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The Outer Limits: The Original Series: Season Two

MGM Home Video

Starring Robert Duvall, Robert Culp, Eddie Albert,
Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, James Doohan,
Adam West, Ted Knight, Morgan Brittany...

Written by Harlan Ellison, Jerry Sohl, and others

Directed by Gerd Oswald, Byron Haskin, and others

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

There are monsters more villainous than bug-eyed, wrinkle-faced alien invaders. There are beings more insidious than greedy humans who torment benign otherworldly emissaries for their own petty gain. There are even lifeforms with hearts colder than the inky cosmic void.

They are television studio executives, and they are among us.

The first season of ABC-TV's sci-fi/horror anthology series, The Outer Limits, debuted in September 1963, and for the next 32 hour-long episodes it trotted out some of the best Bug-Eyed Monsters and Old Dark Houses to ever inspire schoolyard or water-cooler retellings. The series was reliably smart, stylish, occasionally subversive, and respectful of its audience of presumed grown-ups. Even the clunker episodes, and there were several, didn't pander to the simpleminded expectations of, say, the Lost in Space crowd. Week after week, Vic Perrin's Control Voice assured us that there was nothing wrong with our television sets, then executive producer Leslie Stevens and writer/producer Joseph Stefano — plus a handpicked team of maverick artists, technicians and craftsmen, including future Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall — kept us blissfully creeped out with dream-like storytelling that still surpasses The Twilight Zone in many critical ledgers.

But The Outer Limits fell victim to meddling ABC programming brass, who bitched and bitched about the show's ratings and content. The network demanded a retooling to more conventional fare, then slashed budgets and time-slotted Season Two to Saturday night opposite CBS's hugely popular The Jackie Gleason Show. It was as if the network bean-counters were aiming to kill the mutant offspring in their midst.

Stefano left the series rather than be an accessory to its slow murder. With him went its creative, moody, humanist center. Also gone was much of the original production team, including Conrad Hall and composer Dominic Frontiere. Leslie Stevens left after clashing with Stefano's antagonistic replacement, Perry Mason exec Ken Brady, who had no experience (and even less interest, apparently) in genre material. From September 1964 to January 1965, the second season of The Outer Limits became (minus a few notable exceptions) just another cheap-looking, dumbed-down monsterfest. It was The Outer Limits in name only. Half-way through the season ABC pulled the plug for good. It was a mercy killing.

However, the notable exceptions are reason enough to consider The Outer Limits: The Original Series: Season Two a welcome addition to the growing DVD archives of seminal vintage television. The loyal following that has grown around the original Outer Limits will leap on this set like a Zanti alien on Bruce Dern's face.

Within the 17 episodes in this three-disc DVD set — synopsized at scifi.com — a few rank among the series' top-tier offerings. We get a superior two-parter, "The Inheritors," starring Robert Duvall. Here too is Harlan Ellison's "Demon With a Glass Hand," which common consensus hails as the series' finest hour. Ellison's first-ever TV script was the intermittently clever season opener, "Soldier," about a super-conditioned killing machine from the future (Michael Ansara) who's projected back in time and finds himself in a 1960s American household. Some twenty years after their premiere broadcasts, "Demon" and "Soldier" became the center of a legal dustup when Ellison sued James Cameron over The Terminator. That little Schwarzenegger flick showed so many similarities to these eps that Ellison won the lawsuit and is permanently acknowledged in the movie's credits.

Other pleasures are on hand as well, even if some fall into the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" category. The worst hours evoke memories of Mom telling us that this stuff will rot our brains (she was probably right). The episodes filling out the fat bell-curve in the middle usually have at least a moment or scene that makes the watching worthwhile. You'll find future TV icons William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and James "Scotty" Doohan, a couple of years before they boarded the starship Enterprise for rerun eternity. TV's Batman, Adam West, proves that his archly mannered style began before he put on the tights and cowl. And Morgan Brittany, early in her career as a ubiquitous TV presence into the '70s and '80s, added a dandy line to her résumé by costarring opposite Robert Duvall.

Some samples:

*          *          *

"Demon With a Glass Hand" is an in-the-pocket classic. Outer Limits favorite Robert Culp is still remembered for his sterling performance as a fugitive man on the run from mysterious pursuers from the future. He knows only that he must collect the missing fingers of his talking robotic glass hand, which holds the fate of the entire human race a thousand years hence. This melancholy, absorbing episode is a perfect example of how craft and inventiveness can turn a restricted budget into an asset. Director Byron Haskin gives dynamic life to Ellison's strong script, making this perhaps the most famous use of L.A.'s Bradbury Building until Blade Runner. Ellison wrote the character of Trent especially for Culp, then went on to win the Writers Guild of America award for best TV-anthology script for this episode.

"The Inheritors" is another first-rate work, one of the few examples of the old Outer Limits magic in Season Two. In fact, it's the Outer Limits episode that most resembles The X Files. Good thing it's a two-parter. Returning from Season One's "The Chameleon," Robert Duvall stars in this intelligent, well-written story about a government agent investigating the disappearance of four soldiers who each survived a bullet to the brain. The bullets were handmade from meteorite ore, and now all four men share a mysterious alien mind-boost and a mission directing them to fulfill a secret project involving Earth's less-fortunate children. Director James Goldstone keeps the pace snappy and Duvall is one of several actors doing good work here, making up for obvious budget deficits and a grating musical score. Like "Demon With a Glass Hand," these episodes represent the rose atop the Season Two dunghill.

Eddie Albert is desperate to communicate with alien, mind-controlling tumbleweeds in "Cry of Silence," which comes off better than you'd expect thanks to Albert's straight-faced performance and a decent script capped by a strong ending. There's enough cheese on hand for a fondue, though any ep with the lines "I didn't believe it myself till the milk cow disappeared" and "First it was the tumbleweeds! And now it's the frogs! Millions and millions of mad frogs!" has something going for it.

The drab "Cold Hands, Warm Heart" gives us William Shatner as an astronaut recently returned from Venus. Once back on Earth, he begins a chilling transformation. The talky, padded script — a common Season Two problem — provides a touching romance plot with co-star Geraldine Brooks, but the action-free climax forgets to explain what's going on with Shatner's spaceman or how it involves the glowy-eyed puppet Venusian he saw through the port hole. His making advanced spaceflight calculations by using a slide-rule is a forgivable anachronism. The bargain-basement Mission Control HQ and "outer space" scenes make us appreciate how advanced the original Star Trek looked just two years later. Trekkers will also spot further drinking-game bingos such as Shatner's "seek out new worlds, new life" speech, his mission's name (Project Vulcan), and actor Malachi Thorne, who played Commodore Mendez in Star Trek's two-parter, "The Menagerie." If there's ever an edition of Trivial Pursuit for sci-fi TV geeks, this episode will warrant a handful of cards all by itself.

In "The Invisible Enemy," Adam West leads a rescue mission to Mars to find a prior crew that went missing. Even though this story was written by Jerry Sohl and directed by Byron Haskin, two reliable stalwarts, you can't not laugh at the monster involved. When the "sand shark" rears its immobile plastic head from the glittery Martian desert, we're thrust into a cheesy ancestor of Tremors menaced by giant toothy Pez dispensers. West is so stiff and monotone that at any moment he's likely to call a crewmate "old chum." Ted Knight is here too, though it's questionable whether this outing was mentioned when he auditioned for Mary Tyler Moore.

Replacement producer Brady shoehorned his Perry Mason experience into the series with "I, Robot." This ho-hum courtroom drama is brightened by Howard da Silva being pressed into service to defend a gentle-souled automaton accused of murdering its creator. Leonard Nimoy is a nosy newsman on the trail of a hot story. The treacly climax is visible a mile away.

One of the season's better and more thoughtful attempts, in "Wolf 359" scientists create a fast-evolving world in microcosm. Soon after the microscopic civilization in the petri dish develops self-awareness, the scientists' God-like status is challenged by an evil deity manifesting from the experiment.

"Keeper of the Purple Twilight" stars Forbidden Planet's Doc Ostrow, Warren Stevens, and serves up one of the series' niftier man-in-a-mask aliens. It has the makings of a good, somber story about the balance of human emotions against cold intellect, but it's twice as long as it should be and beans us with an overboard Communism allegory in the alien's description of his planet's efficient yet sterile "orderly society." Stevens' boss is played by Edward Platt, mere months before he became The Chief on Get Smart. Howlers in the dialogue make us wince, but the top-secret raygun that zaps alien soldiers and assorted stock footage is a goofy thrill.

The august authority David J. Schow, author of an exemplary chronicle, The Outer Limits Companion, touts "The Duplicate Man" as one of the series' stronger hours, though from where this reviewer sits it's difficult to understand why. The plot is based on the story "Goodnight, Mr. James" by Clifford Simak, who improved life on Earth with his novel Way Station, but the thoughtful Simakian theme goes unfulfilled. It's hijacked by a painfully silly central threat. The alien Megasoid is said to be the most intelligent and fiercely lethal of all extraterrestrials. Too bad it's crafted as a ridiculous man-in-a-furry-suit given a fuzzy-wuzzy tail and a (heaven help me) giant bird beak. Worse, the whole monster-on-the-loose runaround is ultimately an unnecessary time-waster overstuffing a story about a morally drained scientist (Ron Randell) who "bootlegs" a duplicate of himself to do his dirty work. It turns out that, for the scientist's wife, the duplicate is more like the man she remembers marrying than the original is. An unscrupulous space captain is straight out of the old pulp magazines. Set in 2011, the superficial "futuristic" trappings are painfully dated. When Randell walks in front of a window and casts his shadow across the painted flat depicting the cityscape beyond, that snapping sound you hear is the final thread of our willing suspension of disbelief.

"Behold, Eck!" — The title says it all in this dismal would-be comedy about a two-dimensional being that looks like an aluminum-foil cat toy. It's to TV science fiction what "Yummy Yummy Yummy, I've Got Love in My Tummy" is to romantic ballads.

The brain-in-a-jar trope gets dragged out of the closet again in "The Brain of Colonel Barham," among the most pitiful apples in this barrel. Genre TV fans can think of this one as the "Spock's Brain" of The Outer Limits.

*          *          *

For all its faults, it's good to have the entire run of the original The Outer Limits on little silvery discs. Maybe it goes to show that there really is "something wrong with your television set" — but the fault lies not with the television or even the creative visionaries whose goal is to keep us tuned in for something a bit more worthwhile than an average hour of Fox News or Clear Channel programming.

No, sometimes the fault is squarely in the rubbery green hands of television studio execs, who close their office doors and peel off the masks to reveal the gilled or beaked or googly-eyed menace underneath. Just ask Joe Stefano. He knows.

The DVDs

The Outer Limits: The Original Series: Season Two occupies three two-sided, double-layered discs (DVD-18).

The good news is that the compact packaging is identical to the Season One set, and the eight-page booklet of episode synopses, original airdates, and credits is again a welcome addition.

The episodes look very good. All are in their original black-and-white, full-frame 1.33:1. They're transferred from 35mm masters that are remarkably clean and undamaged. Sometimes minor speckling and fading betray their age, especially in the darker scenes, but overall the definition, contrast, and gradation are better than we might have expected. Now and then it's clear that the digital transfers are slightly over-compressed (expect some instances of minor diagonal jaggies), but there are no showstoppers.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural audio is inherently limited, of course, with flat highs and lows compared to modern TV soundtracks. From episode to episode, though, the audio is solid, very clean, and stable with no hiss to speak of. The DVDs' production team was respectful enough to not "sweeten" the audio with unnecessary add-on stereo separation effects.

All the drawbacks of the earlier set remain. No new supplements are here, and this time that's a shame considering that a couple of sides hold only two episodes, so this set has some extra "bit budget" that the Season One set lacked. On the discs themselves, once again the itty-bitty "Side A / Side B" labeling makes us wish for zoom-lens eyeballs. And when starting each episode you can't chapter-click past the opening credits without missing minutes of whatever's beyond them (the most aggravating trend in the whole TV-on-DVD realm).

And someone still thinks that the dorky "There is nothing wrong with your DVD player" menu voice-over is a good idea.

—Mark Bourne

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