Out of the Unknown: Season 1
Out of the Unknown is a seven-disc boxset containing all twenty surviving episodes from the series, which ran from 1965 to 1971, with forty-nine episodes in all. Due to the length of this review, I will be running it in two parts. This first part covers the first series, from which half of the twenty surviving episodes come. Ratings are for the set as a whole.
Irene Shubik had previously worked for ABC Television under Sydney Newman, and had been story editor for Armchair Theatre, a regular strand of single plays broadcast over the ITV network. An aficionado of science fiction, she created and was story editor in 1962 for Out of This World, a SF anthology show, most of the thirteen episodes adaptations of existing short stories. The series ran for thirteen episodes and was successful. (The BFI is releasing the one surviving episode of Out of This World on DVD at the same time as the Out of the Unknown boxset: see my review for further details.) Newman then left for the BBC to become Head of Drama, and Shubik followed him there and there devised Out of the Unknown, for which she was promoted to producer as well as being story editor for the first season.
The idea of an anthology show, with each episode being self-contained, was not a new one and was particularly suited to tales of science fiction, fantasy and horror. In the USA, The Twilight Zone had begun in 1959 and The Outer Limits in 1963. Out of the Unknown followed similar lines to Out of This World: each episode an hour long, all but two of the first series of twelve adapting pre-existing SF short fiction. The major difference was that Out of This World featured a host, Boris Karloff, topping and tailing each episode, but Out of the Unknown dispensed with that. The series was made for BBC2, the BBC's second channel which had launched in 1964, and the first episode was broadcast on Monday 4 October 1965. The series was successful, and one episode, the now-lost Andover and the Android, was repeated on BBC1 over Christmas 1965 as part of an advertisement for what was available on the new channel – for which people would have to buy a dual-standard 625/405-line TV set to be able to watch. (BBC2 only broadcast on the then-high-definition standard of 625 lines, in preparation for colour broadcasting, which duly arrived on that channel in 1967.) Eight episodes were repeated on BBC2 in July and August of the following year, as a run-up to the second season, which began in October 1966.
The stories drew on recent SF from both sides of the Atlantic. Isaac Asimov (whose short story "Little Lost Robot" became the only surviving episode of Out of This World was a particularly popular source, being adapted twice in the first season. (He was reputedly quite taken by Shubik, but did specify that the adaptations of his work should not be shown in the USA without his permission.) Other authors adapted were Americans Alan E. Nourse, William Tenn, Ray Bradbury, Kate Wilhelm (the only one on this list still alive as I write this), Frederik Pohl and Britons John Wyndham, John Brunner and J.G. Ballard. SF has always been a home for the longer short story, the novelette or novella (of which there are more than one wordcount definition), and a story of that length is well-suited for fifty minutes to an hour of television, and a lot of the adapted stories are indeed in that ballpark. In addition, there were two original scripts. The scriptwriters were familiar names in Sixties television and later, including Terry Nation and Troy Kennedy Martin, likewise the directors, who included two of the rare women directing for the BBC at the time, Paddy Russell and Naomi Capon. Add Bernard Wilkie as special effects supervisor and a striking title sequence and Norman Kay theme tune, and you had a prestigious package. The stories were deliberately varied: some elegiac, some comic, some tense and some horrific.
The ten surviving episodes of the twelve take up the first three discs of the set, so I will discuss them a disc at the time. Normally I would describe commentaries later when talking about the extras, but I will do so here when talking about the eleven episodes in the set which have them. Other extras will be described and discussed in the usual place.
No Place Like Earth (52:43, Certificate PG)
Based on the stories "Time to Rest" and "No Place on Earth" by John Wyndham, adapted by Stanley Miller. Directed by Peter Potter
The Counterfeit Man (58:43, Certificate PG)
Based on the story (first published as "Counterfeit") by Alan [E.] Nourse, adapted by Philip Broadley. Directed by George Spenton-Foster
Stranger in the Family (58:44, Certificate 12)
Original script by David Campton. Directed by Alan Bridges
The Dead Past (59:38, Certificate 12)
Based on the story by Isaac Asimov, adapted by Jeremy Paul. Directed by John Gorrie
It's fair to say that Out of the Unknown didn't get off to a great start. The first three episodes were all completed by the time of scheduling. Stranger in the Family was an original script, so was considered unrepresentative of a series whose purpose was to adapt existing stories. And The Counterfeit Man lost out because Alan E. Nourse (who loses his middle initial on screen) was then and remains a lesser-known name to the British public, compared to John Wyndham. So No Place on Earth it was. Wyndham (1903-1969) had begun his SF career in the 1930s, using then a variation on his given names, "John Beynon Harris". Although he wrote short fiction – such as the two on which this episode was based, first published in 1949 and 1951 – and other novels, his continuing fame rests on the series of novels from the 1950s, which epitomise the "cosy catastrophe" strain of British SF, especially The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos, the first and last of which have been filmed, and the first-named adapted for television more than once. No Place on Earth is an elegiac story, which by 1965 had already become dated, set as it is on a Mars and Venus which by then was known to be far from hospitable, let alone home to intelligent life. The story ran over budget, to Shubik's distress, partly because of location shooting in Loch Lomond, apparently because the director wanted to try out some local restaurants. The episode also under-ran, and the hour slot was filled up by a six-minute trailer featuring clips from three later episodes. Initial reaction was on the cool side, and it's not hard to understand why, though the episode does still have its points of interest.
The first of eleven commentaries in this set is for this episode, and all of them are moderated by the hard-working Toby Hadoke, who seems to have cornered the market in vintage genre television commentaries. As ever, he's enthusiastic and knowledgeable (or at least well-prepared). The commentaries feature most of the people involved with the series still alive and available to talk. Irene Shubik is the major omission, because of poor health. On the track for No Place on Earth are two people who were not involved with its making, but are authorities on the subject. Mark Ward wrote a book about Out of the Unknown, published in 2004, and contributed a lot to this box set's booklet, which I'll be talking about in the second part of this review. Dan Rebellato is an expert on Wyndham. This is an informative commentary. One nitpick: Alan Nourse is referred to as British, when he was in fact from the USA.
The Counterfeit Man is a tense story in which the captain and doctor on a spaceship returning from Ganymede suspect that Westcott (a pre-fame David Hemmings) is not in fact human but a shapechanging alien and set out to catch him. There is a twist in the tail. Alan Nourse (1928-1992) was primarily active from the 1950s to the 1970s, often specialising in what would now be called young-adult SF. He also wrote a novel which gave its name eight years later to a film adapted from another novel by another writer: The Bladerunner. The Counterfeit Man (based on Nourse's 1952 story originally entitled "Counterfeit") is a puzzle-piece that thematically treads the same ground as The Thing (itself based on a John Campbell story from 1938, showing if nothing else how ideas bounce back and forth among SF genre writers, with variations and development each time) minus the Hawks/Nyby intellectual carrot or the graphic shapechanging effects of the Carpenter version.
Stranger in the Family brings us down to Earth, literally, with an unusually large amount of on-film London location shooting. From an original script by David Campton, Boy (Richard O'Callaghan) has mind-control powers but is brought up normally by his parents. However, Boy has attracted notice, and Boy goes on the run and is helped by Paula (Justine Lord). This has a harder edge than before (hence the jump to a 12 certificate) but it's effective. Similarities in theme have been noted with the Star Trek episode Charlie X, made two years later.
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) had had his story Little Lost Robot adapted three years earlier for Out of This World and that is the only surviving episode of that series. He went on to become the most-adapted author for Out of the Unknown. Asimov is a very significant figure in written SF, with many key concepts and ideas originating with or at least developed by him. He was also a very prolific populariser of science. As a fiction writer, he is the default voice of a certain strain of SF: plain prose aiming for clarity if nothing else, characterisation functional at best (and that's the men – forget the women for the most part), primacy given to ideas. He's an ideal author to introduce teenage readers to the genre, as he was to me as a late-1970s teen, but he is someone you grow beyond as a reader, especially if you value writing style and emotional depth. That said, The Dead Past does cut a little deeper than usual, and this is well conveyed in Jeremy Paul's adaptation. The development of a time viewer causes academic Arnold Potterly (George Benson) to enthuse that he could eavesdrop on Ancient Carthage, his field of study, and know history rather than extrapolating it. Meanwhile, his wife Caroline (Sylvia Coleridge) has another motive: to be able to see her dead daughter again. While the gender dynamics on display betray the story's age (1956) it does also throw up interesting ideas about how we define privacy, particularly prescient in an age of social media. The ending, played in silence, is quite devastating.
The commentary for The Dead Past features the episode's director, John Gorrie, and special sounds designer Brian Hodgson, both familiar names from then-contemporary Doctor Who, which does come into the conversation, which is again interesting and informative.
Time in Advance (57:51, Certificate 12)
Based on the story by William Tenn, adapted by Paul Erickson. Directed by Peter Sasdy
Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come...? (60:48, Certificate 12)
Original script by Mike Watts. Directed by Paddy Russell
Sucker Bait (58:57, Certificate PG)
Based on the novella by Isaac Asimov, adapted by Meade Roberts. Directed by Naomi Capon
William Tenn was the pen name of Philip Klass (1920-2010), born in London but resident in the USA from before the age of two. He was a less prolific writer, working on fiction around his day job in engineering and technical writing. His fiction output comprises two novels and some sixty short stories, His only award, in his retirement, was the Science Fiction Writers of America's Author Emeritus, given in 1999. His fiction was known for its comic edge, but Time in Advance (based on his story first published in 1956) is far from funny, though its satirical edge is apparent in a society where you can serve a prison sentence for a crime you have not committed but do intend to – and once released can commit with impunity. The commentary features director Peter Sasdy (in one of two commentaries featuring him in this set) and actors Michael Danvers-Walker, Wendy Gifford and Philip Voss, all of whom talk much of their experiences of Sixties television and this episode in particular.
It's a matter of taste, but for me the more overtly comic episodes in this series wear less well than the more serious ones. Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come...? is a case in point. The second and final first-season episode from an original script (by Mike Watts), it's a rather laboured tale of couple Milo O'Shea and Christine Hargreaves, whose horticultural activities get somewhat out of hand. Some way down the cast you can see a young Jack Wild, three years before Oliver!. Behind the cameras was Paddy (Patricia) Russell, who had begun as an actress, moved behind the scenes to become an assistant to Rudolph Cartier in the 1950s and became one of the few female directors working at the BBC, including four Doctor Who serials. She's still with us as I write this, albeit quite elderly, and while she contributed commentaries to two Who DVDs she isn't interviewed for this set.
Sucker Bait is Asimov again, this time based on a novella from 1954. A mystery needs solving: the reason for the death of all the colonists on the planet in a binary star system. It's solved by a young boy, Mark Annunzio (Clive Endersby), who is able to make connections denied to the scientists on board, confined by their specialisms. Endersby, once a child actor and now a writer and editor, features on the commentary track – his playing of the role manages to avoid the trap of obnoxiousness. Also on the track is another cast-member, Roger Croucher.
The next two episodes are lost. The Fox and the Forest was adapted from a 1950 Ray Bradbury story by Terry Nation, and was directed by Robin Midgeley. Bradbury insisted on a further fee of £1000 for any repeat showing, which ensured that it never was. On the other hand, Andover and the Android, adapted from a 1963 story by Kate Wilhelm by Bruce Stewart and directed by Alan Cooke, was particularly praised, and was the one episode repeated at Christmas on BBC1, as previously mentioned. Sadly I can't comment further as I was a mere one year old at the time of broadcast. All that remain of these two episodes are stills and some clips, the latter of which you can see in the documentary on Disc Seven, which I will discuss in the second half of this review. Meanwhile, in the absence of time travel or broadcast-quality memory retrieval, please check your attic.
Some Lapse of Time (60:03, Certificate PG)
Based on the story by John Brunner, adapted by Leon Griffiths. Directed by Roger Jenkins
Thirteen to Centaurus (60:12, Certificate PG)
Based on the story by J.G. Ballard, adapted by Stanley Miller. Directed by Peter Potter
The Midas Plague (62:08, Certificate U)
Based on the novella by Frederik Pohl, adapted by Troy Kennedy Martin. Directed by Peter Sasdy
John Brunner (1934-1995) was of a generation later than many of the other writers whose work had been adapted so far. He sold his first novel in his teens and was a very prolific writer of novels and short fiction for the rest of his life. His career followed the path of many commercial writers, having to produce in quantity to keep afloat as a full-timer. Yet he was always proficient, and later in the decade produced some novels of much greater ambition, dystopias dealing with overpopulation (the narratively-experimental and Hugo Award-winning Stand on Zanzibar from 1968, the longest single novel produced within the SF genre to that point), environmental disaster (The Sheep Look Up, 1972) and anticipating the Internet and computer viruses (The Shockwave Rider, 1975). These novels earned him much critical acclaim and attention but not riches, and the stresses of having to produce in commercial quantity may have contributed to his early death, from a stroke, while attending the 1995 World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow. However, throughout his career he produced a lot of short fiction and continued to do so towards the end of his life when novel contracts dried up. "Some Lapse of Time", published as recently as 1963, is one such example, and is one of the tensest and darkest stories of the first season, detailing strange dreams experienced by Max Harrow (Ronald Lewis) which are somehow linked by the strange figure (John Gabriel) who has turned up on his doorstep. The designer of this episode was none other than Ridley Scott, who had just made his directing debut with an episode of Z Cars and, for genre enthusiasts, can be found behind the helm of one of the surviving episode of Adam Adamant Lives!. Scott, however, does not feature on the commentary track. Instead, we hear from the episode's director Roger Jenkins, production assistant John Glenister and actresses Jane Downs and Delena Kidd.
James Graham Ballard (1930-2009) was famously held an internment camp outside Shanghai as a child during World War II, experiences he drew on in his Booker-shortlisted 1984 novel Empire of the Sun, by far his biggest-selling novel, and the basis of Steven Spielberg's 1987 film. In 1965, however, he was in the SF genre, having published disaster novels such as The Drowned World, in which the protagonist collaborates with the disaster instead of fighting it, an attitude which won him no friends amongst proponents of far more optimistic SF. Later, in short fiction and in novel length, he would move away from the genre while still maintaining roots in it: even an entirely non-speculative novel such as Empire shows us where his recurring motifs of crashed planes and drained swimming pools and other detritus of civilisation had their origins. The original story of Thirteen to Centaurus, published in 1962, shows signs of Ballard's move from outer to inner space, in a story of a space mission revealed as a consensus "reality" which is an elaborate fake of which the participants are unaware – thematic material which the likes of The Matrix and The Truman Show would deal with three decades later.
Frederik Pohl (1919-2013) was the oldest writer adapted, and other than the still-living Kate Wilhelm (born 1928) the most recently deceased. He was a figure of considerable importance in the SF genre, as an editor and agent as well as a writer, and he blogged about his memories of 1930s fandom until the day he died. As a writer, at the time he was best known for his satirical stories and novels, often written in collaboration with C.M. Kornbluth, such as The Space Merchants (1953), which Kingsley Amis in his influential 1960 book about SF, New Maps of Hell, claimed was the best novel produced in the genre to that point. The Midas Plague based on his solo novella (not a novel as the booklet claims) from 1954, is Pohl in full-on satirical mode, with consumerism in his sights. In a world where energy is abundant, consumer goods are produced to excess and the poor are burdened with the task of consuming all of it while the rich live much less cluttered lives. As I say above, this season finale is one of the more overtly comic episodes, and as such wears less well, for me, than other episodes. The sole commentary guest is director Peter Sasdy, who talks in depth about his experiences in 1960s television, before he began working on the big screen.
After its shaky start, the first season of Out of the Unknown was judged a success, and Irene Shubik was given the go-ahead for a second season, which I will describe in the second part of this review.
Out of the Unknown is a seven-disc boxset released by the DVD. Given that this is material licensed from the BBC it's no surprise that all the dual-layered discs are encoded for Region 2 only. For those of you with children, I've indicated the certificates for each episode. However, two episodes from Season Four give the set its 15 certificate. The boxset contains a forty-page booklet, which I will talk about in the second part of this review.
All episodes were made in black and white and the DVD transfers are in the correct ratio of 1.33:1. Being a BBC2 production, they were shot on video at 625 lines, captured on and broadcast from either two-inch quad videotape or 35mm film. Location scenes were shot on 16mm film and in the former case telecined in during the multiple-camera studio recording session. The latter method was used for episodes which needed more editing (editing videotape was frowned upon and avoided as much as possible as tapes were expensive). In some cases, such as Some Lapse of Time, this enabled the film-shot exteriors to be edited directly into the 35mm-captured studio footage, enabling them to look particularly sharp and crisp, as the booklet points out, and it's right. By way of comparison, a BBC2 show like Doctor Who was still shot on 405-line video at this time. BBC1 productions were being made in 625-line by the time of Adam Adamant Lives! in 1966 and Who upgraded at the end of 1967, with The Enemy of the World.
The original tapes have since been transferred to digital tape, in a mix of standard and high definition, which became the basis of the restored transfers on these DVDs. In the case of two episodes (The Dead Past and Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come...) these copies were considered inadequate, so new HD transfers were made from the 35mm film-recording negatives. The results look very good, undoubtedly better than they would have done on original broadcast on screens much smaller and more forgiving than today's.
The soundtracks are the original mono, clear and well balanced. Subtitles are available for the hard of hearing. There are occasional errors, such as "retched" being spelled "wretched" for Stranger in the Family.
Other than the commentaries described above, the extras on the discs are stills galleries, from each episode in order of transmission. On the three discs reviewed here, they run 6:02, 4:01 and 2:41. The gallery on Disc Two includes stills from the two lost episodes. For some reason, there are no stills from Some Lapse of Time in the Disc Three gallery.