Out of the Unknown (1965) Stranger In The Family

(AKA Series 1, Episode 3)

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Up to this point in my sporadic viewings of Out of the Unknown, I’ve been blessed with science fiction stories adapted from existing popular science fiction short stories and novels. First there was “No Place Like Earth” by John Wyndham and later “The Counterfeit Man” by Alan Nourse. What makes “Stranger in the Family” (our topic for today) really stand out against these popular adaptations is that is was actually commissioned specifically for the show. In series one, there only two such stories: This one by David Campton and “Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…?” by Mike Watts. Thankfully both exist in a viewable form today, as many of these episodes sadly are lost to the sands of time.

David Campton was a popular UK-based playwright and dramatist that regularly worked on various British “anthology” shows such as this in the 1960’s. He did a few other episodes of Out of the Unknown, but this was the only one he wrote himself rather than doing an adaptation. He is definitely most known for his work as a playwright, which he was steadily involved in until his death in 2006.

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Charles Jr., or ‘Boy’ as he is simply referred to, is an odd child. Not only is he born with a strange deformity of having no fingernails, but he is “blessed” with powerful mental abilities that enable him to control others. This troublesome ability has caused nothing but grief for his family, who have had to constantly move from home to home to avoid trouble pertaining to Boy’s abilities. Most worrisome is the fact that he is being hunted by a mysterious surveillance team who have moved into the next-door flat in the tower block. Boy falls for a young actress whose agent / boyfriend encourages the relationship once he discovers his “gift” because he thinks Boy’s powers can be used to make a lot of money via TV commercials.

When I first saw this, I immediately started to be reminded of an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series entitled “Charlie X“. Without going into specifics, let’s just say that there are enough similarities to assume that somebody ripped somebody else off. After doing a bit of research I discovered that this came first, but neither David Campton or Gene Roddenberry copied each other, and that both were most likely inspired by an even earlier short story from 1953 called “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby. To add further confusion, Bixby’s story was adapted into a Twilight Zone episode! All three have the same basic story of a boy that “becomes God” and uses their powers to manipulate others.

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Out of the Unknown: Stranger in the Family Stars Peter Copley and Daphne Slater as Boy’s parents. While Daphne Slater more-or-less stopped working in the 1970’s, Copley went on to be in some pretty big films like Empire of the Sun, and Kingdom of Heaven. The main character, Boy, is played by Rochard O’Callaghan, a man that went on to be in tons of stuff including an episode of Red Dwarf where he played “Hogey the Roguey”. He’s mostly known for roles in TONS of procedural police shows, and is still working to this day. Paula Wild is portrayed by Justine Lord and her agent Sonny is played by Eric Lander. Lander is perhaps best known for various soap opera roles including General Hospital.

I really enjoyed both the script and direction for this episode. The last two episodes have “dragged” a bit in the second act, but this episode kept me on the edge of my seat for the entirety of the show. As Boy gets continuously “messed with” and used by people that he mistakenly thinks are working in his best interest, he begins to go down the path of revenge that is all to familiar with these types of stories. Luckily somebody didn’t dump pigs blood on him at the prom, because the body count would have been crazy. One has to thank both Campton and the director Alan Bridges for keeping the whole thing tightly paced and interesting throughout.

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Since this is more of a science fiction-tinged psychological thriller, there aren’t too many dodgy “special effects” shots to worry about. More than anything else, this keeps the drama from being so dated that everyone can tell exactly when this was filmed. Also, there are no zany “space costumes” or “bug-eyed monsters” there ramping up the cheese factor. Granted, Out of the Unknown usually resists such tropes, but with classic science fiction, one has to be prepared.

This is a great episode of Out of the Unknown, and is probably my favorite of the three so far. If I were to show this program to anyone, I think that “Stranger in the Family” is a strong contender for the episode I’d use to introduce it. The version I was able to watch had tons of audio and video defaults as well as BBC time numbers all over it, so it’s not the best looking thing out there. I wish a professional restoration was in the cards, but I’ll take it any way I can get it.

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Sadly, obtaining a copy of Stranger in the Family or any episode of Out of the Unknown is basically impossible by legitimate means, but that’s where YouTube comes into play. I have included a link to the episode below,if you would like to watch this as well.

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Out of the Unknown (1965) The Counterfeit Man

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(AKA series 1, episode 2)

For those unfamiliar with Out of the Unknown, here is a quick run-down transplanted from my last review: “Out of the Unknown is relatively unheard of outside of hardcore science fiction fandom due to the poor archival status of the show. It’s one of those shows that fell victim to the BBC’s “junking” policy for old footage. Of the original four seasons and nearly fifty episodes of the show produced, only around twenty exist today. What remains is pretty solid TV and consists of short stories adapted from existing work with a few exceptions made for the show.” Today we’ll be looking at the second episode – The Counterfeit Man.

Based on a short story by Alan Nourse, The Counterfeit Man stands as a totally different experience than the previous episode of Out of the Unknown that I looked at – No Place Like Earth. While that episode was sort of fantasy-ish, and felt somewhat “Victorian” in it’s understanding of science, The Counterfeit Man is as close to a “hard science fiction” story as one could reasonably assume for the time frame. While I’m not too familiar with the works of Alan Nourse, I can reasonably tell (by looking at Wikipedia) that his stories seem to be largely based on medical science, and visions of what medicine could become in the future. To me, this almost feels like something along the same lines of the Quatermass series, just replacing a rocket scientist with a doctor.

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The story of The Counterfeit Man follows a space physician named Dr. Crawford (Alexander Davion) who works as the medical officer of an exploratory spaceship in the distant future. After returning from one of Jupiter’s moons, Ganymede, Crawford determines the crew has been somehow infiltrated by a shape-shifting alien. He comes to this conclusion after a medical examination of a fellow astronaut named Westcott (David Hemmings) shows a medically impossible blood sugar level of zero and strange behavior. Crawford attempts to quarantine the presumed alien right there, but things are never that easy in science fiction stories are they? All Crawford has to do is force this invader to “out himself” before they get to Earth, so it can be disposed of.

One will notice that my description above is vaguely similar to the John Carpenter movie The Thing, and that’s immediately what struck me as well. I’m aware that the 1982 film is actually based on a short science fiction novella from the 1930’s, but I couldn’t help drawing the comparison.

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The Counterfeit Man excels in not looking too dated despite watching this nearly fifty years after the fact. Being a fan of older science fiction, I try to look at older productions in the context of age, but sometimes things just look terrible today no matter what. Somehow this episode hides this, and I bet one can chalk this up to the black and white medium “hiding” what were most likely garish colors and terrible sets. Luckily, the designs of everything from the costumes to the spaceships look fine, almost realistic.

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I’d say that the decent production values and tight script make watching this episode a worthwhile venture. I will say that it does “drag” a little bit in the middle, but it’s not a deal breaker by any means. Just like with the last episode, obtaining a copy of The Counterfeit Man or any episode of Out of the Unknown is basically impossible by legitimate means, but that’s where YouTube comes into play. I have included a link to the episode below,if you would like to watch this as well.

 

 

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Out of the Unknown (1965) No Place like Earth

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Anthology TV shows used to be fairly common, my personal favorite being a show called Tales from the Darkside (mostly due to its amazing theme song). While there aren’t many today, one can definitely see that the 1960’s were the golden age for these sorts of programs. In America, there were shows like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, and in the UK shows like Journey to The Unknown and the lesser known Out of the Unknown were big business during the UK science fiction golden age. Out of the Unknown is relatively unheard of outside of hardcore science fiction fandom due to the poor archival status of the show. It’s one of those shows that fell victim to the BBC’s “junking” policy for old footage. Of the original four seasons and nearly fifty episodes of the show produced, only around twenty exist today. What remains is pretty solid TV and consists of short stories adapted from existing work with a few exceptions made for the show. I actually heard about this show doing a Wikipedia search for John Wyndham (of Day of the Triffids fame) and found out that he had a story made into an episode. Which story? Well this one right here!

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No Place like Earth is a new take on the old Thomas Wolfe coined phrase “you can’t go home again”. Set fifteen years in an indeterminate future, a man named Bert Foster (Terence Morgan) wanders the canals of Mars thinking of simpler times he had on Earth. It seems Earth collapsed in a nuclear holocaust leaving all the survivors to find refuge on nearby planets. Bert is essentially homeless and travels around doing the work of a handyman to make ends meet. While trying to be the best hermit he can be, Bert draws attention from a Martian woman named Annike that is eyeing him for her daughter Zeyla. Before the story veers into sappy love story territory, a rocket from Venus shows up. The crew tells of a “New Earth” on Venus, and Bert jumps at the chance to regain his former glory. Bert’s heart breaks when he realizes Venus is nothing more than a slave colony with wealthy overlords preying on gullible fools like him. Looks like Mars wasn’t so bad was it Bert?

Some might look at No Place like Earth and think how silly the setting is. Wyndham painted a picture of a Mars that exists in pure fantasy; a planet full of crazy mountains and canals full of fresh water. I had to watch this on a popular video sharing website (since the episodes are nearly impossible to find otherwise) and noticed a bunch of unimaginative people mocking the “old notions of what Mars was like”. Those folks are missing the point, and are most likely the same people that crapped on John Carter, despite it being a really good summer movie. The original story for No Place like Earth was written in the spring of 1951, and by that time we definitely knew that there were no canals of rushing water on Mars. We knew there were not livable cities all over the place. Outside of the occasional ancient alien theorist espousing new theories on how Mars has a face on it, we had about the same level of Martian knowledge then that had when we started sending robots up there. To really enjoy this episode one has suspend disbelief just enough to see what story is trying to be conveyed rather than harping on how unscientific the whole thing is. And that’s the end of my rant for the day.

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No Place like Earth is definitely a low budget affair, and is only really saved on an artistic standpoint by being filmed in black and white. The costuming looks decent, if not a bit on the camp side; although I can imagine that everything was painted in garish colors. In this way, I feel a lack of said color is a blessing in disguise. Effect shots are very few and far between, and aside from a slew of decent matte paintings and other background special effects, the whole affair is essentially done as a stage play rather than something filmed especially for Television. One thing that could have been done a bit better was the acting in certain places. Since I can assume that most of the actors involved were stage actors, they seem to be massively overacting when in front of the camera. The way they wistfully look around, their body posture and the way they move all scream THEATRE! I can let this pass in older TV shows and films, because the medium was in its infancy, but I’ve seen much older shows with way more subdued acting.

Aside from those few quibbles, I enjoyed No Place like Earth quite a bit. I think it’s my love for older science fiction short stories from the era, but stories like this have a weird sense of wonder and adventure that is mostly absent from a lot of modern science fiction. If you like these sorts of shows and want to see stories from some fairly prominent science fiction writers of the time, I’d say check this show out.