Thirteen To Centaurus

Peter Potter, BBC TV, 1965
Tuesday 7 October 2003 12.10am-1.10am (Monday night)

Thirteen to Centaurus, based on JG Ballard's story of the same name, formed the 11th story in the debut season of Out of the Unknown. The series was the brainchild of the legendary Sydney Newman, who had attempted a similar programme, Out of this World, while working at ABC. The show had failed, but the artistic remit of the newly created BBC Two presented a chance to refine the concept of creating one-off science fiction dramas under an umbrella title, each dealing with different characters and situations.

The first two seasons at least are revered by many sci-fi fans as the nearest television came to creating a series which dealt with 'pure' science-fiction, and the list of writers whose work was plundered for adaptations is impressive, containing authors such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and John Wyndam. Although not a classic episode in the mould of The Counterfeit Man or EM Forster's The Machine Stops, Thirteen to Centaurus represents a great example of this intelligent and entertaining series.

The drama is set in a man-made world known as The Station, where humans have had their memories of Earth artificially erased. One exception is Doctor Francis who becomes interested in a boy called Abel, born within this weird community. The youngster begins to ask question about their world, and although aware that his presence may prove problematic, the doctor is curious regarding the working of his mind and imagination. However, this random factor will have inevitable, unforeseen consequences. It remains a typical Ballard piece with its interest in outsiders and psychology and its use of science fiction to investigate elements of contemporary society.

The version to be broadcast on BBC Four has been specially digigraded, a process used to partially 'clean up' aging master material. Don't expect a fully restored, DVD-like picture, but it's certainly superior to previous versions. Thirteen to Centaurus stands as a cracking, imaginative story which beautifully captures the essence of this outstanding series.

Gavin Collinson