Monday, February 7, 2011

Spotlight on "Second Chance"

by Mark Holcomb


Directed by Paul Stanley; written by Sonya Roberts (credited as Lin Dane) and Lou Morheim. Cast: Simon Oakland (Empyrian); Don Gordon (Dave Crowell); Janet De Gore (Mara Matthews); John McLiam (Arjay Beasley); Angela Clark (Sueann Beasely); Yale Summers (Buddy Lyman), Mimsy Farmer (Donise Ward), Arnold Merritt (Tommy Shadbury). Broadcast March 2, 1964. 

Story: Given free passes to an amusement park flying-saucer ride, a hand-picked group of lost souls unwittingly ends up on a real space flight. Their mission is to save the planet Empyria (oh, and the universe) under the guidance one of its bird-like, bloviating inhabitants.

Detractors who regard The Outer Limits as monster-chocked kiddie chow (I'm looking at you, Mom) could do worse than "Second Chance" to back up their estimation. Flying saucers, highfalutin soliloquies, clingly metallic costumes, a preposterous bogeyman, they're all here—precisely where the mooks at ABC wanted them at this point in the show's run.

But beneath the feathers and speechifying and silver lame there's a genuine OL sensibility at work in "Second Chance." True, it flirts with and finally succumbs to tiresome comic-book grandiosity, but it also consciously, intriguingly engages and interrogates the distinction between childish fantasy and adult reality. And for a portion of its running time, anyway, it makes a pretty good case that the line is blurrier than anyone cares to admit.

With this in mind its amusement park setting works not just as bait for OL naysayers but thematically as well. It's a contrivance that there are so many unhappy adults in the park for the Empyrian to choose from (and no kids, apparently), but it doesn't detract from his point—which he pompously makes at every opportunity—that the longing for flights of fantasy and their sedative effects is an intrinsically human one. (If his argument doesn't move you, just substitute a dive bar or crack house for Joyland in your head next time you watch the episode.) The wooded park locale in the episode's early scenes is also a sunny, open contrast to the claustrophobia of its set-bound second half, and the juxtaposition it provides with the inky, blatantly modernistic Empyrian has a real capacity to shock.


I know this particular bear takes a beating from fans, and its avian qualities can be distracting and laughable. (The costume was resurrected to middling effect in the second season's "The Duplicate Man" and infamously repurposed as a dodo bird in a late episode of Bewitched.) But Kenneth Peach and Lloyd Garnell knock themselves out subverting its birdiness, and their efforts—to say nothing of Project Unlimited's realization of Wah Chang's conception, and somebody's wise decision to ditch its beak—pay off. The Empyrian never looks exactly the same in any two shots, and it's hard to take your eyes off him. Hell, he even looks scary in broad daylight.


First-time OL director Paul Stanley, whom DJS notes was a veteran of Leslie Stevens's earlier Stoney Burke, is a natural at this sort of visual nuance. He uses the cramped saucer-interior set particularly well, and keeps the long shots showcasing its two levels to a minimum; in those, it looks so much like a proscenium arch that we're reminded of how stagy the episode is once its No Exit setup is put into place.

Stanley coaxes careful performances from his cast, too, which is no small feat considering the sloggy expository monologues they're required to spout. The teleplay, disowned by screenwriter Sonya Roberts because of story editor Lou Morheim's changes, only truly comes alive in its ensemble set pieces; the banter between the Empyrian and his panicked passengers right after take-off is particularly sharp, and everybody plays it to the hilt.

Simon Oakland gives a dignified, menacing stillness and grace to the alien and is frankly mesmerizing throughout, while Don Gordon keeps a sense of humor about his role as a slumming nuclear physicist without condescending to the material. Stage and screen vet John McLiam makes simpering blowhard Ajay Beasley, who's always ready to make a good time bad and a bad time worse, both pitiful and loathsome at once, and even Mimsy Farmer transcends her character's screaming-mimi persona and conveys convincing terror and outrage at her predicament. She's also smoking hot.




I'd remembered "Second Chance" as a stilted, silly episode more to be endured than enjoyed, so all this came as a happy surprise when I rewatched it. Too bad it loses the courage of its conviction in the last act, when it switches abruptly from the motif of reality as a manmade construct that's dreamed and pretended and talked into existence (and routinely fled) rather than divinely bestowed, to the mawkish, "we shall overcome" hominid boosterism that gives the episode its title.

The thread that bridges these two modes is, I suppose, the notion that the abductees' refusal to leave Earth or at least be kidnapped from it is a way in which our need for make-believe serves a valuable purpose. There's something dark and complexly Stefanoesque underlying the pat optimism of this idea, but it goes undeveloped and the episode's existentialism is simply left dangling.

That's too bad, but clarifying this aspect of "Second Chance" probably wouldn't have bumped it into The Outer Limits' top tier anyway. The episode is never dull, though, and the fact that it's also more or less kiddie fare isn't entirely a black mark against it, either. For one thing I remember it vividly from when I was a sprog back in '64, so it clearly helped put the OL hook in me that has yet to be dislodged. For another, it triggered a nightmare I have about an Empyrian-like being lurking around a wooded parkland that recurs to this day. So whatever its defects, I can't say "Second Chance" isn't memorable.



Mark Holcomb writes about movies, television, books, and general pop-cultural ephemera for The Village Voice, The Believer, Time Out New York, Salon, and whoever else will have him. He first watched The Outer Limits in its original run as a highly impressionable, temperamentally morbid three year old, and hasn't been able to shake it since (not that he's tried). He and his twin brother, David, indulged their fascination with the series back in the pre-blog '90s, and their efforts live on here courtesy of David J. Schow.

23 comments:

  1. I have to admit that Second Chance (in addition to Counterweight) is a guilty pleasure just by virtue of its' dangling the notion of everyday people venturing into space. It appeals to the Tom Swift Tomorrowland vision of our future that seemed, not merely possible, but actually inevitable in the era TOL was made . . . at least to 7 year-olds.

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  2. Very well said, Mark. I think I'm pretty lined up with you on this one. And I also agree about "Mutant", which is more frustrating as a missed opportunity. Perhaps because this one doesn't aim so high in the end, satisfied with its "space adventure" aspects, I find it the more enjoyable of the two.

    I also agree about the Empyrian--always thought he looked pretty formidable, bird qualities and all.

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  3. Larry B.: Yeah, the bar's pretty low on this one. I had zero expectations going in (it had probably been 20 years since I last watched it), so I was struck by how many of its elements worked. In isolation, that is -- as a whole it's dumb as cement.

    Definitely a pleasant surprise, but not a guilty pleasure. For me that's "Behold, Eck!" but only for the bear.

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  4. Well written, and I'll give you extra points for using "bloviating," one of my all-time favorite words! You do make some good points, and perhaps we shouldn't be TOO hard on this episode, weak as it is. I realized that "Second Chance" serves another purpose as well. There's a philosophy that says that evil must exist because without it there would be no good (that is, you need the one in order for the other to be defined, or something along those lines). The point is that the weak episodes like this one only serve by reflection to remind us how good the good ones really were. We were lucky to get what we did out of the OL. Think about it--given the average state of television overall, the ENTIRE series could have EASILY been like this . . .

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  5. Fair enough, David, although I find innocuously bad episodes like this one easier to forgive than (and this is going to piss people off, but whatever) "The Sixth Finger," which to me plays like a Classics Illustrated primer on eugenics. But you're right, when the networks were happily peddling junk like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the fact that there was an Outer Limits at all is a fucking miracle.

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  6. David H---
    Bloviating," eh? Just remember that the delightfully windbaggy notion of "bloviation" originated here in Ohio---and don't I know how to practice it!

    Mark---
    "All Mimsy were the [TOL-ophiles]"! Not sure Lewis Carroll would approve, but she sure got us all trying to peek "through the looking-glass," didn't she?!

    Well, you make a sound argument for the salvation of this episode from the graveyard of TOL's deformed stepchildren by virtue of that incontrovertible truth that a poor TOL = a solid entry on any other show's slate. We did have a lot of opportunity to get spoiled before this one though, no?

    I'll up my rating to a Zanti-and-a-half and give myself one bird beak for being so harsh on it.

    I admire your concept of the "need for make-believe"---a safety net, a diffusion, against dreaming too outrageously? dreams that might lead us astray? Birdseed for thought, that.

    You were a sprog in '64? I thought of myself as something of a scrunge, back then.

    "Beware the Jabberwock," Holcomb!

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  7. Sharp commentary, Mark. No OUTER LIMITS is a total waste of time, and even the weakest is better than standard network TV fare circa '64. All have interesting qualities... creative visual touches, thought-provoking themes, an occasional moment of wonder generated through dialogue ("But why? WHY is it real?" serves 'Second Chance' very nicely).

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  8. Thanks Mark, for a spotlight that looks at Second Chance for it's myriad good and bad points. Before we had the DVD's or the videotapes, I used to make cassette tapes to listen to. This is the first one I taped, and so had a chance, upon many listens, to earn a special place for me. Say, I was just googling Janet De Gore, who was something of a mystery, apparently, and I found an interesting OL site I hadn't seen before. It's in French, so I'll have to do some translating, but it looks very interesting. Perhaps a compilation of Links to worthy OL websites could be an addition to this blog? Here's the web address of the site: http://laserieaudeladureel.free.fr/la_serie.htm.

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  9. I don't hate this episode at all. It's got that sexy adult vibe between the scientist and the artist gal. She's obviously just come out of a hot affair with a married man which, as the Empyrian says, "had no moral right to exist". She knows that she will end up seduced by Crowell if she hangs out with him. She likes guys with a mind. Gotta love that.

    The Beasleys are a sad couple, with the husband an unpleasant blowhard, probably hits his wife, too, when they're not in public, but she has the guts -- and only probably because she had a witness so Arjay wouldn't pop her one -- to pipe up that she'd like to go on the ride. She has to play up to Arjay's colossal and pathetic ego with all that talk about "big shoes" and "big man" -- and maybe that's why they stay together, ahem... Angela Clarke is a great actress (watch her sometime as the woman who does a mercy killing in "The Interns" movie) and plays Sue Ann as brow-beaten but yet she maintains her dignity and is a million times stronger than her deluded husband.

    The college kids are callow, Mimsy Farmer is adorable. Yale Summers was later a good guy on "Daktari" -- loved him there!

    This one is all about the carnival setting -- as somebody who grew up in So. Cal, we were surrounded by amusement parks of various sophistication. I very much recall of course the Rocket to the Moon at Disneyland but Pacific Ocean Park also had an outer space-themed dark ride. The juxtaposition of the carousel tunes and the appearance of the Empyrian is effective. The unearthly quality of Joyland is the perfect setting for losing one's grip, and I think it's well-used.

    I like that Crowell is a good enough and smart enough guy to even give his all to a crazy little park ride. He might have inspired some kids, I'm sure he was thinking. Disillusionment is allowed and perhaps more empathized with today even than back then. I like that he finds a similarly-minded woman who will eventually follow him to Empyrian. Janet De Gore did a great job; she's a perfect artistic match to Crowell's scientific brilliance. They'll make great babies together on Empyrian.

    Heck, I don't hate this episode at all. A monster, an amusement park, a space ride, a smart hero and heroine, a bunch of messed-up co-passengers, and an intriguing premise...I'm satisfied. It's like a little goofy movie with a tight premise. Works for me.

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  10. Nice shout-out to P.O.P., Lisa. I don't remember the space ride there (David and I grew up in Long Beach, so we spent more time at The Pike), just a diving bell that practically gave you whiplash when it hit the water.

    I do remember the Disneyland moon ride. That thing didn't even fool two year olds, but we went on it every year anyway. Maybe we were waiting for an Empyrian to turn up, or at least Arjay Beasley with his drunk on.

    Hm, maybe the key to enjoying/not hating "Second Chance" is a childhood spent in or around low-rent amusement parks.

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  11. Mark, I'm sure an obsession with amusement parks does give "Second Chance" an additional lustre! There's a great artistic rendition of POP's "Flight to Mars" ride here on Charles Phoenix' site -- http://www.charlesphoenix.com/2006/03/flight-to-mars-pacific-ocean-park/

    I grew up in Downey and I think only went to POP once, perhaps, but do remember the scary Mars creatures at the end of that ride! Loved the Pike and mostly remember as a kid going to the beach by the park and seeing and hearing the Cyclone Racer clattering by. Definite audio memory to this day!

    More about Janet De Gore: I did a little research and found that she started her career very prominently on Broadway opposite Julie Harris, Ethel Waters and Brandon DeWilde in "Member of the Wedding" in 1950. Life Magazine did some kind of photo spread on her at that time, with her going around NYC. She's quite adorable. Photos from the shoot are here: http://images.google.com/images?q=janet+de+gore&q=source%3Alife&biw=1056&bih=670

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  12. Great links, Lisa, thanks. I'm not sure how we missed P.O.P.'s Flight to Mars, unless we were deliberately kept out so as to avoid nightmares. We only went there once, too; driving from Long Beach to Santa Monica was thrill-ride enough for our mom. Nice photos of Janet De Gore -- she gives Mimsy Farmer a run for her money.

    Jim Barwise: That French OL site has been around for a while. I stumble across it occasionally and remember how nicely done it is (and regret that I don't read French). I'm pretty sure DJS knows more about it.

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  13. Argh, we just lost Buddy.

    Yale Summers died Sunday at age 78.

    As a whole recent issue of Video Watchdog will attest, though, Mimsy is still with us.

    DJS

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  14. That's too bad.

    I agree with Lisa about the whole romantic vibe between David and Mora. But I've always disliked the Empyrian's "no moral right" line. It sounds more than a little priggish. A priggish alien? Between that line and that one in Fun and Games, Outer Limits aliens really seem to like lecturing women on their romantic lives.

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  15. Yes, indeed, it looks like the Empyrian was right. But maybe if we ever stop living in denial (like we continue to do with global warming), we might just be able to use our brains long enough to find a solution or two. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Agdvt9M3NJA

    In the meantime, here's some Second Chance trivia: What's the name of the waltz banged out by the carousel's organ-and who wrote it? Sorry, I don't know the answer.

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  16. This episode is significant to me simply because I remember watching it in the bedroom on my old black and white RCA portable when I was four years old. Seen through the kid filter, it was fascinating and made me come alive to the possibility of TV that wasn't Red Skelton slapstick or cartoons. There wasn't much on in those days..."Seahunt" was one of the better things, if you could stand the adult boredom level of it (to a kid, it was interesting because it the main action took place underwater but boring because it droned on and on with people talking about stuff that I found unnecessary at the time). It was better than all those damned westerns, though, and The Outer Limits, with its costumed beings, was much much better than all of it to me...and that bit about taking over your set, changing the focus and "making" you watch...so very much better than any of the other "safe" stuff that played on the two or three channels we could get. I felt like I was sharing a secret with the universe when I watched this. It was a beautifully eerie and powerful feeling. Now I see how silly most of the episodes are...but they sometimes grip me anyway.

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  17. April 9, 2014

    Apropos 'Second Chance', there are some evocative aspects of the episode in question: the Empyrian alien tells his captives his city is constructed from platforms & his race fly from one to another. Also, the wife is far more sensible than her blowhard husband.TOL had
    a penchant for depicting the aliens as having
    something to offer mankind, and the humans as seriously flawed & marginalized by society--kinda like a 1950s B-movie in reverse. How on earth was the Empyrian able to blend into the carnival without anybody noticing? And he was only exposed when the woman tore his left sleeve, revealing the feathered arm beneath.
    I have a copy of 'The Cage', the 1964 Star Trek pilot which remained unaired until its video release 22yrs later. Look carefully at the menagerie segment and among the aliens is the Empyrian himself--what's never explained is how the Talosians captured him in the first place.
    The Sci-Fi Universe works in strange ways--both the above-mentioned shows had ideas which could've been expanded upon. Just how the the crossover from TOL to OST-TC happened is left to the viewer's imagination.
    I welcome feedback from anyone who might have some insight into these matters.

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  18. One of my few complaints (and I'm not the only one) is how the Empyrean (who keeps putting up with Arjay!) treats that guard at the beginning. But I can't help wondering whether he was DEFINITELY killed, since pretty much that same effect is used when the other characters are just immobilized. So is he definitely killed or is he a case of what the COMPANION calls the "Dangling Guard Syndrome" (like that guard toward the end of THE MICE)?

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  19. I don't think this episode ranks as low as some suggest.

    Great premise -- who among us didn't board the "Missions to Mars" ride at Disneyland and didn't wish for it to ascend in reality.

    Great looking gals -- my enduring expectation for sexy rocket ship flight attendants was established by this episode.

    Great one liners on the human condition -- my favorite being that uttered by the captain in response to the alien, "Life is one big abduction."

    Kick back and enjoy!

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  20. 'Hm, maybe the key to enjoying/not hating "Second Chance" is a childhood spent in or around low-rent amusement parks."

    HA! Very likely.

    Guess what? This is my FAVORITE episode of THE OUTER LIMITS. That's personal taste for you. I'm sure a big part of it is that I probably saw it when it was first-run, at age 4. (Unless it was a summer rerun? I can never know.)

    In the early 80s, my best friend and his wife took me to Wildwood, NJ, home of a number of small amusement-ride piers. Comparable to Coney Island, I think, in that you had numerous small privately-owned "parks" and attractions, instead of one big place. And on one of the piers, someone had taken a beach house made in Finland-- the one that looks like a flying saucer!!-- and turned it into a "space" attraction, not unlike the one in this story.

    Years later, when I finally got around to doing an OUTER LIMITS tribute in one of my own stories, THIS was the episode I paid tribute to-- as filtered thru the Wildwood, NJ place. In my case, though, the aliens weren't benevolent... heh heh heh.

    Regarding the guard at the beginning... perhaps he was teleported away? In any case, ever notice the parallel between that scene and the one in "The Reluctant Stowaway" when Dr. Smith disposes of the guard on the Jupiter 2 ?

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  21. I like to think that IS the explanation of the guard, considering the Empyrian's general behavior towards the characters. After all, if an Arjay can't provoke you into zapping him COMPLETELY, who can?!

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  22. WHERE WAS THE CAROUSEL LOCATED?

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  23. As I said before, one odd thing about the Empyrean is his "priggish" streak. Not only does he lecture Mara about her affair which had "no moral right" to happen (whatever that might mean), but he tells Denise that she's leaving nothing behind of any real value. Any given time I hear a "shallow" person being lectured that way - in or out of fiction - it can annoy me. So when Denise says to him "How do YOU know what I'm leaving behind?!" - I can't help liking it.

    It's even true of Buddy. I don't condone fixing ball games, but you get the feeling that the Empyrean would've brought that up even if Tommy hadn't, because he pretty much uses it as a reason for Buddy to leave Earth!

    I'm not saying any of that is a bad thing about the story, but it's a little odd.

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