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The Architects of Fear

an episode of the original Outer Limits

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We have met the enemy and he is us

  • Feb 27, 2011

One of my all-time favorite episodes and one of the best "monsters" ever created for the show (although the jelly-creature was pretty awe-inspiring also).

If you look at the picture, it's pretty obvious that we are far from forehead modification territory.

In fact, if you check out the montage of screen captures below, it's obvious that a lot went into this particular creature, a fully developed being from another world, who's anatomy, biochemistry and perhaps technology are entirely different from our own. Or are they?

My apologies that some of the shots are too dark or too small to make out the fully awesome details. A quick recap: the first image is of the 'test creature' - which only appears as a shadow on the wall. Obvious from this shadow is the unearthly nature of the being.

This is followed by two head shots; after which are three shots of limbs (second row). The first is the creature's shadow, showing a basic body plan.

The third row has two pictures showing the entire creature - with breathing apparatus and this sequence details the creature's hopping, two-to three limbed gait. The third image is a detail of its foot.

Finally, in the last row we see the hands and arms (reaching for the actress) and then the face with hand and finger detail in the two final shots.

The eyes in the mask move - eyelids even flutter at several points, and the 'cheeks' can be seen to pulse slightly from time to time. This was not a static mask that appeared in only a couple of glancing shots.

But enough of the awesome creature work. Such discussion belongs within the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland (which I note happily has resumed online publication).

Except to say that I wonder if, given the plot of this episode, the producers, directors & etc., didn't decide that they really needed to up the ante.

The story concept is a tired oldie - one that we see played out constantly in our everyday lives. Tired and old does not mean Not Relevant. This story is, probably in more ways than you can imagine. But I'm going to fill that part in, so it's ok.

The story concerns a group of concerned scientists wrestling with the question of how to get the genies back into Pandora's box. In this case the Djinn are nuclear weapons. The opening dialogue refers to a fourth mishap "since the thermonuclear age began". Our concerned scientists think they have found a solution - fear.

We quickly learn that the strategy is to use all of the latest scientific techniques to turn one of their number (randomly selected) into a creature from another world, one who will visit the UN and let the entire world know that there are things outside the planet that we must all fear. Naturally, this external threat will make the entire world unite to defend itself, afterall, we all now have something in common.

The experiment works far better than anyone ever expected. Robert Culp (newly married in this episode) puts on a fantastic performance as the determined scientist cum guinea pig who must fake his own death and cut himself off from his humanity (as represented by his deeply caring and emotional wife) in order to become the alien creature.

Unfortunately, Culp's space capsule goes a little astray and instead of landing in front of the UN building in NYC, he ends up landing in a swamp where some good ol' boys just happen to be hunting.

Now here is where I have my only issue with this episode. In the original, fear of the external threat achieves the effect desired by the scientists: the three hunters unite in blowing shotguns holes in the body of our alien visitor.

I think that the message, which is (to belabor the obvious) that using fear to control your populace can have unintended consequences even when it works exactly the way you wanted it to, would have been a much stronger take-away if the episode had ended at this point.

But it doesn't; Culp manages to drag his injured alien body back to the laboratories where he was created. Serendipitously, his wife happens to be there also (collecting some mementos) and Culp the monster manages to communicate with her long enough to get the idea across that this horrible thing in front of her is actually her husband.

Which of course she knew all along (which concept is conveyed to us via seeing her react emotionally to what is happening to Robert - even though he is far away and, so far as she knows, is dead).

Despite my criticism of the drawn-out ending, this is still one of the best episodes of the Outer Limits ever aired. When you see that shadow creature on the wall for the first time, accompanied by the weird sounds it makes, you know you're in for a ride that's going to be a little less tame than Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

The concept - fear as the uniter, motivator, political tool - couldn't be more apt for our current times. Sometimes this makes me wish for more indiscriminate hunters with shotguns. Like maybe a few should have been accompanying Peter Watts during his recent border crossing.

(We often refer to security theater these days, and we laugh uncomfortably and commiserate with others who are forced to jump through meaningless, ridiculous and often demeaning if not humiliating hoops. I wonder though if this isn't a mistake, as we are aiding and abetting, in some small way, the story of fear that has been promulgated and which drives these actions. The Outer Limits episode demonstrates quite clearly that the use of fear is a blunt weapon and the results of using it are far from a known quantity.)

On a lighter note: this episode is the genesis of my fantasy desire to stage a special effects "invasion" of some small town out in the middle of nowhere. Given today's technology, it shouldn't be too hard to fake - spoof the local airport's radars, fake a landing, have some friends in great costumes run around making alien noises. Great fun, cool headlines, endless payback as we watch the conspiracy theorists spin it up.

Fun to think about. Until you remember the shotguns.

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Steve Davidson ()
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