A Questionable Appendage
by David C. Holcomb
Written by Ellis St. Joseph. Directed by James Goldstone. Cast: David McCallum (Gwyllm Griffiths); Edward Mulhare (Professor Mathers); Jill Haworth (Cathy Evans); Nora Marlowe (Mrs. Ives); Janos Prohaska (Darwin). Original broadcast: October 14, 1963.
Story: Experimenting with forced, rapid evolution, Professor Mathers begrudgingly accepts angry miner Gwyllm as his first human subject. Human evolution holds surprises, from colossal crania to petty vengeance; it is (thankfully?) undone by love. Ultimately, gladness is elusive.
Fans of AMC’s Mad Men (I’m one) watched this season as barely-pubescent, subtly-abused character Sally Draper diddled herself to a massive dose of mid-1960s shame as she ogled David McCallum in his signature role in that era’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. While this might seem tangential to a consideration of a classic OL episode, McCallum’s pansexual lovability permeates The Sixth Finger, at times gloriously and at times frustratingly.
Glorious: we root for his character, dirty mine laborer turned pissed-off brainiac Gwyllm, both in spite of and because of his (born-into-it) limits; we feel dread and regret as he gets a big head about his evolved status (sorry) and does very bad, very unevolved things; and we experience something complex and profound, aching, as love saves the day in the episode’s denouement. Or maybe it doesn’t: when Gwyllm’s evolution is reversed, crushed/interrupted by a crush, Gwyllm looks dead – for many years after seeing this episode as a child, I misremembered the episode as ending in his actual passing. It’s testimony to a rich performance and a striking moment in a sometimes shoddy episode that, at least on the merits of its (arguable) bear, remains a fondly-recalled classic.
The performance is undoubtedly another, more compelling reason for the perseverance of “The Sixth Finger.” As argued in my previous piece, this episode is in multiple ways the accidental twin of the earlier “The Man with the Power.” While it lacks the rarefied company of Donald Pleasence, it offers an equally distinctive British (here, Scottish) figure, McCallum, as a character similarly steeped in frisson yet rendingly sympathetic. Younger than Pleasence, far prettier and less (interestingly) defended, McCallum remains the spackle that fills in the numerous cracks in “Finger,” as Pleasence did in “Power.” The episodes are likewise linked by dint of a conventional science-fiction trope – the over-reach of humanity, the dire consequences thereof – and also like the earlier episode (originally broadcast the week prior), “The Sixth Finger” lacks an intangible something in the way of Outer Limits coalescence. Still, McCallum conveys a tender core even as his Gwyllm careens through evolution and arrives at physical and moral ugliness; that his fragility isn’t successfully stressed by the script and is only cursorily utilized by director Goldstone is the frustrating element of McCallum’s role and the diddle-worthy beauty he brings to it. Again like Pleasence, the actor himself shines in spite of these hindrances.
The episode’s other strengths include further instances of clear beauty; the first presented is Jill Haworth, who very recently died at the too-young age of 65. (Poorly treated by film critics in her early career, Haworth cheerfully took on less prestigious roles as time went by; her late-1960s/early-70s turns in a variety of quasi-video-nasties can be enjoyable if you’re in the right mood – start with Horror on Snape Island, AKA Tower of Evil, 1972.) Here, as uneducated but not uninspired delivery girl Cathy, she’s delicate and completely understandable as the object of Gwyllm’s attention, and as a catalyst for his travels in evolutionary time (both, ahem, forward and backward… which I’ll get to in a bit). Cathy’s role in what I find to be a notably bleak conclusion of the story suggests something awkward as it relates to human progress: that advancement may well be delayed (if not stopped dead) by romantic love. Which is odd – without it, not a lot of human procreation is likely to happen. Complexity within this tale exists, but at times appears lost to all but the actors and, presumably, enamored viewers.
The third key performance, Mulhare as Professor Mathers, is unfortunately a bit of a cipher, and indicative of the episode’s failings. He’s the requisite egghead (sorry again) on a Grand Quest for Knowledge (the science-as-well-intentioned-idiocy theme is consistent in the OL universe); his shades of personality and motivation are underdone, and cinematographer John M. Nickolaus’ decision to film the actor in extreme close-up while sporting thick-lensed glasses simply makes Mathers come off as a buffoon. Maybe by design, hard to say, but the casually touching scene of his character enjoying fresh bread brought to him by Cathy suggests a lost potential. Likewise the Welsh setting of the tale – arguably the seat of western pre-civilization, it has a nice symbolic, evolution-ripe flair; in vivo, though, it’s a non-starter. For one thing, the customary filming location is southern California, and worse, inserts of a Welsh village are lifted from John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) – fair enough, but they look like what they are, absconded footage. Quibbles, of course, but watch the funeral scene of the professor’s charwoman, Mrs. Ives (a nice turn by the familiar Nora Marlowe): the peasants have rarely been so revolting; it smacks of the social class disdain of a classic-era Hammer film, discriminating all over the place. To wrap up the downside, the technology of rapid evolution is handled… terribly, with the noted bidirectionality represented by a lever going, yes, forward or backward (the scene in which McCallum coaches Haworth on its use is painful), and the apparently impromptu makeup of McCallum-as-Neanderthal is cartoonish, as is the zoom effect of the sequence. And finally, Dominic Frontiere’s musical cues are not particularly well used, with his softer, more poignant score at times misplaced or defied by the direction (odd given Goldstone’s virtuosi job on the second season episode “The Inheritors”).
Much to be disappointed in. So why does it persevere and, more to the point of this (and my other) Spotlight, why did I choose it to consider? Among other reasons, simply because it’s an original, first-season Outer Limits episode, and in so being it strips the paint off much television of its era and most of it today. And this was a show of themes and emotions that frequently, perhaps regularly, lived boldly in the face of technical and creative constraints. It was Stevens’ and Stefano’s cared-for but sometimes careless child, and “The Sixth Finger” is indicative of that: we’re reminded that progress happens, but it’s slow, fraught, violent, and in the final consideration maybe the most we can do is shed tears like the relieved Cathy or the despondent Gwyllm, and move on, keep trying, as Mathers appears to do.
If that’s the lesson, I’ll take it, whole and imperfect. Brain implants, rushed evolution, failure and finally momentum: from the inner mind to the outer limits. Indeed.
David C. Holcomb is a psychologist and educator in New Mexico. With twin brother Mark, he has channeled a life-long fascination with The Outer Limits into, well, a life-long fascination; he contributed to their website on the subject (it appears to have a long life). He’s had many significant dreams in The Outer Limits style, music and all. He’s a fifty-year-old man – whaddya gonna do about it?