16 February 2024

TESTING THE LIMITS

Joanne Morreale. The 
Outer Limits. Wayne State University Press, 2022.
 
“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

10 February 2024

SHADOWS OF THE FUTURE?

Sam Knight. The Premonitions Bureau, Faber and Faber Ltd, 2022.


This is that rarest of literary animals – a book about what might loosely be called the paranormal that not only made it into the mainstream, but received excellent reviews from those who would normally be complete cynics unwilling to soil their eyes on any such work. Sam Knight, however, has cracked it.
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30 January 2024

TO WIDDICOMBE AND BEYOND

Mark Norman. The Folklore of Devon. Exeter University Press, 2023.

There is a certain journalist/commentator who delights in informing us every April 23rd that St George, the Patron Saint of England, "is ackcherly Turkish". I wonder what he would make of the possibility that the old Devonian folk song character Uncle Tom Cobley is ackcherly German?
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17 January 2024

STONE LUKEWARM

Katy Soar [Editor] Circles of Stone: Weird Tales of Pagan Sites and Ancient Rites. British Library 2023.

Katy Soar’s persuasive introduction to Circle of Stones made me pick up a collection of stories exploring the native (wraith-like) stones that cover the British Isles. They are rich objects for human sacrifice, devil worship, pantheistic cults and magic. Stones are ambiguous and mysterious. 
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15 January 2024

THE MISQUOTATION THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

Chris Aubeck. Saucers. Tracing the Origin of Disk-Shaped UFOs. Aubeck, 2023.

Flying saucers first arrived on the scene in 1947, we all know that. Well we are all wrong, they have been around since at least 1885. And as soon as they arrived on the scene people started shooting at them. Fortunately this did not start a 'war of the worlds', as being shot at was what these paricular flying saucers were designed for.
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6 January 2024

JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY

Ray Harryhausen Special Collection. Blu –Ray Box set. Via Vision 2023.


Unsealing this box set of eight Ray Harryhausen films I was reminded of the early 90’s when I met Ray Harryhausen at the Everyman cinema in Hampstead, London. He was delivering an illustrated talk on his work. Apart from myself, and a friend, the cinema was full of young animators who’d come to hear the master of stop-motion animation. It was an inspiring evening.
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4 January 2024

SAUCER AND SWASTIKA

S. D, Tucker, The Saucer and the Swastika: The Dark Myth of Nazi UFOs. Amberley, 2023.

The year 1947 is thought of by many to be year zero for the modern age of UFOs. When Kenneth Arnold reported batwing/crescent shapes whose flight he describes as like that of a saucer skipping over water, it was mutated into the phrase that, for many, still describes the phenomenon of strange objects in the sky and sea. 
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17 December 2023

A RATHER DULL DEVIL

Claude and Corinne Lecouteux. Tales and Legends of the Devil: The Many Guises of the Primal Shapeshifter. Inner Traditions, 2023.


The traditional folk devil really was a bit of a loser, no matter what his plans to steal gold, abduct virgins, capture the souls of the virtuous or just generally take over the world. Even if he was able to lure some lonely traveller or adventurous youth to actually enter Hell, they would nearly always escape by outwitting the rather dim demon, and usually taking a chest of gold - or some previously abducted virgin - with them.
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2 December 2023

THE FRIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS

Ghost Stories for Christmas Volume 2 BFI BluRay. 3 disc set.

Director Lawrence Gordon Clark is celebrated for his direction of the seventies TV adaptations of the ghost stories of M. R. James. Clark brought a technical finesse, dramatic pacing and sensitivity to these productions. He was hugely sympathetic to the spirit of James’s writing. 
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29 November 2023

WOMEN OF THE PARANORMAL

Alex Matsuo. Women of the Paranormal. Privately published, 2023.

Writers exploring the history of the paranormal have often noted the prominence of women in the field, most particularly such individuals as Catharine Crowe, Helena Blavatsky, Eleanor Sidgwick, and mediums such as Florence Cook and Eusapia Palladino and the Fox sisters. 
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