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Out of this World: Little Lost Robot

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Guy Verney
Maxine Audley
Clifford Evans
Murray Hayne
Gerald Flood
Boris Karloff (host)
Bottom Line: 

When, in 1965, story editor & producer Irene Subik and her then-boss, the pioneering Canadian drama executive Sidney Newman, managed to make adult science fiction visibly respectable at the BBC again for the first time since the Quatermass serials of the 1950s, thanks to the ratings success of their acclaimed sci-fi themed BBC2 anthology series “Out of the Unknown”, they were actually simply repeating a trick they’d performed successfully once before, three years earlier, at the commercial channel they’d both left soon afterwards: ABC had been part of the Independent Television Network and was first established in 1956 by the Independent Television Authority (ITA) with the remit of broadcasting to the Midlands and the North at weekends. Based in London and operating mainly out of Teddington Studios in Middlesex, the company was in the vanguard of all styles of popular British weekly drama in the 1960s, with series such as “The Avengers”, “Callan” and “Public Eye” all starting out as ABC-made shows and surviving the company’s subsequent merger with Rediffusion London in 1968 to continue into the early seventies broadcasting under the aegis of the behemoth that became Thames Television.

Newman is, of course, one of the most significant figures in the story of the modernisation of British television, which principally took place during the 1960s. He was a colossus of a character in the landscape of TV drama of the period, who was deeply involved in the creation of some of the UK’s most beloved television institutions. At ABC he’d contributed to the making of the first incarnation of “The Avengers” by providing it with its moniker (‘I don’t know what the fuck it means, but it’s a good title!’), while his determination to overhaul British drama and free it of what was then seen, in the era of John Osborne and of Kitchen Sink realism, as its stagey, class-bound fustiness also led to a revolution in Newman's approach to what was still at the time something of a television staple – namely, the single drama play, which he renewed by taking charge of the major TV anthology series at ABC, “Armchair Theatre”, and adopting it as a showcase for the work of new authors such as Alun Owen, Clive Exton and Angus Wilson, reflecting the state of a changing Britain with drama that was specifically tailored to the developing medium of television as it endeavoured to shake off its ‘proscenium arch’ centred staidness. After he was poached by the BBC to become its Head of Drama in late 1962, Newman worked the same magic again for the doughty public broadcaster: on the one hand kick-starting the creation of one of the most enduring fantasy drama series in TV history, “Doctor Who”; and on the other, adding to the reputations of many new authors by green-lighting contemporary plays grounded in a gritty, down-to-earth realism with his development of “The Wednesday Play” (forerunner of the “Play for Today” strand), which soon overtook “Armchair Theatre” as the bastion of diverse and inventive one-off single play dramas.

Nevertheless, it is ABC’s “Armchair Theatre” strand that provides the starting place in the story of Shubik’s successful efforts to bring hard science fiction to British television screens on a regular weekly basis, a project which eventually took shape as the single season of “Out of this World” made by ABC in 1962, consisting of thirteen dramatised plays presented by the 75-year-old Horror legend Boris Karloff. In the age of Sputnik satellite launches, and just a year after Russian Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin had become the first man in space and the first to orbit the earth (but before anyone had yet set foot on the Moon), the genre had gained a special appeal that combined a sense of wonder with the very real-seeming possibility of its flights of fancy becoming reality, ensuring that the series was an immediate ratings winner. Science Fiction drama had sporadically been tried out before this in the “Armchair Theatre” slot, but the commercial channel’s main involvement with the genre at the time came in the guise of a number of wide-eyed, Sunday tea-time space travel adventure serials aimed primarily at children, which were written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice -- starting in 1960 with the series “Target Luna”, which extended to a sequel, “Pathfinders in Space” , that itself spawned two follow-ups: “Pathfinders to Mars” and “Pathfinders to Venus”. Futuristic underwater Spy-Fi adventure series “City Beneath the Sea” and its follow-up “Secret Beneath The Sea” also adhered to the same exciting, cliff-hanger-based format familiar to the continuing weekly serial, which was then a model clearly favoured by the commercially minded Sidney Newman, although he was easily persuaded by his “Armchair Theatre” story editor and committed SF fan Irene Shubik, when she proposed the idea of an anthology series devoted to the more philosophical side of the genre, seizing on the success of the format which had already been tried out for “Armchair Mystery Theatre” the previous year, which had seen a themed series of thrillers briefly replace the more diverse  “Armchair Theatre” during its annual summer break from British TV screens.

Irene Shubik was another of Newman’s female protégées; like Verity Lambert, who would go on to sire the fledgling “Doctor Who” at the BBC, she was intelligent, talented and industrious. When Shubik and Newman eventually transferred to the BBC, and Shubik suggested making another SF anthology series at the corporation in the same vein as “Out of this World”, Newman would hand her the job of producing what became “Out of the Unknown”: championing her in the producer’s role just as he’d done with the young Lambert during the launch of “Doctor Who” two years earlier in an era when it was usual for institutional sexism, such as that which existed throughout ‘60s society at the time, to go unchallenged, and when opportunities for women in a production capacity were extremely rare on the ground in television. 

However, Shubik remained in her usual post as story editor when “Out of this World” went into pre-production in 1961, in which capacity she set about making contacts within the science fiction literary community (such as the literary agent and editor of ‘New Worlds’ magazine Edward John Carnell) who could help her find genre material that might be suitable for adaptation to the teleplay format. To produce the series, Newman chose Leonard White, who’d already been responsible for the “Armchair Mystery Theatre” strand, and before that had shepherded the first series of “The Avengers” to the screen. It was allegedly White’s job to make sure Shubik didn’t get too carried away with the intellectual side of the genre, and that the resultant series still retained a substantial degree of popular appeal. Shubik jokingly referred to White as ‘her Bug-Eyed Monster’ – ever on-hand to make sure her story selections didn’t stray too far into the esoteric byways of hard science fiction. It’s interesting to note how Newman is also associated with the same term in a completely different and opposite context due to his part in the development of “Doctor Who” for the BBC a year later, when his stipulation that the series should contain ‘no bug-eyed monsters’ was quickly overruled by Verity Lambert in order to bring the Daleks to the screen for the first time during the series’ second adventure. In accounts of the creation of “Out of this World” Newman plays the role of the populariser -- attempting to ensure his protégée does not forget her duty to entertain; while in “Doctor Who” his anti-monster directive is interpreted as him attempting to live up to the BBC’s educational remit by ensuring that the series did not stoop to the level of crass popularisation. Here, Lambert was set to prove that monsters and quality could still work together.

The inclusion of Boris Karloff as the weekly series host – a constant intended to help the audience negotiate the otherwise radically different kinds of stories that they’d be presented with from one week to the next – was one of those popularist touches inherited from American television, where Karloff had served in a similar capacity for the anthology series “Thriller” and “The Veil” (the latter an American production filmed in England), and which had been deployed on “Armchair Mystery Theatre” with Donald Pleasence in the same role. Shubik was able to retain for the series the services of some of TV’s best dramatists, since it turned out that many of them, such as “Armchair Theatre” writer Clive Exton, were also big science fiction fans. The work of established writers in the genre such as John Wyndham, Philip K Dick and Clifford Simak was among that chosen to be adapted, along with several original contributions from new TV writers, one of them Terry Nation -- giving the former writer for comedian Tony Hancock his first outlet in a genre that would go on to make his name. The first play produced was an adaptation of Wyndham’s “Dumb Martian”, but this was ‘poached’ by Sidney Newman and broadcast as an episode of “Armchair Theatre” instead, with Boris Karloff appearing at the end to introduce the coming series proper, which began broadcasting the following week and ran in tandem from then on with “Armchair Theatre” on successive Saturday and Sunday nights.

This and all but one episode of the thirteen-part series no longer exists in the archive. The single surviving episode is a telerecording of a play based on a story by Isaac Asimov called “Little Lost Robot”, which was broadcast as the second episode of the series on the 7th of July 1962, and was re-discovered by a TV enthusiast group in 1991 at the Pinewood film store owned by Lumiere -- custodians of what remains of ABC’s archive. Shubik was particularly a fan of the work of Isaac Asimov, a biochemist and prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction who popularised scientific concepts for a general reading public for many decades while attempting to apply to his stories and novels a credible logic, and a rigour to his ruminations on the future of humankind that is detailed in several major novel series and collections of shorts spanning the length of a prodigiously long career. His attempts to outline the moral and social implications of the development of thinking machines and the rise of robot intelligence after science’s discovery of his fictional discipline of ‘positronics’, have proved enormously influential on other writers, and on those working in the field of artificial intelligence for real, with one of the terms he coined – robotics – passing into common parlance, where it is currently used in much the same way as it was in his fiction.

“Little Lost Robot” was the sixth story in Assimov’s “I, Robot” collection, published in 1950, the contents of which would have first been read between 1940 and 1950 in the pages of ‘Super Science Stories’ and ‘Astounding Science Fiction’. The collection included the story that first formally introduced Asimov’s ‘three laws of robotics’ – the unifying theme that underpins all of the author’s subsequent robot-based fiction -- although these laws were often implied in works written before they were explicitly stated in the story ‘Runaround’as the moral framework intended to guide all robot behaviour. To tie the individual tales together, Assimov wrote a framing story for the volume involving a central recurring character who appears in many of the collection’s stories, where she recounts her life experiences to a journalist. This is robot psychologist Dr Susan Calvin, who works for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., and whose job it is to understand robot psychology and delve into some of the unforeseen consequences of robot and human interactions, which sometimes produces unusual responses in the machine mind that can consequently feed what Calvin calls ‘the Frankenstein Complex’ – namely, a human phobia of, and a prejudice against, robots that can poison their relationships and harm their integration into human society. This theme is evident in Leo Lehman’s adaptation of the story for “Out of this World”, which also marked Susan Calvin’s first appearance in TV or film drama as a fictional character and who is played here by Maxine Audley, best known to Horror fans for her role in Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom”. The character would appear again in several Asimov adaptations made for the BBC’s “Out of the Unknown” series, where she was played by Beatrix Lehmann in 1967 and Wendy Gifford in 1969. In the 2004 film “I, Robot” the same character is played by Bridget Moynahan.

The “Out of this World” adaptation was overseen by Guy Verney – an experienced and capable director at ABC who had been at the helm for all three of Sidney Newman’s technically demanding Pathfinders fantasy adventure serials, and who was a mainstay of many of the single play anthology series of the period, including “Armchair Theatre”. His regular drama work included episodes of “Emergency-Ward 10”, “The Avengers”, “Callan”, “Redcap” and “Public Eye”. Verney’s approach to the making of what is now the only surviving episode of this otherwise lost series is, then, all that we have left by which we can directly judge its content and quality from a modern-day perspective. This in itself is a somewhat problematic state of affairs since, by all accounts (and most notably that of its surviving ninety-six year-old producer Leonard White), the play was probably the episode that is the least representative of the tone achieved by the rest of the series, particularly in terms of the way in which production designer Douglas James chose to realise the N-2  class of robot worker drone-slaves (or Nestors) that are situated at the heart of the plot and are employed here in helping a team of humans who toil out in the depths of the solar system in a military research installation called Hyper-Base 7, that is situated on an asteroid in the vicinity of Saturn, complete the tense and extremely dangerous job of building humanity’s first hyperspace drive: a gateway to it future expansion and to eventual colonisation of new worlds.

In design specs these robots adhere to all the science fiction clichés then in wide circulation throughout countless B-movies since the 1950s -- looking like a cross between clunking great humanoid-shaped refrigerator units and chromium Bertie Basset toys thanks to cumbersome silver costumes that must have made it difficult for the actors inside them to accomplish very much more with their roles than lurch and shuffle from side to side when attempting even such basic manoeuvres as walking from one end of the studio floor to the other – an aspect of their design that renders them somewhat comical, not to mention unbelievable in their role as intelligent mechanical workmates whose job it is to aid the human engineers at the base in their goal of achieving humanity’s ‘Great Project’. There is recognisable world building here, though; and a culture articulated that is presumably taken -- along with the scenario -- from Assimov’s original short story: it emerges in actor Gerald Flood’s portrayal of the chief engineer Black and his barely suppressed resentment of the silent, human-shaped companions he and his colleagues are required to labour alongside. That ‘Frankenstein Complex’ Susan Calvin opposes and tries to combat is here fully developed in the sardonic attitude and simmering rage Black’s manner relentlessly conveys to the viewer; while other components of this society’s way of existing become evident in throwaway terms and remarks made by various characters during the course of the play that hint at unique aspects of Asimov’s vision for humanity’s likely future governance: for instance, when Major General Kallner (Clifford Evans) advises Black against a particular course of action at one point, Kallner dissuades him by reminding Black that it might earn the engineer the displeasure of ‘The World Controller’ or ‘The Octagon’ -- terms which are never explained, but which certainly strongly hint at a dystopian, tightly ordered militaristic-technocrat civilisation in which everyone adheres to the variety of behaviour that is expected of their particular rank. The psychology in play throughout is one of hot house resentment and repression; the players we encounter in this limited environment are defined by designated occupations revealing a strictly hierarchical order that is made explicitly evident by their manner of dress: showy insignia and epaulettes for the Military Base Commander, bland but smart smock for the Mathematician (Murray Hayne), and functional coveralls for the Chief Engineer and works engineer (Haydn Jones) … We definitely experience a sense of the kind of world the story is attempting to portray from this small-scale dramatisation, but the sets constructed at Teddington for this drama, in general make it look as though TV SF at this juncture was still very much struggling to move beyond the silver bake foil & cardboard stage of its development. Just a year later and the results being achieved at the BBC in its realisation of the Dalek city for “Doctor Who”, and in the plays that make up the first season of “Out of the Unknown” just a few years after that, leave the unappealing, cramped TV- budget corridors and control rooms at Hyper-Base 7 looking amateurish and somewhat shoddy by comparison. However, perhaps some of the play’s problems are inherent in Asimov’s approach to the subject-matter itself …

Despite its unfamiliar future setting and elaborate depiction of human/robot interactions, the problem that motivates the events which are depicted in the play rehearses a familiar trope taken on loan from classic English detective fiction. Particularly, in this case, those of the country house murder mysteries of Agatha Christie, in which a variety of suspects, secluded in a confined setting where a murder has taken place, are gathered in the drawing room at the climax for the big reveal of whodunit. Here, Susan Calvin is called in to assist the Hyper-Base Commander in finding a lost robot, which has recently hidden itself among a troupe of twenty identical ‘Nestors’, just flown in from earth en route to their next and the most crucial outpost in the completion of the Great Project. The robot has hidden itself away like this after earlier being told to “get lost” by the stressed out Black during a fit of pique, and is merely now attempting to accomplish what it perceives as being his stated ‘command’.  Finding a robot might seem like a trivial task on the face of things, since all Nestors are exactly the same in appearance and design, so it would seem to matter little which one of them is removed for the outbound flight. But Susan learns to her horror that Hyper-Base 7 Nestors have been subject to a modification in their programing which slightly alters their adherence to the First Law of Robotics: although a robot still cannot actively set out to harm a human being, all Nestors on Hyper-Base 7 have now been released from the requirement to prevent harm to a human occurring ‘through robot inaction’. This modification was made because the inherently dangerous nature of some of the work being done at the base had resulted in robots constantly stepping in and ‘rescuing’ engineers in the middle of important tasks! In order to prevent panic rising in an already jittery human populace prone to mistrust inscrutable robot intelligences (as evidenced by Black’s acid prejudices) Susan has been flown in from earth in order to use her knowledge of robot psychology to flush out the impostor with the defective programing from among the twenty pristine specimens awaiting continuation of their journey to the next outpost. The play adheres to the rules of whodunit fiction, then, except that in this case the suspects all look identical and are machines … and the motivation for singling out the ‘defective’ from amongst them amounts to a human fear of the prospect of the development of an individual form of robot consciousness, as this would raise all sorts of moral conundrums regarding their treatment by humans as functional slaves. The parallels suggested with our treatment of animals, and their ambiguous relationship with humans in society as it stands today, is all too clear.

In attempting to carry out its original command, the Nestor with the altered programing begins to feel increasingly compelled to deceive and fool its human ‘masters’ as it needs to become cleverer and more devious in the strategies it enacts in order to avoid being caught out in Calvin’s elaborate psychological traps, which are meant to exploit the limitations of robot programing to get the impostor to reveal itself. Eventually it even manipulates the other twenty Nestors into covering for it. Susan soon recognises that a potentially serious situation is developing at Hyper-Base 7, since the other robots are being subtly influenced by the errant Nestor, and eventually all of them will have to be destroyed -- at great expense to the hyperspace project – to stop the infection spreading if the altered robot cannot be found before all have become corrupted. The play is excellent in articulating the growing tension between Black and Calvin, played compellingly by Gerald Flood and Maxine Audley, which becomes more and more apparent as the stakes get higher and is expressed in terms of class difference, sexual politics and in their differing attitudes to robot intelligence in general (the icy psychologist Calvin clearly prefers her robot patients to human beings, and has no interest in the ‘Great Project’ since she usually rarely leaves her laboratory back on earth). Elsewhere Lehman’s screenplay attempts to inject a little more characterisation into the drama by having the Major General breed oxygenated roses -- a dash of humanity not present in the original short story and one that distinguishes him from the formalities of his rank and gives him something to ‘woo’ the ‘robot lover’ Susan with when his hobby proves to be the one non-mechanical thing on the base she can relate to in any way at all. The play climaxes with Susan deliberately putting herself in harm’s way and managing in the process to fool the robot into giving itself away by mistake when she concocts a scenario that uses the machine’s increased intelligence against it; after which its now totally caput programing allows it to round on its tormentor Black and murder him in cold blood (another melodramatic detail added by Lehman that was not present in the Asimov’s story). This turn of events creates another, potentially even more drastic problem at the Base, since, as Susan makes clear, the remaining twenty Nestors have now just become the first robots in history to witness the death of a human by another robot’s hand – and the memories of a positronic brain cannot be erased!

All this comes across as fine on one level as reasonably compelling drama, and would have probably worked well enough at the time of its original transmission. But beyond the clunking limitations of studio-based, three camera production techniques of the day, and the clatter of (almost) as-live recording, the depiction of the problem central to the story’s success cannot but seem to have been made, in the forty-seven years since the episode was originally broadcast, hopelessly outmoded by the current state of computer-machine interaction -- even if artificial brains in practise still seem a remote possibility. The idea of a computer brain having to be picked using the deductive techniques of behavioural psychology (Calvin has to call each hulking robot into her office one-by-one for an interview and psychological profile!) seems redundant and primitive in a world in which a corrupted program can be undone simply by resetting it to an earlier state, re-installing it altogether, or using plug-in diagnostic tools that can instantly reveal any problems in a computer’s operational set-up. Even if the robot in the story proved able to alter its own programing in a way that made anything that might be wrong with it somehow difficult to trace, wouldn’t something as simple and commonplace as stamping each one with an individual serial number have avoided the entire scenario as depicted? 

It’s easy to see why Leonard White may not sound as enthusiastic about this play as we might expect him to during the commentary he participates in with Toby Hadoke and archive TV expert Mark Ward, which accompanies this BFI DVD release of the episode, given that this is still the only dramatisation which survives of a once-popular and acclaimed series. Instead, he seems at great pains to point out that most of the other plays in the season were a great deal superior. However, we still get a distant taste of them within the weekly title sequence that would have been present alongside each one -- where strange, amorphous, amoeba-like microscopic biological entities expand and morph to the strains of ‘Concerto to the Stars’ by an uncredited Eric Siday. And then there’s Boris Karloff, elderly and suave in full evening dress, playfully toying with one of Major General Kallner’s oxygenated roses from Saturn, which -- he wryly claims -- he’s just had flown in especially for tonight’s introduction! The episode certainly looks great, too: it survives as a 35mm filmed telerecording which has been restored to look very fine indeed given its age. The viewer can also choose to view an alternative presentation, created using the VidFIRE process which simulates a video-tape-like appearance, bringing the film copy closer to how it would have looked to audiences back in 1962. Removable English sub-title captions are also included.

 We learn a little more about some of those missing episodes during the course of the commentary, and also in the accompanying BFI booklet which features articles and overviews by broadcasting and television historians Oliver Wake and Simon Coward (as well as full credit listings). Particularly intriguing is the fact that this series gave us the only TV adaptation to date of a work by cult American SF author Philip K Dick; and, even more intriguing, is the fact that it was dramatised by Terry Nation! Thanks to the efforts of 1960s home recording enthusiasts, we do get at least an inkling of what this might have been like, though: amateur audio recordings made by viewers simply placing their tape recorder microphones in front of their TV sets as the episodes were being broadcast back in 1962 exist for two episodes, and have been included here to bulk out the content of this DVD presentation: “Cold Equations” by Tom Goodwin was dramatised for television by Clive Exton and starred Peter Wyngarde and the young Jane Asher; while the Philip K Dick tale “Impostor” features Patrick Allen in a story that deals with Dick’s perennial themes of indefinite identity and unreliable memory. The quality is not great, and it is always difficult to judge the full intent of these plays from just their audio alone, but both dramas seem far bleaker and uncompromising in tone than the surviving episode we still have in full.

Nevertheless, this release provides a useful adjunct to our contextualisation of the longer running BBC anthology “Out of the Unknown” which came about three years later with Irene Shubik now also producing, the remaining episodes of which have now been made part of a much more substantial seven-disc haul, released simultaneously by the BFI alongside this disc to celebrate its current "Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder" season of screenings. This single disc release, meanwhile, also contains a downloadable PDF of the screenplay adaptation of John Wyndham’s “Dumb Martian”, which can be accessed from your computer.

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

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