The Outer Limits Season One: Volume One Review

"There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can change the focus to a soft blur, or sharpen it to crystal clarity. Sit quietly and for the next hour we will control all that you see and hear. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to the outer limits."

- Opening Narration

Isn’t that a great opening? Although it probably never happened, I like to imagine that for a few seconds everyone who tuned into the first episode of The Outer Limits really did think their TVs had gone on the blink and were halfway off their sofa before being assured by the authoritative Control Voice (in reality Vic Perrin) that all was well. As a way of drawing the viewer in and engaging their interest it was exemplary, making one complicit in whatever followed, an active observer who has to engage directly with the story. As a result it’s seductive, and it was meant to be. The Outer Limits, on the basis of the episodes in this first set (made up of the first half of Season One), had a very specific agenda it wanted to preach.

The science-fiction anthology series, although arguably the most challenging type of show to run production-wise (not only does it need special effects, but it needs different special effects every week!), had already a fairly long pedigree by the time Leslie Stevens’s series was first broadcast in the Fall of 1963. In the 1950s it had been perhaps the most popular style of science-fiction on the burgeoning medium, the most successful of which was almost certainly Science Fiction Theatre. This paved the way for what would become the daddy of the genre, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which began in 1959 and was still running when The Outer Limits premiered. Indeed, although by the early Sixties the genre had become far less common, it’s a testament as to how celebrated Serling’s show was that the network executives judged there was a market for such a similar show to run in conjunction. Today we look back on the pair as the two undisputed classics of its genre, both of which have gone on to have a lasting influence on the generations of viewers who grew up with them, and indeed they make fine companion pieces, if only because, once one scratches beneath the surface, they are so different from one another.

The Outer Limits’ creator was Leslie Stevens, his first hit in what was to prove a successful, if ultimately undistinguished, writing career. He had come to Hollywood via the theatre and, specifically Broadway, and had been in at the birth of the television industry, contributing scripts for such early mainstays as Playhouse 90 and The Kraft Television Theatre. After having some success writing for the big screen (notably the early Paul Newman vehicle The Left-Handed Gun and a couple of James Mason film (including an adaptation of his own play The Marriage-Go-Round) he was given the chance to create his own show. Originally called Please Stand By, the title had to be changed when it was decided that it sounded too like an air raid warning (although the phrase still led into every advert break), which is ironic given that the whole series is covered by the sheer terror of imminent nuclear meltdown.

Together with Executive Producer Joseph Stefano (who had just written Psycho), Stevens crafted a series which is in some ways the antithesis of The Twilight Zone. Whereas the latter was a show which revelled in the paradoxes the future might bring, TOL was terrified and wanted to do everything in its power to avert them. The pilot episode, in which a scientist accidentally transports an alien to Earth which promptly begins to cause chaos, makes absolutely clear the series’s twin preoccupations, the fear of the Bomb and the fear of other people that might use the Bomb. The former, in particular, is the underlying theme behind virtually every one of the sixteen episodes in this first half-season, especially the first eight episodes which all tell variations of the same story, in which a well-meaning scientist unwittingly unleashes havoc and destruction through some experiment. Although God as such is not mentioned once, the message is clear: we tamper with the natural order of things at our peril, and will bring about an apocalypse if we continue to try and play the Almighty. Slightly less prevalent, although still very much a thematic foundation stone of the series, is a latent xenophobia, the literal fear of the alien. One doesn’t need to go into the Ruskie/Martian metaphor too much here, which pops up now and again: for me the most intriguing episode in this regard is Nightmare in which a group of benign extraterrestrials try and help us and we still manage to self-destruct. No matter how harmless they appear, it seems, Others are different from us and should be avoided. In a time when the Civil Rights movement was beginning to gather momentum, it’s a reminder that there were two sides to the debate in the US.

Without wishing to get too political, it’s fair to say that pretty much everything this series stands for, now mainly the domain of the far right and their ilk, is somewhat discredited (although the current planetary debate on climate change certainly has echoes). I certainly don’t subscribe to any of the show’s viewpoints, and yet, in much the same way one can enjoy all such science-fiction, it did not preclude me from thoroughly enjoying the episodes. Put aside the underlying message, just enjoy the simple tales of mutants and time travel and creepy-crawly ant things from the planet Zanti, and one can revel in the sheer pulp of it all. The scripts are more often than not purely functional, with little in the way of light relief, and have a far slower pace than we are used to today, but if one is attuned to the style the entertainment value is hard to beat. They are helped along by some superb production values - for its time, this is a very expensive-looking show, not just because of the special effects (of which more in a minute) but the amount of time it escapes the confines of the studio. Its cast is a mixture of old television standbys and fresh-faced hopefuls, many of whom went on to have notable careers (in this first set of episodes there are appearances from, amongst others, Martin Landau, Donald Pleasance - the man never changes - David McCullum, Robert Culp - a couple of times - and so on) all of whom throw themselves into their parts with conviction.

And they need to, as they often end up buried in that week’s alien or monster make-up. Reading around, one gets the impression that for many the lasting memory of the series is that it was the big Monster of the Week show, and while that’s not entirely fair (Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in its later seasons strikes a finer claim to that title) the majority of episodes do feature some sort of malformed entity. The make-up for these, while sometimes comical by today’s standards, are actually extremely imaginative; despite the demands of the weekly schedule, each one is sufficiently unique to ensure there isn’t a uniform look (something which was still eluding the producers of Star Trek three decades later). The SFX too are incredibly ambitious for their time, with the briefly-alluded-to The Zanti Misfits taking the biscuit, featuring as it does stop-motion killer ants. While its unfortunate they wear highly comical expressions, one cannot help being impressed at the bravery in attempting such a time-consuming process on a television schedule. As a whole, the effects team make full use of their limitations, improvising wildly to produce some memorable sequences which try and find new ways of using existing techniques.

Of course, they look old now, and overall looked at today, the show is very much a product of its era. It hasn’t aged as well as The Twilight Zone and doesn’t have that show’s wit (indeed, I’m trying hard to try and remember a single intentional joke in any of the episodes). The slow structure demands patience which isn’t always rewarded (quite often one can tell exactly how the whole episode is going to pan out by the end of the first act) but there is an intelligence there that its reputation as a monster show doesn’t quite do justice to. If you are at all attuned to the style of series at the time, it is incredibly entertaining and this first set of episodes is a fine collection, including fan favourite The Man Who Was Never Born, starring Martin Landau in a grisly mask Just try not to subscribe to its dystopian forebodings…

The first sixteen episodes of the first season, from The Galaxy Being up to and including Controlled Experiment, are presented on this set, on two dual-layered double-sided discs, held in two slimline cases which slip into an overriding box. On their backs the cases have episode synopses and original airdates for all the episodes on the disc held within.

The Main Menu is excellent. After getting past the MGM studio logo, we see the series logo fade into a modern-day version. Immediately an alien - and frankly unnerving - Control Voice tells us “There is nothing wrong with your DVD player” and goes on to spiel out a variation of the opening monologue, before lapsing into silence. Good fun. The Menu consists of the four episodes, each of which has its own submenu with the five chapters immediately accessible - although these show scenes from throughout the episode, I wasn’t aware of any major spoilers contained within them.

One minus point on an otherwise good set is that there is no regular subtitling, only Close Captioning.

The video transfer has come up very nicely indeed, with a clarity and crispness of image which belies the series’s age. That said, there’s a cheerful amount of edge-enhancement to enjoy, but the odd blemish on the footage is both minor and, somehow, adds authenticity. Other than that, this is a nice looking set.

There are no theatrics here and, while in the main the dialogue is clear enough, there is a somewhat muffled quality at times, and the odd hint of distortion which very occasionally makes it difficult to hear what’s being said. It’s okay, but I’ve heard better.

The disappointment of this re-issued set is that there are no extras to be seen. If you can forgive that, this is a hugely enjoyable set of episodes, as long as you can forget their politics.

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