Our reviews of The Outer Limits: Season One, Volume One (published June 27th, 2007), The Outer Limits: The New Series (published August 17th, 2005), and The Outer Limits: Season One (published October 15th, 2002) are also available.
Television's second best science fiction anthology series?
The TV screen crackles and the image blurs. Suddenly the picture disintegrates into a single small spot on the tube. A voice warns against making any attempt to affect what is happening. The voice says that it is in control. It will tell you what to do. Stark visuals flash before your eyes. Sine waves and other indications of amplitude modulate. The screen goes black and then you see a hazy object. It's hard to decipher. Suddenly it comes sharply into focus: it's the moon, craters and crevices clearly defined. We are about to travel into another dimension, the voice explains, a realm of wonder and adventure. And, indeed, the voice speaks the truth. For a little over two and one half years, from 1963 to 1965, The Outer Limits television program tried to introduce a more straightforward science fiction into the lives of everyday Americans. Much more bold than The Twilight Zone and not as camp as future sci-fi shows (usually masterminded by Irwin Allen) would be, these hour-long explorations into the untold terrors of tomorrow seemed ahead of their time. Even today, almost 40 years later, there are themes and ideas addressed in this groundbreaking anthology series that rarely get discussed in modern dramas. Thanks to MGM, the series is being reissued, in season complete box sets, for fans to appreciate and the uninitiated to discover. And surprisingly, The Outer Limits, The Original Series: The Complete Season 2 surpasses the fine shows offered in Season 1.
Facts of the Case
There are 17 episodes of the television series offered in the Season 2 set. Each show here runs for just over 50 minutes. Specifically, the shows presented here with a brief synopsis of each are as follows:
"Soldier": A time warp propels a futuristic fighter back to present day Earth, where his pre-programmed desire to destroy is tested by a compassionate linguist. Score: 94
"Cold Hands, Warm Heart": An astronaut returns from Venus to find his body temperature dropping and his need for warmth increasing. It may just be re-acclimation to Earth, or something more alien. Score: 89
"Behold Eck!": A scientist is approached by an alien of pure energy to produce a pair of specialized glasses. Without them, he cannot close a time hole that threatens Earth. Score 92
"Expanding Human": A college professor discovers a chemical "drink" that expands his mental and physical abilities. But instead of proving beneficial, they prove maddening. Score: 81
"Demon with a Glass Hand": A traveler from Earth's future has to ward off the attacks from an alien race while protecting this special hand—a glass computer that holds the key to mankind's destiny. Score: 96
"Cry of Silence": A couple faces an unknown force that is desperately trying to communicate. However, its methodology is primitive and frightening. Score: 78
"The Invisible Enemy": A group of astronauts lands on Mars, hoping to discover what happened to a previous expedition. They slowly disappear, one by one, the victims of an unseen force. Score: 85
"Wolf 359": A scientist recreates an alien planet in his laboratory. He even manages to speed up the evolutionary process. But such an advance has ethereal, deadly consequences. Score: 88
"I, Robot": A robot is condemned for killing its creator. A trial is held to determine if a machine can really be capable, and culpable, for such a horrible crime. Score: 88
"The Inheritors Part 1 & 2": Four soldiers, all having survived similar gunshot wounds to the head, develop otherworldly intelligence and set about creating a spaceship…and rounding up children. Score: 97
"Keeper of the Purple Twilight": An alien scout for a distant world trades the formula for a super weapon to a scientist for a chance at experiencing human emotion. Score: 85
"The Duplicate Man": A scientist in the future has himself duplicated to battle a homicidal alien monster. But the consequences may have more direct personal implications. Score: 90
"Counterweight": A group of VIPs are invited to travel on a simulated experimental flight to a far-off planet. But an otherworldly force may be conspiring to thwart the mission. Score: 88
"The Brain of Colonel Barnham": A terminally ill astronaut allows his brain to be removed and hooked up to a supercomputer. But instead of forwarding science, this hybrid feels omnipotent and threatens mankind. Score: 90
"The Premonition": A pilot and his wife become frozen in time when his aircraft hits Mach 6. Together, they must try to figure out how to catch up with real temporal space…and prevent a deadly accident. Score: 90
The Probe": The survivors of a plane that crashed in the ocean during a hurricane find themselves locked in an alien space probe, unable to communicate or escape. Score: 85
It's always been a shame that, when they are compared outright, The Twilight Zone gets so much of the smothering praise and The Outer Limits is usually left holding the rotting raspberries. Granted, Rod Serling's brilliant and sometimes breathtaking television show offered more than its fair share of startling ideas and engaging writing. Limits was always classified as clever junk, reducing its obvious special qualities into something resembling juvenile pulp comics. Limits was often referred to as the "Monster of the Week" show, since there was a reliance on aliens, robots, demons, and beasts as the means of crafting fear and dread. Zone loved to flaunt its "psychological" terrors and fright, hoping you'd be inspired to think as well as shrink in your seat. But pound for pound, The Outer Limits really outdid Serling's showcase in the true science fiction arena. Much more than ideas played out subtly, Limits went for broke, exposing outright the bug-eyed ants, floating Venutian apparition or the alien Kyban assassins. Did the lack of stellar special effects mean that, occasionally, the zipper and strings were readily apparent? Yes. Did this factor detract from the show? Absolutely not. If anything, they reinforced the post-50s ideal about space, the supernatural, and the scientifically sinister. The Outer Limits indeed pushed the envelope of believability. But more times than not, they managed to totally ignite the imagination.
Season Two was and still is a wonderfully constructed, consistent set of shows, each trying to outdo the other in storytelling, acting talent, and thought-provoking content. The standard saga for The Outer Limits usually dealt with some fantastic element of science married to the meandering world of everyday life. Time travel, robotics, alien invasion, and space exploration were all key ingredients, and the various combinations of said gave the creators unlimited material from which to draw. Limits had a special allegiance and emphasis on the writer, something many other shows failed to recognize. Really, the only way you can sell an interstellar being or escapee from a future Earth was to intelligently and passionately provide the proper words to describe or discuss it. The Outer Limits, like its brother in arms, The Twilight Zone, boasts writing that, in today's market, seems like some manner of supernatural Shakespeare. Indeed, when felt and paint and monster masks let the visuals down, the word stepped in and came alive in a way that rescued entire shows from ridicule. When viewed individually, there are some shows that clearly stand out over and above others. But in total, the attention to detail, the introduction of philosophical ideals, and the well-drawn characterizations make The Outer Limits a true creative treasure. If the second season got a little darker and more morose than the first, it's more than compensated for by the overall quality and ideology of episodes offered.
Disc One, Side One begins with a trio of stellar examples as to the growth and polish of Season 2. Only the fourth episode, a vague mediation on the use of "mind altering drugs" to tap into unknown human potential, seems half-finished. The other shows are all winners. "Soldier" starts out the presentation, and it is one of the best pieces of television sci-fi ever. Thought provoking, evocative, and strangely moving, it features a script by writer Harlan Ellison that rivals his most popular small screen work. And see if you don't find some similarities between this tale of a military man from the future programmed as an "unstoppable killing machine" and recent Cameron/Arnold blockbusters (the lawyers sure did!). Next we get the equally compelling "Cold Hands, Warm Heart," which centers on a flight to Venus and the effects it had on the astronaut, played with all the spectacular hamminess of William Shatner. Indeed, Bill's brave overacting sells the suspense and circumstances here. If the ending is a tad disappointing, it's not for a lack of Shatner trying. Then there's "Behold Eck!," a quirky little tale about a research ophthalmologist and the energy particle being that seeks him out for a pair of special prescription glasses. While it sounds like a very goofy premise (and the oddball acting of Peter Lind Hayes and Parley Baer as squabbling brothers doesn't help matters much), the way it is handled, both technologically and in scope (we get numerous still shots of a skyscraper nearly sheared in half), turns it from daffy to dramatic. If only "Human Expanding" wasn't so coy about discussing the subject of hallucinogens and mental/physical improvement. An interesting thesis is wasted on a far too superficial script with some decent make-up effects.
Disc One, Side Two gets us back on the bright track by offering another delicious episode of Ellison expertise. "Demon with a Glass Hand" is constantly referred to, in print and in discussion, as one of Harlan's most imaginative and spellbinding works. And indeed, it is. If someone wanted to understand why The Outer Limits has had such a lasting impact with viewers, both in first run and in syndication, it's because of episodes like this one. Robert Culp, playing the protector of the "glass hand" computer gives an absolutely bravura performance, and though they look a little cheesy, his enemies are threatening and intelligent. With its quick pace, brilliant and subtle dialogue, and satisfying twist ending, "Demon with a Glass Hand" shows why Ellison, personal idiosyncrasies aside, is considered an incredibly gifted writer. The last offering on Side Two is sort of a letdown, if only because there is a great idea here hampered by a totally obnoxious performance. June Havoc may have been perfectly fine in films like Gentleman's Agreement and Lady Possessed, but in this episode she is a whiny, irritating shrew. Whenever she opens her mouth to incessantly moan "Andy" (her husband's overused name), you just want to find the pure energy alien life form this show was based around and get it to zap her into menopause. The coarse crybaby act undermines all attempts at tension and makes whatever strides for seriousness "Cry of Silence" exhibits seem phony. While the idea of killer tumbleweeds and plagues of psychotic frogs doesn't sound promising, the creators of this episode were honestly really trying. Then June comes along and ruins it all.
Disc Two, Side One starts off with a fine, suspense-filled offering entitled "The Invisible Enemy." The title is kind of a misnomer since we, the audience can see that Mars is inhabited by some kind of creature that swims through the sand, dorsal fins exposed like a shark. So to us, the enemy is obvious. But to the astronauts exploring the planet, their discovery almost always comes too late. There is a subplot about some rare rocks, but the main thrust of the story is whether the remaining men will make it back to Earth. Adam West, soon to be TV's Batman, is on hand to up the camp factor, yet he is remarkably subdued here. The direction is first rate and the payoff exciting. Similar sentiments can also be expressed for the next episode, "Wolf 359." Starting with the ingenious premise of recreating a planet in a laboratory and monitoring its technology-induced rapid evolution, there is a great deal of forward momentum in the narrative. Once we see the ghost-like visage arise from the planet surface (and it shows its insidious power), we are at the edges of our seats, wondering what will happen next. There is a similar experience to be had, to a lesser extent, with the next offering on Side One. "I, Robot," an adaptation of the classic science fiction story by Eando Binder, places man against machine in a court of law to determine such theoretical and theological ideas as playing God, creating life, instilling morals, and defining human existence. Featuring a pre-Spock, remarkably fine performance by Leonard Nimoy as a jaded journalist, this rather talky episode (it takes place mainly in a courtroom) is thought-provoking and thoroughly engrossing. The ending may seem pat, but it sure does reinforce the themes presented.
Disc Two, Side One ends and Side Two begins with a two-part episode entitled "The Inheritors." Robert Duvall, in one of his earliest roles, strikes the perfect balance between determination and desperation as he tries to track down four soldiers who seem to be functioning under the orders of a race of super intelligent spacemen. Make no doubt about it, along with "Soldier," "Demon with a Glass Hand" and "Behold Eck!," this is one of the, if not the, best episode in the set. At an hour and 40 minutes it's just like a movie, filled with fantastic performances, brilliant scripting, and a superb, awe-inspiring finale. This episode never plays its entire hand up front. It lets things build and come slowly together so that by the time we reach the ending, we are prepared for anything and rewarded with something that is completely moving and emotional. If for no other reason than to witness this fine piece of made-for-television drama, The Outer Limits, The Original Series: The Complete Season 2 should be a must buy on your DVD list. After the one-two punch of "The Inheritors," the final segment on Disc Two, Side Two should be a let down. And indeed, "Keeper of the Purple Twilight" is a little bit of one. The notion of aliens wanting to experience Earthling emotions has been done before, but thanks to some very fine acting and the effective monster make-up (the aliens look unlike any other we've seen before) this episode satisfies. You may see the ending a mile away, but it's great fun getting there.
Disc Three, Side One starts off with two episodes that both employ monsters for far more esoteric purposes. In "The Duplicate Man," the beast in question is an illegal entity smuggled onto a future Earth (year: 2011) to help a self-centered researcher with his career. But instead of being just another "bug hunt," this show gets into the whole realm of what makes a man human. A "duplicate" (read: clone) is created with the strict orders to kill the monster. But as it slowly gains memories and experiences, it becomes an individual, maybe even more so than the person it is copied from. Somber, with a refreshingly ambiguous ending, "The Duplicate Man" does a nice job of "fleshing" out the issues involved. The same kind of human dynamics are explored in "Counterweight." There, an alien presence (who finally manifests himself in the form of a killer plant) plays on a group of tests subjects' natural fears and anxieties, hoping to scuttle the planned colonization of its home planet. While the creature is effective, it's the interpersonal relations and psychological ramifications that are far more frightening. Next up is "The Brain of Colonel Barnham," and it's another fine episode in the series. Barnham the person is not a likeable character, so the notion of giving him even more power and control via a brain-to-computer hookup seems dangerous. And when this precariousness is played out within the plotline, the tale told is really terrifying. Sure, the computerized voice of Barnham can be incredibly pompous and irritating, but that's probably the point. And what he has to say complements the ideology of the show perfectly. With superb performances all around and a premise that mostly fulfills its promise, it's another reason to own this box set.
The final two shows, the last of Disc Three, Side One and the first and only of Disc Three, Side two indicate where the show's strengths, and constantly complained-about weaknesses, lie. "Premonition" uses the entire "unstuck" in time idea with Limits at least putting a fresh, provocative spin on it. Especially good are those times when we can see the tableaus of frozen time, where events try to catch up with the present. The duplicate cars and/or people in various pre-reassembling poses are very evocative. While the wife and child characters come dangerously close to cloying, the whole subject has a wonderful air of dread. "Probe," on the other hand, highlights another "monster of the week" (this time it's an overstuffed Horta-like microbe), but the being is given some interesting characteristics (it "subdivides" in one scene) that save it from becoming a glorified prop. The rest of the episode is a carefully constructed series of ever increasingly strange set pieces and special effects that tries to tell a story without resorting to "God-like voice from above" exposition. The characters here do make a hell of a lot of assumptions and grasp at whatever straws they can, but since we are never given hints at the true meaning behind events, everything has an uneasy oddness about it that really sells the otherworldly aspect of the show. And it signifies what The Outer Limits, The Original Series did best. It allowed acting and writing to suggest and interpret material rather than provide outright answers. Indeed, the fiends could look foolish and the motivations mangled, but in the end, it let a viewer's imagination supplement what was on screen. This made it a far more frightening, unsettling, and ultimately satisfying show.
MGM does a nice job with the transfers of these old episodes. Yes, there is occasional grain and some scratches, but more times than not the full screen monochrome image is crisp and crystal clear. Whenever you can notice flaws in makeup and intricate effects details, you know the image is spectacular. Seventeen episodes stretched out over three discs seems a little excessive, especially when they come in that irritating flip disc design, but there must be reasons and rationales for it. It's not for some manner of cleaned up sound. Sonically, the show's Mono mixes get a real overblown workout every once and a while and there is some noticeable distortion. And it's certainly not to include bonus material. Aside from a booklet, which describes the episodes and gives a basic plot sketch, MGM provides no other extra here. It's hard to imagine exactly what they could offer in addition. A commentary track by Ellison or Nimoy? Some filmography or cast materials? There has never really been a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show, so a featurette of such seems out of the question. Indeed, like many past television series, MGM seems content to get a fairly definitive version of the shows out onto the digital domain and be done with it. It's just a shame that the talent involved, or the creation of this groundbreaking sci-fi series, couldn't have been celebrated in some way. Still, with the two DVD box sets put out, MGM has gone a long way in making fans of The Outer Limits very happy.
As with most magical moments in media, just as it was starting to hit its stride, to become a consistent showcase of powerful science fiction, The Outer Limits met with that most dreaded of TV fates: cancellation. Speculation has it that a nation in mourning for its dead president just couldn't find time for a dopey show about space aliens and time travelers. Still others contend that the boob tube can only really maintain so many shows based in the fantastic or supernatural before one or more simply die out. They claim the appeal is niche, not broad based. But a better way to look at the decline and fall of The Outer Limits is that it raised more hard questions than it could ever easily answer. It asked us to envision futures filled with war and destruction, planets guarded by fierce beasts and alien invaders with evil on their minds. And then we had to wonder what if all of this was true? What if indeed we faced such a disaster or learned such life altering information? What would we do? How would we react? The Outer Limits, in Season Two, provoked such queries. And it got shut down for its ambiguous actions. But thanks to MGM and the DVD format, we can go back and reclaim those terrifying, tantalizing ideas and images for present day enjoyment and dissection. And who knows, maybe one day, like Keaton to Chaplin or Brian Wilson to the Beatles, The Outer Limits will be given its due along side Serling's more popular programming. So the next time a disembodied voice takes control of your television signal, just go with the flow and enjoy it. A trip to The Outer Limits is usually something special.
The Outer Limits, The Original Series: The Complete Second Season is hereby acquitted of all charges and is free to go. MGM is commended for doing what so few studios do and completing the run of this series on DVD for fans. But they are also found guilty of failing to provide any bonus material. Yet due to the age of the shows and availability of archival material, the sentence is suspended and the studio remanded to six months of probation.
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