Out Of The Unknown was an anthology programme that ran for four series between 1965 and 1971. Whilst the majority of the episodes were adaptations of already published stories, others (particularly those in the fourth series) were original works.
The first three series concentrated on science fiction stories, whilst the fourth and final series had a broader remit – covering psychological horror and supernatural themes.
Like most programmes of the era, many episodes were wiped following transmission. Of the 49 episodes, only 20 now remain complete in the archive. In addition to this, a thirty minute section of The Little Black Bag exists, whilst there are shorter clips from The Fox and the Forest, Andover and the Android, Satisfaction Guaranteed, Liar! and The Last Witness. Complete audio soundtracks also exist for The Naked Sun, Beach Head, The Yellow Pill and The Uninvited.
With a seven disc DVD due to be released shortly by the BFI, this would seem to be a good time to take a brief look at the production history of the series.
Irene Shubik had joined ABC Television in 1960, working as a story editor on Armchair Theatre under producer Sydney Newman. Both were keen on producing a SF version of Armchair Theatre, so Out Of This World was born. It was transmitted on ABC in 1962 and was presented by Boris Karloff with Leonard White producing and Shubik acting as story editor.
Like the later Out Of The Unknown, the series was a mixture of adaptations and new stories. Short stories were adapted from writers including Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and Clifford D. Simak. The series was also noteworthy for including the first original SF script from a young Welsh writer called Terry Nation. A year later he would contribute the second story to a new Saturday tea-time series for BBC1 called Doctor Who, and his creations – The Daleks – would remain iconic figures to this day.
Shortly after the transmission of Out Of This World, Sydney Newman moved to the BBC to take up the post as Head of Drama. He would take many colleagues from ABC with him, including Shubik. Shubik agreed to move provided she was promoted to producer within a year. Newman agreed, and Shubik joined the BBC in 1963.
Her first job was as story editor on Story Parade. This was designed to be the main drama strand on the new channel, BBC2, and was an anthology series that adapted some popular modern novels. One of the best received episodes was a dramatisation of Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel starring Peter Cushing. The success of this led to Shubik’s opportunity to create a new SF series, Out Of The Unknown, for which she would be both story editor and producer. George Spenton-Foster would act as associate producer.
Shubik was quickly to find that sourcing acceptable material was something of a problem. She was later to say that in order to select a dozen stories she had to read hundreds more. And even when Shubik found a story that she considered worthy of adaptation, the problems were far from over. Sometimes it was impossible to agree terms with the author or the copyright holders or it could be that the concepts would be impossible to realise on the available budget.
John Carnell, founder of the SF magazine New Worlds was a valuable contact. He suggested many stories and authors for Shubik to investigate. She also had many thoughts of her own, one tantalising possibility – sadly never realised – was the idea to approach Nigel Kneale to request a new Quatermass story.
After all the sifting of material, Shubik had assembled a series of twelve stories. Ten were adaptations of existing material with two original scripts.
The first series was broadcast between October and December 1965. The episodes listed in bold are the ones that exist in the archives.
101 “No Place Like Earth” by John Wyndham, adapted by Stanley Miller
102 “The Counterfeit Man” by Alan Nourse, adapted by Philip Broadley
103 “Stranger in the Family” by David Campton
104 “The Dead Past” by Isaac Asimov, adapted by Jeremy Paul
105 “Time in Advance” by William Tenn, adapted by Paul Erickson
106 “Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…?” by Mike Watts
107 “Sucker Bait” by Isaac Asimov, adapted by Meade Roberts
108 “The Fox and the Forest” by Ray Bradbury, adapted by Terry Nation
109 “Andover and the Android” by Kate Wilhelm, adapted by Bruce Stewart
110 “Some Lapse of Time” by John Brunner, adapted by Leon Griffiths
111 “Thirteen to Centaurus” by J. G. Ballard, adapted by Stanley Mille
112 “The Midas Plague” by Frederik Pohl, adapted by Troy Kennedy Martin
There was some debate as to which was the better story to open the series with. Whilst The Counterfeit Man by Alan Nourse was considered to be a strong episode, No Place Like Earth was adapted from a tale by the respected writer John Wyndham. Newman decided to lead with the Wyndham, which was essentially two individual Wyndham stories joined together to produce the final programme.
The critical response was poor, with The Times writing that although there was a clear social message, the story moved: “so extremely slowly and with heavily sententious dialogue underlining what is perfectly clear without its assistance.”
The second episode, The Counterfeit Man, gained more positive reviews, which seemed to confirm that it would have been sensible to debut with this story. The Guardian wrote that: “this space crew was one of the most original and well-executed ideas I have seen on television.”
After its fairly uncertain start, both the critical response and the ratings had picked up, so that by the time the final episode was transmitted, Out Of The Unknown was BBC2’s second most popular drama programme, after the US import The Virginian.
As with the first series, Shubik made extensive research to locate suitable stories. Whilst in the US, she placed an advertisement in the Science Fiction Writers Association magazine requesting suitable stories. This yielded a response from Larry Eisenberg, who had two of his stories adapted. Another two Isaac Asimov stories were tackled and there were three original scripts – by Hugh Leonard, Hugh Whitmore and William Trevor.
Probably the most critically acclaimed script from series two was The Machine Stops, adapted from the story by E.M. Forster. Directed by Philip Saville, Shubik later called it “the most complex and technically demanding script I have ever had in my hands”.
The hard work paid off as the story garnered impressive reviews as well as first prize at the International Science Fiction Film Festival in 1967.
The second series was broadcast between October 1966 and January 1967. Surviving stories are highlighted in bold.
201 “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster, adapted by Kenneth Cavender & Clive Donner
202 “Frankenstein Mark II” by Hugh Whitmore
203 “Lambda 1” by Colin Kapp, adapted by Bruce Stewart
204 “Level Seven” by Mordecai Roshwald, adapted by J. B. Priestley
205 “Second Childhood” by Hugh Leonard
206 “The World in Silence” by John Rankine, adapted by Robert Gould
207 “The Eye” by Henry Kuttner, adapted by Stanley Miller
208 “Tunnel Under the World” by Frederik Pohl, adapted by David Campton
209 “The Fastest Draw” by Larry Eisenberg, adapted by Hugh Whitmore
210 “Too Many Cooks” by Larry Eisenberg, adapted by Hugh Whitmore
211 “Walk’s End” by William Trevor
212 “Satisfaction Guaranteed” by Isaac Asimov, adapted by Hugh Leonard
213 “The Prophet” by Isaac Asimov, adapted by Robert Muller
Series opener, The Machine Stops, is one of the highlights from across all four series of Out Of The Unknown. In the far future, all of humankind’s needs are catered for by “the machine”. Each individual leads a solitary life, although they are connected to each other via the machine. Some have begun to defy the machine, but would would happen if it stopped working?
Another surviving episode, Level Seven, has impeccable credentials. It was adapted by the celebrated playwright, J.B. Priestley, from the novel by Mordecai Roshwald. It was also the first of two episodes to be directed by Rudolph Cartier and ran for an extra ten minutes. The Level Seven of the title is the lowest level of an underground nuclear bunker, where following an atomic attack the inhabitants of the bunker have no other option but to wait for the radiation to seep down to them. The Listener wrote that: “the tension was inescapable, the excitement incontestable.”
It’s a pity that so much of the second series is missing, including the two Asimov adaptations. The Prophet, starring Beatrix Lehman as Dr Susan Calvin sounds particularly intriguing – but we should be thankful The Machine Stops and Level Seven escaped the archive purges.
In 1967 Shubik was offered the co-producership of BBC1’s prestigious Wednesday Play. Alan Bromley was appointed producer for the third series of Out Of The Unknown, with Roger Parkes as script editor. The majority of the stories had already been commissioned by Shubik (back in 1966) so that when production began in earnest in early 1968, Bromley and Parkes largely confined themselves to polishing the stories that were already in place. It wouldn’t be until the fourth and final series that they would make their creative mark.
Notable adaptations from the third series included several more stories from Isaac Asimov. One of them, The Naked Sun, was the sequel to The Caves of Steel, which had been dramatised for Story Parade back in 1963. Clifford B. Simak and John Wyndham were two other popular writers who had their stories adapted whilst there were three original scripts – from Donald Bull, Brian Hayles and Michael Ashe.
The third series was broadcast between January and April 1969. The sole existing story is highlighted in bold, whilst approximately half of The Little Black Bag also exists.
301 “Immortality, Inc.” by Robert Sheckley, adapted by Jack Pulman
302 “Liar!” by Isaac Asimov, adapted by David Campton
303 “The Last Lonely Man” by John Brunner, adapted by Jeremy Paul
304 “Beach Head” by Clifford D. Simak, adapted by Robert Muller
305 “Something in the Cellar” by Donald Bull
306 “Random Quest” by John Wyndham, adapted by Owen Holder
307 “The Naked Sun” by Isaac Asimov, adapted by Robert Muller
308 “The Little Black Bag” by C. M. Kornbluth, adapted by Julian Bond
309 “1+1=1.5” by Brian Hayles
310 “The Fosters” by Michael Ashe
311 “Target Generation” by Clifford D. Simak, adapted by Clive Exton
312 “The Yellow Pill” by Rog Phillips, adapted by Leon Griffiths
313 “Get Off My Cloud” by Peter Phillips, adapted by David Climie
Amongst the wiped stories are some interesting sounding tales, like Beach Head, which featured Ed Bishop and some impressive sets as well as Brian Hayles’ 1 + 1 = 1.5. This is set in the early 21st century where the population is strictly limited, so there is embarrassment when the wife of a population officer becomes pregnant for the second time, despite being licenced for only one child.
The only story that survives complete from this series is The Last Lonely Man by John Brunner, adapted by Jeremy Paul. In the future, those close to death can choose to transfer their memories to a relative or a friend. But Patrick (Peter Halliday) appears to be friendless and unloved, so what can he do?
The final story of series three sounds particularly intriguing. Get Off My Cloud tells the story of SF writer Marsham Craswell (Peter Jeffrey) who has had a nervous breakdown and is lying inert in a hospital bed. To bring him back to reality, the doctors use a new device that links Craswell’s mind with that of Peter Parnell (Donal Donnelly). Together they join forces to battle the demons in Craswell’s mind.
After a two year gap, Out Of The Unknown would return for a final series.
In many ways the fourth and final series bore little resemblance to the previous three series. Alan Bromley was of the opinion that in the aftermath of the early Moon landings: “just setting a story somewhere in space is not the automatic thrill it once was.”
Rather than SF, series four would concentrate on stories of psychological suspense and only one episode, Deathday, was an adaptation of an existing work – the remainder were original stories.
The fourth series was broadcast between April and June 1971. Existing stories are highlighted in bold.
401 “Taste of Evil” by John Wiles
402 “To Lay A Ghost” by Michael J. Bird
403 “This Body Is Mine” by John Tully
404 “Deathday” by Angus Hall, adapted by Brian Hayles
405 “The Sons and Daughters of Tomorrow” by Edward Boyd
406 “Welcome Home” by Moris Farhi
407 “The Last Witness” by Martin Worth
408 “The Man in My Head” by John Wiles
409 “The Chopper” by Nigel Kneale
410 “The Uninvited” by Michael J. Bird
411 “The Shattered Eye” by David T. Chantler
Some viewers were dismayed by the move away from SF and there’s no denying that the results were pretty mixed. With 5 of the 11 episodes existing, we have a fairly good cross section of stories in which to judge the series overall.
Best of what remains is The Man In My Head by John Wiles. Set at some point in the future, a group of soldiers are carrying out a mission of sabotage. They don’t know exactly who they are fighting or why, because their instructions have been subliminally implanted and are triggered by radio impulses. As the debate of brainwashing soldiers in Vietnam was still very current, this was a story that is certainly in tune with the times.
Right at the other end of the scale is To Lay A Ghost by Michael J. Bird. This story has long been a topic of debate and it will be interesting to see how it is received once it is more widely available via the DVD. Newly-married Eric Carver (Iain Gregory) and Diana (Lesley-Anne Down) move into their dream-house, but there seems to be something wrong.
Diana has been traumatised after being raped as a schoolgirl, and whilst their relationship has never been physical, Eric is patient and loving. When strange things happen in their new house, Eric calls in para-psychologist Dr Phillimore (Peter Barkworth) who concludes that the house is haunted by the ghost of a murderer and rapist and that Diana’s own repressed sexual desires have summoned the ghost. Therefore we are left with the impression that Diana can only gain sexual gratification via rape, which is pretty distasteful.
It’s a shame that this story exists, but that Nigel Kneale’s “The Chopper” – starring Patrick Troughton – doesn’t. Garage owner Jimmy (Troughton) converts motorbikes into choppers and has just done so with one that was mangled after a nasty accident. The spirit of the dead owner is reluctant to leave the bike though, and is keen on wreaking as much destruction as possible.
With less than half the episodes from the four series existing, it sometimes can be difficult to assess exactly how good the series was. From what exists, there are certainly some quality productions as well as some more plodding ones.
The forthcoming DVD should allow a fuller reassessment of what remains, as the copies which have been in circulation for the last few decades are mostly fairly poor quality, with some of them being timecoded dubs from the original BBC master tapes.
The DVD copies will, of course, offer a substantial increase in picture quality. So when we can clearly see and hear the story, some editions may be more warmly received!
It is a shame that some of the more intriguing episodes are lost – such as Asimov’s The Naked Sun (along with virtually the rest of the third series) and Nigel Kneale’s original script for series four.
But what we do have is a pretty decent collection of stories, although heavily concentrated on the first series (ten episodes exist from series one with the remaining ten episodes drawn from series two – four).
With so many BBC programmes languishing in the archive, it’s wonderful to see the time and care taken by the BFI to release this and with a good collection of supplementary features to compliment the stories. Hopefully sales will be healthy which maybe will allow other treasures to be released in the future.