Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Out of the Unknown - The Last Lonely Man (1969)

The Last Lonely Man, originally transmitted in early 1969, is the only episode from the third season of Out of the Unknown to survive in its entirety. I’ve already blogged at length about the first two seasons of this interesting but wildly uneven BBC science fiction anthology series.

Out of the Unknown was intended to be a series of adaptations of notable stories by well-known science fiction authors. This formula was largely adhered to in the first three seasons but abandoned in season four.

The third season saw the series switch to colour and also saw changes to the production tram with Alan Bromly taking over from Irene Shubik as producer and Roger Parkes coming in as script editor. They had however limited control since Shubik had already commissioned scripts for all thirteen episodes.

The Last Lonely Man was adapted by Jeremy Paul from a story by John Brunner.

This episode deals with an intriguingly different future. Society has been changed dramatically by the advent of Contact although at this stage no-one has quite realised the true significance or scale of the change. Contact is a government program that offers  citizens a kind of technological immortality. Everyone is to have at least one and preferably several Contacts. Contact is achieved by visiting a free government clinic. A complete copy of a person’s brain patterns is recorded and implanted into the brain of their Contacts. If the person dies his personality instantly jumps into the brain of one of his Contacts.

No-one need ever fear death again. No-one need ever truly die. The only disadvantage is that when you die you have to share a brain with another person - and that other person will from that time on have to share a brain with you. This is however a very minor problem  - the government has done studies and it’s really no problem at all. 

In this new world of virtual immortality everyone is much happier, although they are a little more careless. Not having to worry about dying means not having to fuss so much about taking precautions. In fact when people go to the movies and see images of people being slaughtered they laugh uproariously. Death is something to be light-hearted about.

If you decide you no longer want someone to be your Contact you can always cancel the contract - this is known as expunging the person. It’s no big deal. It happens all the time. You can do this at any time - as long as the person is still alive. Once they’re dead and they’ve made that final jump into your brain the process is permanent. The government has done studies on this as well and it’s also no problem. In any case they provide Adjustment Clinics for the tiny handful of people who have really very minor problems as a result.

James Hale (George Cole) is sure that the government is right to tell people not to worry. He’s not worried. He’s quite happy when Patrick (Peter Halliday) begs him to be his Contact. Patrick has just been expunged by Mary (Lillias Walker). Patrick’s problem is that Mary was his only Contact. Now he is not covered. This means if he dies now he will be really dead. James is a nice guy though and he’s happy to be Patrick’s Contact, purely on a short-term temporary basis until Patrick can make other arrangements with one of his many friends.

Needless to say James will find out that Contact is not quite as foolproof and trouble-free as those reassuring government television commercials claim. He will also discover, indirectly, a paradox about immortality. Immortality can actually make some people more afraid of dying.

This is a clever and well-constructed story with several neat and genuinely unexpected twists. It’s the kind of science fiction story that does not require much in the way of special effects In fact it requires none, nor does it require elaborate futuristic sets. It’s about ideas, not gadgetry. This future world looks pretty much like 1969. The fact that it could be done at minimal expense must have been a considerable relief to the BBC which was notoriously tight-fisted when it came to television science fiction budgets. Amazingly enough though it still manages to look cheap even by BBC standards.

Of course if considered in any detail the whole premise is pretty much scientific nonsense but it’s the idea in the broadest sense that is the point of the story and it’s a provocative idea.

Apart from the excellent script the major plus here is the terrific performance by George Cole. 

The first season of Out of the Unknown had varied quite alarmingly in quality and this inconsistency continued in season two, with brilliant moments such as The Machine Stops and some fairly dire moments as well. The Last Lonely Man is one of the better moments and it’s excellent television. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I might give this another try - I gave up on this episode within the first ten minutes. I found the reconstructed episodes to be more interesting!