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.