Thursday, December 20, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 43: The Outer Limits (1963): "The Architects of Fear"

"There is nothing wrong with your Internet Browser. Do not attempt to control the picture. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical..."

Okay, so that's not quite the introduction to the classic horror, science-fiction anthology series The Outer Limits, but it's close. The opening narration to the series (the voice of God termed "the control voice") also informed viewers that they were "invited to participate in a great adventure," one that stretches from "the inner mind" to "the outer limits."

This invitation to the dance for two amazing seasons proved utterly irresistible for many (and prominent series admirers include Stephen King). Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, in shades that can only be described adequately as luscious, The Outer Limits remains one of the most overtly cinematic television programs in terms of visual presentation. Darkness and light, shadow and white hot glare: these are as much critical players in the drama as are the great actors (a stellar cast that includes Cliff Robertson, Robert Culp, Martin Landau, Sally Kellerman and others) and the great storytelling. This is a series that understands the primary principle of film grammar: that how something is photographed is ultimately as important as the object itself. The form of The Outer Limits reflects its content: stark, moody, alternately grim and jarring. In the 1970s, some British television (I'm thinking of Space:1999 in particular), approached and sometimes achieved this level of cinematography, and The X-Files certainly boasted some fine achievements in that terrain. But I'll go out on a limb and say that The Outer Limits is the most dazzling and gorgeously photographed genre piece yet forged for television.

Which is an achievement, because the story-telling (overseen by producer Joseph Stefano) keeps pace with the visuals. The series is famous for its unforgettable "bears," the macabre and terrifying monsters it depicted week-in and week-out. Again, however, the real terror came in the storytelling and presentation of these monsters: stories so rife with suspense and shock that it's hard to believe this was actually TV fare.

Among the unforgettable monsters crafted by The Outer Limits are the Zanti Misfits (insectoid invaders from another world), the alien sand shark (battling Adam West!) of "The Invisible Enemy," and the creepy Venusian that menaced a young William Shatner in "Cold Hands, Warm Heart." But the suspense of "The Hundred Days of the Dragon," a terrifyingly plausible variant on "The Manchurian Candidate," or the claustrophobic, stomach-churning isolation and dread of "The Guests," or the inexplicable and utterly nightmarish surrealism of "Don't Open Till Doomsday" are the most significant reasons to praise and remember this series. This is one of those productions that - for me anyway - is transformative in the finest sense of that word.

Much in the same manner of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits episodes have evolved beyond the 1960s confines and contexts that gave birth to them. Once seen, these unforgettable episodes dwell in the mind and you can't forget them, escape them, or scrub them out. They are no longer merely remote dramas that you passively watch, but in some sense, impressionistic nightmares wired directly to the reptilian portion of your brain. You experience these shows...and the memory of that experience lingers. We've all felt like we've had a "twilight zone" moment, or stepped into the chaotic terrain of the Outer Limits, haven't we? These are the nightmares - scientific and personal - of 20th century America, and I suppose that's why they resonate so strongly and linger so powerfully in the brain. In terms of the anthology format, neither series has really been improved upon, that I can see. The black-and-white photography in both cases contributes some sense of "timelessness" that significantly enhances the creep factor.

"The Architects of Fear" is an early episode of The Outer Limits, and a prime example of the brawny imagination at work behind-the-scenes and the fearlessness (forgive the pun) of the narratives. The episode commences with a montage of pure panic and 20th century angst: the specter of a nuclear attack. Civilians dash about the streets of a bustling metropolis and a missile is seen streaking across the sky. A nuclear mushroom - the enduring and iconic image of terror during the Cold War Era - flashes on the screen suddenly.

"Is this the day?" The Control Voice asks. "Is this the beginning of the end?" The voice continues to meditate on the possibility (or probability?) of man's self destruction, noting that when the apocalypse of nuclear destruction arrives, there will be no time to ask "why." It's a terrifying and grim thought.

And that single thought is the terrifying place where a cabal of very intelligent, very learned men at "United Laboratories" dwell and obsess. They live in that moment, in that instant, in the terror of "what if" and so begin to hatch a misguided plan that they believe will insure the survival of the human race. This was the fourth "scare" about nuclear arms in recent weeks, and so these men, led by Professor Gainer, come to the conclusion that the nations of the Earth must "unite" against a common foe if man is to survive the nuclear age. And furthermore, that it is one of this brain trust who "must submit to the ordeal." As if in explanation of this remark, the camera focuses on something sitting near the good doctor. Beside Professor Gainer sits a chattering, monstrous thing in a box, a beast seen in shadows but heard squealing. It is not just a monster, it is the embodiment of the cabal's fear...calling them to a grotesque and horrible mistake. One that they will all regret..

The men at United Laboratories draw straws in a lottery and Allan Leighton is selected for the "ordeal." Here's the plan: over a few short weeks he will be transformed into a "perfect inhabitant of the planet Theta," an experiment the scientists have also completed on that poor, pitiable thing dwelling in the box. Every organ in Allan's body will be transformed. After a series of surgeries and hormone shots, the complete physiological transformation of a man will have taken place. Why? The earth needs a "common enemy," a "common foe," to unite against. The scientists believe that if Allan shows up at the U.N. Headquarters in New York an authentic extra-terrestial, this "Thetan" thing, the world will panic, frightened by their "scarecrow" and come together to fight the ills of the world. Uniting through terror. Sound familiar?

So these men of science, these respected men of great intelligence, set about concocting the greatest hoax in human history with Leighton as their willing guinea pig. Allan accepts his macabre fate in stride ("can't see how making a fuss is going to help...") but there are drawbacks, even besides his own transformation and eventual death. For one thing, Allan is hopelessly in love with his wife, Yvette (Geraldine Brooks). They have been trying for years to conceive a child and now - just moments after Allen takes the first hormone shot spurring his "Thetan" side - he learns that their problems are gone...that Yvette can (and is...) pregnant. Carrying his child. Suddenly, this symbolic act, this scarecrow-ing of the human race, doesn't seem that important to him. But he sticks with the plan, trying to believe in the mission.

What follows in "The Architects of Fear" is the story of a rational man who - like Brundefly in Cronenberg's remake of The Fly in 1986 - becomes a thing and faces the slow, steady dissipation of his humanity. Unlike that (great) film, here the physical transformation is suggested, not seen. The process is mostly hidden in shadows and hinted at via other cinematic tricks (the careful placement of objects in the forefront of the frame). As the humanity drains away from Allan, he explains what this process has done to him. He no longer possess a human mouth, so he is forced to speak through an electronic voice box, a visual symbol of his separation from his natural species. What Allan says says in this condition speaks to much about the human condition. The pain of the surgeries is gone now, he tells Gainer, and his mind is consumed with one thing: strange dreams of Yvette, the wife he had to leave behind. This is all that's left of Allan's humanity: this spark of love, this connection to another soul. It lingers in him, and nothing about the transformation can take it away.

Allan asks Gainer if their plan can work, and Gainer replies that "millions have soldiers have gone into wars of hate with worse odds." This is true, but Allan's very humanity is the thing that makes the mission fail. And the scientists never accounted for this factor in their equation. Once in space (and bound for a landing at the U.N.) some part of Allan's latent humanity calls to him and either consciously or subconsciously he changes course. He lands his ship not at the U.N. headquarters, but near the lab...near his Yvette. A group of hunters shoot this alien "Thetan" when they encounter it, and a wounded Allan ultimately dies in the arms of his wife. When the "monster" before her shows a familiar gesture, Yvette realizes that this thing - this monstrosity - is her husband. Allan's entire journey has been not about saving the world, but about holding onto his humanity; reconnecting with the wife (and unborn child) he was separated from.

Naturally, Yvette is disgusted with Gainer and the others. She believes that there is no honor in dying for a remote, ivory tower ideal. That such a death means nothing in terms of love and family. "Men like you...playing tricks," she says angrily. "A scarecrow would change everything!" she mocks them.

"The Architects of Fear" ends with the Control Voice acknowledging this mistake and furthermore adding that "scarecrows and magic and other fatal fears do not bring people together." On the contrary, suggests the narrator: a humble attitude, hard-work and sacrifice - like Allan's sacrifice - are the only things that make our world a better place in the end.

Today, we in the U.S. live in a culture of pervasive all-consuming fear. It is a culture in which fear (and anger...) is ramped up at every opportunity. It is a fear of the other, whether that "other" is of a different religion, a different political group, a different race or from a different country of origin. "The Architects of Fear" remains timely and so very vital because it suggests that there are no easy answers to conquering fear. Even a "scarecrow" (like "a war on terror?") can't unite us for long. What can unite us? E
ducation, understanding, compassion, decency....our core human values.. Things that are occasionally in short supply 'round these parts, whether on the wild, wild west of the Internet or in our public and national discourse.

In one sense, "The Architects of Fear" offers the tired old acorn of "egg head" scientists going off and doing something stupid; tampering in God's domain, as it were. But on the other hand, what the story truly and deeply concerns is the dissection of the human organism. Take away our ability to speak, replace our kidneys, transform our skin and replace it with green scales...and still the "human in us" (the soul?) calls out for the things that make human existence special. A wife. A child. A dream for a better tomorrow.

In real life, I don't know how many human beings have been turned into peg-legged Thetans, but I do know that across this globe of ours, "grotesque" mistakes like Allan's story occur every day. They happen under different names, but we might know them as Tuskegee, Chernobyl, or the War in Iraq. Horrors committed under idealistic banners. Atrocities committed as "good deeds," for ideals like liberty and freedom, for empty words like "progress" or under the bailiwick of science. Those ideals feel very, very empty when you a lose a father or a mother, a sister or a brother.

The Control Voice understood that in 1963.

I now return control of your Internet Browser to you. But seriously, watch The Outer Limits. It is available on DVD for purchase at the price of $34.99 -- the whole series! Believe me, that's a steal.


  1. joey_bishop_jr.3:41 AM

    John, John, John…..

    How about flying planes into buildings full of innocent people? Is that another example of a “horror committed under an ideal banner?”

    On one hand, I have to admit that while the scientist’s plan in this episode certainly seems foolish, they at least tried to DO something. I give them a lot more leeway than someone who saw Sept. 11th on TV and said “THAT’S IT! KILL ‘EM ALL”, then promptly went back into the trailer and had another 12 pack of Bud under the rebel flag, or someone who was too afraid or pacifistic to do anything at all, and felt that if we just didn’t respond and didn’t act, or tried to hug the problem away, the bad man would just go away.

    Secondly, there is a kernel of truth to what they were thinking. Every person on Earth wants to belong, and to be around others that they relate to. Whether the bond is race (for some misguided souls, that’s enough), religion, favorite sports team, or what have you, people like to be a part of a group. Conversely, anything or anyone seen as “other” will be, on one hand, held at least microscopically at bay from the group, to the other extreme treated with hostility. Just take a look at soccer riots as an example. A few swathes of different colors results in mass carnage, damage, and injuries.

    How do you think humanity really would react if something totally alien to what we think of as a life form arrived on Earth- and then began to act in a hostile fashion???

    Finally, I think the scientists did a pretty crappy job- how is humanity supposed to bond around a threat that Elmer Fudd can take out with no problem? That alien threat just don’t cut it in my book…….

  2. Hey Joey Bishop,

    I love your comment. You are totally right: September 11th is a horrible crime committed under the banner of a twisted ideal. Absolutely.

    And yes -- here comes my atheistic views (watch out) -- I believe religion (whether Islam or Christianity) is just a club that tells people which group they should belong to...and which group they should hate.

    I agree -- the scientists in The Outer Limits had good intentions. That's how the road to hell is paved. someone said once. Maybe they had the kernel of a good idea.

    But isn't it sad that the human race can only unite behind hate? That we need that "enemy" to push us to treat each other kindly?

    I think the scientists' flaw was that they didn't see the better example before them: Allan's love of family.

    I mean, if terrorists were forced to feel the pain of the families who lost loved ones on 9/11, would they ever kill again? If we were forced to feel the pain of Iraqi fathers who lost sons or daughters in a "surgical strike" on the wrong target, would we ever let our country wage war so blithely again?

    I don't know. I think "architects of fear" offers two examples, a good one and a bad one. One is about manipulating people for the cause of "right; One is about a person committing heart and soul to a cause, at great personal cost.

    I think Allan is very much a metaphor for our soldiers. He is heroic personally, even if the cause he serves is flawed.

    1. As a huge Outer Limits fan, I wish I hadn't searched for your thoughts on "Architects of Fear". Part of me knows to leave a six year old post alone.

      "I believe religion (whether Islam or Christianity) is just a club that tells people which group they should belong to...and which group they should hate."

      I was warned ("watch out"), but this is quite a generalization from someone usually more even-handed in his writings. And lumping religious irritants together doesn't make the statement any less provocative (but it may lessen the scolding a bit).

      At first blush, this shows a healthy amount of contempt for those with a viewpoint different than your own. Let me explain. I personally consider the universe to be too remarkable to be the product of an accident. Simple as that. My choice to believe in the Christian God is about as close as I can get to a remotely possible explanation for things. It's a choice I've made and I don't know that I've harmed anyone by deciding to believe such silliness.

      My own experience also makes your quote appear untrue. I have been a member of Lutheran churches, different synods, some rural, some urban, for all of my 49-years. In that time, I have never been told or encouraged to hate anyone by any of these congregations. Maybe I picked the wrong places to be indoctrinated. I almost feel like I'm missing out.

      And as far as the human race only uniting behind's tough to get friends to agree on where to go for lunch much less rally the population behind the implied world peace.

      But, this was six years ago and maybe you were just in a bad mood.

    2. Whitsbrain,

      Hopefully, in the intervening years since I wrote that broad comment, I have become less of an asshole.

      It is wrong to paint all religions with one brush, and all people with one brush. Yes, I do believe religion is the reason for a lot of hatred in our world, but there's no doubt that others have used it as a source of inspiration and love.

      Whether we agree on religion or not, we should try to be respectful of each other's beliefs.

      I don't know who told you to "watch out" or why, but for many years now, I have tried to treat those of differing opinions with respect, unless they are disrespectful of me or other readers first, and don't leave their names on their comments. If they are jerks, and don't have the courage to stand by their jerkiness with a real name, I will go at 'em.


    3. John,

      The "watch out" was me just quoting your warning earlier in the same paragraph.

      I really hesitated and almost didn't post this last night. I seriously considered letting it go because again, it's been six years. I've been so impressed with your blogging and I didn't want to take a chance on spoiling the fun of seeing what cool things you may write about next (your X-Files work was awesome).

      Contrary to my username, I'm not any smarter than the next guy. However, it's getting damned near impossible to find entertainment outlets that aren't nonstop boob, dick and fart jokes, much less as smart and thought-provoking as this blog is. Or maybe I'm just turning into an old "you kids get off my lawn!" guy.

      I also believe that religion is a cause for much hatred in the world, but so is being a Yankees fan. A large percentage of people in the world are borderline psychotic, and that would be the case whether religion existed or not. We're all animals, we've just got opposable thumbs and a higher grade of brain.

      I'm glad you responded and it was a great response.

      Whit Beehler
      (potential jerk)

    4. Hi Whit,

      I'm glad you posted, and I'm glad you wrote about this subject. I appreciate the nice things you said about the blog, and I endeavor to make them true, but I am still learning. I have had my roadblocks and stumbles along the way, but I think I'm moving in the right direction.

      You're not a jerk at all, and I should have specified: I just like giving it back to "anonymous" posters (not ones with handles, like yours...but the anonymous folks who are drive-by commenters, usually, and ones with an agenda, so I don't hold back...). You have never fallen under that category.

      I liked your comment about Yankee fans. Also, I'd apply that to Trek fans, Star Wars fans, atheists, and so on. You are exactly right! It's too simplistic to blame religion alone for the problems in the world, and I shouldn't have been so broad or thoughtless in my remarks.

      Bottom line: yep, I'm still learning.


  3. All this talk about 9/11 has reminded me of a great article published on New Year's Eve, 2004:

    Fighting fate post-9/11

    Counter terror era with condoms and mass acts of non-cooperation


    As we enter oh-five, what can Canadians do to ensure that the second half-decade of the new millennium isn't as dire as the first? For starters, let's agree to stay out of the leap-of-faith Olympics now underway south of the 49th parallel. Instead, we'll start up some doubt-based groups. We'll get together on Sundays and doubt that promoting abstinence is the best response to an AIDS pandemic that kills millions every year in the Third World. We'll wear giveaway rubbers around our necks, and our motto will be "The only way to save a soul is to save a life."

    Perhaps we can find a way to extend honorary in-utero privileges to the children of Iraq and Darfur so that anti-abortionists can shift their placards from health clinics to the Pentagon. And remember, you don't have to be evil to do evil. Love ruins devils. In my father's house are many Mansons.

    As for George Bush, it's true that, as he said on his recent visit to Ottawa, the U.S. is our friend "whether we like it or not." But what kind of friend should we be in return?

    I suggest we allow liquor ads to be our guide. Let's be the buddy who refuses to give the sore drunk his next shot of poison. Let's be the tough-love ami who tries to take away the keys to the tank. Even if that means, as my friend Al advises, Canada out of NORAD. After all, mass non-cooperation is the new-clear weapon on earth as it is in space.

    Anyway, as my friend Laurie opined, "Surrender is futile." Giving in to U.S. pressures only makes things worse. But then she went one better. Resistance, she offered, is utile. I'm going to remember that, no matter what happens in 2005.

    Another warning: beware the wolf in shepherd's clothing. Good leadership is currently a rarity. So be sure your spiritual teacher, mentor, boss or priest is not preying on you. Do a thorough background check on your local coach. Don't let doctors wound or sicken you. Try to shake the spin nausea. It only hurls us centrifugally to the extremes. It only poll-arizes the polls in this bi-polar world.

    Which brings me to localism. It is not impossible in an integrated world economy to fruitfully maintain here-ism. Buy local. Live local. Remember, if the world were a cube, globalism would be cubism. Let's re-localize even our own judgments – form our own opinions on movies, rock bands, news events. Forgo the usual mediums – listen closely. If god really wanted to speak to you, wouldn't she do so directly?

    And let's stop saying "post-9/11." There's never been a post-9/11 world because we've never succeeded in putting 9/11 properly into the past with other catastrophes. The calendar has been stuck – kind of like in the movie Groundhog Day, except instead of trying to win the heart of Andie MacDowell, the U.S. is courting Armageddon and getting closer and closer to it. With Bush's re-election, the possibility of a real post-9/11 world retreats even further into the future. We're caught up in the loop of errorism. The record is skipping. It's emergency time. Orange alert. We keep dialing 911, but there's no one there to answer the phone.

    But 9/11 must end, and hopefully not because it's blotted out by an even larger, more disastrous date. Instead, let's counter the terror era with re-couraging: mass acts of bravery by the public. Strikes like the one in Ukraine, boycotts like those in Alabama under Martin Luther King Jr., campaigns like the one that won a judicial inquiry into the killing of Dudley George.

    Somehow, 9/11 must find midnight so we can move on to the next significant date – perhaps something so positive we'll refer to it ever afterwards as the "miraculous events of 2/29"! Our mottoes will be "I'll save your life if you save mine." And "We're bigger than all of us."


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