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The Outer Limits: The Original Series: Season One

MGM Home Video

Starring Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Sally Kellerman,
Cliff Robertson, Martin Landau, Robert Culp, Bruce Dern,
Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Vera Miles, Henry Silva, Edward Asner....

Written by Joseph Stefano, Leslie Stevens, Robert Towne, and others

Directed by Gerd Oswald, Byron Haskin, and others

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

". . . for sheer hard-edged clarity of concept, The Twilight Zone could not match The Outer Limits . . ."

— Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you.

That old bromide, called up in so many real-world situations from ball parks to boardrooms, could well have been the pitch line that exec producer Leslie Stevens and writer/producer Joseph Stefano used to sell their groundbreaking and still distinctive ABC-TV anthology series, The Outer Limits. We're not talking about the recent Sci Fi Channel "update" that's fine but rarely strives beyond the ordinary. We're talking about THE Outer Limits, that source of many a Boomer childhood memory or nightmare. This series of sci-fi/horror fables enthralled, excited, or scared the Sugar Pops out of Kennedy-Johnson-era audiences from September 1963 to January 1965. When Stefano, who had turned Robert Bloch's routine novel into the screenplay for Hitchcock's Psycho, wanted his weekly "bears" to get you, then you got got.

As he defined it, a Stefano "bear" was any monstrous creature whose purpose was to "induce wonder or tolerable terror or even merely conversation and argument." Before he left the series (a departure that resulted in a generally banal second season), Stefano kept the show and its writers to a clear and reliable formula. Each episode's bear would make an appearance before the half-hour station break. It may be initially benevolent, but by the end of the hour something — frequently it was human fear/greed/prejudice/ignorance — would set it off.

Many bears were nasty things bent on harm or conquest or some other unpleasantness. On the other hand (claw, tentacle, appendage), a well-used twist in The Outer Limits' "monster of the week" formula was the weird alien who brought out the "monster" in humankind by being more humane than the humans around it. Some disturbingly embodied the personal hidden desires or drives of our shadow selves, as Jungian psychology would call it. Several literalized the traumas of war veterans (WWII and Korea in particular dwelled in the series' psyche), as well as the era's Cold War paranoia.

With few exceptions during the first season's 32 hour-long installments preserved in this DVD set (that's 27 hours and 22 minutes, commercial-free), The Outer Limits gave its viewers the benefit of the doubt as being adults looking for more than ordinary fare. Framed by simple (but only occasionally simpleminded) object lessons intoned by Vic Perrin's somber Control Voice ("There is nothing wrong with your television set...."), the best episodes challenge viewers intellectually and emotionally, encouraging us be more than passive non-participants.

What's more, roughly half of Season One's episodes show off the cinema-quality cinematography of Conrad Hall, whose rich and complex compositions soon after earned him acclaim and Academy Awards. While you're watching, say, his effective handheld camerawork in "The Man Who Was Never Born," study the early work that led to Hall's photographic eloquence in Marathon Man, In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and, most recently, American Beauty in 1999 and Road to Perdition in 2002. Many of the series' episodes crystallized when Hall teamed with writer Stefano and director Gerd Oswald. Together they formed a film noir-touched, expressionistic triumvirate.

Anthology series such as The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone have the advantage when it comes to characters who can be realistically and irrevocably changed by the events of a story. In The Outer Limits, each episode, good or bad or middlin', is a self-contained little snow-globe — a story that opens tranquilly, then the bear comes in, shakes things up, and when the debris settles nothing's ever quite the same again.

Take the first episode, for instance. In "The Galaxy Being," a pandimensional creature from Andromeda is accidentally pulled through a sky-scanning radio transceiver manned by Cliff Robertson (Spider-Man's Uncle Ben) and innocent people die before the inherently benign traveler returns home. (That episode established the typical Stefano protagonist — the isolated misfit who receives or achieves the power to either save or destroy the world.) A genuine classic, "The Man Who Was Never Born" turns a Beauty & The Beast fable into a tragic love story in which a horrid mutant from the future (Martin Landau's moving tour de force performance) sacrifices his own existence for a better world and for the 20th-century woman who has fallen in love with the gentle soul beneath his monstrous tissue.

In "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork" — a memorable Atomic Age parable — a cleaning lady unleashes a living power storm that grows into an unstoppable killer. Uneducated Welsh miner David McCallum (The Man from UNCLE) quick-evolves into a far-future bulb-headed supermenace in "The Sixth Finger." The surreal "Don't Open Till Doomsday" embodies decades-long coitus interruptus in a vaguely vaginal alien blob whose universe is contained within a mysterious box.

The demonic Ebonite aliens in "Nightmare" capture and torture a spaceship team of Earth soldiers, including 23-year-old Martin Sheen. A pair of mind-controlling alien rocks are the bears in "Corpus Earthling," with Robert Culp trying to save himself and the world in a drama that gives post-war trauma a bleak metaphorical airing. Henry Silva confronts a drippy blob invading Earth in "The Mice." Cruel and desperate humans (Sally Kellerman and Martin Landau) capture an angelic alien inside "The Bellero Shield" before, as is the way of such things, comeuppance in time for the closing credits.

Oh, how The Outer Limits loved Bug-Eyed Monsters. Robert Culp, one of the series' signature returning players, is a scientist surgically morphed into a horrid alien BEM to frighten Earth's nuclear powers into uniting for peace in "The Architects of Fear," a watershed episode. In "The Mutant," radioactive rainfall transforms Warren Oates into a cue-ball-eyed terror whose touch can kill. An insect-like BEM in a business suit is a deadbeat dad to one of "The Children of Spider County."

The show's most famous BEMs are small alien convicts — like ants with unnerving, malicious human faces — who give Bruce Dern reasons to regret messing with "The Zanti Misfits."

Frontiers, final and otherwise

Obviously, at first blush The Outer Limits is a science fiction series. However, it shares closer DNA with the horror genre. More often than not it uses familiar science-fictional tropes — alien invaders, human-ET contact, time travel, science gone Horribly Wrong, etc. — as the means to tell stories, not as ends in themselves. These stories are often stark or poignant excursions into "the human condition." They're told with bravado via gothic creepers, Old Dark House mysteries, cautionary tales, taut dramas, and even a comedy. If you were a kid in that pre-Star Trek age, this was the show that you recounted with your friends the following day in the schoolyard, even if you watched it from behind the couch or while clutching Mom's hand.

That is, if you were allowed to watch it at all, because although many episodes play off of childhood fears, The Outer Limits was that rare and precious TV life-form: a fantastical series aimed at grown-ups. Even today the best of these scripts strike us as unusually literate and sophisticated, and while they can be talky by today's flash-cut standards, they display a refreshing tendency to not talk down to the audience. Notice the heightened, almost poetic, dialogue in "The Bellero Shield," a story with more than a few borrowings from Macbeth.

In "A Feasibility Study," an L.A. neighborhood is transported to a distant planet. The aliens (who look what you'd get if you took a blowtorch to a lead mannequin) are testing humans' suitability as slave labor. If the study on this small sample of humanity succeeds, the entire population of Earth will be kidnapped to this desolate world. Eschewing routine TV heroics in this unwinnable situation, to save their fellow humans every member of the stressed-out neighborhood joins hands and chooses a particularly grim form of mass suicide rather than face a life of servitude — a choice that prompted ABC to delay the broadcast for almost a year.

A still-resonant turn toward sober allegory drives "O.B.I.T.", when a senate investigation into a murder at a top-secret defense installation reveals an all-seeing surveillance device, the Outer Band Individuated Teletracer. With privacy rendered obsolete by the very authorities who claim to be protecting us, the surveillance's effect on the watchers is as dire as it is on the demoralized, spiritless populace being watched. Although it was obviously written as a response to the remembered abuses of the House Un-American Activities Committee, this insightful story knifes into subjects that remain PATRIOT Act fresh to this day, right down to the Ashcroftian line, "People who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear from O.B.I.T."

Years before the Hotel California, "The Guests" presents the series' most dream-like of Old Dark House psychodramas. A drifter stumbles upon a mysterious house and its bizarre ensemble of time-dislocated residents. The house's shifting, maze-like corridors and stairs that go nowhere make escape impossible. It's soon apparent that the bickering, maddened, perverse samples of humanity ("Shut up, Randall, or I'll be nice to you!") trapped within its walls exist for the whims of some thing in the attic. Rich with gothic atmosphere, "The Guests" is marred by the now-trite motives (and speaking style) of its "bear," plus a tone-altering sentimental twist. Even so, the existential truth that each prisoner holds makes for an episode that feels lifted from the pages of Kafka or Camus or Borges.

Has any Golden Age science fiction story been adapted for television more often than Fredric Brown's "Arena"? The Outer Limits beat Star Trek to the punch with "Fun and Games." Two Earthlings, two-bit hood Nick Adams and good-girl idealist Nancy Malone, are teleported to the planet Andarra, where they must fight to the death in gladiatorial games. Their opponents: a pair of monstrous aliens. The stakes: the fate of their entire species. One of the highlights here is Robert Johnson's alien games master, known as the Senator, who's a giddily capricious and melodramatic villain.

Occasionally the monster was a malevolence more human and home-grown. In the Cold War political potboiler, "One Hundred Days of the Dragon," the Red Chinese use a technique of remolding human flesh to replace the U.S. President with a double agent. It's the most dated of all the episodes here, and the script's rusty Yellow Peril stereotyping would make any invading BEM cringe, but this one's a revealing window into an era and a way of thinking that (we like to believe) got left behind in the 1960s.

The "invaders taking over government leaders" trope gets another spin in "The Invisibles." This time the paranoia is more suffocating and keeps an under-the-skin style that's still disturbing and claustrophobic. Here "sick, nameless nuclei" from space possess world officials, headed by George MacReady, and a C.I.A.-like agent infiltrates their cabal. Distrust of our elected officials — seeing them as a Secret Society operating for its own agenda — may be conditioned into our social psyche today, but in the pre-Watergate, pre-Neocon America of 1963 this superior suspense thriller presented a nerve-rattling proposition.

Even for The Outer Limits, Season One's closing story, "The Forms of Things Unknown" is a peculiar masterpiece. Its blend of gothic horror and Hitchcockian exhumation of sexual fear comes well crafted with Stefano's lyrical script, taut editing, and Conrad Hall's moody, sophisticated-for-TV cinematography. (In true European art-house style, concepts of light and shadow are heightened both visually and thematically.) Vera Miles and Barbara Rush team up to murder a sadistic philanderer. Lost in a forest with the body in the trunk of their car, they hole up in an isolated mansion with its strange owner, David McCallum, who claims to have discovered a technique for "tilting the dead past into the lively present." To say that his technique — visualized like an update of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — impacts what's in the trunk gives away only a little. This is one of the weirdest, most effective hours of television you're likely to find. "The Forms of Things Unknown" was intended as a pilot for a new anthology series, The Unknown. A longer, separate version was filmed for Playhouse 90 and for theatrical release in Europe.

Bears on a budget

We can admit without apology that The Outer Limits' monsters, aliens, and other nonhuman bogies quite often betray their economy of cost and materials. Today their relative technical primitiveness can evince "kiddie show" snobbery among those who sniff at anything less than modern CGI techniques. The climactic battle scene with the marauding Zantis may elicit more giggles than thrills. Yet here's further proof that when you have strong and intelligent scripts, mindful directing, and your sense of aesthetics in the right place, it doesn't really matter if the monster is obviously a man in a rubber suit or a molded plastic mask or a post-production photographic trick. That energy storm monster menacing Edward Asner "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork" is a transparent optical effect, yet with its sound and fury it's one of the series' finest unearthly terrors and still nightmarishly effective.

One of the more effective budget-saving episodes is a light comedy, "Controlled Experiment." Occurring within a single generic hotel lobby set, it stars Carrol O'Connor and Barry Morse as Martians (with no makeup or facial appliances) studying the peculiar human custom we call murder. They use a handheld time-control device to replay a lovers'-quarrel murder scene again and again in an attempt to understand the alien thinking of Earth's strange inhabitants.

Of course, some outright dogs are bound to end up on the screen. Among the ill-favored episodes in Season One, "Tourist Attraction" was both the series' most budget-busting hour and a woefully misfired opus that's the worst in funny-rubber-suit-monster dullness. "The Borderland" is one hour that feels like three, with no salvation from gobbledygook dialogue about "the fourth dimension" that would make no sense even if the plot were at all engaging. "ZZZZZ," with its Evil Bee Woman, is too similar to Roger Corman's The Wasp Woman and other drive-in fodder. Pretty white flowers from space threaten, barely, the human race in the lackluster "Specimen: Unknown." "Second Chance" didn't deserve one, and "The Special One" is as unspecial as they come. While "Moonstone" is simply inept, "Production and Decay of Strange Particles" inhabits the series' nadir hour with its impenetrable ramblings about extra-dimensional neutrino beings shambling about the cheapest of sets and causing Allyson Aimes to faint a lot. It's an episode that's comically, not cosmically, awful.

Six degrees, hold the Kevin Bacon

You can make a drinking game by watching The Outer Limits and playing Name That Famous Actor. Of the familiar faces and voices, some making their TV debuts, you could point out Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Sally Kellerman, Cliff Robertson, Martin Landau, Chita Rivera, Robert Culp, Bruce Dern, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Vera Miles, Henry Silva, Edward Asner, Lloyd Nolan, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, Carrol O'Connor, Barry Morse, Nick Adams, Eddie Albert, Dabney Coleman, Richard Dawson, Michael Constantine, James Doohan, David McCallum, Warren Oates, Donald Pleasence, and Adam West.

Further whiskey shooters will put a fraternity under the table upon naming the "I know that face" character actors such as John Hoyt, Harry Townes, and Kent Smith, all those indispensable sharecropping laborers of series television you'll recognize from countless other series from Star Trek to Perry Mason to Melrose Place.

Mission control

Behind the cameras we find another Who's Who of remarkable talent. We've already mention Conrad Hall. Before writer Robert Towne became known for Polanski's Chinatown, he wrote the Robert Duvall episode "The Chameleon." Other writers who contributed to The Outer Limits included executive producer Leslie Stevens, David Duncan (George Pal's The Time Machine), and Jerry Sohl (Twilight Zone, Star Trek). Famed surly short-story writer Harlan Ellison scripted two notable second season episodes: "Soldier" and "Demon With a Glass Hand," often cited as the series' finest hour and one of TV's all-time best. Ellison successfully sued James Cameron for The Terminator's similarities to those stories.

Veteran cinema director Byron Haskin (The War of the Worlds, The Naked Jungle, Treasure Island) helmed numerous episodes. Gerd Oswald heads the list of directors, such as Robert Florey and László Benedek, well-known also for their work on TV's Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or Star Trek.

On the music front, Dominic Frontiere's outstanding scoring set the perfect tone in memorable fashion.

The team behind the remarkable array of special effects and imaginative monsters included Jim Danforth (John Carpenter's The Thing), Wah Chang (The Time Machine, The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao), and — schlockfilm connoisseurs take note — makeup artist Harry Thomas (Plan 9 from Outer Space, Little Shop of Horrors, among many others).

Between the Limits and the Zone

So, which was better, The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone? Tribal wars have broken out over lesser questions. There's no doubt that The Twilight Zone has earned its status as one of the all-time high points of television history. But if The Outer Limits had known Zone's perpetual syndication status and word-of-mouth PR, would the debate be even more heated among genre cognoscenti, or might The Outer Limits edge out its famous competitor on CBS as the more sure-footed of the two series?

It's an apples-and-oranges argument that isn't fairly stacked. ABC's homicidal network broadcast time-shifting and other interference sliced into The Outer Limits' hamstrings. So Stefano left the series after the first season, and the second season was clubbed like a baby seal by a fatal time slot and a production staff that created, with a few worthy exceptions, flat and colorless episodes that didn't carry over Season One's better ingredients. The Outer Limits was doomed to a death before its time. No less an aficionado than Stephen King (in his nonfiction book on the horror genre, Danse Macabre) makes a case for The Outer Limits being the purer manifestation of its vision, unburdened by Zone's tendency toward "smarmy," "simplistic," or "almost painfully corny" moral tales that were "really sentimental riffs on old supernatural themes."

Not that the question is important in any case. The heyday of anthology fantasy/horror brought us both shows, and television became a better thing because of them. Just repeat after the Control Voice: "There is nothing wrong with your television set...."

The DVDs

My, what a (heh) eye-popping set this is. The entire first season of 32 hour-long episodes is here, squeezed onto four two-sided, double-layered discs (DVD-18). The twin-chambered keep-case is engineered to avoid the cumbersome multi-gatefold digipak awkwardness common to other TV-season boxed sets. No supplementary extras pad out the menus, and that's fine. I suspect that one more minute of material would cause these packed-full discs to magically decompress like Snakes-in-a-Can, spattering the walls with pixels and BEMs.

These digital transfers look terrific. All are in their original black-and-white, full-frame 1.33:1. They're transferred from 35mm masters that occasionally show their age, especially in the darker scenes, through minor grain, washout or fading, plus a speck now and then. Still, they're remarkably clean and undamaged. Overall, the definition, contrast, and gradation are far better than we might have hoped for. The digital compression ranges from Okay to Very Good, so viewers with larger monitors should expect, for example, the occasional distraction of a character's pinstriped dress going a bit a-shimmer or a strong diagonal banister suffering "stair-step" jaggies.

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. And the DVDs' production team was respectful enough to not "sweeten" the audio with unnecessary add-on stereo separation effects.

The set comes with a handsome twelve-page booklet of episode synopses, original airdates, trivia, and credits, a welcome courtesy and convenience that some other recent TV series full-season releases neglect.

One complaint concerns the "Side A / Side B" labeling on the discs themselves. That tiny tiny text almost requires a jeweler's loupe just to tell which side of the disc you want to play.

Another minor irritant occurs when each disc's main menu spoofs the show's famous Control Voice. When we pop in a disc, we're greeted by a cheesy cartoon-pitched "robot" voice telling us that "There is nothing wrong with your DVD player," etc. It's painfully unclever. What's more, you can't chapter-skip past the opening credits without landing somewhere deep within the story. That's a problem compounded by each episode's pre-credits preview teaser segment, which often gives away surprises still to come.

—Mark Bourne

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