Thursday, February 10, 2011

Another Spotlight on "Production and Decay of Strange Particles"

by David Horne

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.

16 comments:

  1. David,

    You NAILED it, man!

    You might be interested in my comments on the PADOSP bears, which I posted on Mark Holcomb's Spotlite (which I was writing at the time yours was posted).

    I first saw this episode in my late '20's, so I have no chilhood association with it. So, seeing it for the first time as an adult, you'd think that I would have dismissed it as lame. But I swear it creeped me out more than ever LAST NIGHT as I watched it in preparation for today's WACTD fun-activities. Your emotional reactions and thought process as a kid are EXACTLY what makes this show disturbing...like you said as a kid: "where the hell did those guys go??!" We only had a few minutes to get to know them....now they're dead, but their damned suits are STILL WALKING AROUND! You expect that Rudy Solari, the eager-beaver young hero-type will survive but no---FRIED in the prime of life along with the rest.

    As I read through all of the damning comments, I step back and examine my own reaction to the show. I don't know...I'm just FASCINATED by the "let's see what Leslie Stevens can do with practically nothing" aspect of PADOSP. It's not Top 10 material for me, but I think Stevens was MUCH too harsh on his poor, crackle-filled OL stepchild.

    Thanks for your insights and impressions, as seen through the eyes of an obviously sensitive kid and recalled all these years later. You really touched on something here.

    LR

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  2. David, this is a really well-crafted and impassioned reminder of where we all came from: the darkness and the caves, where we huddled in fear not against twisted humanoid monstrosities, however grotesque, but in nameless dread of those things we couldn't quite make out. The Beasts whose agendas were as unspeakable as their forms were hidden.

    I'll admit to sharing with you---to a minor degree here but in greater portion elsewhere---that undying, childish clutch of horror that seems meant for me and me alone, sometimes in the most inane and indefensible of films. Those moments do stay with you and can trace their talons along the spine of the most jaded inner critic, however "mature."

    I think we're all pretty much with you on this one. These are smart people checking in on this blog. They all seem to acknowledge, in agreement and not, that there's more than one way to shiver them timbers. And that fearful aspects of the human condition aren't purely the province of flawless craftsmanship.

    We're with you, David. One of the things I enjoy about this site is the fact that, despite the wide variance of opinions, you see little disrespect (except as jiving among obvious friends) for opposing opinions. That's a sign of sophistication and self-assurance.

    And that's how we learn from one another and expand our understanding.

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  3. Thanks Larry. I did see your other comments, and we're clearly catching some of the same vibes from this episode. When I wrote this, I just assumed everyone else was going to hate it, so I was really glad to see your comments and those of the other Larry, as well complimentary words from UTW and Ted, too. This one isn't great, but there's definitely something there that got under the skin. And I agree that Stevens pulled out something worthwhile, even under desperate circumstances--in many other series at this point, all you get is a crappy clips episode!

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  4. And thanks to you, too, Ted. Your words above capture it exactly. I sometimes felt this one WAS made for me and me alone, to carry around for all these years. (Well, and several of the other OL eps, too.) It's been great to find all these fellow travelers, here together again after we've followed all those varied paths that have led from in front of our TV screens.

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  5. Now we are four...

    Bravo, David! Like my fellow Larry, I don't have the childhood recollection/connotation of this one, but have let it grab hold of my adult imagination and run with it (my outer child?). Not a top ten for me either, but a good test of its endurance is that I'd rather watch this one again over "Human Factor", "Moonstone", "Tourist Attraction", "Specimen Unknown", "Special One", "Spider County", "Borderland", etc..

    Dude, there's something primal here, and you done sussed it out good.

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  6. Brilliant essay, David. The fact that you guys have gotten so much out of "Production and Decay" prompts me to check it out again.

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  7. Hey guys ... save all the rampant intramural man-love for "The Chameleon," okay?

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  8. Do you figure that will be the one to shatter all this civil open-mindedness and set everyone at one another's throats, Dave?

    And I was starting to really enjoy the company...

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  9. Okay, Ted C., I'm callin' you out. Meet me at the Outer Limits Tavern.

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  10. Funny how different things scare different people. TOL is the perfect Rorschach test that way. (Geez, the literacy level on this blog is so high, I had to look up how to spell 'Rorshach' to avoid embarrassment. Shit, now I just had to check the r's in embarrassment. Oh, fuck it, I'm a vernacular (!) script/dialogue guy not a grammatical prose stylist.)

    Where was I? Oh, right. Ducking under my desk in the fourth grade and running home to Civil Defense sirens. And then seeing this episode showing real nuclear blasts. And living 10 miles from the White House at Target Ground Zero. But still the Zanti's scared me more.

    Nuclear annihilation was just so ... so hard to completely fathom. And it would all be over in an instant. Not like Zanti poison seeping through your veins.

    But to me, David, the most entertaining portions of this blog are comparing those childhood perceptions, and thanks for sharing yours. I will never look at brick buildings with hook hands the same way again.

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  11. The Tavern it is, David J! Saturday. In the three-hour time convulsion between the Coasts.

    Your choice of Thetan blaster, Bellero disintegrator or Climate Controller set on Full Eider Down...

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  12. Oddly (or un-oddly) enough this is the episode I watch more than any other except for Nightmare and Corpus Human. Somehow I can over look all of it's flaws and over acting and just watch like I did when I was an 8 year old kid. For some reason if you really really love OL, like I do, this episode has all the elements that made the first season so special.

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  13. The moment I read about what scared you "the most" I really sympathized, because I've ALWAYS had a problem with those situations in stories (even really escapist ones like Peter Pan!). This story has never really made me think along those lines (instead, I think of those hook-shaped robot hands that SF is full of), but again, I can sympathize.

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  14. I know just what Steve Mitchell means. I've said it before on the other thread, but I like this one partly BECAUSE of the "scientific double-talk."

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  15. ''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 ...''

    SO TRUE !! Which is why I'm still AWED by the show at the tender age of 50 !! I mean, sure I can see TODAY that episodes like THE MUTANT or THE SPECIAL ONE are artistically below average, but I can't even begin to describe the sense of dread that invaded me as an 8 years old when I first saw Warren Oates take his sunglasses off !! or Bruce Dern being crawled upon by the Zanti regent, or the WOODWORK monster coming out of the vaccum cleaner, etc ... Indescribable ! Like you, I'd like to know WHY this has stayed with me after all these years, but the sad truth is that we can never again watch them like we did back then since we're not impressionable kids anymore ... but sometimes, for a few small seconds, a scene or an image will give us a sense of what it was like ... and like you say, that scene or image becomes a doorway ... which, like Tone Hobart would say, makes us ''slide into the past''.

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  16. Still love and always have this episode.Where in New England are you from-Macready orig from Rhodey,I'm CT.Maybe that's why I love his ham servings!Take away screaming MIMI",the rock u like a hurricane "choir swinging and swaying,and it's a good shoe!Still really dig Signe & George,they acted together before,and are convincing as an old married couple.

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