Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Spotlight on "Fun and Games"

By John Kenneth Muir

Fredric Brown’s short story “Arena” was first published in June of 1944 in Astounding Magazine and the imaginative concept informing it has since become a staple of science fiction television, re-purposed often without attribution for series as diverse as The Outer Limits, Star Trek (1966-1969), Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977), Blake’s 7 (1978-1981) Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), and later, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994).

Brown’s timeless and highly-influential tale concerns a violent space war between Earthman and “intelligent spider”-like aliens known as “Outsiders.”  During a space combat engagement, a human pilot named Carson is spirited from the cockpit of his one-man fighter, called a “scouter,” and transported to the narrative’s titular arena: a world of blue-colored sand and strange, loquacious lizards.

Soon, an omnipotent alien informs Carlson that the galactic conflict will not be settled amongst the stars but in this ring, instead.  The human will fight an Outsider — a round, tentacled organism — to the death.

If Carson should lose this brutal contest, mankind will be wiped out of existence as a consequence. Contrarily, if Carson prevails in the fight, the human race inherits control of the universe and the Outsiders shall be destroyed. 

In the end, Carson destroys his alien opponent without any lingering reservations, a violent act that is a “moral imperative” according to the tale.

Penned at the height of the World War II era, Fredric Brown’s vignette suggested a unique alternative to the horrors of the times.  What if a war could be settled by two individuals — trained warriors from each side — rather than by the huge technological and personnel mobilization of nation-states? Wouldn’t that a better, more reasonable and far less messy way to wage war?

Over the years, the “Arena” template was been modified considerably, and Brown’s Darwinian “survival of the fittest” message was frequently overturned in favor of 1960s anti-war philosophy.  

For instance, in Star Trek’s famous “Arena,” adapted by Gene coon, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and a reptilian Gorn commander — like Carson and the Outsider — were transported to a neutral planetoid for one-on-one combat, while omnipotent aliens known as Metrons waited to declare a victor, and destroy the loser’s ship. 

But in this case — unlike his literary antecedent — Kirk defied the God-like aliens and refused to kill his alien opponent. The focus of this optimistic TV story was on not fighting in the first place, rather than winning or losing in the person-to-person combat.

Later iterations of Brown’s outline, namely Space: 1999’s “Rules of Luton, Blake’s 7’s “Duel,” and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Last Outpost” similarly stressed the “more evolved” moral ideal of resisting an arranged fight; and of punishing or defying instead the God-like aliens who would seek “bread and circus”-styled entertainment from the warring and savagery of other intelligent beings.

Instead of Brown’s Darwinian tale of survival of the fittest, these later programs meditated on the Sun Tzu axiom: “He will triumph who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

But “Fun and Games,” The Outer Limits’ memorable variation on the “Arena” template – and the first to appear on network television – remains determinedly different from such later retellings of the by-now familiar science fiction tale. 

In particular, “Fun and Games” is the only version of Fredric Brown’s story (though not credited as such by the Daystar series…) not to feature an overtly futuristic setting (like the 23rd century setting of Trek, or the 25th century setting of the Buck Rogers’ episode “Buck’s Duel to the Death.”)  Rather, the story takes place in 1960s America.

Even more significantly however, “Fun and Games” differentiates itself from its TV brethren by focusing squarely on contemporary, flawed man, rather than on more idealized, knowledgeable men of the Space Age like James Kirk, John Koenig, Roj Blake, Buck Rogers or Will Riker. 

Instead, Robert Specht’s teleplay “Fun and Games,” originally called “Natural Selection,” focuses squarely on two 20th century human outcasts, a man and a woman of less-than-sterling character who quite unexpectedly are called upon by alien gamesters on Andera (very nearly anagram for the word “arena…”).  Their task: to battle primitive “Calco” aliens…with the survival of the Earth at stake. 

Actually, “Fun and Games’” primary protagonists might even be considered bad people rather than heroes, at least in terms of 1960s social mores.  Benson (Nick Adams) is a small-time hood and ex-boxer with questionable ethics, while Laura Hanley (Nancy Malone) outwardly presents the appearance of sterling character but is actually a divorcee who left her husband because, simply, she didn’t want to be “his mother.”  The Anderan Senator, who lords over the gladiatorial games challenges Laura on her characterization of the marital separation. 

Truth is, notes the Senator, Laura’s husband just wanted “help” and she did not want to offer it.

Benson and Laura are thus hardly paragons of humanity, at least by most Camelot-era ideals.  And yet they are deliberately selected by the Anderan Senator to represent us in the battle to save our world. 

Both the questionable natures of the protagonists and the story’s focus on the necessity of killing – rather than avoiding the fight – render “Fun and Games” perhaps the hardest edge variation on Brown’s “Arena” yet featured on TV.

Yet, in keeping squarely with Outer Limits tenets, “Fun and Games” also features a “nod to high-minded ideals,” as the concept was described in David J. Schow’s landmark and still-unmatched series companion.  Perhaps, the episode’s narrative suggests, the trick to winning the Anderan contest is an understanding of when to be savage and when to be civilized

Nick and Laura’s opponents, the beastly Calcos, don’t reveal the same sense of adaptability as their human opponents in this regard.  The male Calco kills his female partner to secure the necessary nutrients for longer-term survival on the arena planet. 

By contrast, the human female, Laura, comes to Nick’s aid at a critical moment and double-teams the last Calco, assuring human kind “the win.”

If the Calcos are negative example for the displaced or “electroported” humans to learn from, the Anderans are not really any better.  The Senator is a taunting, cackling, monstrous master of ceremony.  It is plain that his advanced people — no matter how “peaceful” or “affluent” – are devoid of human traits such as compassion and empathy.  The Anderan quest for “pleasure” may control and appease their passions, but they are also utterly without mercy, even decency.

With the negative examples of the Anderans and Calcos in mind, the high-minded moral at work in “Fun and Games” involves balancing the ups and downs of human nature; both the impulse to kill and dominate and the capacity to work with others for a common good. It is an even-handed, believable portrait of the species.

The episode opens with images of blood sports; of a 1960s-era boxing match and of (modern) film recreations of gladiatorial games in Ancient Rome, specifically.  Accompanying these visuals, the Control Voice coolly discusses our human history of competition and sport, and how such games, in the modern technological era have been “drained of all but their last few drops of blood.”

This not entirely positive assessment of modern “fun and games” suggests that humans – or at least some of us – have lost our desire to be, well, the fittest; that such blood sports somehow keep us “ready” or primed for those life-and-death occasions in which we must rise to such a challenge.  Without regular contests to firm up those ancient instincts, do humans lack the edge necessary to survive in a hostile cosmos?

“Fun and Games” intimates that in the absence of such “authentic” blood sports, some humans — of a certain stripe anyway — seek other avenues to “survive” and confront challenges.  

For Nick Adams, despite his fears and professed lack of courage, this means that he survives as a criminal, skirting the police and involving himself in life-or-death scenarios, like a poker game gone wrong.  He spends his life as a desperate rat in a cage, running forever in place.  But always running…

Although it is well-documented that “Fun and Games” ran short, and that Joseph Stefano devised the notion of playing a kind of “time loop” in the episode, rerunning the sequence of murder at Nick’s poker game in Laura’s boarding house, this deliberate repetition of time and imagery in the episode actually works to the narrative’s benefit.  It nicely suggests that Benson’s life is already a life-and-death contest of sorts, each and every day, in every possible moment. It’s as though he’s trapped on a treadmill, running and re-running in place.  No end. No beginning. Just endless danger.  Endless adrenaline.

For her part, Laura has also checked out of the socially acceptable and decorous behavior of her culture (America of the mid-1960s). She ditched a husband and marriage that didn’t suit her, and now lives alone. 

Again, this is a brand of survival of the fittest, isn’t it? 

In the battle between fighting for her needs, and for her husband’s needs, Laura’s needs won out.  She made it so.  Not unlike Nick then, Laura is already a fighter...in the contest called life.   In some ways, she is even more a dedicated, hardcore fighter than Nick.  For instance, it is clear that without her assistance, Nick would have lost the Anderan contest to the Calco.  It is also clear that she uses whatever means she can think of to persuade Nick to participate in the Anderan game.

One of the many elements of The Outer Limits I’ve always appreciated is its realistic rather than idealized depiction of the human animal.  There is optimism inherent in that view; a deep respect for human resourcefulness and tenacity.

But the series is not shy, either, about revealing humanity at his most savage (“The Zanti Misfits”), or his most fearful (“The Architects of Fear.”)  “Fun and Games” is a perpetual delight because it paints a rather balanced picture of the human animal, simultaneously remembering the savage past and hinting at an enlightened future. 

Sometimes, mankind is willing to fight and murder, but in the case of the Anderan bread and circuses, these acts are for a very worthy cause: the survival of the species. Delightfully, the Control Voice’s final meditation about “human qualities” directing mankind to a better future in the “great darkness” of space (or the future) takes an important step beyond “Arena’s” literary narrative.   Even if the battle for survival is at hand, we would do well to wage that war with the best angels of our nature, “compassion” and “love.”    

In some situations, murder may be Brown’s “moral imperative,” but we don’t have to relish it.

John Kenneth Muir is the author of over twenty reference books about film and television, including award-winners Terror Television (1999), Horror Films of the 1970s (2002) and The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television (2004).   John is also the creator and director of the independent science fiction web series The House Between, which was twice nominated (in 2008 and 2009) as “best web production of the year” by Sy Fy Portal and Airlock Alpha.  John blogs daily at Reflections on Film and TV, and his latest book is Music on Film: This is Spinal Tap (2010; Limelight Editions).


  1. Excellent look at this OL episode, John. I think I appreciate it for many of the reasons you examine here. And because "... it paints a rather balanced picture of the human animal, simultaneously remembering the savage past and hinting at an enlightened future." Nicely put. Outer Limits could work so well in the gray areas, I think. BTW, I think you can also include another telepic in your list of programs that used the Fredric Brown 'Arena' template: The Challenge from 1970, which pitted Darren McGavin against Mako. U.S. vs Asian country, each sending their champion to settle their differences (with obvious parallels to the Vietnam War going on at the time). Wonderful examination of this, my friend. Thanks.

  2. Fine overview of a strong episode. You're so right about the protagonists being non-paragons, which makes them far more interesting than traditional heroic leads would be, and a fascinating, offbeat pair for the Senator to choose as Earth's ultimate protectors. Cool insights, John, and some equally cool books under your belt!

  3. Thank you both for writing such lovely comments about my spotlight on "Fun and Games."

    Le0pard13: Thank you for bringing up The Challenge (1970). That one really escaped my memory here, but you're right to mention it. I also agree with you that -- although filmed in black and white -- the Outer Limits is often about shades of gray. Well-said.

    Gary Gerani: I began my writing career because of you, sir! When I was a youngster, I purchased your 1977 landmark book Fantastic Television, and it has been like a Bible to me ever since. I've actually purchased it two additional times over the years just to make sure I have a good, clean copy to look at. Compulsive, perhaps, but necessary...I love that book.

    And though I totally (but respectfully) disagreed with what you wrote about Space:1999 in the book (!), I owe you so much because you turned me on to The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond, and a whole slew of TV movies from the 1970s. Even when I first was able to see Thriller a few years back I had your book as a guide in hand while screening.

    Okay, I've gushed enough. But your writing in Fantastic Television means a heck of a lot to me. It inspired me. Just to see genre television handled so respectfully, and with such intelligence meant a lot to this kid of the 1970s.


  4. Wow! Thanks so much, John. I can't tell you how much your response means to me. As a kid in the '60s, Carlos Clarens' AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE HORROR FILM was the reading experience that inspired me to create FANTASTIC TELEVISION, and it's so cool that my book inspired writers like yourself to carry on the tradition. We film and TV geeks are a breed apart, let's face it... Thanks again for the wonderful compliments!

  5. You listed a number of "science fiction television, re-purposed often without attribution" adaptations, but you left out one. You forgot ASTROBOY. Maybe you didn't know. Episode 88 of the original black-and-white series, CONTEST IN SPACE, clearly reflected ARENA. In the story the inhabitants of the planet Roha are concerned that the two developing worlds of Earth and Saturn may soon engage in armed conflict and threaten the peace of the galaxy. They decide to choose a team of one human and one robot to represent each planet in a contest of survival on the planet Moribund. Astroboy is in the middle of breaking up a robbery, when he and the thief (Mr Scrap) are taken away by "Magic Rings" to face off with Alpheta and her robot Omegum. The winners' planet will be spared and the losers' planet destroyed. Unlike ARENA, both sides are shown to be morally reluctant to kill and see their race have to live with the guilt of genocide. In the end, the Rohans admit their error and send both sets of contestants home with both civilizations being allowed to live.

  6. Good acting and some well orchestrated action sequences save this almost too high concept episode for me. Nick Adams and Nancy Malone are well matched and help keep the ep grounded in humanity. The bayou-Everglades like planet lends this entry atmosphere to burn; while the Freudian undercurrents, likely dated feeling now, were really ahead of the curve feeling back in 1964, almost shocking for a prime time network show. I found (and still find) the final scenes, the ones set in what feels like a Twilight Zone crossed with Peter Gunn hybrid big city reality, somewhat confusing. It ended too fast for my tastes, but overall was a satisyfing episode, and it showed that the behind the camera folk who (literally) ran the show, stretching, always stretching, and in admirable directions.


Apologies for having to switch to moderated comments. This joker (https://www.blogger.com/profile/07287821785570247118) has been spamming our site for weeks, and we're hoping this will finally get him/her/it to crawl back into the hole from whence it came. Sadly the site isn't smart enough to detect that every single comment they make is spam. We'll be sure to review and post legitimate comments quickly. As for you, "Blogger" (trust me, we've got far more imaginative and appropriate names for you) on behalf of all of us at WACT, don't let the door hit you on the way out!