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You are about to experience the awe and mystery that reaches from the blogosophere to The Crotchety Old Fan Retro Reviews!
Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as the original one delivered by the Control Voice, does it?
But that doesn’t stop me from really enjoying the ability to re-watch one of my favorite of-all-time television shows, the original Outer Limits.
Once I managed to get a hold of a complete set of all of the episodes, I decided that it would be instructive to re-watch them in broadcast presentation order – that is, the pilot and first episode first, the second episode second and so on. Not ever having been able to do so when the show was originally broadcast, this would be new for me. It would also keep me from simply concentrating on favorite episodes (actually, those episodes that seem to get picked all the time by the folks who do the re-runs) and might help me get enough distance to be able to evaluate them with something of an open mind (kinda tuff when you have all the original collector cards, comic books and audio tracks of the intro, not to mention being able to recite the entire original* Control Voice intro from memory).
The reviews were to begin over a week ago, but due to illness, I’ve been unable to concentrate or devote myself to them. Fortunately, I don’t need to go on the cart (I’m not dead yet and no one is sneaking up behind me with a club) as I’m all better now. We’ll begin with the first episode to be broadcast, which was also the pilot for the series.
But first, a brief aside.
Sometimes I feel that going back over things that I consider to be classic (valuable, enjoyable, cutting edge, creative, ground-breaking) is a futile exercise. I know that many of my contemporaries will probably enjoy at least some aspects of the nostalgia trip, but what I really hope to do is entice some of the younger fans to check these things out with an open mind. I fear that there are many obstacles to that desire, many of which are beyond my (perhaps anyone’s) ability to get past.
In re-watching these episodes, I’ve noticed that there are several elements that are required in order to truly appreciate them, and I fear that some, if not all of those elements are simply not present in the set of media-receiving skills inherent in more recently decanted generations. And I’m afraid that developing those skills is something that’s just too boring, unrewarding and perhaps unnecessary in the face of today’s computer-aided technologies.
There are three specific things I refer to: the skilled use of black and white photography (light and shadow and their interplay), the use of visual metaphor and the ability to pick up on visual cues for relying on internal imaginative powers.
I’ll address these (briefly) one at a time: if all you have experience with is color-saturated television and movies, it’s no surprise that you find B&W flat and boring. You’ve not had an opportunity to learn how shadings and shadow, focus, point sources, and lighting intensity are used. Considering that the masters of B&W techniques only had TWO colors to work with, and that the really good ones managed to transmit as much (or nearly as much) information to the viewer as current film does with an unlimited palette, it should come as no surprise that the viewer has to work a little harder to receive all of that tightly compacted data. Having grown up with the language, such work comes as second nature – so much so that it is actually possible to “guess” what the real color of things are based on their shade – a skill that would be entirely lost to a modern day viewer.
And that’s the simple part. More complicated are things like mood-setting (light and airy = fun, or safe, or happy; dark and obscured = scary, or ominous), character definition (splitting someones face into half lighted/half-shadowed, or intensifying the light around their eyes, darkening their brow can foreshadow the kind of character they are going to be). People, places and things all get defined, foreshadowed, accentuated by the manner in which they are lighted – or not lighted, by how long they remain in the light or by the manner in which they pass into shadow (a quick transition into darkness can foreshadow a bad ending, a slow and pleasant fade into darkness a peaceful one).
If you have no experience in how to read these cues, an entire layer of meaning will be lost to you.
Similarly, visual metaphor seems to have become a lost art on television (if not in film). For example, in one up-coming episode (The Man With The Power), Donald Pleasance plays a school teacher who dreams of being a more important man; his wife (a shrew) has no respect for him and shows it. When Donald finally becomes a member of the staff of the big space research project he was seeking, he proudly rushes home to tell his wife – who doesn’t believe him. This relationship is revealed through the dialogue, but what cements it, makes it stronger and does so in an emotional, rather than an intellectual way, is the visual metaphor presented while the conversation is taking place. Donald’s wife is trimming the hedges with a large pair of shears. With every verbal cut she delivers, the camera focuses on her hard, forceful cutting of the shrub. As she delivers her final, disparaging line, completely destroying Donald’s ego, the camera focuses in on one final branch sticking up above the hedge as it is mercilessly chopped off.
Verbally and visually, Donald’s wife is cutting him back to size, making sure that his ambition doesn’t carry him above the rest of the shrubs, denying him the additional sunlight he needs. Donald must conform, must remain like the shrub which is only “beautiful” when it is nice and even.
Again, picking up on these kinds of cues, which were developed to help the visual story teller pack more meaning into the time frame allowed, is an art not easily taught. Today’s shows seldom resort to such (or perhaps they’ve morphed into a form unrecognizable to me, which in reverse pretty much amounts to the same thing). An inability to pick up on the information contained within them robs the story of yet another layer of meaning.
Finally, cueing the viewer to contribute their own imaginative powers. What does the thing on the other side of the door look like? What could possibly be making that sound? Why is everyone looking away in horror?
Today, film and television show us – because they can (and also, I believe, because directors have a desire to stick their own monsters into our heads because that makes it easier to sell toys).
Maybe it’s me, but the monsters in my head – the unnamed fears and terrors that we all carry with us – are far more terrifying than anything anyone could possibly create. This is because they remain formless, the raw stuff of our basest emotions and instincts.
Imagination made people run into the streets with shotguns on Halloween eve back in 1938 when Orson Welles produced his infamous broadcast – and he hadn’t set out to intentionally cause panic. About the closest we’ve come in modern times to achieving that same effect can be found in the film Cloverfield where the audience is never given a clear image of the monster.
Now it is true that quite often, early television anthology shows (that featured the bizarre and alien) often resorted to the “shadow” trick because they simply didn’t have the budget to put a convincing other up on the screen, but in most respects this is not true of The Outer Limits. The show was fairly well budgeted and in the very episode I’m covering here, the technical expertise of the SFX folks is on full display. The creature effect was created through the clever use of film negatives superimposed over a normal image. Some may say that in light of today’s technology the Galaxy Being is a bit hokey, leaves something to be desired, but I still see that creature through much younger eyes and its first appearance still gives me the creepy-crawlies.
Regardless, the point here is that cueing the viewer to engage their imaginative powers was a regular technique, achieved through dialogue, facial expression, camera angle and more. The viewer was subtly told ‘now it is time for you to fill in the blanks’, and we all happily did so (often discussing what it really looked like the next day at school or around the water cooler).
Without the language necessary to pick up on such cues, the modern viewer is treated to an exercise similar to reading a Mad Libs piece without being allowed to fill in the blanks. You get the story outline, but the adjectives have been rendered colorless.
Any new viewer is therefore facing three distinct and difficult hurdles before ever even having a chance to evaluate story, characterization, acting or any of the other elements. I strongly urge new viewers to take such into consideration before dismissing any of the older, classic materials. Perhaps in doing so you’ll give yourselves some new tools which should greatly enhance your enjoyment – not only of the classics but of newer materials as well.
That brief aside now concluded, I turn your attention to the fact that I’ve included a full program listing for all of the episodes at the end of the review.
The Galaxy Being
Cliff Robertson plays the owner of a radio station who’s side hobby is radio astronomy. Following a lot of fiddling with transistors and boosting his home-built (tape-driven) computerized inter-galactic communication device with a powerful transmitter, he has succeeded in making contact with an alien intelligence, one that inhabits a fourth dimension, a being of energy rather than matter.
Here’s the problem though: Cliff is obsessed and his obsession is threatening both his marriage and the family-owned business. He’s abandoned the things that are really important, like his wife and the radio station which has become so successful that he’s due for a Chamber of Commerce award as businessman of the year.
Cliff has been stealing power from the station for his hobby and the reduction of his broadcast footprint is making the advertisers unhappy. And his wife just wants some face time.
Poor Cliff – right when things start getting really interesting (like becoming the first human being to communicate with an alien intelligence) everyone around him is wasting his time on mundanity!
The alien – unlike most from this era – actually seems pretty benevolent. Both the Galaxy Being and Cliff have something in common – neither is supposed to be using their equipment for extra-galactic communication purposes; this extra little bit of tension motivates their desire to keep things on the down-low and helps convince us all that their conversations are going to remain on the intellectual side of things, such as when they discuss the concept of death – something which is not in the alien’s experience.
Cliff’s wife is not about to let him destroy himself with some hare-brained hobby and she finally convinces him that he needs to attend the award dinner – which Cliff does reluctantly.
And this is when things begin to go wrong (stupid monkies!); a relief DJ, brought in to run the station so that Cliff’s brother (who normally fills that role) can attend the dinner as well, is carefully instructed NOT to mess with the station’s power usage (half the power is being used to maintain the connection to the Galaxy Being). Mr. Knowitall is naturally tempted by the possibility of broadcasting his voice all the way up into Canada and he carelessly turns the power dial all the way up to the max.
The boosted power pulls the Galaxy Being out of his dimension and into ours. But Cliff can’t do anything to stop or contain it because – he’s too busy making his wife happy at the award dinner.
The Galaxy Being is naturally curious and (apparently) easily frightened. It is also (unfortunately) armed with the ability to melt and disintegrate things simply by looking at them. It’s casual investigatory walk through downtown where-ever scares a lot of people, destroys some stuff and causes the national guard to be turned out. (They were a lot more readily available during the 50′s and 60′s due to that red scare thingie.)
Cliff finally manages to get a handle on the situation, prevents a mutual slaughter through quick-thinking diplomacy, the Galaxy Being fixes up Cliff’s wife (accidentally shot by the NG) and the Galaxy Being altruistically fades from existence in order to prevent any further problems.
The control voice closes by informing us that fear is not a useful tool for investigating the wonders of the universe.
Though not one of my favorites, The Galaxy Being does keep me interested and engaged and is not a bad story. The acting and special effects are pretty darned good, though there is one bit of hokiness that I quite enjoyed – Cliff’s initial conversation with the Being: he explains that he’s speaking in English and points to a star map (Sol-oriented naturally) saying “I am here, where are you?”. This is an obvious gloss over the fact that it would take hours – if not months or years – to work through the translation issues. (Maybe Cliff is just a heck of a lot smarter – and his computer a lot more advanced – than I give him credit for.)
The message is a fairly common one – but what I found most interesting was that the plot didn’t actually match the message. The story in fact is about a guy who gets in trouble twice because he allows himself to be dissuaded from his passions: first he abandons his wife and business in favor of the hobby (when he was obviously good and successful at both: Abandoning them may cost him both of them) and then he allows himself to be persuaded to abandon his hobby – with disastrous and near-deadly consequences.
I’m not so sure though that the television audience of the early 60′s would have bought into a message that essentially says – favor your passions and ignore the mundane – but I do know that it is a message that is universally appealing to SF fans.
Until next time….
(*it was after the third or fourth episode that the familiar and final version of the Control Voice intro was settled on. Prior to that, the intro included additional lines, such as “we can roll the picture, or cause it to flutter”. And for those of you who’ve always had cable and satellite TV at their disposal – yes, stations did broadcast that test pattern and yes, you had little knobs on your TV sets that could cause the picture to do everything that the Control Voice does.)Season 1
1. 16 Sep 63 The Galaxy Being Leslie Stevens (Cliff Robertson)
2. 23 Sep 63 The Hundred Days of the Dragon Robert Mintz
& Alan Balter
3. 30 Sep 63 The Architects of Fear Meyer Dolinsky (Robert
4. 7 Oct 63 The Man With the Power Jerome Ross (Donald
5. 14 Oct 63 The Sixth Finger Ellis St. Joseph (David McCallum)
6. 28 Oct 63 The Man Who Was Never Born Anthony Lawrence
7. 4 Nov 63 O.B.I.T. Meyer Dolinsky
8. 11 Nov 63 The Human Factor David Duncan (Harry Guardino)
9. 18 Nov 63 Corpus Earthling Orin Borstein, story by Louis
Charbonneau (Robert Culp)
10. 2 Dec 63 Nightmare Joseph Stefano (Martin Sheen)
11. 9 Dec 63 It Crawled Out of the Woodwork Joseph Stefano
12. 16 Dec 63 The Borderland Leslie Stevens
13. 23 Dec 63 Tourist Attraction Dean Riesner
14. 30 Dec 63 The Zanti Misfits Joseph Stefano (Bruce Dern)
15. 6 Jan 64 The Mice Bill S Ballinger story by Lou Morheim
16. 13 Jan 64 Controlled Experiment Leslie Stevens (Carroll
O’Connor: Stevens as computer voice)
17. 20 Jan 64 Don’t Open Till Doomsday Joseph Stefano
18. 27 Jan 64 ZZZZZ Meyer Dolinsky (Marsha Hunt)
19. 3 Feb 64 The Invisibles Joseph Stefano (Walter Burke:
Richard Dawson: Don Gordon)
20. 10 Feb 64 The Bellero Shield Joseph Stefano, Lou Morheim,
Arthur Leo Zagat (Martin Landau, Sally Kellerman)
21. 17 Feb 64 The Children of Spider County Anthony Lawrence
22. 24 Feb 64 Specimen: Unknown Stephen Lord
23. 2 Mar 64 Second Chance Lou Morheim story by Sonya Roberts
24. 9 Mar 64 Moonstone William Bast, Lou Morheim, Joseph
25. 16 Mar 64 The Mutant Alan Balter, Robert Mintz, Jerome
26. 23 Mar 64 The Guests Donald B Sanford story by Charles
27. 30 Mar 64 Fun and Games Robert Specht, Joseph Stefano
28. 6 Apr 64 The Special One Oliver Crawford
29. 13 Apr 64 A Feasibility Study Joseph Stefano (Joyce
30. 20 Apr 64 The Production and Decay of Strange Particles
Leslie Stevens (Leonard Nimoy)
31. 27 Apr 64 The Chameleon Joseph Stefano, Robert Towne,
Lou Morheim (Robert Duvall)
32. 4 May 64 The Forms of Things Unknown Joseph Stefano
What did you think of this review?