Friday, January 7, 2011

Spotlight on "Architects of Fear"

by Larry Rapchak 

No attempts at cleverness or irreverence here.... not with this particular show. 

I think there was a definite reason that the Cleveland TV station blacked out the shots of the Thetan during its broadcast premiere on September 30, '63.  Certainly there would be other OL aliens that looked as hideous. But this one was different: this monstrosity was.. or had been... a man—a real human being—an attractive, intelligent, idealistic young scientist married to a warm and loving woman, an ideal upscale '60's couple if there ever was one, and Meyer Dolinsky's masterful teleplay gave us just enough time to get to know them and perhaps see something of ourselves in them. And there's something that is profoundly disturbing about this premise, something that gnaws at one's psyche.

When I saw this show on that same night, my own young life was hitting a real low, and I had little interest in its moody, morbid quality.  I had seen the cover of Famous Monsters #26 and the TV Guide article with the Thetan costume sitting next to Joseph Cotten, but the show itself proved to be too dense and "adult" for me to appreciate.  This would all change dramatically, but not until the fall of 1978, when an eloquently written article by author Ted Rypel in Fantastic Films magazine suddenly ignited an intense interest in searching out OL; and wouldn't you know it? Within a week, a local Chicago UHF station began to run the series.  (Ultimately, it was Mr. Rypel who modestly admitted that he "could take me no further" in my quest for knowledge about the series, but that the guy who could do so was at the time working on a major OL magazine article in Oak Park, Illinois... but that's a story for another time).  In any event, when I finally was able to catch the "Architects" syndicated broadcast in early October, '78, I sat stunned, and later that day took a walk to ponder the experience.  I realized that I had rediscovered a one-of-a-kind masterpiece of small screen drama, the likes of which had never been dreamt of at the time it was made.

Originally broadcast within a few weeks of the 1-year anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis (which I also remember quite well), the premise of "Architects" easily fed into the all-too-real fear of nuclear annihilation. 

But what of that picture-perfect pair of soul-mates, Allen and Yvette Leighton?  Basically, they had two major problems: 1.) He was altruistic to the point of self-destruction and 2.) She was unable to bear children.  And thus, Dolinsky sets the stage for a most harrowing and unforgettable tale, deftly weaving these plot threads together, as the best-laid plans of "The Architects of Fear" begin to unravel.  The misguidedly heroic Allen's role as potential savior of humanity—which necessarily will destroy his private role as a loving husband/provider, is derailed emotionally for him (and for us, the helplessly captivated observers of this drama), once his wife unexpectedly reveals that she can, at last, bear his children, and thus make their private, personal dreams a reality.  But by then, it is too late— for, unbeknownst to her, Alan has already begun to undergo the unthinkable, horrific process that will erase his humanity and transform him into the doomed "scarecrow from another world".

Again, the brilliance of the script is front and center. That fatal injection... the first step in the process of physical transformation from which there is no turning back.... is seconds away from being administered by Alan's team leader, when… what do we hear?... the cheery voice of his wife, come to meet him at the office for an impromptu lunch date on a beautiful, sunny day. The unbearable tension of the brief exchange between Culp and Leonard Stone is but one of the many gut-wrenchers that must be endured in the course of this show.  And it turns out that Yvette has some good news to tell her husband, and a casual stroll past the local maternity shop might just be the perfect way to do it.

"The Architects of Fear" is, for me, the supreme example of what OL did so this case taking an impossible premise and, through the sheer brilliance of its execution, grabbing the viewer by both the throat and the heart, while brushing aside the inconsistencies and simplistic "scientific" trappings of the story in the process.

Robert Culp's performance is beyond brilliant, so tightly wound, incisive and absolutely "real" a character he brings to the screen.  Byron Haskin, Conrad Hall and the cast were obviously in total synch for this amazing 5-day shoot; the scenes between Culp and Leonard Stone are masterful examples of low-key tension that still seem on the verge of exploding.  To watch Culp heaving and gasping for air in the compression chamber, to witness his jaw-dropping tour-de-force "Mad Scene" in the lab (a sequence tailor-made for Culp's avant-garde sensibilities as an actor, culminating in his heart-rending cry to his unborn son), to suffer along with Geraldine Brooks, herself suffocating as she collapses in her late husband's office, at the very moment he stops breathing on the operating table directly across the hall.  I mean, seriously, folks.... how much is the viewer supposed to be able to take of this sort of thing?? And how in God's name did this show ever make it onto network TV in 1963?

The shared psychic bond between Culp and Brooks (and the "mark against evil") is another great element in the script, used sparingly and to great emotional effect.  The only scene in the entire show that has a remote sense of calm or repose is the final evening at home between the lovers, just prior to Culp's departure and his faked death. It's dark, moody, somber... and Brooks plays it with the exact right mix of resignation and ominous premonition.  Here, composer Dominic Frontiere, himself a well-known jazz accordionist, uses the instrument in an unexpectedly effective way, its bluesy, melancholy sound alternating with two flutes and a bed of lush strings, in a most touching melody... perfect for this sad tale of ill-fated lovers, who will meet one other only once more before the final credits.

The end of Act 3 scene on the operating table, with Culp in his final alien form, is perhaps the most numbing thing in the show. Imaginatively revealed in silhouette behind a surgical screen, his disembodied voice piped through a primitive speaker, (and the "blasting" volume of the audio hookup, which causes the pathetic figure to lurch in pain—how much more can the poor guy take?), the now-transformed Allen shares his final thoughts with his colleagues, before being loaded into a casket as an undercover mode of transportation to the secret launching pad.  The traumatic quality of this episode—sometimes overt, other times subtle... never seems to let up.

And, playing on the common dread of surgery that most of us share, to have watched this guy being physically re-built, bit-by-bit, in a desperate attempt to avert a nuclear holocaust, a wildly improbable, madly concocted plan that required a single brave but foolhardy volunteer to willingly sacrifice himself... to see it all come crashing down before it ever had a chance to work.... without a single UN delegate laying eyes on the supposedly menacing alien from the planet Theta... is the cruelest sort of irony, a bitter, devastating denouement in the manner of the classic, fatalistic tragedies.  

And then there's the Thetan design/suit, itself as wild and improbable a concoction in real life as the "Architects" own plan, which... I must admit.... brings the overall quality of the episode down a notch. Too bad.  Or does it? On second thought, it might be exactly what was needed as the climax to this tragic tale.  How could such a reckless plan have produced anything but a bizarre, patchwork monstrosity that flails its skeletal arms about while clumsily hopping like a bird, clumping its way down the blood-soaked stairs of the lab, the only possible refuge for the dying Allen Leighton... it's so pathetically sad.  And the final realization... as DJS so artfully puts it: "to try and unite the world [the group of scientists] destroy the already-perfect union of two people. Instead of bettering the world, they kill one of the small, good things left in it." 

A small thing that, in a cosmic sense, is actually vast and universal in nature... that might have prevented this pitiful loss had it been recognized and embraced.  And as Yvette Leighton tenderly lays her cheek against the ghastly, bloated, scaly head of what was once her husband, a uniquely powerful piece of television history—practically thrown together by that team of gloriously mad men Leslie Stevens had assembled during that legendary time, comes to an end. For me, OL would never equal it.

Larry Rapchak is conductor of the Northbrook Symphony (IL) and a composer, whose works have been commissioned and performed by the major orchestras of Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, Detroit and Helsinki.  His opera The Lifework of Juan Diaz (yes, the same story adapted by Ray Bradbury for Hitchcock's TV show in 1964), written in collaboration with the author, was premiered by Chamber Opera Chicago and released on Albany records.  The opera is, according to the composer, the only one in the repertoire featuring a mummy as the lead baritone. Rapchak has an intense interest in certain popular things of the past, Thriller and Outer Limits among them.


  1. Marvellous write-up that encapsulates some of the reasons that this particular segment is so well loved. Bravo.

  2. Agreed. Hats off to Mr. Rapchak for this stunningly poignant spotlight. And more proof that this blog + comments will certainly be THE Outer Limits online companion/resource for years to come.

    On a side note, DJS mentioned his meeting at Warner about a potential Architects feature film...and I couldn't help drawing a comparison to David Cronenberg's The Fly, as Architect's body transformation is a theme that might have been right up DC's alley at one point in his career. Culp, when having his schizophrenic episode in the lab, even reminded me of Brundle Fly...or should I say it's the other way around?

  3. Well done, Larry Rap, you nicely delineated just what is so gut-wrenching and effective about this unique episode.

    I forgot to mention earlier (I don't think anyone has yet), Reagan's statement to the UN oddly echoing this show 25 years later, as he conjectured that an alien threat might unite earth against a common enemy.

  4. Can anyone elaborate on Ted Rypel's 'Fantastic Films' article? Was it reviews, and overall appreciation or interviews? thanks

  5. Ted's article, which appeared in Fantastic Films #5 (1978) ran 8 pages and included a short history of the series followed by a brief synopsis of every episode, along with c. 20 standard photos/stills. What really grabbed me about Ted's writing was the literate and compelling way in which the episode's plots were distilled, then followed by the author's editorial comments (ie: "Architects"...."A powerful tale of the impotence of fear, of inconceivable human sacrifice; touching subplot involving frustrated desire for offsrping; unforgettable Wah Chang alien creation. A solid film in every respect and a TV masterpiece in the genre.")

    After reading these descriptions, and realizing that the series was on it's way out as viable TV fare (being in B&W), I became practically obsessed with finding out more about OL, before it disappeared for good. Within a few months, after several phone conversations with Ted, I found myself calling and pestering a certain DJS for info on OL.

    I understand that Mr. Rypel will contribute a few guest "Spotlights" here on the blog, which I am looking forward to reading.


  6. Ooops---


    If Ted's article had made me a weak-kneed, quivering jumble of nerves that shuddered in anticipation of actually encountering OL again, then it was Gary Gerani's seminal book "Fantastic Television" (which I bought a few months later), that pushed me over the edge, turning me into a full fledged (OL trading-card) "Jelly Man". It was almost more than I could take.

    Then DJS and his colleague Jeff Frentzen agreed to meet me at a Poppin' Fresh pie joint in Oak Park, IL, and my prayers were answered.


  7. I remember getting excited when Rypel's piece appeared in FF because his ILLUSTRATED REVIEW, projected as first three, then four issues, only made it to two, which meant he only covered half the episodes. It was great to read at least his capsule comments on the remainder. I also wrote a long series overview for STARLOG during its early days ... but Gerani beat me to it, with a series overview in STARLOG #4. Ted also offered subscribers gorgeous Gary Dumm silkscreen prints with each issue of his ILLUSTRATED REVIEW (five and six-color real ink screen prints), which were just luscious. (I framed one of the extra "Soldier" prints and gave it to Harlan Ellison, who loved it.) I hope we'll be able to feature them here ... because I also have the Gary's pencil rough for the unproduced THIRD print — a WACT exclusive!

  8. Thanks for the bacjground on the ILLUSTRATED REVIEW. I believe vol.2 has interviews. Can anyone tell me who was interviewed? I'm trying to track one down in the UK.

  9. Rypel Vol. 2 featured interviews with Joe Stefano and Anthony Lawrence (who wrote "The Man Who Was Never Born" and "Children of Spider County" for Season One). If you ask nice, maybe Ted will post them here.

  10. "The Architects of Fear" is, for me, the supreme example of what OL did so this case taking an impossible premise and, through the sheer brilliance of its execution, grabbing the viewer by both the throat and the heart, while brushing aside the inconsistencies and simplistic "scientific" trappings of the story in the process."

    Indeed! This is one of OL's finest hours, and I doubt very many would dispute it. A brilliant script, a rich visual design and Culp matching his work in DEMON. I appreciate Mr. Rapchak's superbly written analysis of this classic, one that showcases a precautionary tale, blending science-fiction with certain noirish elements.

  11. A beautiful and insightful essay on an unsurpassed episode. It's as adult a science fiction tale as has ever been filmed, so profound and completely contemporary. Heartbreaking, scary, brilliant -- my favorite OL episode. When I was programming TNT (this was in the '90s) we featured this episode in our Best of Outer Limits marathon -- no question it belonged there.

  12. Here's a link to the 'Archive of American Television' interview with Robert Culp....he starts to talk about TOL at the 2.29 point. might be a better place to post this link.

  13. Beautifully written piece about the quintessential OL episode, Mr. Rapchak. Thank you for expressing so well my own feelings about this classic.

  14. Does anybody remember seeing the Thetan on the cover of TV Guide about a month before this episode aired in 1963? I have a strong memory of it, because my mother came home from the store and she said, "I almost didn't buy the TV Guide today because it had that thing on the cover!"
    I haven't been able to find a copy of that TV Guide on ebay. I do have a copy of the TV Guide with the picture of the Thetan next to Joseph Cotten (the Fall Preview issue) but not on the cover. Maybe it was a regional thing? I was living in the Rochester, New York, area at the time.
    By the way, this is one of my favorite episodes. I was only 8 years old when it first aired, and I really didn't understand it at the time (I was doing my homework in the next room during most of the episode anyway) but in the years since I've come to appreciate it. It's Rober Culp at his best, and it's a story with a message.

  15. Thetan Robert Culp scared as a kid and saw way in 1963.Looking back though,can't see why those creatures scared me?Now I'd put my foot up the Thetans ass and ask Cupls character would such dum plan as get himself mixed with Thetan monkey to sare people into world peace?

  16. I'm not SURE but I might be able to answer Reese Fowler's question. There's an Outer Limits cover of Famous Monsters that seems to be a drawing of the Thetan. Could that be the one you mean?

    1. No, I'm sure it was TV Guide. My mother bought it in the store and she said she almost didn't buy it because it had "that thing" on the cover. She bought TV Guide every week, but she would not have bought a copy of "Famous Monsters." Thanks anyway.

    2. By the way, I bought that issue of "Famous Monsters" on ebay yesterday. Thanks for telling me about it.

  17. I just now read that. I'm glad I was helpful when it comes to the FM issue.

  18. I watched the episode this AM on ThisTV, after One Hundred Days Of the Dragon, to which it was a most apposite follow-up in those,--though we didn't know it at the time--waning days of the Kennedy administration.

    Both eps capture the spirit of the time, the first dealing with assassination, the second with the sacrifice of a noble scientist to become a kind of alien scarecrow to bring world peace. If it was only about that diabolical "Architectural design" it would be just an average episode with some jolts along the way.

    Instead, the TOL folks opted for a from the heart episode, one of their best, right up there with The Sixth Finger, it makes the viewer think and feel; and in the case of Architects, maybe weep a little as well. I've never seen Robert Culp give a better performance than in this episode. The Outer Limits brought out the best in him. It goes to remind me that he's best remembered as the BMOC tennis pro spy wisecracking with Bill Cosby, while he was capable of so much more.


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