In 1962 the ITV company ABC aired a science fiction anthology series, Out of This World. It was a high-profile production and was well received. Two years later, the creative force behind the series, Sydney Newman, became head of the BBC's fledgling drama department, which was facing a 40% increase in output due to the creation of a new channel, BBC2. Pressed for ideas, Newman returned to the concept of an anthology series of science fiction and fantasy plays.
The result was Out of the Unknown (BBC, 1965-71, 49 episodes), a mixture of original screenplays and adaptations of stories by distinguished authors including Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley and Frederick Pohl. Nigel Kneale, famous for writing the 1950s Quatermass adventures, also contributed a script, 'The Chopper', for the show's fourth and final season.
The first episode, 'No Place Like Earth' (tx. 4 October 1965), was an amalgamation of two stories by the acclaimed author John Wyndham, best known for The Day of the Triffids. Unfortunately, less than 60% of the nation was within range of a BBC2-equipped transmitter and, to make matters worse, the channel was being broadcast using the newly-introduced 625 line high definition standard, which few domestic TV sets could yet receive.
Despite its relatively low profile, though, the episode, about life on Mars after an Earthly apocalypse, drew some newspaper attention: The Times described it as "excruciatingly slow". Fortunately the following 11 stories improved, and a second season of 13 episodes followed, starting in October 1966 with an adaptation of E.M. Forster's 1908 short story The Machine Stops, about a future where mankind lives in a world controlled by a benevolent machine intelligence.
Out of the Unknown returned to the BBC's schedules in colour for its third season in January 1969. But despite the protracted break in production, all but one of its scripts had been under consideration during the previous run of stories, including 'The Last Lonely Man' (tx. 21/1/1969), about a future where the dead can bequeath their memories to surviving friends and loved ones via a process called Contact.
The fourth and final 1971 season effectively marked the end of the BBC's commitment to science fiction-based plays as mainstream adult drama, despite continuing public interest in the genre.