Thursday 1 September 2016

Out of This World - Little Lost Robot (1962)

Out of This World is a science fiction anthology series made by Britain’s ABC Television in 1962, hosted by Boris Karloff. The series began with a one-off episode produced by the renowned Sydney Newman as part of the Armchair Theatre series. The series proper was produced by Leonard White with Irene Shubik as story editor. Irene Shubik went on to produce the rather similar BBC anthology series Out of the Unknown. Sadly only one episode of Out of This World has survived, Little Lost Robot, with a screenplay by Leo Lehmann based on an Isaac Asimov short story.

Perhaps unfortunately Little Lost Robot is a very atypical episode of the series, according to Leonard White, differing markedly in both tone and style from the other episodes.

Little Lost Robot deals with Asimov’s famous Laws of Robotics. The First Law of Robotics is that a robot cannot harm a human being, or allow any harm to come to a human being. Unfortunately, for reasons best known to themselves, the commanders of a space station in the vicinity have decided to alter the First Law slightly. They have modified several Nestor robots. These robots are still forbidden to do active harm to a human but they can allow a human to be harmed. Even more unfortunately one of the modified robots has become lost. The chief engineer, in a moment of irritation, rather unwisely lost his temper and told the robot to get lost. The robot, being very literal-minded and being compelled by one of the other Laws of Robotics to obey any order given by a human, proceeded to get lost.

The missing robot has not been found but it has been located. A shipment of twenty (unmodified) Nestors has just arrived from Earth but there are now twenty-one robots in the group rather than twenty. The lost robot has concealed itself among the other twenty. And there is absolutely no way of telling which of these robots is the modified version.

The top robot psychologist in the solar system, Dr Susan Calvin (Maxine Audley), has been sent from Earth to sort out the problem and identify the rogue robot. She devises a series of clever tests to fool the modified robot into revealing itself but the robot seems to be able to stay one jump ahead of her.

The situation is increasingly critical. The modified Nestor has been communicating with the twenty unmodified robots and there is a danger that all twenty may adopt the same changed version of the First Law. The end result may be a robot mutiny, or even a robot rebellion.

These are robots that are quite unlike anything we would think of today as robots. They are not mere machines. They have personalities and they have emotions. They are perhaps more like mechanical slaves (and indeed the slave analogy is made explicit at one point in the story).

If you are prepared to accept the idea of robots with feelings than can be hurt then the story is reasonably engaging and clever.

Maxine Audley as Dr Calvin and Clifford Evans as the space station commander Major-General Kallner both give fairly good performances. Gerald Flood plays the chief engineer and he’s the villain of the piece. He detests robots. Flood plays him as a sort of wicked slave-owner who both fears and hates his slaves.

The robots themselves are what you would expect from early 1960s television - they’re crude mechanical men and look much too obviously like guys in tin suits. A bigger problem is that it’s difficult to accept that these painfully slow-moving tin men could be potentially dangerous. The robots are as bad as anything you will find in 1960s Doctor Who.

Even worse the script really doesn’t do anything to make us feel any sense of potential menace. There are rare moments when we might feel some anxiety for the safety of one of the characters but these moments fall flat. 

Luckily things finally come together with the very effective ending.

Several Out of This World episodes were remade for the BBC’s Out of the Unknown series, the bad news being that most episodes of that series have been lost as well. 

The BFI have done an admirable job with their DVD release. The highlight is the audio commentary which features producer Leonard White. White makes some interesting and provocative points, noting that television drama as a distinctive format that took advantage of the unique characteristics of the medium (such as the fact that early 1960s television was done more or less live) is something that sadly no longer exists. The liner notes include a couple of essays on the production history of the series. Image quality is pretty good. The DVD also includes audio-only versions of two of the lost episodes.

Little Lost Robot has enormous historical interest and despite its flaws it’s worth a look.

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