Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Spotlight on "The Invisible Enemy"

By Matthew R. Bradley

I am writing this not as an expert on The Outer Limits (so thank God for David J. Schow’s fine Companion!), but as one who is fascinated with film and television adaptations within the genre, and who interviewed this episode’s creator, Jerry Sohl, a few years before his death at the age of 88 in 2002.  Sohl was the senior member of what is known variously as the Southern California School of Writers, the California Sorcerers, or simply “the Group.”  The others members of this loose-knit Group—all screenwriters as well as authors—included Charles Beaumont (for whom he ghost-wrote three Twilight Zone scripts), Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, William F. Nolan, Ray Russell, and Theodore Sturgeon.

This is the only one of Byron Haskin’s six episodes to receive no mention in his Directors Guild of America Oral History interview with Joe Adamson, although he weighed in on second-season producer Ben Brady, who “killed…Perry Mason, and Rawhide for MGM, with Clint Eastwood and Eric Fleming.  That was a pretty heavy show to axe, but they managed it!  (Laughs.)  And he did it to Outer Limits—in [seventeen] episodes.  He…was just not an inspired producer.  The network had him on their hands with a contract of some kind, and with nothing to do, so along comes this series with no producer—what do they do?  Move him in.  What the hell does he know about Outer Limits?  Doesn’t matter.  He’s a ‘producer.’  This is the executive thinking...”

Jerry adapted “The Invisible Enemy” from his eponymous short story, which was first published in the September 1955 issue of Imaginative Tales; it was later included in his posthumous 2003 collection Filet of Sohl, edited by Group historian Christopher Conlon, which I had the honor of reviewing for Filmfax.  The central gimmick in story and teleplay is the same, and the “let’s-go-find-out-what-happened-to-the-crew-of-the-previous-ship[s]” plotline common to them both is familiar to viewers of everything from It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)—also set on Mars—to the film it apparently helped to inspire, Alien (1979).  Where Sohl’s two versions of “The Invisible Enemy” differ most notably is in their scope, which affects the tone and setting.

Sohl the screenwriter, or at least the episode that bears his name alone, portrays modest missions by six astronauts, aboard the prosaically named colonization probes M-1 and M-2, to our nearby neighbor, the Red Planet.  Sohl the author gives us fifty men aboard the Federation (!) war ship Nesbitt, following in the footsteps of three previous vessels, each with an eight-man crew that was swallowed up while investigating the fate of two explorers who had successfully landed on almost a hundred other worlds.  In fact, while reading “Enemy,” it’s hard not to envision the ill-fated space soldiers—forgive me, Flash—of Aliens (1986), with their “bug hunt,” or the 1997 screen version of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (which I confess I have yet to read).

Of course, one reason for the differences is presumably attributable to the fact that by Halloween of 1964, when “The Invisible Enemy” first aired, NASA had already propelled men into space (to borrow the title of yet another vintage SF series).  We now had an idea what astronauts were supposed to look and sound like, and The Outer Limits surely didn’t have the budget, or perhaps even the inclination, to go too futuristic on us with waves of interstellar dogfaces tooling around in “treadwagons” and “g-cars.”  When Matheson adapted Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles as a 1980 miniseries, hindsight similarly enabled him to invest those expeditions with the same type of “okay-who’s-going-to-go-up-next” backstage drama that characterized the real space program.

While the episode focuses less on the computer than on strict adherence to orders, Sohl’s literary protagonist, Harley Allison, is a member of the Computer Corps, which brings him into conflict with old-school Commander William Warrick:  “It was natural that men who had fought through campaigns with the old logistics and slide-rule tactics were not going to feel immediately at home with computers and the men that went with them.  It wasn’t easy trusting the courses of their ships or questions of attack and defense to magnetized tape.”  In the end, almost inevitably, Allison’s computer tapes enable him not only to discover that fresh blood spilled on the sand is the common factor behind all of the attacks, but also to be the sole survivor of the Nesbitt’s crew.

According to David J. Schow, Sohl’s script was reworked by Brady, Haskin, and second-season story editor Seeleg Lester, but Jerry himself opined, “I would say that the work remained intact in my estimation, and that they only used their names to get the money.  You know, if your name appears on something you get money in Hollywood, so that’s the reason for that.  I’m not saying that they’re cheaters or anything, I’d say that if you can get your name on it, fine.  I didn’t care.  There’s enough money to go around for all of us.  Getting to work was the fun.  I never had an argument in television, and I just thought it was a great medium.  It was in its blossoming stages, so I hope some of the things that I did have some influence on what we see today,” he told me.

Speaking in the late ’90s for our Filmfax interview, he expressed nostalgia for the way television worked back in the day:  “It was fun while it lasted, and there were no people looking over your shoulder, and there were no people who took your story and put it down in front of them and went through it while you were sitting there and saying, ‘I don’t like this, and think of something to put in here and do this and do that.’  They either accepted it or—well, they never rejected it, but if they accepted it they usually read the script and then they would say that they would like this changed or that changed, and that would be perfectly all right.  Or you would stand up for your rights about something, and they would usually accede to what it is that you wanted...”

Matthew R. Bradley is the author of Richard Matheson on Screen, now in its third printing from McFarland, and the co-editor—with Stanley Wiater and Paul Stuve—of The Richard Matheson Companion (Gauntlet, 2008), revised and updated as The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson (Citadel, 2009).  Check out his blog, Bradley on Film.


  1. Nice piece on Jerry Sohl. I can recommend "Bradley on Film" which has his interesting annotated list of 100 favorite movies.

  2. Thanks, Walker; stay tuned for more of the same tomorrow. I see you inadvertently stole some of my thunder re: Jerry's short story in your comment on the original post, but that comes with the territory. Appreciate the kind words about BOF.

  3. Thanks for the contribution Mr. Bradley. It's comforting to know that interviews and records were kept concerning authors that are no longer with us today. We could learn a lot from those elder scribes about the crafty of writing.

  4. Sorry, it's near midnight where I'm at and I'm beat. I just meant 'craft' of writing. Though some may say you have to be crafty to be a writer I guess.

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  6. Thank you all for noting this episode. As with some of the others, if I had seen this as a kid I'd have flipped out (I'm easy to please). A special thanks to "Hockey" --one of the great graces of OL is that it gives us 'sci fi' and space travel "now". At a time when 'the experts' are saying 'it couldn't be done' for perhaps centuries if ever.


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