Out of the Unknown is a British television science fiction anthology drama series, produced by the BBC and broadcast on BBC2 in four series between 1965 and 1971. Most episodes of the first three series were dramatisations of a science fiction stories.
Irene Shubik had been a science fiction fan since college. In 1961 suggested to her superior Sydney Newman, then head of the drama department of ABC Television, an ITV franchise contractor, with a proposal to create a science fiction version of Armchair Theatre. This became Out of this World, a sixty-minute anthology series hosted by Boris Karloff that ran for thirteen episodes between June and September 1962. Many of the episodes were adaptations of stories by writers including John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick.
Shubik began work, and soon found that finding science fiction stories suitable for adaptation was a difficult task. She later recalled “I had to read hundreds of stories to pick a dozen. You have no idea how difficult some of these authors are to deal with, and it seems a special thing among SF writers to hedge themselves behind almost impossible copyright barriers, even when they have got a story that is possible to do on television. So many you can't. Either the conception is so way out you would need a fantastic budget to produce it, or the story is too short, too tight to be padded out to make an hour's television”.When working on Out of this World Shubik had made a valuable contact in John Carnell, a key figure in British science fiction publishing. He was the founder of science fiction magazine New Worlds, and agent for many of Britain's science fiction writers. Carnell was able to suggest stories and authors for her to consider. Shubik received copies of science fiction anthologies from British publishers, and also sought advice from many authors including Frederik Pohl, Alfred Bester and Robert Silverberg. The latter two admitted to her that they had run into similar difficulties in finding suitable material for television adaptation. She considered asking Nigel Kneale if he would write a new Quatermass story for the series, and contacted Arthur C. Clarke regarding the possibility of adapting his novel The Deep Range.
In March 1965, Shubik travelled to New York City to negotiate rights with authors whose works she was considering, to seek ideas from US television, and to obtain more science fiction anthologies from US publishers. During her visit she met with US science fiction editors and also with Isaac Asimov, who granted permission for two of his stories to be adapted on the condition that they could only be shown in the UK: sales to foreign territories were not allowed. The trip to New York would become an annual event for her during her time on Out of the Unknown.
On her return to London, Shubik learned that she had been appointed producer and story editor for the new anthology series. She obtained the services of George Spenton-Foster as her associate producer. Spenton-Foster was a science fiction fan and his wide experience of BBC television production proved invaluable to Shubik. By this stage, she had found the twelve scripts she needed for the series: ten episodes would be adaptations of stories by John Wyndham (“Time to Rest” and its sequel “No Place Like Earth”, dramatised together as “No Place Like Earth”); Alan Nourse (“The Counterfeit Man”); Isaac Asimov (“The Dead Past” and Sucker Bait); William Tenn (“Time in Advance”); Ray Bradbury (“The Fox and the Forest”); Kate Wilhelm (“Andover and the Android”); John Brunner (“Some Lapse of Time”); J. G. Ballard (“Thirteen to Centaurus”) and Frederik Pohl (“The Midas Plague”). Two original stories—”Stranger in the Family” by David Campton and “Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…?” by Mike Watts—were also commissioned. Among those commissioned to adapt the stories were a few notable names in television writing: Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks for Doctor Who and later of Survivors and Blake's 7, adapted Bradbury's “The Fox and the Forest” while Troy Kennedy Martin, co-creator of Z-Cars, adapted Pohl's “The Midas Plague”.
A title for the series had not been decided when production began. Names including Dimension 4, The Edge of Tomorrow and From the Unknown were considered, before Out of the Unknown was settled upon. The title music was composed by Norman Kay and the title sequence was created by Bernard Lodge. It was intended from an early stage that, as with Boris Karloff on Out of this World, each story would be introduced by a regular host. Christopher Lee and Vincent Price were approached but were not available and the idea was dropped. The episode “Some Lapse of Time” is notable for having Ridley Scott, future director of such films as Alien and Blade Runner, as designer. The opening title sequence was designed by Bernard Lodge, utilising stock shots and specially created optical illusion patterns filmed on a rostrum camera, combined with a face frozen in a scream and a mannequin falling repeatedly through space contrived to create an eerie sense of suspense and intrigue. The forty-second sequence would win a Design & Art Direction Wood Pencil for Television Graphics in 1965.
Out of the Unknown made its debut on Monday, 4 October 1965 at 8pm on BBC2, with Wyndham's “No Place Like Earth” selected as the opening story. Science fiction and fantasy was popular on television, with Doctor Who, The Avengers, Thunderbirds, The Man from UNCLE and Lost in Space all notable hits at the time. Out of the Unknown, however, would offer more adult, cerebral fare. Initial audience and critical reaction was mixed, but improved as the series went on with “Andover and the Android” (“It's not until intelligence, humour and gaiety break into television that you notice what tasteless pap we've been living on” – Daily Mail) and “Some Lapse of Time” (“It was not surprising to hear from Late Night Line Up that there had been many complimentary telephone calls after the play […] it left the viewer with the disconcerting feeling that there was more than a grain of truth in its fantasy” – Birmingham Evening Mail and Dispatch) proving particularly popular with audiences and critics alike. BBC2 Controller David Attenborough praised the “overall professionalism that has become a hallmark of the series”. By the end of its first run, Out of the Unknown was the second-most popular drama on BBC2, after the imported Western The Virginian.
Series one holds the distinction of being the only series to have its first and final broadcast episodes in existence. Series three and four are missing both, whilst series two is missing its final episode.