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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.