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7 disc DVD set
British Film Institute
Release Date 24 November 2014
approximate price £50 UK

In the 1960s I can remember rushing to get to the TV to watch the BBC Science Fiction series, Out of the Unknown. The one-hour episodes, largely in black and white, contained drama based on short stories from many of the authors of the so-called Golden Age, including Isaac Asimov, John Wyndham, William Tenn, Frederik Pohl, John Brunner and Ray Bradbury. Though repeated a year or two later, since then they have never appeared on TV screens and unfortunately for various reasons only 20 of the original 49 episodes remain but the BFI has put all available material together, plus lots of extras, on a seven disc DVD package.

Irene Shubik was the BBC producer who brought the plays to reality and coming from the BBC which had enormous experience of creating good drama, the end results were very good. Unencumbered by the type of formatting dictated by commercial breaks, it was possible to put on realistic and challenging plays which where unlike anything that had appeared on television before, and in intellectual content they were far above contemporary American shows such as Lost in Space and even Star Trek.

The first episode was John Wyndham’s “No Place Like Earth” which is set in the future on a terraformed planet Mars. After an apocalypse which had destroyed Earth, a few humans had survived on the red planet but one day they were visited by a spaceship from Venus where other humans were intent on building a new society and wanted men to help them. One man decided reluctantly to go only to find a dictatorship based on slavery and from that time it was his intention to get back to Mars.

With most of the first series still available, in black and white which has now been electronically revitalised, we are treated to the delights of JG Ballard’s “Thirteen to Centaurus” and Isaac Asimov’s “The Dead Past”. Many will remember Alan Nourse’s “The Counterfeit Man” and also William Tenn’s “Time in Advance”, the latter portraying a strange society in the future where people were sentenced for the intention of committing a crime only to be allowed to commit that crime after imprisonment. If it was murder, the criminal was allowed in the future to murder somebody without recrimination, thus creating a media frenzy on who was going to be the victim.

Most of the second series is AWOL but there’s an absolute gem in “The Machine Stops” by EM Forster. This is set underground in a technologically advanced civilisation where people live cosseted by machines. Outside nothing exists and humans continue to endure within the machine. A woman becomes perplexed when her son wants to see what’s outside. Additionally, the machine shows signs of failure.

Written at the beginning of the 20th century, Forster foresees a bleak outlook for humans and indeed, the way we are progressing at the moment, a similar outlook could befall us. Maybe in 50 years, driverless cars, robotic machines, electronic communication and medical devices will make us completely helpless and dependent on the machines and when they fail, we will be completely powerless to do anything. Will there be anybody left who could survive without the trappings of civilisation? Probably not!

When I was young, one of the topics of conversation was the possibility of nuclear annihilation. The episode dramatised by JB Priestley entitled “Level Seven” realises this awful outcome. This was a level deep underground where a community in the belief that they would survive a nuclear war actually seemed to be responsible for starting it. Then they begin to worry when progressively the levels above them begin to go silent. It tells us that there are no winners in a nuclear war!

Of the third series which is in colour we still have John Brunner’s “The Last Lonely Man” and some of CM Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag”. Both are really good episodes which are definitely worth watching. The black bag refers to an advanced medical kit which somehow accidentally gets transported from the future to the past. It ends in the hands of a disgraced doctor who, with a twinge of conscience, decides to use it for the good of humanity but he has an unscrupulous and greedy female assistant with other ideas.

The BFI has saved some episodes in a limited form, in audio with pictures. One such episode is Clifford Simak’s “Beach Head”, a really memorable play in which Ed Bishop (of UFO fame) visits a planet where metal naturally disintegrates, leaving him bereft of his coveted technology. How would he survive? However, it’s really annoying to discover that we don’t have Simak’s “Target Generation” which was based on a generation ship going to another stellar system. If anyone out there in the world discovers tapes with episodes of Out Of the Unknown, get in touch with the BFI right away!

The final series, number four, was also in colour but the emphasis changed from hard Science Fiction to psychological horror of a contemporary and domestic nature. I imagine financial restraint was the reason behind this move but it still produced some memorable episodes, including “To Lay a Ghost”, “Welcome Home” and also “Deathday”. By this time the mainstream authors with whom we are all familiar had disappeared and script writers were used.

But that’s not all, folks! As with most offerings from the BFI you get extras and in this case they are almost overwhelming. Most of the episodes come with commentaries from the production team and actors involved at the time plus, galleries of still pictures from these episodes and also some from the others that have been lost. The best way to see what’s available would be to consult the BFI website but it must be mentioned that a really nice booklet is included which contains details of the episodes and essays on various aspects of the productions.

This release by the BFI is a part of their Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder which includes many other interesting movies. The package is expensive but it is also extensive, making it an ideal present for somebody’s birthday or Christmas. I found it to be really enjoyable probably because I’m old enough to have seen it first time round, thus invoking a certain amount of nostalgia, but I’m sure all generations will find this interesting. After all, the authors though no longer with us are still to be found in great number on the bookshelves. One problem was that when you started watching one episode, you would invariably watch the next and before you knew what was happening it was after midnight. That’s time for old people to be in bed with a cup of cocoa. In my consideration, despite the price, it’s a really great package and I will give it five stars.

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