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Category Archives: Frederick Pohl

Out of the Unknown, series 1, episode 12. The Midas Plague by Frederick Pohl, December 1965.

“The Midas Plague” was broadcast by the BBC on 20th December 1965.

Cast: Morrey Anderson – Graham Stark, Edwina – Anne Lawson, Fred – Sam Kydd, Sir John – John Barron, Wainwright – Victor Brooks, Judge  – A J Brown, Analyst- David Nettheim,  Henry- Anthony Dawes, Gideon – Graham Lines and Revolution leader – David Blake Kelly.

Script: Troy Kennedy Martin. Director: Peter Sasdy.  Producer and Story Editor: Irene Shubik

Special Sound: BBC Radiophonic Workshop.  Incidental music: Max Harris.

This episode  is a comic  satire on the consumer society.  Based on a short story written by  Frederick Pohl in 1954,   it follows  in the vein of his most well-known novel The Space Merchants (1952), also  a satire on consumerism, which was set  in a  future in which advertising  relentlessly sells pointless products  to the public, including the idea of a colony on Venus.  

Pohl was clearly  extrapolating  from the post-war consumer society he saw developing in the USA, particularly  through the advertising on television of  the new consumer products pouring off the production lines and the creation of brand loyalty though the relentless repetition of  slogans and images.  (Vance Packard analysed this phenemenon in his influential book The Hidden Persuaders (1957).

The episode opens with shots of robots, very crudely made,  accompanied by jaunty, humorous music,  thus  setting the tone of the episode. Our hero Morrey,, a radio economist by trade,  has been summoned for a reprimand by his superior  Wainwright  after a report from the Ration Office. Morrey is Class 7  citizen and on his way up. “ It is your duty as a Class 7 consumer to consume the  rations of consumer goods allocated by the state as befits your status.” Morrey pleads that he is  doing his best and trying to consume everything he has been told to.

Wainwright  explains that society is  undergoing a severe   economic crisis and that  the public  needs to “let out their belts, take their shoulders  off the wheel,  they have to  eat more, drink more,  drive more cars, wear out  more clothes, and work less. This country is over producing,  our automatic factories, our  robots are making much too much of everything and  it has  to be consumed.” Morrey suggests that they  should cut down  production. “Then underprivileged  citizens like myself wouldn’t have to eat and drink so much and live in such big houses and drive big cars and wear themeslves out enjoying themselves.” 

Wainwright riposts:   “How do you cut down production without destroying the whole system?“By programming the robots to use up the good themselves,” counters Morrey, but Wainwrights is aghast: “This is heresy, the robots are made to work,  not to have a good time.” Morrey suggests that they build  the satisfaction circuits he is been working on into the robots, but this idea  is not well received At the end of the interview  he is told to work less and consume more and reminded:  “Robots are here to serve you.”

Morrey and his robots

We accompany  Morrey to his home  where  on arrival the robots do everything for him. The house  is packed  full of furniture with  more being delivered. “But we haven’t  worn out the other two yet,” he protests futilely. His  wife Edwina is fed up  and loses her her temper. Morrey admonishes her:  “Not in front of the robots.”  Things seem to be  frosty in the bedroom as Edwina pleads:  “Consume me, consume me little” but he says he does not have time.

 A row ensues and  Morrey escapes to the pub, complete with robot barman, gets drunk and burns his ration book. He is arrested by the robot police and appears in court  before a judge (human, for once)  who turns out to be his father-i-n law. He is reduced to class 10 which means working less and consuming more. Edwina leaves him with mountains of junk carted away in her cars,  while to remedy  his anti-social behaviour Morrey  is sent to an analyst. who  administers a truth drug. He  decides that the root of  Morrey problem is that he  got a robot intead a puppy when he was a child and that  subconsciously he hates robots.  “You should love robots, they are there to please you, they do what you tell them to do and yet you hate them.” Angrily Morrey  says that   all his  consumption is making  him “more a machine than they are” and marches out to  get drunk again

Fred, Morrey and Edwina

In a turning point in the story, when fleeing from the robot police after he tells the barman  to pour some  whiskey   down the drain, Morrey is helped to escape by Fred  who reveals himself to be be a member of  a  group of revolutionaries dedicated to overthrowing society.  They ask Morrey to assassinate the Pime Minister, Sir John,  tempting him with a vision of the future.  “Once he is dead we will come to power, you will have mnay privileges. You will never have to consume again. Except a lightly boiled egg for breakfast, a grilled sole for lunch with salad, a litlle roast beef   in the evening with half bottle of wine…And we let you work all week.” But he rejects their offer.

Back in court again before his father-in-law Morrey is now reduced to Class 12, backdated one year,  and ordered to consume seven dozen cases of whisky in a fortnight.  Edwina  is deposited back home  with all her luggage while more goods pour in to their house.  Fred the revolutionary turns up again   and reveals that he  is a burglar, but a burglar with a difference, in this society  he breaks into people’s houses and leaves more goods.

The robots having a great time

Together they break into the Ministry building and steal the “satisfaction circuits” and  then implant them into Morrey’s robots. They  now display  very human characteristics ;  over-eating, getting drunk  and generally enjoying themselves smashing things up. Herded  into the basement they rapidly  consume or wear out all the goods allocated to Morrey in a comic filmed sequence.

Morrey is  now hailed  in the press for his outsranding consumer record.  Wainwright pays him  an unexpected visit  but they manage to hide  the robots in time. He  tells Morrey:  “You are going to be the biggest hero in the whole country. You are going to be given every honour. Sir John himself is very interested in you and I  want you to come back and work for my department.” Morrey says he will consider it when he is less busy.  As he leaves Wainwright offers him three days work if he returns.

 Robot George consumes so hard  that he  blows up and is mourned by the other robots. When Morrey and Fred try to fix him they  discover that is a special  Mark 4 roobt opereated from a central control room  in the Prime Minister’s office. They realise that Mark 4 robots  are spying on the population. 

Morrey is summoned to see the Prime Minister. who  tells him , “All the world knows Mr Anderson  that robots are our servants. They exist to serve us and  make our life easy. They exist so that men  do not have to work. This is the time of the Millenium. Man has only to consume and  what has been his wildest dreams has come true.  But a few men have  become dissatisfied with this state of affairs. Jealous intefering rebels  who have the cheek to say that man has become the slave  of automation.”

Sir John

Sir John has a truth gun trained on him and Morrey is forced confesss to having met the rebels and agreeing  with them.  Suddenly he twigs that  Sir John is a robot as well.  He burst through a secret door and, pursued by police robots,  he heads for the Master Switch (helpfully  marked “Master Switch in large  letters).  When he throws this all the robots freeze, including Sir John and Wainwright.  Edwina and her father  arrive and so Fred and the revolutionaries  having formed a provisional goverment  (Fred is the Minister for Justice). The leader  declares that Morrey is “the hero of the Revolution”  and will be in charge of seeing that everyone gets less in the future.  He also  declare a national holiday “so that everyone can go and work“. Finnaly he  declares  that all robots will be done away with. But then the implications of this  begin to sink in  and they decide they need to keep Morrey’s robot Henry, as well bar tenders, policemen, street cleaners and a growing list of others. “Here we go again, ” says Morrey  ruefully to camera.

With a good script, excellent cast and direction which supports the humour, this is a very enjoyable episode.