TV reviews

The Stranger (1964) – Review

If you were to mention The Stranger just at the moment, most people would probably think you were talking about the Netflix drama which certainly has a lot of buzz about it right now. For some people like myself, you might be put in mind of a series of direct-to-video releases going by that name, which came out in the 1990s, and featured stars of Doctor Who in some copyright-skirting low budget sci-fi adventures starring Colin Baker as The Stranger (someone who’s definitely not the Doctor, honest guvnor).

However, as relatively obscure and niche as that last one may be, chances are you wouldn’t have actually brought to mind an Antipodean drama series from the mid-part of the 1960s. In fact, you might have thought that Australian sci-fi was as unlikely a genre category as Welsh sci-fi, but after Russell T. Davies firmly established the latter, it seems like it’s worth looking at the former again. In fact, Mad Max put paid to the notion no sci-fi – decent or otherwise – could originate from Down Under.

Predating that by a decade-and-a-half, however, was an early success for the Australian ABC network, in the form of The Stranger, a children’s science fiction serial which ended up being one of the first drama series from that country to be sold overseas, including to the BBC. Created by the New Zealand writer G.K. Saunders, The Stranger ran on ABC for two seasons, and although it was well received and popular when it aired, it seems to have ended up slipping from the public consciousness.

The series ended up becoming a ‘lost’ series, not because the shows were wiped or disposed of, but simply because it was forgotten. The Stranger has actually found itself in a more fortunate position than some of its contemporaries – such as Doctor Who, for example – as all of its episodes still exist, and were simply left languishing away in ABC’s archives, gathering dust for over half a century. However, the co-founders of ABC’s RetroFocus service – archivists Jon Steiner and Helen Meany – wanted to give it another airing, and bring it to modern audiences.

As a result, they’ve taken all twelve episodes and posted them on ABC’s iView service and YouTube channel, with viewers from around the world able to watch the show for free. It might seem like a rather odd choice, as you’d likely expect most TV networks to either region-lock any content it posts online, restrict it to a pay-per-view or subscription streaming service, or sell it to punters on DVD and Blu-ray; it’s therefore refreshing that such an unexpected approach has been taken here, and word-of-mouth about this move has gradually been spreading outside Australia.

Mirroring the method being used by streaming platforms for some modern programmes like Star Trek: Picard and The Mandalorian, the episodes weren’t all released in one go as a boxed set, but gradually over time – starting from Wednesday 29th January, the series’ twelve episodes were being put online in a daily basis, with the finale going live on Sunday 9th February. How much restoration’s actually been done is a matter of debate – by the finale, it looks as if the print’s been dragged around the floor of the archive, due to the amount of dirt and damage.

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However, it almost seems churlish to complain about the picture quality, as the chance to see any archival material – especially something so obscure – is to be welcomed, as well as the fact it’s viewable for free, which is another bold and extremely laudable step on ABC’s part. It’s most likely down to the fact the show is relatively unknown nowadays, as well as it being used as a guinea pig to see whether there would be a demand for other archived shows to be released in this way; you wouldn’t expect ABC to make big bucks if they’d charged for this, so gratis is the way to go.

The series focuses on a stranger who turns up unconscious on the doorstep of a schoolmaster’s home one night during a storm. Claiming to have amnesia, the man speaks German and French fluently, leading to speculation that he might be Swiss; deciding to give himself a name, the stranger says as the first man was called ‘Adam’, and because he might hail from Switzerland, he will be known as ‘Adam Suisse’. Adam gets a job working as a teacher, but some of the pupils start nosing into his business, and find out where he’s really from as well as what he’s actually up to.

Adam is played by Ron Haddrick, who’s not just a character actor, but also a cricketer who represented South Australia three times in the Sheffield Shield from 1951 to 1953. He’s also no stranger (no pun intended) when it comes to sci-fi, as he went on to appear in 2004’s miniseries Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars as Hierarch Yondalao. It’s an awful pity that The Stranger’s resurgence didn’t come a little sooner, as Haddrick sadly passed away on 11th February, days after the final episode went online, but before there had been a proper chance for it to be reappraised.

The show itself appears to have been made along similar lines to Doctor Who – on videotape in studio with a multi-camera setup, with film inserts used for all the on location sequences. The studio material looks to have been shot on a ‘recorded as live’ basis, due to the occasional flubbed lines sneaking in here and there, without any retakes being done to replace them. However, this lack of polish in the odd spot or two certainly doesn’t detract from the programme, and it makes it feel quite naturalistic at times.

Unlike the contemporary Doctor Who, however, there’s an amazing amount of filming done on location, and it’s these parts which look particularly glossy; in comparison, by the time The Stranger had first aired, Doctor Who hadn’t shot a single frame outside of the studio. Nearing the end of its second series, The Stranger filmed an action sequence on top of the Parkes radio telescope (later featured in 2000’s film The Dish, about the role it went in to play in the first Moon landing in 1969), which looks far more expensive than the show’s budget would suggest should have been possible.

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Decades before Marc Okrand’s Klingon Dictionary for Star Trek, The Stranger devised a whole alien language, rather than having the characters speaking nonsense babble or gibberish, so you have to give them credit for the lengths they went to when putting the show together. Okay, so it may creak a bit around the seams at times, but show me any programme from that era which wouldn’t look a bit clunky compared to modern television; it’s actually part of the show’s charm, and it manages to stand up reasonably well. There’s an almost ‘B-movie’ feel at times, but that’s by no means a bad thing.

It’s definitely an interesting piece of curios, especially as The Stranger is relatively unknown within its own country, let alone elsewhere. The chance to see archive material for free should always be embraced, and even moreso when it happens to be from overseas, when the opportunity to see it otherwise would be pretty much non-existent. As all of the episodes are only about 25 to 30 minutes long, it’s easy to binge on this series, and there are certainly much worse ways you could while away six hours of your time.

Who knows, maybe you might even grow to love it. Stranger things have happened.

2 comments

  1. I’ve not been able to find anything on this, I’m afraid – it leads me to suspect it could be stock music tracks.

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