Orphaned Episodes: Guardian of the Past (Worlds Beyond)

This is the first in a projected series of posts about what I am calling orphaned episodes of TV shows. I am playing a bit fast and loose with the term because I am not using it in exactly the sense it is usually used in the world of Doctor Who, of an episode which survives the junking of other episodes in the series. Instead the orphaned episodes I write about here will have the following things in common:

They must be an odd episode of a show which is only available on the internet. The rest of the show may or may not exist somewhere but must not be available as a whole on the internet, and the whole show must not have had a commercial release.

I have projected this series of posts because I seem to have quite a few episodes meeting this criteria, usually downloaded from YouTube, and I never write about any of them, so I thought I would round them all up and deal with them as a theme.

Odd episodes of these shows will usually exist as a result of someone recording them off the TV, or even possibly walking out of the studio with the tape, and ultimately uploading them online. Focusing on odd episodes of whole shows may seem like an exercise in frustration but even researching this first show I have discovered that many of its episodes are scattered over YouTube (I only had come across one up to now) but not all because otherwise it wouldn't meet my entry criteria above. Of course I could change the rules but then I would be at great danger of being Prime Minister shortly. Actually next door's dog which is barmy would be better than Boris and recognises the truth when it sees it.

I think there are probably several shows called Worlds Beyond but this post is about this one a 1980s anthology series based on cases from the archives of the Society for Psychical Research and it shows. We are basically in Tales of the Unexpected territory except that periodically the Society is actually explicitly mentioned, which gives a very strange feel as if the show is actually sponsored by the Society. It is also very keen to emphasise the academic qualifications of the society at one point putting the phrases 'I am a scientist' and 'She is an excellent medium' in the same sentence from one character which I think accurately represents the problem presented by attempting the scientific investigation of psychic phenomena. Although there are episodes of this show scattered over the internet it seems to have largely escaped the attention of the internet, relatively little is written about it and as far as I can see this is the first comment on this episode on the internet.

In Guardian of the Past we are in fairly straightforward Ancient Egyptian Curse territory. This theme may have been chosen to appeal to the surge of interest in Egyptian antiquity following the Tutankhamen Treasures exhibition ending in 1981 (which mirrored the Egyptian fad after the actual discovery of the tomb in the twenties.

The discovery created a worldwide press sensation and stories spread about a curse on anyone who dared to break into a pharaoh’s tomb. The Times in London and New York World magazine published the best-selling novelist Marie Corelli’s speculations that ‘the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb’. It was not long before Lord Carnarvon died in Cairo aged 56 and the lights in the city went out, which set off a frenzy of speculation. Arthur Conan Doyle told the American press that ‘an evil elemental’ spirit created by priests to protect the mummy could have caused Carnarvon’s death.

No curse had actually been found in the tomb, but deaths in succeeding years of various members of Carter’s team and real or supposed visitors to the site kept the story alive, especially in cases of death by violence or in odd circumstances. Alleged victims of the curse included Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey of Egypt, shot dead by his wife in 1923; Sir Archibald Douglas Reid, who supposedly X-rayed the mummy and died mysteriously in 1924; Sir Lee Stack, the governor-general of the Sudan, who was assassinated in Cairo in 1924; Arthur Mace of Carter’s excavation team, said to have died of arsenic poisoning in 1928; Carter’s secretary Richard Bethell, who supposedly died smothered in his bed in 1929; and his father, who committed suicide in 1930. Source

There was apparently no actual curse inscribed in Tutankhamen's tomb, but it's interesting how this show very much goes with the folkloric version of the tale: Terence Alexander says there was a curse inscribed on many Egyptian tombs and the episode is about a series of awful things which happen after a woman steals part of a Princess's skeleton from a museum and brings it back to Blighty. It is perfectly possible to read this as a pure tale of magical retribution.

However there is another possible reading which is even less comfortable. What kind of person steals part of a dead person as a souvenir? What an awful thing to do. However what makes this uncomfortable is that that is exactly what has happened for centuries. There are mummies in the museum up the road from here, and they weren't mummified in Ladywood. A socially acceptable form of plunder is what has brought them here. A socially acceptable form of plunder has filled the British Museum. Beyond simple plunder there is a possible reading of colonialism and even class privilege, since these are clearly wealthy people. 

The woman who did the actual pilfering is actually American although apparently married to a British man and living here (the show doesn't waste time on exposition). Every episode of this show has mixed US/UK characters, and I don't know why this is. Obviously usually it is to appeal to a transatlantic audience but I haven't read that this was broadcast in the US. To be frank the fact she is presented as American softens the blow of the pillaging/imperialism/privilege reading I've outlined above.

The show is right to stick to a straightforward story here (others don't) because it gives a sense of straightforward mastery, as does the use of many classic cinema techniques to create emotion in the viewer, for example the use of a storm. I don't really have any criticism and would particularly highlight the economy of story telling and not wasting time in exposition, as being excellent. Despite there being a series of terrible accidents Susan (Mary Tamm) who stole the bone hasn't met a terrible fate by the end which leaves room for wondering what happens to her. I see that Tamm was British so the budget obviously didn't stretch to American actors!

The film is in quite poor shape so I didn't want to screenshot it and there aren't any stills on the internet, so the picture is of 1930s tourists - it came from here where there are many other fascinating pictures.

Beyond this one the series is varied as you would expect of an anthology series. In line with the nature of the SPR the episodes tend to differ in subject matter - I would personally have expected more of them to be about ghosts, which may partly explain this show's lack of attention. None of them strike me as a total dud but I think this one and Voice of the Gallows are high points.