Out of the Unknown: Seasons 2-4
Out of the Unknown is a seven-disc DVD boxset, collecting all the surviving episodes from this BBC anthology series, which ran for four series between 1965 and 1971. Because of the length of this review, I've split it into two parts. The first part covered the first season, which contained ten of the twenty complete surviving episodes, out of the forty-nine made. This second part covers the second, third and fourth seasons. As before, I will describe commentaries with the episodes which have them. Other extras will be discussed in the usual place. Ratings are for the set as a whole.
The first season of Out of the Unknown had been a success, so Irene Shubik was given the go-ahead for a second. While she had been story editor as well as producer for the first season, for the second she remained in the latter capacity and Michael Imison took over in the former. The season began a year to the week after the first, still on BBC2 but now on Thursdays instead of Mondays and at the later, post-watershed, time of 9.30pm instead of 8pm. The timeslot was reduced from an hour to fifty minutes - with one exception, of which more later, but the episode count was increased from twelve to thirteen, three of which were originals, written by Hugh Whitmore, Hugh Leonard and William Trevor. For the ten episodes adapted from existing stories, Shubik drew on a variety of sources. Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl were again utilised, again twice and once respectively, along with work from other writers such as Larry Eisenberg (twice, neither episode surviving), Colin Kapp, Mordecai Roshwald, John Rankine and Henry Kuttner. Two episodes were derived from unfilmed cinema scripts,
Many of the directors Shubik had used in the first season were used again. George Spenton-Foster returned as the associate producer, and had to step in and complete one episode (the now-missing Walk's End, by William Trevor) when the studio recording overran. That director, Ian Curteis, finished his directing career after that and his one big-screen directing credit from the following year, The Projected Man, before becoming much better known as a writer, including such works as Philby, Burgess and Maclean (1977) and the shelved in 1986, broadcast in 2002, The Falklands Play.
More so than the first season, the blight of vintage television has struck, with only four of the thirteen episodes, numbers 1, 3, 4 and 8, still in the archive. Two of those - Level Seven and The Tunnel Under the World - had been lost but were rediscovered, the former in the archive of a European television channel. These existing episodes take up Disc Four of the set.
The Machine Stops (50:42, Certificate PG)
Based on the novella by E.M. Forster, adapted by Kenneth Cavander and Clive Donner. Directed by Philip Saville
Lambda I (50:25, Certificate 12)
Based on the story by Colin Kapp, adapted by Bruce Stewart. Directed by George Spenton-Foster
Level Seven (60:04, Certificate 12)
Based on the novel by Mordecai Roshwald, adapted by J.B. Priestley. Directed by Rudolph Cartier
Tunnel Under the World (52:20, Certificate PG)
Based on the story by Frederik Pohl, adapted by David Campton. Directed by Alan Cooke
The season began with what is possibly the most celebrated of all Out of the Unknown episodes, and the one from the most prestigious – and oldest - source. Uniquely (among the surviving episodes at least) its lead actor, Yvonne Mitchell, gets a "starring" credit at the start. Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970) was a distinguished writer of the first quarter of the twentieth century, falling silent after A Passage to India (1924), with his novel Maurice published posthumously. He is certainly best known as a novelist, with five of his six novels being filmed in the 1980s, Merchant Ivory making three of them. However, he also wrote short fiction, some of them verging on fantasy, and the novella "The Machine Stops" (first published in 1909) being definitely science fiction. It was written as a reaction to what Forster saw as H.G. Wells's undue optimism about technological progress. We're in a world where humanity lives underground, the Earth's surface being apparently no longer habitable. The Machine, what would now be called a supercomputer, rules everyone's lives. However, rebellion is afoot. Kenneth Cavander and Clive Donner's adaptation was reworked from an unproduced film script. Forster thought the production "magnificent" and wrote to the writers to tell them so. Philip Saville's direction and Norman James's design are also excellent.
The commentary features co-writer Kenneth Cavander (Clive Donner, better known as a film director, passed away in 2010), director Philip Saville and story editor Michael Imison,
Colin Kapp (1928-2007) was a much less well known British SF writer, who became a novelist later, but at the time was a short-story writer. The present one, "Lambda I" dates from 1962. It describes a future where travel is via subatomic space in Tau Ships. However, disaster strikes for a Tau ship on its way from New York to London and the original prototype ship, the Lambda I struggles to rescue its crew and passengers. The hallucinatory realm of subatomic space, up to the hypothetical and deadly Omega Level, is a little beyond a BBC special effects budget, but it's a tense story.
If anything Level Seven's credentials are the highest of the series. Based on a novel by Mordecai Roshwald (born 1921), J.B. Priestley had adapted the novel as a script for a feature film which never came about. Shubik bought the script, asking Priestley to cut it down so that it could become an Out of the Unknown episode. However, Priestley would not reduce it to under an hour, so Shubik had to request a dispensation that this episode could have a sixty-minute slot, unlike the fifty minutes of the other episodes. Priestley (1894-1984) was a very popular and very prolific writer in a number of media, being a novelist, journalist, playwright, screenwriter and broadcaster. He wrote in many genres, and that included SF, of which he was aware via his friendship with H.G. Wells, giving a eulogy at his funeral. Several of his plays, such as Time and the Conways were influenced by J.W. Dunne's theories of time. Meanwhile, he also wrote the scripts for two Gracie Fields films in the 1930s. Directing this episode was Rudolph Cartier, the most distinguished and longest-established television director used so far, having made all three of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass serials, and Kneale's controversial 1954 adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four (which the BFI will release on DVD in 2015). The story is again set underground, with soklier X-127 (Keith Buckley) in the military complex of the title, after the world is blighted by nuclear holocaust. It's a grim but absorbing story.
The commentary is divided into two parts. In the first, Toby Hadoke interviews Mordecai Roshwald, still with us in his nineties. (He's not the oldest person featuring on a genre TV commentary track: see the DVD release of Out of This World for an older one.) What Roshwald says is interesting, though not always easy to follow due to his heavy accent. The second part of the commentary track features Michael Imison, who talks more widely about this second season, including several of the episodes which are now lost. (Again, please check your attic.)
Frederik Pohl's "The Midas Plague" had been adapted as the final episode of the first season, and his 1955 story "The Tunnel Under the World", losing its first definite article, became the eighth episode of the second. Again it shows Pohl in satirical mode, this time attacking advertising. It's entertaining, but again I'm not convinced the more overtly comic episodes are the ones which have lasted the best.
Irene Shubik was given the go-ahead for a third series, and was in the middle of preparing another thirteen episodes when she was given the job of producing BBC1's Wednesday Play strand,a prestigious venue for single plays which morphed into the 70s and 80s Play for Today, which is also the title of Shubik's autobiography. The new producer and script editor were Alan Bromly and Roger Parkes respectively. Again the focus was on adaptations, with ten of the episodes based on pre-existing work, with Isaac Asimov again featuring twice. Meanwhile, in 1967, BBC2 had started broadcasting in colour, so the third season of Out of the Unknown, which began being shown in January 1969, was the first in colour, with a polychrome version of the title sequence, still backed by Norman Kay's theme.
This season is the worst-hit by episode junkings, with just one complete episode surviving. However, half an hour exists of another, and three further episodes reconstructed from off-air sound recordings and production stills. I will discuss the latter when I talk about the extras below. Missing episodes included two scripts reused from Out of This World (The Yellow Pill and Target Generation) and the bizarre season closer Get Off My Cloud, which featured some Daleks on leave from Doctor Who. The opener, Immortality Inc was watched by George Harrison and Ringo Starr who can be seen discussing it in the Beatles film Let It Be. This 1959 Robert Sheckley novel was later filmed in 1992 as Freejack.. John Wyndham was adapted again (he approved) in Random Quest, a story later filmed as Quest for Love, about which some of the commentators are certainly scathing. Meanwhile, we are left with..
The Last Lonely Man (49:33, Certificate 12)
Based on the story by John Brunner, adapted by Jeremy Paul. Director Douglas Camfield
Brunner's story "Some Lapse of Time" had been one of the highlights of the first season. This story (published 1964) posits a future where "Contact" enables the minds of dead people to pass into designated others still living, such as relatives, loved ones and friends. This has disastrous consequences when James Hale (George Cole) meets the friendless Patrick Wilson (Peter Halliday, effectively maladroit). This was the first and only Out of the Unknown directed by Douglas Camfield, who became one of the best to work on Doctor Who.
In late 1969, Bromly and Parkes were authorised to produce a fourth series of Out of the Unknown, which ran to eleven episodes (five existing, six lost), which began broadcasting in April 1971. There was a new title sequence, and a new theme (by Roger Roger, uncredited). The emphasis was changed, with only one of the episodes an adaptation, and the stories tending more to contemporary settings and to horror rather than the (more expensive, especially in colour) futuristic SF that had preceded it.
To Lay a Ghost (49:41, Certifiicate 15)
By Michael J. Bird. Directed by Ken Hannam
This Body is Mine (49:22, Certificate 12)
By John Tully. Directed by Eric Hills
Deathday (48:06, Certificate 12)
Based on the novel by Angus Hall, adapted by Brian Hayles. Directed by Raymond Menmuir
Every fan of vintage television knows the feeling. Why does this episode survive, when other, seemingly more deserving, episodes no longer exist? There are no doubt plenty of people who would love to see Nigel Kneale's tale of a haunted motorbike, The Chopper, but unless you saw it at the time you can't. However, you can still see To Lay a Ghost (double entendre in title no doubt intentional) but you may not be grateful for that fact. It begins with schoolgirl Diana (Lesley-Anne Down) being raped by a stranger on her way home from school. Flash forward a few years and Diana is married to Eric (Iain Gregory), but her past experiences have caused sexual dysfunction and the marriage remains unconsummated. However, there is evidence that the house is haunted, by a ghost with designs on Diana... There's a strain of misogyny in a lot of television from this time which doesn't sit well nowadays, and this episode, written by Michael J. Bird (who had a hit later in the decade with Who Pays the Ferryman? and its less successful follow-up The Aphrodite Inheritance, both available on DVD) is a prime example but not the only one from this season. You see, Diana really enjoyed her assault and the reason Eric cannot satisfy her is because he's not masterful enough and she needs the ghost of a rapist to give her the good seeing-to she truly desires. Pass the sick bucket. It's capably directed by Ken Hannam, before he returned to his native Australia to become a key figure in their cinema revival with such films as Sunday Too Far Away, but it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
This Body Is Mine involves the swapping of minds, though in a different way to the previous season's The Last Lonely Man. The minds swapped are those of Allen Meredith (John Carson) and Jack Gregory (Jack Hedley), as a means of revenge for the latter's exploitation of the former, but it doesn't work out that way. Meanwhile, Gregory in Meredith's body attempts to seduce the latter's wife (Alethea Charlton). She rather likes this and changes sides.
Deathday is the only episode in this season adapted from a previous work (a novel by Angus Hall, who loathed the episode) and it's a mark of the change of direction of the series that the scriptwriter's credit precedes that of the source writer, rather than the other way round as on the earlier seasons. Journalist Adam Crosse (Robert Lang) is in an unhappy marriage. When his wife (Lynn Farleigh) tells him she has a lover, he kills her, hides the evidence and tries to pass off the crime as the work of a fictitious person called Quilter...but who shows up (played by John Ronane). The result is something of a muddle, with Cross mocked by Quilter for his lack of manliness. This episode also contains the only (gratuitous) nudity of the series. Colour rather betrays some dodgy CSO work too.
Welcome Home (49:40, Certificate 15)
By Moris Farhi. Directed by Eric Hills
The Man in My Head (48:21, Certificate 12)
By John Wiles. Directed by Peter Cregeen
In Welcome Home, Frank Bowers (Anthony Ainley) is returning home to his wife Penny (Jennifer Hillary) after a stay in a psychiatric hospital. However, no one recognises him, not least because there is a Frank Bowers (Bernard Brown) living in his house with his wife. Anthony Ainley was part of a distinguished acting family and had independent means, so could choose what he acted in, and is best known nowadays for playing The Master in Doctor Who in the 1980s. He's harder to recognise here, being clean-shaven, with a plot-significant scar on his cheek, giving a suitably intense performance that's just this side of going off the rails. Of course all is not what it seems at first in a particularly dark episode. Turkish-born Farhi features on the commentary track, along with Bernard Brown.
The final surviving episode, the eighth of the season, is The Man in My Head which is distinguished by some impressive sets (helped by some real Vietnam War archive footage) and, again, some dodgy CSO work – check the blue fringes. In the near future, a group of soldiers have their briefing imprinted in their subconscious, awaiting their triggers. But soon they start questioning their mission. A tight, well-paced episode. On the commentary track are lead actor Tom Chadbon, director Peter Cregeen (who later became a producer and BBC Head of Series) and designer Jeremy Davies.
And that is all that remains. Following a repeat run in 1972, and a sale of the series to Australia in 1973, Out of the Unknown stayed in the archives and, as we know, over half of the forty-nine episodes didn't survive there. Other than the 1982 spin-off from Play for Today, Play for Tomorrow, the BBC has never again made a SF anthology series. I saw Level Seven at the BFI's Missing Believed Wiped event in 2006 after it had been recovered, and BBC Four did give a one-off repeat to Thirteen to Centaurus in 2003. Rather poorer-quality copies of many of the surviving episodes have turned up on video-sharing sites, but otherwise this DVD release is the first opportunity for many to see what remains of this important series. Given that the first episode of the first season was broadcast on my first birthday, that certainly included me. This is one of the DVD releases of the year without a doubt.
Out of the Unknown is a box set released by the BFI. It comprises seven dual-layered discs encoded for Region 2 only. This half of the review discusses Discs Four to Seven. For those with children who might be interested in watching, I've indicated the certificates for each episode. The set as a whole gains a 15 certificate due to To Lay a Ghost (for sexual violence) and Welcome Home (for reasons which may be a plot spoiler, but they're indicated on the BBFC website).
All the episodes were shot on 625-line videotape for the studio recordings, with location scenes and some material prefilmed at Ealing Studios shot on 16mm film. Season Two was made in black and white, either captured on and broadcast from two-inch quad videotapes (with the 16mm material telecined in during the recording) or on 35mm film, with the filmed material edited in. Level Seven is an example of the latter method, and the booklet rightly says this makes the film-originated material look particularly sharp. The episodes are restored from SD or HD transfers made later. The booklet rather apologetically says that the once-lost episode The Tunnel Under the World was so damaged that restoration was "pragmatic rather than comprehensive", but the results are not distracting. The colour episodes from Seasons Three and Four were restored from their colour 625-line broadcast tapes. The part-episode The Little Black Bag and the extract from the missing episode Liar! in the Return of the Unknown documentary, of which more later, were made in colour but survive only in black and white, have had their colour restored by means of Chroma Dot Recovery.
The soundtrack is the original mono in all cases, newly restored and is clear and well balanced. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are available.
There are commentaries on eleven episodes, all moderated by Toby Hadoke, and I've described them after the respective episodes.
Each disc has a stills gallery, for the episodes on the appropriate discs plus the missing episodes from those seasons, so Disc Four has the gallery for Season Two ( 9:20), Disc Five for Season Three ( 18:35) and those for Season Four are split over Discs Six and Seven (7:57 and 8:21).
While twenty out of forty-nine episodes exist complete, material from others does remain. Four episodes have been reconstructed from soundtracks recorded off-air from the original broadcasts. The Season Three episodes Beach Head (from a story by Clifford D. Simak, 49:25) and The Naked Sun (from a novel by Isaac Asimov, 50:19) are on Disc Five and The Yellow Pill (from the much-adapted Rog Phillips story, with a script by Leon Griffiths reused from Out of This World, 49:40) is on Disc Six. These are reconstructed with the aid of production stills, some CGI effects on the first and last, and subtitles covering parts of The Naked Sun where the soundtrack recording is incomplete. The Series Four episode The Uninvited (an original script by Michael J. Bird later redone as In Possession for Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense in 1986, 47:10) has no production stills available, so the soundtrack is synchronised to a copy of the shooting script. A caption advises it may be well to pause during lengthy descriptions of action, as the soundtrack plays faster in these scenes than most people can read. Obviously this isn't an ideal way to experience these episodes, but in the absence of the originals it's certainly better than nothing.
The third-season episode The Little Black Bag is lost, but about half of it turned up, in black and white, on a BBC engineering tape. This is included on Disc Five (30:31, Certificate PG). This is based on a 1950 story by C.M. (Cyril) Kornbluth (1923-1958), known for his solo stories and his collaborations with Frederik Pohl in a career cut short by an early death from a heart attack. The story had been previously adapted for the US series Tales of Tomorrow in 1952 and would be again for Rod Serling's Night Gallery in 1970. What remains is missing the beginning and end of the episode but works fairly well in isolation. The episode was made in colour and that has been restored to this black-and-white copy. The results aren't up to the 625-line PAL colour of the surviving episodes, but it's certainly watchable, and certainly far more people will be watching it (and the other Season Three and Four episodes) than those who had sprung for a more expensive colour television set and colour licence at the time.
On Disc Five is an interview with James Cellan Jones (15:44), who directed the aforementioned Beach Head. Produced by the vintage television organisation Kaleidoscope, this is more a career interview but it does touch on the episode during it.
On Disc Six is a short (1:25) and mute film insert from Deathday, which you can see playing on a television set thirty-three minutes in.
Finally, on Disc Seven is Return of the Unknown (42:08), Narrated by Cherylee Houston, this is the kind of well-made retrospective documentary that's a highlight of vintage-television DVDs like this. Many of the interviewees also feature on the commentaries. Other than Out of the Unknown expert Mark Ward, they are people who worked on the show: directors, actors, and Season Two story editor Michael Imison. Isaac Asimov also appears in extracts from archive interviews. The interviewees go through the series from beginning to end, with plenty of clips and stills from surviving episodes. And also from non-surviving ones not otherwise represented. We get the end credits of the Season One episodes The Fox and the Forest and Andover and the Android, plus a newspaper montage from the latter. There is also a clip from Season Two's Satisfaction Guaranteed, a colour-restored extract from Season Three's Liar! and a brief colour clip from the same season's Random Quest, clearly found as an insert in another programme.
The BFI have provided a forty-page booklet, which begins with three essays from Mark Ward. "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun: Strange Tales from Out of the Unknown" gives an overview of all four seasons. Two other essays discuss the series along thematic lines, how it addressed issues current in the 1960s ("A Saucerful of Secrets: Shubik, Science Fiction and the Sixties") and a page on the themes of the final season from 1971 ("Careful With That Axe, Eugene: Sex, Drugs and Mind-Swapping in Seventies Suburbia"). Do you get the impression that Ward is a Pink Floyd fan? Also in the booklet are full credits for the twenty full episodes, four reconstructed episodes and one incomplete episode in the set, a listing of all the missing episodes, brief biographies of all the commentary contributors, credits for the extras, transfer and restoration notes, and plenty of stills.