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Monday, October 14, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "The Sixth Finger" (10/14/1963)




“The Sixth Finger”
Season 1, Episode 5
Originally aired 10/14/1963



The films of Universal Studios' classic horror cycle feature numerous intense and driven scientists, probing the outer rim of known science and often unleashing new and destructive horrors upon the world. The Outer Limits introduced us to many such men, groping and stumbling their way through the hidden tapestry that seethes beneath everyday reality, discovering (or creating) atomic-age horrors of their own. Fifty years ago tonight, one of them peered into mankind's distant future only to find that there are monsters waiting for us there too: ourselves.




Professor Mathers has set up shop in a secluded Welsh mining town (sure sounds like a Universal horror flick) to experiment with artificially speeding up natural evolution. He finds a subject in Gwyllm Griffiths, a sullen and restless miner who believes himself destined for something beyond his meager surroundings (shades of Harold J. Finney!). Mathers exposes him to "selected wavelengths" designed to stimulate his superior genes and "thereby accelerating the inborn mechanism of evolution to a fantastically high speed," and immediately advances him 10,000 years further along man's evolutionary line.


What appears to be a resounding success quickly turns into something dark and unpredictable. Having set the biological rush in motion, Mathers is shocked to witness Gwyllm's evolution continue without further stimulation. His mental powers increase exponentially: he can read minds and, upon being discovered by Mathers' maid Ms. Ives, he telekinetically murders her by stopping her heart.


He then sets out to "utterly destroy" the town to settle his long-seated hatred for it but quickly evolves beyond the need for petty revenge. He enlists the aid of Cathy, the local girl who loves him, to use Mathers' equipment to advance him even further, past the physical realm into a state of pure thought. Unable to bear losing him for good, she pushes the lever the opposite way (yes, it all comes down to a lever; shades of Bride of Frankenstein!) and brings him back to his old primitive self.



RANDOMONIUM

“The Sixth Finger” is the only season one episode directed by James Goldstone; he’ll be back in a big way in season two, however, with the wonderful two-part “The Inheritors.” This is the only episode written by Ellis St. Joseph; of more interest to us is the fact that series producer Joseph Stefano contributed additional script material, so this is the first episode aired that he had a hand in writing.



John Nickolaus, DOP on the series premiere “The Galaxy Being,” is back this week; he’ll work on a total of nine episodes this season (Conrad Hall, meanwhile, will do fifteen; Kenneth Peach will do eight). There’s certainly nothing wrong with his work here, but it’s a bit flat when compared to the lush, shadow-drenched visuals Conrad Hall churns out. Maybe ‘flat’ is too harsh… not as rich, maybe?



 I have other, more specific issues with the cinematography: what the hell is up with the extreme close-ups? I’m totally cool with them if they’re there to provide a claustrophobic feel, or to impart some other dramatic sentiment, but the close-ups in “The Sixth Finger” feel arbitrary and pointless. And, in the case of Prof. Mathers, kinda creepy.


Second, the staccato-cutting back-and-forth of Gwyllm shifting between evolutionary stages in the chamber during the climax looks ridiculous. I mean, like, hilariously goofy. Like drama-killing. It looks like those animated GIFs you see all over the internet. Hey, that gives me an idea....



And again, Nickolaus just doesn't slather his visuals in shadows the way Conrad Hall does. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying his work is necessarily bad.... it's just not as moody, not as atmospheric, and not as beautiful. An exception is Mrs. Ives' funeral scene, which looks like it came straight out of Ingmar Bergman's 1962 film Winter Light (which is being aired on TCM tonight, so maybe I'm not the first person to make the connection).



"The Sixth Finger" is one of the series' best-remembered and most-beloved episodes, thanks in no small part to the elaborate makeup used for Gwyllm's last evolutionary stage. It may be the single most iconic "bear" the series has to offer (to my knowledge, it's the only TOL character ever to have spawned a Halloween mask; more on this below), and I have the utmost respect for it. Well, except for the droopy nose (the evolutionary point of which mystifies me).


What I have a hard time accepting or respecting is the design for Gwyllm's first evolutionary leap forward. High forehead, patchy unkempt hair and Jesus, look at those caterpillars (Martin Scorsese called, he wants his eyebrows back).  Does the man of the future sweat more, necessitating more eye protection?  This hardly looks like a step forward. He looks like a macrocephalic clown in search of his makeup.


Happily his next evolutionary stage (one million years ahead) is much more aesthetically pleasing: less hair, smoother head... it just looks cleaner, sleeker. I think I prefer this stage to the final, much more elaborate makeup. Watch him smugly observe that he's now the opposite of the relatively-primitive Professor Mathers. It's a chilling moment and, if we didn't already foresee problems, we sure as hell do now.


Check out time stamp 44:41, in which a fly buzzes around (and lands on) Gwyllm's head. I'd never noticed it before now, and upon spotting it I immediately squealed "Help meeeeeee!" before collapsing in a fit of hysterics. Man, I crack myself up.


Okay, so Gwyllm has already demonstrated some pretty impressive telekinetic ability (opening doors, stopping hearts, throwing people around, etc), so why does he need Cathy to operate the lever to propel him even higher up the evolutionary chain? Couldn't he, you know, DO IT HIMSELF? Having her of all people help him is a reckless and moronic risk, since she's already begged him not to evolve further (he even shows her exactly how to revert him back to earlier stages!). And Christ, he's supposed to be telepathic; that big brain of his should've known what she'd do. But hey, the episode's almost over and we need a happy ending, so screw everything.

And finally, what's wrong with Gwyllm when he exits the chamber at the end? He seems okay at first: he walks over to Cathy, touches her face, examines her teardrop on his finger... and then drops to the floor, mute and glassy-eyed. Is his brain fried? Or is he just really tired from all that evolving (and devolving)?  The original script called for him to revert all the way back to protoplasmic goo, which would've made for an infinitely better ending.

Wait, this isn't hand sanitizer...!

I'd like to think he's so stunned by Jill Haworth's breathtaking beauty that he needs a moment to collect himself. I'd probably react the same way.


Sigh.

In this type of story, the lab is typically destroyed in some spectacular fashion. That surprisingly doesn't happen here, which means that Mathers can just start over again with a different subject (hopefully one without those pesky delusions of grandeur). So if the lesson here is that man isn't yet ready to evolve... well, I see no indication that Mathers has learned it.


HOUSEKEEPING

Last week I reported that the "electronic buzzing, augmented with a reverby “magic wand” sound" would be standard accompaniment for the episode-specific titles for the rest of the season (instead of actual musical underscore). Well, surprise of surprises, this week's episode has ACTUAL MUSICAL UNDERSCORE playing under the episode titles, so I was clearly wrong there. I've checked every single episode, and this is absolutely, positively the LAST one. Starting next week, the series' structure and window dressing is set in stone.*



The length of the opening title sequence is shorter starting this week: gone are the Control Voice’s lines about controlling the volume and making the image roll or flutter. Here’s a decidedly low-resolution video capture for your reference:


The opening sequence will be downsized even further down the road. You'll see when we get there.


AURAL PLEASURE

Like last week, no original music was composed for this episode; however, attentive ears will pick up the "Coffee and Cigarettes" cue from "Controlled Experiment," used here as an ersatz theme for Cathy (we hear it almost every time she's onscreen). Later, we get "Monster Appears" from "The Human Factor" and "The Big Finish" from "The Borderland" (again). Because the episodes were shot and scored out of order, cues were often heard on the series for the first time out of context, a kind of a musical sneak preview. There are also some action-oriented cues in "The Sixth Finger" that I don't recognize, so I'm guessing they came from Stoney Burke. I'd really love to get my hands on some cue sheets so I could be sure (I have cue sheets for every episode of The Twilight Zone, which has been invaluable in tracing the use and reuse of music for that show in my other blog


DRAMATIS PERSONAE


David McCallum is quite good as Gwyllm Griffiths in the first of two TOL starring roles (he'll be back at the end of the season in “The Forms of Things Unknown”). Interestingly, he appeared in a remake of "A Feasibility Study" in 1997 on Showtime's Outer Limits revival series (which mostly sucked, unfortunately, though there are a few gems hidden in there). Genre fans undoubtedly remember him from his stint on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68), but he's known to millions in the present day as Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard on the CBS stalwart NCIS (2003-present; if only The Outer Limits had had that kind of run).



Edward Mulhare is sufficiently stuffy (and a bit dickish, truth be told) as Professor Mathers. He appeared in a 1966 episode of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. ("The Mata Hari Affair"), which I'm gonna count as a connection to David McCallum (despite the fact that McCallum never actually appeared on his show's S.P.I.N.O.F.F.).



Robert Doyle plays Wilt Morgan, Gwyllm's soot-covered coal-minin' coworker (say that fast three times). He worked for Daystar Productions previously in the "Cat's Eyes" episode of Stoney Burke, and he'll show up on TOL again in season two's "Expanding Human." And hey, he appeared on both The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ("The Minus-X Affair") and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. ("The Phi Beta Killer Affair"), so there's a double C.O.N.N.E.C.T.I.O.N. for ya.

Janos Prohaska (the full-sized Thetan in "The Architects of Fear") returns to The Outer Limits as Darwin the Monkey (you didn't think that was a real monkey, did you?). He'll return in the series finale "The Probe" as Mikie the Microbe a year from January.





Jill Haworth is delicate and radiant as Cathy Evans in her only TOL appearance, which is a damn shame because she is undeniably a TOL Babe. I'd buy bread from her anytime.

Sigh (again).


HOME VIDEO RELEASES


Yes, I know there's some geometric distortion going on here. Google Images beggars can't be choosers.

“The Sixth Finger” has been released on VHS twice here in the US; first in the late 80’s as part of the 48-volume series collection, then again in the late 90’s with revised artwork.


If you didn't get out much, you probably got your TOL video fix from Columbia House, who offered the entire series on 24 two-episode tapes via mail order. “The Sixth Finger” was paired with “The Man Who Was Never Born.” In a nice bit off intercontinental synchrony, the UK retail release (volume 3 of 8) featured the same two episodes.


The episode was included in the third LaserDisc collection in 1994. The OCD collector in me wants to seek out the four TOL LD volumes, even though I don’t have player and probably never will.  I still want ‘em... you know, just to look at and stuff.


The episode has found its way onto 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. In all three incarnations, the discs are exactly the same, those unreliable DVD-18s (double-sided and dual-layered) that are the bane of so many collectors’ existences (I had to buy the volume 3 set to replace a disc that had gone bad, and I know I'm not the only one). The UK season sets (which match the original season sets here in terms of content) are single-sided discs... and I do have two region-free players.... hmmmm....


And finally, MGM has made the series available for standard-def streaming on Hulu but NOT Hulu Plus, which means even if you’re a paying member (which I am), you can’t watch it on your TV or mobile device.

What about blu-ray, you ask? Ha. I’m not holding my breath at this point. Maybe someday we’ll get an HD remastering, but it’ll probably only be available for streaming and not in a physical-object-to-own-and-cherish format.


TRADING CARD CORNER



Gwyllm was depicted twice in Topps' classic Monsters from Outer Limits card series in 1964, which is double what they gave Andy the Andromedan, but a mere fraction of the overexposure they indulged in for Andro ("The Man Who Was Never Born") and the Ebonite Interrogator ("Nightmare"), both of whom saw a whopping six cards each.



Rittenhouse produced a single series of TOL cards in 2002 which spotlighted eight episodes (nine cards for each) the backs of which summarized the story, Control Voice narration and all, and provided main cast and crew credits. Unfortunately, they frequently chose rather unexciting images for the fronts of the cards and, to my dismay, only featured the exquisite Jill Haworth on ONE lousy card.



MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT



As one of the series' most recognizable characters, Gwyllm has been immortalized a number of times. First and foremost, he got the deluxe action figure treatment in 2002 from Sideshow Collectibles, and it's a pretty amazing thing to behold. Look at that detail! Sideshow did a total of eight TOL characters, and I own exactly NONE of them (they're damn spendy these days, especially the two Zanti Misfits, which are up into car payment territory). Let's just say I plan to collect them all in a few years, when my wife finishes nursing school and is making the big bucks.




In 1988 Golden Era Miniatures released a 9" model kit and, as far as I can tell, they never released any other TOL kits... which might be a bit of a blessing, since the likeness here is kinda off.

Of course there's a Dimensional Designs model too... or is there? There's one listed on their website but, like Harold J. Finley last week, the listing has no picture, no price, and no sculptor listed. It was clearly planned (it was assigned a serial number, DD/OL/GG-40), but since it appears DD's TOL series has basically dried up, it'll probably never happen. Odd that they sculpted so many of the show's aliens and monsters, but never got around to doing Gwyllm, probably the most famous of them all.


There was also a "Tiny Terrors Super Deformed" model from Mad Labs released at some point (above). Um... yeah, okay.


The following video is obviously not connected to our "Sixth Finger" in any way, but I'm including it anyway because... well, it's funny. No other agenda. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, folks.



This next item doesn't really count as "merchandise," per say, but I stumbled across this while deep fishing on the internet and decided to throw it in. In 1967, Famous Monsters of Filmland published a story on John Chambers' super-evolved Gwyllm design. It's definitely worth a read:




Full disclosure time: the above article scans were rudely pilfered from The Blood Curdling Blog of Monster Masks, which is a great blog devoted to.... well, you get the idea. Do check it out. While I'm at it, here's another scan I thoughtlessly snagged from them which advertises the Gwyllm mask:



Chambers' design was turned into a full-head latex mask from Distortions Unlimited back in the early 80's. It was $74.95 then, so it would be a little over $180.00 in 2013 dollars... but you'll likely pay a lot more than that, since it's rare and highly collectible now: I found one on Amazon for $400.00 (if you order now you'll probably get it in time for Halloween!). The listing says "Death Studios," so it might be a bootleg, I dunno. Not exactly my field of expertise.






THE WRAP-UP

I'm sure I'm gonna get a few bricks thrown my way for this, but "The Sixth Finger" just doesn't quite gel for me. I do appreciate its strengths, and I certainly respect its stature within the Outer Limits creatureverse, but.... well, it's not top ten for me. Maybe not even top twenty. Go ahead, flame away. I can take it.







* Set in stone? Well, "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork" and "The Special One" will feature actual prologues instead of the now-standard pre-episode teasers, but that's not really a structural change... or is it?




11 comments:

  1. Your excellent "Sixth Finger" blog -- I'm laughing so hard I can barely type. When you point out the things that just don't add up, it's especially hysterical to me because these early episodes are so deeply ingrained as Meaningful Childhood Experiences from 1963. That's also why it's a little sobering to have the holes pointed out. Even as a kid, I sort of thought that evolution was supposed to be the same as "natural selection" -- something that happened between generations, not an "evolutionary mechanism" that could be "unleashed" in the star of this week's episode. But I think I remember Schow writing that censors cut Mathers explaining how a human fetus goes through stages resembling millions of years of evolution -- something we can't help but notice in photos in textbooks. Had that line been left in the script, many viewers might have tried a little harder to buy the premise. But "let's not quibble about who-killed-who" -- I was too overwhelmed as a kid by those great, shocking Outer Limits moments where a story tells of things that go so wrong that they would never happen across the dial in Mayberry ("I had to stop her -- so I stopped her heart..." -- we were thinking, did we just see that? Did they actually put that on TV?).



    But one reaction I have today that I didn't have as a kid: Jill Haworth makes me feel like Ralph Cramden as "Chef of the Future" (maybe that's how chefs will behave in six million years, when Jackie Gleason turns into "a vortex of pure intellect").



    Maybe evolution isn't a gradual process, after all. Our six-year-old daughter is already considerably more advanced than we are -- and she plays Bach (who "will probably outlive us all") on the piano despite the presumed disadvantage of only five fingers per hand. (Had Gwyllm played by ear the "Allen & Yvette" theme like my dad did, THAT would have been advanced!)

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  2. Thanks for telling us about the way the music cues were written for episodes that hadn't been aired yet - something I never knew. And if I read it in the David J. Schow book, I must have forgotten. I have to say that the music they used for Cathy's theme really fits the bill. It beautifully evokes the character of Cathy.

    If you want to see the great Gwyllm makeup in a feature film, check out "The Loved One" from 1965. In an early scene with John Gielgud and Robert Morse, someone wearing the Gwyllm head walks through the MGM studio commissary. It's supposed to reflect what a strange place Hollywood is, and it does!

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  3. Adrian's making some really interesting points. He should be doing my blog for me. Love the memes, Craig; gotta disagree with you on the episode as a whole, though. Read on over at mine.

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  4. Adrian - that's some great stuff. Have you considered writing your own TOL blog...?

    Bill - my fascination with film/TV music can be traced back to your championing of Bernard Herrmann in the early days of our friendship.

    Troy - I think T6F has a great amount of potential, but the ending wrecks it for me. I do still like it... it's just not a favorite.

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  6. Craig -- The disagreement between you and Troy about The Sixth Finger, almost two weeks ago, actually DID make me think. While I'm with Troy that the episode is so awe-inspiring as to (almost) silence criticism, I share your discomfort with the ending. For years I thought it seemed like too-happy an ending tacked onto a story that had gone too far "Beyond Control" to be resolved so simply. But now I wonder if the problem isn't more of pace and emphasis. It's OK with me if Cathy wants to bring Gwyllm back – but once she makes that decision and is in the position to do it, that's the resolution of the story. What IS tacked-on is the protracted "final shoot-out" with the machine – as if suddenly there is some question as to whether the dadburned new-fangled contraption will work. We already KNOW it works ("That's what got us IN this mess in the first place!!!"). So there's no suspense or tension in lovely Jill (sigh again) wrestling valiantly with the complexities of the one and only control lever (so clearly marked that it's like voting in the USSR in 1948) and watching Illya Kuryakin going through the flip-flop devolution that you, Craig, already commented on (a visual effect that disappointed us even in 1963). Had Gwyllm been reduced to primordial slime as in the original script, that unexpected result probably wouldn't wash with the viewers because they have seen how user-friendly the machine is to operate. PS: Maybe "what's wrong with Gwyllm when he exits the chamber at the end" is that he's listening to the amazing music. "Coffee and Cigarettes" is an astonishing cue (it's 100% clear what it means -- but can anyone put it in words?). If Dominic Frontiere is still alive, someone should tell him that we're still in awe of the variety and expressive power of his TOL music, all these decades later.

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  7. Most of my comments on these episodes are cut and pasted from thoughts I originally posted back in 2007 on an old "Outer Limits Cafe" forum (I'm mostly too lazy to edit them much). That forum still exists on the farthest reaches of the Internet, but I don't think anyone actively posts there anymore.

    I don't believe anything I ever posted there was particularly earth-shattering, but it has been neat to see what I posted back then and how it applies to the thoughts and comments here. It's likely that I echoed a lot of what Schow wrote, as his Companion was hypnotic to read. So...

    Despite a few flaws, "The Sixth Finger" could be considered one of the best TOL stories. The rapid acceleration of evolution brought about by Professor Mathers experimentation brings Gwyllm Griffiths about a million years closer to becoming "a vortex of pure intelligence". This episode is loaded with the kind of speculative science fiction that was the initial goal of the series. The ponderings of the evolving Gwyllm really do make you think, which is likely what its writers were striving to accomplish.

    David McCallum is just remarkable here, especially his simple facial expressions that relay power, manipulation, evil and even selfishness. The relationship between Gywllm and Cathy is established well, even though their time together before the experiment is brief. Jill Hayworth, who plays Cathy, does a fine job playing the innocent girlfriend. McCallum's makeup is great, as it manages to look practically alien while retaining it's humanity in the freedom of facial expressions it allows. The laboratory is not convincing, outside of the very cool "evolution chamber". I always have a chuckle seeing the large lever labeled "FORWARD" and REVERSE"; as if the Professor would require that type of a reminder to run his own invention. I also laugh a bit when the Professor first reaches for the lever and bumps it with his thumb as he goes to grasp it. The large knob practically falls off.

    Gwyllm's kinetic force is used a number of times and to great effect. One other hoot comes when Gwyllm uses his force to send Professor Mathers flying backward. The stunt double and the harness under his smock are clearly visible when he hits the floor. I suppose this was tough to see before the days of home video, and I happen to love these kinds of "mistakes". There are some problems with the episode. For instance, why did Gwyllm require Cathy's help to manipulate the lever that would advance him further into the future? Was Cathy truly put in a trance by Gwyllm and snapped out of it in time to de-evolve him? If not, why couldn't Gwyllm read her weak mind in time to reveal her planned double-cross? These nitpicks aside, "The Sixth Finger" is a very interesting story with some very real feelings on display. It is also a very thought provoking one.

    My rating: 10 - Excellent

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  8. I love this episode. There was a big discussion at the WATC blog over the end, as everybody -- except ME! -- was sure that Gwyllm ultimately survived his final ordeal. I have ALWAYS thought that he stumbles out of the chamber after his clearly exhausting and unprecedented time traveling, alive for but a moment, then collapses, dead. Cathy speaks of him in the past-tense at that point. I think he died right there. It never even occurred to me that he survived -- how could he physically after all the wear and tear of the process, and how additionally cruel and horrible for him to have been put back into the dark again. It's even worse than Charlie Gordon losing his intellect in "Charly" (Flowers for Algernon). In order to make this a genuine 100% TV-show tragedy, there needs to be...must be a death in actuality, and beautiful Cathy has to lose Gwyllm forever, by death, and Mathers has to finally know that he killed somebody for his experiment. If Gwyllm lived, well, so harm done, right? It has to be worse than that, that the brave Gwyllm has to die for his quest. I think he's dead...an ex-Gwyllm. Super posting, as always, and I have neglected to mention before that I love your memes!!

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  9. ...and this episode I also very clearly recall from its broadcast premiere. Fast forward a lllloooonnnng time and McCallum's performance not only still knocks me sideways but is cited when I try to convince others how an utterly absurd dramatic premise can on an extraordinarily rare occasion be overcome by Acting.

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  11. A nice little touch that you somehow managed to miss is that the little musical riff played at the moment the Professor pushes the lever to send Gwyllm into his biological time trip is the very same piece heard in George Pal's "The Time Machine" when the Time Traveler pushes his lever forward into his future. The riff can be heard clearly in the movie at the 44 minute mark.

    Whether by homage or not, it's quite the nice touch

    Diane

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