There are obscure TV shows and obscure TV shows, and then there's Undermind. This 11 episode science fiction thriller was broadcast only once in 1965, and then never seen or head from again until Network, champions of obscure TV, released it on DVD in 2012.
As a series that has been almost totally forgotten the main selling point- at least for me- is the scripts contributed by some of the very best Doctor Who writers (and Bill Strutton). The series itself was "evolved" by Robert Banks Stewart, David Whitaker provides one episode and Robert Holmes wraps up the entire series with a final two parter (and he'd rather cheekily reuse some of the ideas in a rejected Doctor Who pitch that would finally see the light of day in the '70's as the Peter Cushing and Vincent Price staring radio series Aliens in the Mind). That's some serious pedigree there.
The show itself is both years ahead of its time, whilst also being incredibly dated. It's forward thinking in that it pre-dates the X-Files style conspiracy Sci-Fi decades before it was cool. The set up being that some mysterious alien force has been sending signals from space that brainwash those with unusually sensitive hearing, creating a cartel of sleeper agents working to destabilise British moral for... Well for reasons that never become very clear.
So on the one hand you've got this precedent setting, or at least it would be if anyone had seen it, format. Complete with a potential “Will they, won't they?” relationship between the two leads (though the lack of chemistry between the two of them makes this a bit of a reach, and indeed in a nice subversion of this standard of male and female led shows she goes off with George Baker in the last episode leaving Drew looking a bit sad and lonely).
But on the other, the means by which the aliens are subverting the UK are decidedly quaint. The first episode is about an MP being shamed into resignation and then suicide after being goaded into punching the Jeremy Kemp character. Today he'd probably be a national hero for dealing so bluntly with an annoying member of the electorate, certainly it's hard to think of anyone actually easily quitting over such a thing without more of a fight.
That is so completely at odds with how we think now it's genuinely hard to get your head around it, even before the only person, an MP, to have really slept with her is presented as a jolly nice old fellow who should have his indiscretions overlooked.
Of course, times change, and what really matters with any TV show isn't so much it portrays the attitudes of the time, but how it stands up as a piece of drama in its own right.
The series was made by the ITV network ABC, whose most notable TV legacy is probably The Avengers. Which at this time had just gone onto film and Emma Peel. Any British thriller series from around this period would be hard pressed not to have a whiff of John Steed about it, but Undermind really feels like an intentional attempt to come up with a replacement for the, generally more serious, Cathy Gale videotaped version of the show.
Possibly this is reading too much into it (and behind the scenes information about the series is incredibly scarce), and there are plenty of series based around a man and a woman solving crimes together. But there is certainly a very strong echo of those videotaped Gale episodes, most notably in the second instalment which feels like a mish mash of the Mandrake (evil goings on at a vicarage) and Build A Better Mouse Trap (mods and rockers) shows, with just a little bit of the Venus Smith musical interludes.
It's a comparison Undermind can't help but come off second best at. Wilkin is a capable leading man, but has about zero chemistry with Nicols, who is actually quite fun whenever her character has to go undercover (yes, just like Cathy Gale) and adopt different persona’s but is dull and vacant whenever she has to be herself.
The episodes themselves are very poorly made as well, even by the standards of the time. The most cheap and cheerful episode of '60's Who has less boom mikes (which almost qualify as a series regular) and fluffed lines than this series. There's a feeling that there wouldn't have been a retake even if Wilkin had whipped out his penis and started slapping it against the camera. Throw in some occasionally languid pacing and it's easy to see why the series seems (and again, firm info on this show is so limited it has Andrew Pixley gently rocking back and forth with his head in his hands whimpering) to have been brought to a premature end- 11 episodes being a very unusual length for a British TV season.
The other episodes are all at least watchable though. The vicar episode is good fun and has a nice turn from Michael Gough, which is only slightly undone by the fact the choice of villain is between a character played by someone you've never heard of and a character played by Michael Gough, somewhat killing the surprise.
The real highlights though tend to be at the end of the season. The episode about a fake astrologer using his gullible victims to further the aliens aims is not only very well written but has an interesting, and very possibly even intentional, gay subtext. A successful businessman is going to a seedy hotel to meet another man in a room and get up to stuff that could ruin his reputation if anyone else ever found out. Hmmm.
This episode of also especially notable for the alien plot being to kill Eamonn Andrews (for younger readers, best known as the pre-Aspel This is Your Life host) live on TV. They seem to have done at least some recording in the audience for one of his chat shows as the number of extras in the TV studio would easily be budget breaking for this series. It would be interesting to know when the episode with both Sid James and the Rolling Stones on it went out (though they're only mentioned in Andrews' introduction, there's no other celebrity cameos).
The final two parter from Holmes is also very good. Cheekily there's an on-screen acknowledgement of the show being curtailed early as Anne expresses amazement at the fact they've wrapped up the whole alien infiltration thing much sooner than she expected.
Despite retconing various aspects of the back-story- most obviously the fact the aliens turn out to be plotting to turn everyone into Underminds by spreading a flu virus that will give us all sensitive ears meaning there wasn't really any point to all the subversive plots of the previous nine weeks- it wraps up everything pretty neatly and features lots of what would become Holmes' trademark dark humour.
Even with the flaws and cheapness, this still winds up being a good solid show with the pluses outweighing the bad. With a variety of “Hey, it's that guy!” guest stars anyone with an interest in old TV will get something out of it. Everyone else, especially those less familiar with 60's videotape series, will find it a lot more of a struggle. But if you're prepared to stick though the slower patches the ending does reward you.
And frankly, it's cool a series that's so forgotten (there's also clearly a lack of production photos out there as you might be able to tell from this write up, the DVD uses screen-grabs on the back) has been put out by Network.