by Ted Rypel
This episode has long since been covered on the blog, but due to various circumstances it never received a Spotlight treatment. As it’s always been a top-echelon favorite of mine, Peter and John have asked me to retrofit one for posterity. I can’t speak for posterity, but I’m personally honored to have been asked to weigh in on this unique and memorable bit of grim alien first encounter.
Thematically, “A Feasibility Study” is a close cousin to “Fun and Games,” in that a representative sampling of human population is impressed into showing whether humanity has what it takes. Intergalactic true grit, as it were. “Games” posits that an unguessably advanced alien society averts boredom by pitting conscripted “gladiators” against one another, with the fate of their respective planets at stake. In “Feasibility” an immobile collective of super-minds plays a no less grim game of screening-for-slave-races, with “Fun” being the furthest consideration from its agenda.
On the “Fun and Games” blog, I advanced my theory that the sardonic Senator may in fact have been hyperbolizing the facts in order to ramp up the duel’s intensity for his fellows’ enjoyment: the contest was clearly sadistic but perhaps not so unthinkably cruel as the combatants were led to believe. The intent may have been, in part, to probe into how lesser intellects’ psyches operate under maximum stress. A dogfight, for the Andarans’ amusement, featuring truly desperate dogs. No actual “firecracker” planetary destruction for the losers ever having been intended.
In the episode “Nightmare,” we’re told that “Ebon struck first.” Mistakenly. Ruefully. And the Ebonites tried to atone. But in “A Feasibility Study” the first strike is intentional and cruel beyond belief. It involves the ruthless abduction of a human population sampling for the purpose of testing the feasibility of enslaving our entire species. Undeniably apocalyptic stakes. Evil on a cosmic scale, which could only be thwarted in this case by an act of sublime sacrifice and communal heroism.
Colossal drama, requiring a well-fitted stage.
“A Feasibility Study” is a benchmark OUTER LIMITS episode, marked by lofty production values, that can’t be mistaken for any other science-fiction program. Joseph Stefano thumbs through his portfolio of salient aspects of the human condition here and plucks out the admirable qualities of compassion, resolution, and self-sacrifice. Then he concocts an existential tale of forlorn hope turned outward into a mythic act of selfless and anonymous legacy. Byron Haskin and John Nickolaus work a backlot suburban street and some cleverly designed stage dressing into a convincing display of a world turned to living, noxious hallucination in a single night.
There’s a feeling of unrelenting oppression in the film, upper-middle-class stoicism vainly trying to cope, as it’s been conditioned to do. But from the start we sense a pall of doom over this six-block sample of humanity. TOL is not an ongoing series. Thus the neighborhood in “Feasibility” is not EUREKA, where any crisis, however catastrophically insoluble, will somehow be reversed by the resourceful populace; where the right buttons will be pushed by the end, the six city blocks restored right down to the reconnected utilities.
The lasting visual impression of “Feasibility” is of watching an ink wash come to life. Blacks and whites and morbid grays clash in fog, and strive to break through filters and mist, the sky sometimes appearing like a livid bruise. Dominic Frontiere’s ominous score thrums and broods in the background, a lurking reminder of the immobile and implacable horrors who watch from beyond the choking veil. We’re also treated to a reprise of some of his loveliest cues in brief samplings, culminating in the lyrically beautiful theme that embraces the profoundly moving climax.
The journey to that solemn, teeth-clenching closure is a gripping one.
During the very long Control Voice prologue that is equal parts elegant and unnerving, we’re treated to some nice glimpses of star fields and nebulae and hurtling planetoids. We view multiple exposures of Luminos and its inhabitants, which have already shocked us in a spine-tingling teaser that defies channel-changing. They’re like lepers composed of molten lava or some other silicate; tortured, twisted, rag-bound humanoids drenched in silvery tallow.
The shuttlecock spacecraft—audacious in design, but impossible to let pass without a chuckle—excavates a nicely retouched photo of Beverly Hills with its teleportation beam. The resultant crater is a chilling visual. Beneath a sky that’s an unwelcome, milky swirl, like dye permeating water, the church steeple spindles in mute exclamation over its new environs on Luminos.
We meet Stefano’s principal characters briefly, economically. The survival situation dominates here, so he dispenses with deep profiles and sketches out two couples who are pleasant and variegated enough to be sympathetic. To his credit, he doesn’t try to burden them both with ongoing problems, with too much soap-opera gravitas. There isn’t room here; their individual burdens will soon be dwarfed. Sam Wanamaker’s (who would go on to direct SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER) Simon and Andrea (Phyllis Love) provide a quick profile of a breakup caused by irreconcilable attitudes about post-marital ambitions. But David Opatoshu and Joyce Van Patten’s Ralph and Rhea (“REALLY, Ralph!”) Cashman seem like a happy enough couple, given to affectionate jousting.
Oppressive, throbbing sounds and hollow moaning escort these neighbors through to their unearthly discovery, and the squealing phone lines assure them that help is not a phone call away. The corkscrew wipe that restores the engine to the Cashmans’ car is a bit too showy, but overall the film’s FX budget was well spent.
An uneasy but concisely telling conversation between Simon and Ralph on their short drive to the church, squatting under its roiling miasma, brings us to the teaser scene’s proper context. Our spines tingle again as Ralph confronts the Luminoids in their fuming lava-scape. Two shocking gestures from that scabby alien hand. I remember my blood curdling as a kid when I saw that hand first slap the windshield and then punctuate the scene by blocking the camera lens. It may as well have grabbed me by the back of my own neck.
The “slavery” theme is slathered on a little too thickly by Andrea’s direct use of the word, but then we’re quickly swept up in the ghastly appearance—“We’re not on Earth!”—and abrupt vanishing of poor Ralph (“Rhe-aaa!”). The curious Luminoid adolescent turns up with his acne-slag complexion and wave-shaped voice to contaminate Andrea in her car. This efficient plot device will later catalyze Simon’s conversion to her stance on crusading for the betterment of humanity. The afflicted kid also contributes some nice dialogue: “Being afraid hurts” – “I’m 16…almost an old man” – “Take me back, or I’ll TOUCH you!” …creepy.
Simon’s following his wife into the fog barrier leads to the centerpiece confrontation with the Luminoid Authority and the impressive Contemplative Energy Plant. The slow reveal of the Luminoids, emerging from behind rocks through the fog and lens filters to drive Simon to cowering helplessness, is an eerie scene, buffered by Frontiere’s escalating-suspense music theme. Suspense is increased by our fresh knowledge that to be touched by one of them leads to infection. They keep leaning toward Simon meaningfully in implied threat. And the uncertainty of exactly what’s happening to Andrea in that sterilization tube, as the Luminoid youth poses as if marveling, provides an affecting moment.
The Authority of this “hot greedy planet” that “sweats just outside your admirable galaxy” is an amorphous and arrogant brainiac. Fused to a rocky dais with his similarly inert counselors, he declaims, in a voice laced with complacent hubris by Ben Wright, the plot to secure a slave populace. This, to me, is the weak link in the tale. It would seem that an intelligent race capable of instrumentality that could teleport an entire planet’s population should have been able to produce an army of service automatons as an afterthought.
The Plant itself is visually interesting, with an illusion of depth and a canny use of sound, suggesting a multitude of Luminoids. Vaseline-smeared lenses now and again skew the image into the surreal. Just over the lower edge of the frame can be seen an unwholesomely dripping foreground pool that conjures an impression of something that would like to be water.
Some of Stefano’s characteristic fondness for grandiloquent speech informs the Authority’s dialogue with Simon here: “Nothing is so modifiable as morality.” And there’s that florid reference to Luminoid infants as “sweet golden nuggets in the palm of fate’s hand.” He briefly mentions something I would have liked to hear elaborated: the fact that their children have lately rebelled, necessitating the Luminoids’ desperate scheme to acquire a slave population. Interesting. The implication is that their own children have heretofore been employed as slave labor until they mature to incapacity. But no more. Thus, the recalcitrant youth who crossed the barrier out of curiosity and infected Andrea foreshadows the Earthlings’ own coming rebellion— The slave master’s hold on his whip is forever tenuous, his agenda doomed.
When Simon is conducted back home, he finds a luminous Andrea, aglow with a sterilizing gas, already waiting for him. After their brief commiseration over the by now irrelevant ability to conceive children, we’re treated to a few measures of the familiar Frontiere love theme as Simon recaps the aliens’ plot. Ever the crusader, Andrea appeals to the need for resistance. But Simon’s own resolve doesn’t kick in until he is able to reason, “Choice—maybe that’s what the soul is.” He purposes to rally the neighborhood in the church. Immediately thereafter, Andrea is shocked by her discovery that, despite the Luminoids’ efforts at sterilization, she is afflicted with the first silver globules of the degenerative disease. I think it’s at this moment that the most optimistic viewer is forced to concede that tragedy is inevitable.
A minor plot sticking point occurs at this juncture. Ralph Cashman stumbles back into the ‘hood—where’s he been?—and heads for the sound of the church bells, calling his wife’s name. It’s a moment of moving, if calculated, pathos when he arrives and is met with wincing revulsion by the convened neighbors. But why would the Luminoids permit him to roam free when they’ve been obsessed with preserving the sterility of their test subjects?
The priest who reproves the congregation for shrinking away from Ralph is the interesting character actor Frank Puglia (20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH). He makes that odd hand gesture—as if bestowing a blessing—that causes the two heavies guarding the door to step aside and let him open it to Ralph. It’s almost as if he were appealing to mystical power, but the intent is simply a reminder that the church closes its doors to no one.
Rhea comes forward to embrace her stricken husband. Andrea arrives and discloses her condition, advising that she and Ralph will depart beyond the barrier for the good of all. But Simon quickly reasons that if merely breathing the same air as their captors causes contamination, then their fate is inevitable and their choice—their expression of “what the soul is”—becomes clear. He expounds his heroic proposition. For the benefit of all those unsuspecting potential victims back on Earth, they must sabotage the Luminoids’ experiment.
Simon’s resignation speech is nicely composed, visually. Framed with the reunited Cashmans and his own infected wife over his shoulder, Simon enjoins his neighbors: “I’m going to take her hand…will someone take mine?”
What ensues is a wonderful moment of uncelebrated heroism in a simple act of human affection-turned-defiance. Our emotions have been fairly engaged and paid off in a set-piece of passive-aggressive valor unique in stories of self-sacrifice. It’s a cathartic scene, underscored by a heart-tugging, compelling use of Frontiere’s most touching music cue. The cross-section of humanity in the church is a bit contrived for effect, but that effect is undiminished.
We fade from a doomed congregation to the façade of another church, this one back on an Earth blithely ignorant of its immediate salvation from slavery. And from there, we cut starkly to the cold and bleak image of the enormous crater. Shaking heads will observe and study and cogitate over the vast, inexplicable phenomenon; survivors will mourn for a time. Then facile intellects will fabricate theories and fashion cults and gird human defenses in ongoing paranoia. They may even arrive at some enhanced sense of brotherhood against the hostile threat of an unknown universe.
But I’m always left with two nagging impressions at the end of this grandly staged, deeply moving episode: How sadly haunting, almost mystically so, is the thought of just how many actual instances of unrecorded, unheralded heroic self-sacrifice might have occurred throughout human history.
And, to return to fancy, where did the Luminoids choose next to focus their slavery beams?
How did that turn out?
Ted 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.