Before production started on Doctor Who in 1963, the BBC commissioned an internal document assessing the difficulties of producing a science-fiction series. In particular, they were concerned that female viewers would be uninterested in such a show. Perhaps one reason why the show’s creator Sydney Newman pressed on was that he’d been involved – albeit briefly – with Out of This World, an anthology series for the now-defunct ABC network which was devised and script-edited by one Irene Shubik.
Whether as creator, script editor or producer, Shubik seemed to have a hand in every anthology series on British television in the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps she got Out of This World produced in the SF-sceptical world of ’60s British television by stressing its literary pedigree – like her later series Out of the Unknown, many episodes adapted a notable story by a giant of genre literature. ‘Little Lost Robot’, the episode released on DVD by the British Film Institute as part of its Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season was adapted by Leo Lehmann from an original story by the man many consider to be the greatest SF author of all time; Isaac Asimov.
Asimov’s famous ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ are at the centre of Lehmann’s well-paced script, though one of the ‘Nestor’ robots at the military research station the story is set at has learned how to bend – not break – them. It cannot kill, but it is capable of allowing a human to die, and the humans present must place themselves in life-threatening situations to flush the defective robot out.
The robots are the weakest element of the production – bandy of leg and spherical of head, they resemble nothing less than the Smash mashed potato robots, and on the commentary producer Leonard White wishes they’d gone with a more expressive design. But the direction by Guy Verney – whose work on the Pathfinders series made him one of the few SF specialists British TV had at this time – is surprisingly pacy and fluid for the era. The theme music and introductions by Boris Karloff do, admittedly, show their age, but in an enjoyable way.
The episode’s key point of interest is Maxine Audley as Susan Calvin, the first screen portrayal of one of the great female SF heroes. Audley, like Shubik, knows full well what the appeal of science fiction is to a female audience; even if Out of This World’s future is dominated by upper-class white Britons, it still feels progressive for Asimov to give us a female lead who triumphs solely because she’s the cleverest person in the room. Admittedly one of the male crew members wonders if she’s single, but only because he’s attracted by her brilliant work on the positronic brain.
A slight but pleasurable work, ‘Little Lost Robot’ would ideally be available in a boxed set with all the other episodes of this groundbreaking series. Unfortunately thanks to the BBC’s infamously negligent archive policies of the 1970s, it is the only episode available. There are other ways to enjoy the series, though – the DVD extras contain the script of another episode by Day of the Triffids’s John Wyndham, as well as audio recordings of two other episodes.
Given that 1960s British TV was rarely a visual feast, the audio recordings are a good way to enjoy this show. Perhaps it’s just the imagination providing better special effects, but both of the audio episodes struck me as being better than ‘Little Lost Robot’. ‘Cold Equations’ is a gallop-speed take on Tom Godwin’s famously gritty story, with a plum role for a young Jane Asher. ‘Impostor’ is even more interesting.
A Philip K Dick story that was also the basis for a little-remembered film starring Gary Sinise, ‘Impostor’ centres around a man accused of being an android weapon disguised as a human. When he protests, he is told that androids can have memories implanted so deeply that even they don’t know they’re androids. (This is, of course, reminiscent of another rather more famous Philip Dick adaptation by Ridley Scott) Out of This World’s adaptation was written by Terry Nation, and the setting of a metal city in the middle of a radiation-blasted, mutant-riddled landscape was reused a year later by Nation when he created the Daleks.
It can be hard to talk about Out of This World without mentioning Doctor Who, what with the personnel it shares, and its only series ending some fourteen months before William Hartnell stepped out of the TARDIS for the first time. The BFI’s extras are also reminiscent of the BBC/2Entertain Doctor Who range, with an option to watch ‘Little Lost Robot’ remastered through the VidFIRE process, and a sweet but inessential commentary in which Who DVD mainstay Toby Hadoke and TV historian Mark Ward talk to a still-lively and opinionated 97-year-old Leonard White.
LITTLE LOST ROBOT (OUT OF THIS WORLD) IS OUT NOW ON BFI (BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE) DVD
- Digitally remastered presentation of Little Lost Robot
- Alternative VidFIRE presentation of Little Lost Robot
- Audio commentary with Leonard White and Mark Ward, moderated by actor-comedian Toby Hadoke
- Cold Equations (Paul Bernard, 1962, audio only): adaptation of a short story by Tom Godwin, featuring a very young Jane Asher and the impeccable Peter Wyngarde, with a screenplay by Clive Exton.
- Impostor (Peter Hammond, 1962, audio only): Terry Nation’s adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story
- Dumb Martian (1962): downloadable PDF of the script for this lost episode, adapted from a story by John Wyndham
- Illustrated booklet with essay by Oliver Wake and Simon Coward, and full credits