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Out of the Unknown

Out of the Unknown was a British television science fiction anthology drama series, produced by the BBC and broadcast on BBC2 in four series between 1965 and 1971. Each episode was an independent dramatisation of a separate science fiction short story. Some were written directly for the series, but most were adaptations of already published stories.

The first three years were exclusively science-fiction based, but that genre was abandoned in the final year in favour of horror/fantasy stories. A number of episodes were junked during the early 1970s, as was standard procedure at the time before the video boom. A large number of episodes are still missing but some do turn up from time to time; for instance, Level Seven from series two, originally broadcast on 27 October 1966 was returned to the BBC from the archives of a European broadcaster in January 2006.

Origins

Irene Shubik began her career working on educational films for Encyclopædia Britannica Inc in Chicago before returning home to London where she joined ABC Television as a story editor on the anthology series Armchair Theatre under producer Sydney Newman in 1960. Shubik had been a science fiction fan since college and in 1961 approached Newman with a proposal to create a science fiction version of Armchair Theatre. This became Out of this World, a sixty minute anthology series hosted by Boris Karloff that ran for thirteen episodes between June and September 1962. Many of the episodes were adaptations of stories by science fiction writers, including John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick.

After he was poached by the BBC to head their drama department in late 1962, Sydney Newman invited Shubik to join him at the BBC and, on the condition that she be promoted to producer within nine months, she made the move in November 1963. At this time the BBC was preparing to launch BBC2 and Shubik was assigned as story editor to Story Parade, another anthology series that was to be a major part of the new channel's drama output. One of the productions she worked on for Story Parade was an adaptation of Isaac Asimov's novel The Caves of Steel, starring Peter Cushing, broadcast in 1964. The success of The Caves of Steel led Shubik to approach Newman to develop a science fiction anthology series. Newman agreed and Shubik was appointed story editor for what would become Out of the Unknown.

Season one

Shubik began work and soon found that finding science fiction stories suitable for adaptation was a difficult task. She later recalled “I had to read hundreds of stories to pick a dozen. You have no idea how difficult some of these authors are to deal with, and it seems a special thing among SF writers to hedge themselves behind almost impossible copyright barriers, even when they have got a story that is possible to do on television. So many you can't. Either the conception is so way out you would need a fantastic budget to produce it, or the story is too short, too tight to be padded out to make an hour's television”. When working on Out of this World Shubik had made a valuable contact in John Carnell, a key figure in British science fiction publishing, founder of science fiction magazine New Worlds and agent for many of Britain's science fiction writers. Carnell was able to suggest stories and authors for Shubik to look at. Shubik received copies of science fiction anthologies from British publishers and also sought advice from many science fiction authors including Frederick Pohl, Alfred Bester and Robert Silverberg. The latter two admitted to Shubik that they too had run into similar difficulties in finding suitable material for adaptation on television projects they had worked on. Various ideas under consideration at this time included asking Nigel Kneale if he would write a new Quatermass story for the series, and contact was made with Arthur C. Clarke regarding the possibility of making an adaptation of his novel The Deep Range in his adopted home of Sri Lanka.

In March 1965, Shubik travelled to New York in order to iron out rights difficulties with authors whose works they were pursuing, to seek ideas from US television and to obtain more science fiction anthologies from US publishers. The trip to New York would become an annual event for Shubik during her time on Out of the Unknown. During her visit she met with US science fiction editors and also with Isaac Asimov, who granted permission for two of his stories to be adapted on the condition that they could only be shown in the UK – sales to foreign territories were not allowed.

On her return to London, Shubik learned that she had been appointed producer and story editor for the new anthology series. She sought, and obtained, the services of George Spenton-Foster as her associate producer. Spenton-Foster was a science fiction fan and his wide experience of the practicalities of BBC television production proved invaluable to novice producer Shubik. By this stage, Shubik had, at last, found the twelve scripts she needed for the series: ten episodes would be adaptations of stories by John Wyndham (Time to Rest and its sequel No Place Like Earth, dramatised together as “No Place Like Earth”); Alan Nourse (The Counterfeit Man); Isaac Asimov (The Dead Past and Sucker Bait); William Tenn (Time in Advance); Ray Bradbury (The Fox and the Forest); Kate Wilhelm (Andover and the Android); John Brunner (Some Lapse of Time); J.G. Ballard (Thirteen to Centaurus) and Frederick Pohl (The Midas Plague). Two original stories “Stranger in the Family” by David Campton and “Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come...?” by Mike Watts were also commissioned. Among those commissioned to adapt the stories were a few notable names in television writing: Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks for Doctor Who and later Survivors and Blake's 7, adapted Bradbury's The Fox and the Forest while Troy Kennedy Martin, co-creator of Z-Cars, adapted Pohl's The Midas Plague.

With production underway, consideration was given to what to call the series. Names including Dimension 4, The Edge of Tomorrow and From the Unknown were considered before settling on Out of the Unknown. The title music was composed by Norman Kay and the title sequence was created by Bernard Lodge. It was intended from an early stage that, as with Boris Karloff on Out of this World, each story would be introduced by a regular host. Christopher Lee and Vincent Price were approached but weren't available and the idea was dropped. The episode “Some Lapse of Time” is notable for having Ridley Scott, future director of such films as Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, as designer.

Out of the Unknown made its debut on Monday, 4 October 1965 at 8:00pm on BBC2 with Wyndham's “No Place Like Earth” selected as the opening story. Science fiction and fantasy was popular on television with Doctor Who, The Avengers, Thunderbirds, The Man from UNCLE and Lost in Space all notable hits at the time. Out of the Unknown, however, would offer more adult, cerebral fare. Initial audience and critical reaction was mixed but improved as the series went on with “Andover and the Android” (“It's not until intelligence, humour and gaiety break into television that you notice what tasteless pap we've been living on” - Daily Mail) and “Some Lapse of Time” (“It was not surprising to hear from Late Night Line Up that there had been many complimentary telephone calls after the play [...] it left the viewer with the disconcerting feeling that there was more than a grain of truth in its fantasy” - Birmingham Evening Mail and Dispatch) proving particularly popular with audiences and critics alike. BBC2 Controller David Attenborough praised the “overall professionalism that has become a hallmark of the series”. By the end of its first run, Out of the Unknown was the most popular drama on BBC2 after the imported Western The Virginian.

Season two

In parallel with preparing for the second season of Out of the Unknown, Shubik was tasked with producing another anthology series – Thirteen Against Fate, adaptations of short stories by Maigret creator Georges Simenon. To assist her with Out of the Unknown, Shubik was assigned a script editor – initially Rodney Gedye and then, when Gedye left following clashes with Shubik, Micheal Imison. As with season one, finding suitable stories for adaptation remained a problem. On her annual visit to New York, Shubik placed an advertisement looking for stories in the Science Fiction Writers Association Bulletin. One author who answered the advertisement was Larry Eisenberg, whose stories The Fastest Draw and Too Many Cooks were commissioned. Two further adaptations, of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops and Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 (dramatised as “Level Seven”), were scripts that had been offered, without success, to film studios for some years. Another script, adapting Colin Kapp’s Lambda 1, had been commissioned for season one but shelved due to technical considerations about how it could be realised; when special effects designer Jack Kine indicated that he had a solution to the technical challenges the script was brought back into production for season two. Five further adaptations were commissioned - John Rankine’s The World in Silence, Henry Kuttner’s The Eye, Frederick Pohl’s Tunnel Under the World and Isaac Asimov’s Satisfaction Guaranteed and Reason (dramatised as “The Prophet”). Three original stories – “Frankenstein Mark II” by Hugh Whitemore, “Second Childhood” by Hugh Leonard and “Walk's End” by William Trevor – were also commissioned.

In late 1965, as season two entered production, a number of events brought into focus the potential social impacts of television – BBC Director General Hugh Carleton Greene cancelled the broadcast of Peter Watkinsnuclear war drama The War Game fearing that its content was too graphic and disturbing for public consumption and self-appointed moral watchdog Mrs Mary Whitehouse, responding to the sexual content of the play Up the Junction and Kenneth Tynan’s use of the word “fuck” on the satirical programme BBC-3, had formed the National Viewers and Listeners Association to campaign for standards of decency on television. In response Sydney Newman issued directives to his producers regarding language and content. In the case of Out of the Unknown, this led to particular attention being paid to the scripts for “Second Childhood” (about reawakening of sexual desire when an elderly man undergoes a rejuvenation process) and “Satisfaction Guaranteed” (about a woman taking a robot as a lover).

Season two was broadcast on Thursday nights at 9:30pm, beginning on 6 October 1966 with “The Machine Stops”. The new season was promoted in listings magazine Radio Times with a front cover of “The Machine Stops”’ star Yvonne Mitchell and an article previewing the upcoming episodes, written by Michael Imison. The two most notable productions of the season were “The Machine Stops” and “Level Seven”. “The Machine Stops”, directed by Peter Saville, was a particularly challenging production – later described by Shubik as “the most complex and technically demanding script I have ever had in my hands ” – requiring large and complex sets (including construction of one with a working monorail). However the effort paid off as the adaptation was met with good reviews (“A haunting film – and a deeply disturbing one” - The Times) and was awarded first prize at the Fifth Festival Internazionale del Film di Fantascienza (International Science Fiction Film Festival) in Trieste on 17 July 1967. “Level Seven” was adapted by J.B. Priestley and directed by legendary television producer-director Rudolph Cartier. Priestley’s script had begun life as a potential screenplay for a feature film and condensing it down to Out of the Unknown’s standard running time of fifty minutes proved impossible. In the end, Shubik convinced the management of the BBC to allow “Level Seven” to run to sixty minutes as a once-off exceptional measure. Reviewing “Level Seven” in The Listener, J.C. Trewin said, “the tension was inescapable, the excitement incontestable, more so, undoubtedly, than other thrusts into the future”. The robot costumes created for the “The Prophet” were later reused in the Doctor Who serial “The Mind Robber”.

Season two of Out of the Unknown had built on the success of the first season. However, as Irene Shubik and Michel Imison began work on the third season, major changes were imminent.

Season three

Shubik was in the middle of her third trip to New York in early 1967 when she received a call from Sydney Newman offering her the opportunity to co-produce, with Graeme McDonald, BBC1's most prestigious drama slot, The Wednesday Play. Shubik accepted the new post but insisted that she be given time to commission a full season of Out of the Unknown scripts before moving on to The Wednesday Play and handing Out of the Unknown over to a new production team. At the same time, Michael Imison also moved on to produce Thirty Minute Theatre. Shubik went on to become a noted television producer of series such as Play for Today, Playhouse and Rumpole of the Bailey and instigated, but did not produce, the acclaimed adaptation of The Jewel in the Crown.

For season three, Shubik commissioned dramatisations of stories by Robert Sheckley (Immortality, Inc.); Isaac Asimov (Liar! and The Naked Sun (the sequel to The Caves of Steel which Shubik had dramatised for Story Parade in 1963)); John Brunner (The Last Lonely Man); Clifford D. Simak (Beach Head and Target Generation); John Wyndham (Random Quest); Cyril M. Kornbluth (The Little Black Bag); Rog Phillips (The Yellow Pill) and Peter Phillips (Get Off My Cloud). Original stories were provided by Donald Bull (“Something in the Cellar”), Brian Hayles (“1+1=1.5”) and Michael Ashe (“The Fosters”). Two scripts, “The Yellow Pill” and “Target Generation”, had previously been used in Shubik's earlier anthology series Out of this World.

Production on season three was delayed until late 1967 because of delays in appointing a new production team to the series and because BBC2 was undergoing the transition to colour transmission at this time. In September 1967, Alan Bromly and Roger Parkes were appointed as the new producer and script editor respectively. Bromly and Parkes both had a background in thriller series. With all the scripts already commissioned, Bromly and Parkes' role was mainly to shepherd them through production.

Season three – the first Out of the Unknown season to be made in colour – was broadcast on Wednesday nights at 9:05pm from 7 January 1969 beginning with “Immortality, Inc.”. One viewer of “Immortality, Inc.” was Beatle George Harrison who can be seen discussing the episode with Ringo Starr on the film Let It Be. Scheduled opposite the very popular ITV drama series The Power Game, the series suffered in the ratings and met with mixed reviews; the Daily Express found the series “most erratic”, sometimes “wonderfully inventive” but at other times “as silly as a comic strip in a child's magazine”. It was expected that “Beach Head” and “The Naked Sun” would be the blockbuster productions of this season but, in the end, it was “Random Quest” and “The Little Black Bag” that were best received. The production of “Random Quest” led its author, John Wyndham, to write to director Christopher Barry praising “the hard work and ingenuity of a great number of people concerned [...] excellent work by everybody – not forgetting the adapter. My thanks to everyone [...] for weaving it all together so skillfully”. “Beach Head” was entered into the Sixth Festival Internazionale del Film di Fantascienza in July 1968, in the hope of repeating the earlier success of “The Machine Stops”, but did not win.

Season four

The fourth season of Out of the Unknown began production in early 1970. Bromly and Parkes were now free to put their own creative mark on the series. Encouraged by Head of Serials, Gerald Savory, they sought to recast Out of the Unknown as “not straight science fiction, but with a strong horror content, all starting out from a realistic basis”. The decision to move towards psychological horror came about partly because of the difficulties involved in finding suitable science fiction scripts, partly because the production team felt that their budget couldn't compete with the glossy fare offered by the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek, both of which had just reached British shores at this time, and partly because it was felt that science fiction could not compete with the real-life drama of the, then contemporary, Apollo moon landings.

Another major change for season four was a move away from adapting novels and short stories. Only one episode of season four – “Deathday” based on the novel by Angus Hall, dramatised by Brian Hayles – was an adaptation. The remaining ten episodes were original works. Among the more notable contributions were To Lay a Ghost and The Uninvited by Michael J. Bird and The Chopper by Nigel Kneale. The season presented a wide variety of stories ranging from science fiction to ghost stories to tales of parapsychology and spiritual possession.

Season four was transmitted on Wednesday nights at 9:20pm from 21 April 1971 beginning with “Taste of Evil”. The new season sported a new title sequence, devised by Charles McGhie, and a new theme tune - “Lunar Landscape” by Roger Roger. Both ratings and critical reception were positive, although some viewers were disappointed by the move away from hard science fiction – a typical comment was that of Martin J. Pitt who wrote to the Radio Times, “it will be a pity if the opinions of people like Alan Bromly rob television of the opportunity to present intelligent and exciting science fiction”.

Although the fourth season was judged to be a success, the BBC chose not to renew Out of the Unknown for a fifth season. With the exception of the Play for Today spin-off, Play for Tomorrow, no regular science fiction anthology series has been made by a UK broadcaster since Out of the Unknown went off the air.

Episode list

Archive status

Of the forty-nine episodes of Out of the Unknown that were made, only twenty survive in their entirety, mainly from season one. Almost thirty minutes of “The Little Black Bag” also survive, as do shorter clips from “The Fox and the Forest”, “Andover and the Android”, “Satisfaction Guaranteed”, “Liar!” and “The Last Witness”. Complete audio recordings exist of “The Yellow Pill” and “The Uninvited” as well as audio clips of other lost episodes. Off screen photographs, known as tele-snaps, were taken of many first and second season stories including some of the missing episodes. These were published in Mark Ward's Out of the Unknown: A guide to the legendary BBC series in 2004. The fourth season episodes “The Last Witness” and “The Uninvited”, both of which are missing, were remade as episodes of Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense as “A Distant Scream” and “In Possession” respectively and broadcast in the UK in 1986. A new adaptation of John Wyndham's Random Quest, which had been dramatised for season three and had also been adapted as the film Quest for Love, was made for BBC Four and broadcast on 27 November 2006 as part of that channel's Science Fiction Britannia season.

Out of the Unknown has, as of 2007, never been released on VHS or DVD. The episode “Thirteen to Centaurus” was repeated by BBC Four in 2003 as part of a J.G. Ballard retrospective.

Notes

References

  • Cooper, Nick Time in Advance. 625.org. (1994-1998). Retrieved on 2007-01-14..
  • Fulton, Roger (1997). The Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction. 3rd edition, London: Boxtree.
  • Shubik, Irene (2001). Play for Today: The evolution of television drama. 2nd edition, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Ward, Mark (2004). Out of the Unknown: A Guide to the legendary BBC series. Bristol: Kaleidescope.

External links

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