Monday, January 17, 2011

Spotlight on "The Sixth Finger"

A Questionable Appendage
by David C. Holcomb

Written by Ellis St. Joseph. Directed by James Goldstone. Cast: David McCallum (Gwyllm Griffiths); Edward Mulhare (Professor Mathers); Jill Haworth (Cathy Evans); Nora Marlowe (Mrs. Ives); Janos Prohaska (Darwin). Original broadcast: October 14, 1963. 

Story: Experimenting with forced, rapid evolution, Professor Mathers begrudgingly accepts angry miner Gwyllm as his first human subject. Human evolution holds surprises, from colossal crania to petty vengeance; it is (thankfully?) undone by love. Ultimately, gladness is elusive.

Fans of AMC’s Mad Men (I’m one) watched this season as barely-pubescent, subtly-abused character Sally Draper diddled herself to a massive dose of mid-1960s shame as she ogled David McCallum in his signature role in that era’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. While this might seem tangential to a consideration of a classic OL episode, McCallum’s pansexual lovability permeates The Sixth Finger, at times gloriously and at times frustratingly.

Glorious: we root for his character, dirty mine laborer turned pissed-off brainiac Gwyllm, both in spite of and because of his (born-into-it) limits; we feel dread and regret as he gets a big head about his evolved status (sorry) and does very bad, very unevolved things; and we experience something complex and profound, aching, as love saves the day in the episode’s denouement. Or maybe it doesn’t: when Gwyllm’s evolution is reversed, crushed/interrupted by a crush, Gwyllm looks dead – for many years after seeing this episode as a child, I misremembered the episode as ending in his actual passing. It’s testimony to a rich performance and a striking moment in a sometimes shoddy episode that, at least on the merits of its (arguable) bear, remains a fondly-recalled classic.

The performance is undoubtedly another, more compelling reason for the perseverance of “The Sixth Finger.” As argued in my previous piece, this episode is in multiple ways the accidental twin of the earlier “The Man with the Power.” While it lacks the rarefied company of Donald Pleasence, it offers an equally distinctive British (here, Scottish) figure, McCallum, as a character similarly steeped in frisson yet rendingly sympathetic. Younger than Pleasence, far prettier and less (interestingly) defended, McCallum remains the spackle that fills in the numerous cracks in “Finger,” as Pleasence did in “Power.” The episodes are likewise linked by dint of a conventional science-fiction trope – the over-reach of humanity, the dire consequences thereof – and also like the earlier episode (originally broadcast the week prior), “The Sixth Finger” lacks an intangible something in the way of Outer Limits coalescence. Still, McCallum conveys a tender core even as his Gwyllm careens through evolution and arrives at physical and moral ugliness; that his fragility isn’t successfully stressed by the script and is only cursorily utilized by director Goldstone is the frustrating element of McCallum’s role and the diddle-worthy beauty he brings to it. Again like Pleasence, the actor himself shines in spite of these hindrances.  

The episode’s other strengths include further instances of clear beauty; the first presented is Jill Haworth, who very recently died at the too-young age of 65. (Poorly treated by film critics in her early career, Haworth cheerfully took on less prestigious roles as time went by; her late-1960s/early-70s turns in a variety of quasi-video-nasties can be enjoyable if you’re in the right mood – start with Horror on Snape Island, AKA Tower of Evil, 1972.) Here, as uneducated but not uninspired delivery girl Cathy, she’s delicate and completely understandable as the object of Gwyllm’s attention, and as a catalyst for his travels in evolutionary time (both, ahem, forward and backward… which I’ll get to in a bit). Cathy’s role in what I find to be a notably bleak conclusion of the story suggests something awkward as it relates to human progress: that advancement may well be delayed (if not stopped dead) by romantic love. Which is odd – without it, not a lot of human procreation is likely to happen. Complexity within this tale exists, but at times appears lost to all but the actors and, presumably, enamored viewers.

The third key performance, Mulhare as Professor Mathers, is unfortunately a bit of a cipher, and indicative of the episode’s failings. He’s the requisite egghead (sorry again) on a Grand Quest for Knowledge (the science-as-well-intentioned-idiocy theme is consistent in the OL universe); his shades of personality and motivation are underdone, and cinematographer John M. Nickolaus’ decision to film the actor in extreme close-up while sporting thick-lensed glasses simply makes Mathers come off as a buffoon. Maybe by design, hard to say, but the casually touching scene of his character enjoying fresh bread brought to him by Cathy suggests a lost potential. Likewise the Welsh setting of the tale – arguably the seat of western pre-civilization, it has a nice symbolic, evolution-ripe flair; in vivo, though, it’s a non-starter. For one thing, the customary filming location is southern California, and worse, inserts of a Welsh village are lifted from John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) – fair enough, but they look like what they are, absconded footage. Quibbles, of course, but watch the funeral scene of the professor’s charwoman, Mrs. Ives (a nice turn by the familiar Nora Marlowe): the peasants have rarely been so revolting; it smacks of the social class disdain of a classic-era Hammer film, discriminating all over the place. To wrap up the downside, the technology of rapid evolution is handled… terribly, with the noted bidirectionality represented by a lever going, yes, forward or backward (the scene in which McCallum coaches Haworth on its use is painful), and the apparently impromptu makeup of McCallum-as-Neanderthal is cartoonish, as is the zoom effect of the sequence. And finally, Dominic Frontiere’s musical cues are not particularly well used, with his softer, more poignant score at times misplaced or defied by the direction (odd given Goldstone’s virtuosi job on the second season episode “The Inheritors”).

Much to be disappointed in. So why does it persevere and, more to the point of this (and my other) Spotlight, why did I choose it to consider? Among other reasons, simply because it’s an original, first-season Outer Limits episode, and in so being it strips the paint off much television of its era and most of it today. And this was a show of themes and emotions that frequently, perhaps regularly, lived boldly in the face of technical and creative constraints. It was Stevens’ and Stefano’s cared-for but sometimes careless child, and “The Sixth Finger” is indicative of that: we’re reminded that progress happens, but it’s slow, fraught, violent, and in the final consideration maybe the most we can do is shed tears like the relieved Cathy or the despondent Gwyllm, and move on, keep trying, as Mathers appears to do.

If that’s the lesson, I’ll take it, whole and imperfect. Brain implants, rushed evolution, failure and finally momentum: from the inner mind to the outer limits. Indeed.
David C. Holcomb is a psychologist and educator in New Mexico. With twin brother Mark, he has channeled a life-long fascination with The Outer Limits into, well, a life-long fascination; he contributed to their website on the subject (it appears to have a long life). He’s had many significant dreams in The Outer Limits style, music and all. He’s a fifty-year-old man – whaddya gonna do about it?


  1. Okay, this is making me crazy. I have ALWAYS thought that Gwyllm died at the end. I wrote a long comment about it on the main entry for this episode. You mention that you misremembered it as Gwyllm dying -- I don't see how it could be interpreted that he lived. I don't know what to think now! :-) In my mind, Gwyllm died on that laboratory floor.

  2. Controversy! It could be... interpretable. I think he's despondent, perhaps mentally and emotionally dead, but he's weeping - alive, at least physically. Other impressions?

    Anyway, thanks Lisa. Thought I'd broke the blog with this one.

  3. While I didn't think that 'Gwylly' was dead at the end of the episode, I naturally assumed that he stumbled out of the chamber in a damaged state. Try inflating and deflating a cheap balloon a few dozen times and see what happens. I can't imagine his cranium would hold up much better...

  4. I think he let out a little tear when he got back, and he appreciated Cathy's tears for him, but...I can't believe he's alive. I need to confer with my sister, who has also watched this with me many times and it's one of our favorite episodes. I'm SURE she also thought he was dead...

    Controversy indeed! Wonderful, isn't it? :-)

  5. What an erudite examination of this episode, David. I feel like I'm getting a graduate degree in The Outer Limits on this blog.

    As for the ending now I'm stumped. I had an easy answer ten years ago when I first saw Sixth Finger: The Head is Dead...

    Not so fast. I think I'm with John and David in their interpretation. His hard drive has definitely crashed.

    Mathers' treatment (and performance) has always been the wild card for me in this episode, as I agree he comes off as buffoonish. But I think back to his mysterious need for a blood test, and the pet Chimp's reaction, suggesting perhaps a cruel streak in our geneticist from London. A few other instances to me suggested Mathers was arrogant and condescending at the least, and perhaps a bit mad...or maybe I'm just finding subtext where there isn't any to be found.

    I know the comparison is unavoidable, but I can't help but think of Frankenstein and his monster, and almost wish Sixth Finger had played up the Teacher versus Pupil sub-plot. But love conquers all...including Future Brains and Extra Appendages.

  6. John: Apt take, and still tragic in the spirit of the episode. Also wanted to touch on yours and Peter E's commentary - damn fine, illuminating. I breezed over McCallum's handling of Chamber's jarring, spot-on make-up (an understated term here) - the actor seemed to use the cranial massiveness to reduce his own frame, carrying it so effectively.
    Peter F: It's a tough call, Gwyllm's fate, no? And Mathers: your impressions seem fitting to me - and likewise fitting with the class elements of the tale. Brings out something I'd not taken in; thank you.
    Finally, Lisa: as part of a sibling team completely devoted to the show and embracing of individual episodes no matter our ultimate take (and beyond first, second, or hundredth viewing), I'd love to hear your sister's take on this one. It is, whatever my reservations or interpretations, an abjectly emotionally-resonant piece and so satisfying for that. I'm really appreciating your commentary here.
    Okay, I didn't break the blog, hoo-rah! Thanks, all.

  7. My take is that he is definitely alive but mentally damaged. In fact I've always seen the end as sort of a happy ending, when actually I would have preferred the monkey running around or the pool of prehistoric liquid. Kind of hard for me to believe he would return in his original state.

  8. David, really interesting analysis, particularly re: the use of McCallum, and the Pleasence analogy.

    I always thought he lived--in fact, back to exactly how he was before.

  9. No deciple of this series can fail to be enraptured by the this exceedingly beautiful screenplay, nor be unmoved by the emotional resonance of the idea and romantic underpinning. It's one of my absolute favorites (with DEMON, BELLERO SHIELD, CORPUS EATHLING, MAN WHO WAS NEVER BORN) and I even acquired the wonderful TV Land action figure (I have the entire set of the relatively few that were released in fact)that permanently replicates the excellent makeup work. David McCallum is exceptional (as he was in FORMS) and as always it's the romance that registers so compellingly. One of the television's finest hours by just about any barometer of measurement. I have always appreciated Mr. Show's great essay, reproduced here.

  10. The Sixth Finger is a great favorite of mine. It's maybe the most moving episode of the series, at least for me. David McCallum's performance is comprised of many notes, not just one. He nicely conveys his character's chld-like (but not stupid) side. Jill Haworth's sensitive playing is the best I've seen of any of the leading ladies of the series (sorry, Luana). The ending had me nearly in tears and I'm not the sort who gets that way often. There was such a spunky, loving, lovable desperate quality to Cathy that I wanted her to get her man back as much as she did. I disagree with many here on Edward Mulhare's performance as the scientist. His peformance was subtle and quite polished. He convinced me that his character was a highly educated man, basically humane, too self-absorbed to be as decent as he'd like to be. I saw nothing buffoonish in his performance or in how he was presented in the show.

  11. It's awful to hear about Jill Haworth. I don't know her from TOO MANY things, but this story always made up for that in a big way.
    I always misremembered the ending too, but that's because I mistakenly remembered him actually getting shot by one of the motorcycle cops, since one of them comes awfully close. That leads to a question I've always had - it doesn't really affect the story one way or the other, but would BRITISH motorcycle police carry guns? You always hear that that's a rare thing for any branch of the police.
    One of my few problems with The Sixth Finger is that "zoom effect" at the end that's been mentioned. I'm definitely not bothered by EVERY "gratuitous" visual effect like that, but somehow that one always DOES bother me.
    I think Edward Mulhare comes across very well as Mathers, especially in the piano-playing scene.

  12. I don't have such a problem with those close-ups of Edward Mulhare that have been mentioned, but there's one big exception to that. In that first scene, when he looks at Cathy closely, it looks for all the world like a lecherous look (though of course there's nothing else in the story to support that). And all-out "mad scientist" stories - which most Outer Limits stories aren't, of course, including this one - often have that as part of the plot. So - were that look on his face and that long close-up meant to be some kind of red herring?


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