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Out of the Unknown: Series 1, episode 1.”No Place Like Earth” (October, 1965)

“No Place Like Earth”  was broadcast by the BBC on  4th October 1965.

Cast: Bert Foster Terence Morgan, Annika Jessica Dunning, Zyalo Hannah Gordon, Freeman Joseph O’Connor, Blane Alan Tilvern, Major Khan George Pastell, Spaceship Capatin Jerry Stovin, Carter Vernon Joyner, Harris Bill Treacher, Chief Officer Geoffrey Palmer, Security Guard Roy Stewart

Writer: Stanley Miller (adapted from a story by John Wyndham). Producer and Story Edtor: Irene Shubik.

“No Place  Like Earth” was the first episode in the science  fiction  series Out of the Unknown which ran for four series from 1965 to 1971, created by Irene Shubik.

Irene  was  born in 1929. She was unable to get a job with the BBC,   and so worked in the USA for a couple of years. On her return to England she got a job  on the   current affairs series This Week before joining the Drama Department at ABC  in 1960 as  the story editor on Armchair Theatre,  which was being produced by Sydney Newman.

In early 1962 she  created British television’s first science fiction anthology series, Out of This World,  bringing  in writers she had already worked with on Armchair Theatre. They adapted a  number  of science fiction classics eg Dumb Martian by John Wyndham, but also   woite a couple of new stories eg Botany Bay by Terry Nation,  who went on to create the Daleks for Doctor Who in 1964. Sadly only one episode from the series,  Little Lost Robot by Isaac Asimov,  has survived and  is available to watch on the BFI Player.

When Sydney Newman moved to the BBC at the beginning of 1963, Irene moved to the Corporation as well.  Here she produced Story Parade  in 1964,  a series of dramatised  novels  which  included one science fiction episode, The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, scripted by Terry Nation and  starring Peter Cushing as Elijah Baley and John Carson as R. Daneel Olivaw.   (You can watch the  few surviving clips here).

Irene then  pitched the idea of a  series similar  to Out of this World, this  time on the BBC. Newman was receptive, having seen  the success of Doctor Who, and Irene became the producer with the very experienced George Spenton-Foster as associate producer.  She followed the template of Out of This World,   looking for novels that would work on television and then commissioning writers to dramatise them.  Most dramatisations remained pretty faithful to the original stories (something that you wish would happen more often, the recent dramatisation of  The City and the City  being an example of pointless alterations).  After contemplating  a number of possibilities such as Dimension 4  Irene settled on Out of the Unknown as the series title.

All new series need to catch the attention of the public – and keep it. It’s  quite puzzling therefore that the producers  chose the lacklustre “No Place Like Earth” as the first broadcast episode, rather than the far superior “The Counterfeit Man” which had also been completed. Apparently it was Sydney Newman who made the decision, and not Irene, on the basis that it was based on a John Wyndham short story and would attract viewers familar with The Day of the TriffidsThe Kraken Wakes  etc.  ( The story appeared in a 1952  anthology  of the same name,  edited by John Carnell,  but  I had never heard of it prior to watching this  and I had  read all Wyndham’s  work that I  could get hold of  as a teenager in  the 1960s.)

“No Place  Like Earth” is set  on Mars and Venus. The Earth has been destroyed in some catastophe 14 years before, marooning  the Earth colonists (who all seem to be men) on Mars.  Bert  Foster makes his living as a tinker,  travelling in a battered boat along  the canals (yes there are canals in this  version of Mars),  repairing  things for the Martians who seem to have lost the knack.  These  Martians are not insects as in Quatermass or Ice Warriors as in Doctor Who but  humanoids, indistinguishable   from the Earthmen,  apart from slightly different  teeth.

Bert (Terence Morgan)

The Martians live a simple  peasant life amidst  the ruins of the civilisation of “the Great Ones”, but  what led to its collapse is not explained.  Annika, the matriarch  of this clan of  Martians, tells Bert, “You  are  not like the other ones who came from Earth.” “I should hope not,” he responds, “I feel ashamed  of what they did when they first came to Mars, it was cruel.” That evening over the camp-fire Bert tells the Martians  story of how the Earth exploded and is now “nothing but a shower of cosmic pebbles, chasing around the sun.”

Next morning, Annika invites him to stay, but   Bert  tells her that  he does not belong there,  “I do not belong anywhere so  I  keep moving on.” Annika answers him, ” You are merely existing, and it is not enough. One exists by barter, but one lives by giving  – and taking when it is offered. And  then there is Zaylo…” Though tempted,  Bert moves on after repairing pots and pans and the water-wheel for them.  As he leaves Annika tells Zaylo, ” He will come back,  one day.”

Zaylo (Hannah Gordon) and Annika (Jessica Dunning

When he returns to the stranded colonists he finds a spaceship  has landed  from Venus. The crew have come to offer them  work on rebuilding  Venus  and creating a New Earth.  But when he arrives Bert  finds it is  a dictatorship built on  slave labour in which he is expected to act an overseer wearing a ludicrously ornate uniform.  Unable to stomach  this, he strikes down the vicious overssder Major Khan (played almost inevitably by George Pastell), assumes his identity  manages  to make his way on to a spaceship  returning  to Mars.

After the crew disembarks he blows up the spaceship: “there’ll  be no more slaving expeditions to Mars”.  Bert returns to Annika and the waiting Zaylo. He is now accepts  that he is no longer an Earthman,  but a Martian. He tells Annika, “Maybe there never was a place like the Earth that I was remembering…I stopped crying for the moon, and Earth. I’m going to be content  just to live, and to enjoy living.” He finds Zaylo by the water-wheel  and tells her, “This time I’ve come to stay.”

This is scarcely a science-fiction story at all. With minimal  change it could all easily have taken place on Earth in  some post-colonial backwater,  a shory story written  by Somerset Maugham perhaps.  In tone and sentiment   it bears a marked resemblance  to Ray Bradbury’s  novel The Martian Chronicles (1950) which  also featured canals and Earthmen trying to find their  way and place on Mars. Its as languid and unhurried as Bert’s   meanderings around mars on the canals, with little real tension or drama. The ending  you always expected would happen doe shappen. Fortunately  after this false start   the series improved a good deal.

Reviews

I have not been able to find any newspaper reviews on first broadcast, although,  according to the notes accompanying the DVD, it was slated by the critics on Late Night Line Up.   Unusually  for this period the story was repeated on 22 July 1966. In The Times their anonymous televison critic wrote:

Science fiction, as distinct from essays in the supernatural, is difficult to handle on television, as was demonstarted  by  BBC 2  last night. this story by John Wyndham is placed on Mars  and Venus after the disintegration of the earth, but for film purposes the strain on credulity is always too great. The medium is too limited for effects of costume and lighting to do the trick; and if the leading earthman, nicely played by Terence Morgan, succumbed in the end to the charms of a Martian maiden, the romance remained essentially earthbound. A few surviving space ships  have left colonies of earthmen on the two planets, and inferences are no doubt invited by the picture of Venus turned into a slave state by the tyrants in power.

Life on Mars, is by contrast  is primitive and gentle;  our earthmen, having had a taste of Venus and its “work, obedience and progress,”  finds that Martian simplicities have their consolation. As directed by Peter Potter, it was a slick piece of spoofing if we must have that sort of thing. 

Where else  have I seen the cast?

Terence  Morgan appeared  in  Laurence Olivier’s film of Hamlet (1948) as Laertes. He  played the title role in the television series  Sir Francis Drake (1961-1962  in which Roger Delgado also appeared as a Spanish nobleman. (I used to watch this, aged 6!)

Jesscia Dunning appeared in another episode of  Out of the Unknown, “Lamda 1” (1966).

Hannah Gordon appeared  in the Doctor Who serial, “The Highlanders” (1966) as Kirsty.

George Pastell (also known as Niko Pastellides)   memorably played the unhinged  Eric Klieg in the Doctor Who serial “The Tomb of the Cybermen”.

Geoffrey Palmer appeared in three Doctor Who serials : as Edward Masters in “The Silurians”, the Administrator in The Mutants and  Hardaker in “Voyage of the Damned”.

Roy Stewart appeared in three  Doctor Who serials : as a Saracen guard  in “The Crusade“, Toberman in “The Tomb of the Cybermen” and Tony in  “Terror of the Autons“.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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