Saviour machine: ‘Out Of The Unknown – The Machine Stops’ revisited

❉ Fifty years ago today, the second series of SF anthology series ‘Out of the Unknown’ kicked off with The Machine Stops – “one of the most cult things ever shown on mainstream TV.”

Voice of Friend: “Have you had any ideas recently?”

 Vashti: “None of my own….”

At 9:30pm on October 6th 1966, BBC2 aired one of the most peculiar pieces of television ever to go out under the BBC’s banner. It was a blazingly stylised monochrome slice of life from an imagined far future. Kitchen-sink realism and familiar, relatable settings be damned – this was a bleak, alienated look at how technology can dehumanise society and render it feeble. It was called The Machine Stops, and it opened the second series of the prestigious science-fiction anthology show ‘Out Of The Unknown’.

Introduced the previous year, ‘Out Of The Unknown’ had proved a sleeper hit, providing adaptations of stories by the likes of Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, and J.G. Ballard – curated by trailblazing BBC Drama Producer Irene Shubik. By the end of its first run it was enough of a success both with audiences and critics for BBC2 to commission a second series. Feeling confident, Shubik decided to kick off with an adaptation of the defiantly uncommercial The Machine Stops, dramatised by Kenneth Cavender and Clive Donner from E.M. Forster’s 1909 short story. Shubik managed to secure the services of respected drama director Philip Savile, and it went before cameras in August 1966.


The Machine Stops is basically the story of a mother and son, living many miles apart, and separated in more ways than one. The people of this world live in the heart of the Machine, a man-made underground, omnipotent, sentient device beneath the surface of the Earth. Mankind is no longer able to live on the surface, and has become completely dependent on the Machine. These people live in their own ‘cells’, and are physically vegetating, their every need catered for by the Machine. They interact through screens in their cells (Forster anticipates instant messaging by about ninety years), but every other stimuli comes from the Machine.


The mother, Vashti is an intellectual who spends her days giving lectures and having ‘ideas’ in her cell. Vashti hates travel, and the fresh air repulses her. Her son, Kuno (Michael Gothard) is another story altogether. He’s as restless as Vashti is content in the heart of the machine, and is a classic long-haired unruly angry young man. He wants out, so he puts in an application to become a Father (rejected, as he’s developing too much muscle tone), and wants to visit the surface. Telling Vashti of his intentions, he finds a hole in the machine and travels to the surface, much to Vashti’s disdain. After making his way, exhausted, to the outside world, he not only finds it habitable, but sees a young girl living wild on the surface, proving that he’s been living a lie. It’s a brief escape, as the tentacles of the machine emerge from the ground to capture him and return him to his cell, where he’s threatened with homelessness.


He persuades a grudging Vashti to physically visit him, and also shares a thought of his own. “The Machine Stops”, which she dismisses. Before long, Kuno’s prophecy comes true, as the Machine begins to break down around them. Reunited eventually with Vashti in the corridors of the Machine as humanity panics and screams, he’s left mortally wounded and lies dying in her arms as she admits that mankind has made a mistake allowing the Machine to take over their lives.


Yvonne Mitchell plays Vashti as lofty and aloof but also with a fair amount of vulnerability. It’s a brilliant performance, and Mitchell’s striking, expressive features are used to great effect in close-up, with her hair plastered down under a bald cap. At one point, director Saville sums up the void between mother and son with an arresting shot superimposing Kuno’s climb to freedom over Vashti’s face, his ladder leading straight to her eye.


Gothard meanwhile, puts in a strong, very physical performance straight out of the late 60s angry David Hemmings school of acting, especially in the early scenes where he attempts independent movement, and later, when he’s captured by the Machine on the surface. His long hair paints him not-so-subtly as an anti-establishment rebel, railing against quite literally being put in a box, and being 1966, there are no happy endings. Films and TV plays of this era are often brutal and unforgiving, particularly when there’s a sci-fi angle. Never had it so good? Not on TV. Of course The Machine Stops is an adaptation of Forster’s own unhappy prose ending, but it fits with the twitchy vibe of the time.


It’s very much a period piece, featuring some innovative design from Norman James, whose Machine is all Geodisic designs, moving parts, pulsating membranes, and Op-Art projections. It even has a working ‘train’ that runs through the corridors of the Machine. All this groovy design and vogueish 60s bleakness is enhanced by the throb of Brian Hodgson’s special sound and all the fast-cutting and inlay effects Saville can throw at it. Impressive though the design is, it’s not all good news, the robotic arms that appear from the ceiling when Vashti summons a doctor look more like something from ‘The Wrong Trousers’ than part of an all-powerful machine.


It may have been over fifty years old when broadcast, but The Machine Stops resonated at the time as an allegory for the relentless rise of technology and social change in Harold Wilson’s ‘White Heat’ England. It was well-received at the time, going on to win an award at the Trieste Science Fiction festival in July 1967. Viewed today, it’s a reminder of a time that the BBC was prepared to take genuine risks with drama, throwing the usual ‘relatable’ period or kitchen sink drama in the bin in favour of something visually and tonally unique.


‘Out Of The Unknown’ ran for four series, ending in 1971. It proved highly influential, as the first high-profile sci-fi anthology series its DNA can be found in everything from ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ to Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’. The Machine Stops is one of the few surviving episodes from OOTU series two, and it still packs a punch through its angular oddness and strong message. It’s dated, and the performances a bit mannered, but it still has something to say in 2016, especially when you consider the amount of screen time we clock on a daily basis on our many devices. Wherever you stand on the debate for the merits for and against our plugged-in society, there’s one fact that’s undeniable. The Machine Stops’ stylised, groovy, very 1966 vision of the future is one of the most cult things ever shown on mainstream TV.

❉ 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’. All surviving episodes of the series are collected on a 7-disc DVD set released by BFI in 2014.

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  1. Many thanks for the overview, sir. First saw this about eight years back (a kind friend loaning me some, uh… samizdat copies of the show) & was pretty much gobsmacked by it. As you say, sometimes its ambition outreaches the realisation, but it’s the stylised, heightened performances that really sell it as a piece of futureshock. I also like how it’s nowadays on the meta side (a cult piece warning against over-esotericism). But the best of the OOTUs are right up there in the pantheon – I’d give props to Level Seven, Last Lonely Man & Stranger In The Family as must-sees, too – & I think you’re quite correct to nail The Machine Stops to the mast as the show’s paradigm..

    • Thanks Andrew! It was a convenient anniversary to use, but Machine Stops felt like the right one to do. It was an article about the very same episode in an old TV Zone many moons ago that got me interested in the first place.

  2. Norman James was my father and I’m very happy that his work is still appreciated!
    I remember him complaining about the budget on this programme and having to argue to keep the monorail. He was dispirited with these limitations and left the BBC not long afterwards to work on commercials. This was a visionary period in television, amazing what was achieved with little money!

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