The anthology series was a staple of the early days of television. Rather than a connected story and set of characters, it was a way to produce a different drama for an hour or so once a week. Nowadays, that format is largely gone and when they do pop up, it’s almost always with horror/sci-fi/fantasy stories. This was almost certainly due to the success and acclaim of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone which ran from 1959 to 1964. While that series was in production at CBS, the other networks tried their hand at the scary and mysterious. ABC’s answer was The Outer Limits, and while it was never as popular, I think in its own way, it was better than The Twilight Zone.
Now I would never be so foolish as to say The Twilight Zone wasn’t great television, nor that The Outer Limits‘ 49 episodes were better across the board than the 156 made for Twilight; however, The Twilight Zone formula, while groundbreaking, was always safe. That series looked like other black and white, studio-lot series of the time, and each episode featured an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation, always with a twist ending. The Outer Limits was never that formulaic, and with a much less ample budget, it led to some visually and mentally disturbing images you’d never get anywhere else. After watching/rewatching the first season thanks to Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray set, it’s clear that The Outer Limits wasn’t always perfect, but it was never safe.
The Outer Limits was created by Leslie Stevens, a self-identifying “hack writer” who had written, produced, and directed several TV shows prior to 1963. Unlike The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limitstold stories about people who were anything but regular and their situations were truly singular. Rather than a mix of supernatural or fantastical plots, The Outer Limits stayed very heavily in the science fiction realm, but quickly moved into Gothic Science Fiction, i.e. sci-fi stories that used the trappings of Gothic horror to create unease and scares. It was incredibly effective.
After the first several episodes were commissioned and shot, Stevens, weary from dealing with the network, handed the show’s day-to-day production and operations to Joseph Stefano, the writer of the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Stefano himself would write 14 episodes of The Outer Limits and would oversee the entire first season. Stevens and Stefano created much of the narrative archetypes for the series, and this was complemented by the visual prowess of directors like Gerd Oswald and Byron Haskin, and directors of photography Conrad L. Hall and Kenneth Peach. They brought German expressionist lighting, canted angles, and strange lenses which created the series’ sense of gloomy terror.
The stories in the series always had smart and disturbing sci-fi premises, but what made The Outer Limits stand out is that the episodes weren’t about the premise, but instead about how the characters dealt with that premise, realistically, so the terror felt real. In the episode “Corpus Earthling,” frequent guest star Robert Culp plays a man who can “hear” alien space rocks in his mind, and they eventually kill and take over the bodies of the dead. It could be a silly prospect, but Culp’s sweaty, wide-eyed performance and Oswald’s direction lead us toward terror. The following episode, “Nightmare,” has astronauts caught in an alien POW camp, and while the aliens are impressive, the harrowing, gut-wrenching performances by Martin Sheen and others make it thoroughly believable.
In the case of many of the best Outer Limits episodes, there was a basis in reality and real events. The Cold War, or a Cold War, seemed ever present; the show premiered with the Bay of Pigs failure and the Cuban Missile Crisis still on the public consciousness, and John F. Kennedy’s assassination a mere two months away. It was an incredibly turbulent time in America, and it would only get more tumultuous. The entire first season of The Outer Limits reflected the paranoia and the fear of alien (read “foreign”) infiltration.
In Culp’s first episode, the utter classic “The Architects of Fear,” he’s part of a think tank that seeks to unite humanity in a war against a common, alien menace…that they create at the loss of Culp’s own humanity; “The Zanti Misfits” finds a small military outpost terrified at warning issued by an alien government that they are to allow their “undesirables” to remain on Earth, unmolested. Fear quickly takes hold and a battle takes place; Both “O.B.I.T.” and “The Invisibles” feature aliens insinuating themselves or their influence on powerful Americans; and in “The Bellero Shield,” a benevolent alien appears before a meek scientist (Martin Landau) wishing to spread knowledge, but his devious wife (Sally Kellerman) and her even more devious maid (Chita Rivera) want Landau to steal the technology and take the credit for himself, with disastrous results.
But The Outer Limits wasn’t always political; in fact, some of the best and perhaps most underrated episodes gave us out-and-out horror, cosmic and otherwise. Donald S. Sandford–a veteran writer of the Boris Karloff horror anthology Thriller–penned the episode “The Guests,” in which a leather jacketed ruffian happens upon a spooky old house, in which people are taken out of time by an alien being who resides in one of the bedrooms. The episode (directed by Paul Stanley) becomes a surrealist nightmare as the young man learns how labyrinthine the house can be. Both this and the oft-derided, cheapie episode “Production and Decay of Strange Particles” veer into nigh Lovecraftian territory.
Another wonderful example is the season’s finale, “The Forms of Things Unknown,” written by Stefano and directed by Oswald. The plot involves two women who kill a blackmailer. Driving through the countryside with the body in the trunk, looking for a good place to bury him, they take refuge from a storm in a house containing a blind man and a strange young inventor who is experimenting with time. Unlike the traditional “time travel” devices, this one is intended to “tilt the cycles of time” and bring the dead back to life…which is what happens to the murdered blackmailer. Never before has the idea of time travel, and the person doing the traveling, been so upsetting.
And ultimately that’s why I think The Outer Limits is better than The Twilight Zone; it was lightning in a bottle. Its first season had lows (“The Mutant” is very stupid, certainly) but it also had amazing highs and was consistently good for the majority of its 32 episodes. The second season–which saw the departure of Stefano and Hall–has a couple of good episodes, and the masterpiece of Harlan Ellison’s “Demon with a Glass Hand,” but it was marred by being run by a network suit. But when the Stefano-era episodes hit, and even sometimes when they didn’t, they stuck with you, and influenced sci-fi and horror writers and filmmakers for decades to come.
There are a lot of things like The Twilight Zone; there’s nothing quite like The Outer Limits.
The Outer Limits season 1 is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber on March 27, featuring brilliant critical commentary by the likes of David J. Schow, Tim Lucas, Reba Wissner, Craig Beam, Gary Gerani, Michael Hyatt, and Steve Mitchell, and is compulsory for fans of anthology horror and science fiction storytelling.
Images: Villa di Stefano/Kino Lorber