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Out of the Unknown - DVD Boxed Set

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1965-71
Studio: 
BFI
Genre: 
Sci-Fi
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
2 PAL
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
various
Cast: 
various
Movie: 
5
Extras: 
5
Bottom Line: 
5

“Out of the Unknown” was an acclaimed anthology drama series of one-off science fiction plays, broadcast by the BBC and adapted mainly from the works of renowned genre writers such as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl. It ran for four series, from 1965 until 1971, on the corporation’s fledgling second channel, BBC2. Science Fiction as a genre was, for a long time in Britain, often associated with being an American cultural import and deemed largely unworthy of serious critical consideration, despite heavyweight literary names such as H G Wells, E M Forster and George Orwell all having produced work that quite clearly could have been categorised as such. Despite this bias, novels such as “The Time Machine” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” had long since been recognised for their imaginative contribution to English literature. In the fifties, John Wyndham’s brand of ‘cosy catastrophe’ made the genre hugely popular with the general reading public, while an increasing number of American and British authors also began, around the same time in the late-fifties and sixties, to see science fiction as the ideal instrument for addressing the huge social and technology driven  changes that were then taking place in modern western industrial society, against a Cold War backdrop where the constant threat of nuclear annihilation had come to seem almost like the inevitable price that had to be paid for the boom in consumption which was transforming the way people lived in the postwar world. Author Kingsley Amis’ survey of the genre, “New Maps of Hell”, published in 1960, paved the way for a wider recognition of the idea that science fiction could offer much more than just the comic strip space opera excitement of Flash Gordon, with its laser guns and gleaming rocket ships. Perhaps it could also have something profound to say about the possible future of society and the development of human psychology; about the unintended consequences of of technological advance, and the future of warfare. In short the genre could, by adopting the form of the Swiftian satire or the cautionary parable, address contemporary fears through fable-like invocations of the far future that conjured strange new visions based on what life might be like if current trends were followed to their most extreme conclusions.

Science Fiction on television at first stuck with the safe, tried and tested method of adapting the accepted classic works by Wells and Orwell, etc (the BBC’s 1954 production, by Rudolph Cartier, of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, which made a star of Peter Cushing, being a particularly well received example of this trend). The Wyndham formula, in which alien invasion and/or civilization-rupturing catastrophe formed the centrepiece, was first expressed in a truly original, dynamic and commercially viable manner by TV writer Nigel Kneale, in his three highly influential “Quatermass” series; while astronomer Fred Hoyle and TV writer John Elliot examined what might be the result if a SETI-like program proved successful in contacting an alien intelligence, in their sophisticated invasion serial “A for Andromeda” (1961), and its 1962 follow-up “The Andromeda Breakthrough”. 1962 was also the first time a serious, on-going commitment to ‘hard’ science fiction first emerged on commercial British television, in the form of a spin-off of the hugely popular drama anthology strand “Armchair Theatre” called “Out of this World”. It came about purely as the result of the determination of one person: a young British-born woman of French and Hungarian parentage, called Irene Shubik -- who started out in British television as story editor on “Armchair Theatre” after having become one of Head of Drama Sidney Newman’s talented protégées at ABC Television during his time there. Newman had been involved in the production of science fiction for television before this, but these serials, such as “Pathfinders” and “City Beneath the Sea”, had been developed for a much younger audience and were styled as space fantasy adventures. Shubik proposed creating an anthology strand in the same vein as “Armchair Theatre”, but exclusively devoted to adult-orientated science fiction intended as a showcase for some of the rising literary stars of the genre. In the event, the series, which was hosted by Boris Karloff and played host to Dalek creator Terry Nation’s first three forays into the genre, including his TV adaptations of works by Philip K Dick and Isaac Asimov, only ran for one series, as Sidney Newman was soon-after poached by the BBC, where he was instrumental in creating “The Wednesday Play” and, of course, “Doctor Who. Irene Shubik soon followed him to his new home, though, and was quickly tasked with developing drama ideas for the newly inaugurated BBC2.

One of her responsibilities at the channel involved setting up yet another drama anthology series (they were an extremely popular form of entertainment during the 1960s), which was broadcast under the banner “Story Parade”. Shubik’s interest in science fiction, particularly in the work of Isaac Asimov, continued unabated during this time, and her enthusiasm for the genre allowed Nation his first big break at the BBC after years of failing to get his work commissioned at the corporation. This came about after Shubik decided to adapt another of Asimov’s works, “Caves of Steel”, (first published in 1953) in the “Story Parade” slot, and awarded Nation the task of translating Asimov’s work for the small screen. The result (which starred TV's biggest star, Peter Cushing) was well received, and led Shubik to propose to Newman the idea of producing a BBC equivalent of “Out of This World”, citing it as a viable way of fulfilling the new BBC2 channel’s niche remit of appealing to intelligent young adults of the baby boom generation – one of the main audiences at the time for serious science fiction. Newman agreed and “Out of the Unknown” (the title was not agreed upon until much later in the process, with production was well underway) was born, Shubik once again setting to work on the arduous task of scanning science fiction anthologies and visiting publishers in America with the aim of gathering suitable material (aided, as she’d been on “Out of This World”, by John Carnell -- the founder of the science fiction magazine ‘New Worlds’), securing the rights to adapt this material, and appointing television writers who were properly equipped with the skills to adapt some often challenging work to the television medium, successfully guiding them to the studio floor at BBC Television Centre.

But as well as giving her her old role of story editor, Newman also promoted Shubik to producer of this new series, and the added responsibility for overseeing the construction of sets and special effects, the employment of directors, writers and actors (a completely different set for each separate production), etc., meant that she badly needed an assistant. Therefore George Spenton-Foster was brought in as associate producer, and proved invaluable in getting this complex series up and running, his technical abilities extending to direction of some of the series’ more complicated episodes. He even salvaged one particularly troublesome production (from the show’s second season) after its assigned director proved unable to cope with the demands of the tight recording schedule, which allowed for little more than three hours to get the entire episode completed in a single recording session after the usual two week rehearsal period, in what was essentially still practically a live theatre situation.

Like so much television produced at the BBC in the 1960s, many episodes of “Out of the Unknown” no longer exist at all in the archive, having at some point been wiped to create storage space and/or to enable the reuse of the video tape for the recording of other shows. Of the forty-nine episodes broadcast across the anthology’s four series run, only twenty are known currently to exist in their entirety, ten of them belonging to the first series, of which only two episodes are still missing. It is this first series, then -- the first to encapsulate the initial vision of Shubik and Spenton-Foster -- which gives us the best idea of the sheer breadth of diversity, ambition and imagination which would lead to ”Out of the Unknown” becoming so well loved by its coterie of remaining fans, who remember the impact of stories which so often examined the problems and fears of the 1960s generation, but disguised them in the clothes of an imagined future.

The first two series showcase Shubik’s main areas of interest in their purest form, with adaptations of short stories and novels by writers such as John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and J G Ballard, who’s work in the genre examined the politics and social implications involved in areas such as generational space flight, the colonisation of other worlds, the development of artificial intelligence and the implications for human morality of remote warfare. Across its run, some of the BBC’s most talented technicians, designers, screenwriters and directors contributed to the series, drawing on the skills of many who’d already demonstrated their mettle on some challenging productions of “Doctor Who”, which had already been running for two years by the time “Out of the Unknown” first hit the screen. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was called upon often to supply atmospherics on numerous episodes; indeed Brian Hodgson’s ‘radiophonic’ sound effects, developed for some of the episodes of this series, often cropped up again in “Doctor Who” stories during the Patrick Troughton era, as did some of the incidental music composed by the likes of Dudley Simpson and others; while Norman Kay, who composed the distinctive, sonorous title music used for the first three series of “Out of the Unknown”, had also written incidental cues for three stories in Doctor Who’s first ever season run.

Indeed, “Doctor Who” even borrowed some of its robot costumes from one particular episode, and the series returned the compliment for its bizarre series three satire “Get Off My Cloud” (sadly, one of the lost episodes) by including the Daleks in a scene. Among the names who contributed to episodes of “Out of the Unknown” and who also had been (or would go on to be) associated with “Doctor Who” were Spenton-Foster himself, and directors John Gorrie, Paddy Russell, Douglas Camfield, Christopher Barry and Michael Ferguson. The co-founder of the BBC’s visual effects department, Bernard Wilkie, was called upon to create all sorts of alien vistas on a shoestring budget, just as he’d done for Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series, and as he would go on to do for many Doctor Who adventures throughout the sixties and seventies. Doctor Who writer Brian Hayles (creator of the recently revived Ice Warriors) contributed several screenplay adaptations, as did John Wiles, who was briefly acting producer of the series during the latter half of William Hartnell’s tenure. The number of starring actors here who also appeared in Doctor Who stories down the years -- just among the surviving episodes -- becomes too many to list, but it is perhaps fitting that an episode of “Out of the Unknown” (actually, one of those written by Wiles) was directed by Peter Cregeen, who later became Head of BBC Serials, during which time he was ultimately responsible for making the decision to cancel Doctor Who in 1989!

After a shaky start, the first series of “Out of the Unknown” proved to be popular both with critics and BBC2 audiences alike, with some episodes bringing together unlikely collaborators such as “Z-Cars” creator (and writer of the original ‘60s film version of  “The Italian Job”) Troy Kennedy Martin and Hammer director Peter Sasdy; while Ridley Scott was but a lowly television production designer when he worked on an adaptation of British sci-fi author John Brunner’s haunting “Some Lapse of Time” under director Roger Jenkins (“Poldark”, “Howard’s Way”). Brunner’s thought-provoking mind-transplant tale “The Last Lonely Man”, which starred Minder’s George Cole, was dramatised for the third series by Jeremy Paul  -- a prolific writer whose work in TV and film ranged from “Countess Dracula” to “The Duchess of Duke Street” and “Lovejoy”. In the first series, a boyish David Hemmings is almost unrecognisable as the Aryan-looking crew member on an Interstellar craft, who might just be an alien imposter in the episode “The Counterfeit Man”. The series was also still able to offer a home to old directing hands such as Rudolph Cartier, who’d been responsible for innovating television science fiction in the ‘50s when he oversaw the live transmission of the original “The Quatermass Experiment” from Alexandra Palace; he directed two episodes for series two and three.

The adventurousness and intellectual gravity of the series one dramatisations  -- which in no way inhibited the production team from including comedy episodes of a sometimes outlandish sort in the mix of material recorded, such as Mike Watts’ tale of man-eating garden plants, “Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come …?”, attracted some big literary names to the BBC when, for the 1966 run, Shubik and Spenton-Foster were joined by Michael Imison, who helped out in Shubik’s old role as story editor, although the series was still making use of scripts procured by Shubik during her numerous jaunts across the ocean. EM Forster’s eerily prescient Edwardian prediction of a future civilisation’s infantilising reliance on the interconnectivity of advanced computer systems and the disastrous consequences of this for human psychology and society, was brilliantly brought to the screen by one of British television’s most inventive directors, Philip Saville (“The Boys from the Blackstuff”), in the bleak series two opener “The Machine Stops”, which confirmed the show’s reputation as a reliable home for serious conceptual science fiction. In it, Yvonne Mitchell plays the pale, etiolated Vashti: a future world woman completely cocooned within the underground computerised operating systems that run the world and nurse humanity from cradle to grave, resulting in a race of helpless and dispassionate invalids who are alienated from emotional engagement and who scorn all direct social contact. Also tempted to contribute to the show was J B Priestly, who adapted Mordecai Roshwald’s “Level Seven” -- an equally pessimistic vision in which push-button nuclear warfare is directed anonymously from deep underground by a special cloistered class of military civilian, indoctrinated -- inside a secret operations centre -- to feel disengaged from the consequences of its members’ actions as they oversee the remote launch of guided missiles visible only as dots on a map, while being kept away from the hurly-burly of life on the surface as part of a highly regimented and strictly controlled elite community.

Some stories, such as “Level Seven”, take Orwellian concepts and apply them to the concerns of 1960s Britain -- nuclear war and radiation poisoning being high up on this list among thinking people at the time. “Level Seven” works admirably because it spends most of its run time delineating the workings of an clinical, oppressive regime, with its surveillance culture, social engineering and incessant monitoring -- but doing so through the eyes of a relatable ordinary couple played by Keith Buckley and Michele Dotrice, who are encouraged to accept ever-more pervasive infringements on liberty in the name of a way of life which is successfully sold and packaged to them as being ‘free from insecurity, anxiety and the menace to health posed by mass urban existence’.  Even here, some of the culture’s dystopian ideas, although expressed in a clunky retro-futuristic form, still have uncanny application to our current situation: for instance, the concept of citizens being recorded and monitored in their quarters by computers which scan their private conversations twenty-four hours-a-day looking for key forbidden words that are flagged up as alerts if they’re mentioned, is not so different an idea from the security services monitoring our own online activity, considering how we now conduct almost all our work and social lives via email and online social networks. The episode climaxes with our everyman hero finding himself pressing the button that launches the fleet of missiles that ends life on the surface of the earth, and eventually paying the price for it when the radiation from the remote annihilation works its way below, wiping out the remaining stratified levels of society one-by-one until it reaches his own community, isolated four-thousand, five-hundred feet underground in its military bunker. A similar dread of where the Cold War nuclear stand-off might ultimately be leading permeates “Some Lapse of Time” -- one of the eeriest of all the surviving episodes included in this set. Here, a terrible nuclear accident has already led to the emergence of a genetic disease that kills in childhood, and which, as the story begins, has claimed the life of the son of physician Dr Harrow (Ronald Lewis) and his wife (Jane Downs). When an elderly vagrant, who has somehow survived the malady to reach adulthood, is discovered on harroww’s doorstep, investigations lead Dr Harrow to the edge of madness, as he begins to suspect that his patient is a shamanistic time traveller from a dystopian future in which mankind has regressed to a prehistoric state.

One of the favourite topics at the time, in the work of science fiction writers who had thought about humankind’s place in the Universe, involved exploring the implications for humanity of reaching out beyond earth and venturing outward to other stars systems. Exploration with a view to colonisation holds many unpredictable dangers: for a start, there is the problem of dealing with possibly hostile life that might take a form as yet unimaginable to human consciousness. Alan E Nouse’s “The Counterfeit Man” details the problems of an interstellar crew after it is suspected that an alien life form has infiltrated the ship posing in the copied shape of one of its crew members. David Hemmings’ crewman is suspected of being the party in question after his blood sugar levels initially come up as zero. Drastic measures have to be taken by the ship’s doctor in order to prove his suspicions, as the alien comes to adapt completely to its new human form and erases all evidence of its existence.  A tense mind game that recalls Mario Bava’s film “Planet of the Vampires” results.  J G Ballard’s story “Thirteen to Centaurus” delves into the consciousness-altering consequences of the kinds of inter-generational space-flight that would be necessary in order to successfully colonise other worlds that might take hundreds or thousands of years to reach. The story starts on what appears to be just one such flight, to Alpha Centuri, in which the occupants have no memory of the earth at all, having been raised for several generations on the colonisation ship. However, it turns out that the whole trip is a decades-long simulation, and that the occupants have been raised on earth in a huge flight simulator intended to explore the feasibility of embarking on such a project for real. Brainwashing techniques and liberal doses of carefully applied religion are used in a social engineering programme intended to keep the population pliable (with the implication being that this isn’t to different to how humanity in general is kept under control anyway) but the whole plan goes awry once the project is cancelled; as the designers of the project try to work out what to do, one of the brighter occupants of the simulator realises the truth, and sets out to exploit the situation in order to procure power for himself over his fellows.

 In Isaac Asimov’s “Sucker Bait”, humanity has already succeeded in colonising many worlds and forming a mighty confederation, eighty-three-thousand worlds strong. But this presents a new type of problem for humanity, namely the organisation and collation of knowledge between worlds. A special Mnemonic Service is created that breeds a form of human calculator – essentially a highly autistic person who has never been exposed to social situations but who has been taught to memorise huge quantities of data and make connections between disparate facts that would never occur to a ‘normal’ person. Clifford Simak, in the lost episode “Beach Head”, and John Wyndham, whose adaptation opens the first series, present stories that deal with the problems of colonialism, drawing on the past tactics of the British Empire and the settlement of the Americas as inspiration for what might be the result of humankind’s drive to expand its influence beyond its home planet. Wyndham’s “No Place Like Earth” suffers a little from having been written during a time when Schiaparelli’s canals were still being used to suggest a fictional landscape on the surface of Mars, in this case one in which a peaceful race of Martians live in the Aztec-like ruins and monuments of an even more ancient Martian civilisation, and where earth engineer Bert Foster (Terence Morgan) contentedly makes his home after the destruction of the earth, until tempted away to Venus by an idealistic colonisation programme that, when he gets to the planet, turns out to be based on the subjugation and slavery of its primitive, indigenous Venusian population.

One of the series’ most successful tropes involved the staging of stories that, strikingly, amend a selection of details about our current system of law or custom or morality, and show how such changes could alter society in unpredictable ways, revealing our apparently eternal, immutable way of life as being dependent on merely inherited social norms. Other stories take trends already underway in the contemporary world and develop them, so that they take on an exaggerated satiric form that shows how they, too, might lead to even more radically altered lifestyles. “Time in Advance”, written by William Tenn and directed by Peter Sasdy (with atmospheric electronic music from the Radiophonic Workshop) explores a futuristic society in which crime rates are controlled by allowing anyone who wishes to commit a criminal act the choice of handing themselves in and serving out their sentence in advance on a harsh penal colony where survival prospects are slim. The gamble being that if convicts do by chance survive long enough to serve their time and return home, they will be granted a licence that allows them legally to commit one criminalised act -- presumably, but not exclusively, the one they originally handed themselves in for! In this adaptation, Edward Judd and Mike Pratt survive their internment by forming a mutual bond of trust during their sentence on an inhospitable alien world, but find their comradeship fatally challenged when they return home to intense media attention and fame, as they prepare to carry out their respective acts of vengeance on those they deem to have done them wrong. Matters are complicated when some parties incorrectly assume they must be the target, and set out to pre-empt what they believe will otherwise be their own assassination; others attempt to actually buy the licences off their current holders, in a story that greatly anticipates the satiric exuberance of Elio Petri’s pop art SF satire, “The 10th Victim”, released in the same year.

The series three episode “The Last Lonely Man” takes an even more outlandish scenario, but sets it in a world that looks absolutely the same as the drab late-sixties Britain it was made in. The change here is entirely an internal one, but it is one of such a profoundly radical nature that it changes completely humanity’s state of being. In this version of reality, death has been abolished after a mind transference technique is discovered that allows the contents of the minds of the recently dead to be stored electronically, later to be transferred to the brain of another living person where it may sit alongside the donor’s own psyche. In this society, people carry the minds of their dead relatives and friends, who can live on inside their heads because of a social contract that has legally formalised the practice of transferring a designated mind into the brain of an agreed recipient upon a person’s bodily death. Here ‘pe-contact’ movies (films made in the era before mind transference was discovered) are considered comical because no-one now understands the psychology of single psyche thinking any longer, or indeed, that of a world in which death constantly hangs over all. Social conservatives, however, hate how everyone is essentially bi-sexual now, since males and females, mothers, sons, uncles and aunties have become ‘all jumbled up’ within the same living head space! The possible harmful effects of transformative technological advances such as this also informs other tales such as the quantum travel disaster story “Lambda 1” or “The Little Black Bag” (which only exists as a partial fragment in the archive), in which a medical apparatus from the far future, which seems like magic from a 20thCentury perspective, is misused by a quack physician to make money from the vanity of the rich.

Perhaps one of the best episodes of the entire four series run, and which deals with the pros and cons of unrestricted and unfettered scientific research head-on, is Isaac Asimov’s “The Dead Past”.  Here ‘time viewing’ has become possible with the development of a quantum technology which affords historians and academic researchers rather valuable opportunities for looking back in time at historical events as they actually happened, by enabling them to view scenes from the past projected onto a video screen. However the process is tightly restricted by the Government and further research in areas affected by this ‘Chronoscopey’ is prohibited without first obtaining a special  commission, granted by a bureaucratic department of the Government. After his own request is turned down, obsessed expert on the city of Carthage Dr Arnold Potterley (George Benson), is determined to defy this draconian law and build his own Chronoscopey machine in his basement, with the help of an inquisitive freelance physicist (James Maxwell) -- both of them despising how the state seeks to control access to the technology while secretly using it for its own surveillance monitoring instead of legitimate academic research. However, Potterley’s own wife (Sylvia Coleridge), and her obsession with the couple’s dead daughter (who died in a house fire caused by Arnold’s discarded cigarette) illustrates one pressing reason why state spy Thaddeus Araman (David Langton) is determined to keep the technology out of the hands of the masses, recognising that most people would not use such a device for rarefied dispassionate research, but that it would instead cause social chaos as ordinary people increasingly chose to live their lives exclusively in the past, hanging on to debilitating traumas that made them unable to function in the present day; or else human weakness would lead them to misuse it voyeuristically to spy on each other … privacy would essentially become a thing of the past, and nobody would ever be safe again from the anonymous prying eyes of friends and strangers alike.     

Two remarkable plays adapted from works by Frederik Pohl use science fiction as a metaphor to describe the strange logic of western consumer-based society and its addiction to advertising, but in “The Midas Plague”, directed once again by Peter Sasdy, that logic is taken to absurd extremes which, nevertheless, feel oddly familiar in their envisioning of a world in which the class system has been inverted so that working men and women are expected as a matter of duty to be idle and consume large amounts of goods, foods and services that they don’t really need; indeed they face the prospect of being downgraded if they don’t consume enough! This is a highly mechanised and roboticised society, in which the humanoid robots do all the mundane manufacturing work whilst serving humanity’s every whim … which leaves humans themselves nothing to do but keep the economy ticking over by constantly eating too much and shopping for goods they don’t really want. The innovation of Pohl and dramatist Troy Kennedy Martin was to style the episode in the manner of an early evening sitcom of the day, with a well-known comedian of the 1960s called Graham Stark placed in the lead role of Morrey, who plays it in the same broad style of performance one would associate with “Hancock’s Half Hour” or “Steptoe and Son” -- even breaking the fourth wall occasionally to address the viewer at home with comic asides. The episode plays out as a broad, comedy farce with the hard-pressed Morrey plotting to subvert the system by programming his home-help robots with ‘satisfaction circuits’, so that they can help him take the pressure off and do some of the onerous work of perpetual consumption for him. The story ends with Morrey unwittingly starting a revolution that overthrows the robot class of civil servants who run the country, knowing full well that the cycle will most likely simply start up all over again in the end, despite all his efforts.

“Tunnel Under the World”, the second Frederik Pohl story, this one directed by Alan Cook, starts out more quietly, apparently set in an average ‘60s suburban household in which chemical works office accountant Guy Birkett (Ronald Hines) and his wife Mary (Petra Davies) are rather surprised to wake up one morning to find they’ve both shared the same nightmare about a catastrophic explosion at the plant. At first we follow their daily routine and the grind of office life for Guy, but gradually the viewer recognises what apparently neither Guy nor Mary seem to, namely that they are re-living the same day over and over again (literally – the calendar has somehow been reset with the same date each morning when they wake up from having the same dream), with only slight variations based around the type of aggressive marketing gimmicks the couple find themselves being constantly subjected to. Eventually something happens that results in Guy breaking out of this Groundhog Day illusion and discovering that reality is based on something even more sinister, more akin to The Truman Show, run by an advertising corporation whose head has grander political ambitions. But even the initial outlandish discovery of a network of futuristic tunnels running underneath the Birkett household turns out to be only the tip of the iceberg, as Pohl introduces several more mind-warping twists that turn this into one of the most outrageously surreal pieces of television ever made.

This story is of a type that questions our fundamental ability to perceive the true nature of our reality, or, indeed, our own motivations, guided as they are by beliefs about the world that often seem to be wide open to manipulation from forces that remain always out of our reach, or escape our ability to resist their influence. “Tunnel Under the World” includes an example of every species of paranoia possible in the SF genre all within one story, ideas which had been showcased elsewhere in one form or another throughout numerous episodes of “Out of the Unknown”. It plays almost like a parody of the tropes common to hard science fiction of the period: from androids that don’t realise they have artificial minds, to the common availability of mind transference; and from the outlandish futuristic experiment that is conducted on human lab rats, to high concept visions of a transformed set of cultural conditions that subvert human social relationships.  Across its first three series, the anthology format proved highly successful in dramatizing stories such as “The Yellow Pill” (one of two episodes first made for “Out of This World”) that brought these most thought-provoking philosophical ideas to the fore in a popular format.

By the end of the third series the selection of stories adapted had drifted farther away from subject matter which dealt with the theoretical problems of the far future -- interplanetary space flight; humanity adapting to the proximity of artificial intelligence, etc. -- and began to concentrate instead, if only indirectly, more on the problem of understanding the nature of the mind and its relationship to our perceptions of reality. Although by 1967 Irene Shubik had left the series she had first conceived, having been offered the job of producing BBC1’s prestigious drama series “The Wednesday Play” by Sidney Newman, she’d still had the primary role in choosing the material for it and script editing what became the first season in which all the episodes were transmitted in full colour --  a change of technology that necessitated a huge leap in standard recording procedures, and that would have to be overseen by a new caretaker production team of Alan Bromly and Roger Parkes. This was essentially the last series to be made under the banner of the original format Shubik had devised. When it returned in 1971, with Bromly and Parkes now in sole charge of its output and new theme music accompanying an animated title sequence in which strange, surreal abstract images now replaced the Twilight Zone-like caption cards of the original, the series had become a haven for dark psychological thrillers that also dealt with the now fashionable subjects of the occult and the supernatural.

Most of the surviving episodes from this era focus even more keenly on issues related to the question of the nature of the mind and the mutability of human identity: but now they tend to take place in a contemporary world on the cusp of the 1970s, usually in the false calm of a modern-day suburbia which, in episode after episode, is depicted being repeatedly undermined by a dizzying melange of false memories, conditioned responses, occult visions and psychic fugues. There’s another commonality in the barely concealed subtext to many of these episodes; namely that they seem to share a deep mistrust and fear of female sexuality and the supposedly destructive possibilities unleashed by the feminist-delivered emancipation of the late-sixties whenever it manifests within a still-sexually repressed suburban context. The phenomenon is at its most acute in the earliest surviving series four episode, “To Lay a Ghost”, in which Lesley-Anne Warren plays a newly married, Jean Shrimpton-esque glamour model whose preference for the ghost of a nineteenth century rapist over Eric, her David Bailey-like photographer husband (Iain Gregory), when its leering image is spotted repeatedly popping up in their photo-shoot sessions together, is made abundantly clear by the crass double entendre in the title. In the episode, the ghost is discovered to be haunting the couple’s new country house domicile by a psychic investigator (Peter Barkworth), employed by the husband after a series of near fatal ‘accidents’ threaten Eric’s life. In what must be, by any standards, one of the most dubious plot developments of any supernatural tale ever made, the model wife, Diana Carver, turns out to be repressing the sexual enjoyment she once experienced when she was raped by a homeless vagrant as a schoolchild, and her unconscious denial of this forbidden sexual enjoyment causes psychic forces to build up that have awakened the spirit of the Victorian groundskeeper who murdered his mistress and raped her daughter in the same house a hundred years previously! Barkworth’s tweed-clad Jungian psychic investigator chides the trendy but sexually inadequate husband for ‘being to lenient’ with his wife in the bedroom -- the implication being that his willingness to forego sex with her out of sympathy for Diana’s understandably fragile attitude to the subject, is really just an excuse for his own impotence -- a theme made explicit as the ghost’s attentions begin to ‘loosen up’ the sex-starved Diana, and Eric is forced to flee the house in terror! It’s remarkable stuff, to say the least, even by the standards of the sexual politics of the early-seventies!

Although not expressed in quite so torrid a fashion as the above story, similar themes can be discerned in most of the other episodes surviving from this period in the series’ history. “Deathday”, adapted by Brian Hayles from a 1968 novel written by Angus Hall, features Robert Lang as Adam Crosse: an apparently benign middle-class columnist for a small circulation local newspaper, who accidently discovers his wife Lydia’s (Lynne Farleigh) infidelity one morning before breakfast. When he indignantly confronts her with the evidence over the kitchen table, she merely shrugs it off and determines to carry on with the affair, citing her husband’s inability to satisfy her needs either socially or sexually as the reason. Quite matter-of-factly she claims to be perfectly willing to maintain the marriage for appearances sake if Adam wishes it, offering her housekeeping and baking skills as more than adequate compensation for also occasionally being allowed to entertain her lover at home from time to time when her cuckolded husband is out!  Crosse’s way of asserting his masculinity in this situation involves brutally murdering her and setting up an elaborate alibi using a fictional correspondent called Quilter, who supposedly writes to him care of his newspaper, and whom Adam claims must have been responsible for his wife’s demise. However, Crosse’s subconscious conjures up a debonair incarnation of Quilter (John Ronane) who materialises at his home and proceeds to taunt Adam for his bumbling suburban inadequacy, as the writer falteringly attempts to entertain a sardonic glamour-puss he’s picked up on the town (Susan Glanville). By the end of the tale Adam’s sanity further fragments and reality and illusion become hopelessly blurred. The mind swap tale “This Body is Mine” continues the theme of male inadequacy and female untrustworthiness. John Carson plays a disgruntled scientist who uses his mind transference invention to extract due payment from his gruff duplicitous businessman employer, played by Jack Hedley. Allen Meredith and his wife Ann (Alethea Charlton) drug the company head so that Allen can transfer their minds and use his new body to sign over the funds that he feels are owed him. However, not only does the mild-mannered research scientist prove to have no head for business (he manages to almost completely wreck the company in one afternoon, while also dealing with Jack’s complex love life), but his wife discovers a new sexual awakening after a morning’s exposure to the domineering and aggressively assertive Jack, whose mind now resides within her husband’s former body; it’s a development the canny company head is quick to exploit.

 Even in the more disturbing altered identity drama “Welcome Home”, which was written by Moris Farhi in response to finding out about the abuse of brainwashing techniques used on political dissidents in Russia, a cheery Anthony Ainley returns to his home village and his idyllic cottage after a period of convalescence spent recovering from a car crash, to find his life has been stolen by an imposter, who looks nothing like him but who is now claiming to be him. His friends and even his wife Penny (Jennifer Hilary) claim not to recognise him, and appear to be in cahoots with the imposter. In this and the John Wiles story “The Man in My Head”, identity is seen as endlessly pliable and, essentially, illusory -- capable of being manipulated through the implantation of false memories and conditioned responses until there is nothing authentic left of the original person. Memories of “Out of the Unknown” have become presumably just as partial and fragmented over forty years in which most of these episodes have remained unseen in a decent form since their original broadcast. This seven disc DVD collection sets out to rectify the situation and collates everything that is known to survive of the series for the benefit of all fans of archive telly; it’s a labour of love which has been partly made possible by private collectors and fans turned professional archivists, who have augmented these twenty surviving black-and-white and colour episodes (the visual and audio presentation of which has been restored for this release with maximum care and diligence by a team headed by Peter Crocker and Mark Ayres) with other relevant and illuminating materials, such as extensive production stills for nearly all episodes and sound recordings of several missing episodes from series three and four. This has enabled “Beach Head”, “The Naked Sun” and “The Yellow Pill” to be presented in a reconstructed form for their inclusion on these discs, assembled by Derek Handly using fan-made audio recordings of the original broadcasts in combination with production stills, and also some limited CGI animation by Stuart Palmer for two of them. Part of the episode “The Little Black Bag” was discovered as a black-and-white recording on an engineering training tape at BBC Glasgow some years ago, but for this release the colour signal has been restored through some technical wizardry that enables this fragment to be presented in a form that closely mimics its original presentation. A fan made audio recording has also been obtained for the series four episode “The Uninvited” – a ghost story later remade for “Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense” under the title “In Possession” – but owing to lack of publicity stills it is presented here alongside the original shooting script. Other surviving extracts from the episodes “Satisfaction Guaranteed”, “Liar!” (which starred Ian Ogilvy as a humanoid robot) and “Random Quest” are included within the forty-minute retrospective documentary film “Return to the Unknown” which also includes interviews with many cast and crew members such as Christopher Barry, Brian Hodgson, Philip Saville and Michael Imison, alongside contextual commentary by Mark Ward, the author of the definitive book about the series, “Out of the Unknown: A Guide to the Legendary BBC Series”.

Ward and many of the other contributors to the documentary, also appear on the eleven audio commentary tracks recorded especially for the release, with actor-comedian Toby Hadoke doing what he does so well on similar commentaries for many of the original series “Doctor Who” DVD releases -- i.e., sensitively eliciting anecdotal memories from assorted aged actors, writers and production crew members about forty-five year-old studio recordings made back when the medium was thought to be too ephemeral and fleeting to be worth thinking much about. Altogether, twenty four people who were involved with the series contribute to these eleven commentaries, several making multiple appearances for different episodes. Some contributors appear in a group to discuss their memories with each other, while others are recorded in separate interviews with Hadoke (sometimes by phone or via Skype), making up a uniquely detailed record of the conditions under which television was being made back in the early- to mid-sixties: the two week rehearsal period followed by a hectic recording schedule at Television Centre, during which the entire episode had to be completed at all costs. Peter Sasdy in particular proves fascinating to listen to on his commentary for “The Midas Plague”, and Hadoke uses the session as an opportunity to get the director talking about all aspects of his career, in film as well as in television. A sixteen minute video interview provides much the same service for director James Cellan Jones, and an illustrated 44-page booklet with multiple essays by Mark Ward and full episode and documentary credits for the series is also an invaluable and informative addition to this comprehensive and much anticipated set, which will surely prove a worthy addition to the Christmas stockings of sundry fans of classic Sci-Fi TV. A highly recommended release, and a deeply appropriate means of celebrating the BFI’s current “Sci-FI: Days of Fear and Wonder” season.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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