Out of the Unknown – Stranger In The Family

stranger

Written by David Compton
Directed by Alan Bridges

Charles Wilson (Peter Copley) stands at the window of his flat, his eighteen year-old son by his side.  Wilson tells him that “down there swarm the ordinary millions. When they stumble across anything they are not used to they panic, they destroy”.

Wilson’s son, known simply as “Boy” (played by Richard O’Callaghan) is the thing they would seek to destroy.  Boy is a mutant – he possesses amazing mental powers which allow him to read minds and command anybody to instantly obey his will.  Because of these gifts, his parents are forced to move him from place to place whenever anybody becomes suspicious.

But it seems that wherever they go, they will always attract attention.  Brown (John Paul) has moved into the flat next door and seems very intersted in Boy.  It becomes clear very quickly that he’s part of a team (headed by Evans, played by Jack May) who have a very definite interest in him.  Then Boy becomes infatuated with Paula (Justine Lord), a beautiful young actress, but she also has her own agenda.  Will he be able to control himself or will they all push him into terrible acts?

After two futuristic tales, OOTU came back to contemporary Earth with a bump.  Although the majority of stories from the first three series were adaptations of existing material, there were also several original ones – of which this, written by David Compton, was the first.

It’s a pity that the original film inserts no longer exist, as this renders the opening sequences (where we see Boy wandering the streets pursued by a mysterious stranger) somewhat indistinct.  Richard O’Callaghan (the son of Patricia Hayes) is engaging as the confused, gentle Boy who has powers that he sometimes finds difficult to control.

John Paul (later to star in Doomwatch) is smooth as the mysterious Brown, whilst his future Doomwatch co-star Joby Blanshard also appears (he’s the unfortunate Hall who’s forced into the path of a lorry by Boy).  Brown blames Boy for Hall’s death and becomes increasingly antagonistic towards him.

As might be expected, the ending is pretty downbeat.  Featuring few science fiction trappings, this operates much more as a slice of contemporary drama (although there is a slightly surreal edge to Alan Bridges’ direction, as he tends to focus things from Boy’s point of view – best seen in the opening film sequences).

Whilst this does feel a little drawn out at just under 60 minutes, the quality of the cast (Richard O’Callaghan, John Paul, Peter Copley and Justine Lord amongst others) helps to maintain the impetus of the episode.

Next Up – The Dead Past

Out of the Unknown – The Dead Past

dead

Story by Isaac Asimov, Adapted by Jeremy Paul
Directed by John Gorrie

Although time-travel is impossible, the chronoscope is the next best thing – as it allows the user to focus in on events from the past.  The problem is that there’s only one such device in existence and its use is strictly regulated by the authorities.  Historian Arnold Potterley (George Benson) has been waiting two years to use it in order to study his special area of research (Ancient Carthage) but he’s finally been refused permission by Thaddeus Araman (David Langton).

Potterley rails against the walls of government bureaucracy built by men like Araman, so he decides to find somebody to build him a personal chronoscope.  Jonas Foster (James Maxwell) does so, but the results are far from what Potterley and Foster expected ….

The Dead Past, originally published in 1956, quickly became a favourite amongst Asimov’s readership (and it was also well regarded by Asimov himself).  This, plus the fact that it could be made with a small cast and a handful of sets, obviously ensured it was an ideal candidate for Out of the Unknown.

It’s very much a story of ideas and not action so it may not hold the attention of everybody.  But the cast help to bring the story to life – particularly David Langton, Sylvia Coleridge and Willoughby Goddard.

Langton (best known for his role in Upstairs Downstairs) is very good as the bureaucrat who may not be quite as faceless as he seems. Coleridge plays Arnold Potterley’s wife and whilst Potterley wishes to use the chronoscope to delve into the mysteries of the ancient past, she wants to go back twenty years or so to see their dead child. Coleridge’s performance in those scenes is heartbreaking.  Goddard (complete with cloak and eye-patch) provides some welcome comic relief.

The twist in the tale brings this thoughtful, reflective story to a satisfying conclusion.

Next Up – Time In Advance

Out of the Unknown – Time in Advance

time

Story By William Tenn, Adapted by Paul Erickson
Directed by Peter Sasdy

Nick Crandall (Edward Judd) and Otto Henck (Mike Pratt) are pre-criminals, who have returned to Earth after serving seven years hard labour on a variety of dangerous, frontier worlds.  Pre-criminals are people who have confessed to criminal intent – and once they’ve served their sentence they’re allowed to murder one man or one woman.

Crandall wishes to kill Frederick Stephenson, the man who stole his invention and cheated him out of a fortune, whilst Henck has been waiting seven years to murder his two-timing wife.  But things don’t turn out quite the way they planned  ….

Time In Advance was a short story, originally published in 1956, by the British-born author Philip Klass (writing under the pseudonym of William Tenn).  The concept of state-legislated murder is a dramatically interesting one, so it was just the sort of story that producer and story editor Irene Shubik was looking for.

Edward Judd, who had a long acting career, is very solid as Crandall.  It’s very much his story and he’s able to give his character a little depth and motivation so that by the end you do actually care about his fate.  Pratt (best known for his role as Jeff Randall in Randall and Hopkirk) plays second fiddle throughout most of the episode, although he does have a key scene at the end.  Henck’s constant wittering about how he wants to kill his wife can get a little tiresome, so it’s harder to emphasise with him.

This is a story that goes all out to depict the far future and it’s either a noble effort or somewhat embarrassing (depending on how forgiving you are of mid 1960’s low-budget sci-fi).  Although OOTU was a prestige series, it’s easy to imagine that most of the money went on locating and paying the copyrights for the stories as the production values are, at times, a little threadbare.

The squeezy-bottle spaceship has to be seen to be believed (in fact, I’ve seen it – but I still don’t believe it) and other things (such as the visu-phone) do look incredibly clunky to modern eyes.  And this production is similar to The Counterfeit Man in that everybody is sporting the same haircut – a prediction of the future that it’s difficult to imagine ever coming true.  It also seems that some of the actors were browned up, which is also a little strange.

But whilst the production may be overstretching at times, the story is very interesting and Judd’s performance is quite compelling – so I think that most people will be able to look past the sometimes dodgy visuals and enjoy another strong OOTU episode.

Next Up – Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come …?

Out of the Unknown – Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come ….. ?

come

Written by Mike Watts
Directed by Paddy Russell

Henry Wilkes (Milo O’Shea) loves his wife Monica (Christine Hargreaves) and he loves his garden.  Nothing unusual there, you may think – but his garden is unusual. It’s full of plants that almost seem to be intelligent and they appear to respond when Henry talks to them.  But things start to go awry when the plants attack a rather annoying boy (Jack Wild) and then Monica’s dog goes missing – and it was last seen in the garden …..

Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come ….. ? was written by Mike Watts and was the second original story from the first series of OOTU.  As the brief synopsis above indicates, this is something of a comedy – although events do take a very dark turn.

As so often with episodes of OOTU (and indeed with television drama of this era) the cast is first-rate.  Milo O’Shea gives a fine performance as the mild-mannered Henry, who loves to talk to his plants and even give them a little tickle from time to time! Christine Hargreaves (one of the original cast members of Coronation Street) is also very good as a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown – brought on by the strange goings-on in the garden.  Eric Thompson (responsible for the voices on The Magic Roundabout) and Patsy Rowlands also impress, whilst the ever dependable Bernard Kay pops up towards the end as a police officer who’s somewhat out of his depth.

The garden is very well designed and it’s probably just as well that the more animated sequences were shot on film (this would have allowed greater flexibility in shooting the various plant movements).  Director Paddy Russell handles both the effects and the human drama with aplomb and whilst it’s a slowly paced piece, the scripting and acting are sharp enough to not make this an issue.

Another sideways story in a series that already has demonstrated you can never be sure what you’ll see next – Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come ….. ? is another stand-out tale from the early episodes of OOTU.

Next Up – Sucker Bait

Out of the Unknown – Sucker Bait

sucker

Story by Isaac Asimov, Adapted by Meade Roberts
Directed by Naomi Capon

An expedition has journeyed out to a distant planet to try and discover why, a century earlier, an attempt to colonise the planet failed – resulting in the deaths of all the colonists.  On-board is Mark Annuncio (Clive Endersby) of the Mnemonic Service.  Mnemonics are special people – isolated from normal human contact from an early age, they are capable of retaining vast amounts of information (something which is impossible for a ordinary person).  In effect, they are human computers.

Although Mark is chaperoned by Dr Sheffield (John Meillon) he still manages to antagonise the majority of the crew – such as the microbiologist Rodriguez (Tenniel Evans) – by telling them that their views are essentially worthless.  Naturally, the experienced scientists have no time for somebody they view as little more than an annoying child.  But this strange, gifted teenager may be the crew’s only hope to save all their lives …..

Sucker Bait, a novella written by Isaac Asimov, was originally published in 1954 across several issues of Outstanding Science Fiction.  The story translates quite well to the OOTU format, although it is one of the lesser stories from the first series.  One of the problems is that Mark Annuncio is a fairly annoying character – this is part of the reason why he’s a gifted mnemonic, but dramatically a slightly more human and engaging personality would have worked better.

The scientists are all fairly one-note as well, although their ranks are swelled by good actors like Tenniel Evans and Burt Kwouk also has a decent role.  It’s a dense, wordy, scientific story that does sag a little towards a rather anti-climatic end.  And there are times when the production shortcomings are very apparent – the surface of the planet appears to be made from polystyrene, for example.

Not the strongest episode then, but the source material from Asimov is sound enough and the mystery of the planet (whilst quite low-key) is reasonably intriguing.

Next Up – Some Lapse of Time

Out of the Unknown – Some Lapse of Time

lapse

Story by John Brunner, Adapted by Leon Griffiths
Directed by Roger Jenkins

Dr Max Harrow (Ronald Lewis) has been plagued by frightening nightmares in which he’s trapped in a strange primitive world and menaced by a mysterious figure (played by John Gabriel).  Dreams become reality when the man from his nightmare turns up outside his house, suffering from the same rare radiation-induced illness which was responsible for the death of his son.

The man (identified as Smiffershon) speaks in an unknown language and was found clutching a fragment of finger-bone (just as in Harrow’s dream).  Harrow is convinced that Smiffershon is a survivor from a future that’s been devastated by nuclear war (a belief that, naturally, isn’t shared by anybody else).  If this is so, how are he and Smiffershon connected?

Some Lapse of Time was one of the more contemporary stories adapted for OOTU as it was originally published in 1963, just two years before this dramatisation by Leon Griffiths (later to create Minder).  The first of two stories from Brunner to be used for the series (the second, The Last Lonely Man is the only complete story to exist from the third series) Some Lapse of Time is a dark, contemporary tale that has a strong anti-nuclear message.

The possibility that our future would be scarred by atomic fallout was a popular theme during the 1960’s and 1970’s and Brunner’s story taps into this anxiety.  Ronald Lewis is impressive as a man desperately searching for answers to impossible questions – particularly in the scene where he declares his belief that the world will return to cave-like primitivism to his appalled wife Diana (Jane Downs) and a colleague from the hospital, Dr Faulkner (Richard Gale).

Sound design is quite interesting – throughout the story there’s an ominous tolling sound which heightens the tension, especially as Harrow becomes more and more unhinged.  At the same time, the camera closes in on Ronald Lewis and the dialogue is given an echo effect.  All of these little touches work very effectively to highlight Harrow’s increasing instability.

Possibly the most noteworthy aspect about this production is that Ridley Scott was the designer, but given the contemporary setting there was little opportunity for Scott to produce anything particularly extraordinary on his sole OOTU credit.

Whilst it does feel a little drawn-out (although the last twenty or minutes or so really pick up the pace) it’s still a thought-provoking story that paints a stark picture of a future world virtually destroyed in a nuclear holocaust and the final twist ending works very well.

Next Up – Thirteen to Centaurus

Out of the Unknown – Thirteen to Centaurus

thirteen

Story by J.G. Ballard, Adapted by Stanley Miller
Directed by Peter Potter

Thirteen to Centaurus opens on a space-station which is run by a crew of thirteen.  It becomes clear quite quickly that all of them, apart from Dr Francis (Donald Houston), have had their minds conditioned.  But Abel (James Hunter) is beginning to rebel and questions why they are here and what they are doing.

Dr Francis takes Abel into his confidence and tells him that they are actually on a “multi-generation space vehicle” which is traveling from Earth to Alpha Centauri.  Given that the ship can only travel at sub-light speed, it will take hundreds of years before the ship makes planetfall and Dr Francis explains that none of them will ever set foot on the new planet – this is a privilege reserved for future generations.  The truth is rather more complicated though and once Dr Francis has encouraged Abel to think for himself, the young man is dogged in his determination to discover all of the answers.

Thirteen to Centaurus was a short story by J.G. Ballard originally published in 1962.  The story, and of course this episode of OOTU, has a major twist – which for those coming to it for the first time I won’t reveal.  It certainly pushes the tale in a different direction and poses some interesting questions.

The conditioning (or effectively brainwashing) that the ship’s crew are subjected to is an intriguing part of the story.  Early on we see some of them working out in the gym and chanting “There is no other world than this. There are no other creatures but the chosen and their children shall inherit the Universe”.  This is an unsettling moment (absent from Ballard’s story) which is creepily effective.

As Abel’s reasoning grows, he begins to question more and more and effectively reverses the pupil/master relationship between himself and Dr Francis.  Like the majority of the crew, James Hunter is somewhat wooden as Abel (we could assume this is intentional – due to the conditioning he’s been subjected to).  Donald Houston as Dr Francis is pretty solid, although his performance isn’t, at times, particuarly subtle (see Moonbase 3 for more examples of Houston’s unsubtle acting choices in a sci-fi setting).

Back on Earth, there’s some quality actors (John Abineri, Noel Johnson, Robert James) who debate the future of the ship and the fate of the thirteen people onboard.  The decision is out of their hands though – it rests with Abel who has taken control of the ship.  The last few minutes are riveting and it’s certainly an ending that lives long in the memory.

Possibly the strongest of the surviving episodes from the first series, Thirteen to Centaurus is a quality production adapted from a strong story which still packs a punch today.  For anybody who wants an introduction to OOTU this is an ideal episode to start with.

Next Up – The Midas Plague