by Walter Chaw After a tumultuous first season plagued by short-sighted censors, tight budgets, and ever-diminishing production schedules, embattled producer Leslie Stevens was replaced by "nuts and bolts" man Ben Brady while Joseph Stefano, in something of a show of solidarity (and that he had other projects to attend to), likewise stepped down to be replaced by Seeleg Lester. (DP Conrad Hall had already parted ways with the show towards the end of season one.) The benefits and pitfalls of such a traumatic upheaval are difficult to compartmentalize, but to me, the series went along for its last seventeen episodes with a pioneering spirit (something that most veterans of the production owe to Lester) similar to that of the first thirty-two. The too-brief second season run includes not only a couple of the best episodes of "The Outer Limits", the origin of a future blockbuster lawsuit, and the canny recruitment of Harlan Ellison as sometime scribe, but also one episode that stands as arguably the best hour of television ever broadcast.
In truth, I never much liked Stevens in the first place, finding his brand of "hard" science-fiction to be staid and airless. If there's one thing to be said ironically about the second season, it's that even without Stevens, many of the episodes, if not actually more so than in the first season, are blighted by a lack of heat and a mortal surplus of deadening chatter, no doubt the product of too much padding and too many slapdash episodes slid in just under deadline.
Like the first-season collection, "The Outer Limits: The Original Series - The Entire Second Season" is packaged in a multi-chambered keep case that, although three discs instead of four, retains the dimensions of the first season's packaging so as to look uniform in a collection. Again presented in the order of broadcast rather than production and without anything resembling a special feature, Season Two likewise includes a pamphlet offering episode synopses that is useful for quick reference but falls far short of the wealth of information provided by David J. Schow's The Outer Limits Companion (buy at Amazon.com). The Schow text is, along with Marc Scott Zircree's The Twilight Zone Companion, a must-have for the genre fanatic and for any serious scholar of modern film and television; here in these two television series (and E.C. Comics and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents") will one find the headwaters for the majority of speculative plots. Originally published: February 3, 2004.
The hubbub that erupted around this Harlan Ellison-scripted episode in the early 1980s is actually more interesting than the episode itself, a time-travel opera that has a spark of genius (particularly in a scene featuring a super-soldier from the future trying to report to a house cat), but altogether too much Psycho-resolution doubletalk. Ellison sued James Cameron for plagiarism, claiming The Terminator had enough points of similarity to Soldier (and the subsequent Demon with a Glass Hand) that he deserved credit--as revealed by the The Terminator's end titles, revised for home video, the courts agreed. Assessing the episode by itself, with its prologue in a post-apocalyptic future and a killing machine sent back in time to confront another futuristic killing machine, where Soldier bogs down is in its relationship between robot-like Qarlo (Michael Ansara) and the shrink assigned to deconstruct him, Kagan (Lloyd Nolan): Ansara is great, Nolan, stone deaf at the time and reading his lines from cue cards, is almost a caricature of shouted, gregarious senility. Gerd Oswald, sans two-thirds of his troika cohorts (Stefano and Hall), still turns in an economical picture, tightly edited and well-composed, making Soldier if not one of the series' best, at least one of the most notorious--it is, in fact, Ellison's first produced science-fiction teleplay.
2.2 Cold Hands, Warm Heart
The best parts of Cold Hands, Warm Heart, starring William Shatner as an astronaut returned from space horribly changed, are the ones in which "The Outer Limits"' devotion to the power and nobility of dreaming are honoured. Though astronaut Brig. Gen. Barton (Shatner) appears to have been corrupted by some Venusian spectre, resulting in serious temperature control issues, his spirit of discovery remains unquenched. Shatner is excellent in a terse, dedicated performance that would become infamous in his next incarnation as a starship captain, but there's a feeling of dead air that permeates the piece--that undeniable "uh oh" sensation when any entertainment's first imparted impression is one of dreariness and boredom. Interesting to note that though the opportunity to work with Leslie Stevens and Conrad Hall eluded Shatner here, he did time with the pair on the Esperanto-language epic Incubus in 1965.
2.3 Behold Eck!
A bona fide stinker rather than just an earnest one, Behold Eck! suffers from the same "deadness" as Cold Hands, Warm Heart but washes out as something of a rip-off of first season "Outer Limits" episode The Galaxy Being. Its pace unbearable, the story involves a two-dimensional being (Eck) who blunders into our plane, slices a building in half, and tries to make sweet love to a television set ("He's two-dimensional!"). The efforts of kindly nebbish Dr. Stone (Peter Lind Hayes) to help Eck are entirely unengaging, while the revelation made by Schow in his book that the episode was meant to be a light comedy comes as something of a tremendous shock. There isn't one moment that's funny in the picture save the production values, which are among the absolute worst in the series' history: the "bear" resembles a silhouette of a Christmas tree. "Behold Eck!" doesn't even have the courage of an honest resolution. Really: just terrible.
2.4 Expanding Human
Another future Enterprise crewmember stars in Expanding Human, as impossibly young James Doohan takes on the role of a detective investigating the murder of a research laboratory's night watchman--the victim of one Dr. Clinton (Roy Homeier), whose experiments in consciousness-expanding drugs has led to a Jekyll/Hyde schism in his personality. What fascinates about the episode (the only thing besides seeing Scotty in a pre-Trek role) is how it predicted the Timothy Leary school of mind-expansion by at least half a decade. It's been brought to my attention by a sharp-eyed viewer of the series that season-one's "The Borderlands" may be an early inspiration for Ken Russell's Altered States; had Expanding Human carried through with a dedicated examination of its mind-altering pharmaceuticals instead of relying on long monologues and literary devices, it would certainly have figured large in that same conversation. As it is, the piece is maddeningly evasive and slow-moving, the dimensions of its police procedural unfolding at least three steps behind even the dullest viewer.
2.5 Demon with a Glass Hand
Shot on location in The Bradbury Building from a script by Harlan Ellison, Demon with a Glass Hand is above reproach. Complex, melancholy, and engrossing, it is in fact, to my mind and experience, the best single stand-alone hour the medium has ever produced. Mr. Trent (Robert Culp, in his final appearance on "The Outer Limits") is an emissary from the future, the titular fury whose glass hand is an advanced computer that happens to be missing a few digits. Trent has travelled from a future where Earth has been conquered in 19 days and all surviving humans have suddenly disappeared--he's been sent as humanity's last hope to the year 1964 to collect the three missing fingers and discover what's happened to mankind. Culp's feverish performance achieves just the right kind of wit's end weird (Ellison wrote the part specifically for him), and, in addition to incorporating elements of romance, the action/thriller, and, of course, science-fiction, the episode plants the seeds for cyberpunk that would, in time, deposit another masterpiece into The Bradbury's distinctive architecture: Blade Runner. In fact, the final chase between Deckard and Roy Batty through The Bradbury in that film owes a great debt to what is, essentially, an hour-long cat-and-mouse as the alien invaders of Earth's future journey back in time in hot pursuit of Trent, curious themselves of the fate of their conquered foe. Apocalyptic but hopeful, exciting and thoughtful, Demon with a Glass Hand is exhilarating for its heat and its ambition. It's reason enough to own this set.
2.6 Cry of Silence
Starring Eddie Albert just prior to his stint on "Green Acres" and featuring a hilariously prescient line--"I'll give up the idea of living on a farm"--by his character (from your mouth to Eva Gabor's ears, dahling), Cry of Silence has a great many moments of camp hilarity yet still soars with a well-described sense of dread fuelled by some of the best writing of the run. Albert is Andy, a thinking man's action hero who gets stranded with his wife in the middle of the desert by a herd of murderous tumbleweeds. Though the idea is ludicrous (if not quite as ludicrous as the terror they feel at a herd of rubber frogs hurled at them later), the suggestion that some alien intelligence, in its attempts to communicate with earthlings, tries to inhabit various objects in an abortive quest for some terrestrial Rosetta Stone genuinely works. A scene where a dead farmer is brought back to life to scribble symbols in an alien hand is flat brilliant, as is a sequence where boulders are hurled at the couple (stuntman Richard Farnsworth of The Straight Story fame is glimpsed getting smushed) trying to escape the prototypical cabin-in-the-wilderness (a full three years before Night of the Living Dead made remote cabins and farmhouses like it a staple in genre pictures). What's best, however, is Andy's devotion to communicating with an alien intelligence that he believes to be benign, all evidence to the contrary. It's the best intentions of the series brought to eloquent life here one-third of the way into its final season, and surprisingly touching in the way the best of "The Outer Limits" can be.
2.7 The Invisible Enemy
An ill thought-out bit of space malarkey, The Invisible Enemy sports a pair of familiar faces--Adam West on Mars and Ted Knight on Earth--but maroons them in the middle of a sparkless melodrama concerning the mysterious deaths of a few astronauts on the sandy surface of the red planet. West plays the captain, in contact with Earth (and specialist Knight) as they try to decipher the riddle of the missing extras, which is never a mystery to the audience because of ABC's insistence of a "bear" in the first moments of every episode to act as a "hook" for an audience that, at the time, was probably yet to be stricken by the surfing bug. West gives an impressively sedate performance at odds with his knowingly campy years on "Batman" and Knight is almost invisible, and yet they still provide the only real flair for a piece that is indicated largely by its continuity errors and failures of logic. The idea of a monster swimming the deserts of Mars like a shark through an ocean is fun, and though the monster effect is sort of cheesy, the impression of it cutting through the sand (a grit-covered pool in reality) is compelling. An obvious precursor to the deliriously fun Tremors (down to a surprise endgame reveal), the episode is empty camp that entertains in its dated, cheesy way.
2.8 Wolf 359
Drawn from an ancient idea of a million angels dancing on the head of a pin, the scientists of Wolf 359 create a world in microcosm, speeding along its evolution to the point where religion is spawned in the Blake-ian sense, manifesting a deity of pure evil not entirely content with its miniature demesne. Faithful to a series focus on the ambitions of man outstripping his ability to comprehend the whole of the physical, moral, and spiritual ramifications of his actions, Wolf 359 is really an existentially thorny mood piece, one of the few purely intellectual concepts that manages to be involving as well. As the created deity of man's created planet gains in power and wrath, the question of man's role in the corruption of his religions becomes a dialogue complex and engrossing. The first Seeleg Lester-scripted episode of the series, Wolf 359 shows him to have some of the best qualities of Leslie Stevens the super-ego and Joseph Stefano the id. If not for a badly dated series of cocktail lounge marital sequences, the picture would be up in the pantheon of "Outer Limits" greats.
2.9 I, Robot
Having nothing to do with either the Isaac Asimov story collection or Harlan Ellison's eventual unproduced screenplay of the same, I, Robot is actually an adaptation of the first in a series of Eando Binder "Adam Link" robot stories published in AMAZING STORIES through the early 1940s. The connections that it will try to draw between man's technological will-to-power with Dr. Frankenstein's mania for procreation (the episode opens with an obvious homage to the girl-in-the-well sequence from James Whale's Frankenstein) are topical, if presented a little ham-handedly. Indeed, Adam Link read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein while "growing up" in his creator's lab. With Leonard Nimoy making his second appearance in the series (this time in a far more prominent role) as a smooth investigative reporter interested in an angle on the trial of this "tin man" for the murder of his creator, I, Robot is the source of countless entertainments and the echo of many others (among them To Kill a Mockingbird)--and the source in a way for Nimoy's own dispassionate/passionate performance as a creature of barely-binding logic on "Star Trek". Howard da Silva plays a crusty old defense attorney courted out of retirement to defend Adam while flashbacks of the creation and his dotty maker recall in a pang similarly doomed scenes from Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands. Tight and entertaining despite its moments of obviousness, I, Robot has a message that endures, and an influence long-lingering.
2.10/2.11 The Inheritors
Reminding more than once of an outstanding Robert R. McCammon short story called "Nightcrawlers" (made into an episode of the new "Twilight Zone"), as well as the season two "X-Files" called Sleepless, this first and only two-part episode of "The Outer Limits" is a masterpiece of paranoia of our military and governmental leadership starring one of the icons of our '70s paranoia cinema, Robert Duvall. (In point of fact, The Inheritors, and Duvall's character as a federally-appointed "scientific investigator," can serve as something of a prototype for "The X-Files".) Four American soldiers return from Vietnam (yes, Vietnam) with bullets in their brains that appear to have been smelted from a meteorite, the ore of which is encoded with some sort of alien RNA. Over the course of his investigations, Ballard (Duvall) discovers that each of the survivors has developed elevated IQs and intense interests in various pursuits financial and scientific. Helpless to the compulsions of their new intellects, the men seem to have a unified plan, and are building a craft of some kind in Wichita; as Ballard uncovers their plot, the series' interests of the cost of knowledge and the dangers of misunderstanding come shiningly to the fore. One of "The Outer Limits"' most sentimental episodes, The Inheritors is also one of its smartest.
2.12 Keeper of the Purple Twilight
A mess of pulp elements, Keeper of the Purple Twilight follows the struggles of an emotionless, fiercely logical alien (again, shades of Mr. Spock) who comes to Earth as the spearhead of an alien invasion, robbing a professor (Warren Stevens) of his emotions in exchange for the secret to a ray-gun the bad E.T.s need for their mission of malice to succeed. Once saddled with emotions, however, the alien Ikar (Robert Webber) finds himself incapable of carrying through with his diabolical scouting mission while simultaneously falling in love with the good professor's girlfriend. The emotion transfer was literal, I guess, and upon the return of what's taken, morality suddenly rears its woolly head. Trite if occasionally cool, Keeper of the Purple Twilight's chief claim to immortality may be its connection, however tenuous, to John Carpenter's Starman in its creation of an awkward visitor who learns, gradually, how to love, human-style.
2.13 The Duplicate Man
Based on a story ("Goodnight, Mr. James") by one of my favourite authors, Clifford Simak, The Duplicate Man is the grandfather of such modern genre classics as Clive Barker's "Human Remains" and Harlan Ellison's "Shatterday." It concerns the efforts of a man who has illegally imported a deadly alien species to the planet and found himself unable to muster the courage to kill it, and so he hires a bootlegger to manufacture a clone of himself that will do it for him. The creation of clones outlawed in this world of 2025 (also the year of Blade Runner) because "vestigial" memories eventually coalesce in the cipher into a full, working set (making it indistinguishable from the original), when the clone fails in its task, too much life is afforded it and it begins, indeed, to become a better man than his identical "father." The implications of The Duplicate Man are deeply disturbing on a very basic, existential level, and with its echoes of the "what is human?" centre of Blade Runner again plus countless genre flicks to follow, the piece soars. A story that could have been written by contemporary Philip K. Dick (and their respective masterpieces, Dick's The Man in High Castle and Simak's Way Station, both won the Hugo in consecutive years, 1963-64), The Duplicate Man retains enough of the Simak to make it one of the most memorable and well-scripted episodes of the series' run.
A tragically misconceived "locked room" mystery concerning an evil plant stowaway on an intergalactic trip that may not be all that it appears to be, Counterweight gives away the central device in the first minute, leaving next to no tension for its remainder. Imagine Dark City opening with a shot of the city floating in space and you're getting close to how this episode shoots itself in the foot with astonishing precision. There are some nice moments here, but between an extended opening shot (stock footage from a George Pal film) and a curtain call tacked onto the end, it's clear that the episode, slapped together as a mid-season filler and feeling like it was written on the back of a napkin, is padded, sparse, and stunted from the start. It's possible to amuse oneself by imagining the biosphere project unfolding like this, but then again, no it isn't.
2.15 The Brain of Colonel Barham
Donovan's Brain, "The Outer Limits"-style, The Brain of Colonel Barham is a clumsy sci-fi oater about a floating piece of meat's ego when the titular organ is stuck in a tank and hooked up to some wires. It's an episode lacking a strong gimmick with which to tie up its tale of paranoia, possession, and a parable of the race against the Russians to outer space. I like the idea of hooking up a human brain to a machine designed for interstellar travel, and in the hands of a David Cronenberg, the idea might take on some resonance, but failing a guiding principle, the premise devolves into pop Freud and pocket Shakespeare. Worst part is that Barham is written as a complete, unrepentant cad--and if these "brilliant" scientists decide to preserve a cock-a-roach like Barham into perpetuity, they deserve what they get.
2.16 The Premonition
An episode that I have a lot of personal affection for even though, upon revisiting, it seems a lot drier and more protracted than I'd remembered, The Premonition finds test pilot Darcy (Dewey Martin) and his wife Linda (Mary Murphy) thrown a few minutes into the past by twin accidents, and given a few elongated moments to possibly correct the future. Like Stephen King's rip-off "The Langoliers," the first two acts are great until the introduction of inter-temporal being/s that function as catalysts for the conclusion or deus ex machina conclusions in and of themselves. The idea of the entire episode being a puzzler to be solved by Darcy and Linda, functioning as audience projections, is submarined by the inter-temporal creature (another human trapped in the warp), making the picture more of a thriller than the corker of a mystery it was shaping up to be--though as premises go, The Premonition is a good one. Of interest as well is the knowledge that it's during the filming of this episode that ABC cancelled the series.
2.17 The Probe
Similar to The Truman Show in addition to any number of post-atomic science-fiction premises, The Probe postulates what it would be like for a group of shipwreck survivors on a raft to discover that they were actually afloat inside a giant spaceship. The connections between the plot of this last--and they knew it was the last--episode of "The Outer Limits" and the realities faced by the show (a group of artists afloat in hostile waters and under the close scrutiny of an outside agent) are the most interesting aspects of The Probe. The cheapest hour of the second season, it was thrown together on the fly with the intention of getting something in the can, a fact evident from the minimalist-verging-on ridiculous production values. And thus ended one of the most consistently courageous, consistently imaginative series in television's short history--its cancellation mid-season proof positive that the venality and short-sightedness indicted in modern audiences isn't a fresh malady, but epidemic in the mass human animal. Sounds like the basis, actually, for a good "Outer Limits".