Monday, January 31, 2011

Spotlight on "ZZZZZ"

by Mark Holcomb

Directed by John Brahm; written by Meyer Dolinsky (additional material by Joseph Stefano). Cast: Phillip Abbott (Ben Fields); Joanna Frank (Regina); Marsha Hunt (Francesca Fields); Booth Coleman (Dr. Warren). Broadcast January 27, 1964. 

Story: Entomologist Ben Fields inadvertantly hires a queen bee who's been given human form for nefarious purposes as his lab assistant. His wife, Francesca, senses something less than human about Regina, and a deadly power struggle ensues. Everybody loses.

I've had this bee in my bonnet before: Back in 1993 I spilled a lot of pixels defending my interest in "ZZZZZ," which most fans peg as The Outer Limits' silliest first-season episode, if not its worst. I'm skipping the equivocation this time around — "ZZZZZ" may be minor-key OL, but it's also one of the series' most adult, visually sophisticated hours.

OK, it does feature the season's most laughable bear and least scientifically plausible premise, to put it midly. And its stripped-down production values smack of network penny-pinching; there are only four characters and, except for a second-unit shot of a church cemetery, no exteriors.

But when I watched "ZZZZZ" again for this review the malarkey it passes off as science struck me as rather ingenious shorthand, more a means of establishing the story's high-stakes domestic drama than a stab at, God and Leslie Stevens forbid, verisimilitude. The episode's austerity works in its favor, too, honing screenwriter Meyer Dolinsky's interrogation of human (and nonhuman) hubris to a razor edge, and giving it a formalism that's unique for the series.

Dolinsky doesn't get sole credit, of course. As chronicled in The Outer Limits Companion Joseph Stefano commissioned "ZZZZZ" from the writer, then disagreed with his interpretation of the nature of Ben Fields's response to Regina. Dolinsky emphasized its lustful basis, while Stefano understood it more as tenderness toward the daughter Ben and Francesca had lost.

Stefano's insistence on Ben's fidelity is in line with other episodes he wrote — both "Don't Open Till Doomsday" and "A Feasibility Study" posit the bond between a married couple as the ultimate defense against hostile alien forces, and against evil itself. But Stefano was also savvy enough to understand that faithlessness and devotion can exist simultaneously in a marriage, and this inner conflict is essential to "ZZZZZ" and sets up its crushing conclusion. In fact, despite my claim in '93 that his and Dolinsky's exclusive approaches to the story creates narrative confusion, the episode as filmed actually strikes an effective balance between the two.

The credit for this successful collaboration goes as much to the cast as to the two writers, and especially to director John Brahm, whose grasp of the tensions at play here is assured, compassionate, and blunt.

This directness can make "ZZZZZ" uncomfortable to watch. Only a corpse would find Joanna Frank anything less than adorable, and if you watch closely you'll see Phillip Abbott responding to her overt sexuality with doting patience, flattered exasperation, and the not-infrequent out-and-out leer. His Fields is a gentle man with impeccable manners, but also a socially reserved workaholic plainly unaccustomed to open displays of arousal from young women. To be fair to Stefano, Ben also loves his wife.

Abbott captures this turmoil with understated intensity, and his subdued twitchiness calls Fields's justifications for keeping Regina around seriously into question. Just because he and Francesca raise the specter of their stillborn child, for example, doesn't mean that's what either of them sees in the bee girl; Francesca understandably wants to believe the best about her husband, but Ben is in no position to gauge or understand his longing for the younger woman — an ideal quality in a dupe, which is what Regina counts on him becoming.

Girlish petulance in a pulchritudinous package can be intoxicating before the hangover kicks in, so Fields plays easily into Regina's hands. Francesca, who's immediately put on the defensive for her natural feelings of protectiveness and jealousy, has a more rational reponse to the mutant invader in her home — similar to that of the bees in Ben's lab, who detect the decoy he plants in their hive and terminate it with extreme prejudice (and extremely high-pitched voices). Francesca is the most self-aware character in the episode, but she's also innocent and overmatched, and it costs her everything.

Regina, her colony, and Ben all pay, too, but only for their own arrogance, and not with their lives. Unlike the Helosians in "O.B.I.T.," who know precisely how to exploit human frailty, the bees' plan fails because they neglect to account for Fields's devotion to his mate — a one-to-one bonding unknown in their collectivist culture — or miscalculate it as a flaw. (This is the gist of Ben's climactic rant to Regina about the sanctity of marriage, which Stefano wisely added despite Dolinsky's resistance.) Fields realizes too late that he's been manipulated, by himself as much as by the hive, and is left agonizingly alone to contemplate his weakness and self-delusion. Regina, a failure in every sense, simply buzzes off.

Mull that conclusion over for a minute: A blameless, likeable character we've been encouraged to sympathize with is murdered three acts in by another character who's grown increasingly grating with every scene, and who gets off scot-free. That's quite a place to leave an audience, and hardly the stuff of melodrama, which is typically the label hung on "ZZZZZ."

But if it isn't soap opera or particularly good science fiction, what is it? Simple — it's The Outer Limits. "ZZZZZ" may be mannered and ostensibly off-message for the series, but it still pivots on the same piercing observations about human behavior as "The Architects of Fear," "O.B.I.T.," "The Invisibles," and other vaunted episodes. It also poses the same implicit question they do: Are we hard-wired for betrayal and devestation?

Along with this sly adherence to OL tenets, "ZZZZZ" is a minor aesthetic marvel. From the opening, mildly distorted shot of the Fields's garden (an impressive Jack Poplin set shot for maximum depth by Conrad Hall) to Francesca's pointedly dowdy and outdated dresses (which telegraph her groundedness as well as her impending old age), virtually everything on screen has metaphorical weight. Lucky thing, because the episode's special effects, such as they are, don't make sense on any level.

The use of mirrors is especially inventive. We first see a full-length one in Ben and Francesca's bedroom as Francesca discovers the lie behind Regina's presence by telephone. Later, as she helps Regina settle into her room, the girl is reflected in a dresser mirror as the pair talk; it's the only scene in which a character actually appears in one of "ZZZZZ"'s mirrors, and intriguingly it's the nonhuman one. Finally, in the last scene, Ben stands broken beside the same mirror earlier associated with his wife, and naturally it reflects only an empty room.

This commonplace household object encapsulates the story's existential rifts, from the sense of individual identity Regina can't comprehend or experience to the vanity that turns Ben's head and exacerbates Francesca's feelings of inferiority for her unavoidable aging. Yet as a symbol it's applied with fluidity and ease, so much so that you'd be forgiven for not noticing any mirrors in the episode at all. That's not a bad symbol for the richness of "ZZZZZ" itself — easy to overlook in a casual viewing, but abundant on closer inspection.

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.

Spotlight on Robert H. Justman


by David J. Schow

Bobby Justman, “Robert H.” in his onscreen credits, died 28 May 2008 at age 81 from complications due to Parkinson’s Disease.  From the elemental beginnings of The Outer Limits, Bob was there, Bob was involved, Bob was fundamental, Bob was everywhere, and everyone who worked so hard to make that show the classic it became never stinted on praise for Bob’s contributions, above and below the line.  Bob WAS the line.

Hence, Bob was essential to the assembly of The Outer Limits Companion — two versions, crossing decades of research and interviews.  Many interviews, quotes, contacts, scripts and production ephemera, all courtesy of Bob’s continued contact across many years.

Bob’s death, sadly for me, marked the point where The Outer Limits crossed over from memory to memorabilia.  His antic wit and dogged work ethic were second to none, and there was no way he could top off his own magnanimousness and generosity.  He was a lofty and courageous spirit.

And he and I shared the same birthday, July 13th.

Many people only knew Bob from his connection to assorted iterations of Star Trek.  To me, the period that brought him toward that first Roddenberry pilot was more fascinating, and proof positive that Star Trek would not have had half its bones, talent or longevity without Bob’s participation. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say there wouldn’t even BE a Star Trek without the seminal input of Justman, who ported all his Outer Limits know-how, connections, and rock-bottom practicality into a nascent new series whose pilot, “The Cage,” had just crashed and burned at NBC.

To this point, the book Bob wrote with Herb Solow, Inside STAR TREK: The Real Story (Pocket Books, 1996), is of necessity as much about The Outer Limits as Star Trek, and if my own book doesn’t provide an adequately accessible “round the corner” biography for Bob, perhaps people will seek its … companion book.  Bob told me he and Solow were working on a followup volume which I’m sure would be as equally immersive.  I wonder if it was ever completed.

At the Museum of Radio & Television’s Outer Limits tribute in in March, 2000, I shared the stage with Lou Morheim, Justman, Conrad Hall, Martin Landau and Joe Stefano.  Greg Nicotero and I got to the parking garage just as Justman parked right next to us.  When Bob got out of his car I noticed he had a copy of the Companion tucked under his arm.  It was brimming with Post-It notes.  I said, “Omigod, Bob – are those errors?”  Bob said, “No, this is just to remind me what the hell I think I’m talking about!”

We have some faces left — Martin Landau, Robert Duvall, David McCallum and Sally Kellerman are all still with us as Outer Limits stalwarts — and precious few surviving crew.  As of 2008 most of the show’s big guns had passed on, and for me Bob’s death definitively closed that particular book.  I was sorry to see him go, but delighted that I got to know him, if only within the constricted inquiry of my own little exercise in TV archeology.  I hope that my abundant references to Bob and his work within The Outer Limits Companion both demonstrate his grass-roots, sweat-equity devotion to a waking dream that captured my imagination and incited a similar fervor, and to serve as sufficient memorial to those perhaps curious about that phase of his career.

Much mention is made in the Companion of the often-hysterical shooting schedules compiled by Justman and his fellow conspirator, Lee H. Katzin.  Here in their entirety are Bob’s notes for “ZZZZZ.”  Have fun!


Production Order #21
Broadcast Order #18
Original Airdate: 1/27/64
Starring Philip Abbott, Marsha Hunt, Joanna Frank.
Written by Meyer Dolinsky.
Directed by John Brahm. 

Can a queen bee (Frank), transformed into a beautiful but half blind (due to her 1960s hair) lab assistant, convince a brilliant entomologist (Abbott) to leave his wife (Hunt) and join her in an orgy of royal jelly and bad dresses?

PE: Joseph Stefano's beautifully realized portrait of class struggles in the 1960s, racism, and that taboo of all taboos, old guys and young babes. You wouldn't see anything like this on today's two-scoops-of-vanilla-ice-cream boob tube. Not many, including OL's archivist and chief apologist David J. Schow, know that Meyer Lapinsky was actually one of Joe Stefano's pseudonyms used during the OL run. I managed to acquire canceled Stefano checks (at one of Forry Ackerman's garage sales) in the names of Lapsansky, Leslie Stevens (Stefano, Stevens, get it?), Ellis St. Joseph (Joseph Stefano, get it?), Stephen Lord (man, this research stuff is so easy!), as well as a couple made out to Robert Culp (I'm still trying to figure that one out), clearly establishing that Stefano wrote a whole big bunch of scripts he never took credit (but took checks) for. I have it on good authority that Stefano wrote The Outer Limits Companion as well. Anyway, I was floored by the grace, beauty and chutzpah exhibited here. ZZZZZZ is truly one of a kind, nothing like it in the whole wide world.

JS: Very funny...

PE: Our first glimpse of Queen Bee/Regina is a beautiful cacophony of erotic twirls, an initial mating dance, if you will. It's a portensic glimpse of the swirling emotions and desires we will feel all through the drama. Some may deride the scene for its "low rent special effects" but spfx mean nothing to me when you have a story this thick with intensity and psycho-sexual interplay. I defy anyone to not feel some kind of propensity, rapaciousness, relish, or even voracity while watching the sinful samba of this lovely Apis Mellefera. I hesitate to call this a tv show as it more resembles a play (perhaps performed at The Old Vic in London), sparse in its supporting characters but not in its swirling emotions and desires. I have not a good enough grasp of the American Language to properly convey the deep underlying tones found in ZZZZZZZ, but, based on the comments left after OL episodes I haven't liked quite as much, our readers will be able to invoke these swirling emotions and desires. I've always taken comments like "Enfantino, you haven't a fucking clue" or "What a dipshit this guy is" or "Enfantino don't like it unless it's in a pulp!" as constructive criticism.

JS: But...

PE: I remember seeing the "next week" teaser ("Five times the excitement, thrills and sensuality of Costa-Gavras' Z") and thinking there was no way it could meet such expectations but ZZZZZZZZ more than lives up to its "buzz" (if you'll pardon a pun).

JS: Actually...

PE: Joanna Frank, portraying the sumptuous Regina, brings to her role a commitment to her craft not seen again until Sofia Coppola's haunting representation of the child of the cosa nostra (the mob) in The Godfather III. I think Frank's performance here outshines even her star-making turn as the doomed (but beautiful) Carla Lanz in the "A Dipperful of Water from a Poisoned Well" episode of Ben Casey the following year. I know, a very controversial statement, but there it is. Notice the fire in  Regina's eyes and her constantly wagging tongue and you can tell that she wants nothing more than to fellate the professor. Can you argue the point when confronting Frank's most soul-squishing scene:
Regina: Don't let me die without knowing love, Ben!
Ben:'s only food poisoning. It's very painful but not fatal.
Regina: (anguished) Love me, Ben!!
Philip Abbott's transformation from cold, unloving bee scientist to cold, unloving widower foreshadowed his similar role as the cold, bureaucratic fed Arthur Ward on The F.B.I. beginning the following year. One of the longest-running Hollywood chestnuts is that Abbott turned to his wife the night Efrem Zimbalist Jr. won his seventh consecutive Emmy for playing Inspector Lewis Erskine on The F.B.I. and said "Anybody can play a Fed. Let's see Efrem try playing a sex-starved bee scientist!" My request for an after-life interview with Abbott was pooh-poohed by Boze Hadleigh. Abbott here does wonders with the part of a twenty-something year old entomologist (at one point he tells Regina he'd like to have kids "before I turn 25!") trapped in a loveless marriage with an old sack of laundry.  Largely ignored in the cast are Marsha Hunt and Booth Colman. Even Bob Johnson, as the stern and impassioned voice of Commander Bee, finds himself overshadowed by the towering performances of Abbott and Frank. It seemed Johnson's lot in life to be lost in the shuffle despite having the vocal range of an Italian tenor. He would see similar fates as the Zanti commander ("The Zanti Misfits"), the police radio dispatcher (The Black Scorpion), first Talosian on the right ("The Cage" Star Trek), and perhaps his most beloved role, as the Christmas Tree stolen from Who-ville (The Grinch Stole Christmas, the original with Boris Karloff, not the superior remake with Jim Carrey). 

JS: Uh, Peter...

PE: A beautiful expression of love, "A grief shared is half a grief but a joy shared is twice joy," is attributed to a Honduran proverb. David J. Schow relates in his wonderful (but ghost-written) biography of The Outer Limits that, when it came time to write that portion of the script, Joe Stefano actually flew to Honduras, thus using up three quarters of the budget and negating the elaborate Queen Bee costume designed and built by a then-unknown Carlo Rambaldi. According to an interview with Rambaldi in Schow's book: "Hydraulics would-a lift the Queen's wings and her bigga tits. She would-a been able to fly into the sky." (OLC page 186). Those thinking Stefano was a real straight up guy might do well to remember this transgression.

JS: Hold on...

PE: In this episode I can finally get behind all the raves that rain down whenever the name Conrad Hall is mentioned. Truth to tell, until this episode, I thought the shadows and prisms and triangles and nonsensical window pane shadows and "wtf" lighting and goofy hallways were distracting. Hall's sensitive display of flowers shadowed all over the Fields' bedroom walls speaks to ice queen Fransesca's infertility and sexually starved Ben's frustration. Flowers symbolize... well, flowering... and infertility doesn't. Did I perceive, at one point, a projection of a bail of hay as well (a symbolization of Ben's inability to get a "roll in the hay" so to speak) on the laboratory wall? It's a marvel that Conrad morphed from the actor in bit roles like Patrolman Jamie in Plan 9 From Outer Space to lighting up unlighted hallways in OL.

JS: Uh oh...

PE: As usual, Dominic Frontiere's booming score is booming. I especially like the cue, labeled "March of the Swarm" on my rare music sheets, that begins "Dum-dum-dum-da-dee-duuuuuum-Hmmm-Rump-Bump." Stirring. OL buffs will recognize this masterwork of melody immediately as it's included in every single episode of The Outer Limits, Stoney Burke, The R.A.T. Patrol and The Andy Griffith Show whenever a benevolent menace is depicted. Unrelated trivia: Frontiere now owns and manages an aluminum recycling plant.

JS: Um...

PE: And how about that laboratory. Considering that, as mentioned already, Stefano had used $750 of the episode's $1000 budget for his "research", the OL spfx crew came through in the clutch. We don't get just a bunch of lights and toggle switches (ostensibly labeled "Human" and "Bee"), we get our first look at a pallophotophone (look it up) and an honest-to-gosh Bumble Bee translator. Considering that, at the time, scientists had yet to create a way for bees to talk like humans (fairly commonplace now), I think at the very least an Emmy was in order for Projects Unlimited.

JS: Yeah...

PE: Stefano's most virile bit of writing may be when Doctor Warren (The Warren Commission? More underlying political themes courtesy of Stefano), in an allegory meant to stand in for communism, tells Ben that Regina is not who he thinks she is:
Warren: Ben, she's a medical anomaly. I've never seen blood fluid like hers. Her plasma levels are up from 55 to 70 per cent, the eurythocites and lucralites are totally out of balance and the entire serum is a floating mass of cholesterol globules. Ben, she's the closest thing to a complete mutant I've ever seen.
Ben: You mean...
Warren: Yes, she can bear you the one million children Fransesca never could.
JS: Okay now...

PE: Director John Brahm's greatest overall achievement in ZZZZZZZZZZZZ is his direction of a swarm of angry killer bees at the climax. Can't be easy. Brahm does an admirable job and there's not a drone out of place. I'm sure the actual attack scene was cut due to Standards and Practices worries. The white background behind every scene of the attacking swarm symbolizes... I'll get back to you on that.

JS: Point of order - wasn't she a tad light skinned for a Nigerian Queen Bee?

PE: Perhaps the only flaw to this perfect science fiction pudding is that we never really find out who takes care of the Fields' vast garden. Since it looks a bit run down when we arrive, I'll venture the guess that it's Ben himself who's expected to push a mower now and then. This would fit in with Stefano's emasculation of Ben Fields and his obvious hatred of women. Do you blame Ben for expressing frustration with a frigid wife who won't pick up a pair of clippers now and then? This particular area of man/woman relations would be explored to its utmost in the second season episode "Behold: Eck!" I'd tell you what those concepts are but then I wouldn't have anything to write about in a few weeks. Just stay tuned is what I'm saying.

JS: Okay folks, I'm going to take Peter to see Doctor Warren. I've been a bit concerned since "The Invisibles," but I'm sure he'll be right as rain come tomorrow. I hope. For now, here's my take on "ZZZZZ."

Entomologist Ben Fields (Abbott) has perfected a machine for translating human and bee speech, no sooner than a queen-bee turned bombshell, Regina (Frank), lands on his doorstop to be his assistant. Unfortunately for Ben's wife (Hunt), Regina is interested in making him her honey.

JS: While the title begs to be made fun of, I was pleasantly surprised that "ZZZZZ" did not put me to sleep. When it started off with Ben stumbling across Regina in the garden, I wonder if he, like I, was struck with recollections of the majestic peaks of Italy and Ursula Andress in "La Strega." Think what you want of Field's ability to communicate with bees—that pales in comparison to the bee's own collective ability to morph their queen into a teenage temptress.

JS: Did I hear Fields correctly when he said he wanted to have kids before he was 25? Or did he say his 25th anniversary? The filmmakers went out of there way to clearly indicate the gap between the young Regina and Ben's old lady, but he wasn't exactly look to be a spring chicken himself. Did folks just look older in the 60s?

JS: When you're discussing an episode in which one of the areas to suspend disbelief revolves around a guy speaking English to a bunch of bees, it's hard to have high expectations for credibility, but I have to ask. Why were the bee's unaware of so much (like being part of the experiment), and yet when necessary, they were able to point out that the wife was standing in the doorway? I could understand if they were just bees, but between that and their plot involving Regina, there was clearly more going on, right?

JS: There were several nice shots throughout the episode, such as Regina's reflection in the glass of the beehive.

JS: The effects were pretty pedestrian this time out—I kept waiting for a full Wasp Woman transition that never arrived, settling for the occasional dissolves into a close up on a bee's head. And while we had a brief digression into appropriate alien voices for "The Zanti Misfits," I was unimpressed with the voice of the bees, although a reasonable case can be made that the voice was the robotic machine, and therefore somehow appropriate as delivered.

JS: Abbott does a good job not only projecting that OL scientist so caught up in his work that he doesn't notice the bosom so often heaved in his direction by young Regina, but also in his establishing the love for his wife. You can't write him off as completely clueless; he's just so in love with Francesca that he's impervious to Regina's charms. I do think he was surprisingly underwhelmed when he discovered the recordings of Regina speaking to the bees. As an entomologist, wouldn't the ability to speak to an intelligent insect in human form be the least bit interesting to you, regardless of how she looked?

JS: I couldn't quite figure out why, in her last communication with the hive, Regina started acting like she had one of "The Invisibles" on her back.

JS: When Regina unleashed the bees on Ben's wife, I thought now we're cooking! My excitement was somewhat tempered by the appearance of the static black blob being moved across the screen, and even moreso when it became clear these bees would come in third place in a race against the Invisibles and Zanti Misfits. Apparently, the bees ultimately found their way to their target, as the next shot we got was a celebrated coffin shot, and not just some coffin in an abandoned warehouse soundstage shot, but an honest to goodness box in a hole in the ground shot!

JS: While it's only Monday, the Babe of the Week voting is likely going to spike today.  I'll be curious to hear how Joanna Frank's scene in the garden french-kissing the flowers played to those of you who watched it at an impressionable age.

JS: Another bit that reminded me of Thriller was the choreographed tumble out the window ("The Watcher," which—like this episode—it's worth noting also nearly led Peter to jump out the window). I thought for a second Frank was preparing for a dive into a swimming pool below.

JS: My wife and I kept trying to figure out why Joanna Frank seemed so familiar, and then realized if someone ever needed to remake "ZZZZZ" (Hey - I said if), Vanessa Lengies from American Dreams is the go-to Bee girl.


David J. Schow on "ZZZZZ":

From The Outer Limits Companion, Copyright © David J. Schow, 1986, 1998.  All Rights Reserved.  Used by permission and by special arrangement with the author.

Check back at 10am for David J. Schow's Spotlight on Robert H. Justman.

And be sure to check back at 2pm for Mark Holcomb's Spotlight on "ZZZZZ."

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