The Outer Limits

Foreword

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The Fashion of Dreaming: A Critical Guide to The Outer Limits

The Mutant
Directed by Alan Crosland, Jr.; written by Allan Balter and Robert Mintz (story by Jerome Thomas). Cast: Warren Oates (Reese Fowler); Larry Pennell (Dr. Evan Marshall); Betsy Jones-Moreland (Dr. Julie Griffith); Walter Burke (Dr. Riner); Robert Sampson (Lt. Chandler); Herman Rudin (Dr. Lacosta). Broadcast March 16, 1964. Story:A United Space Agency psychiatrist visits colony planet prototype Annex I to investigate strange reports. Resident radiation casualty Reese Fowler makes it abundantly clear: the experiment has failed.

Make no mistake: "The Mutant" is a wildly inconsistent episode, careening between brilliance and bombast so readily that it must be considered a troublesome entry. Yet, as further testament to the multiple strengths of the show's first season, this installment projects pure Outer Limits force and stands repeated viewings—indeed, it gains from them, as the fractured elements hindering its best features begin to unite and make sense thematically. At the peak of the questionably-composed pile that makes up "The Mutant" stands the mutant himself, Warren Oates, in one of the most affecting, skilled performances ever filmed for television. He is a man named Reese Fowler....

Less a man than a radioactive tyrant—physically and psychologically scarred by the decimating "R.I." (radio-isotope) rain which renders Annex I an utter catastrophe as an Earth settlement. Fowler, losing a battle with destructive impulses increasingly beyond his rational control, is one of the series most awesomely frightening monsters: at once recognizably human and shockingly freakish, his massively swollen eyes, bald head, deadly touch and sadistic glee inspire repellent dread. Yet he is human, struggling with a need for contact beyond domination; this is heartbreakingly conveyed in a climactic scene in which Fowler, unable to tolerate darkness (it physically hurts him), attempts to coax Marshall and Julie out of their cave hideout with a plaintive, pathetically childlike "come out...". It is an Outer Limits moment, magnified by the dignity of Oates's performance as he imparts Fowler's barely masked awareness that the half-truth conceit from which he operates (that he is a mutation, not a monster) is a sham— what he truly is, or is becoming, is no less horrendous than his appearance. He is a sad antagonist, as pitiable as he is terrifying.

Too bad about the romance subplot. Pennell's and Jones-Moreland's characters, it seems, once had a thing going; Julie couldn't take Marshall's constant need to analyze, and bolted into the arms of Annex I leader "Griff" (Hollywood vet Richard Derr, seen very briefly in flashback). The thematic links with the primary plot require some detection, but they are present: connecting notions of privacy and secrecy; needing to know (and knowing too much, either through Fowler's lethal telepathy or Marshall's analytic impulse) contrasted with the allowance of a relationship, a thought, hope or dream to merely be (as both Julie and Lt. Chandler require in order to figuratively and literally survive); the metaphor of constant, revealing daylight contrasted with the respite of veiling darkness. The romance figures in, but as played, it doesn't work— especially on first viewing, as it drains power from the story proper. Beyond the episode's chilling first quarter, dominated by Fowler and Chandler (Sampson is the only other actor up to Oates's level), the thrust of text and subtext is interrupted ad nauseum by hammy scenes meant to convey the wounded longing between Marshall and Julie—the music swells, Kenneth Peach goes in for (pretty dreadful) maximum close-ups, and the flow of meaning and menace stops dead, straining time and again to restart. The Outer Limits could do romance well, as classic episodes "The Man Who Was Never Born" and "The Architects of Fear" so ably prove; here, it is at best distracting and ill-conceived. Other limitations abound: the bewildered histrionics of butch Pennell (yes, The Beverly Hillbillies' Dash Riprock) and occasional Corman diva Jones-Moreland; the accurate but careless insertion of references to two works of literature dealing with tyranny and disintegration (Orwell's 1984 and Conrad's Heart of Darkness); a barely justified use of a retooled Zanti, complete with signature buzz and shriek; and the written-by-committee feel of the script (the credited writers comprise fewer than half of those involved). All would have benefitted from director Crosland utilizing his skills as a film editor, his "regular" Hollywood job (on, among many others, 1955's Marty, and something called Blowing Wild from 1953).

Thankfully, even surprisingly, these shortcomings don't destroy "The Mutant." The episode never approaches the ruin of "Tourist Attraction" or "The Special One." This is due in part to the sophisticated (if routinely undermined) quality of the subtext; primarily, though, it is due to Oates's genuinely moving interpretation of Reese Fowler, a man losing his mind and humanity to cruelly random forces. In many roles throughout his career, Kentucky-born Oates often conveyed basic human character and capabilities, while impressively communicating the experience of entanglement in terrifying complexity, and dealing with such circumstance in sometimes crazy, sometimes scary, always fated and strangely sensible ways. His Outer Limits mutant is an emblem of both the actor-as-character, and of the series—impressively, in a non-emblematic episode. Mr. Fowler and Mr. Oates are plainly unforgettable. Rest in peace.

—DCH

A Feasibility Study
Directed by Byron Haskin; written by Joseph Stefano. Cast: Sam Wanamaker (Dr. Simon Holm); Phyllis Love (Andrea Holm); David Opatoshu (Ralph Cashman); Joyce Van Patten (Rhea Cashman); Ben Wright/Robert Justman (The Authority); Glenn Cannon (Teenager). Broadcast April 13, 1964. Story: The inhabitants of a six-block suburban area awaken one Sunday on the planet Luminos. They discover that if they survive the humid, viral climate, the immobile Luminoids will abduct Earth's remaining population for enslavement. Are the human test subjects up to the challenge of making this plan infeasible?

"So, what's the catastrophe this morning?"

So goes the opening line in "A Feasibility Study," the first of Joseph Stefano's Outer Limits screenplays to see production. It's a fitting introduction to the style he was to employ during his tenure as the show's producer and primary author. By posing a disarmingly simple question with unexpectedly disturbing implications, Stefano makes it clear that his creative concerns lay less with scientific riddles and clever social parables than with the ongoing struggle between a fractured, divisive human race and an impeccably organized, (mostly) alien evil. What is the catastrophe of the day? For Joseph Stefano, the only possible answer to this provocative and potent question—if not to the catastrophe itself—lay squarely in The Outer Limits.

For all this, "A Feasibility Study" is a bit of a rough start for Stefano as television writer. Like all memorable works of cinema, The Outer Limits lived and died by its writing, and it's undeniable that the show was fortunate to have as daring and visionary a talent as Stefano as its primary architect. Still, the pressures of a weekly broadcast schedule ensured that even his reach sometimes exceeded his grasp. While his characteristic, seemingly paradoxical mix of charitable humanism and knowing cynicism helped to make the series what it was, Stefano was occasionally unable to find the right balance between the two extremes. On those occasions, his cynicism was as likely to become embittered and overwhelming (as in "The Bellero Shield") as his humanism was to slip into easy sentimentality. The latter is certainly true of "Feasibility," in which a dense melange of lofty ideas never quite manages to gel into a cohesive whole. Nevertheless, the episode remains interesting and powerful, and succeeds virtually on the strength of its author's convictions; as with many of The Outer Limits' more problematic episodes, "Feasibility" proves that it at least has something to reach for.

What gives the episode its lingering power is Stefano's convincing portrayal of a human society incapacitated by its inability to find a collective purpose. Each of the characters in "Feasibility" is narrowly devoted to principles that serve only to isolate them from one another: for Simon, it's his unquestioning and unyielding religious faith, while Andrea adheres to a naïve idealism that is too untried to be genuine activism; Ralph Cashman appears only to live for his work, to which he dutifully marches even on a dreary Sunday morning. Even Rhea, Ralph's aimless wife, seems blindly focused on her role as homemaker and (routinely abandoned) wife. In this sense it's significant that Simon and Andrea's marriage (which she defines as "the beginning of [her] mental and spiritual deterioration") has eroded into separation on the very day of Midgard Drive's abduction—its separation from Earth. It's clear that the desperate individualism on display leads only to a permanent, dissatisfied isolation from which there is little chance of return.

This leaves the Midgardians ripe for exploitation by the sterile Luminoids, who embody the emptiness the earthlings so perilously court. Luminos is an apt metaphorical representation of a world without purpose: its stagnate, austere landscape is listlessly dominated by creatures who revel only in pure, bullying intellect (a Stefano theme also on display in "The Guests" and "Don't Open Till Doomsday"), yet who are wholly incapacitated by their spiritual malaise. The Luminoids have become as physically immobile as their human captives are emotionally rigid, and are as indistinct as their hostile surroundings. While the Midgardians at least seek fulfillment on an emotional plane, however haphazardly and tenuously, the Luminoids can only aim for the insidious and vicarious satisfaction of slavery and oppression.

To achieve this, they use their captives' traits and habits against them: by restricting only their physical freedom and allowing them to "marry, worship and think" as they had on Earth, the Luminoids present an undeniably attractive offer to the Midgardians—and, presumably, to the human species at large. For such enslavement solidifies (quite literally) the individualistic isolationism displayed by Simon, Andrea, Ralph and Rhea, and makes it not only a viable option but a virtual necessity. Rebellion is averted by the humans' overwhelming fear of "contamination"—not only from the Luminoids' sluggish contagion, but also from the intensity of their own long-suppressed solidarity. And yet, Stefano asks, what is contamination if not a kind of solidarity itself? Under the circumstances the two seem inextricably linked, and infection provides the human subjects with a commonalty they can finally appreciate, if not understand. Cashman and Andrea, both afflicted with the Luminoid virus, offer the Midgardians deliverance from their dual enslavement, and for Stefano the certainty of lingering death matters less than the humans' willingness to accept their fate collectively and with collective dignity.

Routinely interpreted as The Outer Limits' take on religion, "A Feasibility Study" actually skirts the spiritual questions raised by Simon's faith rather early on. Simon Holm may be the only openly spiritual character to grace a first-season episode, but his ill-defined faith is more refuge than comfort. The church that figures so prominently in his life, and in the episode's climax, exists largely as a reminder of the hollowness of human values that serve only the individual, and as such is little different from the elusive office Ralph Cashman is bound for as the film opens. Only in the end does the church take on any symbolic significance, and only through the admittedly desperate sacrifice of the Midgardians. While the implication may be that only collective values can make human institutions like religion, work and activism ring true, there's a characteristically ambiguous catch: the Luminoids are the embodiment of the solipsistic philosophical narrowness the episode cautions against, but they also inhabit an efficient society that's based on undeniably collective principles, however bankrupt. As so often in The Outer Limits, the choice that offers salvation also threatens damnation....

Despite the undeniable force of Stefano's story, "Feasibility" simply takes on too many issues to be entirely successful. The Luminoids' enslavement of the humans is echoed on a personal scale by the stifling nature of Simon's conventional expectations of Andrea. Yet this theme is taken nowhere beyond a few trite arguments, and is responsible for what has to be the worst line Stefano wrote for the series: "Marriage has become insignificant in this big, troubled world of ours. Maybe that's why the world's in such big trouble." Oh. While the episode makes much of the waning power of marriage as a unifying force, Stefano and The Outer Limits both explored these themes more frankly elsewhere ("The Bellero Shield" and Meyer Dolinsky's flawed "ZZZZZ," for instance). Even more egregious is the theme of human choice introduced near the film's climax. It feels perfunctory and tacked on, and nothing in the first 40 minutes of the episode (with the possible exception of Andrea's decision to leave her husband) warrants Simon's self-righteous and ill-timed speech on the value of choice as he leaves for the church. This curiously unfelt thematic detour is more intellectually interesting than emotionally engaging, and it detracts from the episode's poignant power.

Stefano's characterizations are unusually weak in "Feasibility" (though perhaps not for a writer unused to the medium), and, with a single exception, the lead performances do little to make up for it. Sam Wanamaker, a likeable actor long blacklisted in Hollywood and perhaps more accustomed to working on the British stage, is unconvincing as the emotionally inflexible Simon. The actor's particular brand of stiffness doesn't lend itself to a character whose ideals are crumbling around him, and his Simon seems unsympathetic in the face of an overwhelming tragedy. While such complexities of character are hardly rare in The Outer Limits, here it feels like a misfire: instead of being incensed and distraught, Wanamaker's Simon seems merely huffy. (In the actor's defense, however, it must be said that Stefano gives him more than his share of unwieldy diatribes, and the burden is very much on Wanamaker to clumsily verbalize the episode's many themes.) David Opatoshu's Ralph Cashman is perplexingly buoyant for the first half of the film, as though the actor were expecting something more lighthearted; his distracted performance adds yet another discordant note to the ensemble. Still, it's uncomfortable to see such a usually fine character actor reduced to shuffling and bellowing by the episode's climax, and Opatoshu's confusion in the role is mitigated. Joyce Van Patten is just plain shrill, but Phyllis Love manages to overcome her professional shortcomings and give Andrea Holm genuine conviction and passion. Andrea's as warm as Simon is unapproachable, and Love, though not a subtle performer, makes us believe that she is utterly engaged in her values in a way that he could never be (though her ideals prove to be as isolating as his). Andrea is one of the series' most progressive and admirable female characters, and Phyllis Love's committed portrayal makes her all the more so.

Perhaps it's unfair to single out problematic writing and acting as the source of the episode's problems, when a stronger director might have made the most of them. Byron Haskin proves himself a peerless technical director and mood-setter here, and he plays up the horror aspects of Luminos quite effectively. From the sickly, not-quite-daylight pall of the Midgard Drive scenes to the steady, unsettling hum on the soundtrack (more likely the work of series sound effects coordinator John Elizalde), Haskin imbues the film with an odd, indefinably "off" feel that is appropriate to the alien setting—most Outer Limits episodes, after all, were pointedly earthbound. Simon's initial venture past the Luminoid barrier is a particularly effective set piece, and Haskin manages to make it a genuinely frightening sequence. Yet his indifference to the performances and the gravity of the story hinder the episode, and gives credence to Robert Culp's assertion (in issue 63-64 of Filmfax) that Haskin was a director who "had no idea how to talk to actors." Pity.

And yet "A Feasibility Study" works on its own terms, and remains an unforgettable if flawed episode—so much so that the makers of cable station Showtime's pallid "new" Outer Limits remade it for their 1997 season, with expectedly mixed results. It's a valuable lesson we learn from the human captives on Luminos, and through them Joseph Stefano teaches us something about commitment, solidarity, and their attendant catastrophes—daily and otherwise.

—MH

The Zanti Misfits
Directed by Leonard Horn; written by Joseph Stefano. Cast: Michael Tolan (Prof. Steven Grave); Olive Deering (Lisa Lawrence); Bruce Dern (Ben Garth); Robert F. Simon (Gen. Maximillian Hart); Claude Woolman (Major Hill). Broadcast December 30, 1963. Story: Under threat of total destruction, Earth accepts delivery of the criminals of the Zanti alien race. On the day of arrival, two human outcasts unwittingly trigger an inter-species showdown—and uncover a ruse by Zanti rulers.

For many, particularly those not familiar with the series (let alone the episode) by name, the Zantis have come to represent the "old" version of The Outer Limits. They're unforgettable in the extreme: rat-sized insects with wide-eyed, malevolently smirking quasi-human faces; deadly, though we're never informed of their lethal mechanism, and determined, they are—like so many of the series' aliens—the stuff of bad dreams. That these striking creatures are so widely remembered, earning this entry a place as one of "TV Guide" magazine's top 100 episodes several issues back, may obscure the intensely dark theme and final discernment of "The Zanti Misfits": that the systematic eradication of self and others is the characteristic we humans are known for throughout the universe. Paradoxically obsessed with and in denial of death, we are, accordingly, practiced executioners. The Zantis, right or wrong, merely dupe us into proving it. How many remember that bleak detail? "TV Guide" softened it in their cursory write-up, recalling only the episode's more apparent capital punishment focus.

Joe Stefano, as may be evident by now, communicated heavily mixed feelings toward humankind throughout The Outer Limits run. At times split between a soaring compassion which eagerly embraced the ideals of humanism and the blackest of hyper-realistic cynicism, he most often took a mature integrative perspective and demonstrated that we are all moral mixed-bags—look deep enough, and behold equal parts purity and corruption. Circumstance brought out the expression of one, the other, or some mix thereof. In "Misfits", we see it all: the unexpectedly tolerant Gen. Max Hart—interestingly, the episode's "maximum heart"; the sociopathic harbinger of doom, Ben Garth; worn out, passively suicidal Lisa, the personification of a death sentence turned inward (and of the Earthly impulse to destroy when faced with anything unpleasant); and the naively hawkish, profoundly unaware trigger man Prof. Grave, whose desire for historical participation leads him to the role of assassin. The good, the bad, and the ugly, in motivation, behavior, and sheer run of luck. Stefano once again holds a mirror to our species (and again, parallels it with an utterly alien one), finding sad deficiency. This is not an easy episode.

It is, however, easy to admire. Thematically, it moves with a clarity of purpose that epitomizes the show's most rewarding efforts; dramatically, it never flinches, consequently giving the viewer much to flinch from (for true believers, that's a big part of the attraction). Like most Stefano-written installments, "Misfits" is complex, both intellectually and emotionally demanding, but it's also swarming with surprises: the use of wry foreshadowing, reminiscent of the writer/producer's screenplay for Psycho (1960), adds a relieving, droll element to the grim proceedings (dead bodies and multi-legged pests are subtly played to the hilt); analogy abounds, as virtually all major human characters and characteristics have a correlative in the Zantis— misfit and dignitary alike; and, deep thinking begrudgingly aside, the episode works on the purely visceral level of bug-fear, of something creeping up your pant leg and biting until you die. As writer Jon Abbott proclaims in the British magazine "TV Zone", "Misfits" proves that "fun science fiction and thinking science fiction don't have to be mutually exclusive." A series caveat, to be sure.

Setting was consistently well-used in The Outer Limits, and this episode is no exception. The desolate quality of the surrounding desert—Vasquez Rocks in southern California—lends the military ghost town of Morgue (yes) a sense of isolation and imprisonment, echoing the motifs of captivity, punishment, and exile. Frequent first-season cinematographer John Nickolaus, Jr. employs a low-contrast, filtered look for "Misfits", artfully adding an oppressive pall to the brightness of the outdoor scenes. Leonard Horn directs in the seamless, unintrusive style evident in his two other series' episodes, both masterworks: "The Man Who Was Never Born" and "The Children of Spider County." Horn was a writer's director, a craftsman whose embrace of these three superb scripts facilitates their potency and asserts his own. This trio was the best work he ever did. The technical achievements here are equally striking, with the Zantis themselves representing an effects apex for the series: their language (all hard consonants and long vowels, spoken by a menacingly audio-altered Vic Perrin), locomotion (a rare use of stop-motion animation), and look have a cumulative impact difficult to exceed. Credit the under-credited, ever-shifting team known as Project Unlimited—Wah Chang, Gene Warren, M. B. Paul, Al Hamm, Paul LeBaron, Ralph Rodine, Jim Danforth, and Harry Redmond, Jr. If the "stunt Zantis" used in the climactic attack sequence aren't quite as limber or impressive, they are at least judiciously filmed, with quick cuts and well-placed reaction shots masking their inert, rubber properties. Remember Forrest J. Ackerman's boastful photo of a crumbling "last remaining Zanti" (we'll have to take his word for it, as usual) in "Famous Monsters" magazine?

Amid the thematic richness and technical virtuosity, the potential for "mere" human dramatics to suffer might seem high. An earmark of The Outer Limits is that this was rarely the case; indeed, a synergy of elements defines the show. Consequently, the performances cement this entry's classic status: Dern gives an early reading of the prototypical "Bruce Dern character"—an edgy, remorseless, queasily charming piece of trash; Deering, perhaps best known for portraying Miriam, the mother of Moses, in DeMille's slick The Ten Commandments (1956), boldly plays Lisa as extremely unappealing and barely sympathetic, a woman suffering the fallout of a particularly reckless personality disorder (and bearing the load of being the only really cognizant person in the story). Deering is given some seriously speech-heavy moments during scenes of action, and she manages to turn what could have been ridiculous displays into the understandably tortured articulations of a troubled soul. As noted above, Simon portrays the completely unforeseen voice of reason and restraint (of a sane kind) in a tale rife with fools; the actor went on to play another genial upper-echelon soldier, Gen. Mitchell, in the early, not yet sanctimonious episodes of television's M*A*S*H. Woolman gives a nice reading of a cipher: the reactionary military bigot who all too easily loses his grip on mental and physical moderation when confronted by what he's craved all along—an enemy. Finally, profoundly, is Tolan, who went on to a small role in another biblical film, as Lazarus in George Stevens's star-bloated The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). The character Grave continues the series tradition of subverting the notion of what constitutes a hero; Tolan, appropriately tall, square-jawed, and bland, as any good stalwart of the era should be, renders him as a man giving his all for a cause that is unexamined and, as the Zantis well know, insupportable. As casually as he snuffs out the life of an ant early in the episode, he begins the reflexive mass execution of the Zanti misfits by living up to a blundering image of action—the participation he yearns for, but with precedents and ramifications he cannot begin to comprehend. He's too busy saving the life of someone (Lisa) who doesn't want to be saved, someone who will most likely live out the remainder of her years behind bars. Our hero. It's questionable whether Tolan was aware of the basic unlikability of his leading character; it's even arguable whether or not Grave was intended to come off as a macho buffoon—the early 1960s, after all, still supported this kind of unthinking heroism. Stefano, though, had nerve, and wasn't afraid to raise questions around such sacred cultural icons as the testosterone-fueled man of action. It is perhaps "Misfits"' most cunning point regarding the human tendency toward destruction: in many ways, we promote it as a strength. Again, this isn't facile material.

The problem of teasers is handled more gracefully in this episode than in many others. These teasers—the few minutes of footage, usually taken from the episode, preceding the initial credits—were a decidedly mixed blessing. On the positive side, they were a mood setting preview, and a sonically advantageous platform for the gripping low-tempo first strains of Dominic Frontiere's incredible opening music. On the downside, these network-imposed clips more often than not utilized footage of the episode's bear, sometimes in a grossly inaccurate manner (Andro, "The Man Who Was Never Born", comes off as a voyeuristic pervert) and other times truly blowing the chance of a jarring first appearance (we shouldn't see "The Mutant"'s grisly visage so soon). Stefano and Leslie Stevens have neither decried nor championed the series' teasers; they were, no doubt, part of the routine indignity of producing for a corporate entity. "Misfits", thankfully, limits teaser footage to the Zanti ship approaching the desert as Ben and Lisa careen away from the tale's first casualty. Imagine the anti-climax if a Zanti had been presented. Somebody got this one right.

An understatement, applied to the episode as a whole: many people got this one close to perfect.

—DCH

 

The Mice
The Duplicate Man
Fun and Games
Don't Open Till Doomsday
The Inheritors
The Guests
The Mutant
A Feasibility Study
The Zanti Misfits
 
The Invisibles
Nightmare
Corpus Earthling
The Bellero Shield
O.B.I.T.
The Children of Spider County
ZZZZZ
It Crawled Out of the Woodwork

 

Copyright © 1998–2001 Mark Holcomb & David C. Holcomb. All rights reserved.