By Matthew R. Bradley
Like “The Invisible Enemy,” its immediate predecessor on the Outer Limits production schedule, “Counterweight” was based on the short story of the same title by Jerry Sohl (1913-2002), but in this case he did not receive screenwriting credit, and his script was not used. Eighty-five when I interviewed him for Filmfax, he seemed unaware of the latter fact, or that scenarist Milton Krims (“Keeper of the Purple Twilight”) was a real person. “I did the teleplay and they put that name on it, I don’t understand why. They chose it; that’s not even one of my pseudonyms. I’ve no objection to having my name on it, but they put that on there for some reason. Oh, it’s coming back to me now—I think I had too many shows running, because I did so many,” Jerry told me.
The juxtaposition between the episodes demonstrates the series’ oft-observed disparity about just how technologically advanced we humans are supposed to be. “The Invisible Enemy” shows us making the first tentative steps toward colonizing Mars, with the implication that this is our first visit to another world (I can’t recall if it is stated outright in the episode, which of course differs markedly from Sohl’s original story in that regard). “Counterweight,” on the other hand, finds a group of people in a cross-section of professions preparing for a 261-day flight on a transport to Antheon, a planet in another solar system, where the heavy lifting of exploration has apparently already been done, and the work of constructing an actual colony is now relatively within reach.
First published in the November 1959 issue of If: Worlds of Science Fiction, and reprinted in the posthumous collection Filet of Sohl, the literary “Counterweight” once again has a much greater scope than the episode. It is set aboard the Weblor II, which is actually en route to Antheon with its crew of fifty and 3,000 colonists, who take up arms against the mysterious man committing a series of apparently senseless crimes. The reporter, Keith Ellason, is initially kept in the dark by Captain Branson about the nature of this “Nilly,” in reality a crewmember whose actions distract the colonists, preventing a repeat of the interstellar revolt that claimed hundreds of lives aboard the Weblor I, and whose faked execution thus of necessity must remain a closely guarded secret.
Interestingly, Sohl’s story has a premise somewhat similar to that of “The Architects of Fear,” in which a kind of SF straw man is set up to unite humanity—or, in this case, 3,000 representatives thereof—against a common adversary, which might be one reason why Krims’s teleplay features such a dramatically different concept. The televised version is reminiscent of such Twilight Zone entries as the pilot, “Where Is Everybody?,” whose protagonist pushes the panic button during a training mission intended to determine whether he can withstand the mental and physical effects of a prolonged space flight. There is also a visual echo of the first-season episode adapted from Richard Matheson’s “Third from the Sun,” with a circular pan shot upward through a glass table.
The finished episode recalls The Martian Chronicles, as aliens tap into our thoughts to forestall colonization, although here their intention is to frighten us off, rather than to lull us into the false sense of security whereby “The Third Expedition” met its untimely end in Ray Bradbury’s book. It replaces the masked red herring who served as Sohl’s home-grown antagonist with what looks like a glowing variation on the titular critter from The Tingler (1959)—accompanied by second-season composer Harry Lubin’s eerie electronic theme—and eventually manifests itself as one of Project Unlimited’s more memorable “bears.” This time, instead of a guy in a goofy suit, we get honest-to-God stop-motion animation in the impressive initial shots of the alien-possessed plant.
Byron Haskin, who directed six Outer Limits episodes, also supervised the series’ special effects, and discussed the notorious bears in his Directors Guild of America Oral History interview with Joe Adamson: “I was in charge of designing the monsters….I had a lot of fun with that series. I literally drew the original drawings of all these monsters in charcoal on a big pad….We operated with the Projects [sic] Unlimited outfit. I forget all their names, but [stop-motion animator] Jim [Danforth] was over there, and he was more or less the coordinator with the monsters, I think—in the manufacture. The beneficent hand of [Haskin’s frequent collaborator, producer] George Pal was underneath somewhere; he invested the money to get Projects Unlimited going, I think.”
Sohl, too, weighed in regarding bears: “Initially—I thought they were wrong, and perhaps they were, I don’t know—[the network] wanted the monster shown at the beginning of the show. My feeling about the matter was [that then] you might as well forget it all and just show the monster, that’s it. You have to show something mysterious and continue on, and the mystery mounts until you find that it is a monster who is doing this terrible thing, whatever it is. Then the story can be longer and you can build suspense, but if you show the monster right off the bat, I think you lose a lot of something that might be done with words and with scenes. I didn’t like that, so I did not show the monster to begin with unless they absolutely intended that it be done that way,” he said.
Matthew R. Bradley is the author of Richard Matheson on Screen, now in its third printing from McFarland, and the co-editor—with Stanley Wiater and Paul Stuve—of The Richard Matheson Companion (Gauntlet, 2008), revised and updated as The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson (Citadel, 2009). Check out his blog, Bradley on Film.