Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Spotlight on "The Inheritors"

by Gary Gerani

INTRODUCTION:


All it takes is a few minutes for “The Inheritors” to assert itself as a Most Important Episode – two, actually, which automatically gives this story a special place in the OL pantheon of greats.  Distantly a TV pilot about the government’s “Department of Science” and its ongoing efforts to investigate perplexing enigmas, it sidestepped two rock solid S2 directives: self-consciously “average” protagonists, and a need as old as the series itself, a scary-looking bear to hold viewer attention.  Instead, director James Goldstone (“The Sixth Finger,” “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) and three talented writers present us with a modern (early ‘60s) mystery thriller of the most cerebral order, an FBI-style action film with very little action, a heartfelt love story without a single female in the (lead) cast.  How did such an oddity occur, and why?  Because smart people wanted to tell a smart story for the sheer creative satisfaction of it, and fortunately, these people had power.  There is very little to exploit in “The Inheritors”; even then the backdoor pilot possibilities must have seemed remote.  But it’s as close as one will ever get to a genuine labor of love by seasoned television pros “who ought to know better.”  Whatever that special dedication to this story is, we feel it instantly; never have I experienced a more self-assured presentation of dramatic material, especially in the science fiction genre.  Fortunately for everyone, “The Inheritors” winds up being every bit as good as its creators think it is. 


THE INHERITORS - PART ONE

TEASER:


An OL episode beginning in the battlefield?  And in Viet Nam?  Most unusual, and a striking way to get the show off to a breathless start.  Lt. Minns (Steve Ihnat) is shot, and soon we’re in a hospital, with lead character Adam Ballard (Bob Duvall – what a face!) watching in awe (via shaky dolly) as two brainwave patterns – two brains – are detected in the lieutenant’s head.  Da-da-da-daaaaaa!!! exclaims Harry Lubin.


ACT 1:
Here’s where we are introduced to the regulars of “Century 21,” the unsold pilot concept that was reworked by Seeleg Lester into this OL two-parter.  We watch Assistant Secretary of Science Ballard (Duvall) briefing his boss Mr. Branch (Ted de Corsia) and ultimately Prof. Whitsett (William Wintersale) on the four inexplicable brainiacs in their midst, all shot in the same theater of war (“These men should’ve died but didn’t”).  The “honeycombed symmetry” of the strange ore found within them is given a good amount of screen time, with the filmmakers clearly relishing the step-by-step scientific procedural.  It’s interesting to compare Ballard’s report with a similar scene in Season One’s “Children of Spider County”; “The Inheritors” offers a dryer, more subtle science fiction concept, perfectly in keeping with the ultra-straight, by-the-book tone Goldstone cleanly establishes.  Indeed, Ballard is straightness personified, vigilant to the point of being robotic and obsessive at times.  “The Inheritors” is indirectly about this character’s personal arc, putting him roughly in the same moral position as Henry Brandon’s General Crawford in “The Chameleon” by tale’s end.  Ballard ultimately finds his precious humanity, but until then, he’s a man on the move, plunging himself into ‘Nam battlefield peril without a second thought.  And how cool is it to see James (“Nightmare”) Shigeta leading him through harm’s way to the place of that “great fire in the sky”: a meteor crater (off screen, due to budget – but Lubin’s music and Duvall’s expression turn it into an evocative scene).  Meanwhile, in an encounter that anticipates a similar exchange between Kirk and Gary Mitchell in Goldstone’s “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Ballard questions friendly, low-key hospital-bound Minns… and is startled by the magnitude of his newly-improved IQ.


ACT 2:
As the secret federal investigation continues and Ballard’s worries increase, Minns uses low-voltage telepathic power (another shaky push-in to a close-up, with both a nurse and a guard) to escape the hospital.  He soon becomes a Wall Street sensation, parlaying 500 dollars into a small fortune.  This money is promptly sent to his three “afflicted” brethren, and it’s clear that some mysterious, potentially dangerous project is underway.  It’s here where FBI (or FBS) Agent Harris (Donald Harron) joins the investigation.  Like Duvall, actor Harron has a great face – he seems like a typical fed, but by tale’s end, a simple gesture will reveal his conversion from relentless tracker to inherent humanist.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Stories from business associates about how “decent” these brain mutants are reach Ballard’s ears.  He notes this all-important detail, but also points out, with a sly yet worried half-smile, that bankers shouldn’t “gamble”.


ACT 3:
We’re in Wichita, site of the soon-to-be-built alien spaceship.  Here we meet young Hadley, a grunt turned biochemist supreme.  He has a significant exchange with greedy Dabbs Greer, the guy who rented him the facility, and uses telepathy to force his cooperation – or else (Hadley will talk about this morally questionable act later in the story, when the alien’s motives are questioned).  Ballard and company close-in, but Hadley’s now disappeared, last seen up the Amazon searching for a rare herb.  Next, we’re in Stockhom, where Conover’s miraculous new alloy (stronger than steel, lighter than wood, with pieces fused together on a molecular level) astounds Ballard.  Conover himself senses the investigator’s presence, and avoids a direct confrontation.  Instead, the conflicted project member turns up in a church, gently asking God for guidance.  “(What I’m doing) can’t be wrong… can it, God?”  With all the tight procedural hunting going on and the unearthly enigma growing, this gentle, intimate moment winds up being a standout.


ACT 4:
Ballard tracks high-strung, earthy and ultra-frustrated Robert Renaldo (played magnificently by James Frawley) to Tokyo, and their exchange is both exciting and revelatory (“I beat gravity – the pull of the Earth!”).  It’s ultimately costly to Ballard, who loses two weeks after a necessary psychic “attack” from Renaldo, a man with a stated dislike for authority who despises what he’s being compelled to do, but, like the others, simply can’t help himself.  Ultimately, Ballard reunites with Harris for a planned confrontation with Minns, but only after the lieutenant has a brief, meaningful scene with a dying little boy named Johnny.  Here, for the first time, we get a tantalizing clue as to what this mega-mystery is all about…and we realize it involves afflicted children.  From enigmatic innocence we head toward potential violence, as Minns arrives at his apartment, knowing full well that men with guns and very specific orders are waiting for him…


THE INHERITORS - PART TWO

TEASER/ACT I:


We back up for some investigating within Minns’ apartment (a brief scene cut when “The Inheritors” was re-worked slightly into a “feature” for VHS release), just before the lieutenant enters and escapes capture with a kind of sad resignation of his overall situation.  A brief recap brings viewers up to date, with Harris checking out that data found in Minns’ apartment.  And now we are treated to two of the brain mutants – dignified Conover and emotional Renaldo -- discussing their perplexing dilemma with great fear and concern.  Conover has disturbing visions of “children being tortured,” of “retarded” kids and other horrors… certainly a compelling way to end Act 1.  Interestingly, we are given enough information to fear the consequences of their unstoppable “project”,” yet we somehow sense that all of what we’ve been experiencing just simply can’t be malevolent.  Can it, God?


ACT 2:

Harris’ research leads Ballard to various handicapped children, pretty much following Minns’ path.  There are a couple of remarkable scenes here, as the lieutenant interacts with both the kids and the adults in their life.  He cries, thinking about what will happen to these innocent, helpless ones – but is this because the Project is evil, and he feels guilty as sin because of his part in it?  Goldstone wisely introduces this element at just the right juncture of his story, keeping the suspense going and justifying Ballard’s desperate anger (“Does it matter if it may be heinous?” he shouts to the now assembled Three in Wichita, as only Bob Duvall can).  But Renaldo’s Barrier keeps them at bay, because, as Robert emphatically points out, “NOTHING can stop the project!”


ACT 3:
The kids are finally brought along by Minns, even as the spaceship (cheaply done because of the limited OL budget, but strangely acceptable as a “no frills,” anti-Hollywood creation) is being prepped for use.  His emotions reaching fever pitch, yet still focused on vigilant purpose, a desperate Ballard tries to play the Three against each other, with some success, subtly turning them against the lieutenant.  “Turn the barrier off,” Conover finally says to Renaldo, who’s about to do just that…


ACT 4:
“We’ve reached a crossroads,” Minns tells everyone present, and the Great Reveal is finally upon us, profound thoughts forming in this man’s mind seconds before he even speaks them.  Indeed, this is what we as an audience have been waiting over an hour and a half to hear, and the revelatory “speech” does not disappoint.  With the loveliest piece of music Harry Lubin ever wrote underscoring his poetic yet simple words, Minns explains how an all-but divine alien race was doomed to extinction.  But rather than disappear completely, they sent their RNA into the void of outer space, hoping against hope that events would follow “much as they have followed” on Earth.  The afflicted children, unloved on this world, are ultimately The Inheritors of the show’s title, just as Minns and his mutant brethren have been all along.  These “hopeless ones” will find genuine happiness on another world… they will be whole at last.  While impressed with these benevolent motives, Ballard still balks at the abduction, until Minns plays his final, winning card: “Then take them home, Mr. Ballard,” he says gently, asking Renaldo to turn off the barrier.  As a mystified Ballard and Harris enter the spaceship, they are amazed to see all of the afflicted children perfectly normal – the atmosphere in this craft is exactly like that of the distant planet.  A by-the-book attack dog for most of the story, Agent Harris removes his hat, inspired to the point of being dumbfounded.  And here’s the kicker: if Ballard does indeed take the kids home, they will revert… and one of them, little Johnny Subiron, will die of a rare blood disease.

Of course, Ballard changes his mind, and this is monumental.  How can the man do otherwise and call himself a decent human being?  Leaving this choice to him was a brilliant, ingenious move, by Minns, Goldstone and the screenwriters.  All four of the alien-brained adults will accompany the kids, of their own free will, just as Minns predicted; they were post-deceased Angels of Mercy anyway, no longer belonging to this world.  They truly belong in a symbolic heaven, a place of beauty and hope, just like the children.  And as we pull away and Ken Peach’s camera tilts upward, it’s clear their sacred journey will be successful.


SUMMATION:
Anyone who has doubts that S2 OL produced some brilliant and memorable shows just has to screen this extraordinary two-parter.  As mentioned, “The Inheritors” amounts to an unexpected labor of love, both in terms of the plotline and the dedication of the various filmmakers/writers involved.  There are times when the show seems to be pushing the envelope of greatness, almost as if declaring “it doesn’t get much better than this, folks!”  Defying a pitiful budget and what was clearly the end of OUTER LIMITS for all intent and purposes, it realizes everything Ben Brady was hoping to accomplish with his “take” on the series, and then some.  A wonderful science fiction story filled with captivating twists and an ensemble of committed actors to die for, “The Inheritors” is nothing less than a two-of-a-kind-classic.  Thanks, James Goldstone and company, for enriching my life with your art. 

15 comments:

  1. Wonderful analysis that says it all about a truly hallmark episode. No surprise, Gary---you're very gifted at excavating the aesthetic heart of a show and explaining exactly how it appealed to your own.

    Interesting the Dabbs Greer shows up as a thorn in the side both here and in "Spider County," which I also see as a faint parallel to "Inheritors."

    I'm glad that Lester and Goldstone were able to summon one last gasp of TOL glory, one final showcase of the kind of talent the show was capable of attracting for some of the finest dramatic fantasy ever rendered.

    A great tribute, Gary.

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  2. A very energetic and inspired account, Gary, of an unforgettable show, with no beat left unturned. Well done.

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  3. Thanks, guys. This is such a terrific show, isn't it? Counterpointing the fascinating procedural investigation and escalating fears, we have all that wonderful stuff with the kids and the "miracle" of what's in store for them. Kids PLUS the religious angle, and none of it comes off as cloying because 85% of the drama has been doggedly adult, straight and unsentimental. Just a brilliant job by all concerned, with a special tip of the FBS fedora to director James Goldstone. It's interesting to compare "Inheritors" with his "Sixth Finger" and "Where No Man," particularly in terms of technique. This show's signature "mind control" move -- that deliberately shaky dolly that rushes into character's close-ups to suggest Minns' telepathic power -- was not duplicated in the STAR TREK story, nor is it used with McCallum in "Finger" (Goldstone shines bright light on the staring Futureman to suggest his "powering up," but I don't recall any swift push-ins). This just tells me that Mr. Goldstone is such a class-act director, he feels compelled to try different cinematic techniques to achieve a specific result, rather than simply falling back on his previous tried-and-true method. Now that's a creative artist for you!

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  4. A seemingly minor point, Gary, but a valid one that points to potentially broader problems. Too many directors fall in love with characteristic techniques and set-ups, mistaking stodginess for style. I hadn't really considered Goldstone as a director with an exemplary genre career until now.

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  5. I suppose we can call "Finger," "Inheritors" and "Where No Man" James Goldstone's Super-Brain Trilogy. Working in color for the STAR TREK pilot, he uses optical freezes on those shiny silver eyes, perhaps inspired by some of Gary Lockwood's dialogue ("...they kind of stare back at you...") to literally accomplish this on screen, with the isolated glowing eyes remaining after the rest of the image has faded to black. When Sally Kellerman reveals HER mutant eyes, he optically pushes into the two super-beings (in a mirror) even as this freeze frame is already dissolving into the next shot. It seems Goldstone instinctively seized on new storytelling techniques, all inventive, as TV's visual language was moving from black-and-white to color, affording us a unique opportunity to watch a talented filmmaker experimenting with subtle cinematic variations on a theme.

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  6. Gary--

    Your commentary above all provides an excellent sense of perspective on The Inheritors..it's standing, as it were, in the field of TV sci-fi/fantasy. It clearly belongs near the top, for the multiple reasons you cite. I'm ready to watch it again (but...tonight's Megasoid night).

    LR

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  7. And there's nothing like Megasoid night to remind you how good "The Inheritors" is! ;)

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  8. Gary--

    Glad you mentioned the Donald Harron hat bit;
    it's amazing how a simple gesture can entirely transform a character in the viewer's mind--here a prototypical mad-dog Federal agent who unexpectedly finds himself in the presence of a miracle.

    LR

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  9. Gary, your spotlights always look at these shows for their own merits, and thus you reveal what about them really stands out. This one was a joy to read, on a truly great episode.

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  10. Au contraire ... I think Megasoid Night should be a national holiday, certainly one that would be a lot more fun than the wearying shit-parade of obsolete "holidays" we are presently compelled to endure. I know Tim Lucas would be all for it.

    How 'bout December 19th?

    How 'bout "It's Megasoid Nite at the Outer Limits Tavern?"

    How 'bout WET MEGASOID NITE? 2-for-1 Cold Zanti well drinks! Present your Flat Zanti for a free snack!

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  11. Every night is Megasoid night at the Outer Limits Tavern...

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  12. WET MEGASOID NITE at the OL Tavern? As the young-uns might exclaim, I am so THERE! First round of Cold Zantis is on me! Poor Megasoid couldn't help what he/she/it looked like. It could only work with what the gods had provided.

    Cover your Flat Zanti's one eye with a head mask and get a free party favor: Reese Fowler poached-eye goggles!

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  13. There's a lot of talk on this site about the Outer Limits "Babe of the Week," and this episode has two less than obvious ones, for two separate reasons. There's a FUTURE one of course in Suzanne Cupito / Morgan Brittany, and there's also a very BRIEF one in the Mrs. Subiron actress (I'm not sure of her name). With her general look and that smile of hers, she and Sarah Shayne of Wolf 359 could almost be sisters.

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    1. Thank you, Grant -- may have to doublecheck but the lovely Mrs.Subiron may be Jan Shutan, who later had a Trek trip. Thank you for mentioning her again--she SHOULD be Babe of the Week notation.

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  14. You're mistaken about Ballard in the end. I just got done watching the episode and he did NOT relent in the end; he said that they couldn't. Minns and the others used their abilities to compel the agents to stand down and let them leave.

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