OUT OF THE UNKNOWN

PrintE-mail Written by J. R. Southall

DVD REVIEW: OUT OF THE UNKNOWN / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: VARIOUS / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: YVONNE MITCHELL, GEORGE COLE, MILO O’SHEA, DAVID HEMMINGS / RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 24TH

Out of This World was a short-lived 1962 ABC series that story editor Irene Shubik had developed out of the popular Armchair Theatre strand of programming, and when Shubik followed her producer Sydney Newman to the BBC later that decade, together they revived the format as Out of the Unknown. Comprising four series totalling 49 episodes on BBC2 between 1965 and 1971, beginning in black and white before moving to colour in 1967 with the third series (when Alan Bromley took over as producer), the surviving episodes of Out of the Unknown had long been thought of by archive television aficionados as commercially unreleasable, thanks to a complicated rights situation; anthological in nature, the stories in Out of the Unknown stand apart from one another as entirely unconnected short films (of roughly fifty minutes to an hour’s duration each), most of which had been adapted from the works of popular science fiction authors like J.G. Ballard, Frederik Pohl and Clifford D. Simak. Fortunately, the BFI are a persistent beast, and thanks to their endeavours this autumn sees the release of a seven disc set comprising all twenty surviving episodes (the other 29 were destroyed during the BBC’s culls of the 1970s), along with reconstructions of another four for which the audio still exists (taking the form of simple slide show presentations, using publicity stills to illustrate the soundtracks), one episode that only partially exists and a host of extra features, including commentaries from cast, crew and TV experts on eleven of the extant episodes.

The set begins with what would eventually (and somewhat controversially) be the series’ first episode, an adaptation of the John Wyndham short story No Place Like Earth. In spite of carrying some strong ideas (one of Out of the Unknown’s great strengths, chiefly because of how its stories were sourced), No Place Like Earth is also an indication of where the show’s weaknesses would ultimately lie, and it’s easy to see why Shubik would have wanted another episode to kick the series off (she was overruled); without movie-sized budgets, the production could often ill-afford to keep pace with its conceits. Some of the episodes that work better, then, are those that either take place here on Earth (Wyndham’s story planet-hops from Mars to Venus and back), or those that limit their action to a small handful of sets or limited location. The Isaac Asimov story The Dead Past, for example, coaxes an interesting conclusion out of its examination of a temporal paradox, and is a perfect fit for the format. Mike Watts’ original story Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come...?, on the other hand, is a lurid but character-driven instalment giving some indication of the series’ versatility; the thing about Out of the Unknown is that there were no boundaries to the invention and variety of the stories, and it is partly because of this that it struck such a chord with audiences and is as well-remembered now as is, for example, the most striking of Nigel Kneale’s work.

Attracting some genuine talent to the project, Shubik managed to bring in writers of the bearing of Troy Kennedy Martin, J.B. Priestley and even Clive Donner in order to adapt the source stories, and they are performed just in these twenty surviving episodes by the likes of David Hemmings, Donald Houston, Anthony Bate and Peter Barkworth, along with hosts of familiar faces from contemporary television. Out of the Unknown would be a feast for the eyes purely in terms of its acting, let alone for the imaginative and rewarding storytelling, and there’s a genuine sense of oddness permeating the entire series which places it as a more sincere and profound cousin to The Twilight Zone.

John Kelly’s documentary, Return to the Unknown, takes the unusual approach of including all of the short orphaned sequences which still exist, which while it might make for a slightly disjointed viewing experience, also makes for a fascinating and compelling one. The 42-minute feature includes a decent number of contributors, many of whom will be familiar to aficionados of 1960s and 1970s television, demonstrating not just how varied the productions were, but also giving an impression of just how fertile a voice for the imagination the series was to be. It’s an educating and absorbing watch, created in a 4:3 ratio so as to best present the clips that are included, and an invaluable inclusion.

It’s heartbreaking that so many instalments are missing, with Terry Nation’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Fox and the Forest one of only two episodes from the seminal first series not on the set, and Series Three almost entirely absent. But there are compensations; disc four opens with the first episode of the second series, E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, which Forster himself described as a “magnificent production” that had “greatly moved” him, while Series Four (which leaned more towards original horror than adapted sci-fi) isn’t as badly represented as the show’s middle period.

Crisply restored by Peter Crocker from materials the better part of half a century old, the lack of time to VidFIRE the episodes lends the stories an even greater sense that with just a little extra expanding out, they might easily have passed for cinema exhibition. No doubt these stories will seem a little sedate to modern audiences, but for anyone versed in 1960s genre television, this set is an absolutely essential purchase.

Special Features: Booklet / Audio commentaries / Episode reconstructions / Stills galleries
 

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