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 City...as 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? Education, 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.