Thursday, February 10, 2011

Spotlight on "Production and Decay of Strange Particles"

by Mark Holcomb

Written and directed by Leslie Stevens. Cast: George MacReady (Dr. Marshall), Signe Hasso (Laurel Marshall), Robert Fortier (Dr. Paul Pollard), John Duke (Dr. Terrel), Rudy Solari (Griffin),  Joseph Ruskin (Collins),  Willard Sage (Coulter), Leonard Nimoy (Konig), Allyson Ames (Arndis Pollard). Broadcast April 20, 1964. 

Story: Dr. Marshall, a physicist conducting experiments at the Broadridge nuclear plant, accidentally starts a lethal chain reaction in the facility's core. His snafu opens a gateway to another dimension, animates the dead reactor crew members' suits with pulsating energy, and forces him to stop whining and clean up his mess.

It's a shame Leslie Stevens only wrote and directed four of The Outer Limits' episodes, and a crime that half of them aren't much good.

Not to disparage Stevens — the guy was a bona fide genius, and "The Galaxy Being" is as brilliant and essential as "Controlled Experiment" is good, cheap fun. But due to overwork, production pressures, scheduling desperation, and a preoccupation with scientific verisimilitude (or the appearance thereof, anyway), "The Borderland" and especially "Production and Decay of Strange Particles" are serious slogs.

Both episodes pivot on bright flashing lights, loud noises, endless scenes of people busily scurrying around labs, and indecipherable techie jargon, often shouted. At least in "Borderland" this was all meant to make an impression; the episode was Stevens's follow-up to "The Galaxy Being," and the first one produced for the newly green-lit series. In "Production and Decay" — cooked up by Stevens virtually at the last minute and shot a mere two episodes before the season finale — these elements are deployed mainly to pad and propel a skeletal script in which very little happens. If nothing else, it's an hour of television that lends itself to multiple, pause-button-free pee breaks.

Every series has its bum episodes, of course, and watching "Production and Decay" on disc for review purposes emphasizes shortcomings that were likely easier to overlook during broadcast. (I barely remember it from back in the day, which speaks volumes.) And for all its flaws, the episode isn't completey disposable. Even when he wasn't firing on all cylinders Stevens still had something to offer.

The episode's energy creatures, one of the few elements I do remember from childhood, are used effectively for the first third or so, and an early scene in which one of them lumbers down a dark corridor and surprises a trio of crewmen even one-ups Howard Hawks's The Thing. (Among the crew are Rudy Solari and, fleetingly, Leonard Nimoy.) But by the tenth shot of these threadbare bears daisy-chaining their way around the reactor room the thrill is long gone, and even the nominal effect of lighting the interiors of their suit helmets has been discarded. Another effect — a corrosive liquid from the core being flung toward the camera — is also so overused that its inital shock fizzles.

The real draw of "Production and Decay" is George MacReady, a veteran of the earlier, far superior "The Invisibles." Marshall is a thankless role weighed down by reams of expository hooey and an unappealing central character trait (he's a chickshit), but the actor's hushed, omimnous delivery and loopy mugging make the doctor strangely endearing. MacReady never has his tongue far from his cheek here, but along with the solid Signe Hasso he carries the episode — and at one point literally carries Allyson Ames.

Stevens labors to invest "Production and Decay" with metaphorical weight, and there are flashes. Besides the autobiographical parallels with his punishing grind at Daystar and Marshall's insurmountable task at Broadridge (see my earlier review of "The Borderland" for more half-baked theorizing on this point), there's a nice moment in the pivotal scene where the good doctor finally mans up. The deflated-looking Marshall slowly stiffens with recognition that he's just allowed his wife to go into the deadly reactor room to do what he should be doing, and his response is identical to the energy creatures taking possession of the protective suits. It makes for a non-verbalized if fleeting corollary to the law of conservation of energy that provides the narrative backbone to Joseph Stefano's similar "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork," and MacReady pulls it off well. Marshall's heroic white shielded suit in the final scenes is also a good touch, and balances earlier shots in which he instinctively shields himself with opaque, protective barriers.

What "Production and Decay" really needs, barring emotional nuance and a more compelling narrative, is something The Outer Limits typically didn't shy away from: A monster fit for a walloping nightmare. The fury Marshall unleashes begs for its Quatermass moment, when it coalesces into something corporeal, sentient, and incomprehensible, a true foil to test the lily-livered doctor's mettle as well as a more feasible manifestation of all that bottling-up he's been doing. But no dice — whether because of the series' depleted budget or Stevens's love of science over lyricism (or both), all we get is old A-bomb test footage in forward- and reverse-motion and some sheepish gobbledygook about "time reversal effects."

I guess it could've been a lot worse, as Ben Brady was about to prove. And although it's not an episode I care to revisit again anytime soon, "Production and Decay" does have one characteristic that makes it worth watching carefully at least once. Despite a cold, pervasive, near-clinical weirdness, it counterintuitively reveals Stevens as the yin to Joseph Stefano's yang. Whereas Stefano's characters invariably find their way to the light only by excavating through deep, intractable darkness, Stevens's stand tall and are compelled to reach for it; even their customary mutual flaw, unchecked ambition, is backhandedly positive.

So kudos to Stevens for hiring someone so diametrically opposed to his sensibilities to run the show he created and loved — and to Stefano for following his own, more varied and memorable muse during production. Their partnership gives the show some of its edge, and inclines me to let Stevens's two lesser episodes off the hook.

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 very generous, courteous and well-conceived consideration, Mark. Kudos to you for gracefully assessing an episode that falls short of the lofty standard the show set for itself, while yet reminding us that many factors contribute to such a consensus disappointment.

    And none of those factors involve incompetence or indifference, when a production team like this is assembled.

    Terrific job with a tough Spotlight.

  2. Years after the demise of THE OUTER LIMITS, Leslie Stevens was asked what story he would do as an OUTER LIMITS feature film. He spun a tale of "beings coming not from outer space, but INNER space -- up from the inside of a cyclotron." He called it THE EARTH TAPES. If you re-imagine all the dramatic shortcomings of "Particles" as a multi-million-dollar movie, suddenly it doesn't sound so effetely intellectual.

    There's a lot of recycling on view in "Particles," as well -- everything from exterior driving shots lifted from "The Zanti Misfits" to the doorway buttons for the Pit in "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork," here repurposed as corridor alarms (and seen on more than one set redress within the same episode). The Broadridge Nuclear Facility is quite obviously the parking lot, ramps, soundstage doors and building backsides of KTTV -- where the OUTER LIMITS crew had been checking in daily for nearly nine months, by the time "Particles" filmed.

    Good stuff: Coulter's burns; the mindlessly lethal nature of the lumbering energoids (composed of "blue light" just like the Galaxy Being); Marshall strapping on his super-cool extra-reinforced radiation suit. The economical set design, plus the angles and lighting, make this Stevens' best-SHOT episode since "The Borderland" (back when he had a larger budget and more shooting time).

    Here we see Fortier and Allyson Ames (Mrs. Stevens #3) together prior to their reappearance in Daystar's last gasp, INCUBUS.

  3. Mark--

    Well done. Your comments on the universally-condemned performance of George MacReady are most interesting (I've always enjoyed him, no matter how "loopy" he gets, since first seeing him in Thriller's "Weird Tailor" back in '61). So, patching together your comments on MacReady with the earlier posts of Larry Blamire and myself, we seem to have a pretty darned good episode emerging. Now all we need is someone to weigh in with praise for the final
    A-bomb footage and---voila---an OL masterpiece!

    Seriously, since first seeing this show in '79, the one thing that remained with me was the "daisy-chain" bear, a simple and inexpensive cop-out monster to some, whereas to (a few) others, a "near-clinical weirdness" (your quote), elemental, totally Leslie Stevens RE-IMAGINING of what an OL bear might become in these scientific surroundings. The radioactive line-dancers remind me somewhat of the mechanical marching knights from my all-time favorite childhood film "Jack the Giant Killer" (where the battle was controlled and observed by Torin Thatcher and our OL pal Walter Burke); there's something terrifying about this inexorable procession of techno-zombies through the darkened hallways. I agree that the continuous shots of the marchers get a bit tedious, and I'm sure the intention was to ramp-up the tension and excitement as they approached the control area; in this regard, I was disppointed that there was no MUSIC under most of the daisy-chain shots...only electronic crackling.

    In terms of the emotional nuance issue...there's so much techno-jargon in this show that I'm glad it wasn't burdened with a lot of emotional clutter. I continue to be impressed with Ms. Hasso, sitting patiently with her husband, helping to calm him and sort through all of the complex, abstruse data---she, of course knowing NOTHING of what he's talking about, but nonetheless knowing HIM and his strength of character well enough to help guide him to a solution. She's the Nancy Malone-style "cheerleader" without the contrived "mother-complex" stuff from that episode shoe-horned in.

    Thanks for doing this rather thankless Spotlite on an episode that few would have undertaken. But, in a few weeks I think that (as you hinted) we will all be LAMENTING...LONGING for the "good old days" of episodes like this one, once we find ourselves mired in Season #2.


  4. DJS: "It Crawled Out of the KTTV Parking Lot" -- love it. I kind of love Allyson Ames (a Texan!), too; any idea if she's still with us?

    Thanks, Ted. Glutton for punishment, I guess. And, yeah, the incompetence and indifference were a few episodes away. Maybe that's unkind; after all, I wrote Kenneth Peach off and his work here and elsewhere in the first season is stellar. So I'll set aside my bitterness and prepare to be surprised by season two. At the very least there are John and Peter's reviews to look forward to...

  5. Thanks, Larry! As I said I don't know if I'll ever watch this one again, but I'm glad I sat down and gave it the attention it deserves at least once.

    You're right about the tension that builds as the energy zombies make their way out of the reactor room -- it's an effective threat, just drawn out too long while the doc gets busy growing a pair. And I should've said more about how good Signe Hasso is; she's sturdy but subtle, and she and MacReady play well off each other -- they provide a real sense that these two characters are equal partners. No small thing in 1964.

    Funny you should mention that A-bomb footage: I lost count, but it's all over the first season, even in "The Guests" of all episodes. I must've blocked how preoccupied the culture was with atomic weapons (with good reason) in the '60s, but the fear of some sort of nuclear event pervades The Outer Limits. I doubt if I'd have noticed if it weren't for WACT.

    Anyway, you and Larry B. have my admiration for championing "Production and Decay." It ain't "The Man Who Was Never Born," but it ain't [insert second-season episode title here] either.

    Peter: So wait -- you guys aren't doing the Showtime series?

  6. Mark--- You're right. Let's take a deep breath and plunge into Season Two with a positive attitude and our sensors focused on life signs amidst all the sterility.

    Peter--- You're conscripted for the duration. Anyway, don't you and John have a side bet about who'd wimp out first? You guys are the foundation of this edifice. I think you can be proud of where it's going.

  7. Hey, Mark, not much to add at this point (who'd ever thought there'd be this much talk about PADOSP?!) but for an excellent, well-focused assessment, I thank you.

  8. Thanks, Larry. You're more of a "Production/Decay" fan that I'll ever be, but I'm actually digging these multiple, all-day posts (first with "Fun and Games" and now here). Looks like tomorrow will be a break -- there can't be much to say about Kenny, Mr. Zeno, and that roomful of pillow feathers, after all, except maybe "call child protective services" -- but I'm hoping for similar treatment of episodes to come. The Ellison ones for sure.

  9. Perceptive, fair-minded overview, Mark. Bet you never guessed this episode would inspire two -- count 'em -- TWO Spotlight essays! A double dose of excellent criticism, analyzing a not-so-excellent OL... where else but on this blog? Also: I very much enjoyed your comparison of Stevens and Stefano, and how their differing styles and preoccupations complimented each other. It really was this unique combination that resulted in such a unique series...

  10. Wish to thank you ALL for the commentary on this episode! I must admit to loving it if only for that TITLE. After all, how many TV series (back then) would be able to come up with PARTICLE PHYSICS as a dramatic theme!? We're awash in 'Sci Fi' (cable, et al) now but for some time this OL try had the concept largely to itself. An "A" for timely effort if not i n execution. Again, thank you all for considering this 'black sheep'hour.

  11. At 1:00 in the story, I always like that appreciative whistle that either Ruskin or Nimoy gives when he sees how high the level is. If there's one sound you DON'T want to hear at a place like that, it's an appreciative whistle.

    This episode may have less comic relief than almost any other, but there's the "brandy behind the Nobel Prizes" line, and the serious little comeback to it that Robert Fortier gives.

  12. "I don't know if I'll ever watch this one again"

    That very thought was on my mind regarding SEVERAL episodes of the 1st season I simply DON'T LIKE, for reasons of persona taste. And yet-- once I started on my Friday-night marathon earlier this year (ONE episode each Friday!), imagine my surprise when I watched ALL of them. Well, the 1st season, anyway. I only have the first 3 of season 2... and that continues to annoy me.

    Sometimes it's just "easier" when you have 4 episodes on a tape to watch all 4 without trying to fast-forward over something. There are excceptions. With DOCTOR WHO, it's generally 2 stories to a tape, and "Revelation of the Daleks" comes after "Timelash"-- the worst piece of S*** they ever did in 26 seasons of that show. That one, I have fast-forwarded over-- several times. (And my VCRs don't even have working counters right now.)

  13. Friday is also MY big day or night for watching it. With some episodes, the first showing I definitely associate with it was a Friday night repeat, but even with the others, it makes a lot of sense.

  14. They need to bring these old reruns back to TV,haven't been able to find it for a few weeks.Love Production & Decay-a real guilty pleasure,better than Star Trek!Am watching that vs Star Wars:The Force Awakens.


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