Monday, March 14, 2011

Spotlight on "The Probe" and a Eulogy

by Ted Rypel

Last Will and Testament
So it falls to me to be the last one out the door.  Turn out the laser lights, flatline the sine wave—the party’s over.  Here on the WACT blog, I get to do the final episode Spotlight—more like a footlight, a waning ember.  Due to circumstances for which I have only myself to blame, I must be the out-of-Control Voice to convey the bad news: 

O.B.I.T.  And not the good first-season kind.

If you haven’t yet been to Mark and David Holcomb’s insightful, pioneering “OUTER LIMITS GUIDE website, please do yourself a favor and head there directly.  Their long-standing site offers splendid essays on only their consensus favorite episodes.  But these are essential to a well-rounded sampling of the show’s best analyses.  In the “Critical Guide to OL” section, their mission statement, Mark and David issue the following challenge:  

“What, after all, is there to say about ‘The Probe’?”

“The Probe”
Well, Holcomb Brothers, in truth—touche:  there’s not much to say of a salutary nature.  Can we say that the story reads like Saturday morning juvie-SF fare?  That the props and backdrop flats look pasted together with gaffer’s tape and ready to bequeath to the LAND OF THE GIANTS set?  That the overall impression of the episode is like that daydream of your junior-high chemistry set come to life, manned by puppet people?

All those observations may apply.  And they’re not salutary, to be sure.  But even more somber is the fact that, however poor an episode it was, whatever insult it added to the injured covenant of artful SF/fantasy the show had once promised, it was still the Last Episode of THE OUTER LIMITS.  There would be no more.  Like that once precious pet that had to be put down because it was beyond recovery (maybe in this case, hit by a car driven by a network nabob), you had to mourn it in its sad, degenerative last stage of existence.  It would never again amaze you with its acrobatic capering.  It could only lie there—a drag on your emotional life, where once upon a time it had enhanced that life.

Now, there was something all wrong, something unjust, about seeing it on its last legs…

“The Probe” kicks off with a model plane flying through a staged hurricane—humorously engaging stuff that at least seems to promise dynamic movement, interesting direction.  But then Peggy Ann Garner’s Mandy stands carefree under a stack of heavy crates in a bucking plane—uh-oh.  The plane goes down in a fuming fog that supplies its own eerie noises (shades of Luminos!).  And at once some bad acting under directionless directing by Felix Feist sets in.  The life raft survivors, plainly unsold on Seeleg Lester’s swan-song script (from Sam Neuman’s idea), cast their eyes about hollowly and hold uncertain poses.  Groping, perhaps, for an appropriate Stefano-esque dark psychological insight.  Or even a simple emotion or motivation.

The downed crew’s raft runs aground on a “plastic” floor (at least they admitted it; but did James Cameron rip this off for THE ABYSS…hmmm?).  “Je-HOSAPHAT!”  Pilot Coberly (Ron Hayes) sensibly exclaims as their clothes are thoughtfully dried by a laundry mist.  A snow-and-ice light beam freezes Dexter (William Stevens), who does his best “Chill Charlie” impression for a bit before being whisked away.  The beam then does double duty as a scalpel that slices off a chunk of the raft:  “Cold light?”  We feel the chill—but not from any hopes for an eerie episode; rather, we’re catapulted back to “The Galaxy Being” and his milieu of “frozen static.”  Ah, retrospect!

We’re introduced to clunky stage props that look to be suited to a kiddie-park fun-lab amusement.  And then “Mikie” the Oversized Microbe makes his entrance, via the manipulations of Janos Prohaska inside of a sort of Luminoid pseudopod.  We can’t make heads, tails or appendages out of it.  We’re not sure what part grabs the thawed-out Dex and…does something to him that makes him disappear until the end.  Or the unseen giant aliens do?  It’s all in there somewhere.  

Around this time the script cries, “No money!” as they discuss the plane crash that we’d have liked to see.  And now begin the litany of unlikely suppositions that tell us what we’re supposed to be witnessing.  Mandy stares with wide-eyed vapidity and Coberly strikes “What next?” stances as Mark Richman’s Jefferson Rome confidently spouts hyper-intuitive bullshit.  He “recognizes” strange sounds and ID’s alien systems and machinery and gives us all a sure-footed guided tour of a complete anomaly that he blithely interprets as an alien scientific exploration probe:  “I’ve never seen a telemetry system before…some part of it might be like this.”

Indeed.  Well, we had seen THE OUTER LIMITS before, and NO part of it was much like this.
Possibly the best visual in the episode—a forced-perspective composite of live and miniature portions of the lab set, with the humans very small on the right—is compromised by the pronounced bouncing  matte of the miniature’s lower right edge.  Jeff Rome keeps helpfully explaining alien processes for us.  Harry Lubin’s harp-and-strings “exploring” cue, along with his mock-Herrmann punctuations, establishes that Mikie is an ongoing menace. 

Lots of phony blocking and stage movement ensue, as the humans stand around and engage in “What’ll we do?” chatter and the strangely reticent Mikie sporadically lurches at them with either his head or his butt.  We see a display of cuneiform symbology that leads to nothing.

If there’s a L-OL moment that surges from the pack for special attention, it might be the scene of Mikie amorously attacking the raft before having a piece of itself sliced off.  This grows into a second unconvincing threat.  

Now the crew resort to the “map room,” for more fatuous guesswork and determined speculation about the probe’s agenda and itinerary.  They “reason” that Venus must be its next destination.  Terrible chunks of expository SF claptrap are tossed off here.  Flashing lights are meant to dazzle our imaginations as Rome and Mandy determine that they’re dealing with “lights in four or five dimensions…we’ve just communicated with something!”  Too bad it wasn’t the viewer.

Rome trips and is cuddled by Mikie before being easily pulled free.  In pondering the microbe’s “deadly” attacks, they reason that flashing overhead lights are an “obvious” code directing them into THIS ISLAND EARTH tubes, where they’re sprayed, ostensibly with Mikie-repellent.  Despite this, the wriggling microbe remains a tripping hazard, now feeling no more terrifying than skates on a sidewalk.  And how can they tell they’ve been sprayed with something intended to protect them?  “Take a whiff,” says Rome.  They smell something.  So do we.

Despite more “instant communication” babble from Rome, they’re clearly not getting through to their exploratory hosts.  And now “motors” and “humming sounds” are muscling up for that speculated jaunt to Venus.  Coberly plies their useless radio, while Rome and Mandy take yet another crack at the map room light-and-lever display.  

You had to love, in the earnest ‘50s SF films, when someone would wrinkle their brow and invoke “Einstein’s equation.”  And their interlocutor would pipe in, “Yes…of course—let’s see…E…equals MC2, right?”  As if they’d not only just worked out the equation themselves but also somehow thereby reasoned a solution to the problem at hand.  TOL was usually beyond such specious “knowledge”-dropping.  But there it is—the advanced law of relativity with which Jeff and Mandy propose to communicate to the alien monitor, though it flashes a “one-two, one-two” code that forces Rome to admit, “I don’t get it!”

The all-purpose fog engulfs Coberly so that we can’t see what’s not happening to him.  The increased “humming” sound the others react to cues us to ramp up our auto-suspense engines.  Then Rome goes after Coberly and also gets befogged.  And at this point we reach the reveal of the climactic solution that had escaped them all this time.  

Cuneiform and mathematical equations and flashing codes all have their place, but for sheer grab-‘em-by-the-antennae communicational clarity, nothing beats good old human hysterics.  Lubin’s ONE STEP BEYOND theme underscores Mandy’s impassioned soliloquy—in earnestly pleading colloquial English—begging the aliens to set them free before the probe takes off.

At first it appears she might have done no more than annoy them:  the fog advances and she gets shafted—probed—light-beamed with a new ray.  Then—deliverance!  They’re all reunited on the raft, everyone from the plane crash alive and babbling about how they were directed out by the same light beam.  A seaplane rescues them.  

In the denouement they blankly watch the probe-—a Toho-style twirly craft, possibly rejected from THE MYSTERIANS—as it’s destroyed in a kaleidoscopic explosion of sparkles to keep it from contaminating any other worlds.  Mandy’s coda—“I’d like to think we’d be as smart”—comes too late.  The episode was already in the can.

In looking back on my assessment of “The Probe” in Fantastic Films #5, I see that I was generous enough to call this one “occasionally gripping.”  Whoa.  Maybe “gripping” in the sense of grasping at straws.  But what I was probably airing here, in 1978, was a flashback to my profound sense of disappointment in January 1965; my forced withdrawal from THE OUTER LIMITS, a show that had become so important to me as a kid.  There was a youthful sense of “Oh, well—it was turning kind of crappy anyway” amongst my early TOL brethren, I recall.  A notion that the show had betrayed its compact, abandoned that promise of creepiness we had come to embrace.

But there was no comfort in the cold fact, in the dead of that Midwestern winter, that the Great Bear had gone to final slumber, that on every Saturday night hence, only Jackie Gleason would be sending us “to the moon.”  Yet never beyond.

Eulogy…unto  ∞ Infinity ∞
We didn’t have to kill the messenger.  It was broadcast to us D.O.A.  

The love affair that had begun with “The Galaxy Being”–with “cool night air, cool music, and the cool lips of Gene ‘Buddy’ Maxwell on your fevered brow”–had ended with us being “Probed” by aliens.  From “Please Stand By” to “Please Go Away.”  The sine wave had turned to “solid static.”  The headliners had engaged our passions, but by the end we were tuning in to a cool-down act:  Ladies and gentlemen, the Stones have left the building.  Now enjoy the timeless stylings of…the Standells?

So for a while we had intuited that we were observing a quiet death-watch, I think, though the news of the show’s cancellation arrived to the public abruptly.  For the kids in my demographic, anyway, there were plenty of distractions to court our insatiable lust for pop culture.  The Beatles and the British Invasion diverted many of us into musical aspirations.  But if our ingrained taste for SF and fantasy grew with us, we were never far from the scene, and there was plenty of output in books and movies to capture our enthusiasm.  If we had creative ambitions, we kept writing and drawing and filmmaking.  We weathered Viet Nam and young adulthood and then formed nuclear families that absorbed some of our weird interests in their DNA, thus preserving our pernicious species.  

Life went on, creative input poured into us from myriad sources, and the future overtook us.  But we never forgot THE OUTER LIMITS.  On the contrary, we shouted its praises from any dais that would grudgingly concede us space and time.

And then one day, like a time capsule, the WACT blog opened up, impelled by a combination of David J. Schow’s unflagging drive and John Scoleri and Peter Enfantino’s energetic curiosity about our fan culture; about how we’d respond to a new generation’s views of one of our sacred cows, and of how we’d defend our allegiance against cooler, time-altering assessment.  

While not transforming the “listeners” into Thetans, or inducing the world to grow a sixth finger, I think we’ve acquitted ourselves pretty well in our own defense.  And as a legacy we leave behind the forever viable WACT blog, an eloquent testament to our passion for this landmark TV series.  We’ve sung the justifiable praises of Joseph Stefano and Leslie Stevens and a magnificent host of talented players before and behind the camera.  Thanks to John and Peter, we have our Bifrost, our Trembling Way, which will remain open as a monumental archive to a show that could not only aspire to but also attain towering genius, at its best.  

Go to David J. Schow’s Outer Limits Companion—much of which is thankfully reproduced here—for the wonderful “Beyond the Outer Limits” section that continues the career arcs of some of these esteemed production folks.  Access and support the suggested sites on this blog’s menu, such as “The Holcombs’ OUTER LIMITS GUIDE.”  

May the WACT blog stay active enough to forestall the tumbleweeds.

Don’t Close Till Doomsday.

And the episodes—keep watching the episodes—

As the Andromedan reminded us: “Microwaves…go on…to infinity.”

≈  END OF TRANSMISSION ≈


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 The Outer Limits:  An Illustrated Review.

14 comments:

  1. Bravo, Ted. Wonderful eulogy to a show (the original series) that still keeps me coming back for more (doesn't matter that they're reruns). BTW, perhaps it was a formatting glitch, but the black text of your post against WACT's blog template black background is a little hard to see ;-). My RSS reader doesn't have this issue so I read and enjoyed your piece immensely, but others coming arriving here might. Thanks, Ted.

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  2. Your comments on the episode were as funny as Peter and John's. Perhaps that is the gift of The Probe, that it should leave us laughing rather than feeling sad. And, of course, by comparison it reminds us of how good the OL could be at its best. Ugly stepchild or not, as you said elsewhere, The Probe is part of the OL, so we take it along with us and try to find room for it in the pack, perhaps without looking too closely.

    Beautiful and moving eulogy as well to the series and to WACT. You nicely captured those far-gone and rapidly receding days that played such a big part in making those of us of a certain age who we are. I'm not sure that I'd want to relive every minute of those days, but it's fine to revisit once in a while, and to pay homage to the things that enriched our lives in one way or another. Here's to the OL and to its fans everywhere--may we all meet again someday in the Outer Limits Tavern!

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  3. Excellent wrap-up, Ted. How cool was it to re-live OL with its most dedicated fans? Everyone pitched in with incisive and often heartfelt comments, celebrating a truly unique series worthy of ongoing praise. As far as I'm concerned, WACT has been a wonderful way of life these past few months. Thanks so much for taking the initiative, Peter and John... and David, kudos as usual.

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  4. A fine eulogy, Ted, and a valiant spotlight.

    Thanks for the shout-out, too, and same goes to Mr. Schow for continuing to host the HBOL sitelet on his site. David H. and I talk about giving the thing a proper facelift -- adding a few more episode reviews, posting some naked pictures of Sally Kellerman and whatnot, but who knows if we'll ever find the time. Especially now that WACT lives... to infinity, I hope.

    Oh, and it turns out I do have something to say about today's episode:

    If ever an hour did strain us
    And make S2's bankruptcy as plain as
    A raft-humping Mikie
    Of which we cried, "Crikey!"
    At least "The Probe" flew past Uranus

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  5. Mark H---

    Uranus is probably where the aliens contracted Mikie. And, hey---GREAT Outre Limerick! I knew my riposte to your challenge wouldn't go unanswered!

    Thanks, folks, for the kind remarks. The daily habit of the blog had to end---we all knew that. And it had to end with a whimper---we couldn't evade that. But my only regret is that most of us are bound to drift away from regular active contact. That's a shame. We've demonstrated that we have a lot of other genre product in common.

    I mean, we'll probably try. We'll connect, maybe, in J&P's Batcave, or on some other brainstorm blog they concoct---I'm beginning to see how their devious minds work. But the sad fact is, for most of us here, this was THE blog; the chance to unite in a major common passion and create a synergy of productive and expansive insight.

    We joke about the "Ass.Prod" position on a production. I actually WAS an Ass.Prod on a little indie horror film shot here in Ohio a couple of years ago. (My lone IMDb credit, last I looked. CLOSED FOR THE SEASON---finally coming out on DVD this summer. Ubiquitous DJS sighting: I got to work with Aimee Brooks, who also starred in the DJS-scripted CRITTERS 3---"Six degrees of David J. Schow"!) When a month of almost exclusive night shoots had ended, I think I felt the same way as I do now:

    A whole lot of fun people to be with---all fiercely dedicated to a crazy project that caused outsiders to shake their heads and buzz about what a weird breed we were---suddenly reached the end of their common involvement. It was over. Time to go back to whatever. "Keep in touch! See you on Facebook! Let's do another!"

    Many of us have. Let's do likewise here. Don't make me more of an Ass.Prod than I already am.

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  6. Thanks, Ted (and as Mark mentioned, DJS as well).

    If an episode did ever come close to the OL comic books I highlighted over the weekend, this would be it. All that was missing was a boy to save the world.

    Farewell, WACT: somebody make sure to put it in a freezer bag and stash it in The Way-Back Machine, yeah?

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  7. Nice, Ted, a very enjoyably amused/bemused rundown(over) of "The Probe". I think I mentioned before at some point; this episode was shot not long after Mark Richman also did the final TWILIGHT ZONE, an odd distinction (that one wasn't very good either).

    And a fine OLogy, and I imagine we'll have more thoughts (and stuff) tomorrow. Been quite a ride.

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  8. Ted--

    Very amusing walk-through of the Prod (I mean..Probe). Your eulogy is a fitting and proper way to close the book on this baby; beautifully articulated, as always.

    Mark H--- FUNNY limerick; good one!

    Closing thought....
    Ted's mention of the fact that you can't tell whether the "Mikie" is coming or going reminds me of a joke-----

    A blind man is at a street corner with his seeing-eye dog, when the dog suddenly lifts his leg and pees on the guy's pants and shoe. Soaked. So the blind chap takes a treat out of his pocket and excitedly says to his pooch "Here, boy---here's a treat; good boy!" etc.

    A curious observer walks up and says "Excuse me, sir..but your dog just lifted his leg all over your pants; why are you offering him a treat???--to which the blind man replies: "I'm trying to find his head so I can kick him in the ass."

    THE END

    LR

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  9. LOL good 1 Larry. I been an OL fan for years ever since seeing them in syndication as a kid in the 70's. Bought the complete set from Amazon and now my poor girlfriend has to pretend to enjoy them with me haha.

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  10. hey, i like The Standells!...

    great site, just found it & looking forward to plowing through it...

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  11. I'm sorry, but I must disagree with your general assessment of this episode. THE PROBE has always been one of my favourite episodes of the series. It was a well contrived concept IMHO. First Contact stories are nothing new in science-fiction. Yes, this is a FC story with a twist -- the aliens never are seen. Instead we encounter a piece of their technology and the attempts by these lay-people to communicate with the force controlling it. As for the lame set, this is the early 1960's, high quality SF sets were still a thing of the future -- compare with the sets used in NIGHTMARE. The concept here was well thought out and scripted and had a good cast. This is one episode I wish they HAD remade in the 1990's series.

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  12. With Harlan Ellison playing such a big role in Season 2, they should have had him doctor up The Probe as a kind of "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" for 8-year-olds.

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  13. I agree with Hamhock about it being perfectly all right, maybe not by Outer Limits standards, but on its own. One of my few problems with (and even this one goes away long before the end) is that the Amanda character moves close to that "helpless female character" cliché that the show usually stayed away from. She never actually becomes one, but she asks so many of those scared questions in a row that I'm always waiting for Jeff to blow up at her completely, instead of just getting annoyed the way he does.
    Even though I don't see nearly as much unintentional funny stuff in it as most of you do, there is one moment, and that's when they leave Dexter on his own that way, right after unthawing him. He's the only one so far who came close to getting killed, and he's the one they leave alone! Did they think he wasn't going to run out of luck any time soon?

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  14. Due to JACKIE GLEASON, I never saw most of the 2nd season.

    For the 1964-65 season, MY weekly does of science-fiction was what was probably the single best-written series Gerry Anderson did in all of the 60s-- FIREBALL XL5. That ran for 2 years on Saturday mornings here, which is a long time when you're a little kid.

    Then at the end of the summer, it was GONE.

    A few weeks later, I discovered ANOTHER "space" show to take its place. Oh well, it had to do.

    And so, out went Dominic Frontiere, Harry Lubin, and Barry Gray... in came JOHN WILLIAMS. You know what I'm talking about.

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