Undermind (TV)
R2 - United Kingdom - Network
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (25th July 2012).
The Film

Undermind (ABC, 1965)

Created (and arguably ‘authored’) by the prolific television writer Robert Banks Stewart, this eleven-part series explores an alien plot to undermine British society by sending high-frequency signals from space which cause people to commit what in today’s climate would be classed as ‘acts of terror’. The aim of this unspecified alien force is to destabilise society. In some ways, the series could be seen as prophetic of the paranoia surrounding so-called ‘sleeper cells’ in the terror-conscious society of the 21st Century. On the other hand, the series is very timely, being shaped by the unrest in other parts of Europe during the mid-1960s: looking sideways towards some of the unrest that could be seen in French society during the 1960s, the series more immediately anticipates the resurfacing of the ‘Irish question’ during the Troubles a year or two later (in fact, the fourth episode focuses on the divisions within Ireland), and the rise of the Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction in Italy and Germany respectively.

Like Robert Banks-Stewart’s work for Callan (ABC/Thames, 1967-72) or one of his later scripts for Doctor Who (‘The Seeds of Doom’, 1976), Undermind is a deeply paranoid series that is arguably very much a barometer of the times. The paranoia within the programme is an outgrowth of Cold War-era fears about the subversion of society from within; in this sense, the series is essentially a political thriller masquerading as a science-fiction show and bears comparisons with US Cold War-era science fiction films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956).

The first episode establishes the premise of the series through its focus on Frank Heriot (Jeremy Kemp), a detective sergeant who, after a run-in with politician Hugh Bishop (Tony Steedman), is discovered by his brother Drew Heriot (Jeremy Wilkin) to have been brainwashed by the alien signal. Frank, who has complained of overly-sensitive hearing, is one of a group of people who are susceptible to this form of brainwashing. Frank’s changes have been noted by his wife Anne (Rosemary Nicols). When Drew observes that ‘He [Frank] can’t have changed that much in six months’, Anne tells him, ‘You haven’t lived with him [….] He swans about the house for hours without saying a word’. The ‘new’ Frank is cold and emotionless, and when investigated by psychologist Dr Polson (Paul Maxwell) is observed to be ‘totally lacking in normal emotional reflexes’. At the end of the episode, Drew notes that ‘Somehow Frank was brainwashed. I’m sure of that now. These others must be the same. Look, it could be any one of them’ – he points to a crowd - ‘People of all kinds, possible two or three dozen of them [….] People in small jobs, people in big jobs, waiting to strike some blow. How much damage have they caused already without being recognised? How much more are they going to?’

From here, Drew and Anne – and, later in the series, Drew’s friend Professor Randolph (Denis Quilley), a mathematics lecturer with a sideline in writing sci-fi novels – go on to investigate a different case each week, many of the episodes focusing on ‘hot topic’ issues: for example, ‘Flowers of Havoc’ features a well-worn staple of 1960s and 1970s dramas, a biker gang that has invaded a seaside town and is believed to be responsible for vandalising the local church. However, in a number of the episodes the ‘enemy agent’ is revealed to be the least likely candidate; but that doesn’t stop Undermind having a slightly reactionary aftertaste, almost unquestioningly reinforcing the importance of protecting the establishment and trading in what could be argued to be patronising stereotypes about potentially subversive groups. These stereotypes - such as the biker gang in ‘Flowers of Havoc’ or the elderly, bickering former Irish revolutionaries in ‘Death in England’ – seem to be presented without irony. ‘Death in England’ is particularly problematic inasmuch as it presents the issue of Irish independence as little more than the reflections of elderly, confused and comical former IRA members, which in light of events in Northern Ireland from 1965 onwards seems especially shortsighted. Nevertheless, despite this reliance on stereotypes and an arguably reactionary worldview, the series is carried by some strong writing and the lead performances of its two stars, Jeremy Wilkin and Rosemary Nichols.

The structure of the series – each week Drew and Anne investigate a different set of strange circumstances that are part of the alien ‘plot’ – is recognisable from later shows such as Strange Report (ITC, 1969), Department S (ITC, 1969-70) and Sapphire & Steel (ATV, 1979-82) and, more recently, US programmes like The X-Files (Fox, 1993-2002) and Fringe (Fox, 2008-present).

Undermind is essentially a series that focuses on people whose actions are not their own, determined for them by a mysterious and enigmatic foreign power. The alien race who sends the signals is never named or identified. In its paranoid examination of an alien plot, it somewhat resembles Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) or Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass 2 (BBC, 1955). However, in its focus on brainwashing the series is also allied with espionage narratives such as Sidney J Furie’s film adaptation of The IPCRESS File (1965) and, of course, Callan. As these points of reference might suggest, Undermind is very much a product of Cold War thinking.

DISC ONE:
‘Instance One’ (49:31)
‘Flowers of Havoc’ (47:36)
‘The New Dimension’ (48:05)
Brochure (*PDF file)

DISC TWO:
‘Death in England’ (45:53)
‘Too Many Enemies’ (48:23)
‘Intent to Destroy’ (48:22)
‘Song of Death’ (48:09)

DISC THREE:
‘Puppets of Evil’ (49:03)
‘Test for the Future’ (47:00)
‘Waves of Sound’ (48:11)
‘End Signal’ (47:19)

Video

The monochrome series is presented in its original broadcast screen ratio of 1.33:1. It’s a studio-bound series, mostly shot on videotape with some filmed inserts. The episodes are quite well-preserved, comparable to the monochrome episodes of Callan that Network have released recently.

The original break bumpers are present, and the episodes appear to be presented without cuts.

Audio

Audio is presented via a two-channel mono track. This lacks clarity at times and is a little muddy. Some lines of dialogue are difficult to make out. Sadly, there are no subtitles.

Extras

Sadly, there is no contextual material, other than a vintage brochure for the series which is presented as a ‘PDF’ file.

Overall

Undermind starts well enough, but as the first few episodes progress it becomes increasingly clear that the series lacks focus and struggles to find its own identity: it flits from topic to topic, its tone alternating between deadly serious and comic. It’s quite reactionary in places too, relying on some lazy stereotypes; and bizarrely, Drew and Anne are able to carry out their investigations with neither help nor hindrance from the police. However, the cast, including Wilkin and Nichols and some very good guest stars (Michael Gough, Garfield Morgan, David Kelly, Aubrey Richards), carry the series well. It’s an interesting piece of Cold War paranoia, but it’s certainly not top-tier Sixties television.


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