Out Of The Unknown boxset (DVD TV review).

In the 1960s and early 1970s, one of the highlights of TV viewing was ‘Out Of The Unknown’, the BBC Science Fiction drama series, normally shown midweek about 9pm. These were the days before video recorders and I can remember the imperative necessity of getting to the TV on time. There was a total of four series between 1965 and 1971, the last two in colour and being initially one-hour duration, the plays were quite substantial with plenty of time to build up characters and plot.

Unfortunately, over the years, through reasons known only to the BBC, just 20 complete episodes now remain from the original 49. The others have been lost! It’s still possible that some episodes exist somewhere around the world, one was returned as recently as 2006 and if anyone finds material pertaining to the series, contact the British Film Institute right away. In the meantime, the BFI has packaged all the existing episodes in a seven disc DVD set and that’s what is being reviewed here.


Irene Shubik was the BBC producer who, in essence, brought the plays to reality. The source material was vast and many of the authors around at the time came from the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction. Look at the bookstalls and you see their names today. Nonetheless, turning short stories into one hour TV drama wasn’t as easy as you would think and, in fact, it was incredibly difficult. The producer had to fly across the Atlantic on many occasions just to secure contractual rights. Although we can think of many great stories, some were too short and others too long while some had problems of contract and copyright. Bringing ‘Out Of The Unknown’ into existence wasn’t a simple task. It was fortunate, however, that the BBC had great experience in this area and could put on plays of merit, ‘The Wednesday Play’ coming to mind, and it was this know-how that made everything a success.

The first series, in black and white, had such memorable names as John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, William Tenn, JG Ballard, Alan Nourse, Ray Bradbury, John Brunner and Frederik Pohl. These are giants of the genre and I can remember at the time they provided compulsive viewing. 10 of the original 12 episodes still exist and they are included on the discs. All have been electronically enhanced to make them better for viewing on modern equipment.

Where would you start in describing such a list? Let’s go through some of them. The first episode is John Wyndham’s ‘No Place Like Earth’ and the title is basically true because Earth doesn’t exist. It exploded. Some humans live on Mars (this is the distant future when planets had been terraformed) in idyllic tranquillity but, one day, a spaceship from Venus arrives where a new civilisation is forming. They want men to help build a new society. A man goes to Venus but doesn’t like what he sees and is determined to get back to Mars.

In Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Dead Past’, a machine called a cronoscope is used to look into the past. A professor wishes to look at ancient Carthage but is refused by the authoritative controllers. Not to be outdone, he gets a colleague to make his own with disastrous results.

Alan Nourse’s ‘The Counterfeit Man’ deals with a space expedition to an asteroid. On the return to Earth, the ship’s doctor is convinced that one of the crew has been taken over by an alien and he tries his utmost to expose the creature before it’s too late.

JG Ballard’s ‘Thirteen To Centaurus’ is set on a generation ship going to Proxima Centauri. The crew had been living in the ship for years with a psychiatrist in charge but his authority is being challenged by a young upstart. The truth behind the situation is quite startling and we find out where they are really going.

In all the episodes you will see many familiar faces, many actors who were common to screens all these years ago. Some are no longer with us but older people viewing the discs will have a good time recollecting who is who.

A list of the first series episodes available on the BFI discs is as follows:-

No Place Like Earth by John Wyndham

The Counterfeit Man by Alan Nourse

Stranger In The Family by David Campton

The Dead Past by Isaac Asimov

Time In Advance by William Tenn

Come Buttercup, Come Daisy by Mike Watts

Sucker Bait by Isaac Asimov

Some Lapse Of Time by John Brunner

Thirteen To Centaurus by JG Ballard

The Midas Plague by Frederik Pohl

Missing are ‘The Fox And The Forest’ by Ray Bradbury and ‘Andover And The Android by Kate Willhelm.

I can remember when ‘Out Of The Unknown’ first came to our TV screens, lots of other Science Fiction shows were being broadcast, including ‘Lost In Space’, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Man From UNCLE’. It wouldn’t be long before ‘Star Trek’ arrived. However, without sounding snooty, it must be said that the BBC plays were intellectually and dramatically superior, mainly because they didn’t follow a standard format.

The second series carried on in the same way but sadly most episodes have been lost. What we have left and what’s also available in the BFI collection is as follows:-

‘The Machine Stops’ by EM Forster. This is set underground in a technologically advanced setting 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.

‘Lambda 1’ by Colin Knapp. In the future, a unique method of transport uses nuclear technology to pass through solid rocks. A ship with a variety of passengers becomes lost in a strange dimension and two men try to save them using the first prototype ship. They experience twisted logic and hellish nightmares in their attempt to get back to base.

‘Tunnel Under The World’ by Frederik Pohl. A man seems to wake up the same day, every day and goes through life being bombarded by advertising. He has nightmares about a chemical factory disaster. One day, he manages to break the cycle to discover the real world.

‘Level Seven’ by JB Priestley. This refers to the seventh level of a bunker where people will wait out a nuclear war and launch the missiles and the bombs. It follows the experiences of a man sent to live forever in this bunker along with hundreds of other specially selected people who will be the future of mankind if a nuclear war begins. Of course, the war does begin with devastating results. This was made at the height of the Cold War and it was a frightening possibility for everyone at the time.

All the other episodes of series 2 have been lost, including a couple of really good plays by Isaac Asimov. I can remember watching most of these episodes and it’s really irritating to find they are no longer available. A full list of the episodes can be found on the Internet.

Series 3 was in colour. By this time the episodes had been reduced to 50 minutes. They also commenced with a new introduction sequence, with never-ending windows and an egg which hatched flowers and then burnt away. As with series 2, most of the episodes have been lost. What appears on the BFI discs is as follows:

‘The Last Lonely Man’ by John Brunner. People don’t die, they get their being downloaded into somebody else. In this classic tale, a man in a pub ends up agreeing to take on the mind of a psychiatrically unbalanced individual. The results are a disaster. Look out for a good performance by George Cole aka Arthur Daley from ‘Minder’.

The Little Black Bag by CM Kornbluth, a really memorable episode, exists in a shortened form. A disgraced doctor receives a medical bag from the future with which he can perform miraculous operations. In cahoots with a devious woman assistant, they perform cosmetic surgery for money until he has second thoughts about the ethics of what he is doing and decides to do his best for medical science and redeem his name. The woman has different ethical ideas.

Some episodes have been saved by the BFI and appear on discs, in audio with pictures. ‘Beach Head’ by Clifford Simak, in which Ed Bishop of ‘UFO’ fame acts as the commander, is presented as a series of still pictures, some animation and the complete sound recording. Similarly, other episodes have been painstakingly restored and all of these appear on the discs. There is even a soundtrack combined with actual TV scripts.

However, it’s a crying shame that we don’t have the full recordings of ‘The Naked Sun’ by Isaac Asimov, ‘Immortality Inc.’ by Robert Sheckley, ‘Target Generation’ by Clifford Simak and ‘Get Off My Cloud’ by Peter Phillips. Magnificent productions, I remember them well.

The final series, number 4, again is in colour and the episodes are 50 minutes. There is a change in emphasis to be less Science Fiction and more psychological horror. Many of the settings are contemporary and domestic. Several of these still remain intact and are on the discs. They were written by scriptwriters, not well known Science Fiction authors.

These are:-

To Lay A Ghost by Michael J Bird

This Body Is Mine by John Tully

Deathday by Angus Hall

Wellcome Home by Moris Farhi

The Man In My Head by John Wiles

There are also several reconstructed episodes in sound. Generally, series 4 is not as good as the others as far as Science Fiction is concerned but these episodes are certainly very worthwhile. In particular, ‘To Lay A Ghost’ which tells the tale of a young bride being haunted and possessed by a 19th century murderer and also ‘Welcome Home’, about a patient from a hospital who returns home to find someone else in his identity.

If that was all you got, the package would certainly be very good value but with most offerings from the BFI there are extras. In this case, there are tons of extras! Let’s go through some of them.

A 42 minute feature, made this year, entitled ‘Return Of The Unknown’. It has interviews with the cast and crew plus clips. This is a very interesting documentary.

Lots of the episodes have audio documentaries. 11 episodes in total.

An interview with the TV director Cellon Jones (2014).

The episode reconstructions as mentioned.

Seven extensive stills galleries.

It comes with optional English sub-titles.

A magnificent 44 page booklet. Details on all the episodes are included plus additional information and essays.

This release by the BFI is a part of their ‘Sci-Fi: Days Of Fear And Wonder’ which includes many other interesting movies. The details can be found on their website. The ‘Out Of The Unknown’ package retails for about £70, which some say is expensive. Perhaps that may be the case but it contains a lot of material you won’t be able to get anywhere else. There’s a total of 1325 minutes and that represents a lot of viewing, enough to keep anyone occupied for weeks. This could be an ideal Christmas present for someone you know or even for your own indulgence. Personally, I really enjoyed watching all these episodes again. They are classic tales, epics of Science Fiction, made to a high standard in the good old days of BBC drama. I would recommend this package to anyone because it’s something you will keep for years to come.

Rod MacDonald

October 2014

(region 2 DVD: pub: BFI. 20 * 60/50 minute episodes 1325 minutes 7 disks with extras. Price: £69.99 (UK))

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