Out of the Unknown – The Little Black Bag

black bag

Story by Cyril M. Kornbluth, Adapted by Julian Bond
Directed by Eric Hills

Roger Full (Emrys Jones) used to be a doctor before he was struck off for killing a patient whilst under the influence of alcohol.  He’s still an alcoholic – but when a mysterious medical kit falls into his hands, he sees it as a way to make amends for his past misdeeds.

The black bag has accidentally travelled back in time from the far future.  It’s an amazing device, able to cure any known disease.  Roger comes to believe that it should be used for the benefit of all, although his business partner Angie (Geraldine Moffat) disagrees and their argument will have consequences for both of them …..

The Little Black Bag was written by Cyril M. Kornbluth and was originally published in 1950. Approximately twenty eight minutes of footage from this episode of OOTU exist – comprising scenes 9 – 23. There are 26 scenes in total, so both the beginning and the end of the play are sadly missing.

The material missing at the start is mainly concerned with revealing how the black bag was transported back in time. Mike (James Chase) is demonstrating a time machine that he’s built to Dr Gillis (Robert Dean) and Dr Hemingway (Dennis Bowen). After Mike leaves, the two Doctors decide to test it and place their medical kit inside. The bag duly vanishes, but then they realise they can’t get it back – and neither can Mike, since the time machine only works one way.

The missing material from the start of the story isn’t summarised on the DVD, which is a bit of a shame – although it’s fairly easy to pick up the thread of the story, as there are later scenes set in the future where they discuss the bag. Instead, the DVD version opens with a drunken Full being plied with drinks by Angie, who sees him as someone who can make her very rich.

Emrys Jones and Geraldine Moffat are centre-stage in this story and both give strong performances. Jones (who had played the Master in the Doctor Who story The Mind Robber the previous year) is convincing as a man who sees the bag as a chance to make amends for his past. Moffat contrasts nicely, as his partner who is only interested in profit (humanitarian gestures aren’t really her thing).

A brief audio clip from the closing moments of the story exists and this (together with reused video clips) have been used in order to create an ending. It’s a bit abrupt, but it does give a good idea of how the story concluded.

Next Up – The Yellow Pill

Out of the Unknown – The Naked Sun

naked

Story by Isaac Asimov, Adapted by Robert Muller
Directed by Rudolph Cartier

Earth detective Elijah Baley (Paul Maxwell) and his robot colleague R. Daneel Olivaw (David Collings) are sent to Solaria to investigate a murder.  Nothing unusual there, you may think, but Solaria is a closed community, with a deep distrust of Earth.  They also despise personal contact, preferring to communicate only by holographic projections.  And as Baley is unable to speak to anybody in person, this makes the case much harder …..

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov was originally published in 1957.  It was the second of Asimov’s robot novels, following the publication of The Caves of Steel in 1954.  Like the first book, The Naked Sun is a detective novel with a SF setting, so Robert Muller’s adaptation had to balance the dual themes of science fiction and detective fiction.

The taboos of the Solarian society are quite interesting, but they feel a little underdeveloped (probably due to the problems in reducing the novel down to a 50 minute television play).  The whodunnit part of the story works better, although again, given the limited time there’s not really the space to examine in detail the motives of all the possible suspects.

Paul Maxwell sounds pretty good as Bailey and the ever-reliable David Collings (last seen in Level Seven) does a decent job as Daneel, even though his part feels a little underwritten – there’s only a few occasions when the fact he’s a robot comes into play, for example.

The Naked Sun has a very strong supporting cast (Frederick Jaeger, Ronald Leigh-Hunt, Neil Hallett, Erik Chitty, amongst others) but the paucity of available photographs means that they tend to be somewhat anonymous.  Because of the lack of photos, composite images have been created (where the image of a character is overlaid onto a newly created background).  And since no pictures of certain actors (like Neil Hallett) exist from this story, headshots of them (from other productions) have been inserted into the new backgrounds.  This does mean that Hallett’s head is rather obviously perched on top of someone else’s body, which is a little distracting.

The audio isn’t too bad, although a little indistinct in places.  There are a few sections where no audio exists – so subtitles help to explain what’s happening during those parts.

Due to the lack of photographic material and the compromised audio, this is a slightly harder viewing experience than Beach Head and it’s undeniable that some of the complexity of Asimov’s original novel has had to be sacrificed in order to cut it down to a 50 minute teleplay.

Next Up – The Little Black Bag

Out of the Unknown – Beach Head

beach

Story by Clifford D Simak, Adapted by Robert Muller
Directed by James Cellan Jones

Tom Decker (Ed Bishop) is a veteran of space exploration and at first, planet 0243/B seems to be just another regular mission.  0243/B is the 37th such planet that Decker has landed on, and on all the previous planetfalls he says that there has been “no discovery, no phenomenon, that has not had a logical or a technological cause or explanation”.

The job of Decker and his crew is to land, establish a Beach Head (a protective ring of steel) and then collect data about the planet which is then transmitted back to Earth.  But things begin to go awry after Decker starts to act oddly, which concerns Dr Jackson (Helen Downing).  Then the crew encounter a native life-form, who tells them that “You cannot leave. You will never leave. You will die here”.

Beach Head by Clifford D. Simak was originally published in 1951 as You’ll Never Go Home Again.  In many ways it works as a dark precursor of Star Trek.  Unlike Star Trek, the crew here are unable to deal with the “strange new world” which helps to highlight that the universe is a dangerous place and human intelligence won’t always win through.

Thanks to his starring role in UFO I’ve always loved Ed Bishop and one of the chief pleasures of Beach Head is Bishop’s portrayal of Decker’s gradual disintegration.  I can’t put my hand on my heart and claim that Bishop was always the most subtle or nuanced of actors, but his performance works here, where probably a more naturalistic interpretation would have been less effective.

When the BFI announced they were releasing Out of the Unknown, it was a six disc set with no special features and no remastering.  Very quickly, they received a number of emails from people (like myself) who were pleased to hear that this classic series was finally getting an official release, but also asking if the various clips and audios which existed could be included.

The BFI were also contacted by professionals, such as members of the Restoration Team who had worked on the Classic Doctor Who DVDs (they were able to do a very decent clean-up job on the episodes).  Toby Hadoke contacted them on spec to see if they were interested in commentaries – the BFI were, and within a very short space of time Hadoke (and producer John Kelly) had pulled together an incredibly impressive list of commentators on a number of episodes.

If all this wasn’t enough (as well as a new documentary) the set includes four reconstructions of missing episodes, of which Beach Head is the first.  All four were created by Derek Handley and like all the other special features they had to be produced within a remarkably short time.

Given the time-frame, it’s a very impressive effort.  The number of publicity photographs that exist of Beach Head isn’t particularly large, so the same shots do have to be repeated again and again, but after a while the quality of the story carries you along – so this isn’t a problem.  The story also benefits from CGI work by Stuart Palmer, which helps to fill in some of the more visual sections of the soundtrack.

As for the soundtrack itself, it’s of pretty good quality.  It appears to be a microphone recording rather than direct input (so there are background noises on occasion) but given that until fairly recently it was believed that only a thirty second audio clip existed, the inclusion of a full audio is one of the many highlights of the DVD.

Whilst no recon can ever hope to totally recreate the original broadcast, Derek Handley’s reconstruction of Beach Head does give a very good impression of what it was like and whilst some people may find the reuse of stills to be a problem, it’s worth persevering with as it’s a chilling story, enlivened by Ed Bishop’s performance.

Next Up – The Naked Sun

Out of the Unknown – The Last Lonely Man

last

Story by John Brunner, Adapted by Jeremy Paul
Directed by Douglas Camfield

In the future, death no longer holds the same fear that it used to.  Now when people die, their personality and life experience are automatically transferred into the mind of a nominated host.  James Hale (George Cole) is a devoted family man with a wife and two children who’s already become the host of his late father’s personality (which he sometimes has to battle against) and he’s a staunch advocate of the process – known as Contact.

So when he meets Patrick Wilson (Peter Halliday) in a bar and learns that Patrick doesn’t have Contact with anyone he agrees to “take him on until he can can get fixed up with a friend”.  But soon it transpires that Patrick has had Contact with many people – all of whom terminated their link once they became aware of exactly what sort of person he was.  James attempts to do the same, but he’s too late – Patrick shoots himself and all of his thoughts are instantly transferred to James, who starts to act in a very uncharacteristic manner …..

The Last Lonely Man by John Brunner was originally published in 1964.  It was the second story by Brunner to be adapted for OOTU (following Some Lapse of Time from series one).  The Last Lonely Man is certainly the lesser of the two tales, as whilst it has an interesting premise the logical flaws are very apparent.

It is addressed in the story, but the notion of people inheriting multiple personalities is a bizarre one.  It must surely lead to schizophrenia or as in James’ case, we see his warm and friendly personality submerged by the less attractive characteristics of Patrick.  That’s the crux of the story, but his experience can hardly be an isolated case, can it?

There’s another odd scene where James and his wife Rowena (June Barry) go the cinema to see a film which was made in pre-Contact days.  Everybody (including James and Rowena) roar with laughter at the scenes of people dying – presumably because their thoughts wouldn’t be transferred to somebody else.  This just rings false – it’s difficult to accept that people’s personalities would change so much that they’d find death to be amusing.  There seems to be a satirical point that’s being made, but it doesn’t come over that well.

The Last Lonely Man was directed by Douglas Camfield, one of British television’s finest television directors between the mid 1960’s and the mid 1980’s.  But apart from a very striking opening sequence shot on film where we see a couple killed in a car accident (which we later learn was a government information film) there’s not a great deal of opportunity for Camfield to produce anything that noteworthy.

The rest of the story is studio-bound and fairly low-budget (the Contact machine looks uncomfortably like a hairdryer, for example) so it’s pretty much rescued by the cast.  George Cole (already a familiar face from films and television but still a decade away from his career-defining role in Minder) gives a fine performance as a decent, family man whose only mistake is to try and help someone.

Peter Halliday (cast a year earlier by Camfield in the Doctor Who story The Invasion) does play broader, but given that there had to be a clear divide between James and Patrick that’s reasonable enough.

Although the story doesn’t make much sense, it’s still worth a look for Cole’s performance.  However, given the range of stories that were made during the third series, it’s a bit of a shame that this is the only one to exist in its entirety.

Next Up – Beach Head

Out of the Unknown – Tunnel Under The World

tunnel

Story by Frederik Pohl, Adapted by David Campton
Directed by Alan Cooke

When Guy Birkett (Ronald Hines) and his wife Mary (Petra Davies) wake up they are perturbed to find that they’ve had the same nightmare about being caught up in a huge explosion.  They dismiss it as a strange coincidence and attempt to enjoy their breakfast.  But it’s difficult for them to find any peace and quiet since they’re constantly interrupted by annoying advertising jingles from a variety of sources (on the radio, via the post and from loudspeakers attached to cars).

The odd thing is that whilst today is June the 15th, the next day is June the 15th again. So we see the Birketts repeat everything they did the previous day (although they’re unaware of this).  And the next day is June the 15th once more.  Eventually, thanks to the intervention of Swanson (Timothy Bateson), Guy learns the horrifying truth.

The Tunnel under the World was a short story by Frederik Pohl which was originally published in 1954. Like many of the story themes adapted for OOTU, the concept of this story (annoying advertising) is just as valid today as it was in 1954 or back in 1966, when this episode was transmitted.

The various products – Chocobites, Marlin cigarettes, Frosty Flip, Feckle Freezers, Crunchipops – all have catchy slogans, catchy jingles or unique selling points (for example, Marlin cigarettes contain a special anti-cough ingredient!).

Ronald Hines (a familiar television face from the sixties) is perfect casting as the cog in the wheel who rebels. And Timothy Bateson (always such a dependable performer during numerous decades of television and film appearances) gives another good turn here, as the man who helps Birkett to understand exactly what’s happening to all of them.

The twist ending (indeed the double twist ending) is one which I doubt many would have predicted on their first viewing. There’s also a robot which pops up at the end and is, interesting, shall we say – but it doesn’t really derail the story (by this point the viewer might expect almost anything to happen).

A biting satire about advertising and big-business, Tunnel Under The World is a more outlandish and fantastic story than the hard-SF stories which make up most of the extant episodes from the first two series.  Given the depleted nature of series two, it’s a story that I’m happy escaped the archive purges.

Next Up – The Last Lonely Man

Out of the Unknown – Level Seven

level

Story by Mordecai Roshwald, Adapted by J.B. Priestley
Directed by Rudolph Cartier

Level Seven is 4,500 feet beneath the Earth’s surface and it’s designed to be the last line of attack in the event of a nuclear war.  Above them are six other levels – the first four are for civilians, the fifth is for the Government, scientists and the military whilst the sixth houses Defence Command.

X127 (Keith Buckley) is one of a select number of operatives charged with pushing the buttons that will release the missiles of death and destruction on the enemy.  X117 (David Collings) works alongside him, but questions the reason for Level Seven’s existence.  Whilst X117 runs foul of the authorities, X127 has met and married R747 (Michele Dotrice).

Eventually the order to attack is given and X127 and the new X117 (Sean Arnold) fire every last missile.  The General (Anthony Bate) tells them that the war is over and they’ve won – but what price victory?  Slowly it becomes apparent that everybody in the world is dead or dying and whilst it was predicted that Level Seven would be immune, that isn’t the case.  There is no hope at all, so all they can do is to wait for the inevitable end.

Level 7 was a novel by Mordecai Roshwald which was published in 1959. Shortly after its publication it attracted the attention of J.B. Priestley who called it “‘the most powerful attack on the whole nuclear madness that any creative writer has made so far”. Priestley began work on a script for a proposed film, but for various reasons the film wasn’t made, so his screenplay was adapted for this episode of OOTU.

It goes without saying that it’s fascinating to have a writer of Priestley’s stature contributing to OOTU. Priestley’s abhorrence of nuclear weapons was well known (he was an active CND member) and in the play this is best given voice by a man and woman who venture up to the surface after the attack and report back to Level Seven what they’ve seen.

So listen to us, you people down there in the caves.  There’s nothing to see here, but twisted metal and radio-active dust.  Nothing, no birds are singing.  No flowers growing, no trees, no fields.  No men, no women, no children.  Bare burnt earth, tortured metal, murderous dust.  Nothing to see, nothing to hope for, nothing to love.  The world is like a scorched ship, abandoned by the crew.  It still revolves.  There’s day and night, sun, moon and stars, but that’s all.

Keith Buckley and Michele Dotrice are both very good as the lovers who end up as the last people alive in Level Seven.  Even better though, is David Collings as X117.  Collings would make a habit of playing characters who have some flaw in their character which proves to be their undoing – and so it was here.  X117 is eventually removed from his position due to insubordination and when we see him later he’s been reduced to working as a member of the cleaning staff and unable to remember X127 and the events that led to his “treatment”.

Anthony Bate gives a typically solid performance as the base commander, the General.  The General has an unswerving belief in the right of his side in any war and the cracks only start to appear when he realises that everybody in Levels One – Six are dead and that maybe victory over a dead planet was no victory at all.

Level Seven was directed by the legendary Rudolph Cartier.  Cartier had produced and directed Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass trilogy during the 1950’s and the two had also collaborated on the acclaimed adaptation of Nineteen Eighty Four in 1954.  As with Quatermass, Cartier favoured music from The Planets Suite by Holst (the inclusion of excerpts from Mars, Bringer of War were particularly apt).

There are lengthy film sequences throughout the episode, probably to show the large number of people working in Level Seven (we tend to only see the full compliment of crew on film).  The substantial amount of filming helps to give the story an extra sheen and given the involvement of Priestley/Cartier it’s possibly not surprising that the production team pulled out all the stops to make this as good as they possibly could.

Level Seven was a missing episode for decades and was only returned to the BBC relatively recently.  We can be thankful that it was recovered – as it’s a powerful anti-war story dramatised by one of the greatest British playwrights of the 20th century.

Next Up – Tunnel Under The World

Out of the Unknown – Lambda 1

lambda

Story by Colin Kapp, Adapted by Bruce Stewart
Directed by George Spenton-Foster

In the future, conventional travel has been rendered obsolete by the TAU craft.  It doesn’t travel on or above the Earth’s surface – instead it travels through it.  The TAU craft operates under four atomic modes – Gamma, Delta, Epsilon & Omega – with Gamma being the safest and Omega the most dangerous.

A routine passenger craft (the Elektron) slips into Omega mode and becomes trapped in solid rock with seemingly no means of escape.  UK TAU controller Paul Porter (Sebastian Breaks) has a personal stake in ensuring the craft is recovered – his wife Julie (Kate Story) is aboard.  So Porter is persuaded by Eric Benedict (Ronald Lewis) to pilot the Lambda 1 craft on a hazardous rescue mission.

Lambda 1 is something of a shambles.  There’s the germ of a good idea but the production is so flawed that it only works intermittently.  At the start of the story we’re given a great deal of information about the TAU system, the various atomic modes it uses and are introduced to numerous characters.  The problem is that there’s too much information and too many characters – so there’s not a great deal that makes a lasting impression.

As time goes on it becomes clear that Paul Porter will become an important character, but it’s not initially obvious that he’s based in the UK and isn’t on the stricken ship.  Although the action cuts back between the ship and the UK command base, it takes a while to differentiate between the two.

Charles Tingwell is good as the boozy Captain Dantor and Michael Lees is quite effective as a twitchy passenger, Ferris, but the rest of the cast don’t make much of an impression.  George Spenton-Foster’s direction is somewhat loose – cues are late, the camera positions are sometimes a little off and there are occasions when a retake would have really helped the production.

The sequences when Porter enters Omega mode and is beset by strange hallucinations work very well and they’re easily the best part of the story.  But the problems with the script, direction and performances do tend to dissipate the audience’s goodwill, so that by the end it’s difficult to imagine many people will really care about the fate of the ship and its passengers.

Certainly one of the least engaging of the surviving episodes, Lambda 1 was probably a victim of its own ambition.  By over-reaching, it ends up as a rather unsatisfying experience.

Next up – Level Seven