Friday, January 14, 2011

Spotlight on Specimen: Unknown

A commentary with STEVE MITCHELL

Hi Everybody! I’m Steve Mitchell DVD Special Features producer for…wait a second…sorry, old habits die hard. This is not a DVD commentary session. Actually, I wish it was and I was producing the special features for an expanded OUTER LIMITS for DVD and Blu Ray. I did so for THRILLER and after assembling my army of expert historians, filmmakers, and cast and crew it seemed like OUTER LIMITS was the next TV project in need of an exhaustive collection of commentaries and featurettes. Sadly, at least for now, this is not the case. Now might be a good time for a groundswell movement of emails to FOX home video demanding for a Deluxe Special Edition of the series.

Thanks to our hosts, Peter and John, we may have the next best thing with: WE ARE CONTROLLING TRANSMISSION.

When I was asked if I wanted to be a contibutor, I immediately blurted out ZANTI MISFITS! ZANTI MISFITS! This is, hands down, my fave of the series, which I will be reminiscing about in a later column/spotlight. My mission of the moment is to talk about SPECIMEN: UNKNOWN.

Now I have struggled with how I was going to approach this episode which according to DAVID J. SCHOW’S exhaustive and fact packed masterpiece: THE OUTER LIMITS COMPANION, was the highest rated episode of the series.  For the facts, and critical analysis about the series, DAVID and my friend and sometimes producing partner, GARY GERANI, can runs laps around me, backwards while taking a nap.

In a previous life I was a film journalist, and by nature: nosy and a snoop.  Before I was paid peanuts, in some cases literally, for my work, I was a TV fan in general, and was always interested in chatting about last night’s shows. Also, I watched the series as it premiered… I’m a first timer or some such handle. My solution was to do what I do best which is to make this column into a commentary not unlike what I did on THRILLER and COMBAT. Try and make it chatty and hopefully fun.

So what follows is me chatting with me about “last night’s” show… SPECIMEN: UNKNOWN.

INT: Thanks Steve for talking about this episode with me today.

STEVE: Happy to do it, Steve.

INT: What was your first memory of the series?

STEVE: The premier episode of course. Like everyone else who re-watched shows over the summer I saw the promos and got very excited about watching this new ‘monster’ show. I was too young to even know what science fiction was. I loved monster movies and this looked “neat” to me. My Dad thought it looked like “crap” and told me that I would have to watch it on the smaller TV downstairs. Downstairs was our basement and we had a 20 some odd inch Dumont TV which was placed on rickety wooden legs; my 1960’s version of a private screening room. I watched the series alone and in the dark, which my Mom always said was bad for my eyes. She may have been right since I got glasses not too much later.

INT: What did you think of the pilot?

STEVE: It was fantastic. A cool and very original alien, lots of destruction, and the military to solve the problem. Every little thing a growing boy looked for in a TV show. The bar was set and I knew where I would be Monday nights at 7:30, which was when prime time used to begin on the networks.

INT: SPECIMEN: UNKNOWN then, at least from the military angle, must be a fave of yours?

STEVE: Well, Steve I can see where you might think that, but I remember that after the tease, I must of thought…”flowers from space” that’s not scary. An honest kid type response, I think, which after watching the show again mostly holds true. Malevolent daffodils? At least they were from outer space. Even the original spores looked like mushrooms. Killer Mushrooms from outer space.  Kind of silly, don’t you think? It was the early 60’s and hallucinogenic mushrooms were not really as popular until later in the decade. Maybe the OL crew knew something then?


INT: Perhaps. Beyond the premise how does the show hold up for you?

STEVE: I think it is still an interesting outing for a number of reasons. For me at the top of the list is the fine music of FRONTIERE, and the cinematography of the late, and great CONRAD HALL. As a kid, I knew the show looked different from other shows, most of which were shot in B&W as well. Many of them seemed flat, OL reminded me of, in a good way, of comics which I was also addicted to at the time. Many of Hall’s compositions and lighting choices felt like comics covers with his use of dynamic angles and lighting. This episode really benefits from that. In the hands of a lesser artist what is silly about this show might have been a whole lot worse. Also,  it was directed by GERD OSWALD. As a kid, I thought…GERD? What a strange name? I never knew any Gerds growing up, but I never forgot his name, or his shows.

INT: Why?

STEVE: I think his shows had a kind of crafty B movie creativity. On this episode he is careful with his compositions and rarely shows off how impoverished some of his sets were; a dead giveaway of low budget. TV was always a low budget exercise compared to features. Money and time was always the enemy according to the TV pros I have interviewed. Outer Limits was no different. I especially liked how he keeps the camera tight and claustrophobic in the cockpit of the shuttle craft. The one time the space station interior looked cheap to me, was in the opening lab scene with DABNEY COLEMAN, which Oswald did not direct. I still thought it was a good scene, with a nice uncredited turn by Coleman. I never understood why some actors with dialogue did not get credit on some shows.


INT: Speaking of performances this show has a very solid cast.

STEVE: It does, and solid performances which also keeps the silly factor to minimum. OL did benefit from a pool of actors that were transitioning from features into television. Richard Anderson told me that if you wanted to make a living, TV acting could provide one. I wonder though how a feature tough guy like STEPHEN MacNALLY felt about the daffodils. I suspect that RICHARD JAECKEL was cast because he spent so much of his career as a movie soldier? His first movie was GUADALCANAL DIARY and he spent a lot of time in uniform over his long career. JOHN KELLOG as well, who might be best known  for his work in the original TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, along with other WW2 films like A WALK IN THE SUN. Many actors in TV were from features where their faces were their currency. They walk onto a set with a look and often, a gravitas, which told you so much about their character without words. For many actors their careers served as a kind of back story. The one casting choice that did not work for me was ARTHUR BATANIDES as the shuttle pilot. Most of the time he played thugs or bad guys and it was just a bit weird to see him as a member of the space program. Good actor though. They all were and the good ones worked a lot and many shows would rehire the best. Outer Limits was no different.

INT: They liked GAIL KOBE.

STEVE: They did because she came back for "KEEPER OF THE PURPLE TWILIGHT" in Season 2. I was surprised that she did not get front of show billing, since she was the female lead. One of the other aspects of this episode, and I wonder if it is intentional, is sort of an unspoken or dramatized romantic triangle between KOBE, MacNALLY, and JAECKEL. I always got the impression that MacNALLY was sort of interested in her. You know, while the hubby is in space, etc. Also, why have her stay behind, and not ride into the hospital with her husband? You would think she would demand to ride along.


INT: Makes sense.

STEVE: Yet she is left behind with MacNALLY who is left with the task of saving her. Maybe the producers just felt that it would be better to have a woman in some kind of jeopardy. Speaking of imminent danger, I was puzzled by the randomness of when and where the plants would gas the humans?


INT: Yeah, it seems like they only attacked who and when the script needed at the moment. Not a lot of internal logic…but as SYDNEY POLLACK said, “a plant doesn’t have logic.”

STEVE: Not these anyway.

INT: I know that you have strong attachment to the COMBAT series, which was also an ABC show at the time. This episode had a couple of direct connections.

STEVE: It did. The climax in “Florida” was staged on lot 3 at MGM, where Vic Morrow and his squad fought many of their skirmishes on COMBAT. The wooden bridge seemed a tad out of era for Florida, but if you noticed, then the show was not working. For me that back lot was almost like my back yard. I watched so many shows filmed there. Also, one of the soldiers gassed by the plants near the shuttlecraft was WALT DAVIS. He was a regular background soldier on COMBAT, and I believe he doubled for RICK JASON sometimes.

INT: Interesting trivia, but time to go on the record…how would you rate this show?

STEVE: A little pushy aren’t you?

INT: We don’t have all day.

STEVE: True. It is a watchable outing, solidly made, and I did not scan through it because of boredom; which is a plus.  It was not very scary, but it had tension and a nicely emotional climax, complete with great music cues to prop things up.  Even as a kid, and a budding soundtrack geek, I could recognize something special about the music, and how it helped to tell the story. The Outer Limits really benefited from reusing their score library I think. It gave a consistent stamp to things, and nicely connected these little weekly monster movies.

My score: 2 Zantis

INT: Speaking of Zantis I’m looking forward to chatting about THE ZANTI MISFITS!

STEVE:  Me too.

24 comments:

  1. Steve, great questions! And Steve, great answers!

    Loved the discussion about the actors and their good work here! Gail Kobe is one of those smart actresses who stand out -- TOL had plenty of those and it's always a pleasure to watch them.

    Can't wait for your Zanti-rrific spotlight later on!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fabulous job as always, Steve. Your interviewer really knew how to draw out the best in you, I think. I didn't notice the mushroom platter with "AGAR" on the side until now. If the camera pulled back, we would have seen similar trays labeled "TREMAYNE," "CARLSON," and "DENNING."

    ReplyDelete
  3. Really enjoyable, Steve. I love the reminiscences that spring straight from the heart of the child that was. 'Cuz I was also that child.

    The day after a new TOL, I'd gather with my similarly sf-enamored cronies and we'd recount the episode with appropriate "oohs" and "aahs." Even after the occasional disappointment, we knew this show was special. Different from anything else we had seen on TV. Insidious, in its power to capture our attention with eerie compositions, bizarre creatures (disturbing in ways we couldn't yet identify as subtext), and sinister music unlike the forgettable filler on most shows.

    My kudos also for the amusing interview format.

    Looking forward your Zanti Spotlight---a first-echelon episode on virtually everyone's list. Just remember: the foundational phonemes of the Zanti language seem to be "lonz-lo trin-zini"; some permutation of those syllables will get you wherever you want to go on Zanti!

    Peter: I'll take the lab samples that say "CORDAY" and "GARLAND"!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Steve--

    Enjoyed your auto-interview; good to hear from both you and Ted.

    I remember enjoying this episode when it premiered because--AT LAST--- there was an OL that I could actually understand!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Congrats, Manchester! A terrific way of conveying your perceptive thoughts about this episode, which I suppose does have something of that Manly Men on a Manly Mission WWII-style flavoring. The presence of Richard Jaeckel tends to confirm this. Meanwhile, everybody's favorite movie general Morris Ankrum could have played MacNally's part without a single word being changed, though this would have wreaked havoc with the subtle romantic triangle you were suggesting (although if Gary Merrill can earn the love and lust of Sally Kellerman...). Looking forward to your "Zanti" self-interview, Steve. And here I thought "The Duplicate Man" wouldn't happen till the end of this blog! BTW, hello there Ted Rypel! It has been ages, at least close to three decades. So glad you could be a part of this OL extravaganza, which is shaping up as quite an amazing experience for us True Believers. It's incredible... no matter how often David writes about these episodes, there's still the exhilaration of discovering something new and brilliant that comes through in the tenor of his comments. The damn show is THAT GOOD. Now, Steve, all we have to do is to convince someone to let us produce a THRILLER-like Special Edition with all the cool trimmings we can muster -- on Blu-ray, no less!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Nice interview Steve. By the way I'm a real fan of COMBAT; I watched it when it was first on TV and I have all the box sets which I'm working my way through. My only complaint revolves around the subject that the men's adventure magazines always stressed, mainly the habit that Nazis had of partying with nude girls. COMBAT does not have a single scene showing Nazis doing this normal, male behavior. How come?

    Concerning OUTER LIMITS, I've noticed that most of our commenters, and maybe even Pete and John, first saw the show as kids, either on the original airing or reruns. I first saw the episodes in my twenties while attending college. While you guys were hiding behind the couch when the monsters appeared, I was drinking beer, eating sandwiches, and laughing like hell. Now here I am, in my sixties, drinking beer, eating sandwiches, and laughing like hell when the monsters appear.

    Some things never change...

    ReplyDelete
  7. But who says we've changed at all since we first saw them!

    ReplyDelete
  8. White Rook! Nice job, buddy, and a novel approach. Really liked what Steve had to say though I found Steve much less interesting.

    Look forward to your zantificating.

    Hiding behind the couch? Hell, what self respecting kid would do that? I'm betting DJS, Gary, et al, were like me with the monsters--glued to the damn set!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Peter---

    I could wait in the "CORDAY" line for a long time.

    Larry Rapchak---

    Thanks. It's great company to be sharing. Even back in the scattered-fan day we knew that our TOL-pondering pals ("we'd be a scary species among other intelligent life forms") were more thoughtful than the pure Star Trek cling-ons ("shunt right past that stuff to an edenic future!"). Looking forward to more of your commentary, particularly about the memorable music.

    Gary Gerani---

    Hello! Great to hear you again! It's been since TOLAIR and that marvelous still collection of yours. David is right, though: we need your definitive essay to bring closure to the gum-card issue. I agree about what a terrific forum this has become. Made possible not only due to the cyber-village but also because Peter and John's episode-a-day compact has brought renewed immediacy to the subject. Like anticipating Monday evenings all over again!

    Walker Martin---

    Ditto your comments on what a fine show COMBAT was ("Hills Are for Heroes" still resonates, though I haven't seen it in years). Jim Barron will agree resoundingly. Our only regret, as kids too uninformed yet to miss the Nazi nudes, was that there were no dinosaurs out of the DC war comics! (or machine-gun sound fx like "budda-budda" and "takka-takka")

    But Larry Blamire is laser-sharp in observing that there wasn't a bear we shrank from on first sight. We welcomed them all, both out of juvenile fascination with the grotesque and that familiar boasting of the merit-badge of courage so popular with the slasher crowd a generation later.

    As the B-movie age we'd been weaned on was coming to a close, we knew that THESE monsters were way cooler than most. And that they carried more meaning than simple ghastly appearance.

    ReplyDelete
  10. What a fun ride this blog is becoming! Thanks to all above for the nice words. Re: hiding behind the couch...never happened in my dark basement "screening room." It was just me and the control voice. I never really found OL to be really scary...okay, when the brave MP emerges from the second floor covered with Zanti's it rocked me but good! Bugs of all shapes and sizes were my Kryptonite when I was a kid watching the various 4:30 movies and catching up with all those Famous Monsters. The spider in INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN still creeps me out to this day. Re: Nazis and Nude Chicks I so would have loved seeing those STAG Mag covers come to life, but Saunders and his squad had a war to win, one machine gun nest at a time, with little time for Nazi Babes.

    ReplyDelete
  11. For 30 years I owned a great cover painting from a men's adventure magazine by Syd Shore. It showed Nazis turning girls into gold ingots. No wonder they lost the war!

    "Hills are for Heroes" is one of the very best episodes of COMBAT. A two parter directed by Vic Morrow it actually showed Nazis gunning down GIs. Usually Vic and his gang had no trouble making Nazis eat dirt but this episode had a more anti war theme and was more realistic.

    Glad you guys were not hiding behind he couch but I bet you were not drinking beer...

    ReplyDelete
  12. You're right about that, Walker---it was probably RC Cola and Ruffles, at the time.

    I do remember that "Hills Are for Heroes" is a two-parter---Jim Barron and I discussed this not long ago, sharing an appreciation for the episode. That title had to have been influenced by the Steve McQueen HELL IS FOR HEROES, from '62. But I'd have to bet the story was inspired by 1959's PORK CHOP HILL. Any supporting evidence for that?

    Yeah, it would have been like the Nazis to arrogantly outsmart themselves by turning hot chicks into something shiny and inert.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I was drinking Coca Cola from a long neck bottle and it was sweetened with sugar not corn syrup. Very old school. HILLS ARE FOR HEROES is the magnum COMBAT opus, and is still quite amazing today. The hand held camera work presages SAVING PRIVATE RYAN by decades. It took 22 days to shoot which put it 10 days over schedule, and director Vic Morrow took a lot of heat for it. Sadly, I never talked to episode writer GENE COON, so I can't answer any inspiration questions, but my guess is that both movies may have been an influence as they were fresh memories for the folks producing the series at the time.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I tell ya Steve-

    I'd love to break ranks from all this horror and science fiction and do a Combat a day someday but I'm not sure what the reaction would be.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Peter, I'll sign up for all 5 years! I can handle COMBAT and OUTER LIMITS. And Bare Bones e-Zine and MANHUNT and...

    ReplyDelete
  16. Actually, Walker-

    As I just commented to John, I love Combat but I'm not sure I'd have anything interesting to say or have much enthusiasm to say that not much for 152 episodes. A fascinating concept popped into John's head though and I think we'll travel down that road for our next adventure. It's an exciting and (as far as I know) unique concept (although in today's world, nothing is unique thanks to the net) that we'll talk more about as soon as OL is ready to wrap. I think it'll hold your interest, Walker.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Wow, Pete...A COMBAT A DAY...152 episodes...that would be an epic commitment. Overwhelming idea, and a daunting task, but it might be fun. The show has fans and IMAGE did well with the DVD's. So...

    ReplyDelete
  18. I'm looking forward to your COMBAT adventure when OUTER LIMITS is over. By the way there is a decent episode guide, COMBAT A VIEWER'S COMPANION by Jo Davidsmeyer.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Huge COMBAT fan here too, as Steve knows since we've geeked out over it. Seen every episode, some numerous times. Have the superb Image Footlocker set. "Hills are for Heroes" is my favorite too; Morrow's masterpiece. And so so many other great ones, through so many periods of the show's run--including its transition to color.

    I'd be down with ACAD, but not sure how many takers.

    Speaking of other shows: DJS, when's STONEY BURKE hitting the streets?

    Kirby, take the point--Littlejohn, you're on me.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Major COMBAT enthusiast here, too. The Morrow-directed episodes are all excellent; "The Glory Among Men" and "Cry in the Ruins" are at the top of the list of all 152----but, then again, there are many other (non-Morrow) greats..."The Farmer", "S.I.W.", "Gift of Hope"...the hits keep comin' in this series. Great, classic stuff.

    LR

    ReplyDelete
  21. Truly one of the great shows from the 60's and unlike so many old shows it really does hold up today. Sure there are some weak outings, but on average the show was compelling, really well made, and most importantly, very well acted. Vic Morrow's work just gets better with time. "Saddle up!"

    ReplyDelete
  22. That was way too much fun to read, Steve. Worthy of several "Growlers"...the Official Beverage of We Are Controlling Transmission.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Steve Mitchell refers to Dabney Coleman as "uncredited." However, Coleman's name does appear in the end credits of the episode.

    ReplyDelete

Apologies for having to switch to moderated comments. This joker (https://www.blogger.com/profile/07287821785570247118) has been spamming our site for weeks, and we're hoping this will finally get him/her/it to crawl back into the hole from whence it came. Sadly the site isn't smart enough to detect that every single comment they make is spam. We'll be sure to review and post legitimate comments quickly. As for you, "Blogger" (trust me, we've got far more imaginative and appropriate names for you) on behalf of all of us at WACT, don't let the door hit you on the way out!