Destruct that ship, General!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "The Human Factor" (11/11/1963)




“The Human Factor”
Season 1, Episode 8
Originally aired 11/11/1963



Fifty years ago tonight, The Outer Limits took the road much traveled and presented a story about, of all things, brain swapping. Ugh.



At a remote military installation in Northern Greenland, Major Brothers has lost his grip on reality. Private Gordon, a man under his command, was recently lost under suspicious circumstances on an away mission (forgive my Trek lingo) to a nearby isthmus, and he harbors a guilt complex that manifests in the form of a spectral hallucination of the dead Private. Knowing that the eventual discovery of the body would implicate him, he’s become obsessed with destroying the isthmus to eradicate the evidence. He attempts to detonate an atomic device but is stopped by the onset of an earthquake.


Meanwhile, Dr. James Hamilton, the base’s resident psychiatrist and apparent mad scientist, has built a machine that connects two people and allows them to read one another’s minds (y’now, kinda like a Vulcan mind-meld). He hooks himself and his assistant Ingrid up to the machine and discovers that she is in love with him. Unfortunately it’s a two-way connection, and Ingrid discovers that he’s just not that into her.


Major Brothers is brought back to the base for analysis, and Hamilton wastes no time mixing brains with him. Another earthquake strikes, which causes the machine to overload and sends both men flying across the room (the set-shaking reminds me of the Enterprise bridge crew getting tossed back and forth). Brothers gets his bearings first and quickly realizes that he and Hamilton have swapped bodies. He quickly assumes Hamilton’s identity and orders the real Hamilton (now in Brothers’ body) sedated and locked up. He resumes his plan to activate the nuclear device, only now he's not targeting the isthmus.... he wants to destroy the base itself.


Ingrid realizes something is amiss and, after talking to the confined Hamilton, believes his story and orchestrates a ruse to free him. His escape raises the base's general alarm, and has the helpful side effect of foiling Brothers' plot. Brothers returns to the lab, gun in hand, where Hamilton is waiting for him. Brothers shoots him in the ensuing struggle, but Ingrid manages to reverse the brain swap mere seconds before Brothers’ body dies, effectively killing him. Hamilton, safely returned to his own body, seems suddenly open to romantic possibilities with Ingrid. Awwwww.

Not exactly the threesome I was hoping for, guys...

RANDOMONIUM


“The Human Factor” is written by Donald Duncan (with some revisions by series producer Joe Stefano); he also penned the screenplay for 1960’s big screen adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (a favorite of mine, and not just because of Yvette Mimieux). Director Abner Biberman only visited The Outer Limits this one time, but he crossed over into The Twilight Zone four times (“The Dummy,” “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” and “I Am the Night – Color Me Black”).

“The Human Factor” has some great sets (the wintery wonderland outside the base, the elevated brain-swapping area in Hamilton’s lab, and… okay, two great sets), and Conrad Hall works his usual magic to wring rich shadows out of those sets. The opening scene has a marvelously ominous vibe as the nuclear device is dragged through the snow. It looks like a coffin, actually, which adds to the tension.


Silly as it is, I love the screen the computer screen in Hamilton’s lab that depicts the brains overlapping as two minds merge. The lab has a lot of mad scientist equipment eye candy to offer, and those cranial apparatuses are undeniably cool. Hamilton’s oscilloscope displays a very familiar sine wave pattern: it looks like he and Ingrid are tuning into The Outer Limits!


I don’t believe for a second that a hot dish like Ingrid would ever fall in love with a cold fish like Hamilton (particularly with all those young, strong military types around the base). That probably sounds sexist and demeaning, but it’s intended as a compliment, goddammit. She could have her pick of any man, woman or ice ghost on that base. Oh, and I'm sure something important was happening around the 34:15 mark, but I was way too distracted by the gap between her shirt buttons. 


Ahem. Back to  business.


After the earthquake and resultant brain swap, Brothers (in Hamilton’s body) summons the two sentries who have been standing guard outside the lab. Why the hell didn't they peek in after the fucking earthquake? You know, to make sure everything was okay in there?


Note that the name tags look very similar to the series titles (white blocky on black). High contrast, bold and stark... looks like the same font and everything. I wonder if that was intentional, or if all early 60's fictional military installations used this style of name tag. The fact that I even noticed this at all implies that my tendency to obsessively chronicle minute details has reached a new high (or a new depth, perhaps). 

“The Human Factor” is the first episode that I would comfortably call a disappointment. It’s not bad, necessarily, but it’s nowhere near the startling brilliance of the episodes that have preceded it (not to mention the spectacular episodes that will immediately follow it). It was the third episode produced, but it didn't get aired till week 8, which suggests that maybe Daystar Productions didn't have the utmost confidence in it (they had even less confidence in “The Borderland,” which was the second episode produced but the twelfth to air!).


Brothers’ psychosis is hazy and a bit difficult to track. So he suffers from a guilt complex for his complicity in Private Gordon’s death. Check. He is plagued by hallucinations of Gordon’s ghost. Check. He believes that destroying the isthmus will permanently hide all evidence of Gordon’s body, and presumably put an end to the pesky haunting. Check again. Why, then, does he suddenly decide to destroy the entire base too, himself included? That’s hardly an effective way to protect himself from prosecution. I suppose we could just write it off as the fractured logic of a lunatic, but that doesn’t quite gel with me… mostly because, the vast majority of the time, Brothers doesn’t act crazy. He just acts… well, urgent and a bit hostile (oh, and over-dramatic too). If I’m expected to believe that someone is teetering on the brink, give me some nervous tics or something. I don’t need self-cutting, à la Bane from The Matrix Reloaded, but gimme something in the way of identifying wacko behavior.

The ghost of Private Gordon, aka the Ice Ghost, isn’t a terribly effective “bear,” especially after the impressive array of creatures we've seen in the series thus far. Interestingly, a much cooler version, translucent with glowing eyes, was built but ultimately not used (because it was an inanimate statue, and obviously so? I dunno). Dubbed “Chill Charlie,” the statue has somehow managed to endure as an iconic TOL creature, whereas Gordon’s Ghost is largely forgotten outside the context of the episode.


Up until now, The Outer Limits has explored fresh, original concepts, so to drag out the hoary old brain-swapping bit is certainly a letdown. I couldn't tell you when the first skull-sharing tales hit the screen, but the idea dates back at least as far back as 1942 with Universal’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, which finds Ygor forcing Ludwig Frankenstein to place his brain in the Frankenstein Monster’s head. And since I keep riffing on Star Trek this week, I should mention the “Turnabout Intruder” episode, which found Kirk experiencing a woman inside of him for a change. 



AURAL PLEASURE

“The Human Factor” features original music by Dominic Frontiere and, if some of it sounds familiar, it’s because some of its cues (particularly “It’s Here” and “Monster Appears”) were used very regularly throughout the show’s first season, including in episodes we've already seen (last week’s “O.B.I.T.”, for example). If you’d like to enjoy Frontiere’s score without dialogue and sound effects, be sure to order a copy of the 3-disc soundtrack from La La Land Records (it’s only $19.99, a bargain at twice the price).


DRAMATIS PERSONAE

As Dr. James Hamilton, this is Gary Merrill’s only Outer Limits foray. He checked into The Twilight Zone just once too (“Still Valley”), and he played Gideon Spillit in the 1961 big screen adaptation of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island. And…. that’s about the extent of my Gary Merrill knowledge. Oh, he was the heavy in the excellent Fox noir Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950; did I mention I love film noir? Well, I do).


TOL Babe alert! Ingrid Larkin is elevated from dowdy lab assistant to three-alarm hottie by Sally Kellerman in the first of two season one appearances (we’ll see her again in “The Bellero Shield,” which also stars TOL alum Martin Landau). She also appeared in an episode of the short-lived 2007 series Masters of Science Fiction called “The Watchbird,” based on a 1953 short story by Robert Scheckley... wanna know why this counts as an Outer Limits connection? Because Francis Cockerel (writer of season two’s “Expanding Human”) adapted the story for TOL’s second season in 1964, but the series got cancelled before it could be produced. 


The supporting cast sports some TOL first-timers who will return for appearances in season two. First up is Ivan Dixon (here playing Major Giles), who will grace “The Inheritors” two-part episode (he also appeared in two Twilight Zones: “The Big Tall Wish” and “I Am the Night – Color Me Black”). Next we have Shirley O'Hara (Dr. Soldini), who will return in for “Expanding Human” (she also appeared in two Twilight Zones: “The Rip Van Winkle Caper” and “On Thursday We Leave For Home”). There’s also James B. Sikking as an unnamed orderly, whom you might spot next season in “Cold Hands, Warm Heart.”


“The Human Factor’ cast also includes a few Stoney Burke veterans. First up is John Newton (here playing Dr. Peterson), who appeared in the “Cousin Eunice” episode in 1962 (he also appeared twice on The Twilight Zone: “Person or Persons Unknown” and “The Bard”). Art Alisi, who appeared in the “Kelly’s Place” episode in 1963, plays an unnamed sergeant here. And last but certainly not least, William O. Douglas Jr., who appeared in “The Weapons Man” episode in 1963, plays the frosty ghost of Private Gordon here. I moronically neglected to mention him in my episode spotlight on “The Galaxy Being” in September (in which he played Andy the Andromedan), which is why I felt compelled to post William O. Douglas: An Outer Limits Visual Résumé recently. Go have a look.


HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“The Human Factor” was released on VHS, but I couldn't tell you exactly when. I bought each tape as MGM/UA released them, and I had exactly half the series before I stopped (as I recently detailed here). So it came out sometime in the latter half of the release cycle between 1989 and 1991 (I’d really love to get my hands on a chronological list of the VHS releases, given my endless fascination with information that serves no discernible purpose; anybody?). See those overlapping brains behind Sally Kellerman? Looks a lot like a heart, doesn’t it? If you had any doubt that “The Human Factor” is first and foremost a love story, you can lay those fears to rest.


The episode was also released domestically on VHS as part of the Columbia House collection, paired with “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork.” It was never released on VHS in the UK.

Further proof that “The Human Factor” isn’t exactly Grade-A Outer Limits: it wasn’t included on any of the four LaserDisc collections that were released between 1990 and 1995. Now, I’m sure it would've eventually shown up had these releases continued, but clearly nobody was in a big hurry to get it out there on the (at the time) higher quality format. Of course, comparatively shitty episodes started popping up as early as volume two (“The Brain of Colonel Barham” and “The Probe”), so what do I know?


The LaserDiscs presumably stopped short because, by mid-1995 (when volume 4 was released), the studios were already developing the new DVD format, which arrived in 1997 and very quickly changed the entire home video market. The entire first season of the series was released on DVD on September 3, 2002. Season One was then split in half and re-released in two separate volumes (June 5, 2007 and August 28, 2007). These two volumes, along with the third volume comprising the show’s abbreviated second season, were combined in one omnibus set in 2008 (the show’s 45th anniversary). All three distinct releases contain the identical discs, so even a die-hard completest like me only bought the first releases.


Don’t wanna fork out good money for the DVDs, but still wanna see “The Human Factor”? Head on over to Hulu, where you can stream it for free. But honestly, if you’re any kind of fan, you should already own the series in some fashion.


But can the episode be viewed in high definition? Two words: HELL NO.  If I ever somehow because a multi-millionaire, I vow to personally fund a blu-ray release. That’s my solemn promise to you, dear reader.


TRADING CARD CORNER


“The Human Factor” spawned two trading cards in the Monsters from Outer Limits series from Topps. Both the Ice Ghost and Chill Charlie were represented and, in a surprising twist, both were used to depict the same character ("The Incredible Ice Man".... oy). Topps also elected to depict Chill Charlie on the packaging, which is ironic since he’s the only monster in the entire card series that is never seen in an episode. I imagine this helped make ol’ Charlie such an indelible piece of the series’ monster-filled landscape.



MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT


Chill Charlie’s status as a major monster player was further solidified when Dimensional Designs chose to create a model kit of him (DD/OL/CC-19) instead of the official Ice Ghost. It features an awesome sculpt by Curt Chiarelli (whose name appears to be Chill Charlie if you rearrange the letters... well, almost), and you can get your very own for $59.95 by clicking here.

Google Images continues to bear surprising and delicious fruit. Check out the model in its fully assembled and painted glory:



THE WRAP-UP

Brain-swapping cliché + unconvincing romance + weak monster = mediocre episode at best. It's not awful, but it's a step down after last week's excellent "O.B.I.T." (and it certainly pales in comparison to next week's "Corpus Earthling"). It's certainly watchable, and it does have its moments (and Sally Kellerman!), but ultimately.... double the brain doesn't equate to double the quality.






5 comments:

  1. Agreed. This is the first "eh...it was okay" episode of the Outer Limits but its worth the watch because of fine acting by Harry Guardino and Gary Merrill. Plus it showcases the TV debut of Sally Kellerman.

    There is something captivating about the feeling of isolation brought about by the cold climates of the Artic (and Antarctic). Recall the original feature "The Thing" and the subsequent remake by John Carpenter. "The X-Files" had a very good cold-weather isolation episode, too. It was during Season One of that series and it was called "Ice".

    The feeling of isolation permeates this story and the mind link experiment is well done. There isn't much of a "bear" here, but when briefly seen, the Ghost of Private Gordon is menacing enough.

    This is the first episode produced in which the Director of Photography is Conrad Hall. I think because of his presence, the classic noir look associated with The Outer Limits is on display here.

    "The Human Factor" generates a pretty good level of suspense throughout and comes to an interesting conclusion.

    My rating: 5 - Good

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  2. Love this blog, and I finally have something to contribute! The font for the show titles and those name tags was everywhere in scientific publishing in the early 1960s. It always appeared on graphics, particularly those associated with Caltech (which included the Palomar Observatory). See here, from the "Feynman Lectures on Physics"...

    http://i.stack.imgur.com/jlXIP.jpg

    The name of the font is Franklin Gothic. Gradually science publishing moved to Computer Modern and related fonts and remains there now. Anyway, it is very natural that the detail conscious crew of Limits would have picked FG as the title font.

    -drl

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  3. That's the thing about OL. Even the dumbest ones were so beautifully produced that they're still watchable. One of my faves, 'Demon With a Glass Hand' has a gigantic plot hole that nukes the whole thing. I still watch it, at least once a year.

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  4. Not the best OL OR the worst. I find it quite watchable.

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  5. Okay, "The Human Factor" isn't a classic, but I have new respect for it after re-watching it on MeTV recently. It's intricately plotted, and the cast is good; in particular, both Merrill and Guardino are convincing in what amounts to dual roles for the both of them.

    Just wondering: why wasn't Chill Charlie used? And why didn't he turn up anywhere else? With Outer Limits creatures re-appearing in Star Trek and The Munsters, you'd think some enterprising producer would have wanted him. Finally, if he still exists, what happened to him? Is he in some collection, museum, or warehouse?

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