In 1963, television was just plain dull for an eleven year old. Thriller, The Twilight Zone and The Alfred Hitchcock Show had earlier been deemed too adult, weird or scary for Savant ever since I'd had nightmares after seeing an episode of One Step Beyond. But at age eleven, just a few months before the Beatles crashed onto the scene, I heard promos with the Control Voice of Vic Perrin, and a sinister metallic signature noise, and even my parents knew they'd have to let me see this Outer Limits thing.
MGM is about to release the entire first season of The Outer Limits on DVD, in one box set containing 32 entire episodes on just four discs. That's eight episodes per disc, four per side, which immediately brought up some fears about how good the encoding would be. More on that below.
This first season of the show has a lot of the classic episodes - only fans of Harlan Ellison will be disappointed, as his Demon With a Glass Hand and Soldier are from the second season and are therefore not here. What we get is the brainchild of the very eccentric Leslie Stevens (he with the multi-star Daystar logo) and the very prolific Joseph Stefano, screenwriter of Psycho. Made with care and cast with some of the best actors of its day, The Outer Limits sometimes tended toward juvenile monster stories, but maintained a high level of intention and seriousness. The Control Voice was a sage voice of reason from some other dimension, commenting on the shortcomings of fallable humans when faced with the unknown. What the series most resembles is a classic pulp Science Fiction omnibus, with a higher-than-average number of good shows, and more than a handful of classics.
A few episodes, like Nightmare, noodled about like one-act plays, staged on blank sets swamped with fog machines to hide the fact that the money for the season had already been spent on other shows. But perhaps that disparity was needed to produce classics like The Architects of Fear and The Man Who Was Never Born. Some of these shows strayed in their low-key Val Lewtonish way into fantasy territory at the time untouched by big screen Sci Fi: complicated timewarp time travel stories, paranoid stories with a political edge.
Most of the episodes had a consistent look and feel of tension and noirish mystery. The production talent was topnotch: Robert H. Justman 1 was a unit manager on the show, and many episodes were shot by the incredibly creative Conrad Hall and his assistant, William A. Fraker. Hall balanced moody low-key interiors with wonderfully back-lit and filtered exterior shots that gave an ordinary woods a spectral quality. The special effects were, for their time, almost lavish, with optical magic and rubber monsters provided by Projects Unlimited. A young Jim Danforth created the disturbing insect monsters of The Zanti Misfits, creepy little buggers that scared the heck out of us. There's a basic craft to the show that makes the sometimes laughable visuals (tin-pot spacecraft, yet another plastic blob that glows) irrelevant: what's important are the stories, and the people.
Rather than go through the talented writers and directors individually, I'll list them with the shows as presented on the disc. I only watched about twelve of the episodes - it'll take me the better part of a year to get through them all.
1. The Galaxy Being
A scientist steals power from a radio station to help him contact an alien in the Andromeda Galaxy, who. being made of energy, is accidentally radio-ported to Earth.
2. The Hundred Days of the Dragon
Perfectly-disguised duplicates are used to take over the government.
3. The Architects of Fear
Pacifist scientists plan to scare humans into peaceful cooperation by faking an invader from Outer Space.
4. The Man with the Power
A scientist's invention gives his unconscious will terrible powers.
5. The Sixth Finger
An intelligence-boosting machine turns a laborer into a calculating braniac.
6. The Man Who Was Never Born
A mutant of a biologically destroyed future returns to kill the man who invented the killer virus.
An all seeing, all recording surveillance system threatens the world.
8. The Human Factor
'Crazed army majors' and a machine that creates phantoms ... this one I never saw!
9. Corpus Earthling
Because of a steel plate in his head, a scientist can hear two rocks talking - conspiring to conquer the Earth.
In a futuristic conflict with alien Ebonites, human soldiers becomes prisoners of war.
12. It Crawled Out of the Woodwork
A deadly energy creature looks like a harmless piece of vaccum lint.
12. The Borderland
Scientists attempt to create a connection to the spirit world through technology.
13. Tourist Attraction
In a banana republic, the dictator and a businessman both want to exploit a weird creature, whose amphibious friends have other ideas.
14. The Zanti Misfits
Aliens talk Earth into accepting and maintaining a prison for their lawbreakers.
15. The Mice
A convict volunteers to be beamed to a far away world in exchange for an alien prisoner, who will come here.
16. Controlled Experiment
Martians slow down, speed up and reverse time to study human behavior in this comedy episode.
17. Don't Open Till Doomsday
A woman trapped by an alien in the 1920s seeks a way out through a modern couple's curiosity.
A queen bee turns human, and enforces her desire for a married man with a hive of killer bees.
19. The Invisibles
A political conspiracy uses 'puppet master' - like aliens to control human beings.
20. The Bellero Shield
A scientist's ambitious wife tries to steal an impenetrable force field from an alien accidentally brought to Earth.
21. The Children of Spider County
Youth are offered the opportunity to live on an alien world.
22. Specimen: Unknown
Alien flowers invade a spaceship, and eventually threaten the Earth.
23. Second Chance
People on a carnival ride are transported into space.
A sphere found on the moon turns out to be a spaceship bearing fugitive aliens.
25. The Mutant
A colony on another planet is menaced by one of their own, who has mutated into a new state.
26. The Guests
A haunted house harbors an alien brain in the attic.
27. Fun and Games
Two humans are kidnapped to do arena battle on a far planet.
28. The Special One
A gifted child's 'special studies' are organized not by the government, but by an alien race with malevolent intentions.
29. A Feasibility Study
A group of Earthlings are kidnapped by aliens, who seek the answers to a few questions about our race.
30. Production and Decay of Strange Particles
An out of control reactor replaces workers with atomic monsters.
31. The Chameleon
An assassin charged with killing aliens, is made to look like one.
32. The Forms of Things Unknown
A scientist brings a murdered blackmailer back to life.
As you can see, the talent on display is pretty impressive. We've got Robert Towne writing for Robert Duvall, genre writers like David Duncan and Dean Riesner, and name directors like Byron Haskin, Gerd Oswald, Laslo Benedek, Robert Florey and John Brahm. Leslie Stevens, besides writing and directing the monster-oriented first episode, continued to do double duty on several more. Some of these are as abstract as narrative television ever got. Another, Controlled Experiment, was excruciatingly funny in 1963, yet now seems a bit drawn out. But almost all the directors had multiple assignments and turned in at least one winner. Everyone remembers Gerd Oswald and Byron Haskin, very consistent contributors, but the excellent The Man Who Was Never Born was directed by Leonard Horn, who remained ghettoized in TV except for the odd feature The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart. Horn's episode, along with a later Harlan Ellison, is often cited as the source of the concepts for the Terminator films.
Perhaps the most representative episode is Haskin and Dolinsky's The Architects of Fear, with its blend of monsters, liberalism and emotion. It became a major source concept (dutifully acknowledged, this time) in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel Watchmen.
MGM's massive full season DVD set of The Outer Limits is first a surprise, and second, a bargain. MGM put out several bulky boxed sets of laserdiscs, costing $100 apiece, each containing just eight episodes or so; at this price, the relative economy is obvious.
We're used to seeing full seasons of newer television shows on DVD, looking and sounding great. But nobody makes 32 episodes in one year anymore (with that workload, poor Mr. Stefano must have been on the verge of breakdown), and cramming them all into just four discs has pushed the outer limits of the volume of data that can be stored on a two sided, double-layered DVD. Of course, the shows are in B&W, which helps to pare down the number of bits needed to describe a pixel, but the compression here has resulted in a picture that's just barely good enough for a 26 inch television. On a large monitor, a lot of individual shots break down - a closeup will be sharp, and then a busier frame may look soft or slightly rough-edged. You can tell right from the start (on a large monitor) that all is not well, when the glowing blip of light in the titles has blocky edges instead of a smooth gradient. So don't lose the laserdiscs just yet - the more demanding among you may prefer the duller analog pictures to this DVD set. And the flaws I noticed may mean nothing to all but the most discerning viewer - and that's not me.
That said, the shows I saw were all intact, and played well, even the couple of misfires that come across like bad radio shows, like Corpus Earthling with its talking rocks. My player snagged and crashed several times trying to play The Man Who Was Never Born on side two of disc one, and couldn't get through it. This was hopefully a non-repeating incompatibility between this one disc and my one (very tolerant, usually) player.
Other thoughts: One has to use a magnifying glass to identify which side of what disc one is looking at - a tiny "A" and "B" on the rim seems to be the only way to figure out what's going to come up. It might have been best to abbreviate the animated menus for all but the first disc, as they become very repetitive.
Looking at the long list of titles, I can't help but feel that MGM would have done better splitting the season in half, with perhaps six episodes per disc instead of eight. This would have kept whiners like Savant happy, and surely wouldn't deter the must-buy public from snapping up what would still be a great bargain. A different configuration also have left room for possible extras, like the remarkably effective original ABC promos for the series. They made us think aliens had gotten into our tv sets - the static and strange sounds and moire line patterns are what a lot of us had to watch for television reception back then! MGM conducted a new interview with Joseph Stefano for the two DVDs of highlights from the "New" Outer Limits series, which should have made it easy to create something for the old series as well.
The fat two-chambered keep case includes a welcome episode guide that fleshes out the info above, and includes nice notations such as the actual air date of each show, and interesting trivia such as the fact that Specimen: Unknown, about Triffids-like space flowers invading earth, was the highest rated night of the first season.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Outer Limits: The Original Series Volume 1 rates:
1. Justman told me in 1997 that he suggested The Bradbury Building for Demon with a Glass Hand because he remembered it from
the Joseph Losey remake of M. Justman was an assistant director and production assistant on a
wide variety of Noirs in the late forties and early fifties. He then became a producer on the original
Star Trek series.