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Out of the Unknown; series 1, episode 4 “The Dead Past” 1965.

Written by Jeremy Paul,  based on a story by Isaac Asimov. Producer and Story Edtor: Irene Shubik. Associate Producer: George Spenton-Foster.

Cast: Arnold Potterley – George Benson, Thaddeus Araman – James Langton, Jonas Foster – James Maxwell, Ralph Nimmo – Willougby Goddard, Caroline Potterley – Sylvia Coleridge,  Miss Clements – Shirley Cain.

“The Dead Past” was broadcast on  25 October 1965.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was probably the  most  influential  science fiction writer of the  1950s and 1960s  through works such as the Foundation trilogy and his robot stories. This was not the first of his stories to  be produced on British  television. Irene Shubik had produced “Little Lost Robot” as part of the Out of This World series on ATV in 1962  which was one  of his robot stories. (A copy of this  has survived).  Following her move to the BBC with Sidney Newman,  Irene followed this with a production of The Caves of Steel, one  of Asimov’s robot novels, broadcast on  5 June 1964 as part of the Story Parade series.   I  have a vague recollection of watching this, aged nearly 9. Sadly only a fragment has survived which  you can watch here.

“The Dead Past”  was first  published in Astounding Science Fiction in April 1956. It  is a time travel story with twist, set in some undated future and  begins  with Caroline Potterley having a nightmare in which she hears an unseen young girl screaming whilst  flames rise. Awakening in distress  she cries  for her husband Arnold,  and then goes into the living room  where she approaches  a small statue of a god or king.

Araman

In the next scene we see Arnold Potterley  having a meeting with Thaddeus  Araman, who  is “the top man in Chronoscopy”.  Chronoscopy,  we learn, is a science that enables the past to be seen through a machine. Potterley is an historian who specialises in the study of Cathage (a powerful city state on  the coast of what is now Tunisia which was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC after a series of wars). I can’t help thinking that, unintentionally or otherwise,  Potterley looks a great  deal like the historian A J P Taylor, well-known in the 1960s for his history lectures on television.

Potterley has come to Araman because for two years he has been  trying to get permission  to  carry out  research on Carthage,  using  time-viewing to examine the landing of Scopio Africanus  in 202 BC.  Araman fobs him off with series of technical excuses and,  in addition,  says that there is long waiting line. As Potterley leaves disappointed Araman  warns him,  “You won’t try and get help anywhere else will you? The Department of Physics,  for instance? I am sure I don’t have to warn you that if you did, you would be considered guilty of  intellectual  anarchy  and your basic grant would be instantly withdrawn.

After Potterley has gone Araman confers with  his secretary (and perhaps lover) , Miss Clements, “I am always fascinated  to know what they think when  they leave this office. Do they really believe what they are told?” She replies, “You know what they do, they go home, stamp their feet , say unkind things about  you and wait for their wives to bring them to their senses.”   He ponders further, “Would you say that he is a threat to us? Determined? Cunning?…We are going to have a little fun with Professor Potterley.”

Potterley

Undeterred,  Potterley  approaches Jonas Foster, a  physics lecturer,  and asks for his help with chronoscopy.  Foster initially turns him down, saying that he knows nothing of neutrinics, the science  that led to the discover of chronoscopy by Sterbinski some 50 years earlier.  (Neutrinics was made by Asimov). In this society  it seems, research outside one’s field of study  is discouraged, is in fact  labelled “intellectual anarchy”. Foster says , ” It was different a hundred years ago, some marvellous discoveries were made.by sheer accident. But as we  got more data and more knowledge so we had to specialise…and now every branch of   of science is geared to the public’s  needs.” Potterley responds, “You speak like a computer. Official  propaganda every word…I say the government  is actively suppressing research in neutrinics and chronoscopy.”

 

Foster

Potterley has successfully  lit a the flame of curiousity in Foster. When  he vists the Potterleys for dinner,  Caroline discloses that  their daughte Laurel  died in a fire at the age of 10, while the statue in Arnold’s study is revealed to be that of the  god Moloch to whom the Cartathaginans allegedly  offered human sacrifices. Foster eventually  agrees to build a  chronoscopy machine,  using  research information unearthed by his uncle, Ralph Nimmo,  a science  journalist, played splendidly by Willoughby Goddard with an eye-patch (not part of his character,  but  worn due to an eye infection, apparently). Potterley  tells  his worried  wife,  “It’s Carthage that counts and human knowledge, not you and I.” But their activites have not gone unnoticed. Araman, it seems,  somehow  knows what is going on.  Miss Clements challenges  him,“What happens if they learn the truth? What will we do with them then?”

The Chronoscope is built in the Potterley’s cellar. But there is bitter  disappointment  for Potterley when Foster tells  him, “You will never see Carthage…When the field is interpreted you get random factors, it’s the same with all sub-atomic particles, random factors which  produce a kind  of fuzziness…the further back in time you go, the greater the fuzziness..until finally the picture is drowned.  You can only time view so far back, a century and a quarter at the most…No historian

has ever used the chronoscope, they couldn’t. The government has been having us on, it’s a hoax.”

Caroline Potterley

Caroline  interrupts  the two men in the cellar, having realised what the machine could offer her.  “Listen to me.  Even if it only goes back twenty years, we could see Laurel . What does it matter about Carthage, its’s Laurel Arnold, she’ll be alive for us again..” Distarught,  Potterley begs her, “Caroline, please, what will you see? Do you want to live those years over and over again? Watching a child who will never grow up? You’ll go mad. Is that want you want? Is it?  “I want my child“, she cries in response, “she’s there in that machine. I want  to see her, I want my baby.  In rage or despair  or guilt, Potterley smashes the machine beyond repair.

But this is not the end of the story. Araman has  Potterley, Foster and Nimmo arrested and brought to his laboratory where he reveals  the truth of what is is going on.  The final scene is silent  – and heartbeaking.

 

This  is  a very effective piece  of drama, well-scripted and directed,the cast is uniformly excellent. Tt raises qestions about  whether progress is always a good thing, something that seems very pertinent  in our “brave new world” of   unescapable social   media  and non-stop 24 hour news. Do we really want to know everytning about everybody? And what of the personal?  In the end,  Asimov,  suggests “You and I” do count, count a great deal, in fact.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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