The Outer Limits

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

The Bellero Shield
Directed by John Brahm; written by Joseph Stefano. Cast: Martin Landau (Richard Bellero); Sally Kellerman (Judith Bellero); Chita Rivera (Mrs. Dame); John Hoyt (Bifrost alien); Neil Hamilton (Richard Bellero, Sr.). Broadcast February 10, 1964. Story: Driven by scientific curiosity and outright avarice, humans transport an alien being to Earth—where he is questioned and brutally exploited. He offers salvation as he dies amid madness and loss.

A few episodes of The Outer Limits have received more written analysis than others, and "Bellero" is one of them: it is, by most accounts, the series' "do" of Shakespeare's Macbeth. That assessment is valid, though the comparison holds mostly in a structural sense—a drama of ambition played out by a passive, easily controlled male, his greedy wife and her cohort; the weight of a noble name and lineage; and, of course, Stefano's bald (and effective) inclusion of the "out, damned spot" fragment. The application of Shakespeare's scenario is fitting coming from Stefano: both writers produced work that is complicated, not smoothly reducible to a single narrow theme. There's more at work than can be effortlessly or satisfactorily encapsulated, though in the playwright's case, literal centuries of academic attempts have elapsed, with varying degrees of success. As for bids at "figuring out" Stefano, certainly David Schow qualifies as the admirable expert, and, well, here we are. And here's the point: with Macbeth, Shakespeare focused primarily (but not exclusively) on the many faces of ambition and its sometimes ugly consequences (nobody wrote comeuppance like the Bard); Stefano included this theme but shrunk it, and added a characteristically harsh auxiliary thesis—that we humans, of all types and motivations, wouldn't know divinity if it landed smack in the middle of our laboratory and graced us. Worse: we'd eviscerate it.

Cheery stuff, no—Stefano repeatedly, reliably contemplated the sorrowful dualities of our species—but it makes an ideal canvas for the writer's jarring union of gothic/Freudian desolation and well intentioned science gone destructively wrong. Classic Stefano, and classic Outer Limits, both well-served by veteran director John Brahm. Born in Hamburg, Brahm began his film career in his native Germany, coming to Hollywood in the 1930s; two noteworthy early directorial credits are Laird Cregar's duo of chubby-psycho star turns, The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945). In the 1950s and 60s, as did many old school (read: no longer commercial) directors, Brahm turned to television, leaving his classicist mark on The Twilight Zone and, most successfully, Thriller. For The Outer Limits, he directed this episode and the preposterous, strangely forceful "ZZZZZ"; his final film was, of all things, Hot Rods to Hell in 1967. With "Bellero", the director does a deft job of pacing and sequencing a story that, true to its theatrical influence, consists largely of two-person scenes building to a stunning final act. These conspiratorial confabs echo one another in interestingly symbolized ways: Lady—rather, Mrs. Bellero and her devoted servant (some have suggested lover) Mrs. Dame are constantly shrouded by shadows or massive drapes; Bellero Jr. and the Bifrost alien (a creature of amassed light), on the other hand, are always seen together in the bright, reflecting lab. Other meetings—the vile, clucking Bellero Sr. with either Mrs. Dame or his son's wife—typically take place in a gray netherworld and, at one point, on what appears to be the stairway to Hell. The cinematography of Conrad Hall is exemplary here: with a use of shadow that goes beyond noir and approaches the suffocating presence implied by the photography of Mexican and Italian gothic horror cinema, Hall adds to Stefano's thematic pallor of doom, and to Brahm's opera of bad fate. It's remarkable television, to say the least.

The performances are heightened for the material, yet remain convincing. Landau, in his second and last appearance in the series, gives Bellero Jr. a dysthymic and surrendering tone, the affect of a man inured to following the lead of the nearest bully—in this case, both his father and his wife. As the desperately calculating lady of the house, Kellerman (quite a dish in 1964) is furtively sympathetic and appropriately enthusiastic, though without the wispy voiced near hysteria that has marred her later work. Rivera—Stefano's friend and neighbor—furthers the previous allusion to Mexican horror with her portrayal of a virtual magia negra familiar; she is perfect in a creepy (and barefoot) role. The stand-outs, however, are typical of Stefano's and Leslie Stevens's show—two ignobly under-used veteran character actors, here given the opportunity to shine (both appeared more than once in the Outer Limits universe). Hamilton is the most Shakespearean element in "Bellero", using broad strokes to reveal a base and ultimately grasping man. His dyadic scene with Rivera, contemplating the apparently dead alien ("Great men are forgiven their murderous wives!"—strong enough to make the episode's teaser) plays satisfyingly like a theatrical performance, and Hamilton takes the lead effortlessly (great actors are forgiven playing Commissioner Gordon on TV's Batman). Even more striking is Hoyt as the poetically-christened Bifrost alien. Hoyt, with his stern looks and austere presence, was often cast as... well, stern and austere men (witness his Emmett Balfour in this series' "Don't Open 'Til Doomsday" for a prime example); here he's cast way against type as a being of pure light, a glass-like, harmonic creature of profound elegance and beatitude. And it works: it's unlikely any other actor could have lent such presence to the role; Hoyt's physical and vocal affectations define the alien as a delineated character and as (per Stefano) an angel grounded. Ted Rypel, in his fan publication "The Outer Limits: An Illustrated Review" from the late 1970s (likely the first, and still a damn fine, reflection on the series), inexplicably doubts that Hoyt did the musically lilting voice of the Bifrost alien; he's wrong—it's Hoyt, and it's fantastic work. The Project Unlimited mask Hoyt wears as the alien deserves comment: it's virtually featureless, almost fetal in its lack of definition (a prototype 2001 starchild, perhaps); again, cinematographer Hall deserves kudos for his interesting lens effects—and arduous camera positioning—which render Hoyt's Bifrost a shimmering, incandescent being. This is one of The Outer Limits most subtle and most successfully rendered bears.

And it's not a bear at all: the voracious Earthly inhabitants of the Bellero household are the monsters here; the galaxy-roaming creature of light is a shy and ultimately self-sacrificing entity, one who is ill-used by his human captors. Stefano reworks Shakespeare's insinuated contemplation of spiritual evil, with the evil more strictly human and decidedly banal (Bellero Jr. is especially implicated in this respect), though just as crushingly catastrophic. If the Bifrost alien is both god-like in his power (hence the Norse mythology reference) and plainly angelic (the Control Voice is explicit here), it still isn't he who has fallen by story's end. It is the mad and desperate human characters, who could see in the creature only what was attainable, and not what is offered. It is, by extension, we who have fallen—and, like Shakespeare, Stefano demands bitter restitution: the episode's final scene is among the series' most powerful and least hopeful.

Behold where stands
th' usurper's cursed head.
The time is free.

—DCH

O.B.I.T.
Directed by Gerd Oswald; written by Meyer Dolinsky. Cast: Peter Breck (Senator Jeremiah Orville); Jeff Corey (Byron Lomax); Harry Townes (Dr. Clifford Scott); Joanne Gilbert (Barbara Scott); Alan Baxter (Colonel Grover). Broadcast November 4, 1963. Story: While investigating a murder at the Defense Department's Cypress Hills facility, Senator Orville discovers a group of aliens who plan on demoralizing the human race to the point of collapse with the aid of their sophisticated surveillance device O.B.I.T. (Outer Band Individuated Teletracer).

For reasons understandable and otherwise, it's easy to overlook the fact that many of The Outer Limits' most memorable episodes were not conceived by Joseph Stefano or Leslie Stevens. Stefano's deeply symbolic, resolutely ambiguous tales of moral muddle and Stevens' loopy riffs on scientific exploration gone awry combined to set the tone for the entire first season. The pairing of their wildly differing styles and interests defined the show almost by default, and one is hard pressed to recall the series without conjuring the usual associations of paralyzing internal ambivalence and inexplicable external forces. Yet one of the series' most meaningful episodes succeeds by altogether different means, and cleverly bends the show's established themes at the same time that it adheres rigorously to them.

Meyer Dolinsky's "O.B.I.T." employs far less overt symbolism than does the typical Stefano screenplay, although it trades in a similarly harsh and inconclusive assessment of human behavior. Nor does it linger over the verisimilitude of its scientific trappings like Stevens' handful of episodes, despite the repugnant cultural (if not technical) feasibility of the O.B.I.T. machine. Instead, Dolinsky crafts a deceptively straightforward, utterly compelling plot- and character-driven story that, considering its disturbing content, makes for a most peculiar breath of fresh air.

In the most obvious sense, "O.B.I.T" is a broadly cautionary tale that serves as distant cousin to Stefano's "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork," with its mysterious, impervious setting and oppressive atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia. But while the Cypress Hills Research Center and NORCO definitely inhabit the same universe, the force dividing Cypress Hills is much less obscure than the uncontrollable energy cloud in "Woodwork"—and much more identifiably human, despite the presence of hostile extraterrestrials. Superficially, the episode concerns the intrusion into individual privacy by outside forces, in this case the imperialistic inhabitants of the planet Helos (Dolinsky's name for the home of "O.B.I.T.'s" alien race, omitted from the final shooting script). That the real culprits are not the colonization-bent Helosians but weak-willed human beings—or, more accurately, insidious human traits—only reinforces the comparison to "Woodwork" and its author, and lends a depth to the goings on. The Helosians, like Stefano's more villainous bears, effortlessly exploit and (like the oversized glasses they wear in earthly form) magnify our predilection to dishonor the boundaries of all lives save our own. Also like Stefano's belligerent alien species, the Helosians don't have to work very hard to ensure the erosion of human society: they simply provide us with the means to systematically reveal the intimate details of each others' lives, and stand aside while we do all the eroding for them. It's a simple ploy that appears to work, and therein lies the difference between Stefano's grim fables of aliens provocateurs and Dolinsky's—in "O.B.I.T.", there's little doubt that the bears get away with it.

But Dolinsky and the filmmakers never imply that the intrusiveness underscored by the Helosians is restricted to Cypress Hills, nor to the machine's realm of influence. "O.B.I.T." cannily reveals the pervasiveness of our need for the details of other lives in several intriguing ways. For one, the episode's hero, Senator Orville, subtly engages in the very behavior he condemns: his probing into the bizarre events at the facility is only nominally different from what the O.B.I.T. operators do. Despite his ultimately altruistic motivation, Orville's methods serve more to punctuate the Helosians' view of human behavior than to undermine it. Other such details abound: director Oswald's arch juxtaposition of the stenographer's typing hands with the demonstration of the O.B.I.T. machine; the use of multiple key lights in the hearing room, visually depicting the tiny blasts of inappropriate clarity the machine makes possible; and the intense, painful scrutiny of the hearing process itself all make the Helosians' hideous plan seem all too plausible—if not downright justifiable.

In some ways, "O.B.I.T." also plays as Dolinsky biting the hand that feeds him. The O.B.I.T. machine's resemblance to an outsized television set can't be overlooked, nor can the emphasis placed on the addictive nature of the machine's appeal—a common and valid concern of anti-television advocates then as well as now. (Colonel Grover puts it succinctly when he breaks down on the stand, sobbing "I can't not look...".) In this sense, the hermetic Cypress Hills facility could easily stand for the Hollywood film community, besieged and demoralized by the "peeping-tom machine" that, as Lomax claims, is "everywhere." But TV had long since displaced movies as the entertainment of choice by 1963, and Dolinsky's jab, though clever and potent, is more far-reaching than a simple, sour "television is bad" statement. His concern seems to lie more with the capacity for technology—any technology—to drive human beings apart, and his alarm focuses on the vulnerability of a people given to sitting alone in the dark in front of huge cathode ray monitors discreetly observing the thoughts and opinions of others (not unlike what you and I are doing at this very moment). Such endeavors, he implies, rob us of valuable, vital experience, and lessen us in virtually every sense of the word. It's a difficult point to disagree with, and he makes it with grace, subtlety and a refreshing lack of moral absolutism.

There's a final audacious element to "O.B.I.T." that emphasizes the theme of compromised privacy, and ties it in neatly with Dolinsky's sly observations on a beleaguered Hollywood. The rampant persecution at Cypress Hills and the resulting hearing process recall nothing less than the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that occurred in Hollywood in 1947 and 1951, and whose effects were still being felt into the early '60s. During that time, dozens of screenwriters, filmmakers and actors were forced into artistic exile, while others were cajoled into testifying on (and in some cases fabricating) the Communist sympathies of their co-workers. Dolinsky exposes the persistent sting of this brand of McCarthyism early on in the hearing, when Orville cracks that "a senator must learn not to be impulsive," to knowing chuckles from the hearing committee members and observers. These real-life trials and their aftermath inform "O.B.I.T." throughout, and offer a chilling reminder that the threat to personal privacy and integrity is far from outlandish. Voracious public scrutiny not unlike what takes place at Cypress Hills is unfortunately very real, and comes at a brutal price: it's worth noting that Sam Wanamaker, star of the Joseph Stefano-penned episode "A Feasibility Study," paid that price—blacklisted in the early '50s, he was unable to find film work for more than a decade.

The performances in "O.B.I.T." are among The Outer Limits' very best. Peter Breck is outstanding as the abrasive, self-satisfied Senator Orville, whose early scenery chewing is offset by his dawning awareness that he's stumbled upon something truly monstrous—and, perhaps even more confounding to him, that he has the capacity to care. Breck expertly captures this character's emotional development, and makes Orville one of the first season's most compelling protagonists. Harry Townes is equally good as Clifford Scott, and he and Joanne Gilbert manage to bring real pathos to the Scott's troubled marriage (a theme common to all three of Dolinsky's Outer Limits screenplays). It is, in fact, this relationship that instigates the change in Orville from publicity-seeking sham to deeply concerned crusader, and the wonderfully conveyed undercurrent of enduring tenderness between the Scotts makes the change believable.

The undeniable star of "O.B.I.T.", of course, is Jeff Corey as the Helosian Lomax, in what may be the best performance of his career. Corey beautifully underplays Lomax as a calculating manipulator who can barely contain his glee over what he and the O.B.I.T. machine have wrought; beneath the character's calm demeanor, Corey makes it abundantly clear that the Helosians are a species who thoroughly enjoy steering people into compromising situations—and then shamelessly observing them once they're there. Corey gives Lomax an impassive but seductive quality that's infinitely more threatening than any sort of telegraphed menace, and when he whispers—his preferred mode of speech—to Barbara Scott that she should "just keep on trusting [him]," we can understand why she would. It's a chilling performance that culminates in the episode's final soliloquy, in which Lomax passes merciless judgement on the human race before vanishing smugly into thin air. Corey has the skill and sensitivity to temper the alien's triumphant tone with a trace of regret, and it gives Dolinsky's bleak story an elegiac dimension it might not have otherwise had.

It's only natural that an elegy should accompany an obit, though, and what Dolinsky ultimately mourns is the death of human dignity. It's death by suicide, as Lomax emphasizes in the film's climactic confrontation: like so many of The Outer Limits' first-season bears, his presence is hardly required to ensure our downfall. Our habit of preoccupying ourselves with the inner lives of others (whether physically or through technological means) robs us of any inner lives of our own, and makes trust as unlikely as faith is impossible. And without these, Dolinsky concludes, we may as well begin writing our collective death notice now.

—MH

The Children of Spider County
Directed by Leonard Horn; written by Anthony Lawrence. Cast: Kent Smith (Aabel); Lee Kinsolving (Ethan Wechsler); John Milford (John Bartlett); Crahan Denton (Sheriff Stakefield); Bennye Gatteys (Anna Bishop); Dabbs Greer (Bishop); William O. Douglas, Jr. (Erosian Aabel). Broadcast February 17, 1964. Story: An envoy from planet Eros attempts to gather the human harvest of his species' desperate seed, only to be thwarted by the very ideals he extols —and by his rebellious, half-human son.

Anthony Lawrence could be described as Joe Stefano's ideological kin: as writers, they overlap in obsessions, with a similar mix of faith and gloom and a richly poetic sense of not only language, but of situation and behavior. Lawrence, with "The Man Who Was Never Born" (perhaps, ultimately, The Outer Limits most achingly graceful hour) and this episode, fit the series in an almost preternatural way. Like others associated with the show—throughout its run, or contributing to only one or two episodes—it was Lawrence's best work; while "Spider County" may not reach the well-documented heights of "The Man Who Was Never Born", it remains a delicately stated and effecting examination of the contradictions of ideals, and of generational impasse. Smith's Aabel (ostensibly alien, but intentionally evocative of an aged, static, unmistakably human power elite) can only flounder when his cherished notions of increased vitality prove anathema to an unacknowledged, entrenched aggression. The "dogs and desperation" he so readily attributes to Earth's inhabitants plague Eros as well, and drive the doomed experiment he impassively un-creates at story's end. Repopulating his unfeeling planet with kidnapped hybrids is a bust: the subjects are too human to comply; the qualities they were bred for are the qualities which, when expressed as defiance, guarantee Eros' demise. Sound familiar? Welcome to Earth, welcome to 1960s America.

Father-child relationships are in the foreground of "Spider County", both personally detailed (Aabel and Ethan, the Bishops) and socioculturally weighted: the parallels to Earth's then-burgeoning generation gap, when the values of youth and adulthood began to rend drastically, underpin this drama. As mentioned, the insectosoid denizens of Eros (evoked, too obviously, by the generally satisfying bug mask of Aabel's true visage) are philosophically similar to Earth's old guard—more interestingly evoked by the disparate images of Aabel's disguise as an older white man in a business suit, and Greer's Bishop, the irascible sodbuster. The inability to dream is not the provence of either race alone; rather, it's a negative symptom of hardline formalism, of age without wisdom, and—a Lawrence/Stefano precept—of science without heart. Add parentage minus presence: Ethan's frustrating experience of a fatherless childhood is movingly underplayed by Kinsolving, an overly earnest but not insufferable James Dean stand-in. The common conception of television and movies only recently "discovering" the damage of absentee fatherhood is disproved by Lawrence's prescient teleplay; further, Greer's crusty, unlikable Bishop represents another common form of "dad-lessness", that of the conformist, homegrown tyrant firmly cemented at an emotional distance. Both deficient fathers are symbolic, personifying power structures (Earth's and Eros') based in unexamined tenets of blind loyalty and repressive arrogance. Both are usurped—Bishop by his reactive, gun-toting bravado, Aabel due to his projection and lack of insight. A bully and a bug, dreamless and bound for uncreation.

There is light here (which necessarily failed in the appropriately painful climax of "The Man Who Was Never Born"), manifested by an unlikely candidate: Agent Bartlett, played with compassionate gusto by the talented Milford. That a government tool comes to Ethan's aid (and ultimately becomes fatherly) could have undermined the anti-authoritarian stance of "Spider County", but Lawrence, Horn, and Stefano utilize one of this anthology series few recurrent entities to marvelous effect: the United Space Agency, in various forms (and sometimes differently named), through many agents, scientists, and physicians—and at least one psychiatrist, lovesick Dr. Evan Marshall from "The Mutant"— remarkably recurred throughout both seasons of The Outer Limits. Watch for this thread, it's commonly well-used, and with surprising regularity; it's not an unlikely precursor to the current, wildly popular The X-Files. Bartlett is pure U.S.A. (a suggestive acronym), simultaneously procedural and unconventional, totally driven but with a warmth, flexibility, and scientific curiosity that the era's genuine Hoover spooks would have shot to kill.

The structural and technical aspects of "Spider County" reflect a practiced collaborative effort. Lawrence and Horn work well together; the story's dramatic push keeps pace with the series' best entries, as instances of primary action are balanced with talkier scenes. And if any episode could be deemed ideal for the sensibilities of cinematographer Kenneth Peach (unavoidably, The Outer Limits weakest photographer), this is it: the near-pastel greys characteristic of Peach's work somehow enhance the three key settings—jail, barn, and forest. Each takes on a signature feel (the shadow play in the jail is especially emblematic) that was likely informed by Horn and series art director Jack Poplin, in addition to Peach. Though "Spider County" is inexorably a case of theme over execution—as many episodes were, especially later in the first season, and entirely in the best of the second season— the execution is laudable, and casting Kent Smith (his second and final episode) is plainly additive. He conveys the unenlightened authority of Aabel without detracting from the sympathy his plight arouses; Smith is an old pro, fondly remembered as the obsessed male lead in Tourneur and Lewton's Cat People (1942). Here, he's not quite matched, but never embarassed, by his co-stars. Kinsolving, as mentioned, does well with a circumscribed part: teen angst, in any era, can smack of self-pity; remember him in the riotously bad Twilight Zone episode "Black Leather Jackets"? Of the remaining actors, only Milford and Greer stand out: Milford conveys a maturity lacking in the other characters (even Ethan, our identifier), and Greer, in his first of two notable episodes, plays Bishop with a blundering hayseed menace that contradicts his best known role, the sanctimonious Reverend Alden in the diabetes inducing Little House on the Prairie. Greer is a film and TV veteran, and chronically misused—he's good at being bad, as he proved again in "The Inheritors" from the second season.

The best scene featuring Aabel in his actual form (Douglas, a frequent Outer Limits actor in and out of alien masks, and the son of the late supreme court justice) is senselessly used as the teaser, minimizing somewhat the impact of the scene in the story proper. Regardless, it's powerful, both technically (Peach's camera set-up in the overturned police car is astonishing) and contextually, as Aabel's careless violence erupts in the presence of his son, imprisoned for a crime he didn't, and wouldn't, commit—murder. Aabel is all too ready to kill for his selfish cause, and to enlist the aid of his own progeny. This is Lawrence's generational division at its maddest extreme; this is the cause and method of Eros—any resemblance to America in the 1960s, the Vietnam era, seems purely intentional. "Spider County" remains a firm, keenly subversive interlude.

—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.