by David J. Schow
Sequels nearly always pale in comparison to their forebears, and the case of The Outer Limits’ much-maligned second season (S2) is no different. The series had survived the “renewal wars” to debut in September 1964, only to be repositioned to a Saturday evening suicide seat opposite the enormously popular Jackie Gleason Show. Classified as a “bleeder” in the ratings game, this short-lived incarnation of The Outer Limits managed a heroic showing of minor classics and game tries before its mid-season cancellation barely four months later, in mid-January 1965 (it was replaced by another variety show, The King Family). Debuting against overwhelming contrary odds, this retrofitted version of The Outer Limits suffered the relentless crises of time and money that always plague a series on the wane: truncated shooting schedules and bare minimum budgets. Yet this sophomore playbill allowed for certain aberrations otherwise impossible in the TV landscape of 1964, and still unthinkable today.
For all practical purposes, S2 was an entirely different program from that offered by the previous production regime, which had been shown the Out door by parent network ABC due to assorted clashes of personality and deficit financing. These reached a frothing head with the debacle over the shooting of The Unknown pilot film, re-edited and presented as the curtain show for the first season (S1), “The Forms of Things Unknown.” Series creator Leslie Stevens threatened to scuttle the series if his partner, writer/producer Joseph Stefano, was not permitted to make his directorial debut with The Unknown. Stefano stepped down and the show was directed by Outer Limits regular Gerd Oswald. It promptly ran over-schedule and overbudget.
“There were some pretty deadly piranhas at ABC,” said production designer Jack Poplin. “Personally, I always thought that Leslie had gotten a little too arrogant for them, and the network brass decided they were going to squash him.” Joe Stefano added, “There were people who wanted to get The Outer Limits totally away form Leslie, and once it was clear I wasn’t going to stay, a lot of stuff went down. It was like the show went up for grabs, and a lot of jockeying was done.”
The dealbreaker, for Stefano, was ABC’s proposed timeslot change. While he made it clear he would have considered staying on if the series was moved to Wednesday evenings, the network was adamant about shifting it to Saturday nights. “I just didn’t fancy putting in 18-hour days on a series that was doomed,” said Stefano. “I was furious when they wanted to use it an ammunition against Jackie Gleason. I had really worked my ass off, and I knew that Jackie Gleason was not going to be brought down by The Outer Limits.”
S2 (more properly a half-season, totaling 17 episodes against the S1’s 32) was, to an extent, a brand new series augmented by elements of the old guard, and an attempt by ABC to “uniformize” the show’s iconoclastic palette into something that network suits could more easily anticipate and comprehend.
The Outer Limits’ new producer, Ben Brady, had formerly been one of those network suits — a vice president of ABC-TV who had originally greenlit Stevens’ Please Stand By as the pilot for The Outer Limits in 1962. Like Stevens, Brady had been an independent producer prior to his network tenure, having begun as a radio writer shortly after his graduation from law school in the 1940s. He put his legal knowledge to good use during the two seasons he spent producing his greatest television success, Perry Mason, over at rival network CBS (1957-1959). When Stefano vacated his producing position on The Outer Limits, ABC agreed to renew the series if Brady replaced Stefano. This also handily used up the remainder of Brady’s contract with ABC. Brady was also behind the network’s decision to move the series to Saturday nights.
“A good deal of the first year was a banner year in terms of art and product,” Brady said. “Stefano was a great writer. But there was a violent schism between what he wanted and what ABC wanted.” Of his approach to the show, he said, “We sought out published works by established science fiction writers. We looked for a marriage between intelligent science fiction and good, sound showmanship.”
Far from being an errand boy for ABC’s creative mandates, Brady immediately found himself on the flipside, beleaguered by limitations that chopped his budgets to $100,000 per episode. That meant that any adaptation of published work had to command low (or no) royalties. “We were torn between the desire to find stories we could adapt,” he said, “and the insertion of quickly-written originals that would enable us to survive until we found the next good published story.”
Brady’s new story department was headed up by Seeleg Lester, another Perry Mason alumnus. “Along about the sixth (production) week,” said Lester, “ABC began insisting on a monster in every show, so I tried to make them as innocuous as possible, as an off-shoot of the drama.” He described Brady as a “nuts-and-bolts man, with his finger on all the physical costs of the production. He wasn’t active in story content … I think that’s why he wanted me.”
Many of the below-the-line crew returned from S1. First AD Claude Binyon, Jr. became the new production manager (after Robert Justman returned to his old AD duties) and secured the use of Paramount Studios’ production facilities, to replace the loss of The Outer Limits’ previous stomping grounds, the MGM backlot and the studios of KTTV-TV — another change which accounts for the “face lift” look between the two seasons.
ABC definitely harbored hostility toward elements of the old Stevens/Stefano guard. Some, like casting director Meryl Abeles, were fired. Although Brady acknowledged that Dominic Frontiere’s music for S1 was rich and evocative, Frontiere was a confidant of Leslie Stevens, so Brady summoned another former co-worker, Harry Lubin (of One Step Beyond) to provide another “face lift.” Lubin’s scoring came across as less progressive, more traditional, and closer to 1950s style sci-fi films than Frontiere’s heavily orchestrated tapestries of sound.
Gerd Oswald, who had done nearly 30 Perry Mason segments for Brady before becoming a mainstay of The Outer Limits, found to his surprise that he was not a shoo-in for S2. “Brady was forced to go a more prosaic route,” said Oswald. “(Director Byron) Haskin and I were both on (ABC)’s shit list, and it took Brady four or five weeks before he could say, ‘Well, I want Gerd, period. And I want ‘Bunn’ Haskin.”
Of the crewmembers who worked both seasons, production designer Jack Poplin said, “The first season was far more creative and esoteric than the second, which was more commercial. Ben Brady is a capable man, but an executive, not a creator. He was doing what he was told, and grinding them out. He was out of his depth, with the onus of the heavyweights that had preceded him.”
Production coordinator Elaine Michea said, “I had no problems with the new regime. I was involved with Ben a little more than I had been in the first series, and we got along beautifully.”
“I didn’t resent the new people,” said makeup artist Fred Philips. “But I had, in the first season, people with a sense of trust. Not so, in the second season.”
Vic Perrin, the Control Voice, said he noticed no difference between the old bosses, and the new: “Ben Brady told me, ‘Just keep on doing what you’ve been doing!’”
But the most apocalyptic overview, typically, was Byron Haskin’s: “I had heard that Ben Brady was a fair-headed boy in the top, heavy circles, the rarified air where the masochists and maiming pimps who operate networks work. They had a happy hand for Brady, who had just gotten fired from ABC and was in limbo, when along came this network decision to switch producers, and boom – we got the guy. I didn’t know who in the hell he was. The Outer Limits got into very fast company when it acquired Brady, who was known for lowering the boom on series that the networks wanted to get rid of. He didn’t impress me as too stupid a guy, and seemed to know a lot of the glib answers most producers seem to have for any questions.”
“The one guy we thought the new group was so lucky to have was Seeleg,” said Leslie Stevens. “He really cared; he had both the drama and the science concepts.”
“I must say that Seeleg Lester tried very hard,” said Binyon. “The money Ben could have used for production was curtailed. When they flubbed around with the timeslot, the show became an orphan. We could not do the things we wanted to do, and it became very frustrating.”
S1 veteran Kenneth Peach became the director of photography for the entire S2 run. The Control Voice teasers and tags became part of the individual writers’ assignments, or were appended to finished scripts by Lester. On a blind read, they are difficult to tell apart, opting for pseudo-biblical profundities, or pounding home the noble sentiment of Man’s Endless Quest for Knowledge. The Control Voice opening was also given a final pruning, having been repeatedly shortened during S1 – no longer was the viewer required to “sit quietly and…” Following the broadcast of the first four S2 episodes, it was shortened again, to its final form:
There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. For the next hour, we will control all that you see and hear. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to The Outer Limits.
Stevens, Stefano and Frontiere fell back to an executive producer slot (and new projects), and did not involve themselves with the new episodes, although they were copied on every script and memo.
Four decades after its ignominious cancellation, S2 of The Outer Limits merits a fresh perspective. The amorphous concept of a television "season" means that in present-day terms, S2 is less a truncated whole and more the "back third" of the entire Outer Limits oeuvre.
Often overlooked or underappreciated by viewers enthralled to The Outer Limits' stronger sense of identity in S1, a bald overview of S2 reveals a seemingly meager and much-compromised production slate that actually yields an abundance of surprises. Apart from the smart dynamism of the Harlan Ellison entries, other episodes at least attempted some depth of theme — "The Duplicate Man," "Wolf 359," "The Inheritors" — leaving room for the guilty pleasure of "The Invisible Enemy," or the popcorn monster folly of "Keeper of the Purple Twilight." Fans of stop-motion animation maintain a soft spot for the possessed plant which livens up the otherwise-tedious "Counterweight;" S1's "vacuum cleaner monster" (from "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork") joined an equally memorable S2 counterpart in the "killer tumbleweeds" from "Cry of Silence," and the basic plotlines of "I, Robot" and "The Premonition" seem as entrenched in public memory as that sawtooth-bladed boomerang from S1's "Fun and Games."
The tone shift between the two seasons remains jarring, but the S2 bias toward outer space as a bold frontier contradicts the bleaker prospects of S1 shows that ventured, albeit rarely, into the same territory. Even a segment as narratively dismal as "Cold Hands, Warm Heart" concludes with high hopes for humankind's future in space, whereas first season entries such as "Moonstone," "Specimen: Unknown," and "The Mutant" swat home the idea that big monster headaches await us Out There, and it is a better bet to remain determinedly Earthbound. For all its drawbacks, "The Probe" closes the series run on an up-note, with a bright, almost American optimism for the future of human/alien contact.
Brady's desire to source the series in classic science fiction also added, to the timeline of television history, early and charmingly primordial mentions of then-obscure topics like ecology ("Counterweight" and "Wolf 359"), consciousness-altering drugs ("Expanding Human"), cloning ("The Duplicate Man"), and even a veiled reference to the Viet Nam war ("The Inheritors"). The universes-within-universes concept was explored in "Wolf 359," then turned inside-out for "The Probe." Both Ellison episodes echo the paradoxes of time travel first touched upon in S1's "The Man Who Was Never Born" — and these three episodes, together, were cited in the eventual lawsuit that was brought by Ellison against The Terminator (1984), questioning that film's creative chain-of-title.
The downside of Brady's stewardship was the Dragnet syndrome seen in too many S2 episodes: A problem is introduced, and various authority figures interminably ask obvious questions until the mystery is resolved. This approach, informed by Brady's experience on Perry Mason, was easily biased toward the puzzle-solving format established by the science fiction pulps, but imposed a flattening sameness to "Cold Hands, Warm Heart," "Behold Eck!," "Expanding Human," "The Premonition," "The Probe," and especially "I, Robot," which dragged the whole show into the docket. Compare "I, Robot" to "O.B.I.T." (S1's "courtroom episode") to see the difference between a police procedural with science fiction furniture, versus a story that transcends formula by the benefit of the often-oblique noir stylings of the Stevens/Stefano regime.
In 1994, Ben Brady wrote:
Long ago I started out as a New York attorney specializing in theatrical law. It was my destiny, after ten years of practice, to transfer my entire attention to the artistic rather than the legal aspects of my clients’ affairs. I spent the next 25 years as a writer, director, producer, and finally, in Hollywood, vice-president in charge of programming at ABC. Along the way, I founded and was president of the Television Producers Guild.
The programs that I produced were among the leading shows of their time. Perhaps you remember some of them: Perry Mason, Have Gun, Will Travel, The Red Skelton Show, The Johnny Carson Show, Rawhide, and Outer Limits.
All chips cashed, Brady remained proud of “his version” of The Outer Limits. He kept leatherbound hardcover copies of all the scripts in his office.
There are few legitimate industries that play for higher stakes than this business of broadcasting, and the mood swings that accompany the business are equally high. So periodically you think to yourself: “I gotta get away from this … I gotta take a clean breath … I gotta …”
Well, I did. About 20 years ago I was approached by James Cleary, president of California State University, Northridge. He asked me if I would introduce a screenwriting emphasis at the university. Flattered, I accepted a full professorship and put my television career on hold. I would return to it, I thought, after a year or two at the most.
It didn’t work out that way.
Brady’s television curriculum grew exponentially, and he kept at it through tenure and retirement, authoring two quite good books along the way: The Understructure of Writing for Film and Television (with Lance Lee; University of Texas Press, 1988) and Principals of Adaptation for Film and Television (U of T Press, 1994), from which the above excerpts are drawn. The latter book also contains Brady’s complete screenplay for his adaptation of the 1959 Ida Alexa Ross Wylie novel, Claire Serrat — in case you like to investigate Brady’s writing chops, which may surprise you.
After heading the screenwriting department at Northridge for 18 years, Ben Brady died in 2003 at age 94.
After heading the screenwriting department at Northridge for 18 years, Ben Brady died in 2003 at age 94.
The DVD issue of The Outer Limits (basically the same crappy DVD-18s, triple-dipped through three packaging incarnations) redresses a longstanding omission in the history of the series.
One triumph of the S2 set is the presentation, for the first time since broadcast, of "The Inheritors" in its complete two-part form. When mastered for VHS release, both episodes were edited together to form what was promoted as The Outer Limits' "only feature-length episode," losing the end credits and Control Voice epilogue from Part One, the opening credits and Control Voice prologue to Part Two, and 1 minute, 47 seconds of interstitial footage from the story itself. These have all been restored and the episodes are presented separately, albeit infuriatingly — because they are on two different sides of the same disc! Given the unwieldy mathematics of distributing 17 shows over six disc sides, both parts of "The Inheritors" could easily have been installed on Side B of Disc 2, where they would share space with one additional show ("Keeper of the Purple Twilight"), instead of packing Part One onto Side A of the same disc, alongside three other episodes. Only the Region 2 iteration of the set provides both parts of “The Inheritors” on the same side of the same disc so they may be viewed sequentially.