by Walter Chaw In the hour or so past my bedtime in the endless dusk of UHF syndication, I used to watch Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone" and Joseph Stefano's "The Outer Limits" with my father. The previous fed the nightmares of my youth, the latter fed my fondest desires and deepest faith in the eternal verity, and nobility, of asking questions, of ambition, of being courageous enough to fail to change the world. "The Outer Limits", I realize in these first months after my father's death, represented the best things about him--and about me: that line pure that stretches between where we are and where we hope to go. "The Outer Limits" is, more so than "The Twilight Zone", about how we never feel as though we are the men we ought to be because our fathers have set too difficult an example. Where Serling dazzled with O. Henry-like twists, "The Outer Limits" sobered with existential frustrations: one is the dove resolution, the other the hat forever emptying.
So when both seasons of "The Outer Limits" arrived at my doorstep in separate box sets, I met them with joy and trepidation--as Harlan Ellison likes to say, "opposite sides of the same devalued coin." Here, in two neat, let's-call-them-economical parcels from MGM, the complete run of the hour-long series (41 hours and 52 minutes in all) on seven flipper DVDs, which includes perhaps the finest hour of television that has ever been aired ("Demon with a Glass Hand"--"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"'s "Hush" episode coming in a surprising second) and a collection of images by legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall and performances by a remarkable selection of movie stars that would, by themselves, make the sets indispensable to the cinephile. We're lucky, then, that the series is so much more than just a showcase of talented, imaginative people working under adverse conditions to create something unique and thoughtful for (and here's another Ellison-ism) the glass teat. Folks who point to "The Sopranos" as the quintessential example of quality in television fare are guilty not of misplaced passion, but of hyperbole and forgetfulness. "The Outer Limits" set the bar in many ways, and set it high.
That being said, there are clunkers in here now and again, but even the ones that don't work are driven by the central series image of Icarus and Daedalus, the one wanting to touch the sun, the other giving him the means to try--and all of it ending in tears. "The Outer Limits" is regal in its hubris: an idea so mulish that what never should have gotten on the air hung on for 49 episodes.
Over the course of the next several Tuesdays, FILM FREAK CENTRAL is proud to present an overview of "The Outer Limits" box sets, one disc at a time. Each episode conceived as a mini-film, they'll be reviewed that way, with the facts as a given that the series looks and sounds as good as it ever has (certainly better than the prints used in most syndication over the last few decades), and that there is no supplementary material save insets that provide brief summaries of each episode. (In MGM's defense, the definitive "special feature" was published in 1998 by splatterpunk primogenitor David J. Schow under the title The Outer Limits Companion (buy at Amazon.com)) The first package includes four discs, the second three; both come in dual-chambered keep-cases of exactly the same dimensions so as to look natty on the shelf, the episodes themselves arranged chronologically according to the order of original broadcast and not of original production.
If you don't have them already (why not?), now's a good time--we'll take a look at them together. Originally published: January 6, 2004.
1.1 The Galaxy Being
Cliff Robertson, fresh off PT-109, is a misfit genius who creates a transmitter in a shack next to a radio station to communicate with a being from another galaxy. With the titular "bear" (the term refers to the monsters that would appear in each episode to appease a leery studio) also a misfit genius, the pathos of the piece comes from the Day the Earth Stood Still idea that this alien is benevolent, and that it's only through the short-sighted aggression of man that it's aggressive and, finally, doomed. The special effects were a revelation at the time (all reverse negatives, ingenious sculpture (by Chuck Schram, assistant to "Twilight Zone" make-up effects guru William Tuttle), and frame-insertions), but the idea that enchants, the one that would persist throughout the run, is that no sacrifice is too great for the cause of discovery. The Galaxy Being itself, after all, divulges at one point that even though he's sentenced himself to death among his people for the communication, the chance to speak with another sentient being was too great to deny. We find in that a lot of things, among them a mirror to the existence, poetry, and ultimate fate of the series.
1.2 The Hundred Days of the Dragon
Broadcast just two months prior to a real presidential assassination, The Hundred Days of the Dragon casts Sidney Blackmer--Roman Polanski's Roman Castevet--as both President Selby and the impostor Selby, the latter murdering the former at the behest of the Yellow Peril. Though Blackmer's presence is commanding, the star of the show, besides its prescience in hindsight, is a startling make-up effect that finds faces suddenly as malleable as putty. A companion piece or, moreover, a television version of John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate, the show is burdened by a lugubrious pace and too broad an ascription of motive: Orientals are evil because they are. What works is an underlying feeling of governmental paranoia in the "Body Snatchers" mold appearing on popular television anachronistically at the very end of Camelot.
1.3 The Architects of Fear
Robert Culp in one of his three appearances on the series delivers one of two of the best performances in the series as a man enlisted by his government to mutate into a horrific alien "invader" so as to unite the world under one cause. Addressing obliquely (and not so obliquely) issues of provincialism, identity, and the ferocious civilizing power of love and duty, The Architects of Fear reminds a great deal of David Cronenberg's The Fly, particularly in its operatic, tragic climax. Fascinating, compelling, the experience of it, save the man-in-the-rubber-suit difficulty that many modern viewers have trouble overcoming, is arguably as fresh to a new viewer as it was forty years ago.
1.4 The Man with the Power
Donald Pleasence lends his trademark milquetoast tension to the role of a man who implants his brain with a "focuser" so as to aid in the harvesting of asteroids for mineral resource. Sadly, he's unable to control the power, leading to the unfortunate deaths, Monkey Shines-like, of a few folks who irk him during the day-to-day. The strength of the picture is Pleasence's performance; note particularly a moment where he laments to his wife how unsupportive and castrating she's been to him throughout his career: he's sad and angry, and just right for where the man has been, and where he understands he's going. Another tale of ambition in the sway of entropy, The Man with the Power is "The Outer Limits" as character study, with an ending that honours the courage of what's come before.
1.5 The Sixth Finger
"It's a high price to pay for power over other men," intones the changed Gwyllen, illiterate coal miner hyper-evolved by an evolution machine. (Ostensibly for the cause of science, secretly so the bumpkin can better woo the object of his desire.) Hampered by too-sunny a conclusion, The Sixth Finger works best when it speaks to the ways in which men seek to improve their pack standing in order to win a mate. The frustration of the Omega is palpable, as convincing eventually as the fury of the Alpha. That it's Zen before it's pabulum works in its favour as well in what has become one of the better known, most imitated (see Powder, Phenomenon, and one episode of Spielberg's "Amazing Stories") entries in the series.
1.6 The Man Who Was Never Born
Martin Landau, unrecognizable under pounds of application, is an emissary from the future in what resolves itself to be a predecessor in fact and spirit to Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (and Chris Marker's La Jetee, by extension). A tale of a visitor from the future on a hunt for the modern-day destroyer of that future (shades of James Cameron's Terminator mythos as well--more on that eventually), The Man Who Was Never Born is bittersweet and melancholy with even success of the ultimate goal tainted by proximate tragedy. The issue of time travel makes its first appearance on "The Outer Limits" to exemplary effect, detailing as it does a popularly shuttlecocked conundrum as its puncher. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in punch, and Landau, in all his early feral muscularity, is fabulous--even in fright make-up.
A conversation that we're still having today, Gerd Oswald's O.B.I.T. concerns a fanatical invasion of privacy by a near-omniscient surveillance device (the titular "Outer Band Individuated Teletracer") that looks suspiciously like a two-way television and functions as a means by which a society is kept under the thumb of those who purport to protect it. A whole piece with some of the sharpest exchanges and societal investigations of the early series, it's no wonder that it works as well as it does for its connection to the still-raw wound of HUAC. O.B.I.T. (note the dual-meaning of the title) incorporates a police procedural into its speculative plot, providing structure to a satire as edgy, well-conceived, and disquieting as the best of the paranoia cinema that would erupt in the years following 1968.
1.8 The Human Factor
The title ironic as it's one of the major things this episode lacks, The Human Factor looks fabulous. Featuring Conrad Hall's canted perspectives and early brittle lighting schemes, the scene is set in an arctic outpost as a brilliant psychiatrist accidentally switches consciousness with a psychopath. Improved upon by Harlan Ellison's novella Mephisto in Onyx, The Human Factor is arid and talky, hinging its key moments around the lock-step execution of its tired premise. Another highlight comes in the debut of Sally Kellerman in a minor role. Joining a few other notable clunkers in the "Outer Limits" run (resembling the most William Shatner's second season-starrer Warm Hands, Cold Heart), the episode is still worth a run, if for no other reason than one astonishing camera shot of a shallow-focus set-camera shot that has a blurred figure walking into extreme foreground close-up of his eyes: wild and fevered.
1.9 Corpus Earthling
Bathed in the uncompromising glow of what is possibly the most nihilistic episode of one of the more laudably dark television shows in the medium's short history, Corpus Earthling finds series favourite Robert Culp battling a pair of mind-controlling alien rocks in a story that isn't so much about the dangers of science gone awry as a parable of the toll that war takes on the mind of the individual. A war veteran of an unspecified conflict (we presume Korea), Culp's character, equipped with a metal plate in his head, is too "defective" for possession by the invaders, and too dangerous to be allowed to live for the plate's side-effect of allowing him to hear alien conversation. A picture about one man's desire for normalcy in a ruined world, as Culp's colleague and wife are turned into murderous automatons (and as he himself almost succumbs to suicidal suggestion in a scene cast in shades of Rebecca), the metaphor for the lingering aftershocks of warfare on the soldier and his society swim into focus. With a haunted final image and the series' ideals of noble sacrifice and the dangers of knowledge honoured, Corpus Earthling is amazing.
Earth at war sends a multinational strike force on a doomed mission only to have them captured and tortured by their demonic Ebonite foe. An impossibly young Martin Sheen makes his taped-television debut as a young private taunted by the image of his mother during interrogation, reminding a little in its intimate cruelty of the gymnastic agonies endured by Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles pilgrims. Speaking again to the series' concern with the lingering after-effects of the Korean War (paranoia of the government chief among them) as well as demonstrating an uncomfortable prescience in regards to the looming Vietnam conflict, Nightmare is an intricate character drama that reminds a little too much of Five Characters in Search of an Exit, the "Twilight Zone" with dolls pondering their existence in a donation box. For as well-written and performed as it is, Nightmare is flummoxed by John Erman's staid direction, John M. Nickolaus Jr.'s unimaginative camerawork, and a set design so minimalist that it looks suspiciously like it was shot exactly where it was: in an empty, undressed studio.
1.11 It Crawled Out of the Woodwork
One of the more troubling instalments of the first season, the Stefano/Oswald/Hall "troika" (as they came to be known) produce It Crawled Out of the Woodwork, a story about a dust bunny gone bad as a parable for the dangers of new forms of energy and, again, unfettered ambition. A picture that hints at a deep suspicion of the rise of the mega-corporation (proof again that Stefano was something of a Cold War Nostradamus), beyond its politics is my frank amazement at the series' courage to present dire consequences for its characters' actions. The body count is high, with its interest in making every death matter exemplified in a lengthy voice-over introduction of someone we think is a main character ending with "...and these are the last moments of his life." Disjointed, almost impressionistic, this picture is Stefano's most autobiographical (the amorphous, voracious bear representing the demands placed upon him by "The Outer Limits" itself), but for being so personal, it's also his most unfocused.
1.12 The Borderland
Written and directed by Leslie Stevens and shot by Nickolaus (Conrad Hall had every-other episode off, to the detriment of those segments), The Borderland is flat, uninvolving, and astonishingly boring. Beginning with scientist Ian (Mark Richman) zapping his left hand into a second right hand, the rest of the picture is interested in Ian's efforts to essentially zap his second right hand back into his left hand. There's a lot of mumbo-jumbo about fourth-dimensions and wondering if everyone in that fourth dimension walks around inverted (heavens to betsy!); what The Borderland does is remind that not only is "The Twilight Zone" episode Little Girl Lost far the superior, but Stuart Gordon's From Beyond is far the superior, too. The problem too much jargon and not enough character development (making the closing narration's claims about the powers of love rib-breakingly hilarious), some interest for the fanboys lingers just in seeing veteran character actress Gladys Cooper. Though this was her only "Outer Limits" appearance, Cooper made three memorable appearances on "The Twilight Zone", the best of them being Jacques Tournier's Night Call.
1.13 Tourist Attraction
Hampered by dead pacing and a cool-looking but entirely non-threatening bear, Tourist Attraction concerns the rise of a horde of--okay, three--giant fish-creatures, rebelling against the intrusion of a hydro-electric dam into their environment. An eco-horror film instead of a throwback to the irradiated creatures of the 1950s, flashes of the series' hallmark sociological foresight surface now and again but pay only campy dividends. Politics latent in an evil Latin American dictator (Henry Silva), Tourist Attraction is a lot like its monster: retro-cool, but slow-moving and kind of a mess.
1.14 The Zanti Misfits
Perhaps the best-directed single episode of "The Outer Limits," the coverage provided by director Leonard Horn is exhaustive and imaginative. Photographed again by Nickolaus, who at least seems capable of innovation when forced into multiple camera sets by a perfectionist helm, The Zanti Misfits is one of the most beloved, if undercooked "Outer Limits" for its titular stop-motion outcasts: foot-long ants with human faces, animated by the same production team responsible for the original Mighty Joe Young. The Zantis have been mailed to Earth the way Mother England sent their malcontents to Australia; cast in the role of the aboriginals, the United States of the picture has all its preening neurosis on display in a handful of character archetypes (hawk, egghead, madman, bimbo) forced to contend with the unwanted visitors in their own backyard. Filmed on MGM's western backlot dubbed "Morgue, CA" (and the egghead is named "Grave," natch), the episode takes on an interesting level of reflexivity: a picture about the veneer of American behaviour shot in an environment that embodies the artificiality of our entertainments. A climactic battle between man and Zanti (presaged wonderfully in an early moment as Grave flicks a terrestrial ant off a post) retains its power to shock and stimulate while the professionalism of the production (and the fact that a translating computer is the basis for Agent Smith's voice in The Matrix, without even mentioning the debt owed it by Assault on Precinct 13) almost distracts completely from the hollowness at its centre. Bruce Dern proves, by the way (and to no one's surprise in hindsight), to be an excellent psychopath.
1.15 The Mice
Henry Silva, so memorable a baddie in The Manchurian Candidate, makes another appearance in the series in The Mice, an ill-thought-out schlock melodrama that has as its chief selling point the influence it seems to have had on Stargate, Contact, and Stephen King's "The Jaunt" (the more one learns about popular culture, the more King begins to resemble a "for Dummies" guide to the same). Here a walking jellyfish called a Chromoite teleports to earth after earth scientists construct a teleportation machine according to alien specifications. Convicted murderer Chino (Silva) volunteers to be the lab mouse sent back to Chromo on an exchange-student basis. The developments are easy to predict, so the interest of the piece derives from the ethnic romance developing at the centre (Chino courts Dr. Harrison played by African-American actor Diana Sands)--and the fact that through sloppy editing, one guard seems to get killed twice. The first of six films cinematographer Hall undertook after the resignation of Nickolaus, and produced during a period in which Stefano literally locked himself into his office on weekends to get scripts punched up and/or written, The Mice shows a little of the strain.
1.16 Controlled Experiment
Carroll O'Connor and Barry Morse are Martian anthropologists sent to the blue planet to observe the peculiar Earth phenomena of murder and assess its threat to the rest of the universe. Using a time machine of some sort to repeatedly observe Yeoman Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney, giant platinum hair intact) at the moment she shoots her philandering lover, chaos ensues when the bullet is accidentally deflected, leading somewhere down the line to the birth of, essentially, the antichrist. A comedy for all that, Controlled Experiment is droll and well-paced, an anomaly in the "Outer Limits" universe not only for its light tone, but for the sort of the existential fatalism more favoured by "The Twilight Zone." Though not very meaty in the final analysis, the episode was the cheapest in the series run (costing only $100,000) and shot in four days on three sets. Buoyed by a genuine chemistry between O'Connor and Morse, for as slight as it is, Controlled Experiment is a product of a beloved sci-fi staple (the time conundrum) exceptionally influential on light genre pieces (see: Men in Black) to this day.
1.17 Don't Open Till Doomsday
The entendres and Freudian implications of nearly every moment and thought in the Joseph Stefano-scripted Don't Open Till Doomsday (this an episode for which the creative "troika"--Stefano, director Gerd Oswald, DP Conrad Hall--is responsible) begin at the beginning, as it were, with a bridegroom sucked into a box on the night of his wedding. The creature villain's motive has something to do with the desire to coerce human accomplices in a quest to reunite with other box monsters, thus facilitating the arrival of doomsday. Starting in the Roaring Twenties, the piece picks up thirty years later with the now-aged bride a spinster Mrs. Haversham, preserving her wedding suite untouched, waiting for a young couple to replace her lost husband in the box. Don't Open Till Doomsday is a nightmarish, disquieting treatise on sexual fear and loathing, the box monster appearing at every critical juncture of consummation, peering with its one eye out of his prison's peephole like the threat of sacking or the promise of fecundity. (Its resemblance to feces may be read as a reference to fertility and its close relationship to corruption.) With the old bride cast in shades of Norma Desmond (and the old woman who refers a young couple to the house of dust and cobwebs decrying the "disreputable" roadside hotels that Stefano made infamous with his script for Psycho), the picture is among the richest in the series in terms of the possibilities of extratextual examination. It doesn't hurt that it's creepy, too.
Indicated by a couple of stunning images (unavoidable with Hall's work, I find), there remains in ZZZZZ the unavoidable recognition that it's a groovy idea squandered on a lot of dreary doublespeak and missed opportunities. Concerning a stunning-looking woman (Joanna Frank) calling herself "Regina" while being the human manifestation of an ambitious queen bee, the politics of sexual attraction and marital fidelity are touched on but explored to far greater profit by the episode immediately preceding it. Regina's sultry mien is almost too distracting, making the milquetoast Ben's (Phillip Abbott) vociferous rejection of her desire to mate puzzling at the least. When Regina appears wearing Ben's murdered wife's old wedding veil (she's been "thought" to death by the hive--why not just stung to death the old fashioned way?), there is a--forgive me--sting of melancholia and what is the closest to real horror that the episode comes. Memorable for the premise and Frank's appearance if nothing much else, ZZZZZ, directed by John Brahm ("The Twilight Zone"'s most prolific director) in the--forgive me again--twilight of his career, is undermined by its broad treatment and heatless rhythm.
1.19 The Invisibles
High among the top five episodes of "The Outer Limits" is the troika's stunning The Invisibles. A deeply paranoid vision of parasitic aliens attaching themselves to the highest crags of our military-industrial/political complex, the film is so pessimistic about the depths men will sink to for power that the alien parasite subplot becomes every bit the device of Robert Louis Stevenson's "potion" that transforms Edwardian Jekyll into venal Hyde. Disturbing in the best, most thoughtful way, The Invisibles doesn't break new ground with its tale of "body snatching" alien invaders, but what it does do is provide a young Richard Dawson and veteran actors George MacReady and Neal Hamilton a claustrophobic premise with which to work. Hall's cinematography is more stifling than usual, married again to Oswald's customarily tight direction and Stefano's nightmarish vision of the brutal inhumanity of humanity's leaders. Though it's daily bread nowadays, in 1963, the idea that our leaders were anything but trustworthy was heretical. It's the kind of innocence, in fact, that's shared by the series' youngest viewers (of which I was one, once upon a time), and the ways in which this episode and others undermines our confidence in those we were taught to trust is fundamentally, seismically, existentially disquieting. (Note a scene scored by a ball bouncing off the outside of a shed and how this image and noise changes with Steve McQueen's insouciant rebellion in The Great Escape.) The Invisibles maintains its ability to disturb--gaining steam, in fact, as our elected officials and dogs of war continue to shake our confidence.
1.20 The Bellero Shield
Neil Hamilton returns in The Bellero Shield, sharing the stage with Martin Landau, Sally Kellerman, and Chita Rivera as another of the series' sanguine aliens is accidentally intercepted during an experiment and guilelessly reveals the secret to the titular shield to a grasping Lady Macbeth, Judith (Kellerman)--her name, of course, the feminized "Judas." The biblical allegories drawn between the kind, bathed-in-white-light, resurrected-then-martyred alien and its betrayer are stark (too stark, perhaps), while the relationship between Judith and her own corruptor, Mrs. Dame (Rivera), smack of a latent Rebecca-like lesbianism. Stefano, if nothing else, is extremely well-read, sprinkling "The Outer Limits" with references to poetry, Shakespeare, mythology, and the pillars of science-fiction, with neither self-consciousness nor, for the most part, clumsiness. The Bellero Shield, when it works, is a fabulous allegory for greed and, incidentally, a nice updating of The Tragedy of Macbeth. When it doesn't work, the piece feels overly didactic and stagey: an awkwardness that does too much to pull the curtain back on this particular wizard.
1.21 The Children of Spider County
Inspired, it seems, by John Wyndham's apocalyptic novels (in particular, The Midwich Cuckoos), The Children of Spider County concerns a quintet of boys born in the titular burg with unusual genius and assorted other mental "gifts"--all premature, none with fathers. There's a lot of nice stuff in here about progeny and dreaming, but altogether too much time is given over to a guy in a monster suit stomping around in the woods to no good end. Breaking in a new cinematographer to the series (Kenneth Peach), gone is much of the innovation of Conrad Hall's eye and with it a surprising amount of atmosphere. What remains, then, of The Children of Spider County is a great idea (the alien-ness of the übermensch something Tim Burton threatened to explore with his long-dead Superman project) wrapped around a lot of filler--suggesting that now and again, for all the benefits "The Outer Limits" wrung from its hour-long format, half-an-hour would have done.
1.22 Specimen: Unknown
With "The Professor" Russell Johnson and a doomed Dabney Coleman in a prologue shot long after the end of principal photography, Specimen: Unknown--owing a great debt to another Wyndham pot-boiler, The Day of the Triffids (the film version of which was released just a few days prior to the episode's broadcast)--concerns the invasion of a space station by a herd of murderous space poppies. Its first cut coming in too short, the episode is packed with obvious filler material, including the never-interesting shuttle malfunction and space walk, and a premise that's the end and the all of the discussion. Images intrigue now and again as they are wont to do on the series, but Specimen: Unknown remains one of the weakest, emptiest, most interminable of the first season episodes.
1.23 Second Chance
An interesting inspiration for The Last Starfighter and Armageddon, the somewhat convoluted Second Chance finds a birdlike alien Empyrian (Simon Oakland, the stiff talking-head at the end of Psycho) as an eloquent, stately ambassador who abducts an amusement-park gaggle of folks who are made to believe that the visitor's spaceship is actually the keenest ride in all of Joyland. His intention is to seed an asteroid destined to destroy his homeworld--and, in a domino effect, Earth--with the assistance of earthlings so that, somehow, a solution can be found to avoid mutual destruction. The means don't make much sense even as the ends are typically noble, and Second Chance, for all its convolutions, is simple, fairly shallow sci-fi schlock of the kind that "The Outer Limits" largely avoided. Save Oakland's wonderful performance, there's not much to recommend about an episode that not only doesn't deliver much, but doesn't have much ambition to start with.
Worthy of mention only because of its return to the series preoccupation with veterans of war and its continuing fallout, Moonstone concerns the titular object, actually a spaceship for tiny Grippians, discovered by a Korean War veteran haunted by a wartime decision. Asked to repeat it by space tyrants, the enslavers of the brilliant Grippians (so why are they enslaved?) arrive and demand they're released under penalty of annihilation. Its ending equivocal in an exquisitely unsatisfactory way, Moonstone gapes with credibility issues--enough so that any chance for a suspension of disbelief is dispelled with stunning regularity. Moonstone is one of the great series' great failures, with the seed, perhaps, of the underestimated Alien Nation its only significant selling point.
1.25 The Mutant
Marked by a poignant moment or two (far too few, in any case), The Mutant is a mess of vaguely promising ideas centered by the mutation of Reese (the great Warren Oates) into a bug-eyed freak able to read minds and disassemble folks at a touch--the tyrant lord and master of his remote outpost. Reese is terrified of being alone and so forces his mates to hang by his side, their thoughts an open book--the sole twist being that for whatever reason, Reese will die if he's ever in the dark. There's a fixation in this piece--and in many Stefano-touched pieces--of dreams, dreaming, and Shakespeare, but while it clearly runs rich with a few undercurrents (while sharing a passing similarity to the Billy Mumy-starring It's a Good Life from "The Twilight Zone"), The Mutant shows the strain of the first episode produced under newer, tighter shooting and budgetary restraint. It shows, too, the effects of having none of the "troika" (Stefano, director Gerd Oswald, DP Conrad Hall) involved in the final product. The episode, in other words, is stultifying and riddled with logical inconsistencies.
1.26 The Guests
"The Hotel California," Outer Limits-style, The Guests continues with a series fascination with the function of dream sleep and groups of people held captive by their fantasies. (Consider that the Control Voice introduction is itself an invitation to relinquish control to a whimsy.) Based on a Charles Beaumont story (and possibly ghost-written by Richard Matheson), the episode features DP Kenneth Peach's best work on the series, aided immeasurably by firm direction from Paul Stanley and simply astonishing set design--gothic low-angles and a smart use of chiaroscuro almost make one forget about the absence of Conrad Hall. Through it all weaves the spectre of twisted sexuality and gender inequality, held in a vacuum in an airless manse as the characters stuck in some sort of time warp fade in and out of fugue states. The existential conundrum of what are ostensibly the captives of a giant alien brain arises from the stunning revelation that each of the "prisoners" has an escape hatch, but in true Camus fashion, they find solace in the predictability of their suffering. Brilliant.
1.27 Fun and Games
Essentially a take on Frederic Brown's short story "Arena" (later made into a "Star Trek" episode), Fun and Games takes a more traditional sci-fi route in its tale of two ordinary earthlings charged with saving their planet in a gladiatorial contest presided over by a capricious "Senator." Lacking much in politicism, the episode is one of the most breezily enjoyable of the first season; the undeniable sadness of the losing monster's entire race being eradicated at the whim of, essentially, reality television holds more poignancy today than it probably did in the early Sixties. Robert Johnson provides the post-dub of the evil Senator, and in so doing creates one of the most memorably, hilariously obnoxious villains in the history of the genre. Gerd Oswald returns to directing duty with Stefano at the typewriter--Hall, by this time, had already moved on, but as the series was not aired according to the order in which the episodes were shot, one more visually arresting troika masterpiece was to follow.
1.28 The Special One
Though exceptionally slow-moving and for the most part disinteresting, what The Special One does well is undermine the Golden Age of television in its tale of an alien tutor infiltrating, for all intents and purposes, the Cleavers. The episode, in which aliens plot to find gifted human children and give them the information to one day overthrow the terrestrial government, is hamstrung by the pretty standard complaint that if these aliens are so advanced, they probably wouldn't be acting like idiots. All the same, a few moments impress (the materialization of the "bear," or the climax wherein the gifted child does the old "I am the master now" switcheroo)--a shame that there's so much dead space in between.
1.29 A Feasibility Study
A surprisingly moving character drama about the marriage bond, religion, and friendship as a city block is zapped into space to serve as slaves for a malign alien species, A Feasibility Study reminds a lot of "The Twilight Zone"'s The Monsters are Due on Maple Street in its tale of an average neighbourhood of average Joes suddenly placed under an extreme microscope and into the pressure cooker. It's an episode that, in the process of forcing a microcosm, provides valuable time-capsule insight into the social world as it was some forty years ago, and when its conclusion arrives with a joining of hands, the sentiment feels real and the victory, as it is, convincing in the context of respective power. A parable for non-violent protest and civil disobedience, A Feasibility Study is the series at its most subversive.
1.30 Production and Decay of Strange Particles
A filler program shot on an even lower budget than was the series' usual, Production and Decay of Strange Particles is a boatload of scientific mumbo-jumbo delivered with escalating hilarity to an increasingly disinterested audience. Its plot has something to do with evil extra-dimensional neutrinos possessing environment suits in a bid to open the dimensional rift even wider (but why, if they're creatures of pure energy? How big a slit do you need?), demonstrating exactly what's wrong when producer Leslie Stevens decides to write and direct with one eye on the pocketbook and the other eye on the ratings. At the least, there are more moments of unintentional hilarity in this dreck than in the rest of the series run, the best involving the astonishingly frail Allyson Aimes, who can't seem to stop fainting. Trekkers beware: something Nimoy this way comes--but only in a cameo.
1.31 The Chameleon
With a Robert Towne script and lead duties undertaken by Robert Duvall (as the kind of winsome assassin role he would eventually reprise to some degree in Assassination Tango), The Chameleon takes the best elements of The Architects of Fear and fashions with them a work of visceral tightness and philosophical power. Duvall's performance is a coiled wire, part killing machine, part Boo Radley--the shades and depths that he brings to the performance is a delicate thing rare in any medium, much less the shake-and-bake of series, especially anthology series, television. The make-up effects for deadly alien invaders that Duvall, once metamorphosed into the physical simulacrum of the same, is enlisted to assassinate, are lovely, leaving the actors' own lower faces free for the full range of expression. Poignant and pointed, The Chameleon is a rich satire, beautifully written, beautifully performed, and touching still four decades down the road.
1.32 The Forms of Things Unknown
Stefano, Oswald, and Hall collaborate on an astonishingly complicated exploration of reality and dream, reason and madness, with The Forms of Things Unknown. A mixture of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Les Diaboliques, the episode looks and plays like how Psycho might had it been directed by Ingmar Bergman. For while the positive/negative, blonde/brunette, bold/wilting woman pair at the centre of the piece recalls Georges Clouzot's masterpiece, the way that the episode plays out is really more evocative of Persona. Two mistresses (Vera Miles and the gorgeous Barbara Rush) collaborate on the murder of a sleazy philanderer who reveals himself to be an extortionist, and a sadistic one at that. Finding themselves at a house in the middle of nowhere with the body in the trunk, the two encounter a strange Puck-like figure called Tone (David McCallum), who spends all of his time in a roomful of clocks, "playing with time." Alternating terrifying with taut, The Forms of Things Unknown (the real stars of which are Hall's elaborate cinematography and Stefano's ripper of a teleplay) is a high water mark for the series in terms of entertainment value and scholarly examination, maintaining a level of tension almost unbearable precisely for its technical craft and its genre smarts. An auspicious way to end the first season, to be sure.