“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
“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 Triffids, The 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.
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.”
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.
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”.