… Do not attempt to adjust the picture.
We are controlling transmission.
These were the ominous words of The Control Voice. They were delivered with the authority and cold austerity of an Orwellian manipulator or Soviet Gulag director. You did not dare touch the TV and defy The Control Voice. The monsters and terrors encountered during the coming “great adventure” were intended for you and you alone.
Some people have Star Trek. Others have The Twilight Zone, Dr. Who, or The X Files. For me, the most intriguing science fiction and/or horror show ever on U.S. television was the original run of THE OUTER LIMITS.
THE OUTER LIMITS was a black-and-white, hour-long show that ran for two seasons on ABC in 1963-65. It returned sporadically for syndicated reruns, and was resurrected (disappointingly) in 1995 as a totally new, colorized series. Because September 16 is the 50th anniversary of the airing of the pilot of the series (“The Galaxy Being” starring Cliff Robertson), I’d like to pay homage to this offbeat but very influential TV show.
What was happening in September 1963? Well, John F. Kennedy was U.S. president. Nikita Khrushchev was Soviet Communist secretary. Civilization was only 18 years from WWII, Nazism, and the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. had fought a war in Korea, undergone McCarthyism, and was jacking up a military presence in Vietnam. The superpowers were also beginning to explore the frontiers of space. Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin had completed the first orbit of the Earth in 1961. A year later, President Kennedy promised that America would beat the Soviets to the moon “in this decade.”
So while there was heady excitement over the space race in 1963, there was also concern about the nuclear arms race. The U.S. and Soviet Union were at the height of their Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis only narrowly averted in ’62. It was against this backdrop that creator Leslie Stevens and producer/writer Joseph Stefano unveiled THE OUTER LIMITS.
Stevens, a one-time night attendant at a mental hospital, had been writing for theatre and the screen since 1954. He envisioned a show that had the acuteness of “The Twilight Zone,” but darker, with less plot-twisting and a larger dose of science-fiction, horror, and social commentary. He wanted to explore issues like warfare, atomic energy, totalitarianism, mind control, space exploration, etc. in the guise of a small morality play. Like “The Twilight Zone,” THE OUTER LIMITS would be an anthology, and with alternating writers, directors, and actors for each show.
Stefano had written the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous film “Psycho,” so he knew horror. He led a cast of scriptwriters that included sci-fi novelist Harlan Ellison and Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (“Chinatown”). The other key ingredients were Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall, who specialized in the shadowy camera techniques of film noir, and composer Dominic Frontiere, whose creative music scores provided bold dramatic coloring (his music has since been released on CD; AllMusic critic Bruce Eder called it “the best music ever written for television”).
A number of young actors used THE OUTER LIMITS as a launching pad. They included future stars Martin Landau, Martin Sheen, Bruce Dern, Robert Duvall, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Culp, Sally Kellerman, Ed Asner, etc.
Others had been major stage and film stars and were on a career downswing, such as 1930s-40s star Miriam Hopkins, B-movie queen Gloria Grahame, and venerable actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke, whose last role was in the episode “The Forms of Things Unknown.” The big attraction for an impressionable kid like me was the monsters. Although the costumes and makeup were primitive by today’s standards, some of these creatures could be literally nightmarish. In fact, the monster created for one episode, “The Architects of Fear,” was considered so frightening by some ABC affiliates that they blackened it out! Stevens and Stefano deliberately utilized these creatures, which they collectively called “the bear,” to create atmosphere and as a springboard for plot development.
A total of 49 episodes were created over the show’s two-year span, with the best airing during the first season. After this, ABC in its infinite wisdom decided the show was too opaque and cynical for audiences, so they dumbed it down with simpler plots, more low-tech sci-fi and less true horror. They also replaced Frontiere’s majestic scores with more mundane music and added a gimmicky Theremin sound device. Producer Stefano, not surprisingly, resigned in disgust. There are a few second-season shows that stand out, however, notably the Ellison-written “Demon with a Glass Hand” and the two-part show “The Inheritors.”
Here are a few of my favorite episodes (all from the first season):
Nightmare (starring Martin Sheen): a coalition of international astronauts lands on the black planet Ebon, hoping to rescue an earlier flight crew with whom Earth lost contact. They immediately become imprisoned by frightening Ebonites, and start behaving very strangely. Are they truly prisoners of the Ebonites? Or are they guinea pigs for sadistic torture experiments guided by their own leaders? Does Dick Cheney know the answer?
The Guests (starring Luana Anders and Gloria Grahame): a drifter stumbles into an old house where the inhabitants never age. Upstairs lives a massive alien blob that searches their brains for the “missing part of the equation.” What is the missing part? Will the drifter and his new love – Tess – escape from the house? Or will they forever be playing cornhole in darkened hallways?
The Zanti Misfits (starring Bruce Dern): a runaway criminal and his moll tumble upon a spaceship in the middle of the desert. The craft is filled with hideous insect creatures, prisoners shipped from the planet Zanti, who escape and go on a rampage. Is Zanti using Earth as its own little penal colony? How should a society deal with the problem of overcrowded prisons? Has Zanti ever considered decriminalizing soft drugs like marijuana?
The Sixth Finger (starring David McCallum): a scientist creates a machine to speed up human evolution. A dim-witted coalminer becomes his first test case, and evolves into an arrogant creature that has the ability to read people’s minds. How far should science go before man is playing God? If the human hand does eventually develop a sixth finger, what new gesture will we use when someone cuts us off in traffic?
We now return control of your television set to you… until next week at the same time, when The Control Voice will take you to…