The Outer Limits

Foreword

OL Episodes

OL Players

OL Fun

 
The Fashion of Dreaming: A Critical Guide to The Outer Limits

The Mice
Directed by Alan Crosland, Jr.; written by Bill S. Ballinger and Joseph Stefano (story by Ballinger and Lou Morheim). Cast: Henry Silva (Chino Rivera); Diana Sands (Dr. Julia Harrison); Michael Higgins (Dr. Thomas Kellander); Hugh Langtry (Chromoite scientist). Broadcast January 6, 1964. Story: An interplanetary inhabitant exchange with distant Chromo goes terribly wrong: Earth's participant is a freedom-starved convict, while the teleported Chromoite hungers for something else entirely....

It's tempting to think of episodes of The Outer Limits as belonging to one of two broad categories: brilliant masterworks of mood, imagery, and theme; or silly, cheap "sci-fi." This often appears true—compare "The Architects of Fear" with "Behold, Eck!", or "The Inheritors" with "The Human Factor" and the simplistic model holds up. But the series, true to impressive form, defies expectations and continually surprises; one way its creators held that standard was by turning out several ancillary classics, episodes which (albeit quietly) rank among the best. "The Mice" is such an installment— neither flashy in its aptitude, nor devoid of it.

Honestly titled, "The Mice" is decisively focused on two characters, two subjects of an ultimately corrupt experiment: Chino Rivera (Silva), a bitter, charming, honest man imprisoned for murder; and the teleported Chromoite (Langtry), a repulsive unknown quantity operatively beyond the control of the Earth scientists running the test. These metaphorical lab mice (figuratively caged mice, as Rivera points out) are the soul of the story; all other characters are centralized around them, and remain subordinate to the episode's themes evoked by Rivera and his globular counterpart—the defining terrors of hunger (for freedom, sustenance, and hope) and of responsibility. To encapsulate the episode's powerful climax, one subject fails as a subject, ironically (responsibly) preserving a species he is only shiftingly fond of, while the other fails both his species and his ideals. In typical Outer Limits fashion, as much is lost as is gained, and souls— corporeal and ethereal, resilient and fragile, disciplined and errant— are the currency at stake.

As a story, "The Mice" succeeds on virtually every level, managing the balance of edification and entertainment that routinely distinguished this series. As a film, the technical efforts add to the convincing mix: Conrad Hall's cinematography is characteristically impressive, revealing a facility with brightly lit outdoor scenes that matches his known expertise with noir-ish set pieces. The special effects are consistently well done here, with two stand- outs—the eerie, strobing voice of Chromo (a race, it is implied in an interesting and ominous aside, that has become enamored of the English language), and the interplanetary teleportation sequences, which look and sound disorienting and painful—hence the Chromoite's shocking first appearance in a maddened state. The Chromoite itself (himself?) is a mixed blessing, relying heavily on audience ability at suspension of belief. With its massive tumor of an upper body (featuring an appropriately atrocious suck-hole for the Chromoite "staff of life"), furry claws, and incongruous human legs, this ranks as one of The Outer Limits most idiosyncratic bears. It's undeniably chilling, loping around the wooded grounds of the military/scientific complex (funny how often that amalgam comes up) with frightful impunity—damn scary... as long as it moves slowly, and doesn't try to crawl through windows or manipulate precision instruments. Unfortunately, it does both, with preposterous results. Still, this is not the effects failure that it has been described as—the Chromoite may baffle, but it works. Lastly, the episode is capped by a thoroughly successful reuse of Dominic Frontiere's creepy score for the earlier entry "Nightmare" (with, it seems, some new cues in the same vein).

Stefano's moral touch is evident here, turning Ballinger's script into a true Outer Limits experience. Still, it is Silva's deft performance as Chino that gives "The Mice" its soul. The actor, of Puerto Rican heritage, is a distinctive looking man often cast as a generic "ethnic" type—his turn as a Chinese spy(!) in John Frankenheimer's profound The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is a famous role; it's refreshing to see him portray a Latino. He's steely and intense as our rebellious mouse, with a forward way suggesting impatience and yearning—in some ways admirable qualities; at the same time, confrontive, entitled, and irresponsible. This is a character who grows over the course of the tale told, and not necessarily in response to Dr. Kellander's (Higgins) priggish platitudes. Rather, Silva intimates an internal struggle as the underlying force behind his change; this inarticulate (though often wordy) process is endearing and affecting. The humane Julia (Sands), the story's voice of neutral compassion (in essence, Stefano), stands as witness to Chino, who responds to her mercy by proving himself the "man" Kellander has been blind to all along—just as he's been blind to the desperate, self-interested machinations of the Chromoite. As he admonishes the Chromoites for their duplicity, Kellander faces the irony of his own underestimation of Rivera's ability to act culpably: he should have just asked....

—DCH

The Duplicate Man
Directed by Gerd Oswald; written by Robert C. Dennis; based on the story "Goodnight, Mr. James" by Clifford D. Simak. Cast: Ron Randell (Henderson James); Constance Towers (Laura James); Sean McClory (Captain Emmet); Konstantin Shayne (Murdock); Steve Geray (Basil Jerichau). Broadcast November 4, 1963. Story: After the Megasoid he's smuggled to Earth escapes confinement, ambitous researcher Henderson James has a clone, or "duplicate," created to do battle with the bloodthirsty creature.

Probably the last place you'd expect to find one of The Outer Limits most brooding and thought-provoking entries is just four episodes away from its wholly apathetic finale. But just as the inauspicious "The Special One" would have been more at home in the show's prosaic second season, "The Duplicate Man" is reminiscent of the darker, more layered episodes of its premiere season. Sadly, it also happens to be the final noteworthy film the series had to offer.

One of the more successful implementations of Ben Brady's edict that second season episodes be based on literary sources, "The Duplicate Man" is rife with traits we've come to associate with The Outer Limits's first season. Foremost among these is the moral conflict that arrogant Henderson James undergoes once his duplicate insinuates itself into his personal life. Like a terrestrial variation of the Helosians, Ebonites or Zantis, the duplicate serves to emphasize how severely compromised its human counterpart has become. Long before the events of the episode occur, James has lapsed to a point where he has more in common with the murderous alien he's thoughtlessly loosed upon the world than with his own life-loving, "newborn" double. The strain that James' ambition has placed on his marriage recalls the anguish of similarly undermined couples from the series (like the despondent and uncommunicative Clifford and Barbara Scott from "O.B.I.T.", or the brutally acrimonious Richard and Judith Bellero from "The Bellero Shield"), and his preoccupied neglect of Laura has left her emotionally ragged and, unusual for the prudish second season, apparently alcoholic. The outcome of his carelessness is as inevitable as it is disastrous: James must literally split himself in two in order to salvage his life from a beast he had neither the right nor legal sanction to hold. As conceived by Robert Dennis, Henderson James is a complex, divided and barely scrupulous man; he is, in a word, Stefanoesque.

But James resembles one of Stefano's morally discordant anti-heroes in another important respect: despite his undeniable corruption, he's not quite beyond redemption. The Megasoid's escape and the affirmative example of his duplicate's fervent awakening (which echoes his younger, more passionate self) offer James the chance to recapture a compassion he's almost forgotten. Though in the end the alien and the duplicate are neatly dispatched, James' self-centered isolationism has been irreversibly exposed—to his wife, to himself, and to the world at large. His life, like the window in the episode's brilliant closing shot, is both shattered and wide open. Whether he can assemble the remnants of his better nature and realize a lasting redemption remains unclear, as James' final, existential (if not exactly grammatically correct) lines to Laura reveal: "All the while he was coming to life, he was dying and not knowing it." The couple's awareness that this statement could apply to James as easily as to his clone makes for one of the series' most poignant codas since "The Architects of Fear," and it serves to underscore the ambiguous hope and grave foreboding that places "The Duplicate Man" squarely outside the adolescent framework of The Outer Limits' dismal last season.

Much of the success of "The Duplicate Man" can be attributed to Ron Randell's performance as the two Jameses. His stiff charm plays equally well as the awkwardness of a grown man experiencing the sensations of human existence for the first time, and as the bitter resignation of a man whose self-awareness and sensuality have long since abandoned him. Randell makes both the original James and his duplicate oddly sympathetic and even heroic, and by the episode's end we, like Laura James, find it difficult to choose between the two. The supporting cast is equally fine, although Constance Towers' Laura is given little to do until the hesitant reconciliation that closes the episode. In those scenes, however, she is genuinely touching.

As assured as its human characterizations are, "The Duplicate Man" still bears some of the lesser qualities of the second season episodes. Chief among these, of course, is the "design" of the Megasoid. Its hybridized bird/ape/reptile appearance is disconcerting enough (sometimes laughably so), but its behavior is another matter altogether. Described as a fiendish killing-machine bent only on murder and procreation throughout the film, the creature has a brief, confusing—and vocal—moment of lucidity that only serves to cast doubt on its reputation. (That it speaks in a trembling whine doesn't help.) It's difficult to tell whether Dennis intended such doubt or not, for it does shift that much more culpability onto James: not only has he subjugated Laura all these years, it may be that he's also captured and held a benevolent, reasoning creature only to satisfy an odious sense of curiosity. Whatever the case, restricting the Megasoid's powers of speech to a single expository scene makes the sequence more of a distraction than anything. Also serving to detract from the episode's power is an emotional flatness to its scenes; director Gerd Oswald (along with cinematographer Kennth Peach) supplies the necessary visual tone and pacing, but it's evident that by this point in the series he'd lost interest in motivating his cast and crew beyond anything outside the routine. Thank goodness for Dennis' intricate, textured writing and Randell's intense and dedicated performance: without them, the film could easily have been a misfire on the scale of "Moonstone" or "Soldier."

Instead, "The Duplicate Man" is a subtle, strangely uplifting episode that too often gets overlooked because of its place in the series' production and broadcast schedule. Its doleful exploration of human reawakening makes it memorable and, for devotees of the series, a little nostalgic and sad. Such uncommon elegance in a weekly television show was as rare then as it is now, and the demise of The Outer Limits has only made it that much more so.

—MH

Fun and Games
Directed by Gerd Oswald; written by Robert Specht and Joseph Stefano (story by Specht). Cast: Nick Adams (Mike Benson); Nancy Malone (Laura Hanley); Robert Johnson (voice of the Senator); Bill Hart; Ray Kellogg. Broadcast March 30, 1964. Story: Two damaged humans, abducted by the shadowy Senator of a hedonistic alien race, must combat a pair of vicious troglodytes from a third planet—with the fate of the losing team's world at stake.

Freely adapted from Fredric Brown's short-story perennial "Arena", as was the first-season Star Trek episode of that title, "Fun and Games" is an unusual drama, one which gains power from its acute emotional murkiness. While Trek interpreted Brown's tale in an enjoyably straightforward manner, with the benefit of established, stalwart characters as audience identifiers, this Outer Limits episode offers the viewer a shattering situation fed by moral ennui, psychological disaster, faint attempts at redemption, and plain bad luck. Not the usual dilemma faced by Jim Kirk and company, to be sure.

Our nominal heroes are the physically/spiritually battered ex-pug Benson (Adams) and his happenstance companion, empty martyr Laura (Malone); both are on the run—Benson from the law, for a crime he witnessed but didn't commit, and Laura from a husband to whom she is unable to commit. They're running faster from themselves, and from the full (and risky) engagement with living that would connect them with their own kind—common to the Outer Limits universe and its inhabitants, these are fallen characters, existing as outsiders. The human social glue, fostered by relationship and kindness, has failed to set within these two; in a twist familiar in Stefano-influenced episodes, these two fragile misfits must face an unavoidable responsibility rooted in their feared, loathsome burdens. They must save Earth, and all its inhabitants.

They can barely save eachother: Benson dies in a lake of fire on the arena planet (familiar symbology, evoking the episode's prominent theme of redemption); resurrected when Laura kills the sole remaining opponent and wins the battle for humanity, the fighter returns to his Earthly life of continued poor choices. Laura, willfully denying the memory of her heroism, ends the story with a perplexing shrug amid the broken glass of Benson's latest impulsive escape from the law. On the arena planet, the disinterestedly sadistic Senator (Johnson, an accountant for Daystar Productions whose sonorous voice led to his replacing the original, unsatisfactory vocal actor) turns his attention to new diversions for his cruel, vouyeuristic patrons—perhaps, unpleasantly, the most apt audienceidentifiers in "Fun and Games." Earth survives, not with a celebratory bang but an ambiguous whimper.

Despite their glaring and well-practiced flaws, Benson and Laura are sympathetic characters—they are, after all, our saviors. Their best efforts to avoid such a fate are pointless; it would require remaining in their current embattled worlds, a fate worse than the risks faced on the arena planet—risks they're prone to avoid ordinarily, but are obliged to face at the hand of a randomly cruel, technologically superior god. Benson, especially, is reluctant to fight (something he wasn't very good at anyway) for the sake of his species: in emotional terms, he's hermetically sealed, conditioned to bitterness by the myriad bad breaks he's known since childhood. Adams, a fine, underrated actor who faced more than his share of adversity (after a big start, his career ebbed; sadly, he died of a drug overdose in 1968), skillfully imbues this unlikeable soul with guarded courage and a nascent selflessness buried by primal defenses and the residue of an early, critical wound to the soul. This wounding, recounted and ultimately replayed during the arena battle, involved Benson's forced and traumatic separation from his mother (the inclusion of neo-Freudian psychology typified Stefano's writing). That Laura—accused by the alien Senator of seeking to mother her estranged husband rather than be an equal partner to him—can (and does) save her planet but cannot salvage Benson, is both her salvation and her disappointment. These are complex entanglements, alarmingly free of the surity of purpose and intent found in Star Trek's handling of the same material; it's challenging, relating to such imperfect, maddeningly patterned beings in the first place, then watching them struggle for something close to reclamation, and almost (but not quite) succeeding. It's also more emotionally rewarding, for the patient viewer.

Adams and Malone are two reasons this is a memorable, fascinating episode; equally, The Outer Limits was a show of moments— within the typically admirable milieu of the best episodes, there often existed isolated, jaw-dropping scenes so odd, so brave and abstract, that they stick in the mind long after the Control Voice has abdicated dominion. "Fun and Games" contains a doozy of a moment, a series of tightly-edited scenes linking much of the subtextual material just described: as the dark Senator harangues Laura about her spousal shortcomings, pointing out her (fear-inspired) bullying attempts to become her husband's substitute mother, images of Benson in the throes of a nightmare about his childhood abandonment are juxtaposed. These seemingly disparate scenes culminate in the accusatory Senator laughingly, cruelly bellowing "Mom", as Benson bolts awake and Laura flinches from the truth. It is an infinitely satisfying presentation, evoking admiration for the writers, actors, and technicians who infused it with such power, and at the same time eliciting feelings for these characters who are taunted by irony, and haunted by pain and loss. Stefano is a profound humanist; his gentle concern for the luckless among us is clearly abundant in "Fun and Games."

Like its protagonists, this episode is not without deficiencies. Made, as were many later first-season episodes, on the cheap, the execution of the alien effects are especially disappointing. The character of the Senator remains a commanding presence, but it's all too apparent that the silhouetted figure we see (in an Ebonite mask ill-fittingly reused from the episode "Nightmare") and Robert Johnson's authoritative voice are not in sync. The two jump-suited monstrosities doing battle with Benson and Laura also fail to convince, with the character masks so rigidly inexpressive (aside from two short insert shots featuring gruesomely lolling eyes and slavering jaws) that the menace of the creatures requires too much imagination. Hart, the stuntman portraying the male beast, does an adequate job of charging around the steamy forest location of the arena planet, and of handling that nameless species' weapon of choice (a nifty razor-edged boomerang), but he's hobbled by prosthetic foot and hand applications employed admirably, but deleteriously, for completeness of impact. Sound effects, usually so impressive in The Outer Limits, are problematic as well—the Being Teleported To The Senator's Lair noise is nothing less than the windy whoosh of George Reeves' flying Superman from the fondly-remembered crap television show of the 1950s; here, it's distracting and woefully out of place. Additionally, the placement of Dominic Frontiere's emblematic, stirring musical cues is intermittently confusing in "Fun and Games"—accumulativey, these deficits give the impression of a technical rush-job. This is no doubt traceable to budget constraints—partially imposed by ABC, and partly due to Leslie Stevens' and Stefano's eager spending of a finite budget early in the season. Any shortcomings in Oswald's credible direction, Kenneth Peach's photography, or Robert Specht's writing (the expository thrust of the story is his; he later created the 1970 television series The Immortal) reflect the monetary situation, nothing more—it is, in terms of emotional impact and existential honesty, one of The Outer Limits finest hours. Like Mike Benson or Laura Hanley, it is imperfect—but worth knowing.

—DCH

 

The Mice
The Duplicate Man
Fun and Games
Don't Open Till Doomsday
The Inheritors
The Guests
The Mutant
A Feasibility Study
The Zanti Misfits
 
The Invisibles
Nightmare
Corpus Earthling
The Bellero Shield
O.B.I.T.
The Children of Spider County
ZZZZZ
It Crawled Out of the Woodwork

 

Copyright © 1998–2001 Mark Holcomb & David C. Holcomb. All rights reserved.