Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Spotlight on "The Man Who Was Never Born"


by Gary Gerani

INTRODUCTION

If I had to select one Outer Limits episode to hook a newcomer on the series, this is the show I’d go with.  It boasts a striking, amazingly influential sci-fi premise, a totally compelling central character (wearing equally memorable monster makeup), a smart and sensitive heroine, an exciting chase sequence, and a corker of a punchline followed by a just-as-intriguing final image.  Add to this Dominic Frontiere’s magnificent score (his largest orchestra for any entry) and wonderfully evocative, stylized cinematography by Conrad Hall that is actually motivated by the “beauty and the beast” fairy tale motif.

Yep, this would be the episode…

OCTOBER 28, 1963

…the night “The Man Who Was Never Born”’ premiered on ABC.  As mentioned in an earlier essay, my parents were generally home on Friday evenings, so we all experienced Twilight Zone together and sort of made a game of it.  But Outer Limits was a show I generally watched alone, in my room and on my 19” portable TV.  Starting the school week was always a bit daunting, and knowing a series like OL was right there waiting for you every Monday night made the responsibilities of a nine year-old somehow bearable.  Private viewings aside, my mother and I saw exactly three first-run episodes together, starting with “Man,” which we viewed on the larger living room set (Dad was usually downstairs at this hour hanging with my grandparents).  And my mom was and remains a science fiction enthusiast, so her critical response to these films/TV shows we saw back in the day was significant.  Anyway…  There we were that Monday evening, my mother on the living room couch, me sitting on the floor right in front of the set.  And away we went…

THE TEASER

That final (flopped) shot of Andro shambling into close-up had already been presented in a “coming soon!” promo shown a few episodes before, and it fascinated me.  When I read the “Man” story synopsis in TV Guide, I suspected this might be the episode that contained that particular image.  Sure enough, there it was…

ACT ONE:

Good God, how much amazing stuff can be packed into one fifteen minute act?  We begin with astronaut Reardon in his spaceship; we feel the profound loneliness of this solitary explorer, along with the damned spookiness of his situation in general.  Up lighting from Conrad Hall adds to the ominous atmosphere, as does Frontiere’s music – but before we can even catch our breath (and with the narration barely concluded) he’s dramatically plunged into that “time convulsion,” a high intensity bit-of-business with ascending Frontiere notes.  Wow.  All this within the first two minutes!  As Reardon descends to the planet, the OL theme kicks in big-time, wowing us with pure melodrama, reaching its crescendo as the craft sets down on a weird, nightmarish world.  Not only is this scorched planet intriguing, but soon monster mutant Andro springs into close-up (yes!), confronting Reardon and telling him fascinating things that we need to know.   The Outer Limits specialized in “eloquent monsters,” of course, and we’d already heard impressive soliloquies from both the "Galaxy Being" and super-evolved Gwyllm Griffiths.  Still, the dramatic contrast between Andro’s grotesquely distorted face and his gentle but passionate voice provided yet another remarkable element which we added to the growing list.  “Bertram Cabot Junior!” he says with primal contempt, each syllable crisply pronounced by actor Martin Landau, who knew he’d landed a showy role and clearly intended to make the most of it.   The visit to that library enables both Andro’s persona and the particulars of this powerful plot to take root.  “If I can find the warp again…” Reardon says with heroic determination.  And Act I ends with the two characters planning to travel back through time in order to save humanity from destroying itself, with Andro serving as exhibit A (kind of like the “real” version of what those “Architects of Fear” folk were trying to accomplish with Allen Leighton).  Fade out.  “How interesting!” my mom said with an almost giddy smile, honestly enthused about where this imaginative adventure would be taking us.  Her approval confirmed what I was thinking myself… this was unquestionably the most original, most involving Outer Limits I had seen so far.

ACT TWO:

Reardon doesn’t make it through the return warp (kind of a horrific, unexpected moment in itself), leaving Andro with the monumental task of trying to convince a disbelieving world without the aid of a (probably) influential astronaut.  Okay… so he somehow lands, skulks about the enchanted forest, and takes a meaningful look at the show’s ethereal leading lady (Shirley Knight) from a safe distance.  We get the beautifully-shot “vision in the woods” moment, complete with “the monster is so gentle he’s kind to animals, even ugly little frogs that he probably relates to.”  Nice.  Now, at long last, Andro assumes his human persona (a lovely optical effect/harp cue signals the mutant’s hypnotic power), and we meet Landau proper for the first time.  I remember talking to Stefano about this; if you’re doing a “Beauty and the Beast” take-off, the human version of the Beast is generally dashing in an overt, almost clichéd way.  “And for our ‘handsome prince’ we had…Martin!” I remember Joe laughing.  Offbeat casting, to be sure, and ultimately an inspired choice.  Landau’s Andro is achingly real, not a stylized stand-in (Robert Webber from Season Two’s “Keeper of the Purple Twilight” would have been a more typical choice).  A sharply-edited “he’s caught by surprise” scare neatly leads us into the final scene of Act II, where “Professor” Andro’s sweet love for Noelle begins to manifest itself (“When a woman brushes her hair she imitates the motion of the stars” – I used that line on a date once, much to my regret).  But it’s really where this scene is going that widens our eyes fully.  “You will be his mother!” Andro states with choked horror as Hall and director Leonard Horn frame a brilliant two shot: “You will be the mother of Bertram Cabot Junior!”  My heart practically stopped.  What was damned interesting to begin with had now become absolutely riveting.

ACT THREE:

Here’s where we meet Andro’s rival, Noelle’s fiancée and Bertram’s potential future dad (John Considine).  Always liked that brief scene of these two guys chatting together on the porch; maybe it’s all that natural soundwork (chirping birds, etc.) counterpointing Landau’s captivating, classical-style dialogue.  Their equally brief “confrontation” in the woods concludes with another poetic touch, as Andro goes from a desperate act of violence to an artist’s love for beauty – the flower, like Noelle, must be crushed in order to keep “the whole world whole,” and an unkind fate has chosen heartbroken but responsible Andro to see this thing through.  Dig those extended dissolves, linked by clanging church bells, as our self-loathing mutant smashes the mirror that constantly reminds him of his ugliness…and, ironically, the vital importance of his mission.  The assassination attempt on Cabot during the living room wedding ceremony provides “Man” with its only true action sequence, other than the great chase from Act IV.  Shot from several angles, it builds impressively to a fine “horror” reveal: winded Andro in his natural state.  And sure, it’s a little hard to believe that everyone present just allows Noelle to run after this dangerous creature, no matter how stunned they may be.  But hey, at this point, we’re so caught up with the great story and rich characters that we simply don’t give a damn.  WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, pure and simple.

ACT FOUR:

Beginning with a wonderful dreamlike sequence shot with ultra-soft lenses, Noelle manages to find Andro in the woods, and he finally comes clean about everything.  DJS pointed out how Landau’s reading of the line “Ugly” is counterpointed by Hall’s star lens as the actor turns his head, as if nature itself was contradicting Andro’s harsh self-evaluation.  Brilliant.  So Beauty and the Beast decide to go off together and save humanity, fulfilling their romantic destiny in the process.  Only a nifty chase scene threatens this idyllic goal, as gun-wielding Cabot and company close in on their quarry.  Incredible hand-hand tracking shots create an almost kinetic excitement as silhouetted figures race through jungle-like foliage.  Leave it to Connie Hall to shoot that wedding veil in Cabot’s hand like a glowing, magical artifact, even in a running long shot.  Finally, with Frontiere’s exhilarating chase music reaching its climax, our lovers find the ship, it blasts off, and a final up-and-over camera move gives poor, jilted Cabot his dramatic due, teardrop and all.   Now the coda… Yes, like Twilight Zone, this episode provides a high-concept “twist”; and yet, it also happens to be the title of the story!  A surprise perhaps, but also a confirmation of what we’ve probably begun to suspect already.  (Actually, a more accurate title would have been “The Men Who Were Never Born,” as this designation refers to both Andro and “aborted” Bertram Cabot Jr.)  Noble Andro is arguably the most sympathetic character in all of OLdom, and he “dies” as the ultimate martyr, his accidental love affair only increasing the tragedy, for now he’s tasted the joy a “whole” life can provide.  And if his memorable fate wasn’t enough to end this landmark tale, we’re left with Noelle, now totally alone in that time-warping spacecraft.  “It’s like she’s become a twinkling little star,” my mother pointed out as the rest of the ship fades away and our heroine is swallowed up by the cosmos.

IN CONCLUSION:

Although my personal OL favorites are those Stefano-Oswald-Hall collaborations (I’m just a sucker for noir expressionism), “The Man Who Was Never Born” is an absolutely lovely piece of filmmaking, a rare excursion into sci-fi poetry that actually works.  OL purists and sharp civilians alike can appreciate a plethora of creative plusses throughout, with some occasional lapses in credibility smoothed over by the semi-surreal fairy tale overlay.  Re-living my own “safe and dear” memories for this Spotlight has been extremely enjoyable, probably even therapeutic, and I hope it helped to establish time, place and the way we kids felt back in late ‘63.

TIDBIT:

I used to own a first-generation pull of the Andro mask (I can be seen wearing it in the Comic Images cards), but it eventually crumbled to pieces.  Just as that "Galaxy Being" head in Bob Burns’ collection slowly melted away… 



Gary Gerani is the author of Fantastic Television, the first book to focus on science-fiction, fantasy and horror TV. In association with IDW, Gerani recently launched a new publishing company, Fantastic Press, with November's TOP 100 HORROR MOVIES. Next up is TOP 100 SCI-FI MOVIES in April. His graphic novel, BRAM STOKER'S DEATH SHIP (which takes on that famous nightmare voyage from Varna to Whitby, as you-know-who feeds on the crew of the Demeter), is available now and has garnered several nice reviews. That's him on the right, wearing the now-disintegrated Andro headpiece.

20 comments:

  1. Wow--another wonderful recounting, Gary, nicely done--and so very vivid.

    Completely agree about this being THE OUTER LIMITS "taste" to get someone hooked.

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  2. Great stuff, Gary! A terrific evocation of what so many of us kids must have been feeling---"Somebody pinch me. Does TV science-fiction really get this good?!"

    Ditto your assertion that this would be an ideal TOL showcase for the uninitiated, though I can think of a few that might pinch-hit: like you, I'm easy prey for those audaciously gothic Stefano-Oswald-Hall concoctions!

    Good call, spotlighting that deliriously poetic "motion of the stars" line. Like so many of Stefano's own, you've got to hear it in context to believe it, then it resonates like a finely tuned instrument.

    You know what's coming: We're going to be patiently abiding a lot of well-meaning skeptical opinions and gimlet-eyed nitpicking in episodes-to-come, while appealing again and again to your prudent phrase "occasional lapses in credibility smoothed over by the semi-surreal fairy tale overlay."

    This show, once the taste has become a passion, often is impervious to accusations of affront to cold narrative logic.

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  3. Lovely essay. It's always lovely when an adult appreciates SF...

    So what was your mum's final reaction to the episode's conclusion?

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  4. Brings back memories Gary. Back in 1963 I probably drank two bottles of watery American beer with this episode(Ballantine?). That was my limit because of college studies. Now almost five decades later, I've graduated or descended, to drinking just about an entire growler during this show. A growler being a 64 oz jug of draft beer or four pints.

    Back then I was sure to encourage females to attend the TV viewing, now I'd rather drink by myself having long ago learned my lesson the hard way about women. They are nothing but trouble, present OUTER LIMIT company excluded of course.

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  5. Reacting to Andro's vanishing and Noelle's poetic fate, Mom looked at me with a combination starry-eyed wonder and sadness... but also a certain exhilaration, because the story we just experienced was so emotionally satisfying, and her imagination had been fully engaged every step of the way. This was my mother's first OL, and I was so pleased that another TWILIGHT ZONE-like series was now open to her and us, so we could talk about the show and I could learn things from an adult whose opinions in this area (she was a hardcore sf reader) I really respected. Probably because of OL's early timeslot, the TZ-like "family gathering" thing never really caught on, but I did watch two additional first-run episodes with mom: "Fun and Games" and "Feasibility Study," both solid entries that were right up her alley.

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  6. GARY--

    Wonderful memories; it's great that you recall so clearly the time, the place, and the event. You were blessed to have such an appreciative and supportive parent with whom to share this wondrous, first-time journey into dreamland. You and I are almost the same age and, as I kept lecturing about on the "Thriller" blog, it's important for present-day viewers to have a feel for the era in which these great shows were created. Again, nice work.

    "..imitates the motion of the stars", eh?...I bet you SAW stars after trying that one on your date ("To the MOON!")

    Larry

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  7. Hey, when you're young, you're fearless. And I really am blessed to have such a terrific, offbeat, totally loving mom. We get lucky sometimes...

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  8. Beautifully done, Gary, and such a worthy episode. Ah, the days of the 19-inch "portable" TV (it was huge and on casters, kids). Thanks for a personal appreciation of this, yes, The Outer Limits' most moving hour.

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  9. So many great comments- thanks to all!! I remember fondly first getting your fanzine TOLAIR, Ted. I think it was advertised in Starlog? I can't recall for sure. But I remember waiting with baited breath for each of the first two issues to arrive, and how joyous it was to realize that "out there" were many others who grew up on and cherished OL. Great work. It will be wonderful to hear your comments on the episodes we didn't get to hear you review, except for the great article in Fantastic Films magazine in 1978. I don't have any problems with the improbabilities of the story, although yes there are lots. Maybe at times we all wished we could run off with a dream lover to a better future. Often films (or TV) use tragic endings to make a point without backing up their motivations sufficiently, essentially as shock effect. TOL had it's share of tragic endings, but almost always earned them if you will, by the trials and tribulations the characters endured. Still, I wouldn't have minded the alternate ending of Noelle appearing on the grassy hill of the future Earth, giving her a chance to have a life of some kind. I love the scene (before the chase ensues) of Noelle and Andro strolling through the woods envisioning the future. And that library! You could go in there and never come out! This is an episode I remember from long before I became a serious OL fan, and definately four Zanti's and a top fiver for me. Oh yeah, and my girlfriends name is Noel, so how could this one go wrong?

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  10. What IS "the motion of the stars" anyway? Lovely phrase but what does he mean? Falling? Shooting? :-) Oh Andro, such a romantic.

    Charming and evocative essay, Gary, on this wonderful episode. I love the story of your personal experience with this and of your awesome mom who shared your enthusiasm. The fact that you shared this episode is something special. I also had a TV in my room growing up and did mostly solo TV viewing, and it's different. More efficient, but clearly not as much fun sometimes.

    Lovely, lovely Spotlight!!

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  11. Thank you so much, Lisa! Yes, we can all learn a few things from Andro, the quintessential gentleman lover who knows how to make a fine lady feel cherished...

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  12. Thanks, Jim! You were there to participate in "the great adventure," so I appreciate your involvement. Has it really been so long?

    Yeah, the stark and gripping ending we have is classic, an indelible dramatic moment that I would never change. Still, like you I grieve for Noelle and her grim plight. She deserved better, for sure. At least a chance to make a new beginning in a new world. But such is life in them thar existential cosmos.

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  13. The most haunting thing for me about that final shot is Noelle's quiet sobbing, which dies away as she disappears into the void (to take her place among the other "heavenly bodies.")

    LR

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  14. A wonderful essay, Gary. This is one of my favorite episodes. I usually watched the Outer Limits alone too, on our spare TV set in the kitchen of all places! My mother wasn't as supportive or appreciative about the Outer Limits. To her it was just "monsters."
    Little did I know as I watched this that my sister, who was a year old at the time, would some day make a movie with Martin Landau. She said he was a very nice man, by the way. A very nice performance by a nice man.

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  15. Hey! Love that "Reese Fowler" nomenclature!!
    As mentioned in the other side of this episode review, Miss Knight need NOT be imperiled. She's "in the future" in a highly automated spacecraft. After all, did Andro himself actually fly and land it in "1963"?

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  16. I never once thought of that when it comes to the ending - the "automatic pilot" that Reardon mentioned.

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  17. The Man Who Was Never Born” is another one,whose sience drives me nuts.First we get a dumassed name for ship-space probe one or something.Then we get the mushfaced Andros-guy Martin Landau plays-i can see why,he clouds peoples minds with illusions,like the Shadow.Obviously Outer Limits always needed a Bear_some sort threatenning monster and this was it.Andros could just had marks all over Martin Landau"s face.But Outer Limits had to always include a monster,the network wanted_even if the plot could have done without it.The neat scene is the money exchange.Everyone wishes they do the Obi Wan thing .But the story falls on it's ass in the end.Martin Landau takes Shirley Knight up into space,so her unborn kid won't destroy the world.Ok.then then dissappears setting up a time paradox.Shirley Knight then driffs around the earth forever.Cruel way to fix the problem.If he dissappears.He was never born to encounter the astronaute Readon and steal his ship to take Shirkey Knight into space.Maybe somebody could explain all.He was there-then wasn't,but his actions can't undo what an unborn guy did ?And is there other ships going into this time rift?Do we even know if Martin Landau went into his past ?Maybe he's still there,waitting the arrival of the astronuate.Maybe Shirley Knights kid grows and worst thing he does is write bad tv episodes.Maybe a better ending would been to have ship land with Readon inside and not Andros,or Andros cured,with his world different.Having dissappear was cornball,even by 1964 standards.And also,what Andros had his facts wronge or was some kind of a nut.The episode has many questions-none answered by the show.

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  18. Thanks to Martin Landau, there are two names in weird stories that I'd never forget, even if 'd seen either story only ONCE. One of course is "Bertram Cabot Jr." The other is "Charles, Vermont," from the very underrated TV movie WELCOME HOME, JOHNNY BRISTOL. The one name (as Gary Gerani says) is said with contempt, and the other is said in a really wistful way. But either way, each name stays with you.

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  19. Here is an unexplained detail that I'm still not understanding. Andro doesn't realize that he overshot his time travel until he hears that Bertram Cabot is a Junior. Shouldn't he have realized it much earlier, when the landlady referred to to his fiancée as "Noelle"? Andro had memorized all the details of their lives and already showed us that he remembered that as the name of the mother, not the wife, of BC. Why wasn't he tipped off at that point? Anyone?

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    Replies
    1. Sorry, I meant "is NOT a Junior".

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