Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Spotlight on "The Borderland"

by Mark Holcomb


Written and directed by Leslie Stevens. Cast: Mark Richman (Ian Fraser); Nina Foch (Eva Fraser); Philip Abbott (Lincoln Russell); Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Palmer); Alfred Ryder (Edgar Price); Gene Raymond (Benson Sawyer); Barry Jones (Dwight Hartley); Noel da Sousa (Dr. Sung). Broadcast December 16, 1963.

Story: Physicist Ian Fraser creates a portal to another dimension, and an industrialist agrees to fund its exploration on the off-chance that his dead son has taken up residence there. A pair of carny clairvoyants plan revenge on Fraser for swiping their sugar daddy.

This first-produced episode of The Outer Limits as a series is a fitting if peculiar inauguration: The show was Leslie Stevens's baby so he deserved first crack, but the bombastic, ultimately superficial "The Borderland" provides no clue as to what was coming.

It doesn't much resemble the pilot, either, and broadcast-wise it wasn't even an inaguration. Network brass, jittery over "The Borderland"'s jargon-besotted highbrow characters and (big surprise) lack of a monster, pressured Stevens to put off airing it until nearly halfway through the season. So it was wedged between the problematic "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork" and "Tourist Attraction," a snoozer that gets my vote for worst of the season. It's a wonder anybody tuned in after that, although the lucky ones who did were treated to a micro-invasion by the low-lifes of planet Zanti.

Given its transitional place in the series' production timeline "The Borderland" probably deserved better, and even now its stuffy repetitiousness hardly puts it in the same league as the bore it preceded. "Borderland" is probably best approached as a self-contained one-off—a movie, really, something its large cast and converging story lines (both of which Stevens favored again in his final OL entry, "Production and Decay of Strange Particles") reinforce.

Better yet think of it as the middle third of a trilogy, since three of the four episodes Stevens helmed—his comedic budget-saver "Controlled Experiment" being the exceptionare linked in a seriously meta, possibly even autobiographical way. "The Galaxy Being," "The Borderland," and "Production and Decay" all center on driven, roguish geniuses who flout convention and risk their lives and careers to follow pursuits with no guaranteed payoff, and taken as a trio these episodes represent an intriguing story arc.

Allan Maxwell in "Galaxy" is all youthful exuberance and fearlessness, his regard for civic and marital protocol wholly overshadowed by his quest for cosmic enlightenment. Which he gets in spades. In "Borderland" Ian Fraser is equally daring on a personal level, but at least understands the need for professional schmoozing in order to fund his outre research. He gets two right hands for the trouble.

There are other subtle shifts in this episode. Fraser's wife, Eva, is his colleague, whereas Carol Maxwell is merely a disregarded, disgruntled bystander to Allan's striving. Fraser also has a pair of middle-aged confidants—his benefactor's business manager, Sawyer, and fellow scientist Russell—who bear a striking resemblance to Stevens himself. Fraser, for his part, isn't un-Stefanoesuqe, and his two de facto executive producers are inclined to advise caution in both creative and financial matters (advice he largely ignores).

OK, this undercurrent of torch-passing could just be a byproduct of my drifting interest in "Borderland"'s actual plot, but the timing of the episode's production roughly coincides with the initial partnership between Daystar and Villa de Stefano. Very roughly, but still. Regardless, the final third of the trilogy—the one with "Decay" in its title in which the rebellious scientist protagonist is an aged weakling who does sloppy work and sends his partner to certain nuclear heat-death—came shortly before The Outer Limits was yanked away from its creator, so draw your own conclusions. If these episodes are a chronicle of what producing a weekly television series does to a guy, maybe The Outer Limits was Stevens's cry for help.

Enough with the blue-skying, because "The Borderland" does have some interesting tangible qualities. The performances are good all around, with Cooper and Ryder being the standouts, and it's beautifully shot by John Nickolaus. Stevens's pacing is brisk and his compositions assertive, but what most surprised me is his story's alignment of science with hucksterism—the early scenes in which Fraser and crew woo moneybags Hartley are blatantly juxtaposed with Palmer and Price's spook-show shakedown, and there's a ritualistic quality to the physicists' experiments that isn't far from the seances the grifters conduct. Stevens's status as a hard-science nut is admirably undermined by these savvy parallels, and their cynicism is actually kind of refreshing. (Fraser's flamboyant flailing around and bellowing countdowns during the latter sequences—he never seems to touch a knob or dial himself—more resembles someone directing a theatrical play, especially with the stage-like dimension portal device looming in the background. More food for the OL-as-LS-autobiography theory.)

ABC was right that there's no bear lurking around in "The Borderland," but its visual effects are thoughtfully conceived and gracefully executed, and their obvious expense reminds us that we're watching early, pre-budget-crunch OL. The scene of Fraser's two right hands writhing on Hartley's tabletop is surprisingly creepy; instead of the cheap stunt it could've been, we see how such a condition could be crippling.
The last-act psychedelic blast during Fraser's extradimensional trip is the real show-stopper, though: It initially seems like a run-of-the-mill, slightly hokey frame-step montage, but ultimately accumulates into something truly sensory-warping and otherworldly. Give credit to the uncredited Byron Haskin who, along with effects house Butler-Glouner, made them work as beautifully as they do. Sadly, the effect I remember most strongly from when I watched this episode as a kid—Hartley disintegrating in the portal device—is practically ruined by yet another spoilery teaser.
But despite its solid effects "The Borderland" is still an unmemorable slog, bogged down by a continuous loop of talky, pointlessly amped-up lab scenes (also a feature of "Production and Decay") and a distracting milieu of wealth, power, and social rank, something The Outer Limits rarely indulged once Stefano was in charge. The episode quite literally goes nowhere, and what lingers most about it for me is a throwaway line from its opening Control Voice narration—something about the "wish to cross the borderlands that lie beyond the Outer Limits."

I don't know about you, but if there's something even further out and alien than what we experienced in this series, I'm game a spinoff.


Mark Holcomb writes about movies, television, books, and general pop-cultural ephemera for The Village Voice, The Believer, Time Out New York, Salon, and whoever else will have him. He first watched The Outer Limits in its original run as a highly impressionable, temperamentally morbid three year old, and hasn't been able to shake it since (not that he's tried). He and his twin brother, David, indulged their fascination with the series back in the pre-blog '90s, and their efforts live on here courtesy of David J. Schow.

9 comments:

  1. Okay, I have to ask - "What's the BEAR you keep referencing?" In your opening blog announcement on 11/20 you titled it "The rumors are true. Bring on the Bears." At the time I thought it was an inside joke or mentioned homage to a specific episode monster that I just didn't know about but wasn't going to go crazy figuring it out. But now there is a bear reference again in this blog and I think I saw it also in someone's comments that were previously posted. Granted, I am not the expert in the genre that you two are, but I feel like I should know what this means. I won't guess here in this post - but allow you to dispense further knowledge upon us!

    Keep at it! Thanks!

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  2. The "bear" was producer Joseph Stefano's term (in the shows bible for writers) for shuddery aliens that created excitement and suspense in viewers. Some call them monsters, but that's a load of bull.

    Mark, great article. I've always enjoyed your OL website, looking forward to your input on the golden era classics around the corner.

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  3. Glad you liked the piece, Bobby. My brother David will be covering an episode soon, then I'm on deck to defend one of the least loved first-season episodes (which I DO love) in a few weeks, so stay tuned.

    Thanks also for clearing up the confusion over the term "bear." I guess OL nuts assume everybody's already familiar with it, but clearly not.

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  4. I have a dread fear of bears, so Stefano's label strikes me as completely apt.

    FYI: The TCM 'Making of Psycho' documentary recently available online (P2P, so no links) features Stefano prominently, although on a different (equally fascinating) topic. He comes off as a real mensch. Recommended for OL fans.

    Oh, and: This blog is a frakkin' public service.

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  5. Terrific piece, Mark. Yeah, this episode does have the flavor of a movie in many ways (that ensemble cast, to begin with). With the appropriate character development material restored and a little more care, it would have worked as a smart, low-budget sci-fi theatrical feature from UA. And I never thought of the Stevens "trilogy," which sorta makes sense. Looking forward to your next review!

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  6. Fascinating write-up, Mark. Thanks for an interesting new angle on this one.

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  7. Interesting that you say this doesn't resemble The Galaxy Being, since I thought just the opposite. Both episodes turn on the assumption that turning up the juice will allow us to contact the great beyond, whether it be another galaxy or another dimension.

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  8. Great article, Mark. This blog is just outstanding and I'm only two episodes in. The comments here are amazing. I was planning on adding some commentary to each episode but there's no need. As nothing more than an avid fan, I'm completely outclassed. I'm just going to read and learn. This blog is going to make it much easier to get through the Winter.

    - Whit

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  9. Agreed, Jack -- in some ways "Borderland" is just an extravagant remake of "Galaxy Being." What it lacks for me (besides a bear) is the pilot's intensity and sense of, well, awe and mystery. As intriguing as the episode can be, it's bombastic where "Galaxy" is thought-provoking.

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