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Outer Limits: Season One, The
Despite their obvious differences, it's virtually impossible to talk about Leslie Stevens' The Outer Limits (1963-65) without bringing up Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone. Both shows aired during the same era -- even simultaneously, for a short time -- with strong roots in science fiction and horror, generating all kinds of nightmare fuel for viewers of all ages. The Outer Limits, however, placed a stronger emphasis on sci-fi over fantasy, rarely if ever relying on any sort of twist ending while making sure to introduce a memorable monster during each hour-long episode. But while its considerably longer running time often led to more complex and layered storytelling, this also resulted in a great deal of filler: it's probably The Outer Limits' most obvious Achilles' heel, and one that keeps me from placing on a higher pedestal.
It's also worth mentioning that I wasn't alive during The Outer Limits' original run: though I was brought up with classic Star Trek and The Twilight Zone via reruns and homemade VHS collections, this one largely escaped me as a kid so I can't give it the rose-colored nostalgia bump. Yet it's a testament to The Outer Limits' creative strengths and pop culture staying power that I still largely enjoyed this first-season run despite my inexperience and such an obvious generation gap: often expertly balancing strong concepts with irresistible drama and clever special effects, it's made from a potent mixture that usually works fine. Considering that most installments of this anthology show were assembled in a week or so (and some on an extremely tight budget), this first-season run of 32 episodes maintains a solid batting average -- or at least stronger than The Outer Limits' second and final season, which is only half as long.
Even those largely unfamiliar with each and every episode contained on Kino's new seven-disc, 32-episode collection of the series' first season should instantly recognize a few familiar faces. Its unforgettable pilot episode "The Galaxy Being" (a radio station employee accidentally contacts an alien being, who travels to Earth during a power surge), though obviously borrowing from The Day the Earth Stood Still, sets a fairly high bar right out of the gate. Both "The Architects of Fear" (scientist Allen Leighton is transformed into an alien being to divert a potential nuclear war between nations) and "The Sixth Finger" (an intelligent but unhappy miner receives the "gift" of accelerated evolution and threatens to overtake the town), also early standouts, offer an appealing mixture of compelling questions and memorable characters.
Then of course, there's more left-field but alluring installments like "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork" (a nightmarish energy being overtakes a physics research center after being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner), "The Zanti Misfits" (disturbing ant-like beings from a faraway planet land in a military-controlled area, but are unintentionally released by bank robbers on the run), and "The Bellero Shield" (a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, in which a visiting alien comes into conflict with a scientist and his paranoid wife). Less-remembered outings like "The Children of Spider County" (a diverse group of geniuses, who have all recently disappeared, are traced back to identical origins in the same rural area) and "The Guests" (an unassuming young drifter investigates a mysterious mansion, eventually discovering that a powerful being holds prisoners there) stand tall as solid episodes similarly rooted in humanity.
Not surprisingly, these aren't all winners. "Tourist Attraction", "The Mutant", "Specimen: Unknown", "The Special One", and "The Production and Decay of Strange Particles" are all silly, dull, or both -- and if I'm being perfectly honest, even the best episodes have trouble maintaining a strong focus from start to finish. The aforementioned filler, perhaps an unavoidable byproduct of the series' hour-long format, sticks out like a sore thumb at times: whether you're a seasoned fan or seeing some of these episodes for the first time, a number of side-stories and setups can't help but cripple the momentum of otherwise streamlined material. Yet the bulk of these episodes, despite some of their obvious pacing issues, remain compelling and effective through their fusion of memorable characters, strong music, and creative special effects, not to mention those trademark monsters (or "bears", a nickname coined by producer Joseph Stefano) that likely lingered in the minds of impressionable young viewers for years, if not decades.
Die-hard disciples and curious newcomers alike should enjoy the efforts of Kino Lorber, who have licensed The Outer Limits from MGM for this highly anticipated Blu-ray collection of the first season's 32 episodes (a follow-up collection of the final 17 is all but guaranteed at this point). The obvious draw here is a fantastic restoration job that easily beats earlier home video editions -- such as MGM's own DVD collections from about 15 years ago -- which all used the same worn-out masters, upping the ante with lossless audio and a deep collection of all-new audio commentaries for two-thirds of the included episodes. It's a great time to be a fan of The Outer Limits...or even become one, if you're late to the party.
Presented in their original TV-friendly 1.33:1 aspect ratios, it's obvious that all 32 episodes of this first season have been restored with extreme care -- without question, they look great and are obviously miles ahead of existing DVD releases. Image detail is razor-sharp more often than not, offering a strong amount of depth and texture during close-ups (and, in some cases, revealing obvious seams in the make-up or costumes). Black levels and contrast are also consistent, as is the overall cleanliness of the image: aside from a few extremely rare cases of print damage, I couldn't spot any persistent dirt or debris at all. Not surprisingly, this makes stray moments of stock footage fare worse in direct comparison, but that's an unavoidable problem. Overall, Kino's Blu-ray presentation is simply one of the finest-looking treatments of a classic TV series in recent memory, nearly standing alongside the likes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Twilight Zone. For that alone, die-hard fans should consider this set worth owning.
Not to be outdone are the crisp DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio mixes (split mono), which sound extremely clean for a series well over the 50-year mark. Dialogue, music, and effects are all balanced well and don't fight for attention, with outstanding fidelity and even a modest amount of depth on occasion. The only slight problem areas are likely source material issues, including a somewhat harsh high end on several of the music cues -- but it's certainly expected within the boundaries of classic television. In any case, these are great-sounding mixes and, while likely to be overshadowed by the visuals, offers just as much improvement over previous home video editions. Optional English subtitles are included during the episodes, although there are numerous grammatical errors and proper nouns are rarely (if ever) capitalized.
Not much effort here -- just plain-wrap static menus, looping theme music from the series, and a bulky, outdated packaging format. This seven-disc release arrives in a fold-out digipak case with overlapping hubs, made with rather flimsy material that extends to the matching outer slipcase (at least there's disc art, unlike most Kino Blu-rays). Perhaps the only eye-catching aspect of this packaging is the 40-page square bound Booklet that's tucked inside: it features a lengthy essay and episode write-ups by David J. Schow, bios for the commentators, and a nice assortment of behind-the-scenes photos. The only thing left out is a disc-by-disc breakdown of episode names, included above for your convenience.
As hinted at in the episode list provided above, the main attraction here is a collection of 23 new Audio Commentaries during most of the included 32 first-season episodes, which adds up to nearly 20 hours of behind-the-scenes information from a variety of participants -- I obviously didn't listen to all of these, but sampled quite a few when viewing their respective episodes. Featured speakers here include David J. Schow (author of The Outer Limits Companion and The Outer Limits at 50), Tim Lucas (film historian, author, and founder of Video Watchdog), Gary Gerani (screenwriter and author of Fantastic Television), Dr. Reba Wissner (author of We Will Control All You Hear: The Outer Limits and the Aural Imagination), Craig Beam (blogger for My Life in the Glow of The Outer Limits), Steve Mitchell (DVD producer, commentator, and film director), and Michael Hyatt (noted film historian and preservationist).
These new audio commentaries were typically recorded solo, but at least two of them feature more than one participant -- and from what I heard, there's no shortage of information and very few lapses into silence. Topics of interest include guest appearances, cameos and bit parts, bios and other career notes about the cast and crew, fun trivia, sociopolitical context for the time period, makeup and special effects, the show's influence on pop culture, personal memories, and a lot more. These are well worth watching for die-hard fans and newcomers alike and, in many cases, are slightly more entertaining than the actual episodes. While the lack of more traditional behind-the-scenes featurettes, documentaries, and interviews is definitely a bit disappointing, for sheer volume it's difficult to complain here. (Bear in mind that previous editions of The Outer Limits, all the way from laserdisc to DVD, included no extras at all.)
The Outer Limits isn't anywhere near my favorite brand of classic sci-fi television, but it's impossible to ignore the show's unique contributions, strong influence, and sheer pop culture durability -- less than 50 hour-long episodes originally aired during a short 18-month window, yet here we are celebrating their resurrection more than five decades later. Ignoring my lukewarm opinion of many episodes, though, Kino's Blu-ray treatment of The Outer Limits is objectively great: featuring top-tier restoration work that rivals classic Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, substantially improved audio mixes, and nearly two dozen audio commentaries from enthusiastic participants, this is an absolutely essential purchase for die-hard fans that should easily impress casual viewers and newcomers as well. Highly Recommended.