The Outer Limits


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No single person was responsible for the unique artistic success of The Outer Limits, just as no one recurring theme or story element gave the series its distinctive tone. From the rotating band of actors, writers and directors to the relatively consistent crew of technicians and production staff, this show was very much a group effort. By way of appreciation, then, allow us to sing the praises of—and sound a single sour-note for—the men and women behind transmission control.

Playwright, hard-science afficianado and erstwhile mystic Leslie Stevens—or L. Clark Stevens, to use his nom de crackpot—was the indisputable father of The Outer Limits. This fact is a bit disappointing to fans of the series, some of whom prefer to think of him as just a money man who got the show off the ground and then stepped aside to let Joseph Stefano make it soar. That's a fair assessment, in a sense: the dilettantish Stevens developed so many series pilots before, during and after The Outer Limits he gave the term "line producer" new meaning. But if he appeared to be less interested in nurturing a show than in starting it and moving on to other projects (which included a film spoken entirely in Esperanto and a handbook for something called "electronic-social transformation"), one simply has to re-watch "The Galaxy Being" to discover the visionary behind the indie-TV workhorse.

Not only does "Galaxy"—or, more accurately, "Please Stand By"—contain a sobering array of elements we've come to associate with The Outer Limits (a flawed outsider hero, a benevolent alien being who brings out the worst in most of the humans it comes into contact with, and a poignant, ambivalent finalé), it displays an eerily prescient understanding of the fate of this unusual show: like the Andromedan in the film, the series was misunderstood, under-supported and finally just too damned good to last. Hardly the work of a media hack.

Leslie Stevens, then, was an artist and a deal maker, and had just the right amounts of professional drive and creative passion to get the things that interested him onto the small screen—and into our lives forever. Electronic-social transformation indeed....

Any appreciation of The Outer Limits must be, in part, a hagiography of Joseph Stefano. The show's producer, in a dynamic and literal sense, he was the creative force behind the best of the defining first season. Infusing the show with a dark (though neither humorless nor hopeless) zëitgëist informed by the murky terrors of psychoanalysis and the banal brutalism of human society, Stefano offered television perhaps its last bang of "golden age" intelligence. With rubber monsters, no less. Most of all, he was a writer. Virtually every episode of 1963 and '64 reflected his input—sometimes just a tweak toward perfection, other times, major revision, and once or twice, too little, too late. Stefano gave the series sixteen hours a day, seven days a week; after a year was over, he was exhausted. Pushed by ABC programming brass (who parlayed constant petty gripes over content and ratings into a catastrophic time-slot change), he left the show. He didn't jump, he was pushed: he never gave it less than his best effort.

Before The Outer Limits, Stefano wrote music(!); he turned to visual art with his arch, genuinely brilliant screenplay for Hitchcock's opera of sickness, Psycho (1960). He was on tap to do the same for that director's Marnie (1964) when Leslie Stevens beckoned with something for television called Please Stand By. Stefano chose Stevens' offer (a position as production executive); Hitchcock huffed, and Marnie suffered. After the series ended (for him) in late '64, Stefano returned to cinema; The Eye of the Cat (1969, expanded from a proposed Outer Limits script deemed too frightening for kids—a breech of Stefano's canons for the show) is probably his best and most widely known post-series work. It's typical of his later writing: interesting, sometimes arresting, but pale in comparison with the classic TV show. Showtime's cable revival of The Outer Limits (Stefano serves as a production associate) remade his excellent episode "A Feasibility Study," featuring classic-era veteran David McCallum. A gracious effort, it missed by a mile.

Stefano, as prodigious creator, isn't lost to his audience. We can enter his world, one of amazing art and absorbing philosophy, as we access the radiant legacy of his signature series. It's his best work. Joe Stefano was, and is, The Outer Limits.

As we've stated elsewhere, Joseph Stefano was the author of The Outer Limits both as a series and of numerous individual episodes. The first-season screenplays that he didn't write or rewrite he edited or subtly reconfigured to match the series' stated concerns. As a result, his philosophical stamp can be detected in films as disparate as "The Sixth Finger" and "The Special One." Still, he was far from the only talented and worthwhile writer on the show.

Meyer Dolinsky was one of several Outer Limits writers who seemed to implicitly grasp what Stefano was after. His three episodes ("The Architects of Fear," "O.B.I.T." and "ZZZZZ") lack the murky psychological underpinnings of Stefano's episodes, but they're just as emotionally complex and thought-provoking; the first two are, in fact, undisputed series classics. Dolinsky went on to write for other television shows, notably Hawaii Five-O, and then scripted a couple of regrettably forgettable films. Again like Stefano, he appears to have done his best work for The Outer Limits.

Former actor turned prolific television writer Anthony Lawrence also penned two of the series' best episodes—"The Man Who Was Never Born" and "The Children of Spider County." Both are poignant character studies in which sterile values clash with messy realities, and each introduced a welcome dose of sentimentality to a series known for its bleakness. Like Dolinsky, Lawrence went on to write for Hawaii Five-O.

Harlan Ellison, excellent writer, charismatic presence, and genuine pain in the ass, wrote two episodes for the series' second season. One is good ("Soldier," the season premier), despite wildly incongruent acting styles and a rushed ending; the other—"Demon With a Glass Hand"—is simply perfect, the one authentic classic Outer Limits from that season. We'll never live it down.

Prior to writing the emotional, effective "The Chameleon," Robert Towne made his living as a Corman flak at AIP (he even acted a bit). After the series, he went on to write Polanski's Chinatown (1974), and to both write and direct the appropriately single-minded Personal Best in 1982.

Other Outer Limits writers worth noting: Robert C. Dennis contributed a whopping four screenplays to the second season, some good ("Cry of Silence," "I, Robot"), one not so good ("The Brain of Colonel Barham"), and one great ("The Duplicate Man"); David Duncan, who was responsible for the stale and contrived "The Human Factor" from the first season, is best remembered for his B horror movie pedigree—he wrote the bizarre and entertaining The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958) and The Leech Woman (1960) before his work for the show; finally, series creator Leslie Stevens wrote the gripping and influential series pilot (aired as "The Galaxy Being") as well as three other solid episodes ("The Borderland," "Controlled Experiment" and "Production and Decay of Strange Particles") that, despite their budgetary shortfalls, were never less than intriguing.

Catching early performances from soon-to-be stars is an Outer Limits perk, as is enjoying unusual turns from established, often aging character actors. The structure of an anthology series allowed just enough freedom and time to create whole characters (especially when abetted by the uncommonly gifted staff and crew) without sinking into the mire of "regular" status. The following is a nod to some of the series' most memorable performers, who, for myriad reasons, added presence and finesse to an irrefutably odd creation.

At the top of the list goes the man Byron Haskin referred to as "Mr. Outer Limits," the flamboyantly cerebral Robert Culp. Culp took the lead in three of the series' most compelling episodes, and played no small part in their success. His characteristic blend of light-hearted mirth and seething (if not raging) intensity was particularly suited to The Outer Limits' distinctive tone. Martin Landau gave two starring turns his usual dedicated, subtlely rendered passion. At once brave and easily swayed, selfless and greedy, his all-too human characters inevitably broke our hearts. Like Culp, Landau is emblematic of the show—and rightfully so.

Other notable performers who acquitted themselves nicely include: Martin Sheen, the definitive (and vindictive) mama's boy in "Nightmare"; Robert Duvall, who twice played deluded G-men with calloused, albeit accessible, hearts; veteran character actor (and acting teacher) Jeff Corey as the eager, dangerously perceptive alien con man in "O.B.I.T."; cultured and forceful acting stalwart George MacReady, who enlivened "The Invisibles" and "Production and Decay of Strange Particles" with his arch portrayals of cowardly authorities; the exotic-featured Henry Silva brightened a dud ("Tourist Attraction") and edged a good episode—"The Mice"—toward greatness; stoic Don Gordon added a layer of moral confusion to "The Invisibles," and was the single interesting element in "Second Chance" (a befeathered Simon Oakland notwithstanding); Neil Hamilton, one-time Tarzan nemesis, gave a fever-pitched, queasy quality to a pair of highbrow low-lifes in "The Bellero Shield" and "The Invisibles"; Eddie Albert bravely faced the stigma of conversing with tumbleweeds, and in doing so lifted season two's "Cry of Silence" considerably; and David McCallum, with his gentle, almost wounded bearing, impressively essayed a pair of characters facing the dual threats of science and magic, barely surviving "The Sixth Finger" and "The Forms of Things Unknown."

Special attention should be paid to Kent Smith and John Hoyt, two actors from Hollywood's classic era who were wisely utilized by Joe Stefano. Smith brought his cold, calculating, decidedly old-world mannerisms to the show's unorthodox blending of futurism and gothic pall; he fit like a tight, unwholesomely moist glove. Hoyt, with his peculiar brand of edgy charm, was equally at home in the show; in typically dependable fashion, he was able to run the gamut from barely noticeable walk-on to mesmerizing lead.

Finally, while it may not be apparent from the preceding paragraphs, there were outstanding performances by women in The Outer Limits. Specifically: Sally Kellerman as the duplicitous Judith Bellero; Geraldine Brooks as Allen Leighton's dedicated and assertive wife in "The Architects of Fear"; the ethereal Shirley Knight as Noelle, the understandable object of Andro's affection in "The Man Who Was Never Born"; Jill Haworth, desperate and dignified in "The Sixth Finger"; Diana Sands, the single voice of empathy in "The Mice"; Nancy Malone as the tragically faithless savior of humankind in "Fun and Games"; Arline Martel, cornered but sympathetic in "Demon With a Glass Hand"; and Joanna Frank as, well, a human bee in "ZZZZZ."

This show not only looked different from most television, it sounded different as well—it hummed, often in an unpleasant fashion; more like the edgy drone of wasps than the soothing purr of honey bees. Electricity cracked and pulsed, alien species spoke with menacing resonance, spacecraft tore noisily through time barriers, cyclotrons (whatever those were) exploded. The quiet moments were rare and usually ominous; congruent with the series' prominent themes, peace was far away—a goal, not a constant. The craftsmen responsible for such aural vexation were John Elizalde, first-season music and sound supervisor (John Caper Jr. took over these functions for the less thrilling second season), coordinator Roger Farris, mixer Jay Ashworth, editor Arthur J. Cornall, and recordists and all-around noisemakers Jack Wood and Harold Smith. Using equipment often of their own design and construction, these artists added immeasurably to the total experience of The Outer Limits.

Music was used in an equally unique fashion: as an auditory signature for the series as a whole and for individual episodes and characters. The overwhelming contribution of Dominic Frontiere to the first season's sonic constitution is indisputable; he was also a production executive for the show, which exhibited his input in ways musical and otherwise (in charge of post-production, he was unquestionably one of the show's primary creative forces). An established composer/arranger by the time he met Leslie Stevens, Frontiere was a musical child prodigy and a pioneer of jazz accordion (!); with Les Baxter, Martin Denny, and others, he was part of the "exotica" pop/ethnic fusion movement so joyfully appropriated by late '50s hipsters. He worked occasionally with fellow composer Robert Van Eps, whom he brought to the series for pick-up work and for the chance to score a handful of episodes himself (the lamentable "Tourist Attraction" among them). Still active in both film and popular music, Frontiere was a favorite composer of both John Wayne and Dean Martin—recommendations beyond argument.

After the disastrous, network-engineered time-slot change and defunding which drove Stefano, Stevens, and Frontiere from the show, musical chores were handed to veteran television composer Harry Lubin. Lubin, in the interest of cheapness (the guiding ethic of the show's new regime), brought, virtually unaltered, several of his spooky cues from One Step Beyond. A more conventional composer than Frontiere, Lubin's opening theme for the second season is memorable in its own right, though thoroughly unsubtle; its wailing theremin may be the most coherent, recognizable feature of the show's final year. Capable of some of the most hamfisted filler possible (the horn section is particularly ill-used), Lubin vindicated himself conclusively with the lamenting score for "Demon With a Glass Hand."


In his canons for The Outer Limits, Joseph Stefano specified that each episode include a bear to "induce wonder or tolerable terror or even merely conversation and argument." It's fair to say that, after 35 years of being known as the "monster of the week" show, this story requirement was successfully met. But, in the best episodes, an Outer Limits creature isn't merely frightening, it's essential: a vehicle or representation of the thing—if not the actual thing itself—that matters most. Grotesque, beautiful or both, the bears are physical embodiments of the longing, befuddlement and temporal joy of human experience, and their shocking (and occasionally extraneous) presence leaves little recourse but to react. And, upon reacting, we can't help but think.

To accomplish this, the bears fall into several distinct (though far from absolute) categories, among them: horrifically altered humans who reveal just how monstrous humanity can be ("The Sixth Finger," "The Man Who Was Never Born," "The Mutant"); shapeless, antagonistic blobs who, though thoroughly unappealing themselves, somehow manage to expose our deepest appetites ("Don't Open Till Doomsday," "The Mice," "The Guests"); belligerent, imperialistic alien species who know an easy target when they see one—or so they think ("A Feasibility Study," "Corpus Earthling," "O.B.I.T.," "The Invisibles"); and benevolent alien rogues whose gentle curiosity or misguided compassion throw the notion of "humanity" into ambiguous relief ("The Galaxy Being," "The Bellero Shield," "The Children of Spider County," "Second Chance").

If you remain unconvinced that these creatures did little more than draw pre-adolescent viewers, ask yourself this: if the pantheon of twisted demons and saints from The Outer Limits had carried on in the usual ghoulish fashion, all bloodlust and lurking, would they be as indelibly etched in your mind? And aren't you tempted, as I am, to stop just short of calling them "monsters"?

A sensory experience as much as a television show, The Outer Limits relied on a large, relatively stable group of behind-the-scenes artists and technicians to live up to its own standards. All deserve credit; other writers have done just that—we offer a handful of highlights.

As the most distinctive and experimental of three rotating cinematographers for the series' first season, Conrad Hall defined the look of The Outer Limits. He was, in his impressive and irreverent way, the eyes of the show—a visionary on par with Stevens, Stefano, and Frontiere. Adept at in-camera special effects, dark palettes, and oblique perspectives, Hall managed (on a television budget) quite an accomplishment: adaptive versatility and consistent artistry. Among other feats, he made Gerd Oswald's Teutonic tableaux virtually glow. In his post-series work, his filming of John Schlesinger's Marathon Man (1976, a fine, twisted horror film in its own right) stands out—the photographic mood alerts the viewer that it most certainly is not safe. A true film artist, Hall is retired.

At the other end of the spectrum photographically, Kenneth Peach defined the look of the show's second season: flat and overlit. He had talent, to be sure, but required a firm directorial hand to elicit anything beyond workman-like results. His best work, from both seasons, includes "The Children of Spider County", "The Guests", and "Demon With a Glass Hand." Too often reflective of an episode's budget or general lack of inspiration, Peach's cinematography can at least be credited with a temporal consistency.

Production and story editing chores were admirably performed by Lou Morheim and Leon Chooluck, as orchestrated by production supervisor Lindsley Parsons Jr. and coordinator Elaine Michea; Robert H. Justman and Lee H. Katzin deserve mention for their stalwart assistant direction; and film editors Richard Brockway, Tony DiMarco and Fred Baretta should have won Emmys. Casting of the show was uniformly well thought out; credit Meryl Abeles, who took over for John Erman after his departure early in the first season. Art director Jack Poplin and effects men M. B. Paul, Larry Butler, and Harry Redmond Jr. physically and visually bridged the gap between Stefano's gothic leanings and Stevens' hard science fetishism. We love their iconic use of dials, gauges, and transistorized ephemera.

The show's bevy of strange and beautiful creatures was largely the responsibility of Project Unlimited, a loosely organized group of makeup artists, animators and optical effects specialists. Wah Chang, Gene Warren (who passed away only last year), Tim Baar, Al Hamm, Paul LeBaron, Ralph Rodine and the estimable Jim Danforth were just a few of Project's multi-talented crewmen. Staff makeup man Fred B. Phillips helped to make even the most quickly conceived sub-bears interesting and credible, with periodic help from John Chambers and Harry Thomas (yes, that Harry Thomas).

Finally, both Janos Prohaska and William O. Douglas, Jr., twisted and torqued their bodies into more than one of Project's outlandish outfits, and brought the creatures to glorious life thanks to their excellent mimicry skills.

The familiar refrain: "We are controlling transmission...." Who is "we," anyway? Vic Perrin, whose sonorous, modulated, and, yes, controlled intonation set the mood for The Outer Limits as an entity, and for each individual episode? Yes, but "we." Who else? Stevens and Stefano, the series' complementary creators (and authors of Perrin's words)? The writers of any given episode, appropriating control of this cathode ray miracle "for the next hour"? The weirdly hesitant ABC network? Concretely, "we" is a combination of all these people, along with the numerous technicians and artists involved. But The Outer Limits utilized concreteness as only one, relatively minor strategy in its cohesive arsenal of image and experience. "We" is this as well: a particularly imaginative part of the inner mind.

Represented two-fold: Perrin's disembodied Control Voice, an omniscient fusion of scientist and moralist; and visually in the form of a stark and hissing sine wave. "We," an aphoristic algorithm. The sine wave appeared as a quasi-character in the show's splendid pilot episode, "The Galaxy Being," presaging the title alien's arrival on Earth (and, by extension, announcing Stevens' and Stefano's disruptive presence on network television). The sine wave carries a force all its own, unnerving the protagonist's wife in this first entry: it is cold, solid static, and "looks like electricity, frozen."

"We," a fitting emblem for The Outer Limits—aurally and visually. As icy as space itself; ethical and always in control, "we" is the purveyor of (and a necessary guide for) nothing less than great adventure.

When people write or speak (or rave) about The Outer Limits, there's an inevitable first-season bias. We're certainly no exception—it's our firm belief that what Stevens, Stefano and their casts and crew created in those first 32 episodes far eclipsed not just the show's second season, but the majority of series television before or since. With a few notable exceptions, that brief, audacious body of work is what people remember of the show—whether they remember it fondly or otherwise.

But there was a second season (or, more truthfully, half-season), and it has to be addressed somehow. To call it disappointing is both an understatement and not fully accurate: we're disappointed in something when it fails to live up to its potential or high standards; in that sense, "Moonstone" is a disappointment, or "Second Chance." But the second season of The Outer Limits was, simply put, not the same show as the first season, and it proved rather quickly (after a reasonably promising opener with "Soldier") that it had very little to live up to.

What happened? How did such a wildly imaginative series become so ordinary and uninspired? Part of the answer is, predictably, money. The initial season of The Outer Limits was unlike anything on television, and Daystar's ABC bosses had few ideas on how to "sell" it properly. Bad ratings were inevitable, and provided the necessary motivation for programming head Adrian Samish to demand that the show be tailored to more traditional sci-fi tastes (think Lost in Space...). Faced with the ill-conceived but inevitable execution of such changes, Stevens, Stefano and Frontiere did the sensible thing—they left the show. Free to remake The Outer Limits into the kind of cash cow the network envisioned (or at least to stop it from becoming a money drain), Samish chose the most logical possible model currently in production (he even went so far as to swipe a portion of it's creative team). I'm talking, of course, about...Perry Mason?

Enter Ben Brady, at that time the vice-president of programming for ABC. Longtime producer of that Raymond Burr paean to trial lawyers, Brady played a small and antagonistic role during the first season of The Outer Limits, as an "advisor" to the show's creators—in a sense, as the hatchetman for Samish. But if money (and the tightness thereof) was a prime reason for the show's slide into dull predictability, and the motivation behind Samish's selection of Brady, the other big nail in the coffin was Brady himself. A conventional talent at best, as both producer and guiding force (ahem) he was too much a slave to the bottom line. Surrounding himself with old-school television talent like Sam White (his assistant producer, or "assprod") and Mason cronies (such as the genuinely gifted, profoundly put-upon story editor Seeleg Lester), Brady retooled Stevens' and Stefano's fascinating vision into an odd hybrid of police procedural, juvenile science-fiction and lily-white (if not lily-livered) melodrama. It wasn't all bad, of course—several episodes under Brady's regime were damned fine; a few have even attained classic status ("Demon With a Glass Hand," "The Duplicate Man" and Lester's "The Inheritors" stand out). They were abberations, though; incongruous peaks in a vast, near-barren valley. The second season was a pale imitation of what had gone before, and it was Samish's and Brady's baby all the way; nursed almost solely on and for the capital of ABC, it died in infancy. Overstated, perhaps, but unfortunately true.

It was a sad end for a series that had managed to break new artistic ground so early and so memorably. Yet few things of value last, and, if nothing else, Brady's Outer Limits serves to underscore what we had—and lost—in Stevens' and Stefano's Outer Limits. For that, I suppose, we owe him something like gratitude.


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