Monday, February 14, 2011

Spotlight on "The Chameleon"

by Mark Holcomb

Directed by Gerd Oswald; written by Robert Towne (teleplay and story), Lou Morheim and Joseph Stefano (story). Cast: Robert Duvall (Louis Mace); Howard Caine (Leon Chambers); Henry Brandon (General Crawford); Douglas Henderson (Dr. Tillyard); William O'Connell (first alien); Dean Smith (second alien). Broadcast April 27, 1964.

Story: Retired intelligence agent/government hit man Louis Mace is genetically altered to mimic a pair of aliens whose spacecraft has crash-landed in a remote rural canyon. Once he infiltrates the vessel, however, Mace — a rootless social outcast and emotional cipher — is stirred by unfamiliar feelings of belonging.

Like the white-hot Andromedan in its pilot episode, The Outer Limits was too brilliant to last. And notwithstanding the subsequent, nearly unrelated show that bears the same title, "The Chameleon" is where it dies.

It's a noble death, and the degree to which The Outer Limits retains its aesthetic and narrative vigor this late in the game is astonishing. There are lapses, for sure — the rancor between ABC and Daystar-Villa di Stefano was at its corrosive low point by the time the episode went into production, and ABC's season-long budgetary strangulation take an obvious toll here.

Visually "The Chameleon" is flawless, though, especially in gaffer Lloyd Garnell's stark chiarscuro lighting and cinematographer Kenneth Peach's tight, tense set-ups (although his work here hints at the textural monotony to come). (Cinematographer Kenneth Peach deserves credit, too, but his work here hints at the textural monotony to come.) An early scene in which Mace reveals himself in a dark corner of the military observation post is particularly astute, and literally foreshadows his coming transformation. Afterward, as he tromps through the woods post-alteration in typical OL bear fashion, there's a jarring close-up of his lower leg that highlights the extent of the physical change; you can practically count the wooly hairs creeping up Mace's newly reptilian ankle.

Structurally things get shakier. "The Chameleon" is so evocative of earlier, canonical episodes that it often plays like a best-of recap of "The Zanti Misfits," "The Invisibles," "The Bellero Shield," and especially "The Architects of Fear." Its metaphors are less blatantly sociopolitical than that episode's, but its premise and plot — and actor Douglas Henderson reprising his role as a scientist with a jones for making monsters out of men (don't these guys ever learn?) — are close enough to force an unfavorable comparison.

Robert Townes's inspired teleplay in no way plagiarizes Meyer Dolinsky's "Architects," but it does fall back a little too easily on sci-fi-movie cliches and dialogue tics; you could peg a drinking game to the line "or whatever it is" that pops up whenever anyone refers to the alien ship. Gerd Oswald is careless with some of the actors, too, and fails to check the off-key smirkiness of actor Howard Caine in the pivotal role of Mace's agency keeper. Again this is all easy to overlook given what a long, exhausting season it had been (as well as Townes's reported foot-dragging on delivering a final script), and there's still more good in "The Chameleon" than bad.

This includes a lead performance that's among the series' best. In some ways Louis Mace is another in Duvall's line of '60s TV series guest-creeps, like the surly junkie in Route 66's "Birdcage on My Foot" and the surlier fake-cripple in The Fugitive's "Brass Ring." But what he does here is hardly schtick, and after the cold detachment of Mace's early scenes — excluding the introductory flyswatter garrotting, of course — Duvall reveals the deep yearning to connect within Mace with bracing honesty.

The episode's bears are also a coup, although the gradual revelation of their unique physical features and motivations is nearly wrecked by the by now de rigeur spoilery teaser. Still, their gentle, pug-like faces and compulsive grins are shockingly alien even for The Outer Limits, primarily because we're never certain that they're fully benign. They have lethal weapons and use them, after all — we learn that prior to the episode's events they killed a group of soldiers, and that the men's bodies were found almost completely disintegrated (hold the image of that "almost" in your head for a minute). Being instinctively appealing to a professional assassin isn't exactly an endoresement, either. Mace's unnerving giggling immediately after his transformation — a walk in the park compared to Allen Leighton's in "Architects" — makes this line between benevolence and belligerence even fuzzier, and prolific character man William O'Connell plays it nicely as the lead alien, too.

Such ambivalence is a series trademark, but the degree to which Mace indulges his attraction to the aliens is a (literal) departure for The Outer Limits. Its protagonists are usually so resolutely human that the notion of going native and leaving terrestrial concerns behind rejects the show's implicitly earthbound tenets.

The key to Mace's bug-out comes, as often happens, courtesy of the Control Voice, particularly in a line from its opening narration:
" is quicksilver, more chameleon-like than the chameleon, determined to survive no matter what the cost to others -- or to himself."
When my brother David and I first wrote about The Outer Limits over 15 years ago we commended its balanced, respectful portrayals of human frailty and the frank morality behind its preoccupation with tension, unease, and rank horror (as well as tenderness, calm, and contentment). Its obvious heartbreak over our species' limitless capacity for betrayal and destruction still sets the show apart from most TV then or now, and is a big part of why it remains a touchstone for me 45 years after I watched it for the first time. (I'll cop to the bears being a big part, too.)

But cumulatively, all that frailty and horror and heartbreak add up to a pretty rotten assessment of humankind, one most of the series' otherworldly visitors — the ones we don't snuff first, anyway — would find hard to refute. Little wonder Mace does what Ethan Wechsler in "The Children of Spider County" and Chino Rivera in "The Mice" and that gaggle of losers in "Second Chance" wouldn't or couldn't do, which is to hitch the first ride out.

Maybe I'm being cynical, or maybe The Outer Limits was, but history since its demise hasn't exactly refuted the assessment, either. Whatever the case, as "The Chameleon"'s closing credits fade we're left to wonder whether we'd do the same damn thing Mace did. We're also given a final chance to marvel at how a television series could be so troubling, brilliant, and brave right up to the very end.

Mark Holcomb writes about movies, television, books, and general pop-cultural ephemera for The Village Voice, The Believer, Time Out New York, Salon, and whoever else will have him. He first watched The Outer Limits in its original run as a highly impressionable, temperamentally morbid three year old, and hasn't been able to shake it since (not that he's tried). He and his twin brother, David, indulged their fascination with the series back in the pre-blog '90s, and their efforts live on here courtesy of David J. Schow.


  1. A cogent assessment, Mark, of the entire closing first season's attitudes toward humanity. Lots of pessimism and cynicism stirred into that barrel of hope for the future. Lots of aesthetic spice. And what a mervelous brew TOL concocted, eh?

    A profound series that probably bewildered or offended nearly as many as it thrilled and enlightened. And then, of course, there were those who could only see "bears." If you were a kid, that was fine; the bears lured you into the cave, delivered the spine-chilling excitement they promised, and made sure you left with a door prize, a little enrichment, to boot.

    As for the adults who could only see bears, those were the folks with arrested imaginations and resistance to edification. They went straight to the Horizontal Hold, tried to adjust the picture, and then changed the channel with a shrug.

    Not to worry: they found plenty of pap to lavish their "attentions" on. Last I heard, they were still going strong and enjoying their "TV time" better than ever.

  2. Nice spotlight Mark H. Maybe this episode is the embodiment of The Outer Limits? Far from perfect, yet great in it's own way. You couldn't really ask for a better ep. Funny you mentioned Duvall in 'The Fugitive,' because I need some guidance from the commentators.

    This may come as a shock, but I have never seen an episode of the original 'Star Trek,' or 'The Fugitive.' As I am nearing the end of viewing the OL show, (skipping ahead and watching most of season 2) I'm looking forward to purchasing some more classic television sets. So between the two, which should I get? I realize the shows are probably very different and I'm not trying to start a debate or ask for long posts describing 'why,' one is better then the other. Just wondering what you experts would recommend as I have found this blog to be a treasure trove of knowledge that has led me to watch other classic shows and movies.

  3. Once again, a really nice piece, Mark, for a fitting caboose for an engine that--though chugging uphill--never ran out of creative steam.

    Okay, I'm done with the railroad metaphor. Good stuff.

  4. UTW-

    I've seen all the Star Trek I've ever wanted to see and I've got a full set of Fugitive that I'm working my way through. It's a tough call. If you like the character dramas of, say, Naked City or some of those old TV Playhouse things, you'd like Fugitive. Lot of "guest stars that became somebody." I can't stand Star Trek but have to grudgingly admit it had its moments. So...if I were going on a looooong vacation (120 nights or so) I'd take along Fugitive rather than ST.

  5. This was the first Spotlight I wrote, ironically enough, and I hadn't watched many of the preceding episodes for WACT purposes at the time. So I missed that "The Chameleon" has virtually every element of a great OL episode: A waffling military bigwig; a paternalistic government agent; a woodland locale; powerful, ambivalent observations on what it means to be human; and quasi-benevolent bears that are also menacing and really, really weird. Again, this couldn't be a better wrap-up of the Stevens/Stefano era. Impressive.

    Regarding William O'Connell, he has a small part as a sleazy bartender in The Culpepper Cattle Company, which I mentioned the other week because John McLiam from "Second Chance" is also in it. O'Connell also shows up in later episodes of Petticoat Junction (and likely Paul Henning's other cornpone sitcoms, although PJ was the only Holcomb childhood staple), typically as a snotty banker or railroad twit or the like. "The Chameleon" may be his least typecast role -- or his most.

    Ted: I just feel fortunate to have been around for the original go-round of The Outer Limits, as well as the time that spawned it -- it's truly a one-of-a-kind work of art. There, I said it. As for the TV landscape now, at least cable keeps things lively.

    UTW: I'm an expert only in why I love the TV shows (and movies and books) I love, but if you've got the time I say watch 'em both. There's a real OL look and feel to the earliest Star Treks, and I enjoy episodes from all three of its seasons even after all these years. The Fugitive captures some of OL's downbeat intensity (an argument for ABC having a house style, but I'll leave it to the real experts to call bullshit if that's not the case); unfortunately it fizzles after a couple of seasons because the premise was just too thin, and David Janssen clearly lost interest. His private-eye series from the '70s, Harry O, is more satisfying (and shorter), but good luck tracking that down.

    Larry B.: I think what you're saying is this episode gets up a good head of steam and... oh, forget it. I used up my train goodwill when I mentioned Petticoat Junction.

  6. Throwing out any concerns of log-rolling here, what a damn fine piece, Mark. This capped the first season for me: I suspect that like many here, my consideration of "Forms of Things Unknown" is too colored by its production history to legitimately place it as the 'final' first season episode. "The Chameleon" will do, better in fact, and this spotlight does it justice with heart and panache. Thanks, brother.

  7. Thanks Mark, first to you and David, for your insightful OL reviews on DJS's website, and for your eye-opening comments throughout this blog. When you say it had been a "long and exhausting season", and I recall Joe Stefano talking bout the eighteen hour workdays of season one, it calls forth the question to which we will, of course, never know the answer: could even this virtuoso team of people have kept up such a pace of brilliance for many more years to come? Inspiration is an elusive, often accidental muse. But what Stefano, Stevens, and the many others of OL gave us, has lasted until now, and judging by the heartwarming enthusiasm in this blog, shows no signs of drying up. Ted: a good point about the bears. How many things do you love as much as OL as a kid that surprise and delight when you find that as an adult, they are even so much more relevant. UTW: You sure write as if you're a veteran of said classic TV shows. I haven't seen any of The Fugitive either, but I can recommend the original Star Trek. No point in comparing it to OL: it's so different that it's merits are best viewed separately, and are outstanding too, in their way.

  8. Peter-

    Thanks for coming through, as always. I'm gonna go with your suggestion, mainly because 'The Fugitive,' was in black-n-white (at least for the first three seasons). Star Trek always seemed a little too hokey for my tastes. Reading your opinion of it doesn't give me much hope.

    Mark H.-

    I'll probably end up watching both eventually. Thanks for your input. I can definitely see myself tiring of Richard Kimble's exploits after a couple of seasons and skipping forward to watching the final episode. Don't think I've forgotten about your 'Posse' recommendation. I've just recently gotten a copy and I should be watching it in the next couple of days.


    Thanks for thinking of me as a veteran. I'm really just an opinionated jerk that stumbled upon this blog of evil, alien worshiping, criminal masterminds. I am a mere pupil compared to Jedi Master Peter.

  9. UTW-

    Be guided by what Mark says as far as The Fugitive goes. It is, after all, about a guy that wanders from town to town each week and falls in love with a different woman and manages to get into lots of trouble each time out. There's a "bit" of sameness to it. If you've got Netflix, sample a batch from the first season. The finale, a two-parter that was the highest rated TV show of all time for a bit of time (until MASH I believe), is a real corker if you can get your hands on it. I'm not sure if the entire series is available on legit dvd yet.

  10. UTW - I remember going on a hunt for The Fugitive after the feature film's release. For better or worse, at that time, you might find a few episodes on VHS at your local Blockbuster (often different ones at each local branch). I sampled a dozen or so episodes, and while I enjoyed them, I don't think I would have made it through the entire run (had they been available). I did also watch the finale, which was available as a cheap Good Times video (I'm sure that name will be recognizable to a number of folks here), and found it didn't live up to my expectations. Not a LOST-level disappointment, but just okay when all was said and done. Rest assured no matter how many you watch, you'll be exceeding the Surgeon General's recommended daily allowance of Barry ("Controlled Experiment") Morse!

    I do recommend the Blu Ray set of the Star Trek Original Series. Like The Outer Limites, I saw a number of episodes growing up, but haven't seen the entire series. While I've not seen all of the episodes (and no, there's no way Peter's signing up for Trek-A-Day), I have enjoyed watching the versions with the enhanced visual effects, and the eps look really nice in HD.

    Might I also suggest (if you haven't seen it, and are open to something a little off-beat) Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner? It's one of my all-time favorite shows, and it's a manageable 17 episodes.

  11. UTW: Star Trek became hokey over time, but the first season, if nothing else, is worth a look (although the dueling Shatners episode may make you want to gouge your eyes out). Watching in production order helps a lot. Enjoy Posse!

    John & Peter: I'll have to take a look at the Fugitive finale, if only for the sake of closure. I gave up on that series early in the third season, and the fourth-season episodes I've seen have been punishingly dull (even in living color and with Frontiere's OL cues).

  12. UTW: The other problem with The Fugitive is they replaced many of the original Peter Rugulo music cues throughout the second and third season. You get a cheesy synthesizer version of the original cues at certain points.

    As of today, all episodes of The Fugitive are out on DVD. The Fourth Season Volume Two came out today, but the fourth season, in color, just sucks. And hearing all TOL music cues from Frontiere without the context of TOL, was just ... unsettling. Avoid it. Or just watch the finale.

    The other problem with The Fugitive is Janssen's basically one note performance. Sure, it fits the character who's tired and paranoid from running, but it wears thin. I know I'm beating a dead horse here, but no classic TV series that has a near-anthology format of traveling from town to town can beat "Route 66." It was just a revelation for me to watch it again on Nick at Nite in 1988. Great writing. Great characters. And who isn't inspired by the idea of just hoping in a '61 Corvette and just wandering America in search of ... everything?

    I'll put in my two cents for "The Prisoner," as well. Awesome blu-ray presentation of one of the most original series every presented (1968). If you like chess, it's your baby. Mind games galore. Avoid the remake, though. Deadly dull. And this was one of those series that sprang from the mind, energy and imagination of an artists working at their peak (Patrick McGoohan). The documentary on the blu-ray set is fantastic, too.

  13. Peter & Mark H.-

    Yeah....maybe I'll just buy the first seasons of both shows since I started vacation from work today and will be off for the next three weeks. Buying the complete series of one or the other and trying to cram them all in would probably burn me out no matter which one I choose.

    John S.-

    Thanks for your informative post. Is it possible that your response may have partly been prompted by my referring to Peter as a Jedi Master? One day I'll regale you with the tale of my quest for the holy grail of the Star Wars action figures, the four original cantina aliens. Unfortunately, I was born a few years too late, with my local toy stores carrying only 'Return of the Jedi' stock when I began collecting.

    The Prisoner is one show I have not heard anything bad about. At only 17 episodes, it looks like I'll be giving that one a try shortly. No Trek-a-Day seems fair enough. How about that show 'Quark?' I've never seen it but it only lasted 7 eps. and is till available on DVD which means it must have some merit.

    If it weren't for Good Times video, I wouldn't own my favorite guilty pleasure movie of all time, 'The Choirboys!'


    Lol. Why did I get the feeling that you'd chime in about 'Route 66?' Rest assured my friend, before this blog is over and done with, I will have watched some of those shows. Looking forward to viewing them and letting you know my opinion. Buy the way, is there a season I'd be better off starting with, or just start with number one?

  14. Sorry, I meant 'By the way,' for that last sentence. Must be all this chatter about purchasing that led to my misspelling.

  15. UTW: Quark with Richard Benjamin was ... Quirky. It was a half-hour sci-fi sitcom. The video look never appealed to me. And I seem to remember Spock spoofing type cerebral comedy that just didn't go over. Perhaps an acquired taste. I know there are fans out there.

    "Route 66," you can basically start anywhere since it's an anthology show. And the only thing you need to know is that the journey begins when the preppy Tod's father (Martin Milner)dies and leaves him the Vette, and he heads out with his street-wise buddy, Buz (channeling Neal Cassidy or some other Jack Keroauc-inspired rapper). It's always good to start with the beginning of a production and watch it develop, though. But the first 15 episodes were not properly remastered by the company that released the DVDs (Infinity) and appear a bit dark and murkey. Things improve greatly with Season 1, Volume 2).

    You will not be disappointed with "The Prisoner." There are still websites devoted to it, and arguments going on about what it all meant. But if you ever heard of the show "Secret Agent," or John Drake, the premise takes off on what if such a secret agent wanted to retire... and how could they ever let him.

  16. >>One day I'll regale you with the tale of my quest for the holy grail of the Star Wars action figures, the four original cantina aliens.

    Not to make you jealous, UTW, but I stayed at John's house a few weeks ago...he was playing with those four cantina guys at the breakfast table. His wife kept having to take them away from him. They can't be that hard to find or they'd be encased in Carbonite and sitting on his Star Wars shelf.

  17. Do not mock me sir! You weren't a white man raised as a poor black child, like I was, in the mean streets of Franklin Park Il. circa 1986. Being only in second grade, the best figures I had to deal with was two Jawas, a 1G-88, and a Yoda that was apparently mugged in the toy chest as he had no coat, cane, or snake. I also had a G.I. Joe villain that was drafted to partake in the Star Wars universe that was a master of disguise, able to tan in sunlight, and turn blue in cold water. Lucky John probably owns the one masterpiece I was never able to acquire, the original Mos Eisley Cantina set.


  18. For what it's worth, your humble correspondent was the copy manager for GoodTimes from 1996 (following a six-year gig at Viking, where I was Steve King's hardcover publicist) until it was bought out, mismanaged into bankruptcy, and acquired by Gaiam---which laid most of us off---in 2005. Had the pleasure of making sure Richard Matheson was invoked on VHS/DVD jackets for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and some of the AIP Poe films.


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