Thursday, February 3, 2011

Spotlight on “The Children of Spider County”


by  Ted Rypel 
 
I boarded the WACT Limited a little late and was asked to essay some Spotlights.  When Peter showed me the list of episodes that were unspoken-for, the hallmark first season had been pretty picked over.  But I figured I should do my bit, so I chose “Spider County” for a couple of eccentric reasons. 

The first is that this episode is not among my favorites, though it has its enjoyable aspects.  And looking back at the previous Spotlights, I see this may be an unprecedented commentary opportunity:  possibly the first show that the commentator finds difficult to rhapsodize over.  (Not even a bee-girl—damn!)  That’s perverse reason enough to take it on.  

The second rationale is more personal and historical.  When I was doing my fanzine The Outer Limits: An Illustrated Review back in the late ‘70s, my friend Jim Wilson, already a comrade of the episode’s writer Anthony Lawrence, interviewed Tony for our second issue.  Wilson himself had been a prodigy and an orphan, for whom this episode held special meaning, and we kicked around its implications quite a bit (though we agreed that Lawrence’s “Never Born” script was clearly superior).  Wilson spent some years trying to launch the pilot for a sf show called THE PLANNERS, which never saw fruition.  It would have dealt similarly with gifted youth, albeit in a far-future sf-adventure culture.  So I guess I selected this “orphan” episode partly in deference to Jim Wilson, with whom I’ve lost contact.

With Leonard Horn back in the saddle, the Kenneth Peach Era begins…not all that dissimilar looking from the Connie Hall, actually, for the moment.  Carefully framed and dramatically lit, much of this show seems less like a visual changing-of-the-guard than a passing of the baton.  It’s still THE OUTER LIMITS, the teaser assures us, as we’re treated to a “messing with the geek” scene in the back of a police car.  Ethan Wechsler is harassed by a deputy and then summarily rescued by a business-suited, poached-eyed alien with a mandibled mouth and hoagie feet.  The suit is off-putting, but there’s no denying the pyrotechnic hook of Aabel the alien’s death-ray eyes, with their WAR OF THE WORLDS whining chirp of a sound signature.


In the info-packed first act, we meet TV vet John Milford as U.S. Space Agency operative John Bartlett in a dark and conspiratorial “Architects” conference room.  There he lays out the plot about the disappearing geniuses of Spider County to other agents (including Roy Engel, the doc who took Klaatu’s “salve” to be analyzed in DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL).  With typical TOL aplomb, we are told that “the Space Agency has reason to suspect an alien plot.”  It’s worse than they think.   A kind of MIDWICH CUCKOOS-lite scheme has been hatched by denizens of the planet Eros in the Krell(!) Galaxy.  

The EROS NEEDS WOMEN intergalactic insemination ploy doesn’t hold up to scrutiny very well.  Like the Chromoites, they might at least have asked first.  All they apparently needed were surrogate mothers.   And it’s never illustrated how these now-grown offspring in Spider County, young men of superior intellect, might have been alienated because of their “different” abilities, despite the CV epilogue (wedgied?  their lunch money stolen?). 

The only one we know has been oppressed is Ethan Wechsler, and his father has come to collect him and the others for the journey “home.”  But Ethan has fallen in love with the farmer’s daughter.  So Aabel arranges for his son to be framed-—or the suspected murder of a missing antagonist—to force his hand.  We get some acrobatic shots of Ethan behind bars and a nice speech about ostracism before Aabel springs him while in transit and fries a guard, showing that poppa means business.

The aristocratic Kent Smith returns from “Woodwork,” still unable to countenance bourgeois ignorance of superior intellectual concerns.  He’s also disdainful of farmers and their daughters.  He’s exasperated when Ethan insists he’s not going anywhere without Anna Bishop, played by Bennye Gatteys, who has little to do but look plump and sweet-faced, less a TOL babe than a convincingly corn-fed farm girl.  Mr. Bishop hangs around insistently with his shotgun and a death wish, provoking Aabel to first daze, then finally disintegrate, the ornery farmer.  Bishop is played by the dependably untrustworthy Dabbs Greer, the ubiquitous staunch community fixture, who’s always either stalking you for being an alien or sticking one in your car’s trunk (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS).  And Lee Kinsolving, in his “juvenile delinquent” phase, is more fitting here as Ethan, a young man with an angst to grind, than in TZ’s “Black Leather Jackets.”

We also get the long, somber face of Crahan Denton (“Pigeons from Hell,” THRILLER-philiacs!) as the sheriff.  He’ll be back, lending gravitas to “Counterweight” in season 2.

The conflict is quickly established, and we’re treated to some snappy action, variety in sets and locales (when did you ever think TOL would lead you into a barn loft?), Aabel posed in a tree(!), and even a claustrophobic nightmare by Ethan that looks like…well, “Nightmare.”  But then, after Bartlett arrives and tries to function as Ethan’s proxy father in defense of the human side, things begin to bog down.  What promises to be REVENGE OF THE NERDS, TOL-style, becomes DEATH OF A SALESMAN in alien drag.  

There ensue a lot of repetitious chases through those familiar woods, cars traveling the same tree-lined road, and stalking scenes featuring the off-again/on-again alien Aabel.  Repetitive philosophical arguments concerning Aabel’s mandate and Ethan’s demurral.  Aabel’s conviction of the contempt for dreamers on Earth and assurance of the welcome that awaits them as saviors of Eros.  Dismissal of earth as a haven for “dogs and desperation,” and a lot of chasing by desperate dogs.  One more redundant attempt by his alien father to force Ethan again into the rough hands of human authorities, in order that he might be “scared straight” and flee to Eros.  And Ethan’s own foiled complicity in an attempt to capture Aabel.

After Aabel’s ship arrives like a self-propelled light bulb, the gathering of the four missing men with Ethan and Aabel for a final reckoning seems superfluous; they’ve been absent for the entire story and bear no sympathetic weight.  Ethan’s remonstrating about his preference of (still hopeful) Earth over (beyond hope) Eros for dreamers wins over the other hybrids a bit too summarily.  And Aabel finds enough paternal propriety within him that he can’t “uncreate” Ethan as punishment for his disobedience.  (Lots of “uncreating” going on in the TOL universe, what with Aabel, the Andromedan, Turdo…)  Does that wash?  Not without a bit of a pre-soak involving facile acceptance of the good old love-conquers-all principle.  We’re conditioned to want to believe it, but…again?  With coldly calculating aliens whose entire race is at stake?

Let’s give Aabel the benefit of the doubt.  He was, after all, capable of some flights of lyricism, like his claim of hearing “the silent sigh of a star.”  We’ll assume that something vital was rekindled in him that he’ll take back to Eros for the salvation of his erstwhile dreamless race (assuming further that his conventional-looking spacecraft can somehow span the ineffable gulfs between galaxies).  

Where does that leave the five hybrid offspring?  One would hope, not in the hands of “dogs and desperation,” of those killers who kill “slowly and partially”—like with tests and scans and probes and lobotomies and dissection, for the sake of science and planetary security.  (Ethan should probably try to enjoy and prolong that sun-dappled dalliance with Anna.)  In short, we hope that Aabel had it wrong.

And where does that leave the viewer?  With an ostensibly sweet-natured conclusion that’s rather bereft of cosmic scale and emotional weight.  It’s hard to contest the tried-and-true “dreamer” appeal to “strong love, and soft hands” as the default solution for all human—even alien—ills.  It imparts closure, of a sort.  But where dramatic resolution is concerned, we’d like something with a little more heft.  What begins on a promising interstellar canvas is ultimately an earthbound tale of estrangement and disappointment between one father and his son.

“Sorry, Pop—I don’t dig being you.  So pass your corporate legacy on to some other lackey.  I’ve gotta dream for myself.”  

A worthy enough dramatic conflict.  But for this we needed the U. S. Space Agency and a bug in a business suit?  It simply reads like an episode whose intrinsic theme is drowned under needless bombast.  And the imaginative trappings of TOL should never feel needless or bombastic.

Gonji: Red Blade from the East, Vol. 1Ted Rypel is the author of the GONJI series of adventure-fantasy novels.  He has also written about THE OUTER LIMITS for Fantastic Films magazine and in his own late-‘70s fanzine series, The Outer Limits: An Illustrated Review.

15 comments:

  1. Pretty much sums up my feelings, Ted. The OL episodes produced around this time ("Children," "Mutant," "Guests," "Fun and Games," "Chameleon") were all somewhat compromised by producer Stefano's apparent lack of involvement (he was, of course, putting all of his considerable efforts into "The Unknown"). Still, there are pleasures to be had, even in a lesser offering, as you've intelligently pointed out. These weaker shows may be 'desperate dogs' by OUTER LIMITS' phenomenally high standards, but they were still more offbeat, curious and stylish than 99% of what network TV was providing back in '63-'64. For the record, Kent Smith's BEM was reinterpreted as a Earthly vampire in the trading card set, if memory serves...

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  2. Aabel the Vampire... yeah, that figures. Nothing says vampire like mandibles and gills for a nose!

    Thanks, Gary. It seems I used to appreciate this one more. Is it a case of the message growing tedious and stale, or the show just being overwhelmed, in the long view, by all the superior episodes?

    Hey, John and Peter: Sorry for the excessive length of the Spotlight that necessitated the cramping and lost breather-spaces. I'd promise to cut back next time. But how much can I curtail a look at "Demon with a Glass Hand"?

    And thanks, hosts, for posting the cover of the audio book of GONJI 1!

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  3. And now, even as I stick my alien clod-hopper in my mouth, the Spotlight post suddenly appears with proper paragraph spacing!

    Dagnabbit! Ah cain't understand this consarned, new-fangled Internetty webworks!

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  4. Ted, thank you for a truly entertaining read, and ya pretty much nailed it, blow by misplaced blow. This has to be the most offbeat Spotlight (a non-gush-over) and very refreshing.

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  5. Thanks, Larry. We're running into a stretch of episodes now that may subdue our praise somewhat. But I do like "The Guests." And as I recently told DJS, I'm really much more fond of "Fun and Games" than I should be. That one just pushes a lot of the right buttons for me. I like over-the-top melodrama when it's well played. As well as completely improbable save-the-world scenarios undertaken by unpredictable misanthropes...

    Man...that's a specific sub-genre, huh?!

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  6. I think Nick Adams owned that sub-genre!

    I love "Guests" and "Form/Things", but haven't seen "Fun/Games" in eons so that'll be kinda interesting.

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  7. Spot-on spotlight, Ted, no surprise. I confess to being a sucker for this episode's (improbably) idyllic conclusion, and I find the sequence in the forest when Aabel casts his dreamy/blurry/foggy spell effective; Peach set the bar pretty high for himself in those scenes. Otherwise, it's unfocused and strangely (for The Outer Limits) adulatory in its depiction of officialdom.

    On a nostalgic note, I fondly remember reading and re-reading the Anthony Lawrence interview in TOLAIR #2 back in the day. Thanks, a few decades belatedly. Hell, I may read it again tonight.

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  8. No argument, Mark. I agree that you can't fault a wrap-up that avers: Compassion and the ability to dream of a better world are all that can save us from self-destruction.

    If they can't, what can? It just feels like Aabel got scammed into traveling an awfully long way to learn that the "better part" of him might just as well have dribbled down his leg. It seems like an elliptical way to reiterate an obvious message.

    You feel bad for Eros, since they at least seem wise enough to have grasped what they lost.

    Yeah, Peach's work looked good here. Then it gradually became flatter and more undistinguished, particularly in the second season, when it was easier to settle back into workaday mediocrity.

    You can thank Jim Wilson for the Tony Lawrence interview's being so informative and entertaining. They were close friends, despite a wide age difference, long before Jim and I hooked up over TOLAIR. Tony was Jim's fiction-writing guru, just as Joe Stefano was often my go-to adviser.

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  9. Thanks for a very honest and on the mark spotlight. One of the (many, kind of like OL episodes) highlights of this blog will be to hear your comments on the episodes you would have covered in TOLAIR's 3 and 4. A lot of special memories are wrapped up in those historic first two volumes for me; they came out at a time when I was in my early teens and discovering how important OL was going to be in my life. And kudos to you for reviewing an episode you're not too crazy about, that's a lot tougher than favourites, which we've had lots of time to dwell on.

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  10. Ted--

    Typically fine commentary; too bad it's a rather thankless task due to the inferiority of the episode itself. Still, a very interesting and enjoyable read. I wish you had been involved with WACT a little earlier, since "Feasibility Study" went without a commentary; THAT would have been your baby.

    IN FACT---since this blog will hopefully remain available into the future--sort of an ongoing virtual forum for TOL enthusiasts---I'd like to suggest that you contribute a "retroactive" commentary on Feasibility Study NOW...while we're still in Season one. There's no reason that such a standout episode should go without an in-depth analysis, and I propose that YOU would be just the guy to do it.

    WHAT SAY YOU-ALL?

    RE: "Spider County"...Kenneth Peach (with Leonard Horn's encouragement, one assumes) really gives it his all and continually does his best to keep our interest; the opening scenes in the jail and some of the forest stuff are dazzling. But for all of his imaginative visual work, the show simply can't seem to find itself and establish a convincing narrative. A real disappointment, and an unfortunate harbinger of things to come.

    PS-- Any chance that the Anthony Lawrence interview might be posted here? (even though I have my old TOLAIR copy packed away somewhere).

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  11. I second Larry's suggestion- give Ted a retroactive spotlight for A Feasiblity Study!

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  12. I (3rd?) that motion! The least you could do for the guy is give him a great episode to write about. It's always bothered me that 'A Feasibility Study' never got a spotlight. I would have mentioned it earlier, but I was afraid that I'd get banned from the blog!

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  13. Interesting--

    I'm HARDLY a costume-design kind of guy....but did anybody else feel that Ethan's very "busy" checkered shirt totally threw the final scene's visual design/texture out of whack? See the photo of the happy couple above for a reminder.

    A curious decision in an episode whose visual design is it main asset.

    LR

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  14. Larry R--- He does kind of look like he was hedging his bets when he rolled out of the sack that morning:

    "Hey, if I decide to blow off the jaunt to Eros, at least I'll be dressed for the annual Spider County Hoedown!"

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  15. I have to agree with Mark Holcomb - no matter what might go against it, I'm always okay with it.

    There's something I didn't notice till the last time I saw it (just hours ago), and that's that some of the language has a "Lovecraftian" sound to it. I mean Aabel's lines about his people "gathering lush riches and splendid pains" and "rediscovering the fashion for dreaming" and so on. It sounds like some of those lines in Lovecraft's shorter stories, or "The Silver Key," or something like that.

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