Destruct that ship, General!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "The Hundred Days of the Dragon" (9/23/1963)




“The Hundred Days of the Dragon”
Season 1, Episode 2
Originally broadcast 9/23/1963




We open somewhere in China, where an eager young doctor is demonstrating a remarkable scientific breakthrough to dictator Lin Chin-Sung. It becomes evident very quickly that said breakthrough, like many breakthroughs throughout history, is to be used as a weapon.




“The Hundred Days of the Dragon,” which first aired fifty years ago tonight, concerns presidential hopeful William Lyons Selby, favored to win the election by a landslide. Selby has the misfortune of being targeted by an insidious (though highly brilliant) Chinese plot to overthrow the US government by replacing key public and private figures with identical replacements. In a bold and surprising move, they've opted to start at the top instead of the more standard ‘work your way up’ evil conspiracy method; call it a 'trickle-down' form of invasion.


Selby is dispatched shortly before the election and replaced by a Chinese operative who has mastered Selby’s voice and mannerisms and, courtesy of a revolutionary serum, has taken on his appearance (and fingerprints) as well. The faux Selby is elected as predicted and immediately begins shifting his stance on foreign policy on China, arousing the ire (and growing suspicion) of Ted Pearson, his Vice President.

Selby’s daughter and son-in-law begin to take note of subtle differences in Selby’s behavior and take their concerns to Pearson. As fate would have it, a Chinese agent has already broken into the Pearson home with the intent of replacing him. His plan foiled, he flees the premises, but not before Pearson gets a good look at his exact double.


Ted and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

The three are now convinced that the man in the Oval Office is not the Selby they know (well, knew), and must find a way to expose the conspiracy and save the nation from this most dire of threats.


RANDOMONIUM

“The Hundred Days of the Dragon” is a fairly atypical Outer Limits episode, as there aren't any aliens, monsters or time travelers to be found; as such it’s a curious choice for the series’ first post-pilot broadcast. This is by no means a criticism, as I absolutely love this episode. It strongly evokes John Frankenheimer’s 1962’s political conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate (a favorite of mine), thanks more to its brooding, menacing tone than the similarities in plot. 


The doppelgänger-replacement element also evokes 1956’S Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which American citizens are supplanted by alien duplicates. Carol describing the changes in Selby’s personality is quite similar to a scene in that film in which a character tries to articulate why her uncle no longer seems like her uncle.



The only real sci-fi element present is the magic injection that rubberizes human skin (monkey skin too, which pushes the episode into horror territory for any PETA members watching). The “stamp mold” used to endow subjects with new faces reminds me of Saul Bass’s poster art for 1966’s Seconds (which Criterion used as the cover for their recent blu-ray/DVD release of the film):


Come to think of it, Seconds feels a lot like an Outer Limits episode, doesn't it? Frankenheimer directed that one too.



The Chinese infiltrators are also tasked with murdering their targets, which is an interesting choice; it also seems a bit reckless: had the real Selby put up a fight in those final few seconds before he got iced, his replacement could have been injured. And Pearson's double drops the ball big time, which leads to the unraveling of the whole plot. We see other Chinese agents here and there; having them do the killing might've been wiser.


Not a shot from "The Duplicate Man." That's season two, kids.


This is the first episode aired that was shot by Director of Photography Conrad Hall and, while its visuals are comparatively tame compared to what we’ll see in the weeks and months to come, it gives us a glimpse of how much of season one will look. The view through Hall’s (and cameraman William Fraker's) lens is like film noir on steroids: shadows and contrast abound, canted angles heighten, extreme close shots titillate, and goddamn, it’s all gorgeous to behold. I can’t think of another television series, then or now, whose cinematography compares.


Byron Haskin with Sabu, on the set of 1948's Man-Eater of Kumaon. Why this pic, you ask? Because it was the best picture of him I could find on Google Images.

This is the first of six episodes directed by Byron Haskin, who will direct a few of the series' greatest offerings, most notably next week's "The Architects of Fear" and season two's "Demon with a Glass Hand" (both of which star Robert Culp). He also directed the film noir classics I Walk Alone (1948) and Too Late for Tears (1949), so I imagine he's at least partly responsible for this episode's thick noir vibe. His other credits include 1953's The War of the Worlds and 1964's Robinson Crusoe on Mars, so his sci-fi cred is impressive too. I'm proud to report that Haskin was a local boy, born right here in Portland, Oregon.



Maybe this is my racially sensitive progressive side talking, but does the newspaper photo depicting Selby wearing an Indian headdress seem… I dunno, questionable? I’m sure there was no racism intended (things were very different 50 years ago, after all), but it’s still a bit jarring.





Okay, what's the deal with the Chinese scientist? I get that he's excited about his discovery, which is totally understandable, but watch as he lovingly caresses the face mold, then glances almost resentfully at the others in attendance, as if they've disturbed an intimate moment. Seriously creepy. 

May we have a moment alone please?


I love the shot of Wen Lee, the enemy agent, checking his watch while hiding in VP Pearson’s hallway waiting for his chance to strike (having been diverted by the unexpected arrival of Selby’s daughter and son-in-law). I’m sure he’s got a strict timetable to observe, given the gravity of his mission, but it comes off as boredom. Personally, I employ this tactic to convey not-so-subtle messages to those who bore me (it’s pretty effective too, probably because I don't wear a watch).


Hey, I just realized something: Bob and Carol come to see Ted… now, if Ted’s wife was named Alice instead of Ann, we might’ve ended up with a very different story:


1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a comedy-drama about wife-swapping that stars Robert Culp, probably The Outer Limits’ most recognizable leading man (who, by the way, makes his series debut in a big way next week). 








It’s fascinating to note that this episode aired a scant two months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I’m sure security measures around the President were ramped up considerably after that tragic event, but I can't believe that things were ever as loose and casual as they are depicted here (the Secret Service has been tasked with protecting the President--- and more pointedly for our purposes, Presidential candidates--- since 1901, long before JFK). There's nobody standing watch outside Selby’s hotel room when he is murdered. During the faux Selby’s hunting excursion with Pearson, there’s no evidence that the Secret Service is anywhere nearby keeping a watchful eye. Later, an enemy agent enters and exits the faux Selby’s White House office unescorted. It’s a wonder that the faux Selby doesn't end up assassinated himself, given his ridiculous level of accessibility.


“The Hundred Days of the Dragon” was the seventh episode produced; I assume it was aired so early because all of its effects were done in camera, resulting in quicker post-production (by contrast, the effects-heavy “The Borderland” was the second episode produced but the twelfth broadcast). But hell, what do I know? It’s a great episode, so I probably would've shown it as early as possible too.

Shamelessly pilfered from David J. Schow's indispensable The Outer Limits Companion.


Most fans are aware that Daystar Productions produced more than just The Outer Limits. There's the western series Stoney Burke, which lasted one season (1962-63) and was recently released on DVD by Timeless Media. In 1963, they produced "Fanfare for a Death Scene," a pilot for a proposed series called Stryker (which didn't sell and therefore vanished into obscurity). I'll spotlight it more in depth later, but I wanted to mention it here because it has definite parallels to this week's episode. The plot involves a "shadow Mongolian government," which may as well have been the same one responsible for the conspiracy depicted here; further, some of Dominic Frontiere's "Hundred Years of the Dragon" cues were repurposed as part of its underscore.

"Fanfare for a Death Scene" has apparently been quite a rare collector's item for years; imagine my delight to find it available for streaming on Netflix! If you're a member, do check it out. I'm trying to figure out a way to somehow transfer it from Netflix to DVD for my collection. Any tech-minded readers out there, feel free to help a brother out.



AURAL PLEASURE


After last week’s minimal underscore, Dominic Frontiere’s considerable talents are fully on display here. His suspenseful score is augmented with Eastern touches and proves invaluable to maintaining a constant air of exotic intrigue. The score has been released twice, first in 1993 on a single volume soundtrack from GNP/Crescendo Records (out of print but pretty easy to track down), and again in 2008 as part of a much more comprehensive three-disc release from La La Land Records (which is still available for the ridiculously low price of $19.98 plus shipping, go here to get yours).



DRAMATIS PERSONAE


President William Lyons Selby is played by Sidney Blackmer in his only TOL appearance, but genre fans may have spotted him in episodes of Suspense, Lights Out, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. He is excellent as Selby but, more importantly, he’s excellent as the faux Selby, particularly his malevolent squinting (which kinda makes him look Chinese, appropriately enough).


Vice President Ted Pearson is played by Phillip Pine, veteran of The Twilight Zone (“The Four of Us Are Dying,” “The Incredible World of Horace Ford”). You may have also seen him in “The Savage Curtain” on the original Star Trek, which also featured a wacky rock-based alien that would've been right at home alongside The Outer Limits’ box demon from “Don’t Open Till Doomsday.”

Cousins?


Carol, President Selby’s daughter, is played by Nancy Rennick, who also appeared twice on The Twilight Zone (“The After-Hours” and “The Odyssey of Flight 33”). And yes, she absolutely qualifies as a TOL babe.








Joan Camden (Alice, err, Ann Pearson) ventures into The Outer Limits for the first of two appearances she’ll make this season (we’ll see her in “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork” in December).


Wen Lee is played by James Hong, whose voice my 12 year-old daughter would probably recognize from the Kung Fu Panda films (in which he voices Mr. Ping); however, he’ll always be Mr. Chew to me, the virtuoso eyeball manufacturer in 1982’s Blade Runner.





Li Kwan is played by James Vagi (pictured,;he's the one on the left), who also passed through The Twilight Zone just a few months earlier than his appearance here (in the episode “No Time Like the Past”).









HOME VIDEO RELEASES



“The Hundred Days of the Dragon” has been released on home video a total of eight different times. First, it arrived on VHS in 1987 (along with “The Galaxy Being” and “The Man With the Power”) in a plastic clamshell case. It was re-released later on in the standard cardboard slipcase to match the other 45 tapes.



It was also sold through Columbia House, paired with “The Architects of Fear.” For the retail release in the UK, it was paired with “The Galaxy Being.”



The episode also appeared on the fourth and final LaserDisc volume in 1995. It's the only LD volume whose cover is identical to a VHS release ("O.B.I.T.").



It’s shown up on DVD three different times: in the season one boxed set in 2002, the volume 1 set in 2007 (which comprised the first half of season 1), and the complete series boxed set in 2008 (which happened to be the show’s 45th anniversary; gee thanks, MGM, for marking the occasion by releasing yet another repackaging of the same goddamned discs).

Which brings us to now, the show’s 50th anniversary, which would be the perfect time for a blu-ray release, right?  Wrong. As of this writing, it ain't happening.


TRADING CARD CORNER

“The Hundred Days of the Dragon” has never been represented on a trading card. Meanwhile, Andro from “The Man Who Was Never Born” was seen on SIX different Topps cards, renamed “The Clay Man.” Call me crazy, but wouldn’t the plastic-faced doppelgängers here fit that description a bit better?



MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT


Like most Outer Limits “bears,” William Selby’s doppelgänger was immortalized by Dimensional Designs in a model kit, sculpted by Chris Choin. Look! He even comes with his face mold as an accessory. Get yours here for $49.99 plus shipping.


THE WRAP-UP



After last week’s mid-level “The Galaxy Being,” the series come on much stronger in its second week with “The Hundred Days of the Dragon." However, the series has only started its upward trajectory. Next week will bring not only one of the series’ greatest episodes, but one of the greatest things ever produced for network television.




6 comments:

  1. You're making some interesting points, Craig. For me, this episode just doesn't work, you can read why over here: http://livingintheouterlimits.blogspot.com/

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  2. This is a taut, fast-moving episode that features some political intrigue in lieu of the normal Outer Limits monsters. I think the cast, including the believable presidential duo of Sidney Blackmar and Phillip Pine, and those cool malleable facial effects are the highlights.

    Once you get by the laughable lack of security surrounding the president and veep (the biggest drawback of this episode), it builds quite a bit of suspense and kept me very interested in what the conclusion would be. The direction by Byron Haskin is full of interesting shots including the great opening scene of the villains walking down a dimly lit hallway. Its a very minimalist set and issues in a Cold War mood to the story.

    Along with other stories like "Controlled Experiment" and "The Forms of Things Unknown" which both lack a "bear", "The Hundred Days of the Dragon" doesn't fit the Outer Limits mold. But this is not a drawback because there's plenty of mystery and good science fiction on display.

    I don't like it as much as "The Galaxy Being" but it's still very good. I'd say a 7 out of 10.

    And I too own both the GNP and the La La Land soundtracks. They're great, as are your episodes reviews so far!

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  3. After The Outer Limits was cancelled by ABC, changes were made to a number of the episodes before the series was placed in syndication. Most of these changes were relatively minor and likely were not noticed by viewers in syndication, but some were more significant, enough so to create a bona fide "alternate" version of an episode. The Hundred days Of The Dragon is one of the more prominent of these altered shows. "Dragon" was originally shot by cinematographer Conrad Hall in a dark, high contrast style, reminiscent of the "film noir" crime thriller films of the 1940's. Some scenes were so dimly lit that faces were obscured in shadows, with only fine pinpoints of light indicating the pupils of the Chinese malefactors. An example of this is at the tail end of the prologue, in which we see the Chinese premier's face is in the dark, save for the light reflecting from the pupils of his eyes. This stylish, high contrast look no doubt made for a striking effect when the episode was broadcast in prime time on September 23, 1963. However, the dark photography was deemed unsuitable for syndication, when varying lighting conditions during other than prime time viewing hours would have created visibility problems. So, the episode was "brightened" for syndication.

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  4. Continuing my previous post, "Dragon" was brightened for syndication, eliminating the high contrast, bringing up to visibility faces which were in shadows, and generally giving the show a much more of a standard TV show look. Another difference was in the sound, when originally broadcast, the soundtrack had a slightly distorted, booming sound, as if someone had added reverb or echo to the audio. ABC might have been behind this, to try to make the episode seem scarier than it perhaps really was, with no monster and all. This rather harsh, distorted audio was never used again, and it was replaced in the syndication print by the original, normal soundtrack. Another difference was in the intro, at the very beginning, the point at which the sine wave pattern first begins to appear onscreen. In the original broadcast print, it's slightly left of center, while in the syndication print, it's dead center. Also, the Indian head test pattern stock footage in the broadcast intro is badly scratched, while it's noticeably cleaned up in the syndication print. I'm guessing that, for the syndication print, they used the same intro that was used in "The Architects Of Fear". Finally, when broadcast, "Dragon" did not include the customary control voice closing speech, "We now return control of your television set to you, until next week at this same time, when the control voice will take you to The Outer Limits". Exactly why is not clear, but the four note musical "cue" normally heard under the speech was, in this case, heard at the tail end of the episode. Those same four notes also formed the beginning of The Outer Limits' closing theme over the end credits, which meant that those same four notes would have been heard four times in succession. Presumably to avoid this redundancy, the closing speech was omitted altogether. It WAS restored for the syndication print, this time with NO musical cue at all, which effectively "solved" the "problem". You'd have thought that somebody would have thought of this in the first place. All of these differences can be observed by comparing the original video tape or laser disc version of the episode with the DVD version, for which a much better condition syndication print was used.

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  5. Just finished watching this episode on THIS TV... amazing the vision that Outer Limits had.
    THIS TV didn't air the usual, "now we return control or you television set to you..." but rather ended with the narrator agreeing with the Veep, now President's decision not to go to war due to (would-be) President Selby's assassination. The narrator said something like war would only end with annihilation, yet it was our duty to defend and stay vigilant against the next attack on freedom and liberty. Very poignant and relevant today.

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  6. I always enjoyed this offbeat episode. It mostly works for me. A little dated now of course (no Secret Service protection??) but still a neat tale of espionage. Gotta love the Asian stereotypes. Maybe it's just as well that it aired 2nd, after Galaxy Being. Got it out of the way, so then the series could really take off and showcase the episodes with the great BEARS.

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