“You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to… The Outer Limits.”
Thus began one of the most original and profound series in TV history which ran from September 1963 to January 1965. It was the brainchild of Leslie Stevens, and although his central contribution is certainly invaluable, the four episodes he wrote and directed are middling entries. More tangibly instrumental to the show’s exceptional quality were producer and most frequent writer Joseph Stefano (who wrote the screenplays for Psycho and Marnie) and director of photography Conrad Hall, who went on to win three Oscars.
Although this show was a hit with young people, it didn’t have desirable ratings for the time. (How things have changed as now this is the prime demographic and capturing it is the only way a show can stay on the air.) The MGM executives didn’t dig the show and they continually desecrated the already thin budget. Stefano was fed up and left. Hall brought a distinctive film noir style with stark black shadows. The second season, which only lasted for seventeen episodes, had a less dynamic narrative and visual flatness under the helm of producer Ben Brady and veteran cinematographer Kenneth Peach.
Perhaps more than any series of its time, Limits demonstrates a wide spectrum of quality that results from a large group of freelance writers as opposed to a committed staff. Often from a week to week basis, there was a schizophrenic 180 degree turn as they would alternate from bashing humans and their irrational, reactionary manner to the unknown to hysterical tales of defending humanity from violent tyrannical aliens.
The stark contrast between the sophisticated, somber storylines and the clunky, albeit inventive special effects, gives this show its quirky personality. There have been great strides in the field of special effects and CGI, often this comes at the expense of the story. I’ll take The Outer Limits every time.
For those who are interested in a comprehensive analysis of The Outer Limits, check out Mark and David C. Holcomb’s site. It’s a great way to procrastinate.
Like most of the greatest episodes, there’s a bittersweet postscript. According to the Hollywood Reporter there’s a remake in development, based off fan favorite episode “Demon with a Glass Hand,” (included in my top 10). I’m 95% sure that they’ll take the one man against a bunch of aliens plot but ditch the philosophy. Before the bastardization of this unique show’s legacy takes place, here are my ten favorite episodes.
What do you think? Chime in.
THE ARCHETECTS OF FEAR S1 E3 (aired 30 Sept. 1963)
Prod. Joseph Stefano, teleplay by Meyer Dolinsky, dir. Byron Haskin
A group of nervous scientists picking a name out of a hat is the bitterly ironic way that one doctor (Robert Culp) is chosen to undergo a harrowing transformation into an alien to stop what Earth thinks is an impending alien attack. The alien for some reason got a whole lot of folks hot and bothered, and was subsequently blacked out upon its original release, effectively censoring the third act. I found the transformation leading up to it, where the lesions and skin sagging on Culp’s face, more unsettling. There is some fantastic cross-cutting, especially in one segment that matches the jerky action to show how the wife (Geraldine Brooks) has an intuitive sense that something sinister has happened to her husband. It features the best end narration of all the episodes, a pointed attack on the insidious human flaw that is paranoia.
NIGHTMARE S1 E10 (aired 2 Dec. 1963)
Prod. Joseph Stefano, teleplay by Joseph Stefano, dir. John Erman
Its title might be modest, but its content is not. In the most politically charged episode, Stefano’s teleplay presents an intricate cat-and-mouse saga of five soldiers at war on a different planet who are held hostage and interrogated. There’s a traitor. Who is it? There is some strong allegory to the impending Vietnam War and the mistreatment of military veterans. Out of all the guest aliens, John Anderson gives the most layered performance as the head interrogator whose role is more complicated than is seen on the surface.
THE INVISIBLES S1 E19 (aired 3 Feb. 1964)
Prod. Joseph Stefano, teleplay by Joseph Stefano, dir. Gerd Oswald
Prepare yourself for a bumpy ride with this frenetically paced story about a government agent (Don Gordon) assigned to infiltrate a covert and sinister operation of malevolent high-ranking government officials and aliens who recruit outcasts (The Invisibles) from society to carry out their evil deeds. Contrary to many of their other episodes that feature grandiose ideological speeches, this one has a lot more enigmatic ambiguity.
THE BOLLERO SHIELD S1 E20 (aired 10 Feb. 1964)
Prod. Joseph Stefano, teleplay by Joseph Stefano and story by Lou Morheim and Joseph Stefano, dir. John Brahm
Stefano pens a literary Shakespearian tragedy with elements of sci-fi. Sally Kellerman plays a 60s Lady MacBeth whose grand ambitions for her meek scientist husband (Martin Landau) fester when his machine accidentally attracts an alien to Earth. Her antagonist is her father-in-law (Neil Hamilton), a King Lear surrogate whose megalomania makes him belittle his son; his lust for power and glory is her leverage over him. Landau gives a convincingly low-key and restrained performance as a poor schmuck smacked around by the enormous egos of his wife and father. In her first leading role on TV, Kellerman plays her diabolical character with gusto, making her role oddly sympathetic for her simultaneous honesty and deception about her ambitions, her ability to adapt and think on her feet and for her friendship with her housekeeper (Chita Rivera, unsettling as the taciturn barefoot widow). Script here.
FUN AND GAMES S1 E27 (aired 30 Mar. 1964)
Prod. Joseph Stefano, teleplay by Robert Specht and Joseph Stefano and story by Robert Specht, dir. Gerd Oswald
For some reason, many critics and fans overlook this fantastic episode, which hauntingly captures the emotional drain of war on its participants. A straight-laced nurse (the recently departed Nancy Malone) and hapless gambler (Nick Adams) have been recruited by a nefarious alien to battle for Earth in the form of a demented obstacle course, resembling the actions of many politicians. Though Adams and Malone have equal screen time, Malone’s character has more of a transformation as she bears more of the brunt of saving earth and learning that coming to the realization that she can’t mother people. This is one of the very few episodes that gives a woman agency.
A FEASIBILITY STUDY S1 E29 (aired 13 Apr. 1964)
Prod. Joseph Stefano, teleplay by Joseph Stefano, dir. Byron Haskin
Unlike many of the sensible, rational male protagonists on this show, Sam Wannamaker’s doctor is highly neurotic and unstable. His cold and controlling nature creates a huge rift between him and his wife (Phyllis Love), who resents her ambitions being subjugated to his rigid ideas of married life. Similarly, their neighbors (Joyce Van Patten and David Opatashu) are having marital problems due to his overworking and her loneliness. There is a veiled critique of suburbia and gender relations, that are undone when they must band together to prevent total destruction of the Earth.
THE FORMS OF THINGS UNKNOWN S1 E32 (aired 4 May 1964)
Prod. Joseph Stefano, teleplay by Joseph Stefano, dir. Gerd Oswald
The first season caps off with a bang in this loosely-linear story done in a European art house mode. The first ten minutes bears a strong resemblance to Diabolique where two women (Vera Miles and Barbara Rush) poison their conniving, manipulative blackmailer leader (Scott Marlowe). Things take a German Expressionist phantasmagoric turn as the women stumble upon a secluded mansion with an eccentric man (David McCallum), who is experimenting with altering time. This is just as much cinematographer Conrad Hall’s showcase as he gets to show off a slew of extreme close ups, canted frames, jerky moving camera shots, and long shots. This was a slightly retooled pilot for a series that didn’t make it to the air. What a trip it could have been.
EXPANDING HUMAN S2 E4 (aired 10 Oct. 1964)
Prod. Ben Brady, teleplay by Francis M. Cockrell, dir. Gerd Oswald
Cockrell’s teleplay neatly updates the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story with a group of scientists who take an LSD-type of mind-altering drug that gives the user greater strength and super intelligence, but also makes them volatile. Skip Homeier is compelling as the doctor with a duel moralist and bully at odds with one another. It’s a suspenseful episode, with a wary bittersweet conclusion.
DEMON WITH A GLASS HAND S2 Ep 5 (aired 17 Oct. 1964)
Prod. Ben Brady, teleplay by Harlan Ellison, dir. Byron Haskin
In a role written specifically for him, Robert Culp pulls off the difficult role of an amnesiac whose intelligent glass hand guides him through a battle to save humans from extinction from a future alien invasion. His incapacity for love is tested when he encounters a poor garment worker (Arlene Martel), who falls for him. Initially, her character seems hokey, but it takes form as her conflict of abhorring violence but having to use it comes into play. Ellison, whose earlier draft called for more elaborate sets and special effects, effectively scales back, mining the claustrophobic single setting of a slum building to full advantage. The conclusion is iconic!
COUNTERWEIGHT S2 E14 (aired 26 Dec. 1964)
Prod. Ben Brady, teleplay by Milton Krims and story by Jerry Sohl, dir. Paul Stanley
Out of all of the ensemble episodes, this one is the most successful because it has the most plot turns and finds a way to make stock characterizations a fresh asset. Six passengers, all of whom except one are scientists or doctors, are generally congenial as they embark on a journey to another planet. This dynamic quickly sours as an alien gets into their thoughts and exploits each person’s weakness, leading the people to turn on each other and reveal their ugly true selves. Michael Constantine stands out as a crass, ignorant businessman driven to capitalize on the new planet. Many will probably be dismayed with Jacqueline Scott’s story arc of a scientist who wants to be a woman and mother (although her simulation of a traditional woman is entertainingly nightmarish and interesting). Ultimately, there are no heroes, only humans.
S1 E6 The Man who was Never Born
S1 E7 O.B.I.T.
S1 E9 Corpus Earthling
S1 E15 The Mice
S1 E18 ZZZZZ
S1 E31 The Chameleon
S2 E1 Soldier
S2 E9 I, Robot
S2 E10-11 The Inheritors
S2 E15 The Brain of Colonel Barham