There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur, or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: There is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to… The Outer Limits.
“The Outer Limits” was a science fiction anthology series that ran between 1963 and 1965. Unlike “The Twilight Zone”, its focus being particularly science fiction was a contributing factor, in my opinion, to it not lasting as long. It was extremely limited by its budget and poor special effects, thus doing a disservice to some good stories with some rather improbable looking aliens. That being said, there were episodes that managed to rise above this, so here are my favourite episodes from “The Outer Limits”.
“The Human Factor” is set on a military base in Greenland. It concerns an officer, Major Brothers, who loses a man in a crevasse, and begins to experience mental illness due to his guilt. He begins to imagine that there are aliens in the crevasse, and the only way he can save the world is to detonate an atomic device (which would, of course, wipe out the base and everyone on it.) The atomic bomb’s presence is explained by this being a Cold-War era military base. The major is referred to the outpost’s psychiatrist, Dr Hamilton, for treatment. Dr Hamilton has a device that can help him read another person’s mind, ostensibly to find out what’s bothering them. During his use of this, an earthquake shakes the base and causes the minds of the two men to switch into the opposing bodies. Major Brothers is then free to pursue his plan to blow up the base while Dr Hamilton is locked up in a padded cell.
What interested me most about this episode was the fact that the aliens in the crevasse do not end up being real, as you might initially expect. Major Brothers has lost his mind and imagined them. The only science fiction element of this story is the mind reading device. I found it an interesting look at mental illness (though limited by its era) and how the stress of an accident had caused the officer to have a psychotic episode, imagining an external threat because he cannot face his guilt and supposed incompetence. The actors playing the respective characters both did a good job portraying the opposite personality.
“Nightmare” takes place on an alien world where a crew of a spaceship, part of a force sent to fight the alien Ebon race, have been captured. The Ebonites subject them to various psychological and physical tortures, questioning them to reveal military secrets. These aliens have powers to affect the men’s senses, causing blindness in one and muteness in another. They can also create hallucinations of loved ones to fool the men. After most of the men have been questioned, the aliens thank them for revealing secrets and tell them they will now have better treatment. This naturally puts the men at each other’s throats, as each of them insists they have not broken under interrogation. They are on the verge of murdering one of their number who has experienced physical torture, and they assume he must have been the one to give in. They are prevented from doing so by the aliens and one of their own – it eventuates that the whole thing has been a trick, that Earth is not at war with the Ebonites, and the situation is a test of their soldiers’ loyalty and ability to hold up under interrogation. The Ebonites themselves express disgust about this – they are not actually violent people and some of the humans have died or been damaged due to the tests. The human generals are more keen on the idea – saying it is important data.
The point of this story may be obvious, but I believe no less powerful for that. It is creepy, it is disturbing, and it is very real. (As an aside, this episode is also notable for an early appearance by Charlie Sheen.) Such tests have of course been conducted by armies in various countries, and it is not a stretch to believe that under such a situation those in charge would not have the same idea. That soldiers are expendable in war-time is distasteful, though obvious. That soldiers are seen as expendable in tests and experiments conducted by their own side is, in my opinion anyway, morally repugnant. As the voiceover says at the end:
According to established military procedure, the results of the Ebon maneuvers will be recorded in books and fed into computers for the edification and enlightenment of all the strategists of the future. Perhaps they will learn something.
“The Bellero Shield” is set entirely within the home of scientist Richard Bellero, played beautifully by Martin Landau. The real scene-stealer in this episode, however, is Sally Kellerman, playing Mrs Bellero. Bellero has invented a laser device that shoots a continuous beam into the sky. His father, Bellero senior, runs a family company, but is disappointed by his son’s impracticality and lack of ambition, so he plans to give the company over to someone outside the family. Mrs Bellero, who is ambitious, is far more bothered about that than her husband, so when an alien appears, having used the laser as a way to get from his universe to theirs, she sees an opportunity. She discovers, after shooting at the alien, that he has an impregnable shield operated from a hand held device, and schemes to get hold of it. When the alien won’t give it up, she tricks him into lowering it and then shoots him, stealing the device. She then lures her father in law back to the house and passes the shield off as her husband’s invention, hoping to get control of the Bellero company this way. However, the plan backfires.
Interesting as the alien and his device may be, they are essentially what Alfred Hitchcock referred to as a McGuffin, a device whose sole purpose is to drive the story forward. What is really great about this episode is the interaction between this very dysfunctional family, including their housekeeper, who is very loyal to Mrs Bellero. Richard keeps explaining to his wife that he’s not really that interested in power, only in science. She keeps egging him on to get control of the company. There is a wonderful scene between Kellerman and Bellero senior, played by Neil Hamilton, which takes place outside the house. It positively oozes vitriol and malice between the two characters. Many have seen this as a take on Macbeth, and it does have some parallels. Mrs Bellero is certainly a fine parallel to Lady Macbeth, and Kellerman is fantastic here portraying her greed, ambition, and unscrupulousness. Bellero, however, is no Macbeth. He does not condone his wife’s treatment of the alien and only goes along with the plan to take credit for the shield because he thinks the alien has given it to her. He has no idea what she has done. So don’t watch this episode for the science fiction – watch it for an expertly acted character drama by a talented cast. It is really worth a look.
“Feasibility Study” follows the events of a neighbourhood which is kidnapped, en masse, by aliens. The aliens teleport the entire neighbourhood, houses and all, to their planet. The people living there don’t realise at first what has happened, except there is an odd mist, the sun isn’t up, and telephones and cars aren’t working. The aliens suffer from a rock-like disease that eventually makes them become immobile, and their intent is to see if humans will be effective slave-labour for them. If it works with the few people they have taken, they will take the whole planet. The people have a choice – they do what they are told, or a simple touch from the aliens will infect them with the disease.
I include this episode for two reasons. Firstly, it is quite scary. Once you get beyond the poor effects and think about the concept, the idea of being scooped off your home planet like a scoop of icecream and suddenly being somewhere very alien and very dangerous, surrounded by victims of a nasty plague who want you to work for them or else they’ll infect you, is really terrifying. The second reason is because I found it very moving. The final scene, and the final choice, of the kidnap victims might not be probable. It is quite likely extremely idealistic and would never happen in real life. But it is one of those moral choices that people are sometimes called upon to make, to sacrifice for the greater good. I like to think that human beings can rise to meet such challenges.
“Demon with a glass hand” is one of two episodes written by author Harlan Ellison. Robert Culp plays Trent, a man initially seen in a city street, wandering in confusion, while his voice-over tells the audience that he has no memory of his life prior to the last ten days where he has been in the city. His left hand has been replaced by a hand-shaped, translucent computer, with missing digits. The computer speaks to Trent, but tells him it cannot give all the information because it is not complete. It needs to have its missing digits attached. Trent is being chased by an alien race called the Kyben, and discovers from one of them that they have pursued him from one thousand years in the future. (The makers worked around the usual awful alien outfits by having the aliens ‘disguise’ themselves as human, distinguished only by their white faces and black rings around their eyes aka a cheap makeup job. It works.) He pursues them to a building where the time travel device is located, and works to defeat the aliens and recover the missing fingers, so he can find out what is going on. The finale, and the answer to this question, is awesome.
Before I talk about the episode, it has a couple of fun facts. The building in question is the Bradbury building, which any one who has seen ‘Blade Runner’ will recognise as the set of the final showdown between Decker and Batty. Harlan Ellison’s screenplay won awards such as the 1965 Writers Guild of America award for ‘Outstanding script for a television anthology’, and the 1972 George Melies Fantasy Film Award for ‘Outstanding Cinematic achievement in science fiction television’. They are both richly deserved – this is a superb episode, and the best in the original “The Outer Limits” in my opinion.
So why is it the best? Well, it’s gripping, very exciting, and has a strong morality tale aspect. The journey and fate of Trent, who starts the episode knowing nothing about himself and ends it knowing more than he wanted, is quite a tragic one. He is left quite alone at the end of the episode, a female supporting character having left him once she realised what he is. Robert Culp is really good in this. I have been a fan of his for a long time from the old series ‘I Spy’ and he makes this episode work with his performance. The battle is so important, and is played out at night with only one person present other than the combatants to witness and know what happened, and of course no one would believe her if she spoke about it. It’s a really special moment in television, and one that I would highly recommend.
I thought I would put in a few honourable mentions for episodes I enjoyed: “The Architects of Fear” (Robert Culp again), “The Man who was never born” (Martin Landau again), “Don’t open til Doomsday”, “The Guests”, “Soldier” (starring the wonderful Michael Ansara whom Star Trek fans will recognise as the Klingon Kang, and the second “Outer Limits” script written by Harlan Ellison), “I Robot” (not to be confused with Isaac Asimov, but based on a series of stories written by Otto Binder, also with Leonard Nimoy in a supporting role), and “The Probe”.
I think that people miss out by not giving some of these very old programs a chance. They might not have had the fancy effects and the bigger budgets of more modern television. Yes, they are black and white. But they are still worth watching and appreciating. If you have watched and think I have missed any good episodes, comment and let me know.