Monday, February 28, 2011

Spotlight on "Wolf 359"


By Gary Gerani


Is there a God?  It’s the eternal question that has challenged mankind since our species began.  With “Wolf 359,” THE OUTER LIMITS concludes that there is indeed a Supreme Being watching over and influencing our actions and motivations.  Trouble is, His name happens to be Lucifer.

Deftly combining all required elements of a Season Two OL, from the “low road” of main characters audiences can relate to, to a devilish Bear as malevolent as anything Joe Stefano might have dreamed up after one of his psychiatric sessions, “Wolf 359” embraces sense-of-wonder ideas with an enthusiasm and ferocity that characterize the very best Brady episodes (both Ellisons, “The Inheritors,” “Cry of Silence”).  The result is a tidy, suspenseful, utterly intriguing story that winds up exploring surprisingly heavy theological issues that clearly transcend the show’s fundamental requirements as a “sci-fi thriller.”

TEASER:

One can tell from these first few minutes just how rich “Wolf 359” is with imaginative sf notions.  Re-creating a distant planet in miniature is fascinating stuff to begin with.  Watching evolution unfold in a series of glimpses ups the sense-of-wonder ante considerably.  And when we (not the scientists) are treated to an eerie sneak peek of what “goes along” with the mini-world Dr. Meridith has wrought, we know we’re in one of the darkest neighborhoods of THE OUTER LIMITS proper.

ACT ONE:

Since S1 of OL reveled in oddball, offbeat central characters (bless it!), there’s an automatic resentment of ABC’s demand for more accessible, relatable characters in order to broaden the show’s audience base.  A barbeque?  Martinis?  For shame!  Patrick O’Neal’s Dr. Jonathan Meredith and wife Ethel (Sara Shane) are as deliberately middle-class as it gets.  But, like everything else in this sharply-written teleplay, the easy normalcy of this relationship has a direct bearing on this episode’s plot AND theme.  When the camera lingers on Shane tenderly holding O’Neal’s hand in bed, wedding ring glistening, it’s not just to celebrate the joy of family values because ABC has a ratings agenda.  It’s to set up Love as a weapon – indeed, the ultimate weapon -- against a force of demonic evil that is about to engulf this handsome couple.  Having local animals react in primal terror to the arrival of something unearthly and infernal is another nice touch, with Shane’s middle-of-the-night walk catching just the right sense of disquieting, incomprehensible apprehension.

Back in the lab the next morning, we’re once again treated to fascinating sf revelations as still photographs of the evolving planet are examined (“What does this look like to you…?”).  Dr. Meredith and assistant Peter (Peter Haskell) play like a kind of casual American version of Bernard Quatermass and Dr. Roney from QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, completely rational scientist-detectives enthralled by rapidly-escalating landmark discoveries.  Just as we’re recovering from the fascinating idea that Dundee Planet is going through its own Mesozoic era, setting its evolution on a parallel course with Earth’s, Meridith and Pete finally observe the malevolent, free-flowing spirit that hovers over it.  Significantly, Peter refers to the creature as “He” rather than “It,” and is soon corrected by scientifically-straight Meridith.  Bullshit.  A few seconds later, both of them are referring to this weird specter as a “him.”  And then the final chilling revelation: “He knows we’re here, Professor!”

ACT TWO:

As the experiment pushes on, it becomes apparent that a) Dundee Planet really is a duplication of planet Earth on an accelerated level, and b) something downright “evil” seems to be watching over it.  Although O’Neal’s Meridith is understandably captivated by the astonishing revelations his experiment has unleashed (Quatermass and Roney would be just as obsessed), he’s smart enough to acknowledge the down side: escalating deaths of lab animals and pets, a “creature” that defies scientific logic, a feeling of abstract malevolence emanating from it.  It’s here where the “family values” angle pays off: this man may be an ultra-dedicated scientist for all the right reasons, but he clearly loves his wife, and their endearing chemistry easily sells the relationship.  Assistant Pete is almost like a son, or younger brother; Mr. Dundee is a concerned father figure.  These are not trite details.  A case is being made about love and for love, counterpointing the relentless demonic Evil that’s getting bolder and more dangerous with each new scene.

ACT THREE:

We’re not quite sure what has happened to poor Pete, last seen cringing in terror before the commercial break.  But what we do see is chilling enough: “He” has clearly emerged from the hermetically-sealed confines of the planet, and is now prowling Meridith’s lab, sapping the life of lower life forms (note the word “DIE” in the headline of the newspaper used for the doc’s guinea pigs as they meet their fate).  When Meridith himself is confronted by the Entity, he is spared from a similar end when he opens the lab door and blessed light spills in.  Nigel Kneale couldn’t have conceived this ‘occult mythology meets scientific speculation’ idea any better.  Now we have several compelling things happening at once.  Meridith packs his wife off and fires Pete (shaken, but a survivor) in order to protect them.  But if he can hold on, he’ll be able to see into mankind’s future… something he never expected to happen when he started this work, but something he can’t quite let go of because of its monumental importance.  As Dundee Planet’s version of Earthly evolution continues, its human-like inhabitants engage in wars, hate crimes, evil activities off the scale, influenced by the spirit that watches over them.  One can only gasp intellectually as Meridith’s roll call of DP atrocities is outlined.  But read between the lines, folks: this is the human race he’s talking about, otherwise there’s no point in the man risking his life to observe “our” future.  Sure, some lip service is given about Dundee Planet “having no God”; but indeed, it most assuredly has… an evil God for an evil sentient species.  Apparently these slight verbal deflections were enough to fool the network censors.  But what we have here is nothing less than one of the most subversive theological concepts ever attempted on film, small screen or big.

ACT FOUR:

An exhausted Meridith is saved from the attacking Entity by the head-lighted arrival of a greatly concerned Pete and Mr. Dundee, who are promptly shown the door by their raving scientist friend.  O’Neal manages this balancing act of rationality/obsession very convincingly…starting this guy off with all those martinis and barbequed steaks makes his transformation all the more compelling.  Moreover, the viewing audience WANTS Dr. Meridith to hang on, because we’re also damned curious about where the wretched human race happens to be headed.  The final attack – just at the moment of Truth – is simply but powerfully staged.  Meridith observes his enemy in total long shot, hovering in the lab, seconds before it emerges to kill him.  Sara Shane’s arrival and destruction of this mini-Hell World is about as spectacular as a low-budget TV show can manage, and the graceful Entity’s jerky, final death throes actually manage a peculiar “sympathy for the devil” flavor.  After all, He, like his evil Dundee Planet children, didn’t ask to be recreated.

Dr. Meridith’s final comments are noteworthy.  The next time we duplicate a far-flung planet, he concludes, the odds are it won’t be a place of evil, but a place of love, as dramatized by the love he shares with his wife and surrogate family.  But there’s a curious irony to all this, an almost tragic desperation mixed with understandable denial.  I’m sure the “evil” humans of planet Dundee also had loving wives and caring friends that helped them out of jams.  But that doesn’t change the fact that they were still the sons of daughters of Satan… just as we apparently are.

SUMMATION:

Addicted to its own nonstop sense of wonder, “Wolf 359” represents exactly what Season Two OL was striving to achieve: fascinating sf concepts that get viewers where they live, rather uncomfortably, with scares generated by plot/concept revelations rather than flamboyant cinematic flourishes.  It’s the kind of story that could easily be remade today…as a matter of fact, it’s probably ideal for the cynical and soulless 21st Century.  With fine central performances, a cheap but effectively offbeat bear, and a black-as-pitch notion that is amazingly daring even by current standards, it stands as one of the most captivating science fiction yarns ever put on film, and a definite triumph for Ben Brady’s regime.   



Gary Gerani is the author of Fantastic Television, the first book to focus on science-fiction, fantasy and horror TV. In association with IDW, Gerani recently launched a new publishing company, Fantastic Press, with November's TOP 100 HORROR MOVIES. Next up is TOP 100 SCI-FI MOVIES in April. His graphic novel, BRAM STOKER'S DEATH SHIP (which takes on that famous nightmare voyage from Varna to Whitby, as you-know-who feeds on the crew of the Demeter), is available now and has garnered several nice reviews. That's him on the right, wearing the now-disintegrated Andro headpiece.

15 comments:

  1. Absolutely fascinating assessment of an episode that I like and still like after re-watching it!

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  2. Thanks so much, Lisa! Yes, this is a very good show, with implications that boggle the mind and chill the soul. O'Neal and Shane are quite wonderful together, and even the hand-puppet Entity manages to act up a storm. Nice, elegant and understated Peach cinematography; effective use of Lubin's spook music. So glad I had the chance to write up a Spotlight on this one, considering the number of creative pleasures it has to offer...

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  3. Gary, I don't think I'll ever see this show the way you do. What you're so eloquently and fascinatingly expressing--for one example, the great malevolence of the entity--just isn't there for me. But I have nothing but admiration and respect for the passion and intelligence of your well-mounted argument. Well done, sir!

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  4. This is one beautifully written, impassioned and persuasive argument, Gary. But I can't say I'm swayed. I like the episode a lot and find it a superior S2 offering. I agree that the Plag puppet is a surprisingly effective signifier of pure evil, for such a simple device. The concept of observing an accelerated evolution for predictive purposes is, was and shall remain a brilliant one.

    But I don't see the entity as "Lucifer" or even a "god" of evil but rather as a "projection" of planetary ethos---the soul of Planet Dundee rather than its god. It may be a hair-splitting distinction based on personal views of cosmology, in which case it's too subjective for there to be a right or wrong view.

    And I will concede that if a planet can possess a genius loci, an entity that represents its collective spirit, some alien scientist replicating a chunk of Earth might well be seeing Plags in his lab right now.

    But a very intelligent, well-reasoned argument.

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  5. Fantastic (Television) analysis, Gary! I don't think any of us could have explained better than you what many of us liked about this episode but couldn't state as well as this.

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  6. All of the above tells me one thing: this is one helluva blog! It allows us to exchange thoughts that range from the film appearances of Donald Woods to the very nature of the universe. Thanks, Peter and John (and DJS, naturally)... And thank you, OUTER LIMITS!

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  7. What I continually enjoy and admire about the bunch of youse guys is that we can have disagreements about these episodes and yet stay civil about it. Everybody has their own favorites and their reasons for said favorites. As David has known to say on occasion, where else on the internet do you find grown-ups disagreeing and smiling about it?

    Well, okay, outside of the time The Griffith Park Gang burned me in effigy and I'm still getting Star Trek VHS tapes delivered to my door. But outside of that, sheer bliss.

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  8. Peter does not mention the fact that we are still dropping dead pigeons on his property. PIGEONS FROM HELL will live forever!

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  9. I agree wholeheartedly with Gary, Jim---hell, even the guys sending Peter Trek tapes via dead carrier pigeon:

    This is one helluva friendly, informative and brilliant collection of bloggers. And I, for one, can use all of that in my life.

    I second Gary's thoughtful stretch-run reminder that we owe it all to John, Peter and the irrepressible David J. Schow.

    Thank you, one and all.

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  10. Several decades ago I purchased, or I think I purchased, a copy of the teleplay for "Wolf 359".
    I bought the teleplay from either the the old Star Tech catalog, or from Script City.
    Well, I can't find the script anywhere in my house, so maybe I didn't buy it.
    But, I have a vague inkling that I did read it years ago.

    This muddleheaded inquiry is the result of another "lost memory track" situation.
    I distinctly "?" remember reading an article, decades ago, that had some commentary on "Wolf 359" mentioning that the Plag creature was actually a devil face in the original screenplay, and that some tests were done making a devil face model, but it looked too goofy, so they used the hand puppet ghosty thing instead.

    So here comes the pitch.....do any of you know where I can beg, borrow, or steal (torrent), a copy of the original script for the "Wolf 359" episode, and where in the world that article mentioning the devils face resides such as in Twlight Zone magazine, Starlog, etc.

    As you can tell my memory has not aged gracefully, and maybe the telepay was never ever offered for purchase anyhwere and maybe the article with the devil face doesn't exist either, and maybe I am in the first stages of Alzheimer's disease.

    Lastly, "Wolf 359" is one of my favorite Outer Limits episodes. In my opinion the story is very Gnostically toned, and in fact the entire run of Outer Limits has a Gnostic tone to it.

    Thank You for this great website

    Tim Fonseca

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  11. when I was a little kid,the Wolf 359 creature scared the hell out of me.Simply because the dam thing was creepy.Now ofcourse,watching it,I'd put my foot up it's rear.Still,the episode creepy,even if the science dosen't much sense.I mean,how the hell does that greenhouse planet speed up time,even if you have a wacky bleeping light?Unless,you got the High Evolutionary to mess with time,this ones hard to grasp.

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  12. Patrick O'Neal was so good at playing characters who are "obsessed," but often with doing something good not bad. Anyone who's seen the movie CASTLE KEEP knows what I mean.

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  13. And now for something completely unexpected.... the folowing is an excerpt from a review I wrote of SUPERMAN'S PAL JIMMY OLSEN #142 (Oct'71), "THE MAN FROM TRANSILVANE"...

    Clark & Jimmy go to the Research Center, long closed-down since its heydey in the 50’s (back when they made science-fiction horror movies more than old-fashioned horror movies). Their specialty was “simulating conditions that might be found to exist on other planets”, or, “reproduce the atmosphere of Mars—right HERE ON EARTH!” I never picked up on what Jack was doing until I read this the 2nd time. Following a battle with Lupek, in which Supes appears and save Jimmy’s life, the pair sift thru the leftover ruins of a lab and file room. Supes explains “Anything that involves the SAFETY of man—involves ME!!” He goes on to say, “Dabney Donovan is the closest thing to a MAD scientist that we have!” Supes knows Donovan had a rep for hiding things in plain sight, and on a photograph of an alien planet, “Transilvane”, finds, like a micro-dot, a note about “Bloodmoor” being destroyed on a certain date. As it happens, Bloodmoor is a cemetery, and racing there, they brifly spot Dragorin. In a hidden room underneath a mausoleum, they also find—incredibly—“A SMALL PLANET! WELCOME TO TRANSILVANE, JIMMY!” And there, before them, is a miniature planet, about 20 feet in diameter, with what looks like film cameras—or projectors—aimed at it. The planet itself must be EVIL, too—‘cause it’s got HORNS!


    Now allow me to explain what, to me, is the obvious inspiration for all this. A few years back, I was watching episodes of THE OUTER LIMITS on late-night cable, and ran across one I’m not sure I ever saw before—“WOLF 359”. From the IMDB: “A scientist creates a tiny model of another solar system's planet, seeding it with life, to study planetary development. The miniaturization allows the simulation's evolution to advance much faster. A ghostly bat-like creature hovers on the in-closed model watching the humans, while emitting waves of fear terrifying them.” By the wildest coincidence, I was also reading my copy of JIMMY OLSEN ADVENTURES, and the very next day, I got to THIS story!! I couldn’t believe it. A lot of Kirby fans are well aware of how, late in his run of FANTASTIC FOUR, he did stories inspired by THE PRISONER, and STAR TREK episodes “A Piece Of The Action” and “The Gamesters of Triskellion”. And here, so blatent, so obvious I can’t believe nobody has ever mentioned it before, was a tribute to a 2nd-season OUTER LIMITS episode. In many ways, this almost feels like it could be a SEQUEL to it!!


    I mean look at this. You’ve got the research center, the miniature planet, the cameras pointed at it, the “bat-like creature”. And if that wasn’t enough, are you ready for this? One of the actors who appeared in it was DABNEY Coleman!!!


    I bet nobody reading this comic expected it to start with Bram Stoker and wind up with Seeleg Lester (he wrote WOLF 359).

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  14. 5 years ago,I left comments about Season Two OL ''WOLF 359'' being Scottish ghosts in Scottish castles(1 left comment: "YES!!"). Now, all along it was Thomas Jefferson and his University Of Virginia I was referring to since Wolf 359 was shown in a nightmarish setting.

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  15. One of the best of season 2's episodes. I even buy into the hand puppet/planet demon/devil thing, whatever it is. Almost as good as Cry Of Silence. But you gotta go a long way to beat killer tumbleweeds.

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