Monday, January 4, 2010

The Outer Limits

One of the gifts I received from my wife this Christmas was a DVD set comprising all 49 episodes of the 1963-1965 sci-fi anthology series, The Outer Limits. I'm obviously too young to have seen this show in its first run, but I saw it in reruns during the 1970s and really enjoyed it. Perhaps "enjoyed" isn't the right word, because, as I recall, a great many of the episodes frightened me as a child. Despite (or because of) that, I watched as much of the series in reruns as I could, which of course meant that I'd probably missed more than a few of them. Having the whole series on DVD is thus a godsend for me, a chance to fill in my knowledge of early sci-fi TV.

I've been watching an episode every day or so and, even nearly 50 years on, it's obvious what drew me to it as a child. Unlike The Twilight Zone -- another great series -- episodes of The Outer Limits weren't generally morality plays or parables. Instead, they're more conventional horror-tinged science fiction. What really sets them apart, though, is their dark and cynical undertones. More often than not, it is human beings, not extraterrestrials, even antagonistic ones, who are the real enemies. The Outer Limits paints a very gloomy picture of human nature, yet does so with such flair that, rather than finding it depressing, I find it now, as I did as a child, eerily captivating. I know that most episodes will end badly for the protagonists before I even begin to watch them; what intrigues is just how it will all go wrong -- which human vice will bring about ruin and damnation.

It's also fascinating to see the the cast of actors who appeared on the series who eventually went on to bigger things. There's Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Cliff Robertson, Ed Asner, Carrol O'Connor, Dabney Coleman, Adam West, Donald Pleasance, and of course William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and James Doohan. Seeing all these actors from my childhood as younger people is strangely exciting for me, a reminder that the world did not begin at my birth. An equally important reminder is that science fiction was once a vibrant enough genre to spawn anthology series on network television -- and rather philosophical ones at that.

The Outer Limits
isn't an action-adventure series and its special effects, while frequently compelling, aren't its main draw. It's the stories and the acting that carry this series and I've been enjoying my getting re-acquainted with it over the last few weeks. Some of the episodes I remembered as a kid are still just as creepy today as they were then, some moreso in fact. Others don't hold up as well, but I appreciated being able to see them again nonetheless. The Outer Limits was a great TV series not just for its time but for all time and this collection of DVDs is certainly one of my favorite gifts in recent years.

10 comments:

  1. The Outer Limits features some of Harlan Ellison's earliest TV work, "Soldier" (a clear forerunner of the first Terminator film) and "Demon With a Glass Hand." "Demon" doesn't hold up well today, but back in the day it was often held up as one of the best episodes of the series.

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  2. I still love 'Demon...', but 'Nightmare' is perhaps my favourite of the series.

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  3. http://www.tv.com/video/20818/Nightmare?o=tv&tag=content_wrap;episode_header

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  4. It's interesting that you say that the stories aren't morality tales, yet observe that the protagonists are often brought low by their own vices. Isn't that still a morality tale in disguise?

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  5. Your wife is a wonderful person. I love that series, along with TZ. The one that sticks with me featured Martin Landau as a man from the future in which Earth has suffered atomic devastation. He travels back into the past to prevent the birth of the man who caused/will cause the catastrophe, but in the process pays a great price. Marvelous stuff.

    The modern incarnations of both series, while presenting some individually good episodes, never hung together as a whole the way OL and TZ did back then. Maybe that's one of those golden ages that can never be recaptured.

    Hmmm... I should go look for this set at Amazon....

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  6. Every time I see an episode of this or TZ I am amazed at how much more the original Star Trek feels like one of those shows than it does any of its modern versions. All of those shows really had the feel of a sci fi short story collection. Even though Star Trek had the same characters every week, it still had a very distinct "what happened last week doesn't matter" feel to it.

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  7. It's interesting that you say that the stories aren't morality tales, yet observe that the protagonists are often brought low by their own vices. Isn't that still a morality tale in disguise?

    I suppose it depends on what you mean by a "morality play." When I use the term, I mean that it's an allegorical story intended to teach a lesson to the viewer. Most episodes of The Outer Limits strike me as more like tragedies than morality plays.

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  8. Of course, there are some episodes of the series, such as The Special One which are remarkably optimistic about humanity and its relation to temptation and self-destruction. It was a wonderful, complex, nuanced series, with seriously thoughtful stories.

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  9. It was a strange moment for me when I realized that The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone were really more science-fiction than the younger science-fiction TV series I watched.

    And, yes, Star Trek was the science-fiction The Fugitive, combining anthology with ever-present elements. Watching it with my son is making me want to get those older shows next.

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  10. Oh man, that eerie theme song "oooeeeeeooooo-ooo"

    "We now return control of your (shitty black and white 11 inch screen) television to you"

    For sure one of the shows that set me up for being a Sci Fi fantasy geek in later life. And way better than Twilight Zone - cause you got an hour instead of a half!

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