Although the episode-to-episode anthology series is something that’s more or less gone away in recent years, they were all the rage back in the day. What better way to mount science fiction, horror, suspense, and even action shorts than in a weekly television series with big name guest stars? The heyday for these was the 1960s, at which time shows like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents offered some damn fine morality plays.
But one of my favorites of that era—a show that doesn’t get nearly as much respect as it deserves—is the 1963-’65 series The Outer Limits, which had only the remit to make 50 minutes of compelling science fiction once a week. It didn’t always succeed, but when it did, damn, it was impressive.
The series, created by Leslie Stevens, put forth some disturbing, thought provoking, and intelligent sci-fi ideas by writers like Joseph Stefano and Harlan Ellison, along with gorgeous creature effects, brilliant direction by people like Byron Haskin and Gerd Oswald, and photography by people like future multi-Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall.
If you’ve never seen the original The Outer Limits (which was revived in 1995 and ran on various cable networks and/or in syndication until 2002), here are seven episodes that are essential viewing. First, let’s let the Control Voice bring you in…
And now, seven of the best Outer Limits episodes you could possibly want to watch.
7) “Nightmare” by Joseph Stefano, dir. John Erman
As with a lot of great sci-fi TV of the era, you have to look beyond the occasionally laughable effects of black & white television in order to get something truly wonderful. “Nightmare,” the tenth episode of the first season, is one of these cases. A unified Earth army prepares for war against the planet Ebon which attacked with nuclear weapons completely unprovoked. An eclectic scouting mission is sent off but is intercepted by the enemy.
Each solider is subjected to physical and psychological interrogation methods in an attempt to make them spill secrets. Things get worse when the Ebonites reveal that one of their numbers has already talked… and what is that high-ranking Earth official doing in the observation room? This episode beautifully explores problems of the day like the Red Scare and Cold War spying, and tosses in some harrowing torture scenes. Good stuff.
6) “I, Robot” by Robert C. Dennis (based on the story by Eando Binder), dir. Leon Benson
This episode was based on the very short story found in Amazing Stories magazine that went on to inspire Isaac Asimov to write his renowned book. The episode not exactly the action romp that the like-titled 2004 Will Smith film turned out to be, but it does offer deep ideas on the nature of what makes something “human.” A robot named Adam Link is put on trial for having murdered his creator. A retired defense attorney has to come back in order to prove that Adam was simply learning, the way a child does, and didn’t know his own strength. Are machines capable of being remorseful, or of bettering themselves? Still a pertinent topic today.
5) “The Bollero Shield” by Joseph Stefano and Lou Morheim, dir. John Brahm
This is an episode entirely about greed, lust for power, and guilt. Martin Landau plays a meek scientist who has invented a powerful laser weapon amid constant belittling from his father, played by Neil Hamilton from Batman. The scientist’s wife, played by Sally Kellerman, is constantly needling her husband behind the scenes to make him stand up for himself, as a means to get more respect and power of her own.
One night, following a test of the laser, a benevolent alien creature arrives to observe the new technology. Landau’s wife attempts to shoot it, causing the being to put up a powerful invisible shield. As the alien and scientist discuss matters of the mind, the wife character begins plotting to destroy the creature and take the shield technology for herself. Many have called this episode The Outer Limits version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
4) “The Sixth Finger” by Ellis St. Joseph, dir. James Gladstone
Another early episode with indelible imagery (the featured image too), this story explores what happens when we force humanity to evolve faster than nature had intended. In the North of England, a scientist is working on a method to increase intelligence. He’s already done wonders with a gorilla who is now his lab assistant. He wants a human test, though, and so turns to a miner (David McCallum): a man who is kind and works hard, but is very slow.
The experiment works marvelously, making him far more intelligent, and thirsty for more knowledge. But when he wants to continue into the future of mankind’s mental progression, he turns into a being with frightening telekinetic powers, and an even more frightening disregard for human life. Terrific thematic implications… just don’t pay attention to the machine that literally says “forward” and “backward” on the controls.
3) “The Zanti Misfits” by Joseph Stefano, dir. Leonard Horn
The creatures in this episode are among the handful of most recognizable from the history of the show. And they’re creepy as hell, too. Emissaries from the planet Zanti have contacted Earth and say it’s the “perfect place” to house some of their less desirable criminals. The U.S. government has cordoned off a ghost town called Morgue in the California desert to be the prison, but as the ship approaches, a fleeing bank robber and his girlfriend happen upon the site and interfere. The prisoners take control of the ship and begin to attack, revealing them to be rat-sized, ant-like insectoids with grotesquely human faces. Destroying them might lead to war with Zanti, but what can the humans do?
2) “The Architects of Fear” by Meyer Dolinsky, dir. Byron Haskin
I didn’t realize this until compiling this list, but my top two favorite episodes of the series both star Robert Culp. The first of his appearances on The Outer Limits, this being the third episode of the show itself, is about the lengths to which one will go to ensure peace. Culp is a high-ranking official with a loving wife who is part of a secret panel to decide how to prevent the imminent nuclear holocaust from a Cold War (the “who” and “when” are not specified, but come on).
It’s hit upon that the people of Earth need a common enemy and it’s decided an alien invasion should do the trick. Culp draws the short straw and submits to being surgically transformed into a monstrous alien creature for the staged invasion, foregoing his life and spouse in the process, all for the greater good. This is one of the inspirations for Alan Moore’s Watchmen.
1) “Demon with a Glass Hand” by Harlan Ellison, dir. Byron Haskin
Everything about this episode is awesome, from the mysterious, oblique narrative to the creepy-ass filming in L.A.’s Bradbury Building. If you’ve ever read any of Ellison’s short stories (and you should), this has all of the hallmarks. Robert Culp plays a man with no memory of who he is or what he’s doing, and who has a left hand made of glass that is also a computer that can talk to him.
The hand tells him he’s from the future, there to stop an invasion by alien infiltrators, but it can’t tell him more than that. The three middle fingers on the hand are missing and it needs all of them to be able to give him more information. He meets a woman who works in the Bradbury Building while hiding out there; the two have to keep out of sight of the Kyber aliens from the future, and destroy them before they destroy humanity. I don’t want to say too much more about this episode, because you should definitely go watch it immediately.
All episodes of The Outer Limits are available to watch on Hulu right now. It’s a show that’s deeply rewarding and a whole lot of fun. Start with the above seven if you want a good crash course, and then tell me your favorites in the comments below!
Images: ABC/United Artist Television
Kyle Anderson is a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com and a massive fan of old sci-fi television. Talk to him about it on Twitter!