Feb 10

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A Tribute to The Outer Limits

This  year, as of the 16th of September, will mark the 50th anniversary of the greatest science fiction anthology ever to air on television.  I am speaking, of course, of The Outer Limits.  Although it drew upon earlier television series such as Science Fiction Theater, it broke ground across the board.  It possessed four vital qualities lacking from the majority of modern series: great writing, great acting, great directing, and great cinematography.

The matter of cinematography is one that constantly riles me.  It’s lost.  We live in the age of computer-generated imagery (CGI), where spectacular special effects are almost as easy as flipping a coin.  I can do it myself, and I’m not a professional.  If I’m careful and take my time, I can make it look real.  And that’s the problem.  It’s so easy that producers often elect to throw a million dollars into dazzling screen action in the hope that the audience forgets that there isn’t really any story.

The Outer Limits has stories.  Years ahead of its time, it explored, early on, such 21st-century challenges as human evolution, genetic engineering, nuclear war, and the energy crisis.  Furthermore, it did so while probing the human foibles of greed, ambition, power, cruelty, betrayal, and fear.  Even at the same time, it explored the opposing virtues of love, loyalty, dedication, and courage.  One often has to watch an episode three or four times just to catch all the subtleties and innuendos of the plot.  I’ve been watching them for nearly 50 years, and haven’t tired of them yet.

Running from 1995 to 2002, MGM revived the series to capitalize on the prevailing enthusiasm for science fiction in general.  There were some excellent episodes, including “The Choice” (1995) and “Stitch in Time” (1996), but overall it was like eating popcorn without salt.  Something was missing, and I knew exactly what it was within the first episode: atmosphere.  That was the word I used, but to understand its meaning, one has to compare it to the original series.

My first disappointment with the new series — and it struck me within seconds — was that they didn’t use the old opening theme.  Even if your screen was out, the original music by Dominic Frontiere and Harry Lubin would send prickly spiders crawling up your back and make your heart pound.  It could almost make you cringe.  The new music made me roll my eyes.

The second factor in the lack of atmosphere takes us back to cinematography.  It was produced in a film noir style, with skillful manipulation of light and shadow, of camera angle, of composition.  I have a random scene on my screen now, paused just because that was where I happened to click the button.  The episode, “Don’t Open ’til Doomsday,” is just as randomly selected.  Even so, looking at it, I am impressed with the skillful use of backlighting, of shadows, of overall scene composition.

Lighting as a vital part of composition was important back in the days of black-and-white because there was no color to help with the visual separation of scene elements.  The advent of color seems to have killed that talent.  Look at some of the films out of the ’70s.  They might be in color, but they all look flat.  OK, enough of that rant.  The bottom line is that if your sound was out, just the visual scenes would bring back those spiders and heart palpitations.  Put them together, and you have a recipe for nightmares.  Literally.  My parents wouldn’t let us watch an episode until they had approved it first; my brother Steve did get nightmares from it.

But the most striking feature remains the stories.  The plot might be exploring the fourth dimension, alien invasions, human mutation, force fields, or matter disintegrators, but the writers never forgot that stories are never really about those things.  They are about people.  In every episode, the science fiction is interwoven with careful character development, intricate personality interactions, logical and consistent motivation.  You can watch five episodes of Law & Order: SVU and see none of those.

Which brings us to monsters.  The Outer Limits had some very creative monsters, called ‘bears” by producer Joseph Stefano.  The thetan from “Architects of Fear” was judged to be so frightening (at the time) that in some areas much of the last several minutes of the episode was blacked out, and it others, the last ten minutes was reserved to be broadcast after the 11:00 news when, presumably, all children would be in bed.

These were not like modern monsters like Predator, Jason, and Terminator, whose only objective in existence is to see how much blood they can splatter around.  No, the monsters of The Outer Limits were people too, with their own sets of personalities, motivations, and even character development.  You could, as often as not, sympathize with them.  And that, ladies and gentleman, introduces a sort of conflict that we just don’t get to see anymore.  Everything wasn’t white and black, good and evil.

You had to think, which is quickly becoming a lost art.

For your entertainment, I intended to pick out my five favorite episodes.  It was a daunting challenge, and perhaps not humanly possible.  It reminds me of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.  As soon as I narrow in on one set of admirable attributes, everything else becomes incoherent.  Am I going to look at the super-geek hard-core science?  Or the often dazzling writing?  Or just how fun it is to watch?  My all-time favorite episode is immutable and indisputable, but as soon as you get to number two, questions start to pop up.


If I were in a mood to look at the writing, “The Bellero Shield” would be near the top of the list.  It dapples in Nordic mythology, yet without a direct reference to it, pulls a Macbethian analysis, even down to the spot on Judith Bellero’s hand as she finds herself trapped in a prison of guilt.  No, no more.  Watch it.  If I were in a mood to examine commentaries on human weakness, I’d bring up “O.B.I.T.,” where ….  no….  You need to watch that one, too.  In the end, I fell back to just how plain fun they are to watch, and even then, their order is hard to crystallize.  I need to post this quickly before it changes.

But anyway, here are the five I’ve chosen.

The Special One5. The Special One

Kenny is a young genius, so his parents are initially delighted that the government has sent them Mr. Zeno to tutor him.  However, matters get puzzling when he starts teaching subjects that no one knows about, alarming when Kenny’s loyalty seems to be switching to the newcomer, and frightening when he starts walking through walls.  As it turns out, Mr. Zeno is an alien, cultivating Kenny to help them in their upcoming invasion of Earth.  Worse, he has the power of mind control.  In the end, where will Kenny’s loyalties lie?

Demon with a Glass Hand4. Demon with a Glass Hand

Trent doesn’t know exactly who he is, where he came from, how he got locked in an old building at night, or why he has a glass hand that answers questions.  As he finds and recovers additional fingers for it from aliens, it is able to lead him ever closer to the truth, one that he probably doesn’t want to learn.  After all, he is not what he thinks he is, and his burden is so much greater than he can imagine.

Production and Decay of Strange Particles3. Production and Decay of Strange Particles

While experimenting with unusual radioactive materials, a team of researchers opens a rift into another universe.  One by one, they are overcome by a mysterious force that occupies their radiation suits and gradually moves out from the core of the reactor, threatening reality as we know it.  Is there any way at all to reverse the process and close the schism before the entire world is consumed?

The Premonition2. The Premonition

Test pilot Jim Darcy accidentally breaks the time barrier, sweeping himself and his wife 10 seconds into the future.  Only it is a future that seems to be frozen.  As time progresses, they learn that it is indeed moving, only very slowly, and that when it catches up, all will be as it was, assuming they are back in place when it happens.  If not, they will be trapped there forever.  The plot thickens when they discover their young daughter about to be run over by a truck in the frozen time stream where they are unable to do anything to prevent it, and unable to get back to the spot quickly enough after time synchronizes.  To what decision will their humanity lead them?

The Inheritors1. The Inheritors

In the only two-parter, four soldiers, shot in the head in an Asian war, who should have died but didn’t, all recover and develop astonishing intellects.  More than that: they develop a common alien mind that leads them against their will to develop the technology for a starship, and to abduct six children for some unknown purpose.  Not just any children, but the blind, the deaf, the crippled, the dying … but all innocent and trusting.  No one, not even the four, know what horrors await the children, nor is there anything they can do to stop themselves.  Neither can federal agent Adam Ballard stop it, as he is up against alien technology and four people who can control minds.

Note: I need not even watch this one to start crying over it.

I have long credited the Tom Swift, Junior, series for inspiring my immersion into the world of science and technology.  That remains true.  But The Outer Limits inspired something else.  The opening monologue ends with, “…the awe and mystery that reaches from the inner mind to the outer limits.”  Indeed, it filled me, at that young age, with an awe and mystery of the universe that has not abated in all the decades since.  If Tom Swift sparked my intellect, The Outer Limits sparked my imagination.

If you have never seen the original series, stop whatever you are doing, find it, and sit until you’ve finished them.  Especially do so if you are a writer, and you want to see how the masters did it.  I have seen science fiction that is more scientifically accurate, but none better.

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