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December 2014

Out Of This World: Little Lost Robot

cast: Gerald Flood, Roger Snowden, Murray Hayne, Clifford Evans, and Maxine Audley

director: Guy Verney

52 minutes (PG) 1962
BFI DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Out Of This World:
Little Lost Robot

'Get lost,' is a very minor kind of admonishment. But when, in a tetchy moment of anger, you tell a supremely logical robot to 'get lost', it tends to interpret it literally, as an instruction. But there's more to it than that. There's a lot of back-story to take on board first. Little Lost Robot was originally an Isaac Asimov short story published in the March 1947 issue of Astounding SF. The story was one of his early 'robot cycle' of linked tales. In doing so, Asimov was rationalising a genre in which previously robots had frequently been portrayed irrationally as psychotic killing machines. By devising his 'three laws of robotics' he brought an element of reason into it, laws which have subsequently been taken up and used by just about everyone who ever wrote fiction featuring robots, and has crossed over into the real-life science of robotics.

Adapted as an episode for TV's Out Of This World it was first screened on 7th July 1962, with jittery harpsichord theme-music played over a credits-sequence of sinister micro-organisms twitching and shivering. There were just two channels on what original series-producer Leonard White terms "this new invention called television." To film-critic John Brosnan, Out Of This World was a "short-lived but relatively ambitious SF anthology series." The now 97-year-old White, who also worked on The Avengers, insists that the series were televised plays. Everything from Morse to Doctor Who is now filmed using movie techniques. Not so for this five-actor small-group interiors production done one-take live.

Doctor Who itself was still 18 months in the future, yet both scripting and sets are tighter and more convincing here than they would be for William Hartnell's faltering debut. There were 13 episodes, each one a self-contained 50-minute TV play tapping the talents of genuine SF sources, and treated as serious propositions. This was not cheapo exploitation stuff played for laughs or cheap thrills.

The launch tale was Dumb Martian - from a John Wyndham story, although it was slotted into Sunday's Armchair Theatre series by mastermind Sydney Newman as a tease-trailer curtain-raiser of things to come, followed on Saturdays at 10pm by The Yellow Pill with a screenplay animating a Rog Phillips story (later re-made for follow-up series Out Of The Unknown in 1969). Little Lost Robot formed the third instalment. Over the subsequent weeks there were plots extracted from Philip K. Dick (Imposter), two by Clifford D. Simak, one by British writer Arthur Sellings (from John Carnell's Science Fiction Adventures magazine), plus Raymond F. Jones. Notable scriptwriters such as Clive Exton and Leon Griffiths were enlisted to adapt them for the screen, alongside early Terry Nation work anticipating his future on Blake's 7, and Survivors - as well as inventing Daleks.

ITV was not a natural home for SF, so much credit goes to ABC's only female story editor, Irene Shubik, who had built a solid reputation for her work on the prestigious Armchair Theatre. To provide further gravitas it was a masterly stroke when she managed to induce Boris Karloff to act as continuity host. His ponderous twinkling presence provides lead-in introductions, laying the foundations for the play, and then adding final close-down words. Here, the master of the macabre brandishes a rose specially flown in for him from Hyper Base 7 in the 'area of Saturn' where Major General Kallner (Clifford Evans), the Base Commander, in ornate dress uniform with epaulettes, is breeding them in specially oxygenated tubes. There's an unintentionally humorous exchange in the episode when Susan Calvin inspects his roses. She asks mathematician Peter (Murray Hayne) "do you think he'll give me one?" With no hint of double-entendre he tells her "he might, at the end of the experiment."

It is the year 2039, and amid valves, big data-spools and desks of flashing lights, they're working on the vital 20-year "great interstellar project." It's short-tempered Chief Engineer Black (Gerald Flood), fine-tuning a solar converter, who irritably tells his robotic Nestor assistant to 'Get lost' twice, which is where the fun begins. It takes him at his word, and ambles off on sucker feet to lose itself among 20 other identical NS-2 mech-men bound for Hyper Base 41. They inconveniently lack serial numbers. So which of the 21 is the errant robot?

Kallner calls in 'Universal Robot Corporation' robo-psychologist Dr Susan Calvin (Maxine Audley), in her glitter-top tunic and slacks, to resolve the conundrum. It's her first trip out from Earth, although her character will recur with some frequency as Asimov develops his robot cycle further. It should be a straightforward task, until she's horrified to discover that the 'lost' Nestor has been modified. The failsafe first law of robotics - which she had formulated, has been amended, with significant implications. There's some historical analogies made with human revolts against slavery - "we're facing a mutiny," if the little lost robot is allowed to infect the other robots with its modification. But its programmed self-preservation determines that it will not reveal itself. So what are the odds of her succeeding? Exactly 20-to-1! "I've never failed with a robot before," she insists, putting on Dame Edna spectacles to interview each robot in turn.

So, is Little Lost Robot any good? Does it still stand up across the decades? Asimov was equally adept at the crime-detection genre, and there are similar investigative equations at work here. To Edmund Crispin, who included the story in his Faber anthology Best SF Two (1956), it "represents a fresh approach to the detective story." And yes, it presents a simple, but intriguing problem. It's this riddle that still grabs, and holds your attention, despite whatever limitations of vision the 1960s imposed on small-screen SF. Calvin's 'plan of action' sets up various trials designed to reveal the fugitive robot, each of which it cunningly outsmarts by deliberately falsifying its reactions.

The Asimov story had already been collected into his much-republished and still in print I, Robot (1950) - which provides the basis for 2004's Will Smith movie, in which Susan Calvin is played by Bridget Moynahan. The astute observer will nitpick out a number of inconsistencies between short story and TV play. There are 63 text robots, obviously reduced in number for TV budgetary purposes. It's 'U.S. Robots' rather than 'Universal Robot Corporation'. And Asimov writes Black saying 'Go lose yourself' rather than the more British, and more effective 'Get lost'. There is more background detail in the story, the location specified as the '27th Asteroidal Grouping' where they're working on the Hyperatomic Drive.

Yet, directed by Guy Verney (he and Gerald Flood would both graduate into the Pathfinders trilogy, 1960-1), the essential contours of the tale remain remarkably true. And some chunks of original dialogue are lifted verbatim, including Black protesting how "we run the risk continually of blowing a hole in normal space-time fabric and dropping right out of the universe."

Meanwhile, Walensky (Haydn Jones) is apparently threatened by the descending heavy-hoist in the radiation hall. Will the robots cross Calvin's electrified cable to save the actor behind Joe Grundy in The Archers, and Doctor Who's voice of the Autons? "The mills of Dr Calvin grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small," comments Peter Bogert, as the robot calls her bluff by pretending to obey the modified law. So she tries again, differently. Finally - plot-spoiler alert! - her strong-willed 'Ladyship' places herself in the hazard situation, and with a gamma-ray bluff laid, the revealed Nestor wreaks its revenge by strangling Black (again, deviating from Asimov), although Calvin seems more concerned about the terminated robot than by the dead Chief Engineer.

Britain's leading SF magazine New Worlds devoted its July 1962 issue - #120, to promoting the series, with a cover-photo of the show's host on the Teddington studios set, posed with the model domed futuristic city from Imposter. Inside, aided by a photo-spread of stills, editor Carnell outlines the show's background, and what viewers could expect to see. Although he fails to mention that Shubik had brainstormed him for ideas, he does mention other titles under consideration for filming, including Immortality For Some from a 1960 J.T. 'Jim' McIntosh story for Astounding, which never made the final cut.

Carnell calls it "the most ambitious and adult series of televised science fiction plays yet devised," and he's not wrong. Tragically, not much of the Out Of This World series survives. What there is of it is here, preserved in this valuable DVD package. The full Little Lost Robot episode is digitally re-mastered and given optional audio commentary by Leonard White, prompted by writer Mark Ward. There are audio-only versions of two further episodes, Cold Equation - with the voices of space-stowaway Jane Asher and Peter Wyngarde, and Imposter - dramatised by Terry Nation, plus a bonus downloadable PDF of Dumb Martian. There's also a booklet with a wealth of stills and detailed credits.

In total, this is an invaluable release. My only regret is that there's not more of it.

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