Out of the Unknown: ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’, BBC2 13 December 1965

JG Ballard
JG Ballard

Scriptwriter Stanley Miller and director Peter Potter, responsible for series opener ‘No Place Like Earth’, return with Ballard rather than Bradbury for an episode that is just as talky but overall rather more effective. This is in large part down to casting of British film and television stalwart – and one-time Moonbase commander (see Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks Moonbase 3 (1973)) – Donald Houston in the lead role of Francis. Always more likely to be a sidekick  than a leading man, he is reliably reliable, a curious mix of stolidity, occasional passion and uncertain humour.

13 OOTU ArticleBallard’s story, originally published in Amazing Science Fiction (April 1962), is set up as one of those generation starship stories in which people do not realise they are on a generation starship until they and you discover that they are – like Robert Heinlein’s 1941 ‘Universe’ and Brian Aldiss’s 1958 Non-Stop (unless you had the misfortune to buy it under the US title, Starship, which kind of gave the game away) and Syfy’s plodding Ascension (2014). There is also more than a hint of Isaac Asimov’s 1941 robot story ‘Reason’ – adapted in the second season as ‘The Prophet’ – to it.

tve91644-19651213-1718Abel, who is young and problematically smart, begins to work out what is going on, so Francis, the ship’s doctor tells him all about their mission to Alpha Centauri, commenced before Abel was born and not to be completed within his lifetime. Ballard’s extra twist, of course, is that Francis is lying – the mission is a simulation. The fake starship is housed in a dome on Earth, and its crew are under constant surveillance in order to see how an actual crew would fare during a real mission. It has been running for half a century, and following the failure of moon and Mars colonies, interest has waned and budgets are being cut. Under this increased pressure, Francis – who is secretly able to enter and exit the ship – elects to join the crew permanently so as to help them survive whatever method is found to curtail the ‘mission’. Like Kerans in The Drowned World, Ballard’s novel from the same year, Francis heads further in, embracing the catastrophe rather than fleeing from it. (Ballard’s solar imagery also plays a role in the story.)

Two further Ballardian twists occur.

05-thirteen-to-centaurusFirst, Abel decides he wants to build an isolation experiment inside the starship, itself an isolation experiment – the kind of nesting of simulations within simulations found in some of Frederik Pohl’s short stories and in Daniel Galouye’s Simulacron-3 (1964) before becoming a mainstay of unsurprisingly unsurprising surprise VR stories. (One of the nice, if unintentional, things in the episode is that when Francis exits the starship and descends into the dome housing it, the landscape depicted on the studio wall in the background is obviously fake, giving an uncanny frisson to it all by suggesting that the primary narrative diegesis is also a simulation. Who knows? This might even explain why the monitors’ uniforms are way more space opera-ish than those of the starship crew. (Except it doesn’t.))

Second, it becomes clear that, at some unspecified point in the story, Abel has discovered and embraced the true truth of his situation but also that he is not the first on the starship to have done so. These are precisely the kind of thing one now expects from a Ballard story that must have been stunning at the time – they certainly wobbled my world a little when as a teenager I first read the story.

thirteen_leadThe story also always reminds me of The Prisoner (1967–68), the quintessential British sf tale of simulacral societies, isolation experiments, conditioning, paranoia and indeterminate realities. Ballard’s story is likewise an ambivalent tale of countercultural youth rebellion that doesn’t really like youth or the counterculture or rebellion, that is rather priggish and authoritarian, and that features a protagonist (or two) with whom it is impossible to empathise, difficult even to sympathise, but whose travails you nonetheless follow with interest.

The episode makes two significant alterations.

04-thirteen-to-centaurusFirst, with its opening scene of Captain Peters’ funeral it introduces a religious undercurrent into proceedings, from the crew’s dubbed singing of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ to a religious monomania that possesses Abel – or at least becomes part of the rhetoric he introduces into the experiments in conditioning he performs on Francis.

Second, while Ballard’s story concludes on an ambiguous note, with Francis discovering that Abel and probably Captain Peters knew that the starship was a fake, the adaptation ends with the suggestion that Abel, who, like Satan, would rather reign in hell, has completely broken Francis, who now believes he really is part of a mission to Alpha Centauri.

The adaptation, however, is no more capable than Ballard of clarifying exactly who are the thirteen of the title.

In Ballard’s story, at one point a slip of Francis’s tongue reveals that he considers himself one of the 14 en route to Alpha Centauri – although there only 13 people in the crew, plus himself as an observer who knows the truth. After Peters’ death, there are 12 plus one, or possibly 11 plus two, which is how things stand at the end of the story (although the revelation that Peters’ had also known what was going on demands a further recount). In the adaptation, the early disposal of Peters forces Miller’s script to change these numbers. Francis implies he counts himself among the 13, although there are only 12 left plus himself as an observer. At the end of the episode, Abel knows they are going nowhere but Francis seems to have been conditioned into believing they are en route to Alpha Centaurus. So there remain 12 believers and one observer. But in Francis’s closing exchange with Abel, there is talk of Abel controlling the 13 people on the ship – but for that to add up, Abel must be one of the 13 Abel is controlling.

Though to be honest, having just worked all that out, I am not entirely sure I care.

 

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Out of the Unknown: ‘Stranger in the Family’ (BBC2 18 October 1965)

By all accounts, although ‘Stranger in the Family’ was one of the three episodes already completed when the Irene Shubik and Sydney Newman were deciding upon the series opener, neither of them seems really to have considered David Campton’s original drama as a serious contender. Newman wanted the big name appeal of John Wyndham; Shubik, who would have preferred the Alan E. Nourse adaptation despite the relative littleness of his name, seems to have been more concerned with establishing Out of the Unknown as incontrovertibly science-fictional. Which is a shame, as whatever the merits of its competitors, ‘Stranger in the Family’ is easily the strongest drama of the three, its quiet menace well suited to the intimacy of television viewing. This should come as no surprise.

OOTU Stranger in the Family ArticleSome of this can be attributed to Alan Bridges, probably the most experienced of the first three directors to work on the series.1 He makes effective use of possibilities for location shooting provided by the story’s contemporary London setting – opening shots overlooking the flight exhibition at the Science Museum, sequences in the streets of (I think) Hammersmith and Fulham and along the south bank of the Thames by Southwark, the potent juxtaposition of a Victorian pub with a new tower block. Although lacking the overtly science-fictional images of the first two episodes, Bridges’ location shooting is a far more effective way to open up a drama than could be provided by their studio-bound extraterrestrial settings. Bridges also offers us several striking (really) high- and low-angle shots, but in the studio, especially, his careful direction works to let the story flow and a sense of threat to build.

But the real reason for the episode’s success is David Campton’s script. One of the first British practitioners of the Theatre of the Absurd, his The Lunatic View (1958) is often considered – alongside Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1957) – as the foundational example of the ‘comedies of menace’, a term taken from its subtitle. He was primarily a playwright – he ‘discovered’ Alan Ayckbourn – but he was active for about five years as a television writer. When Shubik commissioned ‘Stranger in the Family’, the first original piece for the series, Campton already had a couple of genre pieces to his credit. In 1966, he adapted Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839) for Mystery and Imagination (1966-70), starring Denholm Elliott and Susannah York as Roderick and Madeleine. In 1968, he adapted H. Russell Wakefield’s ‘The Triumph of Death’ (1949) for Late Night Horror, directed by Rudolph Cartier and starring Claire Bloom. Shubik would later commission him, in 1966 and 1969 respectively, to adapt Frederik Pohl’s ‘Tunnel under the World’ (1955) and Isaac Asimov’s ‘Liar!’ (1941) for Out of the Unknown. ‘Stranger in the Family’ was remade in 1969 as an episode of Journey into the Unknown (1968-69), with an entirely different cast including Janice Rule, Gerald Sim and Glynn Edwards.

strangerThe eighteen-year-old Boy (Richard O’Callaghan) flees from the Science Museum, tailed by the purposeful Hall (Joby Blanshard). Boy eventually confronts him, ordering his stalker to get away from him. Hall steps into the road and is killed by a van. But by the time Boy gets back to the flats where he lives with his ageing parents, Charles (Peter Copley) and Margaret (Daphne Slater) Wilson, another anonymous figure has him back under surveillance. The next-door flat has a new occupant, too, a man called Brown (John Paul) who makes no real effort to conceal his interest in Boy. The troubled family contemplate the need to move on – yet again – to evade their pursuers. They have clearly done this many times before and at some personal cost – Charles once worked at Harvard, but is now a lab assistant at a secondary modern school.

OutOfTheUnknown3Boy does not want to leave, though. He has fallen for an actress/model, Paula (Justine Lord), and believes she is genuinely interested in him.

More deaths follow. And they are not the first in which Boy has played a part.

For he is a mutant. His sensorium perceives the world differently, something he struggles to express in words. He is telepathic. And he is able to force others to do his will.

‘Stranger in the Family’ is a worthy addition to those British tales of an emerging posthumanity, exemplified by JD Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911) and Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1935). It recalls Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) and its adaptation, Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla 1960), and its quiet delineation of state surveillance and hinted-at machinations adds something of the underrated Children of the Damned (Anton M. Leader 1963) and the remarkable The Damned (Joseph Losey 1963) into the mix. Despite the melodramatic incidents around which the story is articulated, it remains ominously understated. Agendas compete, shift according to circumstance. Some motives are obvious, others remain ambiguous. When the boss of the surveillance team finally talks to Boy’s parents, he speaks reassuringly of the state intervening merely to keep such exceptional individuals safe and to observe their further development. He speaks of a new species that will end war and supplant homo sapiens entirely, and he seems pleased with the former and unfazed by the latter. But he is an agent of the state, and there is absolutely no reason to believe anything he says.

Other things to look out for
girl_06One of the pleasures of these shows is recognising the actors, many of whom were never stars but had long careers on British television, appearing in an episode here and there of pretty much everything. The reason Justine Lord looks familiar is that she is Sonia, the Out of the Unknown - S01.E03 - Stranger in the Family joby blanshardgirl who was death, in the Prisoner episode ‘The Girl Who was Death’ (1968). Hall, in the opening sequence .. . is it? … yes, it’s Colin from Doomwatch. Hold on, I recognise that voice, that’s John Hall, Spencer Quist from stranger-02Doomwatch! (Peter Copley and Bay White also each did a Doomwatch.) Copley was also Dr Warlock in Doctor Who’s ‘The Pyramids of Mars’ (1975), and other cast members appeared in ‘The Sea Devils’ (1972), ‘The Invasion’ (1968) and ‘The Space Pirates’ (1969). Jack May, who was in the last of these, was also in A for Andromeda (1961) and was the protagonist’s butler in Adam Adamant Lives! (1968-69). And so on. Other genre shows crop up in more than one cast member’s credits: The Avengers, The Champions, Department S – as well as less fantastical dramas and soaps. Oh, and if Richard O’Callaghan looks familiar, he is the son of Patricia Hayes – and the actor who was brought in when Jim Dale quit the Carry On… series (see him in …Loving and …at Your Convenience).

Last episode, ‘The Counterfeit Man’
Next episode, ‘The Dead Past’

Notes
1
In 1966, Bridges would direct the Robert Holmes-scripted sf movie, Invasion, and although he continued to work primarily in television, his other films include The Hireling (1973), Age of Innocence (1977), The Return of the Soldier (1982), The Shooting Party (1985) and Apt Pupil (1987).

Sources
Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.