Out of the Unknown: ‘Some Lapse of Time’, BBC2 8 December 1965

John Brunner
John Brunner

One of the things ‘Some Lapse of Time’ gets right (and would have probably got right even if it had been a 75-minute episode as originally intended) is selecting to adapt a source of appropriate length – John Brunner’s novella of the same name, originally published in Science Fantasy (February 1963) and reprinted in Brunner’s collection Now Then just a couple of months before the episode aired. A novella has more than sufficient complication for an hour-long drama without any need for additional elaboration (or padding), while also not requiring the compression that adapting a novel might entail, such as season two’s Level Seven, season three’s Immortality, Inc and The Naked Sun or season four’s Deathday.

lapse-02Dr Max Harrow – whose young son recently died of a rare disease, heterochylia, the product of a genetic mutation caused by radiation – is plagued by a nightmare of the distant past, of immiserated primitives dominated by a shaman figure. In the small hours of the morning, after the nightmare has woken him once more, a policeman arrives at the door, having found an unconscious tramp outside Harrow’s house. To the doctor’s astonishment, the tramp seems to have survived into his thirties or forties despite suffering from heterochylia, which is every bit as impossible as him even having the disease since he was born long before there were any nuclear weapons. And he somehow found his way to the doorstep of one of the handful of doctors in the country capable of recognising the symptoms…

These are not the only odd thing about the vagrant.lapse

He carries a finger bone with a distinctive curve, he speaks no known language and is, it turns out, radioactive. He is not from the past at all, but from the future. From after the nuclear war. His language is an evolved or, rather devolved, version of English (like in Threads (1985) or Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980)).

And when Harrow loses the top of one finger – accidentally slammed in a car door during an argument with his wife – and it goes missing, he realises it is the shaman/tramp’s fetish bone, used to focus his journey back in time. (Nigel Kneale’s The Road (1964) relied on a similar reversal of temporal perspective.)

Also being treated at hospital is Wilfred Fitz-Prior, the Minister of War – precisely the kind of person Harrow holds responsible for causing his son’s death. (What choice does Harrow have but to steal the Fitz-Prior’s’s amputated leg and hide it so that it’s bones, too, can become a fetish object for some post-apocalyptic shaman to use to come back and haunt the Minister?) On a rather less macabre note, when Harrow wants to carbon-date the finger bone, he consults with Gerry Anderson (presumably taking a break from filming Supercar or Fireball XL5).

Brunner’s novella is structurally a little clunky, and bows some under the weight of a compositional principle that seems to consist of cramming in everything he could think of, but this does help to generate a sense of inescapable nightmare. (A nightmare that ties in closely with Brunner’s work with the National Council for the Abolition of Nuclear Tests and with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.)

The script by Leon Griffiths – who also wrote John Gillings’ Burke and Hare movie The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), and adapted Raymond F. Jones’s  ‘Divided We Fall’ (1950) and Rog Phillips’ ‘The Yellow Pill’ (1958) for Out of this World (25 August and 30 June 1962, respectively, the latter also reworked for Out of the Unknown (25 March 1969)) – cuts away a lot of the clutter. This reduces the nightmarish quality somewhat, even as the pace of the episode teeters on the brink of hysteria.

The production design is by some chap called Ridley Scott, and includes some impressively moderne hospital spaces, especially an angular corridor. The brief exteriors – filmed at the Technical College and the School of Art in (appropriately enough) Harrow – further convey this sense of the very near future; and one shot, in which the camera hurriedly tracks alongside one side of a fence while Dr Harrow races down the other, is especially effective.

Other things to look out for:
– the copper who finds the tramp is played by a young Peter Bowles, delightfully struggling to do the accent of a rural plod
– one of the medical students lurking in the background is played by Victor Pemberton, who wrote the Doctor Who serial ‘Fury from the Deep’ (1968), as well as episodes of Timeslip (1971) and Ace of Wands (1972)

lapse-03Previous episode, ‘Andover and the Android’

Sources
John Brunner, ‘Some Lapse of Time’, Now and Then (London: Mayflower-Dell, 1965)
Mark Ward, Out of the Unknown: A Guide to the Legendary Series (Bristol: Kaleidoscope, 2004)
Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.

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Monday morning in Cameron’s wasteland

In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.

Sadly, just when we need them most, five years of austerity – based on a huge lie designed to redistribute wealth in entirely the wrong direction – have hit even our heroes hard. Pity the fools.

austerity a-team

Out of the Unknown: ‘Andover and the Android’, BBC2 29 November 1965

Kate Wilhelm
Kate Wilhelm

This is the second episode not to have survived (apart from its final credits and filmed inserts of newspaper headlines). This is particularly annoying since it is the only episode out of 49 based on a story by a woman. Kate Wilhelm’s ‘Andover and the Android’ was one of several original stories among the reprints in her The Mile-Long Spaceship (1963). When the collection was published in the UK in 1966, it was retitled Andover and the Android, presumably because the adaptation had given it recognition value. Curiously, although the story order was shuffled, ‘Andover’ did not become the lead story. (Out of this World also only had one episode based on a story by a woman, Katherine Maclean’s 1951 ‘Picture Don’t Lie’ (11 August 1962).)

Wilhelm’s story begins with Roger Andover facing a choice between the death sentence or narco-analysis, which will wipe his memory and personality. (Or something like that – it is not the clearest of opening exchanges or penal systems.) While deciding on his course of action, he recalls what brought him to this juncture. A confirmed bachelor, he was urged to marry in order to be deemed suitable for promotion to a corporate vice-presidency.

Not normal? Just because he liked an orderly life? Just because he loved his music and his books? Because he had never met a woman who could share his interests and not be cluttering his life with a lot of nonsense about changing the apartment and having a horde of messy children underfoot? Because he couldn’t abide women who had to run things, had to interfere constantly, had to manage me the same way they managed money, children, vacations, everything else he could think of? Damn it! He liked living alone. … The fact that he considered marriage slightly irregular seemed not at all odd to him, but explicable in light of the nature of women; and his own celibate life he privately concluded was a result of the happy circumstances that had seen fit to place him higher on the scale of rationality than his fellow man, to give him a keener insight concerning the machinations of the female mind. (116)

Andover seems to fall halfway between a queer stereotype – he is gourmand; he visits Roman ruins, Parisian galleries, German cathedrals, Venetian concerts – and the kind of sophisticated, consumerist playboy figure Hugh Heffner introduced into fifties culture (played so well by Rock Hudson), without quite being either. So as the pressure mounts, he uses blackmail to have a 130439‘perfect wife’ made for him, even though it is illegal to own personal androids. Lydia is a groundbreaking prototype, utterly convincing. And of course – yet to his complete surprise – he grows accustomed to her ways. He falls in love with her.

When Lydia begins to malfunction, the executive Andover has been blackmailing sees his chance: instead of repairing her, he destroys her, embezzles half a million dollars and flees the country. That is when the police become suspicious about the disappearance of Andover’s wife…

Like the last episode’s source story, ‘Andover and the Android’ is rather slender for an hour-long drama. Adapter Bruce Stewart – who would also adapt Colin Kapp’s 1962 ‘Lambda 1’ (20 October 1966) and write 19 of the 26 episodes of the underrated children’s sf series Timeslip (1970-71) – opted to expand the story by transforming it into a comedy. While a number of earlier episodes, regardless of where they are set, languish somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, with English actors trying on often infelicitous American accents, ‘Andover’ is firmly relocated from a rather vague future US to the England of West End farces (and of an sf film such as The Perfect Woman (Knowles 1949)). The comic action described by Mark Ward in quite painstaking detail sounds laboriously unfunny, but apparently audiences responded well to it.

OOTU Andover Original listingAndover’s scheme is altered slightly – he needs a wife so as to inherit a fortune, but he intends all along to dispose of her once he is wealthy.

And the conclusion is altered significantly. Rather than Andover declaring that he murdered his wife (presumably so he will be executed without it being revealed that he fell in love with a machine), the adaptation’s protagonist is himself mistaken for a faulty android and destroyed, while the faulty Lydia lives on. This blackly comic conclusion – which seems at odds tonally with the earlier farce – was also apparently well-received, according to audience surveys and newspaper reviews. Indeed, the episode was selected for a repeat (under its own title, rather than the series’) a month later as part of BBC1’s A Taste of Two season intended to promote the junior channel.

OOTU Andover 1The episode was directed by Alan Cooke, who would also direct Frederik Pohl’s ‘Tunnel Under the World’ (1 December 1966). He had directed DH Lawrence’s own stage adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (the cast included Tom Criddle, who plays Andover and also appears in the series’  adaptation of Mordecai Roshwald’s 1959 Level 7 (27 October 1966), scripted by JB Priestley). Cooke was also a classmate at Cambridge with Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger (apparently Andover at one point orders a ‘simple auberge a la John Schlesinger’; Cooke’s brother Malcolm edited Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)).

It would have been nice to see it. And not just because Fulton Mackay was in it.

Last episode, ‘The Fox and the Forest’
Next episode, ‘Some Lapse Time’

References
Mark Ward, Out of the Unknown: A Guide to the Legendary Series (Bristol: Kaleidoscope, 2004)
Kate Wilhelm, ‘Andover and the Android’, The Mile-Long Spaceship (New York: Berkeley Medallion, 1963), 115-127.

Rail privatisers conduct bizarre cloning experiment in Bristol

tom1The privatisation of public utilities and services in Britain has been a disaster for everyone apart from those given carte blanche to loot the public purse. Oligopolistic consolidation. Unemployment annd precarity. Taxes paid more or less directly to shareholders as dividends. The undermining of democracy. The ‘greed is good’ excesses of the 1980s, the TINA lies of the 1990s, the austerity bullshit of the new millennium. The preening arrogance of the corporate elites and their political lackeys. No scandal seems to have the power to even shock any more, let alone lead to criminal investigation or – can you still even imagine? – jail time.

That might be about to change.

In Bristol, evidence has been found of the most profound malfeasance, the crossing of a boundary that we can all surely agree is a step too far.

The cloning of Thomas the Tank Engine.

tom2Look closely.

Is there not something sinister in their fixed grins that speaks of our age?

The mandated performance of individuality.

Of joy.     tom3

Look closely.

Into their eyes.

Behold the Abyss staring back.

Out of the Unknown: ‘The Fox and the Forest’ BBC2 22 November 1965

1630
Ray Bradbury

This is the first episode not to have survived (apart from its credits sequence). It is an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1950 story, originally published in Collier’s as ‘To the Future’ but collected in The Illustrated Man (1951) as ‘The Fox and the Forest’.

By 1965, Bradbury was already probably the sf writer most adapted for television, and he had begun to branch out into film and television writing: he wrote the screenplay for Moby Dick OOTU Fox LISTING(Huston 1956) and, uncredited, the narration for King of Kings (Ray 1961); and for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62) he adapted stories by himself and others and wrote an original script, too. This familiarity with the industry might explain why, in addition to the $1000 he was paid for rights to the story, his contract stipulated he would be paid the same every time it was repeated (typically, authors received only 50% for reruns). It might also explain why it was never repeated and thus, maybe, how it did not survive.

It was directed by Robin Midgley, primarily a stage director, although he had already notched up a number of television credits, including several episodes of Z Cars.

Irene Shubik initially commissioned a 75-minute adaptation for Story Parade, but struggled to find the right writer. It was offered to Ken Taylor, and then to Ilona Ference, who turned in an unusable script that had failed to take account of the economics and logistics of shooting a television drama. Next, Terry Nation produced a script that Shubik found vulgar. It was offered to Michael Simpson to revise, but he turned it down. Finally, Meade Roberts, who scripted the previous week’s ‘Sucker Bait’, shortened the teleplay to Out of the Unknown’s 60-minute run time and rewrote Nation’s dialogue.

Bradbury’s name was undoubtedly a draw, and Shubik even at one point considered ‘The Fox and the Forest’ as a potential season opener, but it is difficult to work out why she thought there was an hour of television drama in Bradbury’s story (let alone 75 minutes).

130438The story opens in Mexico in 1938. A tourist couple, William and Susan Travis, seem a little disoriented by it all. Which is not surprising because, it is quickly revealed, they are actually Ann and Roger Kristen, on the lam from an unbearable future. They were born in the middle of the 22nd century,

in a world that was evil. A world that was like a great black ship pulling away from the shore of sanity and civilization, roaring its black horn in the night, taking two billion people with it, whether they wanted to go or not, to death, to fall over the edge of the earth and the sea into radioactive flame and madness. (189)

A time-travel technology has been developed that allows inhabitants of this dismal world of the permanent warfare state to take holidays in the past. Ann and Roger, determined not to return, have gone into hiding. But a Searcher is on their trail. They evade him, and walk right into the rather obvious twist/trap laid for them.

43437By the standards of almost any other sf writer of the period, it is pretty slim. The opening is quite atmospheric, if in that rather vague way Bradbury has; the future world from which the protagonists are fleeing is every bit as vague, just a concatenation of phrases from Bradbury’s usual shorthand dystopianism (nuclear threat, totalitarianism, book-burning); the cat-and-mouse thriller element is not particularly suspenseful, and the action scenes no less perfunctory.  Apparently, the episode follows the story rather closely, but extends it by adding on an opening section in which the protagonists kill the first Searcher sent to track them down. According to the Guardian, the opening quarter of an hour was difficult to follow, while Television Today suggested it was ‘one of the most convincing produced plays in the series’ (Ward 110).

A pre-Alf Garnett Warren Mitchell is in it.

Previous episode, ‘Sucker Bait
Next episode, ‘Andover and the Android

Sources
Ray Bradbury, ‘The Fox and the Forest’, The Illustrated Man (London: Harper Voyager) 184-208.
Mark Ward, Out of the Unknown: A Guide to the Legendary Series (Bristol: Kaleidoscope, 2004)

Solving Jeremy Clarkson

jeremy-clarkson-cartoonApparently Danny Cohen, the BBC Director of Television, is struggling to work out the fate of Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson. He has already described those defending Clarkson as being like those who covered up Jimmy Savile’s paedophilic predations. The Mail, in its typically confused manner, has implied today that Cohen accused Clarkson of paedophilia.

Obviously, this cannot go on.

It is tedious beyond belief, and Clarkson should have been sacked years ago.

But Top Gear is ‘the most-watched “factual” programme in the world’, and a huge money-spinner. No wonder Cohen knows what to do but cannot manage to do it.

It seems to me the answer is clear.

The BBC should take Clarkson back, but return Top Gear to the format originally proposed by JG Ballard.crashbangwallop

Out of the Unknown: ‘Sucker Bait’ (15 November 1965)

05dd3gnThis is the one with the inestimable Burt Kwouk – not the first actor of colour in the series, but the first one with a substantial role. Called upon, it seems, whenever British television or film needed a Chinese, a Japanese, masonan unspecified oriental, he is part of the furniture of my life; I suspect I will be devastated – not Elisabeth Sladen or James Garner devastated, but devastated nonetheless – when he dies. (I seem to have always known that he was born in Warrington, but what I did not know was that he was raised in Shanghai, his family only returning to Britain during the Chinese revolution; in my mind’s eye, I see him in the streets of thirties Shanghai, running into a young JG Ballard –  only to appear 50 years later as Mr Chen in Empire of the Sun (1987).)

This is also the one – actually the first of three – directed by Naomi Capon, one of just two female directors at the BBC at the time (the other, Paddy Russell, directed the previous episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’ .) British-born, Capon worked on American television before returning to the UK to commence, in 1951, a twenty-year career as a director and producer, almost exclusively of drama. She also directed ‘The World in Silence’ (17 November 1966), based on John Rankine’s 1966 ‘Six Cubed Plus One’, and ‘The Prophet’ (1 January 1967), based on Asimov’s ‘Reason’ (1941), one of the stories collected in I, Robot (1950). Capon’s set designer has clearly learned the dangers, so evident in ‘Time in Advance’, of signifying futurity through shiny surfaces. If the spaceship interiors are not quite as impressive as those in ‘The Counterfeit Man’, the multilevel set becomes impressive when you realise it contains an actual elevator, rather than trickery, to move between levels (although the bridge set then looks quite silly because it involves climbing up ladders to reach the door). Videoscreens and oscilloscopes abound, accompanied by some groovy radiophonics.

After ‘The Dead Past’, it is the second of six episodes based on stories by Isaac Asimov. It was adapted by Meade Roberts from Asimov’s 1954 Astounding story, ‘Sucker Bait’, collected in The Martian Way and Other Stories in 1955 (published in the UK by Dennis Dobson in 1964). The adaptation was originally commissioned as a 75-minute drama, presumably for Story Parade. (Roberts also adapted the following episode from Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Fox and the Forest’ (1950).)

OOTU Sucker bait articleAs with ‘The Dead Past’, this is a story built around the problem of specialisation – the idea that as knowledge develops, scientists will increasingly specialise, leading to a potential hazardous compartmentalisation of information and ideas. In Asimov’s future – distant enough in time for humanity to have colonised 83,200 worlds but still be feeling population pressures, and for the ‘2755 para-measles epidemic’ to be an historical event akin to ‘the 1918 influenza epidemic, and the Black Death’ (163) – specialisation has reached the point that it has become necessary to institute an experimental method of education in order to produce individuals capable of remembering every fact and idea they encounter, regardless of discipline. The teenage Mark Annuncio is one of the first hundred such ‘Mnemonics’.

The Trojan planet Troas, which is in a stable orbit around the differently coloured binary stars Lagrange I and II, was long ago the site of attempted colonisation. But after the entire colony, more than 1300 people, died, apparently of a disease, the world was forgotten until Mark discovered an account of it in the archives. He is included as part of the scientific expedition to investigate the world, to find out what destroyed the colony and whether it is habitable by humans. The expedition consists of single scientists from individual disciplines who accept without question each others’ views – one simply does not query specialists in different disciplines. Character names suggest that they are rather a multicultural bunch, but the only exception to their whiteness seems to be

Miguel Antonio Rodriguez y Lopez (microbiologist; small, tawny, with intensely black hair, which he wore rather long, and with a reputation, which he did nothing to discourage, of being a Latin in the grand style as far as ladies were concerned). (156)

The crew of the spaceship, however, know nothing of the mission, and knowledge of the failed colony and the possibility of fatal disease is deliberately kept from them.

out-of-the-unknown-sucker-bait-1965-001-men-and-telescopes_0The story chugs along, readable enough but distinctly minor Asimov, until Mark, ostracised by the specialists, must take desperate action to save the expedition from the same fate that befell the colony – something only he can discern, thanks to his disregard for disciplinary boundaries and his amazing powers of recall (and his chance reading of an old book some years before).

The dilemma Mark faces once he solves the mystery is very Asimovian – like those faced by robots and computers who know what is best for humanity, but must proceed indirectly and find ways to circumvent the rules constraining their action. Mark’s solution is a little surprising since, like the Book People of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), he is such a curiously passive figure. If he is in some way intended to serve as an argument in favour of generalists, of inter- and trans-disciplinary thinkers and processes, of more efficient and effective communication between disciplines, it might have been an idea to allow him some kind of creative or imaginative role, rather than casting him as a cross between a database, a search-engine and a sulky teen.

Indeed, in the adaptation, Mark (Clive Endersby) mostly comes across as an argument for sending sulky teens to their rooms without any dinner.

The main point of interest in Asimov’s story comes in the way in which it can be used to map claims for the relationship between science and sf. There are various infodumps, showing off the time Asimov has put into designing Troas as a plausible planet, including two pages (153-155) in which

Boris Vernadsky (geochemist; dark eyebrows, wide mouth, broad face, and with an inveterate tendency to polka-dot shirts and magnetic clip-ons in red plastic) (133)

belabours the atmospheric composition. Most of the information is unnecessary, other than that it situates the story within the hard-sf norms developed at Astounding and provides both a plausible framework and essential camouflaging for a latter tidbit of information, the relevance of which only Mark can realise. I honestly cannot tell whether the clue that is thus slipped into the story – and hidden by it – was ever enough for a reader to beat Mark to the solution. (It involves beryllium, which is just not used in this future universe, although the reasons for abandoning it have been long forgotten; they would perhaps have been quite fresh in the minds of many of the story’s early readers.)

HG Wells, Gwyneth Jones, China Miéville and others have argued that the relationship between sf and science does not depend upon the accuracy of the scientific knowledge being drawn upon, but on the persuasiveness with which scientific-sounding discourse can be deployed and manipulated by the writer (in Carl Freedman’s terms, sf is not about cognition per se, but about the creation of particular kinds of cognition effect). And of course this relationship is always a relative, not an absolute, one. Different authors and readers bring different levels and kinds of knowledge, different desires to persuade and different desires to be adequately persuaded. The nature and degree of that adequacy shifts depending on circumstances, not least because sf is far from monolithic. Claiming superiority for sf stories because of their greater scientificness is merely an attempt to impose a particular hierarchy of taste. Often reversing the polarities can be perfectly adequate and is not at all necessarily inferior. The most intriguing sequence in Asimov’s story is concerned with these ideas.

In an attempt to persuade Cimon, the mission commander, to allow Mark to accompany the expedition onto the surface of Troas, Dr Sheffield attempts blackmail. This involves using the professional protocols around specialisms so as, over the course of several pages, to trick Cimon, and then threatening to release an illicit recording of him making a fool of himself. Going into the scene, we know nothing of this scheme.

Sheffield suggests that the combined effect of the planet’s two suns – one of which casts blue-green shadows, the other red-orange – and of the light reflected from its moon could

exert a deleterious effect on mental stability [resulting in] chromopsychosis [that] could reach a fatal level by inducing hypertrophy of the trinitarian follicles, with consequent cerebric catatonia. … red-green chromopsychosis has been recorded to exhibit itself first as a psychogenic respiratory infection. … Surely you must be noticing just a small inflammation of the mucus membrane of the nose, a slight itching in the throat. Nothing painful yet, I imagine. Have you been coughing or sneezing? It is a little hard to swallow? (174-175)

sucker-02This is, of course, all nonsense, as Sheffield admits once he has panicked Cimon. But it does cut to the core of the issue of persuasion and persuasiveness. At what point does the reader or viewer spot what Sheffield is doing? This is more complex than it might sound, because the discursive register is more or less identical here as in the other passages of exposition which Asimov wants/needs the reader to accept. There is time in these few pages to wonder whether Asimov genuinely intends to extrapolate future ailments – chromopsychosis and psychogenetic symptoms – that might lie in wait for humans who travel to alien worlds. And to wonder what he might jeopardise his act of persuasion with a term as clumsy as ‘trinitarian follicles’. And, to be surprised at how it got past his editor, John W. Campbell.

I am pretty certain that when I read this story as a kid, thirty-odd years ago, I would not have spotted Sheffield’s trick until he admitted it. (I know I read the collection, but I had absolutely no memory of this story until rereading it this week.) This time around, Sheffield sounded suspicious from the get-go. But if the solution to the mystery did lie in chromopsychosis, I would have probably cut Asimov some slack – since this is a minor story, it would not have been surprising that the exposition was also weak in places.

The adaptation gives a really interesting version of this scene, thanks largely to John Meillon’s softly-spoken performance as Sheffield. He begins with a kind of boisterous uncertainty, as if to test whether he is going to get away with it, but also signalling to the audience that something is amiss with what he is going to say. This caution disappears as he quietly concatenates and escalates the threat. He ends with the claim that chromopsychosis can also affect the hearing. And as he asks whether Cinam (David Knight) is experiencing such a symptom, he drops his voice just a little. It is a delightful touch, something Asimov could not have conveyed.

Other things to watch out for
— The giant playing cards from ‘The Counterfeit Man’  put in another appearance, as does a game of multidimensional chess – well before Star Trek
— The table-top model positioned in the foreground so as to make the studio-bound planet’s surface look much bigger than it is

Previous episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…

Sources
Isaac Asimov, ‘Sucker Bait’, The Martian Way (London: Granada, 1981), 123-203.
Out of the Unknown boxset. BFI, 2014.