Thursday, January 07, 2021

The Outer Limits: "Fun and Games"

Originally published in Astounding Magazine in June of 1944 Fredric Brown’s short story “Arena” has since become a staple of science fiction television, re-purposed -- and sometimes without attribution -- for many diverse series.  

The story has been featured on The Outer Limits as "Fun and Games," on Star Trek (1966-1969) as "Arena," on Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) as "The Rules of Luton," on Blake’s 7 (1978-1981) as "Duel" on  Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) as "Buck's Duel to the Death," and later, on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) as "The Last Outpost."

Brown’s influential story revolves around a space war between Earth Man and “intelligent spider” aliens called "Outsiders.”  

During one combat engagement, a human pilot, Carson is beamed from the cockpit of his one-man “scouter,” and transported to the narrative’s titular arena: a planet of blue-colored sand and strange, talking lizards. There, an omnipotent alien explains to Carlson that the cosmic conflict won't be settled between the stars, but in this very ring.  The human will fight an Outsider -- a round, tentacled organism -- to the death.

Should Carson lose this brutal contest, mankind will be wiped out of existence. Contrarily, if Carson prevails in the match, the human race inherits the universe and the Outsiders shall be destroyed.  

In the end, Carson vanquishes his alien nemesis without any significant reservations, committing an act of violence that is a “moral imperative” according to the tale's author.

Written during World War II, Brown’s vignette determinedly suggested an alternative to the horrors of the times.  What if a war could be settled by two individuals -- trained warriors from each side -- rather than by the vast technological and personnel mobilization of nation-states

Wouldn’t that solution be better, more reasonable, and a far less messy way to wage war?

Across the decades, the “Arena” story template was been modified dramatically, and Brown’s Darwinian “survival of the fittest” message has frequently been overturned in favor of 1960s anti-war philosophy.   

For instance, in Star Trek’s famous “Arena,” adapted by Gene Coon, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and a Gorn commander -- like Carson and the Outsider -- are transported to a neutral planet for one-on-one combat, while omnipotent aliens known as Metrons wait to declare a victor, and destroy the loser’s ship.  

But in this iteration -- and unlike his literary antecedent -- Kirk defies the God-like aliens and refuses to kill his opposite number. The focus of this optimistic TV story is on not fighting in the first place, rather than winning or losing in person-to-person combat.

Later iterations of Brown’s outline, namely Space: 1999’s “Rules of Luton, Blake’s 7’s “Duel,” and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Last Outpost” similarly stress the “more evolved” moral ideal of resisting an arranged fight; and of defying instead the God-like aliens who desire “bread and circus”-styled entertainment from the warring behavior of other intelligent beings.

Instead of Brown’s Darwinian tale of survival of the fittest, these later programs meditate on the Sun Tzu axiom: “He will triumph who knows when to fight and when not to fight,” and turn the god aliens -- not the war enemy -- into the real villain of the story.

But “Fun and Games,” The Outer Limits’ memorable variation on the “Arena” template -- and the first to air on network TV -- remains determinedly different from such later re-tellings.

Specifically, “Fun and Games” is the only version of Fredric Brown’s story (though not credited as such by the Daystar series…) which doesn't feature an overtly futuristic setting (like the 23rd century setting of Trek, or the 25th century setting of the Buck Rogers’ episode “Buck’s Duel to the Death.”)  

Rather, the story takes place in America of the 1960s.

Even more significantly however, “Fun and Games” differentiates itself from its TV brethren by focusing squarely on contemporary, flawed man, rather than on more idealized, knowledgeable men of the Space Age like James Kirk, Buck Rogers or Will Riker.  

Instead, Robert Specht’s teleplay “Fun and Games,” originally called “Natural Selection,” focuses squarely on two 20th century human outcasts, a man and a woman of less-than-sterling character who quite unexpectedly are called upon by alien gamesters on Andera (very nearly an anagram for the word “arena…”).  Their task: to battle primitive “Calco” aliens…with the survival of the Earth at stake.  

Actually, “Fun and Games’” primary protagonists might even be considered bad people rather than heroes, at least in terms of the standards and traditions of the 1960s.  Benson (Nick Adams) is a small-time hood and ex-boxer with questionable ethics, while Laura Hanley (Nancy Malone) outwardly presents the appearance of sterling character but is actually a divorcee who left her husband because, simply, she didn’t want to be “his mother.”  The Anderan Senator, who lords over the gladiatorial games challenges Laura on her characterization of the marital separation.  

The truth is, explains the Senator, Laura’s husband just wanted “help” and she did not want to offer it.

Benson and Laura are hardly paragons of humanity, at least by most Camelot-era ideals.  And yet they are deliberately selected by the Anderan Senator to represent us in the battle to save the Earth.  

Both the questionable natures of the protagonists and the story’s focus on the necessity of killing -- rather than avoiding the fight -- render “Fun and Games” perhaps the hardest edge variation on Brown’s “Arena" in cult-tv history.

Yet, in keeping squarely with Outer Limits tenets, “Fun and Games” also features a “nod to high-minded ideals,” as the concept was described in David J. Schow’s series literary companion.  Perhaps, the episode’s narrative suggests, the trick to winning the Anderan contest is an understanding of when to be savage and when to be civilized

Nick and Laura’s opponents, the beastly Calcos, don’t have the same sense of adaptability as their human opponents in this regard.  The male Calco kills his female partner to secure the necessary nutrients for longer-term survival on the arena planet. An ally would have been more valuable to him.

By contrast, the human female, Laura, comes to Nick’s aid at a crucial moment and double-teams the last Calco, assuring human kind “the win.”

If the Calcos are a negative example for the displaced or “electroported” humans to learn from, the Anderans are not really any better.  

The Senator is a taunting, cackling master of ceremony.  It is plain that his highly-advanced people -- no matter how “peaceful” or “affluent” -- are absent human traits such as empathy or compassion.  The Anderan quest for “pleasure” may control and appease their passions, but they are also utterly without mercy, not to mention decency.

With the negative examples of the Anderans and Calcos in mind, the high-minded moral at work in “Fun and Games” involves balancing the ups and downs of human nature; both the impulse to kill and the capacity to work with others for a common goal. The episode presents an even-handed, believable portrait of the species. 

"Fun and Games" opens with images of blood sports; of a 1960s-era boxing match and of filmic recreations of gladiatorial games in Ancient Rome, specifically.  Accompanying these visuals, the Control Voice non-emotionally discusses our human history of competition and sport, and how such games in the modern technological era have been “drained of all but their last few drops of blood.”

This not entirely positive assessment of modern “fun and games” suggests that humans -- or at least some of us -- have lost our desire to be, well, the fittest; that such blood sports somehow keep us “ready” or primed for those life-and-death occasions in which we must rise to such a challenge.  

Without regular contests to firm up those ancient instincts, do humans lack the edge necessary to survive in a hostile cosmos?

“Fun and Games” intimates that in the absence of such “authentic” blood sports, some humans -- of a certain stripe anyway -- seek other avenues to “survive” and confront challenges.  

For Nick Adams, despite his fears and professed lack of courage, this means that he survives as a criminal,  an outlaw skirting the police and involving himself in life-or-death scenarios, like a poker game gone wrong.  He spends his life as a desperate rat in a cage, running forever in place.  But always running, nonetheless…his instincts always heightened.

Although it has been reported “Fun and Games” ran short in its final cut and that producer Joseph Stefano devised the notion of playing a kind of “time loop” in the episode, rerunning the sequence of murder at Nick’s poker game in Laura’s boarding house, the deliberate repetition of time and imagery in the episode actually works to the narrative’s benefit in the final analysis.  

The repeating footage ably suggests that Benson’s life is already a life-and-death contest of sorts, each and every day, in every possible moment. It’s as though he’s trapped on a treadmill, running and re-running in place.  No end. No beginning. Just endless danger.  Endless adrenaline.

For her part, Laura has also checked out of the socially acceptable and decorous behavior of her culture (America of the mid-1960s). She ditched a husband and marriage that didn’t suit her, and now lives alone. Again, this is a brand of survival of the fittest, isn’t it?  

In the battle between fighting for her needs, and for her husband’s needs, Laura’s needs won out.  She made it so.  

Not unlike Nick then, Laura is already a least in the contest called life.   In some ways, she is even more a dedicated, hardcore fighter than Nick.  For instance, it is clear that without her assistance, Nick would have lost the Anderan contest to the Calco.  It is also clear that she uses whatever means she can think of to persuade Nick to participate in the Anderan game.

One of the many elements of The Outer Limits I’ve always appreciated is its realistic rather than idealized depiction of human beings.  There is optimism inherent in that view; a deep respect for human resourcefulness and tenacity. However, the series is not shy, either, about revealing humanity at his most savage (“The Zanti Misfits”), or his most fearful (“The Architects of Fear.”)  “Fun and Games” remains a delight because it paints a balanced picture of the human animal, simultaneously remembering the savage past and hinting at an enlightened future. 

Sometimes, mankind is willing to fight and murder, but in the case of the Anderan bread and circuses, these acts are for a very worthy cause: the survival of the species. Delightfully, the Control Voice’s final meditation about “human qualities” directing mankind to a better future in the “great darkness” of space (or the future) takes an important step beyond “Arena’s” literary narrative.   Even if the battle for survival is at hand, we would do well to wage that war with the best angels of our nature, “compassion” and “love.”    

In some situations, murder and violence may indeed be Fredric Brown’s “moral imperative,” but we don’t have to relish or enjoy these occasions.

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