Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Part Four: When it Works

Of course, despite its problems, Journey to the Unknown can be real fun, and there are certainly episodes that are genuinely effective. The Madison Equation isn’t a work of genius, but it is an interesting detective/horror story. It concerns a brilliant female scientist whose husband, motivated by resentment at her success, plots to kill her. More importantly, he decides to use her brilliant creation, a super-computer, to perform the perfect crime.

However, the whole thing backfires when he, rather than his wife, becomes is the victim of the death that he had planned for her, and a detective is assigned to investigate his murder. As the detective gets to work, however, he finds that the pool of suspects rapidly decrease and eventually – SPOILER ALERT – the solution proves both fantastic, horrific: the murderer is the computer!

By using the computer to plan the murder, the husband has alerted the machine to his intentions, but the machine has acquire more than an independent intelligence – it has acquired emotions and has fallen in love with its creator.

It may not be the most stylistically inventive of the series, or the most scary (although the end does pack a nice punch), but it’s a really well executed story. In some episodes, brilliant short stories like Miss Belle or Girl of My Dreams are pretty much ruined by being over-extended beyond their neat little scenarios – the original stories for both episodes were much like jokes, in which the tale largely works to set up a brilliant twist in the tail, or moment of poetic justice, but by over-extending these set ups, both episodes blow the final denouement, which ends up feeling too slight (or obvious) given the long build up. The Madison Equation, on the other hand, balances its elements and the build up is proportional to the resolution.

The case of Poor Butterfly is someone different. Its not the best story in the world, and its not actually frightening. However, it is a ghost story with a wonderfully melancholic tone, which it maintains with mesmerizing skill. At first, its hard to see where the whole thing is going, but give it time: the episode has a fragility and a sense of atmosphere that is quite engaging; and it provides a glimpse of the ways in which the series could have really made its mark. Several other episodes have a similar quality (Someone in the Crowd, Eve) but tend to distract the viewer with silly stories. Poor Butterfly isn’t the best story in the world but it doesn’t have Dennis Waterman falling in love with a mannikin, which is certainly creepy but for the wrong reason – well, at least for British viewers who are familiar with Dennis Waterman.

Atmosphere is also vital to the two best episodes in the series, Paper Dolls and Matakitas is Coming. The first is a creepy story about a group of identical young boys with the power of mind-control. It’s very similar to Village of the Damned in some ways, but it has a unique sense of atmosphere and suspense. It is also a story that that allows the series to define its own identity, being quite distinct from the kind of horror-thriller associated with Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but also from the explicitness with which Hammer was associated.

The same is also true of Matakitas is Coming, which (in addition) has the benefit of a tight, claustrophobic setting in which Vera Miles finds herself to be trapped overnight in a deserted library with a supernatural killer on the loose. It should also be noted that the build-up of tension is magnificent, largely due to the expert handling of director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, a classic figure of British television who would also become famous for his Beatles documentary, Let it Be. I won’t say too much about the story for fear of ruining things, but its strongly recommended.

And with that, I think its time to move on from Journey to the Unknown.

Next week: The Walking Dead

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