Out of the Unknown: Stranger in the Family

Out of the Unknown, perhaps the best regarded of the British science fiction anthology programmes of the twentieth century, ran for four series between 1965 and 1971. In that time, forty-nine episodes were aired, the bulk of which were adaptations of existing science fiction stories by prominent authors. Almost all the stories to be adapted were sourced by Irene Shubik – producer on the first two seasons – through often complex negotiations.

The first series of Out of the Unknown featured twelve episodes, of which ten were adaptations. The  third episode, “Stranger in the Family,” is one of the outliers. Written by David Campton, a prolific playwright from the fifties onwards, it's fortunately one of the episodes that still exists in its entirety in the archives. Campton's name wasn't as big a draw as the likes of Isaac Asimov, John Wyndham and Ray Bradbury, so the initial plan to open the series with “Stranger in the Family” was scrapped in favour of Stanley Miller's adaptation of Wyndham's “No Place Like Earth.” This was, undoubtedly, a mistake. Shubik and the production team, overseen by the great Sydney Newman, should have more confidence in the script and production. “Stranger in the Family” is a wonderfully unsettling story based on a solid sci-fi premise.

Stranger in the Family

The story revolves around an eighteen-year-old, officially called Charles Wilson but always referred to simply as “Boy.” Played by a very young Richard O'Callaghan, Boy is a mutant, with a single physical difference to ordinary humans: a lack of fingernails, a simple thing but surprisingly unsettling. Far more distressing, though, are Boy's mental abilities. He displays telepathy, to such a degree that he can not only read people's minds, but control them. A simple command, delivered in a quiet, mild-mannered tone, leaves his victims quite unable to disobey. 

There are several disquieting moments, all the more powerful for being so underplayed. Early in the episode, Boy deals with a man who is following him by simply telling him to “go away,” leading the stalker to blindly walk into the path of a truck. The image of the man's legs peeking from under the vehicle, dark blood smeared over the road, is astonishingly visceral for a drama of that time. Later, Boy deals with a man named Sonny (Eric Lander), who hopes to exploit his abilities, by making him run a bath and lie down in it, fully clothed. What starts as a funny scene quickly turns frightening as Boy lets Sonny come within seconds of drowning before allowing him to get up.

Much of Out of the Unknown feels slow-paced and restrained, and “Stranger in the Family”is no exception. In this case, though, this is a positive blessing, with Alan Bridges directing an episode that is subtle, unshowy and all the more effective for it. O'Callaghan gives a quiet, unassuming performance that makes his displays of power and cruelty all the more frightening. 

Out of the Unknown: Stranger in the Family

While O'Callaghan is the centre of the episode, the story is supported by a strong cast, including Peter Copley as Boy's father, the elder Charles Wilson. (Copley would later appear in two further episodes of the series: “Immortality Inc.” in 1969 and “Taste of Evil” in 1971.) Already middle-aged, the elder Charles appears to be a man worn down by the pressure of keeping his son hidden, for his own safety and those around him. Along with Boy's mother Daphne (Margaret Wilson), they have been forced to move around the country since Boy was a small child, and not without reason. There are sinister forces at work, who seek to use Boy and others with unique abilities for their own ends.

Although it's seemingly the government who are sending these agents after Boy, a more immediate threat comes from Paula, an aspiring actress. Played by Justine Lord, Paula is rather older than Boy, beautiful and self-assured, but pushed around by her agent and lover Sonny. Starved of company and in the throes of adolescence, Boy is entranced with Paula, and the two begin a sort of relationship, each exploiting the other. The ultimate result is inevitably tragic, and spells the end of Boy's tenuous anonymity. 

Stranger in the Family - Out of the Unknown

The origin's of Boy's mutation is uncertain, but the origins of the story are easy to guess. While the script may not have been adapted from an existing story, the influence of John Wyndham is clear. 

The concept of the Boy who cannot be disobeyed is a straight lift from Wyndham's 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos , which had been made into the film Village of the Damned in 1960, and featured alien children that could control people's minds. Boy is even referred to as an alien by one of the characters, although more in the sense of an outsider to normal humanity, than in the extraterrestrial sense. It's easy to believe that Shubik, having sought out Wyndham and eager to adapt his work, would be keen to take on scripts that examined similar concepts. Of course, the idea of someone who, through telepathy, hypnotism, or sheer force of will, compels you to act against your best interests is ancient. A similar story would appear on American screens the following year with the Star Trek episode “Charlie X,” also featuring an adolescent with terrifying powers, and years later with the irresistible Purple Man, aka Kilgrave, in Jessica Jones

David Campton would rework his own script for an episode of the 20th Century Fox/Hammer co-production Journey to the Unknown in 1969. Again, one of the few episodes in the series not based on a literary piece, the remade “Stranger in the Family” starred Anthony Higgins as Boy. However, the sinister yet sympathetic performance of O'Callaghan, along with the unnerving yet understated direction by Bridges, make the original more powerful.

About the Writer of this article, Daniel Tessier 

Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord 

Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial

Published on November 18th, 2019. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.