What? A Spotlight for the OL episode with the longest, most obtuse title and one of the flattest scripts? The one with cardboard characters, the most impenetrable scientific garbledegook expositions, and the (no kidding, really) reverse nuclear explosion? I am writing this several days before this post, and yet I can already picture the unanimous derision for this episode piling up in the Comments basement. But no, it’s not just because all the good ones were already taken!
Sure, PADOSP, as we affectionately refer to it around here, has its flaws. Almost nothing within it makes sense, for one thing. What’s with this huge reactor facility that has only a handful of workers in it, along with two administrators in the offices upstairs? A few guys go down, and all Marshall has left to help him is his wife? And where is this place, anyway? During the cheesy stock evacuation footage, we catch glimpses of the Washington Monument and Times Square (and was that a London subway station?). Yet at the end, when Marshall and his wife drive one mile from ground zero, they stop at the “Desert Station” in . . . the desert. (And why are they evacuating in daylight when it’s the middle of the night?) The one (?!) guy at the Civil Authority seems pretty unimpressed when Marshall calls to tell him the whole thing is about to blow to Kingdom Come—“Hmmm. Have you tried flooding the cells?” And when the actors continually say things like, “The needle is halfway up the scale!” and “It’s halfway to the yellow zone!” it usually means the scriptwriter was too lazy even to research basic terminology for the field he was writing about, though in this case I’ll be fair and acknowledge that the writer, Leslie Stevens himself, who also directed, admitted to DJS in the latter’s book that they were simply out of time and desperate to put something on the screen.
The plot, I guess, is supposed to be a reflection of the nuclear angst that held the country in its grasp back in those days, unsubtle and simplistic as it is. There isn’t much in the way of special effects: two-dimensional TV static superimposed over helmet faceplates, some scary-looking lightning bolts shooting around, and a destructive radioactive substance that looks suspiciously like whitewash but evaporates doors when thrown against them. The actors do their best, but don’t have much to work with. George MacReady, usually dependable, here tries valiantly to hold it all together but occasionally goes so far overboard that he’s actually back on dry land. And yet, who can blame him, given the dialogue he has to spew out? He delivers several of his endless speeches staring away from his costars and off into the distance, as if suddenly grasping vast scientific truths—a sure sign that he is in fact reading these lines from a cue card somewhere off camera because they’re just too convoluted to memorize. Signe Hasso offers a creditable turn as Marshall’s cliché wife and cheerleader, helping him overcome his cowardice. Good ol’ Rudy Solari gives it the college try, running sweatily back and forth between the furnace chamber and the offices to give updates. “I’ll try to find her!” he shouts gamely, hustling away after listening respectfully to Marshall’s near hysterical “It’ll burn us! BURN US!!” speech to rescue the equally hysterical Arndis (Allyson Ames, Stevens’s wife), who has foolishly and obligatorily dashed off to put herself in danger with no one stopping her. And hey, there’s young Leonard Nimoy, rehearsing here for his surprisingly similar death scene in Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, only this time plodding off to radioactive annihilation at the beginning rather than the end, without any audience sympathy whatsoever. Yeah, there are a lot of things to throw tomatoes at, and you’re probably all doing that, my fellow WACT commentators. But I gotta put in a plug for this one, for one reason.
It scared the bejeebers out of me, once upon a time.
Over the course of this blog, we have expounded at great length about things like script themes, metaphors and allegories, great acting, superb camerawork and lighting, subtle direction, the meaning of this and that, the references to other movies and plays, the related careers of the actors and directors, and the meaning of the world in general. It’s been endlessly fascinating, enlightening, and rewarding (and sometimes just funny as hell).
But I think that there are at least a few of these episodes that just can’t bear all that weight, or even any of it. A few of them can be appreciated only by children, and for us to try to drag them to adult level and then criticize them for not working at that level is unreasonable (I’d make the same argument for the “The Invisible Enemy” in season two). In the earlier days of this blog, I mentioned that I was still trying to understand why the Outer Limits connected so deeply with me when I was young, and stayed with me ever since. I really want to know why. In other posts I often refer first to my youthful reactions, because that is the only way I can approach this show. Most of us first saw these episodes as children, and for those that did, that is always going to be the bedrock impression, no matter how many layers of sophistication we lather over it as time goes by. I believe that the only way I will be able to answer my question will be to try somehow to look at the show through the memory of my nine-year-old self, but with adult sensibilities—NOT in a critical fashion, but with wider vision. And this episode, for me personally, is a doorway.
Many of you may find it hard to believe, but this was the OL episode that scared me the most when I was a kid. In general, I was not frightened by the “bears” on OL. To me, even when I was very young, they were simply “cool.” I was bothered more by situations; certainly “Nightmare” and “Corpus Earthling” left some scars of paranoia, and I had a lot of empathy for the people in “Feasibility Study” who occupied that doomed neighborhood that too closely resembled my very own block of houses. And there was that doomsday box that grabbed your eyeball and wouldn’t let go!! But the monsters weren’t “scary”—the Zantis made my skin crawl, and the Thetan gave me a couple of tough moments, but that was about it. The rest were all just “neat.”
Except for the ones here. Part of the reason, which I didn’t really understand until later, was that when I was little, I had a thing about amputees. There were a couple of guys that I’d see around town who were so afflicted, and it was really disturbing to me to see those shiny metal hooks coming out of the sleeves of a person who otherwise looked normal. I was too young to understand it exactly, and would actually run away or hide behind something, rather than have to look at them another second. It would make me start thinking about losing my own hands, of course, and all of this was much more horrifying than any make-believe monsters on TV. So I think that the hook-handed radiation suits in PADOSP definitely played into that childhood phobia—I was inclined to be distressed by them right from the beginning. And it bothered the heck out of me that when you looked in those suits, all there was was electrical chaos. What happened to the guys who used to be there? Add to that the complete “alienness” of them—unlike with most of the other OL bears, you could attribute no real motivation to them, and their mute dedication to whatever the heck they were doing was unnerving—it was as unintuitive as trying to understand what ants are thinking while they’re marching around. Especially the way they moved, shuffling, sometimes sideways, sometimes backwards, forming a chain by linking . . . hooks, eeahhh. Finally, there’s that big shadowy Broadridge building (right down the road from NORCO), with its long, empty corridors; gloomy corners and stairwells; and dim, hellish furnace reactor room. Those gothic-scientific OL settings always spooked me, and especially this one, when you knew that somewhere down there, those things were lumbering around, waiting to suck away your very essence. How long before they got to where you were? Or were you going to have to get past them to get out? In those long-ago days, we belonged to a church that met in a big stone building downtown, with dark stairwells that went down to the kitchen and meeting rooms in the basement. They would sometimes leave only a few lights on down there, so it was often shadowy. I used to have nightmares about going down those stairs and running into one of the silent hook-hand suit guys. It would turn slowly around and then inside there was . . . Aiiiiieeeeeeee! And I grew up in a New England town that had a lot of big, old, fading brick factories—it was easy (and creepy) when I rode around with my family, especially at night, to believe that there were strange, nonhuman creatures somewhere in the gloom inside those looming structures, intent on doing whatever it was they were intent on while the world went on around them, unknowing. As long as they stay inside, and I’m outside, I’ll be all right, I would tell myself.
It was such a relief to me when Marshall and his wife finally got out of that place. . . .
Of course, when I watch this as an adult it all looks pretty lame. But I still get a sick twinge from those hook-hand suits with the electricity in them, and isolated or abandoned old factory buildings still creep me out to this day (a legacy of many OL outings, actually, but foremost this one). Somehow PADOSP and its aliens managed to lodge themselves in the monkeybrain fear modules of my developing mind. So maybe that’s part of the answer—I entered the gothic dark settings of the OL and met the monsters of the week just at the right time for them to attach to the most vulnerable of my burgeoning defense instincts, thus installing themselves as the surface material upon which everything after was constructed. I don’t know. . . . (Hey, that sounded like one of those alien speeches!)
Anyway, I do believe that with the OL, sometimes you have to let go of the critical faculties and just be guided by your inner kid. Sometimes what the Outer Limits did to stimulate our imaginations is far more important than how professional or artistic the presentation was, or whether an episode still stands up today. It’s funny—I wouldn’t put PADOSP anywhere near my top ten OL episodes nowadays, and yet, it was the first one I watched when I bought the DVD set a few years ago, and I worry that those shadowy spaces and lurching figures will still be in my memories at the end, when all else is forgotten. So . . . I offer my personal kudos to an episode that actually terrified my long-ago self and still haunts my dreams. No heavy meanings, no artistic vision, no worldly metaphors, barely any craft. But I never even really remembered the plot that much, or whatever it was about. I just remembered them. This one was plenty fine for the kid I will never be again—and it never needs to be any more than that.
David Horne is the author of Gathering Horror: The Completist Collector’s Catalogue and Index for Warren Publishing (Phrona Press, 2010, currently available on eBay) and will be supplying the introduction to Creepy Archives 10 for Dark Horse in summer 2011. Though well into his fifties, he clearly is still wrestling with childhood issues. “In about twenty or thirty years I plan to start working through the adult issues,” says Horne.