Out of This World
Irene Shubik was born in London in 1929. Being turned down for a job at the BBC after University, she moved to the USA (where her brothers were based) and broke into scriptwriting there. Back in England from 1960, she continued to work as a scriptwriter before taking a job at the independent broadcaster ABC, which held the franchises for the Midlands and North for the ITV network. Under the Canadian producer Sydney Newman, she became story editor for ABC's single play strand Armchair Theatre. A fan of science fiction, Shubik persuaded Newman that a SF anthology show (rather like the US's Twilight Zone, which had started in 1959, but which veered more towards horror and fantasy) should be made. One Armchair Theatre play, Dumb Martian (adapted from a story by John Wyndham), acted as a dry run for the series and was broadcast six days beforehand. (Dumb Martian is missing from the archives, but the script, by Clive Exton, is available on this DVD as a downloadable PDF.)
Out of This World was broadcast over the ITV network between June and September 1962. Eleven of the thirteen single plays were adaptations of existing SF short fiction, with two originals. One of those originals, Botany Bay was written by Terry Nation, a year before he invented the Daleks in the second serial of a new BBC show called Doctor Who. (Nation also dramatised *Impostor", a story by Philip K. Dick.) The authors adapted a a list of some of the most distinguished SF writers of the time: Isaac Asimov, Dick, Katherine Maclean (still with us and two months away from her ninetieth birthday, as I write this) and Clifford D. Simak among them. Taking their lead from The Twilight Zone, the show had a host, namely Boris Karloff, who introduced each episode and then returned at the end.
The series was successful, but there was not a second. Newman had been headhunted by the BBC to become their head of drama and Shubik had followed him to the Corporation. There, she devised Out of the Unknown, which was along similar lines to Out of This World, though dispensing with a host. The BFI are releasing the surviving episodes of that series on DVD at the same time as Out of This World, and that's another review, one in two parts. Two of the Out of This World scripts, The Yellow Pill (from the story by Rog Phillips, adapted by Leon Griffiths) and Target Generation (from the story by Clifford D. Simak, adapted by Clive Exton), were remade for the later show. (Both of those episodes are lost as well, though a reconstruction of the former, using an off-air soundtrack recording and production stills, is included among the extras of the Out of the Unknown box set.)
The BBC has attracted a lot of criticism for routinely junking much of its output, but independent television did much the same. The result of this is that of the thirteen episodes of Out of This World only one now exists, the second, broadcast on 14 July 1962, Little Lost Robot, adapted from Isaac Asimov's 1947 story by Leo Lehman.
"Little Lost Robot" was one of a series of robot stories first published in SF magazines (mostly Astounding Science Fiction) between 1939 and 1950, collected in book form as I, Robot in 1950. (The 2004 film of the same title credits Asimov but bears only a passing resemblance to it.) In these stories, Asimov formulated the Three Laws of Robotics, one of the SF concepts he is best known for, and many of the stories are puzzle pieces exploiting loopholes in the Laws. Although the stories are separate, though forming a future history with robots, many of them do share a recurring character, that of robopsychologist and deviser of the Three Laws, Susan Calvin. While no one would go to Asimov for characterisation that's more than functional, Calvin was one of the few female protagonists in a genre then confined to pulp magazines assumed to be read largely by teenage boys. So Asimov should be given points for trying, but Calvin is problematic to today's eyes, falling into the stereotype of the sexless spinster scientist, and possibly on the Aspergers spectrum given that her closest emotional ties are to robots rather than humans.
In Little Lost Robot Calvin (played by Maxine Audley) is called in when a robot is lost and then located, but not found. The robots on a planetary colony have been given an unauthorised modification (removing the part of the First Allow forbidding them to allow a human to come to harm through inaction) and one of them took literally a request to "get lost". It added itself to a cargo of unmodified robots and the puzzle to solve is which one it is. The drama has its clunky moments – Calvin is given a male companion who explains things which are quite apparent to Calvin and to particularly slow audience members – and you do have to make allowances for the early 60s design and effects. But, at the basis of it is a good story, and it is well told and paced for its one hour slot (51:33 plus commercials).
Out of This World is a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only, released by the BFI and licensed from StudioCanal.
Little Lost Robot was shot on and broadcast from 405-line black-and-white videotape. The tape was long ago wiped and reused, and what survives is a copy made on 35mm film, which has been mastered for DVD from the film negative. This telerecording showed those lines (377 of the 405 providing the picture) rather too obviously, causing artefacts which have been reduced by subtly defocusing them without losing any detail of the image. Also on the disc is a version of the episode which has gone through the VidFIRE process, developed for 2 Entertain's range of Doctor Who DVDs and widely used for their releases of 60s stories. This process restores a video "look" approximating what you would have seen on your 405-line sets back in 1962. Given how short the main feature is, the extra space can be justified, otherwise I would have suggested including just one version. Screengrabs of both versions are below, VidFIREd second, so judge for yourself. (The title-card screengrab above comes from the non-VidFIRE version.) The VidFIRE version has the hard-of-hearing subtitles but not the commentary soundtrack. Both versions are in the correct 1.33:1 ratio. They begin with the StudioCanal logo and contain the captions leading us into and out of two commercial breaks.
The soundtrack is mono, as per the original broadcast and that has been cleaned up and restored. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.
The commentary track is moderated by the hard-working Toby Hadoke, and features two men. One of them is the series producer Leonard White who at "nearly ninety-seven" has to be one of the oldest people I've ever heard on a disc commentary. (That comment betrays the fact that this commentary was recorded in 2013 as White turned ninety-eight in the month this review went live.) However, you'd never guess his age as he's informative and clearly has much of his memory intact as he talks about the making of this series. (He also reveals the fact that Irene Shubik, while still alive as I write this, is in poor health, which explains her conspicuous absence from this disc's extras and those on the Out of the Unknown box set.) The other contributor to this commentary is Mark Ward, an authority on Shubik and 60s television SF, and between them they tell us all we need to know about this episode and the series it was part of.
At the end of Little Lost Robot, Boris Karloff invites us back to next week's play, Cold Equations, from the story by Tom Godwin, first published in Astounding in 1954, named by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the best SF stories from before 1965 (the year they initiated their Nebula Awards), and a controversial story to this day. Godwin (1915-1980) is a writer whose fame rests solely on this story, though he produced other stories and three novels. A spacecraft precisely calibrated with no margin for error finds it has additional weight, namely a stowaway on board, a young girl (played by sixteen-year-old Jane Asher). This additional weight will prevent the ship delivering a life-saving serum, and many will die. So the girl has to be jettisoned, and will therefore die... This story exists as an off-air audio recording (48:54) which plays over a black screen and works quite effectively as an unintended radio play, with the commercials in the breaks edited out.
Karloff ends Cold Equations by suggesting we tune in next week for Impostor and that is the other off-air audio recording on this disc (43:58). As that running time indicates, this is incomplete and the booklet apologises for variable sound quality. Philip K. Dick's story "Impostor" was written by Philip K. Dick and was originally published in Astounding in 1953 and was later filmed in 2002. It's a typical reality-bending Dick story of the period, and in it Roger Carter (John Carson) is accused of not being who he says he is, but an android impostor...and even Carter is not sure who he is.
The BFI's booklet begins with "Out of This World" by Oliver Wake, which is an overview of the series. Simon Coward's "Television Memories: Out of This World" is a shorter piece which does overlap in content somewhat. Also in this booklet are credits for the episodes, the two included as audio recordings, and the extras, plus restoration and transfer notes and several stills.