Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Outer Limits - A First Season Primer

by David J. Schow

   The Outer Limits became the pivotal monster show for entire generations of 60s and 70s fans due to being a creative anomaly, where production value fused with a unique weirdness and skewed POV to provide a phenomenon legitimately greater than the sum of its raw material. To others, it was an unsung treasure, a bridge from the snap-in-the-tail morals of The Twilight Zone to the derring-do of Star Trek. It targeted no specific audience (unlike the juvenilia of Irwin Allen’s contemporaneous assortment of gimmick series like Lost in Space or Time Tunnel) and offered as many terrors for adults as for kids—a heady, hallucinogenic mix of cerebral paranoia, Gothic milieu, Expressionist rendering and gooshy critters from outer space…or in one case, straight out of a vacuum cleaner. To still others, The Outer Limits pointed the way and provided the inspiration for dozens of nascent filmmakers, many of whom grew up to enable our modern five-channel, CGI-slathered blockbuster entertainment machines. It is worth restating here that the 1963-era special effects, mocked today as falling far short of the plotting demands of the writing, demonstrate a peak of imaginative problem-solving, far preferable to today’s exemplars of fantastic film—movies and TV shows where, conversely, the writing is no longer up to the level of the effects, and “willing suspension of disbelief” by audiences seems to have passed its spoilage date long ago.

    Which begs the question: Why does The Outer Limits endure?

    For many, the “classic” memories of The Outer Limits are grounded in several instantly identifiable creatures or aliens, the most popular of these including “The Galaxy Being”’s titular Andromedan; the big-brained, hyper-evolved Homo Superior portrayed by David McCallum in “The Sixth Finger”; the crawly insect antagonists of “The Zanti Misfits”; or the lava-complected time traveler played by Martin Landau in “The Man Who Was Never Born.” All of these are present and accounted for in the First Season episodes—most importantly, they are available for examination in the company of the other episodes made around them. The Outer Limits crew had to wrap one of these miniature feature films every seven days, which makes the quality control on view—plus the fast-forward innovations deployed to get each episode in the can on time and on target—all the more amazing. There were no recurring characters, sequels, or clip shows to take up production slack, yet the series displays an admirable continuity as a unified, 32-part whole through the ingredients that matter most: acting, direction, writing, music, cinematography (before it was called that), editing, and the wild concoctions of Project Unlimited—possibly, TV history’s very first independent, all-purpose special effects shop. This is not like settling into a sofa to watch a season of The Sopranos or The Mary Tyler Moore Show all at once, familiar characters engaging in the routine of the human condition and providing the usual surprises according to a soap-operatic “arc.” The Outer Limits is a puzzle-box wherein a hidden panel leads to a secret door which reveals yet another bizarre compartment. The show’s tenor is not sequential, but like the spokes of a wheel—whereas The Twilight Zone dealt in ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, The Outer Limits most frequently engaged highly unusual people in the intrusions of the mundane, “larger” world outside their experiments, research or predicaments. (A dossier on the show’s moody, romanticist characters would probably read like a psychologist’s case file on aberrant personality.)

    What’s really striking about the complete First Season is how seamlessly the behind-the-scenes parts-of-the-whole melded and complemented each other to yield an episode-to-episode consistency, from the most popular classics to the oblique and cryptic segments; from the indelibly-remembered monsters, stories and situations to the forgettable or embarrassing desperation measures; from the most expensive single (non-pilot) segment (“Tourist Attraction”) to the cheapest bottle show (“Controlled Experiment”). Every instance of the highs and lows navigated by the show’s unique and unreplicable creative team can be examined here—from Leslie Stevens’ shining technological sci-fi to Joseph Stefano’s baroque, Old Dark House approach; from the combined brilliance of Stefano, director Gerd Oswald and director of photography Conrad Hall (a “troika” responsible for 14 episodes, a third of the whole First Season) to the gem-like one-shots (“The Chameleon” starring Robert Duvall is just one such standout); from the goofy monster ragouts like “Fun and Games” or “Second Chance” to the more grown-up fear factor of “Corpus Earthling” or “The Invisibles.”

    Apart from what seems to be the main “mission statement” of The Outer Limits—that monsters are frequently less monstrous than the humans they encounter—an overview of the First Season episodes can also emphasize the “extraordinary people in ordinary situations” dichotomy that makes the program more a negative-reversal, and less a mirror image of The Twilight Zone. The universe of The Outer Limits has little truck with the real world-at-large, isolating its dramas into the outback of private research labs, off-the-beaten-path small towns, remote mansions and the silent shelter of space. Emotional violence is visited with dark and savage frequency while actual physical violence—that staple of TV narrative—is laid back to an almost surprising extreme. Past a smatter of stock-issue screaming heroines and deployments of military firepower, guns are in evidence in many shows, but rarely fired, and when fired are seldom fatal. When a plot does resort to firearms, a single gunshot is often the hub on which the entire story revolves, as in “Nightmare,” “Controlled Experiment,” or “The Bellero Shield,” and several shows severely inconvenience themselves by the sheer absence of available weaponry (never moreso than in “The Mutant”).

    Apart form the usual star suspects—Robert Culp, Martin Landau, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Sally Kellerman, Vera Miles, Barbara Rush, David McCallum, with the inevitable invocations of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, plus anyone was ever nominated for an Oscar since then—The Outer Limits maintained a keen interest in resurrecting many “lost” or little-used character actors, lending the show a population of faces that abetted its “look,” which was unlike any other series on television. Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s final film performance was in “The Forms of Things Unknown” (he replaced Peter Lorre and Joseph Schildkraut, both of whom died before they could be cast). Stefano requested and got, as he put it, “people who were not working in movies or TV anymore; people with fabulous faces, types and styles, like Sydney Blackmer, or Neil Hamilton, or George MacReady with his great scar. In “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” we find the last hurrah of Miriam Hopkins… in the company of sci-fi stalwart John Hoyt. The dramatis personae on view include Walter Burke, Phillip Abbott, Vaughn Taylor, Nellie Burt, Henry Brandon, Ruth Roman & Alex Nicol, Warren Oates, Betsy Jones-Moreland, a post-blacklist Jeff Corey, Harry Towne, Russell Johnson, Tim O’Connor, John Anderson, and Mimsy Farmer logging an early job (“Second Chance”) prior to seeking European refuge in films like Barbet Schroeder’s Pink Floyd-scored trip into psychedelia and drug addiction, More (1969). Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall called The Outer Limits a “school for the development of my craft,” and in many of these episodes you can see him working all the angles in the company of his camera operator, another then-nascent luminary named William Fraker.

    In the words of the Control Voice, you are about to participate in a great adventure.



(adapted from “The Outer Limits Arrives on DVD,” originally published in Video Watchdog #89 [Nov. 2002].  © David J. Schow, 2002.  Used by permission.)

10 comments:

  1. David, I have enjoyed your Outer Limits commentary since it began appearing in The Twilight Zone mag, and my copy of your book (now 24 years old!) is well-worn and turning a little bit brown. I look forward to more fun on this blog!

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  2. Take care of your copy of the OUTER LIMITS COMPANION, Jack. Several copies are going for hundreds of dollars on the used book market. Highest price I see is $956.98. This is big business that we are involved in now. Our comments will go down in Outer Limits history.

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  3. I've already sold these two comments by you and Jack to Doubleday for 4k.

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  4. Walker, you must mean a hardcover copy. Mine is paperback and can't possibly be worth more than $955.

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  5. Imagine my own surprise when, in 2010, I discovered the 1998 2nd edition — the preferred version — is now officially out of print. In twelve years, somebody, somewhere, bought 10,000 copies of this beast. When I am in a good mood (almost never), I think things like this blog may actually contribute toward convincing MGM to do a remaster on those mostly-crappy, triple-dipped DVDs. For those of you who only saw the first edition (the now-brown one), the 2nd is a revelation in itself — stay tuned to this blog and you'll see, soon enough — and yes, there have already been rumblings of a THIRD edition, but getting excited about that now would be waaayy premature. With the 2nd edition we HAD included a brief hardcover run as well (like, 100 copies or so), but that plan went south when we had to pony up nearly $8000 at the last minute for better paper — 85-pound "velvet-finish" stock that most definitely (1) made it look classier, and (2) made it weigh north of five pounds, which really hampered shipping costs. Two years ago I sold a copy to an enthusiast in the UK, and the shipping was more than the book, all totaling about $125. "Gettable" copies are still out there, but you have to slap on your old-school safari hat and hunt for them. The first edition, I've seen scrape up near $50, but even that is too much for Ace/Berkley's lamentable publishing job.

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  6. I own the 1998 GNP/Crescendo printing (big and glossy, but not a hard cover) and it is the best book about any TV or movie I have ever read. To Mr. Schow, your introduction here is absolutely spot on. The comparison highlighting how different The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone are is perfect. I think they often get lazily lumped together due to the years they were produced but mostly because they were black & white. Sad...

    A release of this series on Blu-Ray would be nothing less than incredible. Especially one with extras. Has anyone seen Image Entertainment's new Twilight Zone Blu-Ray sets and their absolutely copious extras? Just amazing. That kind of treatment of the Outer Limits by MGM seems less likely than a manned space mission to Uranus but hey, a guy can dream.

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  7. Ideally, in the realm of possibility, would be (1) a remaster of the episodes for DVD, along with (2) a copy of the book that could fit a DVD slipcase, which would necessitate some kind of revision or new layout, since the GNP/Crescendo edition would not reduce size properly. Also ... it's out of print! The window for a documentary-as-such is long past. Last chance for a decent one would have been over a decade ago. A good one could still be assembled from assorted sources — there are a lot of on-camera interviews with the principals available — but it would be a rights-clearance nightmare; too many different sources.

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  8. Ideally, David, my dream blu-ray/dvd would be

    1/ All the Episodes Remastered
    (and I know it's kind of wrong, but the removal of the wires in certain episodes, but no over the top reinvention that's inappropriate the way they have with 'Star Trek')
    2/ A Making of...using those on-camera interviews you mentioned. Were they broadcast in other documentaries?
    3/Interviews commentaries over the episodes....no reason why some intrepid interviewer in the States couldn't invite David McCallum, Marty Landau, Shatner, ect, ect.and with the technology to record whilst they watched on a big screen showing indoors. I'd nominate Peter for the Shat interview. ;-)
    4/ THE Book, so that it never goes out of print.
    5/ 'Incubas' directed by Leslie Stevens
    6/ 'The Haunted' directed by Joseph Stefano (with commentary by DJS and Landau (all the more vital to get someone to sit down with the 82 year old.
    7/ And the finest one or two episodes of 'Stoney Burke' (not the one with Robert Devuall, that one is the only one I've seen and was more than predictable). It could even be a sampler for the dvd release of the latter.

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  9. Great article and it really puts all the thoughts I have had about this very excellent series over the years in context! It is amazing that series like the OUTER LIMITS and even THE TWILIGHT ZONE came from the world of TV. I am glad the creators were able to create shows like these because you have to figure it times it might not have been so easy.

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  10. Hello. I just found this site, and I was wondering, is this a later version of the "Pushing The Envelope" Outer Limits tribute, or is that still going on?

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