September 16th marks the 55th anniversary of The Outer Limits, an anthology show that ran for two seasons from 1963 to 1965. Despite its short run time, it has garnered a cult following, influencing years of television that followed.
“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission.”
-Introduction to The Outer Limits
As far as anthology shows from the early 1960s, The Outer Limits often plays second fiddle to The Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone focused on fantasy and the supernatural, with twist endings that ranged in effectiveness from the jaw-dropping to the absurd. The Outer Limits however, made its bones on pure science fiction. There were no secret Hitlers or gremlins on the plane here; instead, there were beings of pure energy, alien races, and men with computers for hands. This narrowed the audience, naturally, but it also paved the way for a lot of television that we know and love today.
The Outer Limits separated itself from The Twilight Zone by offering up action-adventure science fiction where each episode featured a “bear.” The bear was a monster, or an alien; some form of “Other” that lurked as an antagonist for the characters. Joseph Stefano, the main screenwriter for the series (also the screenwriter for Psycho) felt that having a “bear” in each episode heightened the fear and intensity, and allowed something for the plot to swing around. When Stefano left in Season 2, this convention was mostly dropped; the best episodes, though, feature a bear, whether natural or artificial.
Despite the fact that the series only ran for two years, the fact that there’s 49 episodes in total makes getting into it a little daunting. To make that task a little easier, here are the ten best episodes that you have to watch.
10. THE GALAXY BEING (S01E01)
“Infinity is God. God, infinity, all the same.”
The pilot episode of The Outer Limits remains a pillar of great television science fiction. Radio station owner Allan Maxwell is also a space hobbyist. He spends his time researching cosmic background radiation and analyzing it, to the chagrin of his employees and the FCC. One night he manages to accidentally make contact with a being from the Andromeda galaxy, who appears as a being of energy in his then far-fetched 3D television. As it turns out, the being is also conducting illicit experiments, since contact with human beings is banned. We’re, uh, extremely dangerous, as it turns out.
Of course, nothing could be as smooth as a simple contact and philosophical exchange. The Andromeda being escapes the confines of the television and ends up accidentally wreaking havoc everywhere. A lot of the havoc, however, is not caused by the being directly. Like a lot of great SF, the real bear here is human ignorance, and the human penchant for shooting first and asking questions later. Ostensibly a story about a “mad scientist” and his crazy experiment, the real underlying story is that we’re an impulsive species who maybe isn’t ready to explore the galaxy on a hair trigger.
9. A FEASIBILITY STUDY (S01E29)
“If you have any knowledge concerning this disappearance, please contact your nearest police department.”
Late one night, six blocks of suburb are beamed up by an alien race. The reason: the race, known as the Luminoids, suffers from a condition that causes them to become immobile before they reach middle age. The humans are kidnapped to see if it’s feasible to use them as slaves; if it is, the Luminoids plan on kidnapping the entire human race into slavery. It takes a while for the kidnapped humans to realize what’s going on. When they do, however, they realize there’s only one possible choice for them: infecting themselves with the same alien disease in order to show the Luminoids that their plan is futile.
The bear here is pretty straightforward. Hostile alien race wants to mess with the human species; we’ve seen this one before. The real beauty of A Feasibility Study is how the citizens of this kidnapped suburb come together to realize something greater than themselves. They all have their own personal issues – two of them are even planning on divorcing – but when push comes to shove they can come together to save the entire species. Even if it means damning themselves to immobility on an alien planet for the rest of their lives.
8. THE SIXTH FINGER (S01E05)
“Your ignorance makes me ill and angry.”
Another science fiction tale, another mad scientist. Professor Mathers has discovered a process by which he can speed up human evolution. Where better to experiment on this process than in a remote Welsh mining village? Hapless miner Gwyllm Griffiths undergoes the treatment; soon he has a huge brain and six fingers on each hand. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the mutated evolutionary track takes on a life of it’s own. Griffiths ends up with a million years of human evolution behind him. While this has some neat features, like Spock ears, it also means telekinetic powers and a certain amorality. Love manages to defeat the bear, though, as Griffith’s girlfriend convinces him to reverse the process.
Of course, since this was 1963, the ideas contained in The Sixth Finger didn’t pass through ABC’s censor unscathed. Mathers’ original bit of dialogue on the process of evolution was cut, as was a scene near the end. When Griffiths reverses the process, it goes too far and he ends up at the evolutionary stage of the Neanderthal. The original scene called for Griffiths to reverse all the way to being a jellyfish. Even fifty years after the Scopes Monkey Trial, however, this was considered to be too much for mainstream television viewers.
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7. SOLDIER (S02E01)
“Did the soldier finally come to care for those he protected? Or was it just his instinct to kill?”
Out went screenwriter/producer Joseph Stefano, in came Ben Brady. Season Two wouldn’t last anywhere close to as long as Season One, but it did have some serious highlights. To open up that second season, they chose to go with a script by the late science fiction legend Harlan Ellison. Soldier, based on Ellison’s 1957 short story “Soldier From Tomorrow”, is widely considered to be one of the finest televised bits of SF ever made. Unless you’re James Cameron, I suppose.
In the far future, war is fought by elite soldiers and gigantic laser cannons that light up the night with destruction. Two soldiers fight each other, and a burst of energy from one of the laser weapons opens up a time vortex that hurls one of them, Qarlo, back to 1964. Qarlo is soon captured by the American military and a scientist named Tom Kagan takes him under his wing. Fascinated by Qarlo, Kagan makes the brave, bizarre decision to take Qarlo home to meet his family.
The problem, naturally, is that the other soldier, trapped in a time vortex, manages to figure out how to follow Qarlo into the past. Qarlo and his enemy fight in Kagan’s home, and Qarlo sacrifices himself to save the Kagan family. Or does he? As the above quote implies, maybe Qarlo didn’t care about the Kagans at all. Maybe he was just programmed to kill. The ambiguity is what makes this episode such a classic.
James Cameron probably has a different opinion on it, though. When The Terminator came out in 1984, Ellison immediately sued Cameron and everyone involved based on what he saw as major similarities between it and Soldier. Ellison was (in)famous for being both belligerent and relentless on the subject of getting paid, and in this case he succeeded. Cameron is of the opinion that the lawsuit was garbage, although he’s legally unable to expand much on that opinion. To be fair, he’s likely right; on the surface, any resemblance between the two is purely cosmetic.
6. NIGHTMARE (S01E10)
“Man, convinced that life on other planets would be as anxious and belligerent as life on his own, has gravely predicted that some dreadful form of combat would inevitably take place between our world and that of someone else. And Man was right.”
An interstellar war is kicked off by a nuclear attack on Earth by a hostile alien planet. In response, the united forces of Earth send a group of soldiers in a rocket to fight back. If this seems like a bit of a mismatched level of force, you’d be right. The aliens, a race called Ebon, capture the Earth soldiers and hold them captive. They’re also tortured, because the Ebonites don’t have the alien equivalent of the Geneva Convention. The Ebonites have control over the five human senses, and use this power in various awful ways to try to extract information. The Ebonites also use ethnic prejudice and good ol’ planted suspicions to drive the soldiers apart from each other. This is complicated by the appearance of human officers alongside the Ebonites.
The bear here is not the Ebonites but the hierarchy of human elites. There is no Ebon-Human war; everything the soldiers are subjected to is at the hands of fellow humans. It’s all just a test to make sure Earth soldiers will stay loyal in the event of hostilities. Like The Galaxy Being, the bear here isn’t the Alien Other. In the words of the mad officer from 28 Days Later, it’s just people killing people. The monster is us.
5. THE ARCHITECTS OF FEAR (S01E03)
“There is no magic substitute for soft caring and hard work, for self-respect and mutual love.”
The Architects Of Fear is a great reminder that The Outer Limits aired during one of the high points of Cold War nuclear paranoia. Convinced that nuclear doomsday is not only imminent but inevitable, a group of scientists concoct a plan to unite the human race against the Alien Other. Unfortunately, not having made any contact with aliens, they’re forced to improvise.
One of their own volunteers to undergo a procedure to turn themselves into what they think looks like an alien species. He’s supposed to launch into orbit in a rocket and then land that rocket at the headquarters of the UN, causing a massive worldwide panic that will, theoretically, unite the human race. Things never go as planned, of course. Our hapless volunteer ends up landing in the woods, where he is quite naturally shot by a trio of hunters. To be fair to the hunters, the “alien” did disintegrate their car.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Alan Moore nicked it as the ultimate plot device for The Watchmen. His version has quite a few more civilian casualties, however. It’s not as though The Outer Limits was completely the victim here, though. Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens Of Titan used the same idea four years earlier. Of course, he probably absorbed the idea from Theodore Sturgeon’s short story “Unite And Conquer”, first published in 1948. Originality is somewhat overrated.
4. THE FORMS OF THINGS UNKNOWN (S01E32)
“I’m going back… into the past. The dead, harmless quiet of the past.”
The final episode of The Outer Limits’ first season was also meant to be a pilot for The Unknown. The Unknown, another anthology, never ended up being made into an actual series; this episode, then, is quite a bit different from others. Every other episode of The Outer Limits is a pretty straightforward science fiction excursion. The Forms Of Things Unknown is much less straightforward. It’s a lot more art-house than mainstream television was used to in 1963, for one thing. It’s full of odd camera angles, gothic atmosphere, creeping dungeon music, and outsized performances.
The science in the fiction is also less of the focus. A scientist holed up in the woods is working on a device that plays with time. Unlike most scientists, who play with time in order to go back and stop Hitler or take part in obscene Roman sex rites, this one has a different idea. It’s wonky, but the plan is to “tilt time” in order to bring the dead back to life. This leads to unintended consequences when a pair of women kill the man they’re with, in order to stop his blackmail plot. After murdering him, they find a mansion in the woods to hide in – the same mansion where the scientist is working on his dark experiments.
You see where this is going.
It’s a great bit of gothic storytelling and, while it’s not at all similar to other episodes, it’s an excellent standalone work of television. It’s also bizarrely the last work of legendary British stage and screen actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who died a few short months after the episode aired.
3. THE BELLERO SHIELD (S01E20)
“Can you help?”
“Can I not?”
The Bellero Shield is basically Macbeth with aliens. Richard Bellero is a scientist grappling with the unsettling fact that both his wife and father consider him a failure. One of his inventions leads to an alien coming to Earth to visit with him. The alien has some interesting alien technology. The most interesting is a device that creates an impenetrable barrier around one’s own person. Richard and the alien have lengthy conversations and become friends. Richard’s wife Judith, however, wants fame and glory for her husband (and thereby herself). First she tries to convince the alien to give up his shield so that Richard can claim he invented it. When the alien reads the room and realizes this is a terrible idea, Judith decides to just murder him and take it instead.
Judith demonstrates Richard’s “invention” to Richard’s father, who proclaims it a miracle. The twist is that without the alien’s blood, the device won’t shut off. Judith is trapped behind the barrier, and it’s only the self-sacrificing instinct of the dying alien that frees her. Driven insane, Judith believes she is still trapped even once she’s freed. In addition, her hand is permanently stained with a drop of murdered alien blood, Lady Macbeth style.
As usual, the bear here isn’t the alien, it’s the murderous greed and stupidity of humanity.
Fun fact: the “wraparound eyes” common to descriptions of alien abduction likely take their roots from this episode. Betty Hill, the first publicized “alien abduction”, described these eyes on February 22nd, 1964. The Bellero Shield, featuring an alien with wraparound eyes, aired February 10th, 1964. The entire pantheon of paranormal literature dealing with aliens likely takes its cues from the fact that Joseph Stefano thought the eye effect they cooked up for the alien looked cool.
2. THE ZANTI MISFITS (S01E14)
“Today, on this planet Earth, the criminal is incarcerated in humane institutions…..or he is executed. Other planets use other methods.”
An alien species known as the Zanti have struggled for centuries to come up with a practical solution to getting rid of their criminal element. Like the British with Australia, they come to the conclusion that the best thing to do is send them off to become someone else’s problem. To this end, they strike a deal with Earth. In exchange for advanced technology, Earth must cordon off an area to serve as a penal colony for the Zanti. The catch is that the area must be kept under strict privacy and the ship must not come under attack. If these stipulations are violated, the Zanti promise to completely destroy the Earth.
Enter bank robber Ben Garth and his amoral girlfriend Lisa, who unwittingly enter the exclusion zone while on the run. After running over a Zanti guard, they manage to get killed (Ben) and chased off (Lisa) by the Zanti. Irritated that their privacy has been violated, the Zanti prisoners take over their prison ship and get into a firefight with the human military forces, who completely annihilate them. Given that the Zanti are the size of rats (and ugly as sin, to boot) this outcome is a foregone conclusion.
The promised complete destruction of Earth never takes place. Instead, the Zanti admit that they are extremely uncomfortable with killing and that they knew they could achieve the desired result by just sending them to Earth and letting humans do what humans naturally do. As you might have guessed, the bear is, as usual, us.
1. DEMON WITH A GLASS HAND (S02E05)
“One hundred percent possibility of success is not available. Next success quotient only forty-seven percent probable.”
“Well, tell me, what is it?”
“Let them kill you.”
The best episode of The Outer Limits is another Harlan Ellison script. This one concerns a man named Trent who wakes up with no memories, strange men chasing him, and a glass computer hand missing three fingers. The people chasing him turn out to be the Kyben, an alien invader race that followed Trent through the “time mirror” into the past. The Kyben want Trent because he has the cure to a plague that is killing them en masse; the plague was released by humans as a counter-attack to the Kyben invasion. His computer hand helps him dodge them, but that’s about it; the missing three fingers comprise the rest of its “brain.” Trent needs them to uncover the truth about him and the men chasing him.
Ellison originally wanted the Kybens to chase Trent across the country. The producers convinced Ellison that it would be better (cheaper) to shoot at one single location. Ellison agreed, deciding that having them chase Trent up as opposed to across was a much more suspenseful circumstance than his original idea. He’s right; the pacing and suspense in this episode far exceeds any other episode of the show. In fact, it’s easily one of the most intense episodes of any television show, ever. If the location they shot in seems familiar, it’s for a reason. If it makes you think of attack ships on fire near Orion and tears in the rain, you’re getting closer. Both Demon With A Glass Hand and the end of Blade Runner were shot at the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles.
As an aside, if the backstory of the episode intrigues you, you’re in luck. Ellison fleshed out the world with a series of short stories that were collected in the 1987 graphic novel Night And The Enemy.