“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. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to witness the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind ...to the outer limits.”
That is the beautifully written voiceover to The Outer Limits TV series that ran from 1963 - 1965. I’ve quoted it in full because apart from deserving to be in an anthology of SF prose poems it still feels resonant in our computerised present. Substitute the word 'screen' for 'television set' and the disturbing sense of an alien /corporate culture controlling our tastes and habits takes on a technological terror.
The voiceover also reminds you of the famous Orson Welles's radio broadcast of H.G.Wells’s The War of the Worlds. And the executive producer of The Outer Limits was Leslie Stephens who as a student had sold a script to Welles’s Mercury Theatre Company.
As for the future, then David Cronenberg’s 1982 Videodrome, with its menacing television that can suck you inside its box, beckons. Back in the sixties we were promised “a great adventure” as this landmark series defiantly stood out amidst much bland and conformist TV. We can now say that the internet can lead us down into a great misadventure – a labyrinth of available porn, adverts in pursuit of us and those cute dogs and Facebook photographs of last night’s delicious meal. Not forgetting how the media tech giants have allowed us to become our own controllers with the ability to intimidate and spy on our neighbours using mobile phones.
The purpose of The Outer Limits was to offer 50 minute SF TV films of ideas. And for series 1, but less so in series 2, it did so. It was a canny mix of ‘low brow SF pulp’ with high bow speculations (Is there a God? What does it mean to be human?). The ABC TV network, nervous about its ratings, let this go unchecked for awhile but stipulated that each episode feature a monster. A lot of the budget went into elaborate creature outfits and special effects.
Although The Outer Limits didn’t take on the frequent morality-tale role of The Twilight Zone, many of the first writers on the series were social liberals concerned about technology’s power to curb the freedom of the individual: “If there is one message in the show, it’s a strong preachment against violence, bigotry and prejudice.”
That’s what writer Joseph Stefano said about his script for 'Made in Japan', a Playhouse 90 drama about racial prejudice. Stefano suggested that this was the line that he and his The Outer Limits producer Leslie Stevens should develop. And what better way was there to disguise your message than SF that the networks didn’t take seriously.
Joanne Morreale’s monograph The Outer Limits examines four episodes from series 1, 'Nightmare' for combining SF and film noir imagery; 'The Bellero Shield' as a Gothicised SF; 'The Galaxy Being' for being trapped by electronic forces and 'Obit' to illustrate society’s anxiety over surveillance. She succinctly reveals how these stories juxtaposed ideas, styles and genres that proved a disturbing socio-historical commentary on America’s past (fears of communist infiltration) and present (technological advances and the space race). A similar focus is brought to an episode called 'The Architects of Fear' that taps into fears of a nuclear holocaust.
In all these TV films technical innovation is to be found in the use of music and sound design; a conscious decision to photograph the action and sets so as to give them an expressionist, film noir and foreign art-film look – their resident director of photography was the great Conrad Hall. All this was aided by seriously intelligent dialogue (Joseph Stefano, Harlan Ellison and Robert Towne being some stand out writers). Many episodes were directed by such veterans as Gerd Oswald and Byron Haskin working with talented Hollywood actors eager to be in television.
Morreale makes a convincing, well researched case for The Outer Limits to be considered as a TV milestone. For it was a concept, like The Twilight Zone, that was risky, even radical, entertainment for viewers. It’s then disappointing that in her book she couldn’t have spent more time on Series 2 (I appreciate that studio interference meant storylines became conventional but they’re still good SF / Horror tales worthy of discussion).
I recently purchased the Blu Ray box set of the complete The Outer Limits. My pleasure from going inward into these dramas and outwards to speculate on their view of a cosmos, both for us and against us, has been enhanced by this highly informative 130 page read.
- Alan Price