The Outer Limits: Science Fiction for Monster Fans!

Purported UFO. Photo taken in New Jersey, 2008. Space, aliens, and UFOs were the major focus of the revived version of The Outer Limits.

Purported UFO. Photo taken in New Jersey, 2008. Space, aliens, and UFOs were the major focus of the revived version of The Outer Limits.

 

It’s time for me to admit the truth: I am a cult fan of The Outer Limits. I watched it as a child and love it just as much, if not more, as an adult. For some odd reason, the show was not popular with sponsors, but children of the 60s loved it. Monsters, aliens, UFOs–The Outer Limits had it all, including a young audience eager to meet the show’s monster-of-the-week.

Monsters were popular in the 60s–trust me, I was there. Children of the 60s were raised on black and white versions of Frankenstein, Dracula, and a very young Michael Landon who revealed to the world in 1957 that he was a teenage werewolf. We hid beneath our desks at school during bomb drills. We understood the fear of the unknown. The creator of The Outer Limits also knew that fear, and he knew how to use it.

The Outer Limits premiered on ABC on September 16, 1963. It was an anthology show. Each episode was referred to as a separate “play” and often based on short stories or novellas. The Outer Limits lasted two years and never ranked in the top 25 shows, but like Star Trek, which ran for three years and never ranked in the top 25, The Outer Limits became a part of cult television history.

Every week, The Outer Limits brought a new, freaky creature into the living rooms of America. It didn’t matter if they were insects, reptilian, alien, or humans replicated through time travel, Americans loved their freaky creatures. In fact, according to John Javna’s Cult TV, writers were specifically instructed to include in each play, “one splendid, staggering, shuddering effect that induces awe, wonder, tolerable terror, or even merely conversation and argument.” (Future articles on this blog will discuss the specifics of the monster in each play and what it represents.)

Leslie Stevens and the Show’s Conception

The Outer Limits was the creation of child prodigy Leslie Stevens who sold his first screenplay to Orson Welles when he was 15 years old. Stevens wrote most of the early episodes with Joseph Stephano, who was also the screenwriter of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Stevens referred to the monsters on the show as “bears.” As he explained, during the Vaudeville years (1880s-1930s) when a performance was going badly and the audience was bored, the stage director would send out a comedian dressed as a bear. Thus Stevens referred to his monsters as “bears.” The monsters, or bears, were important to the show, but not as important as the metaphor, the life lesson they represented.  Monsters were cool, but The Outer Limits had something even better–monsters with a message.

The show was conceived by Stevens in 1961 as a science fiction show, a show that would inspire awe in the audience as they explored the mysteries of the universe. Stevens proposed the show to television promoter Dan Melnick, who agreed to promote the show as long as Stevens could guarantee each show had a monster to meet the demands of children in the 60s. The show also had to be low on the horror scale and high on the science fiction aspects.

The original title was Please Stand by, which was eventually replaced, but this phrase was incorporated into the famous introduction. Why? Because America was staggering beneath the stress of the Cuban Missile Crisis and ABC thought the title “Please Stand By” might inspire another Orson-Wellesian-panic with listeners jumping from windows during the broadcast of “War of the Worlds” because they feared the planet was taken over by aliens.

The Monsters

The original monsters were not particularly impressive due to budget constraints–$10,000 to $40,000 is an awfully tight budget when creating a believable beast from space–and some of the creatures are downright funny. In the 1964 play “Specimen: Unknown,” written by Stephen Lord and directed by Gerd Oswald, a member of a team of astronaut scientists find mushroom-shaped organisms attached to their space station. The organism, exposed to light, becomes a flower, which emits deadly spores. Naturally, when the space team returns to earth for help they accidentally bring the spores with them. This episode had the highest Nielsen rating in the first season, and ironically, the terrifying deadly spores were made from…puffed wheat.

Many fans of the show believe the most ridiculous monster appeared in the play “The Duplicate Man,” which aired on December 19, 1964. In this show, academic researcher Henderson James convinces Captain Karl Emmet to smuggle a Megasoid to Earth. The Megasoid must be brought to earth illegally because it is a dangerous killer. At one point the Megasoid escapes and hides among the stuffed animals at a zoo exhibit. This disguise was easily accomplished because the terrifying beast was actually a man dressed in a flimsy gorilla costume made from velour and a recycled bird mask, with the recording of a growling German shepherd for his voice.

One of the audience favorites in the monster category was the Chromoite in the play “The Mice,” which aired on January 6, 1964. I am watching this show as I write. In this show, a scientific mission to exchange a human for an alien is exposed as a secret alien plan to invade earth. The opening scene shows a lovely young woman walking through the woods. She hears what sounds like bees to me, and of course decides to step off the path and investigate in her tight skirt and high-heeled shoes. She sees a monster, the Chromoite monster, which resembles a flabby Portuguese man-of-war. She runs to a nearby building and the beast rises to follow–clearly, it is a man in a costume.  When it enters the building, it appears to be as tall as the ceiling. It has shiny legs, crab claws, and several mouths dripping with drool. Yummy.

The monsters were not supposed to be horrifying according to the contemporary definition of horror. The monsters are metaphors, generally representing the folly of humankind, or humans trying to play God, or conversely, the instinctive fear of technology.

The premiere episode aired on September 16, 1963, and was titled “The Galaxy Being.” In this play, Cliff Robertson stars as Allan Maxwell, a radio station engineer who makes contact with an alien creature, the show’s first “monster.” The alien is accidentally transported to earth. The monster in this show represents our fear of the unknown as local residents and authorities react to the presence of the monster with hysteria and violence.

The Voices of The Outer Limits

The voices of the monsters were generally the voice of singer Robert Johnson. Listen closely–does it sound familiar? Johnson’s voice was so captivating that he was hired by Bruce Geller, creator of the original Mission Impossible series, as the tape recorder voice. “This tape will self-destruct…”

When Stevens conceived the show he did not want The Outer Limits to appear to be competing with Rod Serling’s popular The Twilight Zone, so he did not want a speaker who appeared out of nowhere to introduce the show. Instead, his introduction appropriately came through a computer-like “control” voice.

The control voice introduces the show with: “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. 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.”

Following the commercial break, the control voice introduces the characters and the play. At the end of the show, the control voice states, “We now return control of your television set to you, until next week at the same time, when the Control Voice will take you to…The Outer Limits.”

The Outer Limits Revived

The Outer Limits was revived in 1995 and ran another seven years, until 2002, on the Sci Fi Channel. Later episodes of The Outer Limits brought the humans-playing-God theme home in a more solid, meaningful way that seemed to resonate with viewers entering a new millennium.  Both versions of the show are also highly atmospheric. The first versions, in black and white, are eerie, very much “out of this world,” often with rain, dark clouds, intensely atmospheric.

The later versions focus more on the science fiction, and the atmosphere in these shows are high-tech. In 1999, Frankenstein’s monster became a computer, a space ship, a time travel machine. This blog will explore important episodes from both the early and later plays, their monsters, and the metaphors. Please stand by…

Resources:

  • Javna, James. Cult TV: A Viewer’s Guide to the Shows America Can’t Live Without!. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Schow, David J., Frentzen, Jeffrey. The Official Outer Limits Companion. Ace Books. New York: 1986.
  • “Specimen Unknown.” The Outer Limits. First aired February 4, 1964. Season 1, Episode 22. Dir. Gerd Oswald. Players: Stephen McNally, Richard Jaeckel, Russell Johnson. Running time: 52 min.
  • “The Galaxy Being.” The Outer Limits. First aired September 16, 1963. Season 1, Episode 1. Dir. Leslie Stevens. Players: Lee Philips, Jacqueline Scott, Cliff Robertson.
  • “The Duplicate Man.” The Outer Limits. First aired December 19, 1964. Season 2, Episode 13. Dir. Gerd Oswald. Players: Ron Randell, Constance Towers.
  • “The Mice.” The Outer Limits. First aired January 6, 1964. Season 1, Episode 15. Dir. Alan Crosland, Jr. Players: Henry Silva, Diana Sands, Michael Higgins, Francis De Sales, Ron Foster.
  • Winship, Michael. Television: Companion to the PBS Series. Random House. New York: 1988.