By Gary Gerani
Is there a God? It’s the eternal question that has challenged mankind since our species began. With “Wolf 359,” THE OUTER LIMITS concludes that there is indeed a Supreme Being watching over and influencing our actions and motivations. Trouble is, His name happens to be Lucifer.
Deftly combining all required elements of a Season Two OL, from the “low road” of main characters audiences can relate to, to a devilish Bear as malevolent as anything Joe Stefano might have dreamed up after one of his psychiatric sessions, “Wolf 359” embraces sense-of-wonder ideas with an enthusiasm and ferocity that characterize the very best Brady episodes (both Ellisons, “The Inheritors,” “Cry of Silence”). The result is a tidy, suspenseful, utterly intriguing story that winds up exploring surprisingly heavy theological issues that clearly transcend the show’s fundamental requirements as a “sci-fi thriller.”
One can tell from these first few minutes just how rich “Wolf 359” is with imaginative sf notions. Re-creating a distant planet in miniature is fascinating stuff to begin with. Watching evolution unfold in a series of glimpses ups the sense-of-wonder ante considerably. And when we (not the scientists) are treated to an eerie sneak peek of what “goes along” with the mini-world Dr. Meridith has wrought, we know we’re in one of the darkest neighborhoods of THE OUTER LIMITS proper.
Since S1 of OL reveled in oddball, offbeat central characters (bless it!), there’s an automatic resentment of ABC’s demand for more accessible, relatable characters in order to broaden the show’s audience base. A barbeque? Martinis? For shame! Patrick O’Neal’s Dr. Jonathan Meredith and wife Ethel (Sara Shane) are as deliberately middle-class as it gets. But, like everything else in this sharply-written teleplay, the easy normalcy of this relationship has a direct bearing on this episode’s plot AND theme. When the camera lingers on Shane tenderly holding O’Neal’s hand in bed, wedding ring glistening, it’s not just to celebrate the joy of family values because ABC has a ratings agenda. It’s to set up Love as a weapon – indeed, the ultimate weapon -- against a force of demonic evil that is about to engulf this handsome couple. Having local animals react in primal terror to the arrival of something unearthly and infernal is another nice touch, with Shane’s middle-of-the-night walk catching just the right sense of disquieting, incomprehensible apprehension.
Back in the lab the next morning, we’re once again treated to fascinating sf revelations as still photographs of the evolving planet are examined (“What does this look like to you…?”). Dr. Meredith and assistant Peter (Peter Haskell) play like a kind of casual American version of Bernard Quatermass and Dr. Roney from QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, completely rational scientist-detectives enthralled by rapidly-escalating landmark discoveries. Just as we’re recovering from the fascinating idea that Dundee Planet is going through its own Mesozoic era, setting its evolution on a parallel course with Earth’s, Meridith and Pete finally observe the malevolent, free-flowing spirit that hovers over it. Significantly, Peter refers to the creature as “He” rather than “It,” and is soon corrected by scientifically-straight Meridith. Bullshit. A few seconds later, both of them are referring to this weird specter as a “him.” And then the final chilling revelation: “He knows we’re here, Professor!”
As the experiment pushes on, it becomes apparent that a) Dundee Planet really is a duplication of planet Earth on an accelerated level, and b) something downright “evil” seems to be watching over it. Although O’Neal’s Meridith is understandably captivated by the astonishing revelations his experiment has unleashed (Quatermass and Roney would be just as obsessed), he’s smart enough to acknowledge the down side: escalating deaths of lab animals and pets, a “creature” that defies scientific logic, a feeling of abstract malevolence emanating from it. It’s here where the “family values” angle pays off: this man may be an ultra-dedicated scientist for all the right reasons, but he clearly loves his wife, and their endearing chemistry easily sells the relationship. Assistant Pete is almost like a son, or younger brother; Mr. Dundee is a concerned father figure. These are not trite details. A case is being made about love and for love, counterpointing the relentless demonic Evil that’s getting bolder and more dangerous with each new scene.
We’re not quite sure what has happened to poor Pete, last seen cringing in terror before the commercial break. But what we do see is chilling enough: “He” has clearly emerged from the hermetically-sealed confines of the planet, and is now prowling Meridith’s lab, sapping the life of lower life forms (note the word “DIE” in the headline of the newspaper used for the doc’s guinea pigs as they meet their fate). When Meridith himself is confronted by the Entity, he is spared from a similar end when he opens the lab door and blessed light spills in. Nigel Kneale couldn’t have conceived this ‘occult mythology meets scientific speculation’ idea any better. Now we have several compelling things happening at once. Meridith packs his wife off and fires Pete (shaken, but a survivor) in order to protect them. But if he can hold on, he’ll be able to see into mankind’s future… something he never expected to happen when he started this work, but something he can’t quite let go of because of its monumental importance. As Dundee Planet’s version of Earthly evolution continues, its human-like inhabitants engage in wars, hate crimes, evil activities off the scale, influenced by the spirit that watches over them. One can only gasp intellectually as Meridith’s roll call of DP atrocities is outlined. But read between the lines, folks: this is the human race he’s talking about, otherwise there’s no point in the man risking his life to observe “our” future. Sure, some lip service is given about Dundee Planet “having no God”; but indeed, it most assuredly has… an evil God for an evil sentient species. Apparently these slight verbal deflections were enough to fool the network censors. But what we have here is nothing less than one of the most subversive theological concepts ever attempted on film, small screen or big.
An exhausted Meridith is saved from the attacking Entity by the head-lighted arrival of a greatly concerned Pete and Mr. Dundee, who are promptly shown the door by their raving scientist friend. O’Neal manages this balancing act of rationality/obsession very convincingly…starting this guy off with all those martinis and barbequed steaks makes his transformation all the more compelling. Moreover, the viewing audience WANTS Dr. Meridith to hang on, because we’re also damned curious about where the wretched human race happens to be headed. The final attack – just at the moment of Truth – is simply but powerfully staged. Meridith observes his enemy in total long shot, hovering in the lab, seconds before it emerges to kill him. Sara Shane’s arrival and destruction of this mini-Hell World is about as spectacular as a low-budget TV show can manage, and the graceful Entity’s jerky, final death throes actually manage a peculiar “sympathy for the devil” flavor. After all, He, like his evil Dundee Planet children, didn’t ask to be recreated.
Dr. Meridith’s final comments are noteworthy. The next time we duplicate a far-flung planet, he concludes, the odds are it won’t be a place of evil, but a place of love, as dramatized by the love he shares with his wife and surrogate family. But there’s a curious irony to all this, an almost tragic desperation mixed with understandable denial. I’m sure the “evil” humans of planet Dundee also had loving wives and caring friends that helped them out of jams. But that doesn’t change the fact that they were still the sons of daughters of Satan… just as we apparently are.
Addicted to its own nonstop sense of wonder, “Wolf 359” represents exactly what Season Two OL was striving to achieve: fascinating sf concepts that get viewers where they live, rather uncomfortably, with scares generated by plot/concept revelations rather than flamboyant cinematic flourishes. It’s the kind of story that could easily be remade today…as a matter of fact, it’s probably ideal for the cynical and soulless 21st Century. With fine central performances, a cheap but effectively offbeat bear, and a black-as-pitch notion that is amazingly daring even by current standards, it stands as one of the most captivating science fiction yarns ever put on film, and a definite triumph for Ben Brady’s regime.
Gary Gerani is the author of Fantastic Television, the first book to focus on science-fiction, fantasy and horror TV. In association with IDW, Gerani recently launched a new publishing company, Fantastic Press, with November's TOP 100 HORROR MOVIES. Next up is TOP 100 SCI-FI MOVIES in April. His graphic novel, BRAM STOKER'S DEATH SHIP (which takes on that famous nightmare voyage from Varna to Whitby, as you-know-who feeds on the crew of the Demeter), is available now and has garnered several nice reviews. That's him on the right, wearing the now-disintegrated Andro headpiece.