Thursday, January 29, 2015


Science-Fiction on television is mainly dominated by American shows - from THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE OUTER LIMITS to FIREFLY & THE X-FILES among the sublime to the downright goofy but entertaining shows by Irwin Allen (LOST IN SPACE), who passed that torch to Glen Larson (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, BUCK ROGERS). Shows from other countries will occasionally make their way across the pond; witness the popular DR. WHO, TORCHWOOD and ORPHAN BLACK now on BBCAmerica, older shows like BLAKE'S 7, SAPPHIRE AND STEEL, RED DWARF, SURVIORS and the serialized DR. WHO with Tom Baker whom many first saw on their local PBS stations in the 80's and 90's and the Gerry Anderson shows of the 60's (FIREBALL XL-5, THUNDERBIRDS), 70's (UFO, SPACE:1999) and 80's (SPACE PRECINCT).

What many don't realize is that British Television has had a long history of Sci-Fi quality programming pretty much from the start. Most in America are familiar with Nigel Kneale's Quatermass series, but probably from the Hammer films. They were originally done as live television plays and even after the era of live television passed, the British kept the concept of doing the television play, well into the 1980's. Most of the plays and series were taped 'live' - that is, shot in a multi-camera setup with the cast running through much like recording a theatrical performance, with filmed inserts for certain scenes.

There were the Quatermass serials during the 50's and adaptations of material like Orwell's 1984, as well as series like A FOR ANDROMEDA, and an anthology series of science fiction for ABC Television, OUT OF THIS WORLD, which was hosted by Boris Karloff and featured stories by Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Clifford Simak, John Wyndham, among others. The show was a success, but only lasted a season, due to the creator of the show, Irene Shubik, being hired by the BBC.

Shubik pitched another anthology series, OUT OF THE UNKNOWN, which was accepted and went into production in 1965 and lasted for 4 series (seasons) until 1971. Most American fans never heard of the series until the late 70's - early 80's when some of the British shows started being imported into the U.S.A. I suspect the first mention of it (along with other British product) was in the book FANTASTIC TELEVISION by Gary Gerani & Paul H. Shulman, the first extensive book on genre programming on television up through the mid-70's.

The show was never imported to the U.S. In fact, the only time that I ever got to put eyeballs on an episode was when surviving episodes got uploaded to YouTube just a few years ago. And 'surviving episodes' is probably another factor for the show not being broadcast here - The BBC had the custom of wiping tapes, as a cost-savings measure, of shows, which is why the early history of British Television is very spotty - most of the shows simply don't exist anymore, except for stills, audio and the occasional clip.

So knowing this upfront, one can imagine what the response was when the BFI, as part of their "Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder" celebration announced the release of OUT OF THE UNKNOWN on DVD.

If you are a fan of science-fiction... and I don't mean that you like STAR WARS and watch the SyFy Channel on occasion - I mean that if you are the person who not only watches, but also reads science-fiction; if you know what the names Asimov, Pohl, Sheckley, Kornbluth and have read their work; if you're a fan for the ideas of sci-fi more than just the spectacle. then it is worth your while to track down a copy of this. If you are indeed a fan, then discovering OUT OF THE UNKNOWN is tantamount to when you discovered THE TWILIGHT ZONE and/or THE OUTER LIMITS (60's) for the first time - now imagine that only 40% -60% of either of those shows were all that were in existence.

One important distinction between the American and British approaches (besides budget and production value, obviously) is that the British were more apt to adapt material from writers in the genre - OUT OF THE UNKNOWN adapted several Isaac Asimov stories, as well as stories from Frederick Pohl, Ray Bradbury, Kate Wilhelm, J.G. Ballard (whose story 'Thirteen To Centaurus" was also an inspiration to the recent SyFy miniseries ASCENSION), John Brunner, John Wyndham, Clifford D. Simak, Robert Sheckley, E.M. Forster, amongst others. Most of the American shows really didn't pull from the pool of material from established sci-fi writers.

The bulk of surviving episodes are from Series One; Series Two has two notable episodes of the show, "The Machine Stops"  by E. M. Forster (A Passage To India) and "Level Seven" by Mordecai Rashwald and adapted by J. B. Priestley. Both series were broadcast in black and white and where the 'classic tv vibe' is the strongest. Series 3 and 4, the series changed producers and started broadcasting in color - it's also where the majority of missing episodes lie. In cases where the surviving material is audio and stills, there are episode reconstructions, to give the viewer a sense, at least, of the story.

Series 4, the show shifted from most of the 'space opera' type of science-fiction towards more psychological and occult type of material; probably due to concerns that the fantastical type of sci-fi couldn't credibly compete with current real-life events (the Apollo space program was in full swing at the time). Nigel Kneale contributed a story, "The Chopper", which unfortunately is among the missing/wiped shows.

Overall, if you're the sort that still buys physical media to enlarge your personal library AND a fan of science-fiction, this is obviously one of the Releases of the Year. It's also a very important historical release for British Television - the set includes 11 commentaries on selected episodes, all of which did add some value, especially about the environment in which these shows were created. In addition to image galleries and episode reconstructions, there's a 40 min documentary 'Return To The Unknown" which goes into the history of the program and includes surviving clips from some of the missing episodes.

Being a R2 release, if you're in the U.S. and don't have access to an all-region player, or haven't taken the step to hack your player to all-region (if it's possible to do so), then the only way you'll be able to see some of the eps will be via the uploads on YouTube, if they'll remain up for anytime past this.

In the U.S., the best way to get the set - and indeed, pretty much any DVD/BR import - is through DiabolikDVD - it should be about $90, including shipping, but that may depend on the exchange rate at the time.

The Digital Fix did an extensive breakdown on the set, as well as this excellent review from Mondo Digital. You can also find more specific info about the show on the British television site Archive Television Musings.

The definitive guide to the show by author Mark Waid can be ordered here.

And if this gives you a taste for British Genre Television beyond just DOCTOR WHO, know that there's a considerable amount out there that may make going all-region in one form or another pay off; there's also the plays of Nigel Kneale, and shows such as THE CHANGES and CHILDREN OF THE STONES, and GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS, just to start out...

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