The Machine Stops was first broadcast in Britain in 1966 as the first episode in the second season of the BBC’s science fiction anthology TV series Out of the Unknown. It’s one of the best episodes in this uneven but extraordinarily interesting series.
The Machine Stops was based on E. M. Forster’s 1909 dystopian science fiction short story of the same name. The most intriguing aspect of the story is that it provides an uncanny anticipation of the 21st century world of the internet and social networking.
The Machine Stops tells the story of Vashti (Yvonne Mitchell), a woman of the distant future, and her son Kuno (Michael Gothard). Humanity now lives entirely underground. Civilisation has progressed to the point where all want and all pain and suffering has been eliminated. In fact all unpleasantness has been eliminated. The Machine provides everything that anyone could want. Instantaneous communication is possible with any place on the planet. There is no need for anyone ever to leave their room. Travel is unnecessary. In fact leaving one’s room is almost unheard of. Like most citizens in this wondrous civilisation Vashti has thousands of friends. Of course she has never met a single one of these friends in person, in the flesh so to speak. The very idea of such face-to-face meetings is terrifying and disgusting. She can talk to her friends whenever she wishes, through her view-screen.
Direct experience of anything is considered to be unnecessary, and possibly harmful. If one wants to experience something one does so through lectures, which can be accessed through the press of a button and which do not require leaving one’s room. Vashti herself delivers lectures on the music of the Australian Period (this idea can be regarded as a kind of anticipation of blogging and podcasts).
Most horribly, Kuno has even ventured the opinion that The Machine might one day stop.
Kenneth Cavander and Clive Donner adapted Forster’s story for television in 1959. The go-ahead was given for production to start but somehow it became lost in the bureaucratic labyrinths of the BBC and nothing came of it. Then in 1965 Irene Shubik, the producer of Out of the Unknown, rescued it from oblivion. Philip Saville, who had a reputation as an innovative director, was assigned to the project.
Production designer Norman James was confident that he could, even on a penny-pinching BBC budget, do justice to the story. He and Saville were in agreement that the show should have both a futuristic and a slightly Edwardian look - this is the future, but the future as imagined in the past. There’s no question that James succeeded brilliantly - the sets are superb and they also have such a slight suggestion of a womb-like quality which admirably captures the atmosphere of Forster’s story.
Yvonne Mitchell is magnificent as Vashti. The makeup effects make her look strange and alien and unhealthy but even though the character is emotionally distant to an extreme degree Mitchell still manages to engage our sympathy. Vashti is a tragic figure, and unaware of her own tragedy. Michael Gothard’s eccentric, theatrical performance also works well.
Forster was apparently very impressed by the adaptation and expressed the view that it improved on his original story.
The Machine Stops is an intelligent, though-provoking example of the science fiction of ideas. Fascinating, disturbing and oddly moving. Highly recommended.