Out of the Unknown: sci-fi and the 60s

Cult series Out of the Unknown set a new standard for adult TV sci-fi, drawing on writers such as Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard and Ray Bradbury to reflect the social concerns of the 1960s right back at the viewer.

Mark Ward

Watch the trailer for Out of the Unknown (1965-71)

The best science fiction, argued Theodore Sturgeon, is “a story built around human beings, with a human problem and a human solution, which would not have happened without its scientific content”.

Irene Shubik, who powered the first three series of the BBC’s groundbreaking Out of the Unknown (1965-71), admired science fiction for its ability to act as parable or metaphor in portraying the concerns of contemporary society. Shubik knew that however outlandish science fiction might seem to the everyday viewer on the surface, it should have a deeper topicality that would resonate and add strength to the viewer’s experience.

For the baby-boom generation adults of the 1960s, Britain was on a turbulent voyage of dizzying technological and social change, and Out of the Unknown illustrated this; a mirror from the future reflecting the present, warning – sometimes portentously, sometimes playfully – of the dangers of the relationship between technology and society.

Space travel

The continually newsworthy story of the 1960s was of course space travel; at the dawn of the decade commercial satellites were being made available, while at its close man was actually on the moon. It was the ultimate paradigm for technological advance – science fiction becoming science reality.

Out of the Unknown: Sucker Bait (1965)

Out of the Unknown: Sucker Bait (1965)

Out of the Unknown cleverly sidestepped some of this by asking: man may be heading for the moon, but what about the far future, and interstellar travel? More importantly, what would be the psychological effects of all of this?

Thirteen to Centaurus (1965) and Target Generation illustrated the strains that such voyages would put on society as it had to cope with generational travel to another galaxy, the psychological transformations this would involve with its implications of self sacrifice and the disturbance of humanity.

In Frankenstein Mark II, the human body itself is adapted to grotesque forms in order to cope with the reality of life in space on a more permanent basis, the interface between this and normal life causing complete psychological breakdown.

Although not strictly concerned with space travel, Lambda I presents a venture into equally terrifying territory as subatomic journeys are found to have potentially devastating effects on the human psyche, while The Yellow Pill demonstrates the hallucinatory nightmares present in spaceflight. And when we enter space we may find hostile life forms that threaten our very identity (The Counterfeit Man), or a lethal toxicity that causes madness, then death (Sucker Bait).

Out of the Unknown: The Counterfeit Man (1965)

Out of the Unknown: The Counterfeit Man (1965)

The Bomb

A more immediate spectre haunted the world of the sixties – the Bomb. A nuclear age only two decades old had given rise to the cold war with all the potential for self destruction on an unprecedented scale.

With the Cuban missile crisis only a few years earlier, and powerful dramas such as Dr Strangelove (1964), Fail Safe (1964) and The War Game (1965) still in the public memory, the sense of how near total extinction could be was palpable.

While Level Seven depicts the nuclear holocaust as it happens, a three-hour world war fought on maps and controlled by buttons, Some Lapse of Time provides a warning from the future – an unseen catastrophe that haunts a totally innocent physician linked to his own personal tragedy by a mysterious shaman.

War

Entering the lives of Britons on a daily basis via the media were conflicts being fought elsewhere, a prototype for parable in the science fiction realm. Britain was still experiencing its retreat from the Empire which had been so acutely signified by Suez in 1956; while Out of the Unknown was transmitted, there were similar crises in Aden and Rhodesia, and of course the war in Vietnam which then still had the potential to involve UK participation.

Imperial entanglements were reflected in No Place like Earth, where aggressive colonialism on Venus is contrasted to the indigenous harmony on Mars, and in Clifford Simak’s Beach Head where the arrogant advance of technology grinds to a halt in the face of a uniquely hostile environment.

A much more modern situation occurs in Too Many Cooks: a deft tale of technology developed for military means (in this case cloning) being misplaced in the service of a dictatorship and actually ending in the possibility of a multiplicity of conflicts.

Crime and punishment

More tangible features of the new technocracy and the new society were evident in Shubik’s series. In the realm of law and justice, the British government had abolished capital punishment in 1964, an act that would still be controversial when Time in Advance pioneered its own legal dystopia, far in the future, where the punishment was made to fit before the crime. And, in 1966, The Eye pictured a society so beset by surveillance that the perfect crime is thought to be impossible.

Medicine

Medicine in the 1960s was also undergoing a revolution, with the new prosperity bearing forth a love of the body beautiful, and Out of the Unknown explored this too – cosmetic surgery parodied in The Little Black Bag, and rejuvenation therapy undertaken with unexpected results in Second Childhood.

Out of the Unknown: Time in Advance (1965)

Out of the Unknown: Time in Advance (1965)

For the first time, medical advances were played out in public via the media, with surgery such as liver or heart transplants seeming to offer a new future, postponing death. The abiding theme here was be careful what you wish for; attempting to avoid death has its own terrors, such as the increase in human longevity pioneered in Walk’s End. Death was commented on in many forms, from the instant and painless euthanasia mentioned in Time in Advance and The Machine Stops to the more bizarre debates on life after death in Immortality Inc with its Hereafter Drives and Spiritual Switchboard.

Faith and spirituality

In the face of scientific improvement, faith was becoming fragmented in the 1960s as new and different spirituality took hold, and interest in eastern religions such as transcendental meditation began to overturn concepts of death, the soul and human identity. The series commented on this using such devices as mind or soul transfers in stories such as The Last Lonely Man, This Body Is Mine and Get Off My Cloud (where the mind of the most level-headed person available is implanted by a scientist to rescue a science fiction writer from apparent madness).

Out of the Unknown: This Body Is Mine (1971)

Out of the Unknown: This Body Is Mine (1971)

The dangers of religious indoctrination are brilliantly explored in the closed community of Thirteen to Centaurus with its frightening view of a religious leader who will lead his people to a promised land; on a more humorous note, The Prophet shows that even the soulless robots of a space station can develop their own religion.

Drugs

This was also the era when the pharmaceutical industry took off – “better living through chemistry”, claimed one US manufacturer – and the 60s saw the advent of the pill-popping generation, as Valium, purple hearts, speed and LSD enter the public domain and everyday medicine was perceived to be the ultimate panacea in an increasingly turbo-charged world.

The kind of mind-altering drugs used to open Huxley’s ‘doors of perception’ are taken in The Yellow Pill to restore reality, and as an instrument for constructing a false reality in Welcome Home. And the pill, manufactured from 1960, together with the abortion bill of 1967, became the basis for Brian Hayles’ playful skewering of population control in 1 + 1 = 1.5.

Consumerism

Although Britain was effectively in debt throughout the 1960s, the general reaction was to party until it was 1969, following years of post-war austerity. For the first time, more and more products were within reach of the general population, and thus the consumer age was born.

Motor cars, televisions, transistor radios, stereos, washing machines – all were now becoming must-haves rather than wistful wants. You could buy goods using Green Shield stamps, or on Hire Purchase, or even with new fangled credit cards. The adage that today people are taught to be good consumers rather than good citizens came true in the 60s, and Out of the Unknown reflected this in two remarkable works by Frederik Pohl.

Out of the Unknown: The Midas Plague (1965)

Out of the Unknown: The Midas Plague (1965)

In The Midas Plague, your citizenship is actively governed by the amount of goods you consume, resulting in a bizarre class inversion where those who have the least are now the top echelon of society – a case of not having what you want but wanting what you have.

Tunnel under the World brilliantly parodied the links between the new consumer boom and the power of advertising, ending with a barbed view of the inevitable consequences of such power, warning British audiences that it is a very short step indeed from advertising products to advertising politicians – from Feckle Freezers to Saatchi & Saatchi?

Education

Huge changes in education were underway in the 1960s, both in terms of the curriculum and the introduction of radical methods of training. Out of the Unknown commented on the latter with a powerful thriller, The World in Silence, where the layout of new educational computers in a college has a dangerous effect on one susceptible young mind. Elsewhere, Isaac Asimov observes that academic training is becoming so specialised as to cause dangerous gaps in knowledge (Sucker Bait and The Dead Past).

Out of the Unknown: Sucker Bait (1965)

Out of the Unknown: Sucker Bait (1965)

Robots and advancing technology

Some scientific advances were obviously too new at that time to be assimilated as anything but worrisome in the eyes of the general television audience – cloning, lasers, quantum physics and of course that great science fiction trope, the robot.

Robots or cyborgs were generally seen as dangerous in the 60s – Daleks, War Machines, Cybermen and Cybernauts were soulless or evil reflections of the very worst elements of mankind, or at the very least objects of derision, as in Fireball XL5 (1962-63) and Lost in Space (1965-68).

Shubik channelled Asimov’s fictional views into a new and unique presentation of robotics for television – anthropomorphised objects for comedy and humour, simultaneously commenting on the foibles of the humans that had created them. It is perhaps the series’ greatest contribution to sci-fi television, subverting the accepted picture of robots by giving them personalities sometimes more attractive than the real people around them.

Out of the Unknown: The Midas Plague (1965)

Out of the Unknown: The Midas Plague (1965)

Kate Wilhelm’s Andover and the Android sees a selfish, resolute bachelor, told to accept matrimony in order to inherit his aunt’s wealth, ‘marry’ an android replica named Lydia, which he sees as the ideal wife whom he can shove in a cupboard whenever he wants (a fate that many robots face in Out of the Unknown!). Domestic chaos ensues and Andover’s nervous reaction to his android’s behaviour results in him being mistaken for a malfunctioning robot and volatised. The sympathies throughout are not with the humans but with poor Lydia – the robot being portrayed as a subject for chamber comedy rather than a weapon of mass destruction.

Satisfaction Guaranteed sees a robot, Hal, acting as mentor to a human Pygmalion, Claire, a rather timid individual surrounded by either spiteful or uncaring humans whose life is transformed by Hal’s sense of humanity. Liar! sees Herbie, an unusual telepathic robot, desperately trying to please everyone by telling them what they want to hear, and thus not transgressing the First Law of Robotics, yet eventually turning himself into an object of resentment as the humans discover he’s been telling lies.

What does Out of the Unknown tell us about today?

Today, while few concern themselves with space travel or atomic destruction, many of the obsessions and worries of the swinging/sunset decade, so perceptively commented upon in Out of the Unknown, remain pertinent. The individual, the state, human identity, law and order, education, consumerism, medicine, war and so on still concern us, and the parables involved in good science fiction remain relevant because they centre on people and their interaction with technology.

The Machine Stops resonates through the years; for Forster, watching the very first aeroplanes, the story was initially meant as a warning that the everlasting march of technology could be counter-productive, removing mankind’s innate sense of adventure and desire for experience, leading to lack of knowledge, mysticism and worship of the technology itself.

Out of the Unknown: The Machine Stops (1966)

Out of the Unknown: The Machine Stops (1966)

For the 1960s generation, Kenneth Cavander and Clive Donner’s adaptation enhanced the comment on technological advance, but also explored the growing decadence of a generation increasingly weaned on a wish for a more hedonistic lifestyle; today we might instantly relate to Vashti and Friend as a portentous parody of social media; the fatuousness of Facebook and the tittle-tattle of Twitter.

In Walk’s End, a group of elderly residents in a special care home worry whether the deliciously named Dr Saint is using them for organ transplants or to experiment on them for euthanasia, when in reality the nightmare is that he has granted them 40 years extra longevity, so they can live out their endlessly senile lives for an extra generation. In our age, this idea seems to resonate far more strongly with an increasingly elderly populace, and concerns over the legalisation of assisted dying.

Out of the Unknown: The Last Lonely Man (1969)

Out of the Unknown: The Last Lonely Man (1969)

Pohl’s consumer satires are just as valid today, more so now that we live in an era where consumer groups, commercial consultation agencies and the marketing of politicians is now par for the course. And The Dead Past and The Eye may be science fiction but we increasingly live in a surveillance society – who may be watching us or monitoring our communication?

Whatever the angle, the humanity of Shubik’s Out of the Unknown ensured that, wherever the science applied, and the fiction added, the results were always, ultimately, about people.

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