation was Beach Head, which questioned whether the ecology of new planets could actually find a niche for humans. Commanding the expeditions to Planet 0243/B is Tom Becker (Ed Bishop), a veteran of thirty-six such missions, all of which were faultless because the technology at his crew's disposal overcomes all eventualities. It is only when the new planet subtly defeats the machines that Decker defines both the cause and the cure for his growing dissatisfaction with his life, but it also begins to send him insane. Included amongst Tony Abbott's impressive sets was a whole wonderfully-conceived alien village composed of egg-like shelters, complete with inhabitants.
In a similar manner to Frankenstein Mark II, Brian Hayles' 1 + 1 = 1.5 was apparently only commissioned after early enquiries about obtaining the television rights to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World were not realised. Early in the 21st century, the British take pride in leading the world in Population Control, based on computer analysis determining the use of an anti-fertility factor. This complacency is shattered when the wife of an esteemed Population Officer becomes pregnant for a second time, when she is only licensed for one child!
Two scripts were re-used from Out of this World in this season. Target Generation also considered the problems of colonisation, or rather how people can cope with journeys to other planets lasting hundreds of years. The result is an isolated community similar to Thirteen to Centaurus, confined within "The Ship" for generations. Unaware that they are speeding through space, they worship meaningless symbols with elaborate ritual, only knowing that one day they will feel a tremor in the Ship as it lands, but only one young man has inherited the knowledge of what must be done when this happens. The Yellow Pill dealt with the nature of perception when a psychiatrist is asked to examine a murderer, who appears to be insane. He also seems to know a lot about the doctor's private life.
The final episode of the season was also one of the strangest. In Get Off My Cloud, science fiction writer Marsham Craswell (Peter Jeffrey) has had a nervous breakdown and is lying inert in a hospital bed, yet is living through one of his own fantasies in his mind. To bring him back to reality, a doctor uses a new device to link Craswell's mind with that of down-to-Earth Irish sports reporter, Peter Parnell (Donal Donnelly), and the two end up battling the demons of the writer's subconscious together. The designer on this story was Raymond P.Cusick, so it should come as no surprise that amongst the ephemera of Craswell's mind, the TARDIS and a Dalek make cameo appearances.
Get Off My Cloud went out on April Fool's Day 1969 and - barring selected repeats in 1970 - it looked again as if OOTU had come to a premature end, and in truth the single season which emerged bearing the same name in 1971 wasn't really the same thing. It is, then, worth noting at this point some of the stories which were considered for the first three seasons, but not produced. An early casualty was Kurt Vonnegut's Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, even though it got as far as Charles (the Beatles' Help, Tumbledown, Sharpe, etc.) Wood being assigned to write the script. Walter M.Miller's The Darfsteller and Frank Herbert's The Dragon in the Sea were mooted at the beginning of 1966, with Arthur C.Clarke's All the Time in the World (adapted by Mike Wilson), and Robert Sheckley's Ticket to Tranae (adapted by Stanley Goulder) joining the list the same August. Novelist and fledgling television dramatist Peter Van Greenaway (no relation to the crap director!) submitted The Pandora at the same time, and this wasn't dropped until late 1967. Nigel Kneale was approached to write a two-episode story in early 1967, although neither appears to be the story he eventually delivered for Season 4. It has been suggested that this could have been an early stage of the development of The Year of the Sex Olympics, produced as a single Theatre 625 play in 1968.
Adaptations of authors not readily associated with science fiction included Doris Lessing's The Pink Princess and Evelyn Waugh's Love Among the Ruins, which was a strong contender for Season 3. Surprisingly, it seems that no other stories by Asimov or Wyndham were planned other than those that made it to the screen, although two by Philip K.Dick were (Second Variety, adapted by James Doran, and The Impostor, which had appeared in OOTW), along with the Harry Harrison spoof Bill the Galactic Hero. Interestingly, Mordecai Roshwald's A Small Armageddon (in which the crew of a nuclear submarine hold the world to ransom) was considered at the same time as his similar Level Seven, and may have been dropped purely for technical reasons (i.e. an underground bunker being easier to realise than a submarine).
While Bromly's first season as producer saw a return to balance of Season 1, Season 4 was a more radical departure from earlier episodes. In a Radio Times article, Bromly proposed the theory that in the aftermath of the early Moon landings - the drama of the near-fatal Apollo 13 disaster in particular - "just setting a story somewhere in space is not the automatic thrill it once war." Accordingly, virtually all of the new episodes were "plays of psychological suspense," with even the extreme minority of identifiably science fiction stories (as opposed to those which only just stopped short of being classed as "supernatural" by the nagging doubt that the protagonists had imagined it all) leaning heavily in that direction. In addition, only one of the thirteen episodes was an adaptation of an existing work. A new title sequence was commissioned, which backed a series of surreal images with incidental music previously heard in The Prisoner (notably in the last episode, Fall Out, when Number 6's home is being prepared for his return).
The opening story was John Wiles' Taste of Evil, which centred on the nightmarish experiences of a new teacher (Maurice Roeves) at a school for "ultra-intelligent" boys, some of whom seem to have a propensity towards extra-sensory perception as well as high IQ's. In other words, a cut-price "spooky" version of Giles Cooper's Unman, Wittering and Zigo! The Sons and Daughters of Tomorrow, by Eddie Boyd, trod a similar path, with telepathy and witchcraft in a remote Anglian village, while Martin Worth (later heavily involved with Survivors) provided The Last Witness), about a man who wakes up in a hotel on a remote island after a shipwreck and discovers that he had a terrible premonition of what is to happen to the inhabitants. David T.Chantler's The Shattered Eye concluded the season with the by then near-tedious nightmare events befalling a young painter after a chance meeting with an old tramp played by Freddie Jones.
Unsurprisingly, many viewers were horrified by the move away from tradition SF towards this kind of story, but none of them quite approach the crass appallingness of Michael J.Bird's To Lay a Ghost. Photographer Eric Carver (Iain Gregory) and his young bride, Diana (Lesley-Anne Down), move into their dream house in the country, but the happiness of this apparently perfect couple is marred by the fact that she was raped when still a schoolgirl. She is still traumatised by the assault, and so their relationship has never been a physical one, despite Eric's occasional gentle advances. Right on cue, strange things start happening, including the appearance of a shadowy figure in the background of photographs of Diana that Eric takes in and around the house. Eric contacts local psychiatrist and amateur para-psychologist Dr Phillimore (Peter Barkworth), who - after some research - declares that the problem is the ghost of a gardener who murdered the owner of the house in the 1800s, before raping and killing his wife, and it is Diana's traumatically-repressed sexual desires which have triggered the manifestation! The impression is given that since she was violently raped as a child, ergo this is the only way she can now achieve gratification. The subliminal message of this episode is so disgraceful that even for 1971 it seems incredible that anyone could have thought this nasty little piece of misogyny a fit subject for any form of dramatic presentation whatsoever, utterly negating the quality of Ken (The Day of the Triffids) Hannam's direction. It is the televisual equivalent of picnicking in a sewer.
Considering that To Lay a Ghost still survives in the BBC Archives, it seems horribly ironic twist of fate that the same cannot be said for Nigel Kneale's one and only contribution to OOTU. The Chopper could be said to form the second of Kneale's trio of supernatural tale, which began with The Road in 1963, and concluded with The Stone Tape in 1972. The unquestionable quality of the other two plays (just reading the script of the former gave me sleepless nights!), there is little doubt as to The Chopper's pedigree. The garage owned by Jimmy Reed (Patrick Troughton) converts motorcycles into choppers, one of which has come back a mangled wreck after its owner crashed on the M4. The spirit of the dead rider, however, is reluctant to leave the machines, and manifests itself in a particularly noisy and unpleasantly destructive manner.
A more traditional episode was John Tully's This Body is Mine, a black comedy in which mild-mannered research physicist Allen Meredith (John Carson) plans to use his new mind-transference apparatus to have his revenge on bluff northern financier Jack Gregory (Jack Hedly), who has thus far exploited Meredith's inventions, making himself rich and paying the inventor a pittance. Tricking Gregory into visiting their home, Meredith and his wife, Ann (Alethea Charlton) drug him and the two men's minds are swapped. While Gregory - in Meredith's body - is kept tied up at the house, Meredith - in Gregory's body - visits the financier's company and attempts to "buy" his own invention for a ridiculously high sum. Meredith's ineptitude alienates Gregory's business partner, the board of directors, and a few token thugs he had been involved with over some shady deal. Gregory, meanwhile, sweet-talks Ann into untying him, and he proceeds to seduce her (it has to be said that in the few episodes of OOTU in which female characters appear, they are invariably the focus for some rather overblown sexual tension or other)! Ann then decides that she prefers this more earthy personality in her husband's body, and so attempts to sabotage the reversal process when Meredith attempts to return everything to normal.
A less satisfactory effort was Deathday, scripted by Brian Hayles from Angus Hall's novel, and the only adapted work in the season. Outwardly respectable and well-balanced journalist Adam Crosse (the always creepily-excellent Robert Lang) is really a hypochondriac tranquilliser addict trapped in a sham marriage. When his wife tells him that she has a lover, he murders her in the manner of a serial killer currently in the news, and manufactures a series of "clues" suggesting that someone called Quilter has been pestering him with crank letters. The police appear to believe the non-existent stalker to be the killer, but the Crosse receives a visit from a man claiming to be Quilter. Cross eventually pays for his crime, but the question remains as to whether "Quilter" really was a supernatural being, or just the product of the real killer's guilt-ridden subconscious. While not being the worst episode of the season, it certainly wasn't the worst (although it is marred by some utterly pointless nudity at one stage), but nearly twenty years later it was still a touchy subject for one person. In 1989, correspondence by readers of The Listener magazine noting the absence of science fiction in general and OOTU in particular from the then-recent BBC2 repeats celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the channel prompted an astounding response from Angus Hall himself. Rather blinkeredly, he denounced the entire series on the basis that his own unsatisfactory connection with just one episode: "I still shudder at how my perfectly respectable 'psychological thriller' Deathray [sic] 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." One can assume, however, that the cheque from the BBC for the TV rights to his novel was not so unwelcome....
Perhaps the best episode of the last season is The Man in My Head by John Wiles. At an unspecified point in the future, a small group of elite soldiers are carrying out a dangerous sabotage mission against a country they are not even sure they are at war with, because their briefing has been imprinted on their subconsciousness, and can only be triggered by coded radio signals. Acting automatically and without thinking, some of them begin to question the nature of their mission, especially after one of them accidentally triggers his own subliminal "cover story," designed to fool interrogators is they are capture. But is their dissent all part of the programming as well? Although sporting some dodgy CSO from time to time, which contrasts badly with the convincingly large sets designed by Jeremy davies, the episode was tautly directed by present-day BBC bigwig Peter Gregeen, who was also responsible for The Chopper. Interestingly, the production makes use of real news footage of the Viet Nam war during flashbacks to the soldiers' briefing, which was the sort of thing that got the Doomwatch episode Sex and Violence banned a year later.
The last transmitted episode of OOTU was a repeat of To Lay a Ghost on 12 September 1972. Since then - barring the Plays for Tomorrow series in 1982 - SF plays have only appeared occasionally in mainstream drama slots such as Screen One and BBC2's Screenplay. Some may say that an anthology series of SF plays ghettoises itself and doesn't pull in the ratings, but viewers will watch a play for a whole host of reasons: the cast, the writer, or even just because of an appealing trailer.
The biggest problem is the BBC perception that SF neither popular nor "real drama." It is about time that the corporation looked to its past and asks why shouldn't it resurrect Out of the Unknown, or something of its type? SF does not mean endless special effects and high budgets (one would have hoped that Star Cops proved that, and I would suggest that the majority of the episodes of Seasons One to Three could be remade now and - with the right production staff - be a success.
Meanwhile, what of the original series? Eighteen episodes definitely exist and two more might possibly. BBC Video have dithered about releasing a two episode tape for several years, although I would suggest that a three-episode release would be better, since if released in existing order, they would only end up with one duff episode per tape. The only other hope is UK [G]Old, although they seem reluctant to show anything monochrome unless it has the words "Who" and "Doctor" in the title....
I gratefully acknowledge the assistance given by the following people, without whose help this article could not have been possible: Anthony Brown, Jonathan Burt, Tony Darbyshire, John Molyneux, Jeff Salmon, Steve Smith, and Stephen James Walker.
No work by Dave Rogers was consulted in the writing of this article.
[Reconstructed from the working papers of a shorter version which originally appeared in DWB/Dreamwatch Bulletin #130, September 1994]