Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Spotlight on "The Human Factor"

by Peter Farris

First, I’d like to begin my commentary by stating that my next tattoo will read TABU: TOTAL ABANDONMENT of BETTER UNDERSTANDING. Where I put it is another issue entirely…

You had me at “snowbound outpost.” It’s a setting I fell in love with as a kid, watching John Carpenter’s The Thing (my favorite horror film of all time) and later reading Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness.

Despite the alluring set-up, The Human Factor seems to tiptoe around greatness, never quite putting it all together—no surprise considering this episode features a one-and-done director and writer in Abner Biberman and David Duncan.

Holy shit, it’s a black dude! Okay, I’m kidding. But as I looked up who played Major Giles (foolishly thinking it was Tony Burton of Rocky fame), I learned that indeed the actor was Ivan Dixon, who had a truly remarkable film and television career both in front and behind the camera. A little later in the marathon we’ll get to enjoy Dixon’s talents alongside Robert Duvall in The Inheritors two-parter.

There really should be a drinking game for The Outer Limits based on great Conrad Hall moments. I guarantee you’d be half in the bag by the end of The Human Factor.

Amazing shot as a wild-eyed Harry Guardino emerges from the bunker and walks right into the camera… DRINK!
Of course, just when I thought Major Roger Brothers was going to glimpse some tentacle-mouthed eldritch from Cthulhu Land, or a monstrous ice-bound alien… instead we get a human sundae. Meet Private Gordon. AKA some dude covered in spackle and plastic icicles. AKA the Ghost of Baking Soda Volcanoes. 

Okay, I confess the Private Gordon hallucination is one of my favorite “bears” in the series, even if he only appears briefly and—when compared to Bryon Haskin’s “Chill Charlie” statue—seems the inferior choice visually. He’s certainly the more grotesque and goopy of the two, with stand-in William O’Douglas Jr.’s eyes blacked out and, for a specter, photographed beautifully during his three fade-ins (DRINK x 3). Although Major Brothers has been driven insane with guilt and that madness drives the episode, part of me wishes Duncan, Stefano and company had worked the material a little differently. I feel like there is a great ghost story in The Human Factor just begging to get out… a ghost that happens to look like an upended Slurpee. 
Yet Guardino’s character just has to blow something up with the atomic thinga-ma-jig, and we’ve got that great mind probe to get to… but first…

I’m just going to say it: Kellerman is a total babe. I should also admit that I was eight years old when I first saw her as Rodney Dangerfield’s love interest in Back To School. (Nice to know us Outer Limits fans get a free refill when Kellerman kills it as Judith Bellero in the excellent The Bellero Shield episode.)

Is it just me, though, or has she not aged… uh… rationally?

It’s also pretty unbelievable that Kellerman’s character would fall for Gary Merrill. He’s twice her age and looks like something you’d find on the floor of a barbershop.

Another great "Human Factor" moment as Merrill’s Dr. Hamilton explains with you’ve-got-cancer seriousness the basics of the mind probe to Ingrid, all while wearing what looks like an old jock strap on his head and the red-yellow-white A/V inputs of a Sega Genesis plugged in for good measure. Outré camera angles a-plenty, too. DRINK!
I absolutely love the sound design as the first experiment/demonstration cranks up (and later with the almost Lynchian ice splintering). I’m a sucker for scientific apparatus as only Daystar Productions can build: knobs, buttons, levers, meters, blinking lights and stuff that goes beepity-boop-bop, plus the two urine stains merging into one mind on the “progress” screen. Maybe it’s quaint by today’s EFX standards, but I appreciate how practical these visuals are, even if the premise is a bit preposterous. If I was a kid in 1963 watching "The Human Factor," I would have been floored.

Of course we learn the dangers of the mind probe technology right away. Ingrid totally wants to go for a ride on Doc Hamilton’s centrifuge… and all he wants to do is search for truth and apparently never groom his eyebrows. 

“You don’t need a woman or a wife… you need a haircut.”

Anyone else notice how gaudy the MP’s uniforms are? Is there a military parade out on the glacier scheduled for later that day? The Army sure is a stickler for pageantry… even on those remote underground secret military installations.

And now’s about the time we realize Major Roger Brothers’ name is just a little bit too on the nose.

Everybody: “Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran!”

Who else is craving sunflower seeds? Much like Major Brothers, I chewed them habitually during my screenings of "The Human Factor," as a means to keep my mind and body pure while writing this commentary. My living room floor now looks like the Atlanta Braves dugout after a four-game homestand. 

Anyone else wonder what actors are scribbling (when required) during a scene? Are they writing in character? Jotting down a grocery list? Dirty limericks? Sketching their agent hanging from a hook? The NY Times crossword puzzle?

Gary Merrill and Harry Guardino really carry the episode with their performances, particularly after the botched probe when we get to watch each actor impersonate the other’s character. Guardino really sells it, and one of my favorite scenes (DRINK!) is when Ingrid quizzes the incarcerated Major Brothers (with Hamilton’s mind), the body-swapped Doctor imploring her to look into his eyes through the service slot, as if—gulp—they were windows to the soul.

Anyone catch Ingrid ripping the 1911 from Brothers as Hamilton’s hand? Yeah… he totally drops it.

Ugh! Secure the weapon first, folks! 

Another moment worth studying… Gary Merrill’s inexplicable facial expressions after the climactic mind-swap. As the ghost of Private Gordon fades from view (presumably to haunt the brain of Brothers before he expires), Merrill makes the weirdest damn I-just-had-my-milk-and-cookies-and-mommy’s-gonna-read-me-a-bedtime-story face. I have no other explanation than Gary Merrill and/or Abner Biberman thinking your mind, upon return to its home brain, would be as comforting a sensation as getting tucked under your favorite blankey on Christmas Eve. I’ll chalk it up to a creative decision and move on…
I’d also argue that no single episode in television history has the word crevasse spoken with such authority. As when Col. Campbell (played by Joe de Santis) says: “I would have gone down there into that crev-AHSS…”

Nitpicking aside, "The Human Factor" is one of several episodes in the series supported by great performances, photography, lighting, mood and that intangible Outer Limits thing that made even the adequate and mediocre stories worth watching. 

I’d gladly give it 2 ½ Karloffs,  3/5 Zanti Misfits, 6/10 Schows and an ECK! for effort.

Peter Farris is a novelist and screenwriter from Cobb County, Georgia. His screenplay You Don't Scare Me (co-written with John Farris) has been optioned for film. His short story “The Couch” appeared in More Stories From The Twilight Zone, an anthology celebrating the show’s 50th anniversary and edited by Carol Serling. Peter’s debut novel will be published by Tom Doherty Associates/Forge Books next winter.


  1. I think that the "I-just-had-my-milk-and-cookies-and-mommy’s-gonna-read-me-a-bedtime-story face" may have something to do with the character experiencing the others death. A rather comforting creative option.

  2. I'd like to interrupt Gary and Mark's eloquent spotlights with the Mystery Science Theater portion of today's programming...

  3. Now that I think about it, if indeed he's experiencing the peace of Brothers' death, than it was a smart choice creatively. There's just something oddly childlike about the expression I couldn't help but noticing.

  4. I'd like to think of Gary and Mark playing John in the movie version and Peter Farris playing me.

  5. Peter F., I also have a soft spot for the ghost of Private Gordon, damned if I know why. Then again, I also like Eck.

    Peter E., as long as we're casting, if somebody can dig him up I'd be honored to have Chill Charlie play me.

  6. Don't you worry about it, Pete (F). Your comments are right at home here at WACT (WHACKED!).

    You might even be the only one who will appreciate a new site my wife inspired me to launch:

  7. "Despite the alluring set-up, The Human Factor seems to tiptoe around greatness, never quite putting it all together—no surprise considering this episode features a one-and-done director and writer in Abner Biberman and David Duncan..."

    Well, THE HUMAN FACTOR is probably the one episode of the OUTER LIMITS that I'd describe as a guilty pleasure. Mind you, I think it's assets greatly outweigh it's flaws, and in large measure it's a moody, claustrophobic and gloriously atmospheric hour that defines why we viewed the show so excitedly in those long ago years. Yes, Kellerman of course is a babe, and she's quite ubiquitous here. The opening and closing narrations are superior, and the film is eerie in it's comparisons with THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD with the lonely Arctic outpost.

    I know David Schow concludes his assessment of this episode with "it is unfortunately easy to say that "The Human Factor" but for its too-few bright spots, is as cold and barren as the arctic tundra itself.

    The script and story arc are admittedly uneven, but this is one episode I've always "felt" over many years, and rediscovered it on tape, laserdisc and DVD. It's undervalued.

  8. Based on Pete Farris' assessment of "Human Factor," I hereby nominate him to similarly dissect (and provide drinking games for) "ZZZZZ," "Children of Spider County," "Don't Open Til Doomsday," "Moonstone," "The Special One," "Production and Decay of Strange Particles," "Cold Hands, Warm Heart," "Behold Eck!," "The Invisible Enemy," and"The Probe." Thus do we broaden our horizons unexpectedly.

    And Gary Merrill is a decent actor, but is it just me, or is there something palpably ... SIMIAN ... about him? Him and Ingrid in a clinch would be like doing it with Dr. Zaius, or more accurately, the version of Zaius first essayed by Edward G. Robinson.

  9. John S: Expect my request for a flat Zanti shortly.

    And I will gladly provide my one-sided riffage for those episodes, David. Assuming Conrad Hall stops being so awesome as to allow to me stop drinking...

  10. And what, pray tell, is the downside of a Mystery Science Theater approach to "The Human Factor"? Imagine the second-season hybrid: "I, Crow T. Robot."

    Nicely done, and dig that cinematography glug glug glug....

  11. Actually Peter Farris is not drinking alone. I've been watching an OUTER LIMITS episode each night during dinner while eating and drinking beer. I've seen these shows so many times over the last 45 years that I have to sort of have a party atmosphere in order to watch the mediocre ones. My local beer discount warehouse has a special license to serve "growlers". I bring in a 64 oz jug and they fill it with draft beer of my choice. It's good for a couple days, then goes flat, so you have to drink it soon. I drank Anchor Steam draft beer with "The Human Factor". Every time I saw Sally Kellerman I said, "damn it", or yelled "I don't f**king believe it". I had to stop when my wife and son came into the room to see what I was cursing about(like normal people they eat at the kitchen table).

  12. Wild, Peter! I second Mr. Schow's recommendations for future reviews. And as for Gary Merrill and the primates, check out Harryhausen's MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and behold shirtless Gideon Spillet, the perfect Neanderthal. "I married him because I like hairy men," Bette Davis said in a interview, "then divorced him because he was so sloppy." As Spencer Tracy once observed, "That's evolution for you."

  13. As much as I like Gary Merrill, I have to agree about that look he puts across. In one of his Alfred Hitchcock Hour episodes, he played a morose divorcee who sits in his back yard and drinks all day. There have been a million characters like that in dramas (and comedies), but I don't think I've ever seen an actor who managed to LOOK the part so well.

  14. Like Peter Farris, I couldn't resist breaking out some sunflower seeds I had set aside the last time I watched it.
    I guess it's impossible considering when it came out, but does Major Brothers owe anything to General Ripper of DR. STRANGELOVE? Even though he's spooky in an out-there way instead of a quiet way, and even though the story starts off with a Cold War feeling and then lets go of it, it always seems that way to me. The sunflower seeds always feel like his version of General Ripper's "distilled water and pure grain alcohol."

  15. I keep finding myself going back to watch Human Factor. At least 3 or 4 times in 6 months now. This is after I binged watched the first 2 seasons. Good episode! Not perfect, but had good moments.


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