Starring: David Hemmings, Milo O’Shea, Yvonne Mitchell, Lesley-Anne Down
Running for four series between 1965 and 1971, Out of the Unknown was an ambitious anthology show that saw the BBC making a rare attempt to do serious full-on sci-fi on the telly. Short stories by top science fiction authors (Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, John Brunner, etc,) would be brought to the small screen by talented writers (Troy Kennedy Martin, Stanley Miller) and directors (Peter Sadsy, Philip Saville, James Cellan Jones) and a bunch of well-known or up and coming thesps (Milo O’Shea, David Hemmings, Anthony Bate).
Although some of the stories in Series One have contemporary or near-contemporary settings, it’s the straight SF ones that impress the most. As so often with British science fiction, these offer a downbeat, darkly cynical view of life among the stars. In the very first episode, John Wyndham’s No Place Like Earth, a human marooned on Mars after the Earth has exploded gets a shocking reminder of just how horrible humans can be when he samples the totalitarian miseries of mankind’s new Venusian nation. Made at a time when the BBC had only just moved from live broadcasting to pre-recorded shows, it’s very much a filmed play, a bit slow and talky by modern standards, but literate and willing to explore the issues it raises in some detail. It’s also an episode that’s clearly had some money spent on it, filmed on a big sound stage and even with a bit of location shooting on Loch Lomond.
The dreariness of space flight is emphasised in The Counterfeit Man, in which the exhausted crew of a space ship on the way home from a miserably uneventful trip to Ganymede discover that they’re playing host to a shape-shifting alien and then have to try various ruses to draw it out. The stars outside the ship’s porthole seem to have been created with strings of Christmas lights, but aside from that, this is a taut, well-crafted episode with a story (by Alan E. Nourse) not dissimilar to Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (also 1965). The effects of being stuck in a spaceship are further analysed in Thirteen to Centaurus, a typically subtle and probing J.G. Ballard story about a crew on a multi-generational journey that spans the decades. To say more would be to spoil its various twists, but it’s another highlight.
Isaac Asimov’s Sucker Bait is even more impressively gloomy. It concerns a scientific expedition to a alien planet to find out what has happened to a lost colony. There’s a lurking menace, but the various experts are too busy bickering to notice, and the only one who grasps the full scale of the problem is a highly strung, data-collecting savant who winds everyone up as he goes about asking unsettling questions. It’s a clever story, and director Naomi Capon stylishly uses swathes of deep shadow to evoke the sense of a hostile landscape.
Although a few of the episodes from Series One look a little soft and grey on these DVD transfers, the best have an attractive starkness, with the graininess of the black-and-white lending itself to the gritty nature of the tales. In all cases, the audio is clean and natural.
Even more visually striking is the adaptation of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops that kicks off Series Two. The setting is a future where people live deep underground in high-tech cells, catered to and controlled by a vast, all-encompassing machine. A young man rebels against the system and tries to escape to the surface, while his rather brittle mother is torn between disapproval and the tug of unacknowledged maternal instincts. With its bleak, high-key lighting and angular, pulsating set designs, it’s an episode that brews up an intense, almost deranged atmosphere, and Yvonne Mitchell (in a bald cap) gives a brilliant performance which is all the more welcome as there were so few female faces in Series One.
With Series Three, we arrive at the era of colour. Unfortunately, it was also the era of the BBC’s junking policy. This had already taken a chunk out of Series Two, with nine out of thirteen episodes being wiped, but in the case of Series Three the devastation is even more complete. Only one and a bit episodes remain, and this is all the more galling as the series seems to have been an absolute corker.
So what’s left? Well, there’s The Last Lonely Man, a story about a form of technology which allows the minds of the dead to be transferred into the brains of the living as a kind of back-up copy. It features a good performance from George Cole as a man who literarally finds himself in two minds. And then there’s a fair percentage of The Little Black Bag (with restored colour from a black-and-white recording), in which a dodgy doctor and a con girl get their hands on some futuristic medical kit.
The DVD set also includes reconstructions of several missing episodes, using methods similar to those employed with lost episodes of Doctor Who, combining audio, stills and CG. Although it would be churlish not to be grateful for these efforts, in a way it would have been kinder if they hadn’t bothered, as it only reinforces the impression that the episodes that survived were the ones that weren’t good enough to be wiped. Basically, anything with a robot or a space ship or a death ray went in the dustbin. For all their interest, then, the later discs make for rather depressing viewing.
It’s typical that while Series Three has been all but obliterated, you get a whole five episodes of the inferior fourth and final series. By now, the show had shifted away from science fiction towards Tales of the Unexpected-style psychological thrillers, employing small-scale teleplays written to a formula and a budget. The best of those that survive is To Lay a Ghost, which stars a young Lesley-Anne Down as a sexually frigid newlywed who acquires a spectral stalker when she and her husband move into an old dark house. It’s a story whose attitude to its rapey subject matter now seems somewhat cavalier (there’s an unsavoury pun in the title), but it’s livened up considerably by the presence of Peter Barkworth as an eager psychic investigator, and Down is at her best as the twisted lead character. The rest of the remaining episodes are perfectly watchable, but they’re much less arresting than the earlier science fiction stories. It’s a bit of a sad end for a show that started so full of ambition.
Extras include an extremely informative 42-minute documentary, with interviews with many of those involved. It’s very good on what it was like making telly back then, in those days of 2-inch videotape and bulky pedestal cameras – each episode was recorded in one mammoth three-hour shoot, in an almost continuous performance. The only downside is that there’s lots of talk about episodes you’re not going to see because they don’t exist any more.
There are also audio commentaries to eleven of the episodes. Peter Sadsy, who seems to have total recall about those long ago days, makes several valuable contributions, supplying just the sort of minute technical details that fans will delight in, and there’s a very jolly commentary by Jack Headley to This Body Is Mine – he talks in an extremely unsentimental way about the constraints the actors operated under back then, recalling that on camera days “you didn’t stop for anything.” Overall, this box set is a worthy monument to a show that at its best brought some first-class grown-up science fiction to British televisions.