Friday, January 14, 2011

Specimen: Unknown

Production Order #10
Broadcast Order #22
Original Airdate: 2/24/64
Starring Russell Johnson, Richard Jaeckel, Stephen McNally.
Written by Stephen Lord.
Directed by Gerd Oswald.

Five astronauts in a space station learn they've been contaminated by a deadly spore, represented first as a mushroom then as a flower that spits out a toxic gas. When one of their number dies from the gas, the other four must decide if they can land on Earth again and risk infecting the world's population.

PE: Our first fatality, Lieutenant Howard (a young Dabney Coleman), falls for the ol' squirting flower trick, I used to work that one on the playgrounds when I was a kid but not to such cool effect. The stars of the show, the killer spores from "another planet, another time" start life as a broccoli mushroom, morph into a vaginal tepee that spits seeds like a slot machine on a jackpot, and then reach adulthood as a beautiful but deadly Mother's Day gift.

JS: I'll bet the squirting flower you had as a kid didn't also have a ping-pong ball launcher. I do enjoy a good tale of plants from space, both the human replicating pod variety and the stinger-snapping Triffid. Given what they had to work with, I thought they did a nice job articulating the alien flowers when emitting gasses—beware when that top petal flips up. The spore launching... not quite as effective.

PE: While on board, Doweling (Jaeckel) gets a promotion as Howard addresses him as Major Doweling and later his wife calls him Captain. 

JS: With so many crew members running around, how can you even keep track of them all?

PE: At least the Air Force has taught these men to cope with death. Immediately following the space "burial" of Lt. Howard, the obviously distraught Lt. Halper (Peter Baldwin) happens upon Captain Doweling, sunning himself in front of a heat lamp. Referring to his dead comrade, Halper reflectively admits "I can't believe he's dead," adjusts the sun lamp, smiles and exclaims "It sure will be nice to lie in some good old-fashioned Earth-type sunlight after nine days of this." And how 'bout them Jets?

JS: Something tells me if Halper had an emotional breakdown, you still wouldn't have been satisfied.

PE: Actor Peter Baldwin went on to have quite a career in TV but as a director. In the 1980s and 90s, he directed episodes of several hit shows (Too Close for Comfort, Full House, Newhart, Murphy Brown), winning an Emmy for an episode of The Wonder Years.

JS: I've always been a Russell Johnson fan, and I felt he was criminally underutilized in this episode.

PE: These incredible flowers can even make their containers walk across the ship's floor!

JS: I refuse to believe that securing the cargo wasn't on the re-entry checklist. At least they were all clearly labeled, um, "Specimen: Unknown." You'd think they might have gone ahead and made up a name for it... Space Mushroom, Alien Hibiscus, or even Team Adonis Squirt n' Pop™ Flower...

PE: Repeat after me: Walking outside the ship with a lifeline is for sissies.

JS: Space Surfing! And this was years before Dark Star!

PE: I love when Colonel MacWilliams finally tracks down the General on the phone, tells him "General, we have a very grave situation," waits a beat, hangs up the phone, and says "The General says it's my call." Wouldn't the General at least want to know what the "grave situation" was before he turned over the keys to the Cadillac and went back to the 9th hole?

JS: The music that plays as they all run out of the room is an oddly chosen up-tempo happy-go-lucky riff that seems strangely out of place. Odd timing to get all Brady Bunch on us...

PE: I know I'm not supposed to point out the lapses in logic (I'm supposed to lean back, relax, and comment on the atmospheric lighting on board the ship—what, no checkerboard patterns?), but if, and I'm just saying if, I knew the crashed spaceship was infested, inside and out, with a killer spore, I'd probably approach the ship with protective gear and armed with more than just a crowbar. Just sayin'.

JS: I guess he didn't have a can opener handy. Sad to say that in today's world, there's no way that shuttle re-enters Earth atmosphere without being obliterated by the government. Ah, simpler times... As for the crashed shuttle—is it just me, or was that a clown car of a spaceship? From the outside, the whole thing looks like if couldn't fit an upright Russell Johnson comfortably.

PE: When there are poisonous plants outside your car threatening you with toxic vapor, DO NOT roll up your window.

JS: My favorite alien plant move was the 'up periscope,' but I had a smile on my face every time one crept up on our unsuspecting heroes.

PE:I wanted to see the ultimate bad flower: one with a cigarette hanging from its ovary, perhaps a wolf whistle as it ogles the helpless dame?

JS: Janet Doweling (Gail Kobe) was damn excited when it started to rain (well, actually, you never saw the Colonel's hands in that shot, did you? -PE). I do wish they had ended showing the dead killed plants each lying open with hundreds of new spores just waiting for the sunshine to return. I guess that's a side effect of my being raised on the films of George Romero.

PE: Once again, Mother Nature destroys the aliens!


David J. Schow on "Specimen: Unknown":

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

Next Up...


  1. I found a surviving sample of "Miss Adonis" in Forry Ackerman's basement ... the one under the foundations of his house, the one with the dirt floor, called "Grislyland." It was hanging from a plumbing pipe, devoid of its petals, but I recognized the tendrilled pod and the warty/vaginal Predator-mouth-lookin' seed pod dispenser, which was fed breakfast cereal by a rear-entry funnel (and I know one of you already knows EXACTLY what I'm talking about here).

    (Forry had a number of decayed OUTER LIMITS props, most of which I IDed for him, and one of which I now own -- a Luminoid full-head mask.)

    One interviewee recalled the breakfast cereal as Puffed Wheat. Another, as Kix. ("Kix are for Triffids!") This is the kind of deep-dish detail we so relish bringing you here.

    And can anyone out there spot-check Stephen Lord on his claim to the word "shuttlecraft?" (see book excerpt) As used in reference to a space vehicle?

  2. The scenes in the spaceship reminded me of when I used to watch "Captain Video and His Video Rangers". You would think that things would have improved by 1963 on TV. The minute they said it was going to rain soon I knew the plants were doomed. The old H.G. Wells WAR OF THE WORLDS trick; only instead of germs killing the aliens, this time use rain. This was one of the poorest episodes yet. What is it with the OUTER LIMIT's women; they all annoy me. I miss the THILLER babes.

  3. Not to whine (well, okay, to whine) but there's an argument to review classic TV series in the order they were originally aired. There's a reason this episode was dumped at the end of February 1964 as the 22nd episode. Ironically, according the DJS notes, it was the highest rated episode ever. But that was because they show had built a decent and loyal following by now based on the strong line up of episodes that preceded it.

    As a viewer, and certainly to the producers and the network, the progression of episodes we were originally exposed to had valid and thoughtful reasons for the line-up - much like a batting order in a baseball game.

    It's just weird to see an episode even Leslie Stevens felt laughable turn up so early in the line-up. You really miss a powerful build the series originally created.

    But, as a kid, and having read "The Day of the Triffids" passed down from my Dad, and been a huge fan of H.G. Wells, I enjoyed it when it finally aired.

  4. A truly dreadful and boring entry which fails to establish any characters to care for. In fact, all the astronauts merge into one and are indistinguishable. It's tiresome full of '50s cliches, poor staging and generally looks shoddy. A general sense of tedium pervades.

    The only thing worthy of note is the use of stock cues in the score.

  5. I find it impossible to talk about an episode like this without framing it in early 60s TV production context and appreciating the sheer resourcefulness of their desperation; a full-sized (well, almost) shuttle, a space walk, a million flowers--that actually do stuff...

    I remember as a kid being glad that Russell Johnson and Richard Jaeckel were in there--very familiar faces (Johnson being an old hand with the genre, with two TZ scientists and a valiant CRAB MONSTER-fighting technician under his belt, to name a few).

    Yeah, it's pretty goofy now, particularly after "Feasibility Study".

    But I like production order though; witnessing that steady build to the first season's big hot-spot. Quite a stretch coming up.

    DJS: I heard "shuttle", but not "shuttlecraft". Or "shuttlecock".

  6. It's a feat to have Coleman, Jaeckel, Johnson, and Arthur Batinedes in a cast, and Oswald as director, and still end up with something this generic. (I swear at one point Batinedes supresses a smirk over a particularly clunky line.)

    Still, like Larry I admire its resourcefulness, and the fact that the last half or so plays out in real time; there's an immediacy to it that almost makes the thing compelling. Gail Kobe's, er, chipperness over the rainstorm helps, too.

    I'm also digging production order. It's the first time I've watched OL this way, and the arc is a revelation.

    Oh, for kicks, Google "outer limits daylily" -- who knew flower breeders had a sense of humor?

  7. It must have been quite frustrating for Stevens and Stefano when the ratings on this episode turned out so strong. "Killer plants from outer space? Give us more like this one!" ABC probably gushed. Gotta admit, as a kid who had recently seen (and liked) THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, I was excited about this show...just as I had been thrilled about "Tourist Attraction" before I actually sat down and watched it. As everyone (including Stefano) has mentioned, these were grade-B 1950s science fiction mini-movies, rather than fresh and offbeat OL episodes. On the plus side, it's always a pleasure to watch anything Conrad Hall has shot (and there are amazing touches throughout: MacNally's darkened face is suddenly illuminated when he lights a cigarette, then it darkens instantly after the little flame is out -- talk about natural source lighting!). And if OUTER LIMITS must have a "bored guys living on a space station" episode, this isn't exactly a terrible depiction: The scenes on Adonis have a reasonably interesting texture to them, and I've never encountered a space burial I didn't like. On a purely fan level, it's fun to see OL utilizing props and stock footage from UA movies and TV shows (MEN INTO SPACE), the way ZONE would make use of pre-existing MGM goodies. Bottom line? The '50s are over, gents. But that didn't stop OL's syndicator from suggesting that "their highest-rated episode" be telecast BEFORE "The Galaxy Being," which is exactly what happened in NY when the show was stripped nightly on WNEW-TV in the '70s after a five year absence. I remember a friend saying, "You've been bragging about this OUTER LIMITS series, but that first episode was pretty bad." When he caught "Being" the following night, he was properly impressed. So much for high ratings!

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  9. Well, I guess your either going to like this one for it's 1950's B-movie feel, or hate it. Personally, I liked it, predictable ending or not.

    It's like the creators felt that the kids along with their hard working parents needed a break from too much cerebral episodes. Deciding to take a break from shows with strong moral dilemmas, heavy conspiracies, and mind-blowing plot lines, in favor of straight up action/adventure mini-movies.

    I'm going to start my own sub-category for eps. like this one, 'Tourist Attraction' 'Invisible Enemy' and maybe a couple of others.

    In the end, it's understandable if viewers love or hate these types of OL shows.

  10. The nice thing about The Outer Limits is that regardless of the overall rating one gives them, EVERY episode we've watched this far has had something in it to appreciate. A performance, an effect, a cool bear, great photography...

    For the record, I don't begrudge anyone who is able to smooth over some of the rough edges with the nostalgia of having grown up with the show. Unfortunately, I haven't got that frame of reference for The Outer Limits. But speaking as someone who will to this day champion the merits of The Star Wars Holiday Special, I encourage folks to share your impressions, whether those seem to be aligned with or opposed to everyone else.

    The caliber of the commentary on the site has truly been humbling to Pete and I. With a readership that has quickly grown from hundreds to thousands per day, each and every one of you should feel proud to be a part of this grand adventure. And for those of you concerned that your comments wouldn't add to the discussion, please don't hold back. If only to chime in to say why you really loved/hated this episode, too, it helps establish an overall context in which we can all better appreciate the series.

  11. Well said, John, in fact I could hear that last paragraph read by Vic Perrin (perrinworthy?).

    With some of these the little kid in me is clearly biased and keeps tugging on the shirt of the adult me with his snazzy new adult sensibilities.

    But I also find a third frame of reference; as a low budget filmmaker I can't help but empathize with the constant struggle against not-enough-time and not-enough-money and how to make things happen outside our limitations. Plus, I don't have censors to deal with! This tends to color my views of certain episodes (like this one with the Triffettes).

    Plus too also, as UTW stated, there is the just plain fun B movie factor; this is definitely one of those--though I'll certainly not revisit them nearly as much as I will my favorites.

    And speaking of which--thank you boys for throwin' this here shindig; after several years what a great excuse to watch these again.

  12. Yeah, this isn't one of the episodes one can hold as a model for the rest of the series, but in ways its atypical OUTER LIMITS. I'm not at all surprised it had the highest rating of any other episode, and that fact in and of itself served as a booster for the excellent screenplays that were to come shortly thereafter. I certainly aggree with Stefano and company that these episodes were more along the lines of B sci-fi movies than series entries.

  13. It is also one of the very few OUTER LIMITS episodes that takes place (at least partially) off-planet. For a series perceived by many along the traditional lines of sci-fi, OUTER LIMITS is for the most part determinedly Earthbound. "Moonstone" gave us all-interiors and Chesley Bonestell paintings; "The Mutant" gave us a planetoid named Annex One (aka "Griffith Park"), and "Nightmare" was set entirely on the bare-bones soundstages of the planet Ebon. "Fun and Games" provided the Arena planet (aka "Tarzan Forest" at MGM) and "Second Chance" got us offworld but kept us inside the spaceship. And so on.

    Even fewer OUTER LIMITS take place in a temporal future. "Man Who Was Never Born" visits the distant to-be, and "Nightmare" is presumed ahead of its own time, but usually THE OUTER LIMITS dealt with a single aberrant concept smack in the middle of the here-and-now, which becomes quite goofy when you juxtapose the episodes wherein certain technologies are a given for one show, then long in the past for another, then still-beyond our capabilities in a third. In this respect, "The Duplicate Man" (far away from where we stand here, now) is the series' really bravura attempt to depict a near-future, with altered wardrobe, customized cars, videophone pedestals, et cetera, IN ADDITION to de facto space travel and aliens. Any other approach was usually a blasted wasteland, from the lava landscape of "Man Who Was Never Born" to the future warzone of "Soldier." Or an "assumed" future that in every other respect looked a lot like 1963 — witness Betsy Jones-Moreland's high heels on Annex One.

    While I appreciate the significance of broadcast/syndication order, that's what everybody else has already done, and Gary makes the point that even syndie order mattered little if a viewer came on in the middle of the run. That order is obvious from the arrangement of the episodes on DVD, which can be manipulated by the viewer at will. To document the series for the book, I found that any way other than rigid chronological order was the road to madness, and my hope is that it will provide some"evolutionary insight" into the series rise and fall patterns.

    It's also transitional. Many people recall OUTER LIMITS' rather full-bodied productions the way you'd recall a 1950s film instead of a 1960s TV show. In this respect, 1964 was really "the end of the 1950s" for certain ways of perceiving science fictional content. Color TV was about to change everything.

    And yes — the difference between window-wide-open childhood and more reasoned (if not mature) adult reflection needs to be cited, if not compensated for. (On the other hand, every time John mentions STAR WARS, my brain glazes over.) Context is everything. The great thing about OUTER LIMITS was that it enthralled me as a seedling; then, the more I investigated it, the more I found to like ... and I don't think that's due merely to misty nostalgia.

    Imagine if you will, positing to Leslie Stevens in 1963, that total strangers would be dissecting the merits of his creation via a medium of instantaneous contact worldwide (often with NO WIRES!). That they'd be talking about it nearly a half-century after it was wrapped. That the series itself would merit preservation for that long. That's truly a futuristic (and optimistic) view.

    And without John and Pete shepherding the whole shebang, we might not be doing it at all.

  14. And FYI to those screening the next episode, "The Sixth Finger." Jill Haworth, the gorgeous British actress who stars opposite David McCallum, died last week (January 3) in Manhatten. I just saw this in my local paper and never knew that ... three years after this episode aired, she originated the starring role of Sally Bowles in the Broadway production of "Cabaret." What a leap from the role you are about to see her in. It may make you appreciate her even more.

  15. Larry B: The radio transmissions: Everybody says "Shuttlecraft 1-0-1-0" numerous times. Now to figure out if anybody else said it earlier, on TV or in the movies prior. You've got your work cut out for you.

  16. Leonard Nimoy presents... In Search Of Shuttlecraft.

    Where's Rapchak when we need him?

    Of course I can't say I'll be surprised when Larry B. comes up with a shuttlecraft reference from TWO FACES WEST or the like.

  17. I've never been able to hear the word "craft".

    I believe the term was used earlier though on STONEY BURKE.

  18. Huh...WHAT...? I must have dozed off about the time the puffed wheat started flying....


  19. Argh, it seems my fate is to continue posting Outer Limits RIPs.

    Stephen Lord died May 5th 2012.

    Shuttlecraft 1-0-1-0, out.

  20. 1 1/2 Zantis, I'm pretty much with most of you. Opening statement that the space station is " A thousand miles above the earth" is that low? A geranium taking over a spaceship is a pretty interesting idea I guess, but not enough happens in this one for a 50 minute episode. Its nice that the 'body harness can absorb the shock' so it can crash into the ground and they'll be allright. Its also nice that a crowbar can open the ship. The spaceflower spores remind me of a (much better) Star Trek episode. Although when the car won't start and he opens the engine and its filled with plants- thats a pretty effective shot, although most of the time the plants aren't scary. I saw the end coming as soon as I heard them worry what would happen when it rained- this is a variation of War of the Worlds.

  21. This is one episode I wish the had done a remake of in the 1990's series. With the better special-effects they could have depicted the Space Shuttle.

  22. Gary Gerani:
    "But that didn't stop OL's syndicator from suggesting that "their highest-rated episode" be telecast BEFORE "The Galaxy Being," which is exactly what happened in NY when the show was stripped nightly on WNEW-TV in the '70s after a five year absence."

    That's nothing. When Philly's Channel 48 first ran "STAR TREK" in 1970 (after it had been off the air around here for an entire year), they started with "Turnabout Intruder" and meticulously worked BACKWARDS. I had a checklist of episodes in network broadcast order, and could not believe what I was seeing!!

    "SPECIMEN UNKNOWN" has long been one of my favorites. I know, I know. I can't help it. I was 4 when I first saw it! I suspect I came in somewhere in the middle, but at least while they were still on the space station. When it moved to Earth, to me, it became even more terrifying. All those plants-- killing people-- reproducing so fast! The weeds-- and crabgrass-- in my back yard remind me of that right now.

    In church, every year we had "Easter Lillies". Those things always reminded me of these killer plants!

    And of course, on STAR TREK, the "spores" (same word, I think), in "THIS SIDE OF PARADISE", looked a lot like them and also fired a mist at people, which, for a switch, weren't lethal. However, the following season, "THE APPLE" did have killer plants, with nearly the exact same visual.

    So every time this comes up in my viewing of the show, it's a special moment for me. Even though, looking back, boy is it slow. Somehow I manage to just get into the mood and go along. I recall it wasn't until the mid-90s when I rented the entire 1st season to copy for my collection, that I recognized Dabney Coleman as the FIRST one to die. What a huge difference that moustache made.

    Richard Jaekel would have far more frightening problems with a fast-reproducing alien fungus in "THE GREEN SLIME", which these days I consider a much more fun alternative to "ALIEN". (D'ja ever notice that outside of "2001", most sci-fi flicks don't seem to understand the whole concept behind why you'd have a circular space station that rotates?)

  23. Late though I am to this shebeen, put me down as liking and always having liked this episode, for most of the reasons shared by earlier correspondents. It's clunky in respects (that crowbar looms) and it surely is 1950s movie SF -- but of a higher quality, not just in production values but filmography and acting. That "Specimen Unknown" doesn't top my list of favorite OL episodes is like saying black walnut doesn't top my list of best ice cream flavors: It's not that far down the list and remains better than 90 percent of remaining flavors. OL, like Twilight Zone, was ahead of the SF genre curve on TV, even here. It's quaint and simplistic now, but it's still a sound production with some intriguing ideas.

    The other thing you've got to respect is that some of those ideas kept popping up over and over in later, outside works. The episode's underlying idea of greatest merit is what we should do about protecting the biosphere from returning spacecraft that might contain threats from outer space. Note that only six years after "Specimen Unknown," Apollo 11 astronauts were quarantined after splashdown against the chance they had brought back something dangerous and unknowable from their exploration of the lunar surface; not a laughing matter.

    The single biggest trope in this episode is that no one, busy or bored as they are, adds things up on that space station. In real life, a trained, rational crew member soon would have connected the circumstances of Dabney Coleman's death and the astonishing discovery he was researching at the time -- thereafter taking more of the precautions he tried to take. Of course, much of Hollywood-manufactured suspense depends on characters being dumber than the audience. "Don't open that hatch!" Remember, too, that Hitchcock thrived on this sort of discognitive plotting.

    Lastly, I am certain my fondness for "Specimen Unknown" has to do with its re-use of stock footage and props from one of my other fond childhood favorites, the 1959-'60 "Men Into Space" series. That series despite its own production problems (38 half hours produced in a single season, all of them located in space or on the moon) nevertheless had a strong bent for scientific accuracy, e.g., space walks, winged shuttles and that wheeled space station at a 1,075-mile orbit, which was what actual space-flight planners of the time thought would be ideal. That show included some truly astounding and realistic scenes in the course of its production. OL re-used the "Men Into Space" gear and footage in half a dozen or more other episodes. Absent that, the show's space-travel scenes would have been a lot less believable. Also, whereas "Twilight Zone" recycled surplus MGM props, eg., the saucer, ground transport and robot from "Forbidden Planet." The "Men Into Space" props had the benefit of looking near and not far future, which is to say, they added to OL verisimilitude.

  24. Swifty the SpacebirdApril 17, 2017 at 11:37 PM

    They started out looking like big mushrooms then they grew into this flower that sprayed a deadly mist its victims being a astronuat and a rabbit they were brought to earth by the space craft and grew on anything including a car engine compartment but when it rained on them they screamed and withered away and died which realy made this episode kind of freaky

  25. The 1959-60 TV series "Men Into Space" is referenced several times in these comments. I've never seen that show, and cannot find any access to it (DVD or streaming). Has anyone here seen it? And, if so, how close is MiS's 18 Nov 1959 episode "Space Trap" (directed by 2nd-season OL helmer Charles Haas) to "Specimen: Unknown"? The imdb description
    sure makes it sound nearly identical.

  26. "As for the crashed shuttle—is it just me, or was that a clown car of a spaceship?"

    The shuttle may have been conceived and born on "Men Into Space", and given an economical swan song re-use on The Outer Limits and Twilight Zone, but it seems to have made a 2nd act pit-stop in the 1961 movie "The Phantom Planet" (but NOT in the long-shots where Dean Fredericks' spacecraft looks like a vibrator). Circumstantial evidence for this connection is that Lindsley Parsons Jr. was second assistant director on "The Phantom Planet" and would go on to be OL's 1st season production manager.

  27. I'm glad some people are still contributing here.

    One sort of "L-OL" moment at the end is when that anonymous character gets a face full of the spores during the rescue and you immediately hear "He'll be all right."
    Evidently he DOES survive, but must have felt like a real "Red Shirt" at that moment.

    1. I’m very glad that at least some people still are too, especially since this ASAIK this is the only other forum that compares to WACTT, and appears to be rarely visited.

      As for this episode I haven’t watched it in years until this weekend. For me the main attractions are the lower (I won’t say low ) budget ship interior with its sliding doors and array of recycled control panels from previous episodes, And generous footage of what I think back then was known as the Tarzana forest. It was a large piece very beautiful undeveloped property which I think was owned by MGM. Dozens of OL, T-Zone, UNCLE and many other shows and movies were filmed there. In the 80s, afterMGM lost too much money on poor selling movies and other bad investments, Nevada real estate billionaire Kirk Kerkorian was brought in to liquidate assets and downsize most aspects of the studio. Once that hatchet man was in control one of the first atrocities was selling off the forest to developers.

  28. Yes, I never tire visiting here as I don’t of watching most episodes.


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