Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Outer Limits

One of the scariest shows on television for me as a kid was the original 1960's Outer Limits series. My father used to faithfully watch these episodes and I found them fascinating even though they consistently provided material to keep me scared of the dark. You can laugh at the creature costumes because of the now cliche look and feel and the low budget fake factor, but they really got it right in the creepiness department. Something about the black and white rendering, combined with the music and the well done voice overs, made it quite effective. And you have to give some originality points for the opening sequence - pretending that aliens had taken control of your TV set. Very cute.

Of course, it was the story concepts that really distinguished the episodes. Here is a nice episode guide. The series had so many really off the wall and inventive ideas that when I began to re-watch them via the internet in recent years, I still remembered much of it. But this is one series that you just can't get with a plot synopsis - its approach is so unusual you just have see it. I'm going to leave the space below open for links to some of the shows and some commentary as I get around to seeing them again. I decided not to upload image frames because without the music and storyline they just look silly.

The Galaxy Being - Very nicely done although hard to swallow the concept with 1960 radio wave tech. The effect of not being able to hear the alien at first on the other end of the communication is powerful.

The Sixth Finger - Well written story about human nature and evolution. The makeup job on this one is freakishly cool.

O.B.I.T. - First one I re-watched and all I remember is the alien in the mirror that flooded all those memories back into my mind. Very nice "big brother" style narrative with a message that is relevant even today. If given the power to "spy" on the thoughts of others, would that power ultimately destroy us?

It Crawled Out of the Woodwork - Yet another expose of how we can become greater monsters in our own devises than even the monsters we ourselves create. This one is very effectively done. Ed Asner plays the detective.

The Zanti Misfits - The bug people are claymation and all, but you tell me if they aren't still creepy looking. The terrorized overacting doesn't take away from it either. And it has a very original story concept that I still have not seen duplicated elsewhere.

Specimen: Unknown - Alien contamination story with a twist at the end. This one I saw coming well before the conclusion.

Second Chance - Wow, the setup and the costuming on this one seems ridiculous at first, but once the alien starts talking it draws you in kind of unexpectedly. The concept is interesting too - a recruiting effort to save both Earth and the alien's planet from an asteroid set to strike 82 years in the future. Who would be willing to go?

Moonstone - Another great visual on the "eye monsters" coupled with a neat story that shows the aliens to be the noble heroes. Who's the genius who decided to create aliens that look like a mass of giant floating eyes?

The Guests - This one put some real creepy images in my head as a kid. Ever seen an entire mansion turn into a giant brain? The story is so weird you gotta love it - almost reminiscent of a dysfunctional family situation.

A Feasibility Study - Before I ever saw it, I watched this exact story as it was remade in an episode of the new outer limits series. I can understand why they did it again as it is at the same time a powerful story of human sacrifice and a raw science fiction script. The original rendition is just as good in content without the upgraded special effects.

The Forms of Things Unknown - No monsters here, but an Edgar Allen Poe style story about a murder plot and the guilt that follows.

Cold Hands Warm Heart - A great preview of pre-Trek William Shatner as the lead role, and for me, watching him squirm as he looks out the window at a Venutian alien is the dang creepiest image in the whole series! Just genius.

Behold, Eck! - Kind of cute story about a 2-dimensional being trying to get back to its home. Notable for its early treatment of the 2-D to 3-D world concepts it explores.

Demon with a Glass Hand - Not a real impressive story but it does keep you guessing on its way to the final revelations.

The Invisible Enemy - Another source of nightmare fodder for me as a kid. Very effective monster concept - a "sand" dragon (on Mars) that can swim and dive under the sand like it was water, and a rock boundary acting as an effective shoreline. Lots of 'Jaws' type suspense - "It's coming toward you - get off the sand!!" Great stuff.

Wolf 359 - This one really gets under your skin. Creepy ghost alien starts as a microscopic blip in the very miniature model you created. As the model experiences accelerated evolution, the ghost slowly grows, evolving into a menace that attacks living things in the laboratory. There is an underlying message that if you try to play God, you may have to deal with devil.

Tourist Attraction - Although I'm a lifelong swimmer and ocean lover, including scuba, I've always had an irrational fear of swimming in seaweed, especially bare skinned. It's always had something to do with images of monsters in the seaweed and I'd always suspected it was planted in my subconscious by an outer limits episode, even though I could not recall it at all. I believe this may be that episode.

I, Robot - Based on famous set of stories from the pulp fiction era about a robot named Adam Link (prior to Asimov's anthology with the same name), this is probably one of the best written episodes of the series, even better than the original story. A robot goes on trial for murdering the professor who created him even though he is in fact innocent. What is great here is that even the defense attorney and the reporter, played very nicely by Leonard Nimoy, are doing it for ulterior motives. Adam's only real ally is the professor's daughter and heir to the "equipment".

The Duplicate Man - When I watched this recently, I was delighted see Clifford Simak named as author, the writer of one of my favorite sci-fi novels from my youth, City. But the story itself seems more like an essay by Dicke. In the future, the ability to create a duplicate of oneself is available, but the duplicate is only allowed to live for 5 hours until its mission is completed. Like Dicke's Electric Sheep story upon which Blade Runner is based, the main focus is the exchange between a man and the duplicate he creates for a dangerous mission. This is one of the few episodes where the monster costume doesn't work. It looks like a man in a giant chicken outfit rather than a menacing alien.

The Premonition - I remember this one well because of the impression it made on me as a kid. This is the first time I know of that the idea of moving so fast in time that everything else looks virtually frozen was explored. You can only really do this idea well on film and the next time I saw it done was in the Star Trek episode "Wink of an Eye". After re-watching it today, I am still impressed. It is well directed and manages to engage your heart and mind simultaneously. Besides a stretch of credibility on the science end, its only flaw in my opinion is the absolutely horrible acting job of the pilot's wife. But the mix of still shots and motion throughout is superbly done.

Cry of Silence - One time I was looking for one of the many weird sci-fi shows I watched with my Dad as a kid. This particular one was about a couple who's car broke down near an abandoned town and had to stay with this guy they met. They were attacked by seemingly smart tumbleweeds, if you can believe it, which they fended off with fire (of course). Later the tumbleweeds disappeared and they were invaded by frogs. I also remembered boulders hurling themselves at them before they finally got away. This is the kind of weird stuff you just don't see anymore. It took a lot of effort to figure out what I had watched and it turned out to be an episode of the Outer Limits called Cry of Silence. I was just able to view it again (ah, the internet - see link) and I have to admit, I found it rather comical, but it is so odd it is still memorable. It reminded me of a camp fire ghost story.

Production and Decay of Strange Particles - A vivid childhood dream was fashioned after this one and I've finally found it again. As an adult, it is entertaining because it is so ridiculous, but also because it is a bit of a period piece. At a time that saw the proliferation of sub-atomic particle discoveries in cyclotrons, the discovery of quasars, and the unleashing of the atomic bomb, a lot of uncertainty and wonder abounded in the scientific world. This episode capitalizes on all that. By today's standards, it all sounds so elementary and silly. Then there's the cowardly scientist who finds courage thanks to his faithful spouse's encouragement - very corny but also a mark of the era. To top it off, real footage of an atomic bomb test that in no way resembles the sets it was supposed to detonate over, which is then run backward! And don't forget the cameo by Leonard Nimoy. Everything you'd want for a mystery science theater.

The Architects of Fear - I vividly remembered as a kid the grotesque bug-eyed monster from this episode, but it only appears at the end. As an adult, I found the back story to be very well written, about how men of power conspire to unify mankind by creating a common enemy to fight against. But the man chosen to turn himself into that monster ultimately fails and the shame and pity of it all is palpably portrayed.

The Man With The Power - A similar theme as that used in Forbidden Planet. Give a man mental control over the physical world, and his subconscious mind may do things his conscious self would prohibit. The always erie Donald Pleasance is a perfect fit for the part.

The Man Who Was Never Born - Everything about this story is silly and ridiculous, and yet there is a nobleness to the characters that allows it to rise above itself and make a surprisingly profound impact for a time travel tale.

Nightmare - A classic prisoner of war tale, only the captors are an alien race, and the whole thing turns out to be a experiment of humans upon humans to test their loyalty under pressure. The curious thing here is that the sets look like a bare theater stage with a few props, and yet the quality of the piece is so good that it does not take away from it.

Zzzzz - A very haunting tale about a queen bee whose colony, the subjects of an entomologist's effort to understand their language, somehow transforms her into a human female who then tries to mate with the scientist, which greatly disturbs his wife. It is a well written script which somehow effectively illustrates the chasm between insect and human ways. The actress who plays the queen bee creates a wonderful mix of naiivete and cunning, and even looks the part.

Children of Spider County - I both remember and love the makeup job on this particular alien. The story about 5 young men fathered by aliens who have come back to take them home, but who choose instead to stay among the humans who fear them for their abilities, is I think one of the most representative of the series. Who is the real monster - the one who looks the part or the one who acts it out?

The Brain of Colonel Barham - This is one of the few episodes that I remember really creeped me out not because of any visual images, but because of the horror of the situation. Amazingly, the story is still as relevant today since we still know relatively little about the human brain and what would happen if it were separated from the body. It's also a well written and executed script in it own right.

In more recent times, a new Outer Limits TV series was created, this time in color. Aside from the silly attempt to redo the "we control your TV set" opening, this series had virtually no resemblance to the original. However, it was a pretty good show in its own right and won some awards. It did keep the tradition of interesting stories and lots of weird aliens, and a focus on concepts relating to alterations of the physical body, but it seemed to focus on last minute plot twists as the main feature, most of which were dark and gruesome, which is what made it so fun - sometimes the only thing. I used to watch it and remember that occasionally one would blow me away (like Summit). But most of the story concepts ended up being somewhat cliche and not very credible. Network writers have a stock set of sci-fi like concepts that are totally ridiculous but keep popping up because they allow easy story lines and, well, that deserves another blog entry. Suffice it to say that my enjoyment in watching the new series often came from getting a good laugh at the evil plot twist at the end which I often didn't see coming.

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