Destruct that ship, General!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Of Sine Waves and Shelf Space


We live in an age of inexpensive DVD and blu-ray sets that comprise entire seasons of television shows. I still marvel at the sight of my five ultra-slim Twilight Zone volumes on blu-ray, which take up a little more than three inches of shelf space. When I first collected TZ, I needed two bookcase shelves for all the VHS tapes and, later, despite the DVD format's thinner profile, the whole series still took up one entire shelf (for the single-disc releases; there were 45 volumes total). The release of the Definitive Edition DVD sets in 2005 brought the space requirement down to about one foot, maybe a bit less (those sets ended up my storage unit when I acquired those impossibly-skinny blu-ray sets in 2010 and 2011.

 The Outer Limits can also be had on DVD in varying widths. The original season sets were released in 2002 and 2003 in double-wide cases; together they require a little over two inches of shelf space. In 2007, the show was split up into three volumes in single-wide cases, bringing that number down to about 1.5 inches. Those three volumes were then bundled into a single set which, thanks to its outer cardboard slipcase, more or less matches the 2+ inches of real estate demanded by the first DVD sets. In all of its DVD iterations, The Outer Limits has required very minimal room within one's collection... but it hasn't always been that way.


Unless you're fairly young and/or new to The Outer Limits, you may have collected some (if not all) of the series on VHS before they hit DVD. MGM/UA released every single episode, one episode per tape (except for the two-part "The Inheritors," which they stupidly combined into a "feature length" episode, so that one technically had two episodes on it), over a four-year period (1987-1991; Jesus, we were patient back then). Even completist collectors of the superior LaserDisc volumes had to buy tapes if they wanted everything, since 21 episodes never saw release on LD. 


I've repeatedly extolled the virtues of the VHS releases in these pages, particularly the awesome blue artwork that tied them all together (which actually drifted toward green as the series wore on, but that sense of visual continuity happily remained intact). I recall gazing lovingly at those blue boxes: I'd lay them out on the floor, my eyes drifting across their faces, my brain generating a strange free-association of images from the episodes. I bought each tape as they came out, and I amassed a total of 24 before I stopped, exactly half of the eventual 48 that would be released.


Thanks to all that loving gazing I did, I can recall exactly which ones I had (in yellow):

1. The Galaxy Being (clamshell)
2. The Hundred Days of the Dragon (clamshell)
3. The Architects of Fear
4. The Man with the Power (clamshell)
5. The Sixth Finger
6. The Man Who was Never Born
7. O.B.I.T.
8. The Human Factor
9. Corpus Earthling
10. Nightmare
11. It Crawled Out of the Woodwork
12. The Borderland
13. Tourist Attraction
14. The Zanti Misfits
15. The Mice
16. Controlled Experiment
17. Don't Open Till Doomsday
18. ZZZZZ
19. The Invisibles
20. The Bellero Shield
21. The Children of Spider County
22. Specimen: Unknown
23. Second Chance
24. Moonstone
25. The Mutant
26. The Guests
27. Fun and Games
28. The Special One
29. A Feasibility Study
30. The Production and Decay of Strange Particles
31. The Chameleon
32. The Forms of Things Unknown (a.k.a. The Unknown)
33. Soldier
34. Cold Hands, Warm Heart
35. Behold, Eck!
36. Expanding Human
37. Demon with a Glass Hand
38. Cry of Silence
39. The Invisible Enemy
40. Wolf 359
41. I, Robot
42. The Inheritors (Parts 1 and 2)
43. Keeper of the Purple Twilight
44. The Duplicate Man
45. Counterweight
46. The Brain of Colonel Barham
47. The Premonition
48. The Probe

Why did I stop? I'd gone from a teenager with a job and disposable income to a college student with very little money, so I didn't have the $12.95 for each tape (and Tower Video charged the full MSRP, the bastards). I planned to catch up, but then I found myself married with babies and having even less money. But I still watched those first 24 pretty regularly, and I managed to snag quite a few of the missing episodes thanks to TNT's MonsterVision marathons in the early 90's, which eased my pain considerably. Here's a great promo:


When DVD rendered my beloved tapes more or less obsolete, I did what many do when a new format supplants the old: I sold them on eBay, except for a couple (I think I still have "The Architects of Fear" and maybe "The Galaxy Being" somewhere in storage; it seems like I saw them not that long ago). Did I get good money for them? I don't recall, but probably not. As I've worked on this blog over the last couple of months... well, I've found myself missing them, I mean really missing them. So much, in fact, that I've decided to recollect them at some point... but only for the boxes, which I can store flat so they won't take up a ton of room. My plan is to acquire high-resolution scans of all of them so I can gaze lovingly at them whenever I want (multiple desktop wallpapers, maybe, or a slideshow of all 48).


You know, that would make a great blu-ray extra: a gallery of all 48 VHS volumes. MGM/UA, are you listening?



Monday, October 28, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "The Man Who Was Never Born" (10/28/1963)



“The Man Who Was Never Born”
Season 1, Episode 6
Originally aired 10/28/1963



Sixty-seven years ago, French audiences were treated to one of the most beautiful, haunting films ever made: La Belle et la Bete (that's Beauty and the Beast for you 'Muricans), Jean Cocteau’s sparkling and exquisite adaptation of the 18th century fairy tale.  Fifty years ago tonight, ABC presented something of a variation on this film, a similarly sparkling and beautiful fairy tale rich with visual ingenuity… only instead of an enchanted castle, they gave us a spaceship; instead of a roaring beast, they gave us an ugly mutant with a handgun.



“The Man Who Was Never Born” opens with intrepid astronaut Captain Joseph Reardon returning home after an eight-month deep space mission. As he nears earth, he passes through a time convulsion and is thrust 185 years into the future, where the earth is a barely-populated wasteland. Upon landing, he is met by Andro, a friendly mutant who gives him a grim history lesson: in the late twentieth century, a scientist named Bertram Cabot Jr. created a virus that genetically altered mankind, rendering them hideous and unable to reproduce. 



Reardon hits on a plan to bring Andro back with him to his own time as a walking, talking cautionary tale to hopefully rewrite history but, as they enter the time convulsion, Reardon learns the hard way that it’s a one-way trip and disintegrates. Andro lands in the green, vibrant past and sets out to assassinate Cabot Jr., using his mutant telepathy to hypnotically appear as normal to others. He discovers that he’s roughly thirty years too early, and Cabot Jr. hasn’t been born yet! Andro’s Plan B involves killing Cabot Sr. during his wedding (thereby preventing Cabot Jr.'s conception), but finds he can’t bring himself to do it: he’s a pacifist but, more importantly, he’s fallen in love with Noelle, the bride.


He flees into the woods, pursued by Noelle, who has fallen in love with him as well.  With Cabot in hot pursuit, they make for the spaceship and successfully escape. As they enter the time convulsion, Andro has a horrible realization: the hopeful future they are fleeing to is one in which he was never born. He disappears, leaving Noelle stranded in space, alone.




RANDOMONIUM

The mark of a truly great piece of work, be it literature or art, film or music, is not perfection. Nay, I say, it’s the ability of the piece to rise above its own flaws and still compel, still enrapture, still delight. “The Man Who Was Never Born” is one such work, as I’m sure most will agree. It's an epic fairy tale, filled with gorgeous imagery and fascinating plot twists... but there are most definitely flaws. That said, let the skewering begin!

Where to begin? Let’s start with the “time convulsion” that sets the whole chain of events in motion. Why can a person only pass through it once? Why would doing so again result in death? We see Flash Gord--- er, Capt. Reardon--- vanish in a flurry of overlapping double images, then take on a mysterious glow just before he disappears. Andro merely disappears, softly and without fireworks, which indicates that he was uncreated (versus dying due to his second trip through the time convulsion). It is easy to see how some viewers could interpret it differently, since we've already seen a guy die on his second pass. The one-way-only limit is ultimately only there to expediently get rid of Reardon, which gives it an unfortunate deus ex machina feel when considered after the fact.

Going.... going.... going... GONE.


Major Matt Mas--- er, Capt. Reardon --- is your typical young, brash, virile astronaut… until the last few seconds of his life, in which he seems to revert to a whiny-voiced adolescent. Were his testicles the first thing to vanish? 







If mankind's ability to reproduce was inhibited by Cabot's work, then how does Andro exist at all? Shouldn't all of humanity have died off? Let's see... Reardon is from 1963, 185 years in the past. In the ‘late 20th century’ in the original timeline, Bertram Cabot Jr. will cause the destruction of humanity; we’ll be generous and say 1999. That’s 149 years before Reardon’s encounter with Andro. Let’s say Andro is 49. That means 100 years elapsed between Cabot’s Folly and Andro’s birth, which also means that mankind was still reproducing 100 years after Patient Zero became infected. So… it was a really slow sterilization effect, then? Or maybe math wasn’t writer Anthony Lawrence’s strong suit…?

And as long as we’re talking about time issues, how the hell did earth turn into a rocky wasteland in less than 200 years? Andro assures Reardon that there was no atomic war, so what happened? Catastrophic natural event? Luminoid contamination?  All we’re told is that humanity was more or less “wiped out” by Cabot Jr.’s plague, which wouldn't have caused such wholesale ecological devastation. A bit more backstory here would've really helped.


Andro makes a point of telling Buzz Lighty--- er, Captain Reardon--- that Cabot Jr.’s mother’s name was Noelle (“a woman who issued destruction for all future Christmases,” which is a pretty damned trite line that Martin Landau somehow manages to thoroughly sell). Once Andro is in the past, Mrs. Ives tells him that the fickle blonde he’s eyeballing is named Noelle Andresen, yet he inexplicably doesn’t make the connection until later, when he discovers that he’s a few decades early. Andro is a learned, highly literate scholar who has “memorized every detail of (Cabot’s) life”… so how the bloody time-convulsing hell didn't he immediately figure it out? 


The frog that Noelle catches just before her first sighting of Andro is stiff as a board and very obviously fake (or do frogs suffer catalepsy if they’re captured? I’m not an expert on amphibious behaviors). However, a moment later when Andro holds it in the palm of his hand and strokes it, it appears real (I saw its neck goiter whatchamacallit thing move once, right before the cut; it’s almost impossible to see but it’s there).

The climactic chase scene through the forest is exciting enough, but the handheld camera work is a bit too shaky for my tastes (the Steadicam wouldn't be invented until 1976). The jittery, frenetic sequence seems a bit at odds with the otherwise languid, dreamy visuals that the rest of the episode offers. When Andro and Noelle reach the spaceship, the image suddenly stabilizes thanks to a rock-steady crane shot, a welcome relief. 

Turn around, bright eyes.

It probably sounds like I’m just looking for things to bitch about. I guess I kinda am. Lawrence’s brilliant script is brilliantly rendered by director Anthony Horn (who will return to direct "The Zanti Misfits" and "The Children of Spider County" later this season) and Director of Photography Conrad Hall, and it’s a testament to its greatness that it prevails despite the flaws I've described. It really is a thing of shimmering, gauzy beauty, a definite high point for the series. It looks and feels like a dream and, if we accept it as such, then said flaws are rendered more or less immaterial. 

You can glow your own way.


AURAL PLEASURE


“The Man Who Was Never Born” features an original score by Dominic Frontiere. It’s a powerful, sweeping work, and it's enjoyed two distinct releases: the original GNP/Crescendo single-disc soundtrack from 1990, and more recently the three-disc set from La La Land Records (dear God, it’s only $19.99 plus shipping! Go order it right now and come back. I’ll wait. No, seriously, go get it. You cannot call yourself a true fan if you don't have it).


The score features several cues that will reappear throughout the rest of the season, most notably the music heard during Andro and Noelle's space flight (up until his disappearance). It's technically part of the "I Was Never Born!" cue, but the original GNP/Crescendo lists it as "The Outer Limits Signature Loop," which is much more fitting. It may just be the single most recognizable, most reused (but never overused) piece of music Frontiere contributed to the series. It, perhaps more than any other recurring cue, sonically defines The Outer Limits. Have a listen:



DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Martin Landau inhabits the role of Andro with passionate desperation, and walks away with one of the best performances in the entire series. We’ll see him again later this season in “The Bellero Shield,” but his Outer Limits connection doesn’t end there: he would team up with series producer Joseph Stefano in 1964 for The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre, a failed TV pilot that would ultimately see a theatrical release outside of the US. Landau also graced two episodes of The Twilight Zone (“Mr. Denton on Doomsday” and “The Jeopardy Room”) and would enjoy starring roles on Mission: Impossible (1966-1969) and Space: 1999 (1975-1977). More recently, genre fans may have spotted him as gynecologist/UFO nut Dr. Alvin Kurtzweil in The X-files: Fight the Future in 1998, in which he takes a piss in an alley with David Duchovny (ah, the perks of fame).



Shirley Knight (Noelle Andresen) doesn’t seem to have any other sci-fi/fantasy credits on her resume, but I’m going to count her as a TOL babe, if for no other reason than the upside-down shot of her lying on the grass in act three. Breathtaking. Otherwise, she’s a Disney princess made flesh, frolicking with the fauna in the flora and torn between the hunky hunter and the bewitching beast (say that fast three times).



John Considine is suitably jealous and incensed as Bertram Cabot. This is his only TOL role but, earlier in 1963, he played deep sea diver McClure in the Twilight Zone episode “The Thirty-Fathom Grave.”


Buck Rog--- er, Capt. Reardon--- is played by Karl Held in his only TOL appearance; however, he would cross paths with Martin Landau again on Space: 1999 (“The Immunity Syndrome”) in 1977.  Is it just me, or does he kinda resemble a young David Bowie?  “Space Oddity” indeed.

Captain Reardon, meet Major Tom.


The role of Mrs. McCluskey is played (and screamed) by Maxine Stuart, who presumably had an in with Daystar Productions thanks to her work on Stoney Burke (“Gold-Plated Maverick”). She’s probably most famous, however, for her role as the masked Janet Tyler in the legendary “Eye of the Beholder" episode of The Twilight Zone. Ms. Stuart very recently passed away, in June of this year.



Marlowe Jensen officiates at the doomed Cabot-Andresen wedding as the unnamed minister. He’ll get a name next time around, as Sgt. Berry in season two’s “Soldier.”




Here’s something interesting. A different ending was filmed which had Noelle arriving on a lush, green future earth after Andro's disappearance. An old man, played by Jack Raine, sees her and chats her up. The scene was cut in favor of the darker, unresolved ending, but Raine’s name still appears in the end credits. This was his only Outer Limits appearance, but he showed up in two Twilight Zones (“Passage on the Lady Anne” and “Spur of the Moment”...in which we only saw the back of his head).


HOME VIDEO RELEASES



“The Man Who Was Never Born” has been released on VHS twice here in the US; first in the late 80’s in the standard (and prettiest) packaging, then again in the late 90’s with revised artwork. God, that green and purple just burns my eyes.



Other VHS releases include Columbia House's mail order release, which paired the episode with "The Sixth Finger." The retail releases across the pond had two episodes per volume, and their third volume included the same two episodes.


The episode was included in the second LaserDisc collection in 1992. I'm not sure why clunkers like "The Brain of Colonel Barham" and "The Probe" made it onto the second collection when so many other deserving episodes never got the LD treatment at all, but I'm sure the marketing geniuses at MGM Home Video had their reasons. 


The episode can be found on three different DVD releases: 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. If you bought all three, you are the proud (?) owner of three identical sets, since the discs are the exact same all across the board. Triple Dip, baby! The Twilight Zone has been released on DVD twice: the original single volumes and the dramatically improved Definitive Edition season sets (not to mention the blu-ray sets, which are even more dramatically improved). Why can't The Outer Limits get similar love?


And for those Gen-Z forward thinkers out there who don't need physical media, MGM has made the entire series available for standard-def streaming on Hulu. It's not available on Hulu Plus, however, which means you can't watch it on your iPhone or other mobile device.... which isn't really forward-thinking at all, is it? 

And no, dammit, there's still no sign that a blu-ray release is in the works. #pissed


TRADING CARD CORNER




In their Monsters from Outer Limits trading card series in 1964, Topps went a bit crazy over Andro and depicted him on SIX different cards. Here he was renamed “The Clay Man,” a robot with a skin-like outer coating of clay. No, really, I’m serious. You can’t make this shit up.



MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT



Andro was immortalized in a deluxe action figure by Sideshow Collectibles in 2004, offered in a two-pack with the Helosian alien from “O.B.I.T.” These were the final two figures in the line, and they were produced in limited numbers. Prepare to cough up some semi-serious coin should you wish to add ‘em to your collection. Since I tend to lack said “serious coin” (semi or otherwise), I don’t have these two. A helpful review of both can be found here.


Dimensional Designs offers a model kit of Andro (OL-08), sculpted by Greg Nicotero (whom I believe is the same Greg Nicotero currently executive-producing AMC's The Walking Dead; somebody chime in and correct me if I'm wrong). I have this grand idea in my head that, someday, I’m gonna buy all the model kits and create a highly impressive display of them (never mind that I've never in my life put a model together, much less done any intricate painting). I suppose it’ll never happen, but t’s nice to dream (sigh). If you’re more proactive (and talented) than me, and you’d like to launch such an endeavor, you can start with Andro, whom you can acquire for $49.95 plus shipping here.


THE WRAP-UP



The Outer Limits will feature other fantasy stories with dreamlike atmospheres (“The Guests,” for example), but “The Man Who Was Never Born” is the first and best. Like “The Architects of Fear” a few weeks back, it stands with the greatest episodes of the series run. Hell, any television series, ever. Definitely top ten for me.