Monday, February 23, 2015

Out of the Unknown

I never saw any of Out of the Unknown, the BBC's somewhat trailblazing science fiction anthology series when it was first transmitted. It started in 1965 and presented a series of one-off plays, all with a science fiction theme, and written by some of the great writers of the time. Thus there is material by John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, William Tenn, Frederick Pohl and John Brunner all being adapted by playwrites like Stanley Miller, Jeremy Paul, Paul Erikson and J B Priestly ... such a thing does not exist on television these days, with all genre shows being series based and written by a small cabal of writers. But these are marvellous and magnificent achievements.

For a Doctor Who fan like myself, the delight is also in spotting the re-use of sound effects and music, plus many of the same actors as from the good Doctor's adventures ... and perhaps the best example of this in this set is the 1969 episode 'The Last Lonely Man' which is directed by Douglas Camfield, stars Peter Halliday, and has music by Don Harper - all the same as the Doctor Who story 'The Invasion' from 1968. A treat indeed.
Robots from 'The Prophet' which were later used in the
Doctor Who story 'The Mind Robber'.

This boxed set, produced by the BFI, is both a work of great passion, and at the same time, great disappointment. As was typical with BBC shows of the time, a great many of them have been wiped and destroyed, and thus we have a fairly limited selection to enjoy today. The four seasons break down as follows in terms of what exists and what has  been destroyed:

SEASON 1 - 10 Exist; 2 Destroyed
SEASON 2 - 4 Exist; 9 Destroyed
SEASON 3 - 1 Exists; 12 Destroyed
SEASON 4 - 5 Exist; 6 Destroyed

As you can see, it's a depressing showing. But the DVD release makes the most of what material does exist, with it being cleaned up and remastered. There are also several 'reconstructions', using the original soundtracks matched to stills from the episodes, but these make for hard viewing. A better approach is the one used for 'The Uninvited' where the soundtrack is matched with the camera script so you can read what is happening on screen. This one seems easier to follow than the others and could simply be down to a better quality soundtrack - some of the others are a little 'muddy'.

'The Machine Stops' one of the more famous episodes.
It is a shame though that seasons 3 and 4 are so underrepresented as the series underwent a major shift in direction with the move to colour. This coincided with creator Irene Shubik moving off and Alan Bromly taking over, and I'm not sure I like the results. Wheras the black and white science fiction of series 1 and 2 was all alien worlds, spacecraft, strange blonde young men, futuristic ideas and concepts and great effects and visualisation in studio, the colour series 4 episodes tend towards present day location work, and psychological dramas, household terrors and more mundane horrors. In fact the final season is closer to Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected and the Hammer House of Horror series than to anything science fiction or 'unknown' - but again this might be more because of what remains to be viewed than what the series was actually trying to achieve as a whole.

The comprehensive booklet of notes explains that Shubik was taken off after Series 2, but that she had commissioned all the scripts for Series 3 before her departure, and that it was Series 4 which had a darker more psychological remit. This seems to tally as the sole series 3 episode ('The Last Lonely Man') is one of the most enjoyable episodes on the collection, while the Series 4 episodes all seem strangely downbeat and samey.
George Cole and Peter Halliday in 'The Last Lonely Man'.

Whatever observations might be made of the content, the presentation of this set is brilliant. The episodes have been remastered and for the most part cleaned up and improved. There are reconstructions of several missing episodes, and party of one missing episode is included ('The Little Black Bag', half of which was found on an Engineering Training tape at BBC Glasgow!). There is a special documentary which interviews many surviving cast and crew members, and which also contains footage from other missing episodes, some of which have been colour-recovered. There are commentaries on many of the episodes too, and extensive stills galleries, so we can marvel and wonder at just what the lost episodes might have been like ... Just about every surviving element of Out of the Unknown is contained on the disk ... it's a labour of love for those involved in compiling it.

For fans of vintage television, and especially of the science fiction and horror genres, this is a must-have purchase. Enjoyable and thought provoking, even today, Out of the Unknown stands the test of time. It's just such a shame that so much has been lost.
The aliens from 'Beach Head' one of the missing episodes.

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