By Tony Williams.
The Outer Limits now has a justifiable reputation as one of the great achievements of American science fiction television. However, while this reputation derives from the first season, the second season, apart from a few exceptions, failed to continue the promise of the first and this led to cancellation following a limited number of 17 episodes. Several factors contributed to this dilemma. Although nominally associated with Daystar Productions whose leading lights were Leslie Stevens (1924-1998) and Joseph Stefano (1922-2006), by the time Season Two began both these creative individuals had little to do with production decisions so the winning combination of Stefano, cinematographer Conrad Hal (1926-2003) , and Gerd Oswald (1919-1989) responsible for many fine Season One episodes no longer existed. While individual talents remained for the second season such as Oswald and Byron Haskin (1899-1984), they confronted poorly conceived teleplays that would not have survived scrutiny under the previous regime. Due to dissension between other Daystar personnel such as composer Dominic Frontiere who left the series and ABC, those who took over discovered that Daystar left them no prepared material for the new season. Several DVD audio-commentaries lament these facts. Last, but not least, was the role of Ben Brady (1908-2003) as producer. A former lawyer with mainstream television experience on Have Gun, Will Travel and Perry Mason, he lacked the creativity of his predecessors. He accepted teleplays that promoted mundane aspects of formula television rather than following innovative directions of the first season.1 Having no understanding of science fiction, Brady preferred police procedural formulas of average television series. He thus became The Outer Limits version of Sergeant Joe Friday of Dragnet preferring “just the facts” (or formula) rather than developing his predecessors’ exploration of new fantasy television.
As opposed to Season One, this season is mostly a huge disappointment. This DVD set reveals why the series became cancelled in addition to reduced budgets and ABC Television’s hesitation over a second season. By making changes and alienating the original creative team, they literally “killed the goose that laid the golden eggs.” Sadly, as opposed to Season One, many audio-commentaries do not exhibit the necessary critical quality to celebrate the season’s achievements. Several repeat the same information revealing the need for better sub-editing on the part of Kino Lorber to avoid tedious duplication.
David M. Schow’s commentary on “Soldier,” one of the best episodes in the entire series written by Harlan Ellison, contains valuable evidence about the original source story as well as information that other commentators will repeatedly mention, namely that series creator Leslie Stevens declined to participate in this season despite the fact that Daystar Offices were on the lot. Like Craig Beam, Schow mentions that “Soldier” actually followed the released second episode in the original production schedule but became the first one broadcast because executives recognized that they had to begin with a quality episode rather than a disappointing one. Although lacking the successful creative trio of the first season, “Soldier” gained from having the new talent of Harlan Ellison (1934-2018) combined with Oswald to counterpoint the mediocre presence of Bradley. Unfortunately, Schow’s commentary tends to be on the “chatty side” with some attention given to visual elements.
“Cold Hands, Warm Heart” has little in its favor having telling comparisons to Season One episodes such as “The Galaxy Being” and “The Architects of Fear”. While recognizing the versatile talent of William Shatner at this stage in his career, Beam engages in too much Shatner bashing rather than analyzing the visual aspects of each scene. Valuable though a reference to Leslie Stevens’ Incubus (1965) is (as a quasi- Outer Limits film starring Shatner with dialogue in Esperanto) it distracts from a teleplay that already has major flaws.
“Behold Ek!” is Reba Wissner’s first of two audio-commentaries on this DVD. Like others, she notes script problems on this episode due to the production’s new regime but meanders rather than critically develop her expertise on cue music and the use of the Theremin in this episode. Her “Expanding Human” commentary is much worse. Aware of the fact that director Gerd Oswald hated the script, she tends to ignore his use of visual style and concentrate on redundant television biographies of certain actors. Maybe she could have mentioned the previous film work of Skip Homeier (1913-2017) and Keith Andes (1920-2005) for viewers who have no knowledge of this. But repeating the entire story of R.L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with distracting excursions into Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, Timothy Leary, CIA experiments into drugs, etc., reveals once again her preference for “everything including the kitchen sink” that also flaws several other commentaries.
Ellison’s acclaimed “Demon with a Glass Hand” begins the second DVD and this time an episode gets the commentary it really deserves. Beam plays close attention to visuals with only a minor, less distracting, detour into the original teleplays. He also supplies valuable background information such as the first image using stock footage from The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) revealing a Times Square location shot through the window of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) before it moves to a studio shot whose lighting evokes American “German expressionism at its finest.” Directed by Byron Haskin and shot by Kenneth Peach (1903-1988), Trent’s introduction evokes the “amnesiac” theme of film noirs such as Spellbound (1945) and Somewhere in the Night (1946) with further noir connections such as Trent’s glass hand performing a type of voice-over familiar from classical film noir. Later, Ellison referred to the episode as “one of the last of the film noirs” and an earlier version ended the teleplay with a poignant voice –over delivered by Trent (Robert Culp).
Beam discusses the more elaborate first version of Ellison’s teleplay involving a North by Northwest (1959) type chase across Los Angeles. Beam also notes that the idea of shooting in the Bradley Building, familiar to viewers from classical noirs such as D.O.A. (1948) and M (1951), as well as tech-noirs such as Blade Runner (1982), came from production manager Robert H. Justman (1926-2008) and not Ellison himself since he took Ellison on a location tour of Los Angeles for potential sites. This very much evokes the creative collaboration that occurred on Season One but in this case, it was a rarity. Originally, Ellison conceived Consuelo (Arlene Martel) as a mature Hispanic women engaged in a daily struggle for existence after requesting in vain to the studio that the character be a black female. However, although changes occurred, Martel does play the role like a Hispanic female despite her European association.
“Cry of Silence” is the first episode having two audio-commentaries. Gary Gerani regards it as one of the better episodes in this season noting, like Reba Wissner, associations with Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows (1907), the episode involving key themes of “reaching out” and trying to achieve a sense of community between alien and humans. Directed by Charles Haas and photographed by Peach in a less flamboyant style than episodes characterizing the earlier season, Gerani sees executive demands for less avant-garde cinematography due to earlier mixed ratings benefitting this production. Believing in style matching content, Gerani suggests that it actually benefits the narrative in depicting more identifiable characters necessary for a story in which there are no heroes or villains leaving little room for the type of quirky acting style of the series’ most identifiable actor Robert Culp. Wissner’s commentary again explores the musical structure of this episode as well as summarizing the original screenplay “Mind over Matter”. She also notes that it contains the smallest cast of the entire series having only three performers, Eddie Albert, June Havoc, and Arthur Hunnicutt but also emphasizes the role of composer Harry Lubin (1906-1977) who employs the Theremin more than Frontiere did in the first series. Lubin was more traditional than the progressive Frontiere in his scoring but had used the Theremin Miklos Rozsa employed in The Lost Weekend (1945) and Spellbound (1945) earlier in scoring the supernatural series One Step Beyond (1959-1961),
Though Shatner does not appear in “The Invisible Enemy”, Beam cannot exercise constraint to refrain from one derogatory reference. Director Haskin regarded the teleplay as “bad beyond reason” and spent some twenty-eight hours re-writing it so the final product would resemble a “fair mediocre” standard. Though completed as the third episode, its impoverished nature resulted in it being the seventh screened, the delay caused by long post-production surgery. By this time, studio executives requested prologues rather than the teasers of the first season determined to make episodes fit their standards of television conformity. This is one of the minor episodes of this series.
“Wolf 359” and “I, Robot” belong to the least memorable episodes of Season Two accompanied by disappointing audio-commentaries. For the second, Schow chronicles the origins of the Adam Link robot narratives written by Otto Binder as well as noting the usual lack of budget and adequate shooting time contributing to its slow moving narrative and Perry Mason type courtroom drama favored by Ben Brady. Schow mentions that Justman felt the series was better in Stefano’s day. Although listing previous roles can be tedious, Schow does not mention the significance of Howard DaSilva (1909-1986) playing the robot’s defense lawyer. Both he and Sam Wanamaker (1919-1993), who appeared in a Season One episode, underwent blacklisting with 1963 seeing DaSilva’s return to the small screen after appearing in an episode of The Defenders two years after Wanamaker also appeared on that show. In view of Cold War influences on this series, this feature deserved some mention.
By contrast, “The Inheritors” two-part episode benefits from the collaborative focused commentary by Gary Gerani and Steve Mitchell. Although affected by constraints, this manages to be one of the most interesting accomplishment of the Brady regime due to an accidental creative collaboration of several talents rising above Season Two mediocrity as well the exceptional acting of Robert Duvall (1931- ), Steve Ihnat (1934-1982), and supporting cast. James Goldstone (1931-1999) had directed the first season’s The Sixth Finger and would go on to direct Star Trek’s “Where No Man has Gone Before.” (1966). Seeleg Lester (1913-2004), a Perry Mason veteran, and his collaborators managed to write a plausible episode perhaps influenced by rare positive Cold war science fiction films such as The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) and It Came from Outer Space (1953). Overall, it fits into the mainstream type of science fiction preferred by studio executives as well as Brady’s police procedural, mystery-detective formula. However, these parts manage to transcend formulaic limitations by becoming one of the most humanistic episodes of the season defying expectations and undermining Cold War premises in many ways due to the serious acting performances within this episode. Government scientific agent (read FBI) Ballard investigates the presence of a mysterious force naturally viewed with suspicion in the contemporary climate of fear. “The Inheritors” begins on a battlefield that is Vietnam in all but name with the American military actively involved in combat well before its official presence in that country. Executives did not realize the subversiveness of this episode opening in a war situation revealing the worst activity of humanity with a suspicious government agency automatically thinking negatively of incidents it cannot understand. Due to the rushed schedule and limited time for a completed teleplay, it is unlikely that individual talents were aware of the significance of this episode but they all intuitively sensed that they were working on an important story with sensitivity influencing its narrative structure unlike the other season episodes. Duvall plays a character very much foreshadowing Frank Davis of Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1973) who begins with a certain set of preconceptions then changes them once he realizes the real significances of events. He recovers his own suppressed humanity by accepting the challenge of making a rational unprejudiced decision based on what he has comprehended. As commentators note, Duvall is an actor who thinks before the camera. It reveals Ballard trying to understand what really is going on rather than shooting first and asking questions later. His antagonist Lt. Minns reveals a rare combination of potential threat and sympathy revealing that Ihnat could transcend the villainous type of roles he usually played and portray a character unique for that television era.
By contrast, “Keeper of the Purple Twilight” represents one of the lowest depths of Season Two, its monsters and mundane narrative representing what executives had in mind when they approved another season. In his audio-commentaries on “The Duplicate Man” and “Premonition”, Tim Lucas notes a possible New Wave visual influence citing relevant parallels such as Last Year in Marienbad (1961) and Alphaville (1965) at a time when American cinema was engaging in its own form of experimentation such as Mickey One (1965). In addition to his usual meticulous brand of background research with actors and production circumstances, Lucas is critically alert to nuances in Oswald’s direction. These comprise frequent lack of eye contact between the couple played by Ron Randell (1918-2005) and Constance Towers (1933- ) symbolizing the current alienated state of their relationship along with film noir overtones and an alien who may be more victim that victimizer. Lucas suggests that this episode is the “ground zero” for later artificial intelligence treatments with its humanitarian ethical agenda. It sympathizes more with the creation whose awareness of his own mortality increases during its programmed short life span. Lucas also suggests that executive interference on this episode (and throughout the second reason) resulted in impoverishment of Oswald’s later work. He was a director who contributed immensely to this series only to see his creativity hindered by the new regime.
Reba Wissner’s “Counterweight” commentary again supplies too much repetitive information that adds to the tedium of watching a slow-moving episode. However, in examining the role of the female scientist played by Jacqueline Scott (1932- ), Wissner suggests that Lubin’s music score acts in the manner of an aural male gaze dominating the female while referring to contemporary feminist texts such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). The last remaining episodes have no audio-commentaries.
By the end of re-viewing this series, it becomes obvious that the Stevens and Stefano influence on the first season resulted in its acclaim that endures today. Apart from the two Ellison teleplays, none of the other second season episodes matched the creativity and narrative subversiveness of the first. The final two features on the last disk support this. During his 64-minute interview, Joseph Stefano proves himself a veritable mine of information. Although Leslie Stevens favored the science fiction elements, Stefano expresses his fascination with the Gothic thriller format especially one exploring the dark side of human nature resulting in “mystery, magic, and majesty.” He expressly describes historical influences on the series such as the Cold War and The Kennedy Assassination (especially Season One’s “The Hundred Days of the Dragon”) in a world of CIA/FBI paranoia concerning the unfamiliar. The “monsters” (or “bears”) were no Cold War symbolic depictions of the Soviet Union but often more human than actual humans were. Even unseen aliens in “The Xanti Misfits” exhibit these features. They send their misfits to Earth for execution since human beings are the only species in the universe who can execute their own kind. An anti-capitalist punishment subtext appears and Stefano insists that the production team “understood completely what the film was all about.” His comments reinforce the idea of multiple authorship, one affirmed by surviving panelists at the 2003 Museum of Television and Radio William S. Paley Reunion. Justman, script-editor Lou Morheim, Hall, Martin Landau, and Joseph Stefano speak mainly about the first season. For them, it was an “Outer Limits of Creativity”. They mourn an era where special effects have priority over character depiction but believe that similar success could occur on low-budgets rather than expensive costs. These two final features contain significant information about a brief period of creativity in 60s mainstream television that could repeat itself today if the dead-hand of executive sterility disappears, like Qarlo’s pursuing military nemesis in “Soldier”, from harming future achievements and potential for development rather than mere industrial recycling.
- In his informative article on television science fiction, Brain Stableford notes that the vast majority of most shows “never attracted audiences big enough to carry them through to the end of their opening seasons; those which did were usually faced with more restricted budgets the second time around.” (p.323). This affected Season Two of The Outer Limits. See “The Third Generation of Genre Science Fiction”. Science Fiction Studies 23 (1996): 321-330.
- See http://filmint.nu/?p=24217.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies, Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film International.