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.