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TV: 10 Best The Outer Limits Eps

“You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to… The Outer Limits.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Honorable Mentions
S1 E6 The Man who was Never Born
S1 E7 O.B.I.T.
S1 E9 Corpus Earthling
S1 E15 The Mice
S1 E31 The Chameleon
S2 E1 Soldier
S2 E9 I, Robot
S2 E10-11 The Inheritors
S2 E15 The Brain of Colonel Barham

TV: Ghost Story/Circle of Fear (1972-3)

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In terms of showmanship, producer and director William Castle was a poor man’s Alfred Hitchcock of sorts. Like the British director, Castle had a real flair for self-promotion, appearing in many of the trailers and promotional materials, and adopting a signature silhouette of him sitting in the director’s chair with a cigar. Supposedly, Hitchcock’s inspiration for making Psycho was noticing Castle’s terrific box office returns for low budget films. He borrowed back from the Master of Suspense with the 1961 Homicidal, with a female Norman Bates played by the underrated Joan Marshall.

The 1972 to 1973 TV anthology, Ghost Story (renamed Circle of Fear midseason) was Castle’s answer to Alfred Hitchcock Presents/Hour. There is surprisingly little information on this show, considering that it was developed by Richard Matheson, preeminent short story and freelance teleplay writer of supernormal (as opposed to supernatural) and psychological dramas. Perhaps Matheson was unhappy with the show as he never mentioned it in interviews and only wrote the pilot.

His teleplay, The New House has a somewhat talky set-up that isn’t helped by Barbara Parkins, who isn’t a strong enough actress to make the protagonist compelling. However, the payoff is clever and goes in an unexpected direction, doing it with more irony than many of the other episodes in the anthology.

The show really strikes lightning with its next two episodes, The Dead We Leave Behind and The Concrete Captain. Dead, which might be the best episode of Ghost Story, is an imaginative Macbethian story about a dull and ornery sheriff (a magnificent Jason Robards) who accidentally kills his couch potato wife (Stella Stevens), and whose TV shows him the near future, which helps him stay one step ahead until…

Concrete is a good fusion of Bronte-esque Gothicism and some modern 1970s sexual frankness of a couple (Gena Rowlands and Stuart Whitman) who clearly have a strong sex life; it is a pity that the other episodes were so sexually repressed. Also, it is refreshing to see a caring and supportive husband who isn’t patronizing, a rarity.

Although The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family were huge smashes that employed several female writers and/or directors, Ghost Story, like several other shows of this era was a boys club in these two areas. Out of 23 episodes, the only female writer was Dorothy Fontana (billed D. C. Fontana), who penned two episodes, both of which rank high in the better hours.

Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, which she co-created with Harlan Ellison, is an interesting deviation from the usual formula on two counts: it is one of the few episodes to take place in an urban setting and it is one of two episodes that features women working in non-maternal professions. It is an entertainingly trippy account of a co-op of six artists (half of whom are women) possessed by mysterious spirits in bottles that make them slaves to their crafts to the exclusion of everything else.

Her other entry, Alter-Ego, is an excellent showcase for Helen Hayes (billed Miss Helen Hayes no less) as a caring teacher undermined by the evil alter-ego of a bedridden formerly-loved student. The ending is ironic and ambiguous.

Welsh horror screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, distinguished Hammer alum, was Ghost Story’s most frequent contributor and wrote some of the show’s most memorable teleplays (including The Concrete Captain). Time of Terror gives a pristine role to Patricia Neal, who in return gives a tour-de-force performance of an unsettled wife whose husband mysteriously disappears from the luxurious, but sinister resort whose goings-on she is the only one who isn’t hip to.

Doorway to Death, the most talked about episode, is a little slow at the beginning, but the nightmarish Narnia-esque world where a seemingly friendly man forms a friendship with two kids (real life siblings Leif Garrett and Dawn Lyn), but manipulates them. Susan Dey, playing the older sister who is basically the mother as her busy father is absentee, doesn’t act like a typical damsel-in-distress, making her character brave and intelligent.

Spare Parts is a juicy script that features Susan Oliver in a nuanced performance of a widow who is haunted by three patients who have organ transplants from her evil deceased husband. The series finale, The Phantom of Herald Square is Sangster’s weakest effort, but not without merit. There are some interesting ideas on the issue of selling your soul for vanity as well as for love and David Soul and Sheila Larken give compelling performances in the leads.

Some of the other talented writers include Anthony Lawrence and Robert Bloch. Lawrence, writer of a handful of Elvis’ escapist 60s movies, exhibits a marked change of tone in his second teleplay, Legion of Demons. What is basically a rehash of the small town innocence vs. big city evil, Lawrence’s colorful characterizations and director Paul Stanley’s dynamic uninhibitedly trippy aesthetic elevate the story from its basic cliché.

Bloch, immortal for penning the novel Psycho, presents a somewhat similar dynamic in the aptly named House of Evil, with Melvyn Douglas as an evil to the core grandfather who uses telepathy to manipulate his mute granddaughter (a young Jodie Foster) into wreaking havoc on her family.

There are a couple of stinkers to avoid like the plague. Graveyard Shift is an unrelentingly dull story about John Astin, a former horror actor now security guard at his old studio. Ghosts from his old movies torment him and his pregnant wife (Patty Duke, wasted in an uninspired wife part) because of the studio’s closing. William Castle’s cameo appearance adds nothing to the vacuous script.

It is unfortunate that Creatures of the Canyon, one of the few episodes to have a successful working female character and the magnificent Angie Dickinson playing her, is burdened by a ridiculous bunch of nonsense about possessed dogs that doesn’t make a lick of sense.

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In spite of William Castle’s efforts to keep the show on the air- renaming the anthology Circle of Fear mid-season and ditching narrator Sebastian Cabot- Ghost Story, like the other horror shows of the day such as The Sixth Sense, Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, was cancelled after one season.

TV: 10 Best Alfred Hitchcock Hour Episodes Pt. 2

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For part one of this Top 10 List, click here.

LONELY PLACE S3 E6 (aired 16 Nov. 1964)
Exec Prod. Norman Lloyd and Prod. Herbert Coleman, teleplay by Francis Irby Gwaltney and story by C.B. Gilford, dir. Harvey Hart

In contrast to many of Hitchcock’s iconic films, which are set in lavish, panoramic places and deal with the lives of urbane people, many of the best hour-long programs take place in the desolate rural South. Lonely Place tells the very bleak story of Stella (Teresa Wright), a sweet, but highly unappreciated wife, her somber and miserly farmer husband (Pat Buttram), and a sadistic, but cheap drifter (Bruce Dern) hired as a farmhand. Wright whose slightly heavyset physique and dowdy appearance, is totally convincing as a farm wife who has only just now come to the realization that her marriage is a sham and she is regarded as nothing more than a servant. Buttram is compelling as a dark version of Mr. Haney (on the sitcom Green Acres), who becomes increasingly more despicable as the episode progresses. Dern, who has played hundreds of psychopaths, attacks his assignment with relish and a maniacal chipmunk laugh.

Prod. Norman Lloyd, teleplay by James Bridges and story by Davis Grubb, dir. Arnold Laven

In most mainstream Yankee entertainment, Southerners are portrayed as backwards and stupid bumpkins. The titular character, played by a young Peter Fonda, is anything but. Verge and his brother (Sam Reese), who live on a farm in the middle of nowhere are bereft at the loss of their father, murdered in cold blood by a powerful senator (Robert Emhardt). Verge is determined to take revenge in an unconventional but highly ingenious way. In addition to Fonda’s cool and calculated portrayal, Reese’s Wilford is the story’s moral center as the sweet and well-meaning brother, imbuing his role with a lot more vulnerability than typical of male performances at the time. With his sweaty head and soft Pillsbury Dough Boy face, Emhardt looks like a Southern Good Old Boy, who is jovial in public but highly sharky in private or when provoked. The final showdown between Verge and the Senator is tense, exciting, and genuinely surprising but satisfying.

THE MAGIC SHOP S2 E13 (aired 10 Jan. 1964)
Prod. Joan Harrison, teleplay by John Collier and James Parrish and story by H.G. Wells, dir. Robert Stevens

Joan Harrison proves that she’s more than her women’s soap opera reputation in this surreal horror about two parents (Leslie Nielsen and Peggy McCay) who have a hard time disciplining their strong-willed son Tony (John Megna). They lose even further control when Tony and the sinister owner of a mysterious magic shop (David Opatoshu) join forces, giving the mean-spirited boy the resources to manifest his evil. It is a testament to the episode’s looniness that a pedantic voice-over commentary at the end adds to its surrealness. Leslie “Naked Gun” Nielsen, who is usually stiff and unconvincing in dramatic roles, has a blandness and lack of authority that lends itself well to a father who is dominated by his child and can’t do anything about it.

AN UNLOCKED WINDOW S3 E17 (aired 15 Feb. 1965)
Exec Prod. Norman Lloyd and Prod. Herbert Coleman, teleplay by James Bridges and story by Ethel Lina White, dir. Joseph M. Newman

Dana Wynter, with her genteel English-rose presence and voice reminiscent to Audrey Hepburn’s, is perfect casting as the young and talented but insecure nurse whose life is in danger from a serial killer who targets nurses. For the hour we shake in our seats as the nurse, who’s taking care of a handsome, bedridden man in a spooky mansion has neglected to lock one tiny window in the basement. Anybody who wants to write a mystery/suspense must watch this episode to see a masterful use of a red herring.

Prod. Leon Benson, teleplay by Lee Erwin, dir. Charles Haas

Although it’s been over five years since I’ve seen this one, it made quite the impact as the scariest ep of AHH (and quite possibly one of the most frightening episodes in TV history). Malibu, now swarming with people, looks like a nightmarish ghost town in this episode. Inger Stevens is perfectly convincing as a basically decent housewife whose isolation makes her suspicious of outsiders, leading her to not allow a Mexican man (Christopher Dark) use her phone for an ambulance for his wife who was brutally attacked. Her death soon after leaves the protagonist guilt-ridden, but also more paranoid; justifiably so, as she is surrounded with unsavory men. It’s too bad that a copy of this one hasn’t been available for the past few years.

Honorable Mentions:
The Jar, S2 EP17
Body in the Barn, S2 EP32
Water’s Edge, S3 EP3
Power of Attorney, S3 EP25
The Second Wife, S3 EP27

The Real Christmas

By Adam Tawfik


MADtv, wrongly dismissed as “the poor man’s SNL,” was a vastly overlooked American sketch show that for the majority of its 14-year run produced innovative and irreverent content that pushed the boundaries of good taste in a funny and often thought-provoking way. Although best known for their pop culture parodies and celebrity impressions (like Phil Lamarr’s freakishly spot-on white Michael Jackson or Debra Wilson’s hilariously cracky Whitney Houston), MADtv’s real genius manifested in its character-based original content. Constructed like short films, these vignettes take their time to establish the characters and situations and letting the tension bubble until it enteris the realm of pure mayhem.

The Christmas episodes of many TV shows, even the good ones, tend to mindlessly contribute to the endless output of excruciatingly mediocre and cliché Christmas-fare. Luckily, MADtv keeps delivering the razor-sharp satire that debunks the misguided perception that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” Merry Freakin’ Christmas!

Expectations are a bitch. When it concerns Christmas presents, they’re 100 times worse (thanks retail!). One mother (Stephnie Weir), ruins Christmas Day with her eternal woe of giving her family the perfect present, while her long-suffering family (all of whom love their gifts) painstakingly try to console the inconsolable matriarch.

What do you get when you fuse Martin Scorcese’s gangster films with the claymated world of Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer? Musical numbers, power struggles, violence, and a whole lot of blood. There’s something for the entire family (except perhaps for children).

If your family is a hot mess, that won’t magically change at Christmas. The Shanks (expertly portrayed by Mo Collins and Ike Barinholtz), are a co-dependent husband and wife that endlessly yell and beat each other up; she is a raging shrew and he an unemployed loser. Caught in the middle are a well-meaning but highly senile grandfather who thinks everything is a PlayStation, their Prozac infused daughter (Stephnie Weir), and a couple of neighbors who have the bad luck to be houseguests after their home burned down.

While Christmas rarely brings sunshine and roses, it often illuminates other, less flattering parts of certain family members. A couple (Mo Collins and Michael McDonald) are awoken by their gift deprived children who are devastated that Santa forgot them. They learn the truth when their parents half-assedly pass on stuff from their bedroom. Unfortunately for the children, there are far worse skeletons to come out of the closet.

Every great piece of black humor should involve emotional harm to children. April (Stephnie Weir), a cute little girl discovers the brutal consequences of encountering Santa (Michael McDonald), who turns out to be an eccentric crazy-man with a murderous streak. For five hilarious minutes, we watch April plead for her life while Santa tries to ease her into death in a none-too-refined method.

Political correctness is a killjoy, especially at the holidays. A new employee is surprised to find that Christmas is banned in his office. Several repressed employees, tired of a “cheer of a non-specific, non-traditional, non-religious nature,” plan an ultra-underground Secret Santa, which sets off a chain-effect of cultural cacophony.