Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Spotlight on "The Duplicate Man"

by Mark Holcomb

True story: A week from the day I happened to read Clifford Simak's short story "Goodnight, Mr. James" for the first time, I also happened to catch "The Duplicate Man" on cable TV in the small hours of the morning, also for the first time.

This was in the mid-'70s, when cable was brand new (at least in rural southern Oregon), and one of the channels in our four-station package rotated feeds on a seemingly random basis. It was never certain what this channel would run at any given time—the four-hour block of programming from a Chicago station that lasted until 3 a.m. one Monday morning, and which included a 1 a.m. screening of The Outer Limits, would end at 11 p.m Sunday night the following week, and wrestling or hillbilly concerts or religious shows would drone on until daybreak instead. It was a frustrating crap shoot.

It was also kind of exciting. Syndicated showings of The Outer Limits had slowed to a trickle by then, and were spotty at best in Oregon anyway, so even the dim hope of catching an episode provided a thrill to thrill-deprived monster kids recently transplanted from Los Angeles to a backwater logging burg in the middle of nowhere. I'd generally take my chances, then, and struggle to stay awake past midnight, sneak out of bed long after everybody else in the house was asleep, and keep the television set's volume low enough so that no one was woken up (this meant sitting three feet from the box at most). I got lucky twice over that week—alone, as it turned out; David was already sawing logs, and I didn't have the heart to wake him. Sorry again, brother.

But imagine my sleep-deprived surprise when Simak's tale of an unwitting clone's battle with "psychotic" extraterrestrial contraband turned up on our all-time favorite television show, every episode of which I thought I'd long since committed to memory. I still don't know how I'd missed "The Duplicate Man" up until then when I could practically recite the dialogue from "The Premonition" by heart (and against my will), but somehow I had. No matter—thanks to a statistically unlikely coincidence and a lucky break from the fickle gods of cable TV, my unusual introduction to this episode gave it a permanent place of honor in my private Outer Limits canon.

Beyond this personal connection, "Duplicate" holds up beautifully in almost every way, and shines almost as brightly as its thematic kin "Demon with a Glass Hand" among second season episodes. It's arguably the best execution of Ben Brady's botched mission to adapt works of science fiction literature to the small screen, although Simak's story, first published in a 1951 issue of Horace Gold's Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, is a streamlined one-hander—or one hand and a claw—that required significant fleshing out from screenwriter Robert Dennis. "Goodnight" did feature a bona fide monster on the prowl to toss ABC's way, the telepathic puudly, "a clever and deadly killing machine which directed its rapacity and its cunning against every living thing that was not a puudly," but even that turned out to be too little, too late.

As DJS notes, "The Duplicate Man" is also the series' most notable attempt to situate a story in something other than the present. Its futuristic flourishes—video phones and flying-saucer-shaped houses; collarless mens suits and knotless ties; jet-age school-kid getups; souped-up jetcars; tricked-out sidearms; coin-operated orgasmatrons (just seeing if you're paying attention)—serve little purpose beyond propping up the central conceit of a society in which advanced cloning is the norm, but they're impressively consistent and a fun diversion from the exposition-heavy, occasionally repetitious narrative. They also help remove the episode even further from the martini-and-barbecue milieu favored in season two, although the Jameses opulent swimming pool and patio are heavily featured. (To be fair, the season turned its back on bougieland pretty early on, right after "Wolf 359.")



"Duplicate" is also the optimal showcase for Dennis's skill at adaptation. He has both more and less to work with here than the dull, kid-friendly antics of Adam Link offered, and opens up Simak's stripped-down bug hunt to feature both the real James and supply him with a wife (he's a bachelor in the story) while also remaining faithful to his source. Even better, Dennis turns James's dilemma into an existential crisis worthy of the The Outer Limits' first season. For those who favor the darker tone and more layered, character-driven inclinations of Joseph Stefano and crew (WACToids, you know who you are), "The Duplicate Man" is a welcome throwback. Henderson James is a complex, divided man burdened with the classically Stefanoesque traits of self-loathing, moral enervation, and a marriage that's gone as sour as last month's milk. But like other Stefano protags he's not quite past redemption, and the hope of reawakening held out by "Duplicate" makes it more deserving of being called "Second Chance" than the episode that actually bears that title.


There's a moment when this is made plain. Shortly before heading off for the climactic showdown, one of the Hendersons says, "A man has to be responsible for what he does." This simple statement, like the episode's ambiguous coda—possibly the most poignant since "The Architects of Fear"—recalls and effectively distills The Outer Limits's first-season ethos. And while watching the series from start to finish in production order for WACT purposes (OK, I cheated and skipped a few) has made me less of a second-season bigot than I used to be, "The Duplicate Man" reminds me of how much I miss the tough-love humanism that characterized Stefano's tenure. Brady tried hard, but his version just lacks teeth.

I guess that's as good a segue into a discussion of the episode's monster as any. Frankly, despite the obvious haste taken in getting the suit and mask assembled, the megasoid works for me. (Dennis changed the species' name to something harder-edged and more lethal sounding, but he also admirably worked "puudly" into the teleplay early on.) Never described in the story, Project Unlimited made the creature big, ugly, and crude, which is about what you'd expect from "the most bloodthirsty, hate-filled thing yet found in the Galaxy." It's also dotted with unsightly fleshy lumps that may well be meant as manifestations of its delicate condition. Even its quavering, John Fiedler-like voice adds an eerie, alien quality to the beast, although I would've liked to hear more of that and less of its chronic growling; I half-expected the thing to yelp when the Hendersons blasted it with their alterna-revolvers.



Other details work to give "Duplicate" some of that long-lost OL magic, including the resurgence of Helosian eyewear in its opening scene. Kenneth Peach acquits himself well in another dark-hued episode, a surprising amount of which takes place at night, and Gerd Oswald supplies the necessary mournful tone in his final exemplary Outer Limits assignment. The cast is also solid, although half-space mom/half-OL babe Constance Towers's Laura James succumbs to season two's aimless-housefrau syndrome and isn't given much to do until her wrenching climactic reconciliation with Henderson. Some of the supporting players really stand out, too. Sean McClory is fine as the boozing, megasoid-scarred Emmet, but he basically plays the same character no matter what he's in (see the 1968 Dean Martin western Bandolero! for proof); Ivy Bethune as the duplicate bureau official and Alan Gifford as the zoological garden guide, however, are memorable in their too-fleeting appearances. The only serious aesthetic drawback to "The Duplicate Man" is Harry Lubin's score. While we do get a second opportunity to hear the complex, haunting melody first used when Trent is resurrected in "Demon" (twice, and all the way through this time), the episode's other cues are cartoonish, grating and, by this point, gruelingly familiar. Somebody should've swiped the guy's theremin.

 
Even this is easy to overlook, though, considering that the episode is such a success so shockingly close to the sad, apathetic finale of The Outer Limits. "The Duplicate Man" never lets me down, and somehow never fails to be accompanied by a strange coincidence or two: Not only was Simak's story originally published 60 years ago this very month, but get a load of the year on that plaque hanging in the zoological gardens in the opening scene:


Timing really is everything.

Anyway, before I relinquish the pulpit and take my wife to Mexico for a belated honeymoon (we'll be on the lookout for Jonas Temple), here's what I learned from participating in WACT:

● Re-watching The Outer Limits in the virtual company a bunch of people I respect and admire is a lot more fun than watching it alone, even if we don't see eye to eye and they suspect I'm full of shit, and especially since this is probably the last time I'll watch quite a few of the episodes. (You couldn't pay me to re-watch some of them.) Thanks, everybody -- I understand better why I love this show because of your insights.

The Outer Limits resists nostalgia, and in some cases openly critiques it ("Don't Open Till Doomsday," "The Guests," and, yeah, "The Duplicate Man"). So while it's fun to recall who and where we were when we first watched it, as my reverie above amply proves, it's most rewarding to experience the series for its timeless qualities. That is, to see it in right-now time, not way-back-when time...

● While The Outer Limits borrows from and flirts with and mimics several film and literary (and television) genres, when it's going full-tilt -- like in "The Invisibles," "The Zanti Misfits," "ZZZZZ" (you knew I'd work that one in somehow), "O.B.I.T.", and so on -- it's a genre unto itself.

● Despite its explicit and implicit humanism, The Outer Limits taps into a vein of pessimism and outright misanthropy that has yet to be outdone on network or even cable television. How big a vein? Biggest vein you ever saw. (Take that, WACT stooges.)

● Finally, The Outer Limits is art, and art belongs to us all.

All right, I've written enough to hang myself a dozen times over, but that's how this show affects me. No apologies, but a big, big thank-you to John and Peter for hosting this blog; it can't have been easy and I'm pretty sure it wasn't always fun, but they made it look like both the whole way through. Nice work, guys. And thanks, as ever, to Herr Schow, whose stubborn refusal to let The Outer Limits die expands all humans. Keep it up.

End of transmission.


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.

16 comments:

  1. Vaya con Dios, Mark, y con Dom Perignon para su novia. Muchas gracias para tus palabras magnificas!

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  2. Nice, Mark, really nice. I have to say I find the megasoid voice kinda creepy myself. Interesting points about the Stefanoesque qualities of "Duplicate Man", at least in concept. I have found this episode really grows on me. I'll actually re-watch it more than "Soldier" and a number of other S2s that kind of surprise me.

    And terrific summation of this fascinating production-order-odyssey we've taken and the fine company we've done it in, yourself included.

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  3. Mark--

    Thanks for all of your insightful input on WACT.

    I think we'll need 20 men with pick and shovel on that vein.

    Oh...and don't forget to see Esta while in Mexico.

    LR

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  4. Thanks again for all your help and support, Mark, but may I remind you that you have not been excused for a trip to Mexico. Class is in session until next Monday. The wife will have to wait.

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  5. Peter: What woman would say no to "The Probe" before her honeymoon?

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  6. Good point, Mark, but I hope the little lady didn't see "The Invisibles."
    Quid Pro Quo?

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  7. Nice overview of an episode with some fascinating aspects, Mark. Interesting decision to have the megasoid speak only once; this offbeat voice conveys the surprising intelligence of the creature in addition to providing an eerie counterpoint to its monstrous appearance. The absence of further m-dialogue seems to subtly drive home the point that this beast is such a kill-crazy entity, it actually has no need to communicate with anyone or anything once it "gets going". The only reason it speaks to the James clone at all is to screw with his head and catch him off guard, an understandable act of self-preservation. I suppose this creepy voice could have returned to taunt our hero or his duplicate at the moment of truth, but that really doesn't seem to be necessary given "Man"'s focus on the self-evident James vs. James moral dilemma. When all is said and done, I guess I prefer the special strangeness of the m-voice's "one time" use... an odd and memorable moment in an equally odd and memorable episode of THE OUTER LIMITS.

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  8. Beautiful parting words, Mark, and a fine illumination of an episode for which I share your S2 enthusiasm.

    Best of luck to you and your brother---it's been a genuine honor to have become reacquainted with you both here. Try not to lose touch. I'll be sending folks to your remarkable, classic OUTER LIMITS site. If you're on FB, hook up with me there (that goes for the rest of our community, as well!). Remember: "The machines are everywhere!"

    Walk the Trembling Way with confidence, my friend. You have an army of supporters with you.

    (That's probably why it "trembles.")

    Until next we meet---

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  9. Gary: Good point about the one-shot nature of the M-dialogue. It's another way in which Robert Dennis was respectful of Simak's story, without being slavish to it.

    Ted: The honor was mine. And you've given me a reason to finally get that Facebook account.

    Peter: Mexico, man -- it always gets me in the end.

    Wayne, dos Larrys, John and Peter, DJS, and everyone else, deepest thanks -- this has been a blast, and I really hate for it to end. But I'll check in next week to cast my vote for S2's top episodes, and to extend the awe and mystery for as long as possible. OL lives!

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  10. Good point, Mark, but I hope the little lady didn't see "The Invisibles." Quid Pro Quo?

    . . . . or read the unproduced Stefano script "Small Wonder (Parts 1 & 2)".

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  11. Mark: I really felt your excitement at recalling your initial memories of The Duplicate Man. My own experience was different, but hugely significant for me. In the late '70, the Seattle/Tacoma station KSTW channel 11 (they showed all the great old shows) used to show The Outer Limits on weekends. In the summer of 1977, they broadcast OL nightly at 11 P.M. ( I'd seen lots of episodes over the previous few years, but this was where it really began.) I was 13 at the time, and my parents said I could only stay up twice a week to see OL. So I'd sit with Gary Gerani's Starlog 4 episode guide and torture over "which ones"... On July 15th, 1977, The Outer Limits really began for me when I stayed up to see- The Duplicate Man. It made such an impression on me, that to this day, it slips between my numbers 1 to 3 spots of the whole series. Summer skies (Orion and Andromeda), freshly cut grass, warm nights; they all tie in to OL for me. And Mom and Dad, I forgive you. In the summer of '78, OL was on nightly again, and I saw them all.

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  12. For anyone who hasn't read much Clifford Simak, the "pastoral father" of science fiction, you're missing out. I love his romantic, at times tough views of us struggling humans, and the Wisconsin landscapes of his youth that populate many of his stories. I'd recommend the parallel world thriller Ring Around The Sun, soul-searching quest tales like Destiny Doll and Special Deliverance, or the harsher Way Station, as well as the short story collection Skirmsh.

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  13. "John Fiedler-like voice" really made me laugh. Even though I don't dislike this one any more than Mark Holcombe does, I don't know how I'll react the next time I see this one and hear the Megasoid speak, after hearing that comparison.

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  14. Great review, thanks! Like most OL episodes, this one creeped me out as a kid. The very thought of something like a "megasoid" which was "higher on the evolution scale than man" sent my young head spinning. As an adult I still enjoy the segment, but you can also see all the reasons why it doesn't work for some people. First off the concept just creaks under the weight of no budget to speak of. This episode just screams for more money, but they still managed to pull it off. Somehow I just don't see the same interesting results coming from today's CGI-addled industry. Secondly, this segment comes off like a shameless plug for the New York 1964/1965 World's Fair. Many shows did this back then (The Flintstones, Hazel, etc). Picture phones, turbine sounding cars and even the space zoo (which is an easy substitute for a fair pavilion) were subliminal reminders for the public to go and spend their money at The Fair (my family sure did...I grew up about 15 minutes from what is now called Flushing Meadow Park). "Power broker" Robert Moses obviously had a lot of pull back then. "The Duplicate Man" also doesn't get credit for what must have been the first TV episode to briefly discuss cloning another human being (even though we never see the process by which this is achieved). Lastly if you can get by the severely lacking megasoid costume, the creature (in my opinion) serves as Henderson James' subconscious ego or even id...something which has clearly been out of control long before we are introduced to the character. Once the megasoid has been put down, James is now able to be himself again...revealed by him calling his wife "princess" again at the end of the show. Who knows....I'm grabbing at straws here, but the OL just does that kind of thing to you. The inner mind indeed....

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  15. To Mr Barwise --Thank you for your recollections, they're just like mine with Cable's TNT. Never had parental trouble with odd air times thankfully, but the folks did get worked up after watching ST's "Miri" and banned the show from dinnertime reruns--but only for a week. Yes, a summer night, expanse of lawn or woodland, starry sky and a full moon--that's PURE outer Limits. A show that put the 'space age' in your backyard.

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  16. this show was great. shame we wont be able to watch it online anymore, once ths facists meeting in dubai agree to censor the internet.

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