Fifty years ago tonight, an hour of gripping television presciently forecasted society's addiction to technology in the 21st century... and its voluntary relinquishment of privacy to feed that addiction.
There’s been a murder at the Defense Department’s Cypress Hill Research Center, and Senator Jeremiah Orville has arrived to conduct an official inquest into the matter. The victim was Captain Harrison, one of several security personnel assigned to the manning of O.B.I.T. (Outer Band Individuated Teletracer), a secret surveillance machine used to remotely monitor the center’s employees. Dr. Clifford Scott, the head of the center, has gone missing after experiencing a “physical breakdown” (I guess we’d call it a nervous breakdown today). Administrator Byron Lomax, testifying in Scott’s place, describes the surveillance process as such:
“Every living organism is a transmitter, operating 24 hours a day. That of course is true of human beings too, awake or asleep, active or passive. We are, each of us, constantly sending out our particular brain waves, heart sounds, respiratory rhythms. Like fingerprints, no two human patterns are alike… it’s like a push-button radio, you see. Once we have an individual turned in and have their particular wavelength, it’s simply a matter of hitting the right buttons and bringing them in.”
Once the machine has locked on, the operator can see and hear the targeted individual, eliminating any privacy the staff might enjoy. Orville is understandably alarmed by this, more so by the disturbing fact that the Institute has eighteen such machines in operation. Testimonies reveal that Dr. Scott’s wife has been carrying on an affair with Lomax, and that the murdered Captain Harrison and Scott were using O.B.I.T. to keep tabs on them. Appearing as a surprise witness, Scott exposes Lomax as Harrison’s murderer by tuning the machine to his wavelength and revealing him to be a hideous one-eyed monster in disguise.
Lomax reveals that he is from the planet Helos, and that the machines are designed to demoralize humanity to facilitate an easy alien invasion. As an armed guard rushes toward him, he transmogrifies into his true Helosian form and vanishes.
The politics and social viewpoints of vintage television shows and films are oftentimes dated, even quaint. Part of the brilliance of “O.B.I.T.” is that it’s actually more relevant now, fifty years after its creation. In this so-called “Information Age,” privacy has become a thing of the past. Our planet is orbited by electro-optical satellites which can reportedly take clear images of items five inches in length and, if that’s not good enough, drone aircraft can be sent in to get even closer images (and you just know at some point they’ll add x-ray technology to the mix and see right through our roofs). Even with the most robust anti-virus software installed on your computer, your every click is still being tracked, ostensibly for market research reasons (but probably for other, possibly nefarious purposes). Hackers can infiltrate your computer and watch you through your own webcam. Our government, thanks to the Homeland Security Act of 2002, can monitor us in all sorts of invasive ways under the guise of national security, including tracking those web-enable smart phones we can’t live without.
It begs the question: why aren't we all drooling basket cases, crumbling beneath the weight of our own paranoia, constantly looking over our shoulders in fear? Is it because the loss of our privacy happened gradually, in almost imperceptible stages? Or is it because our smart phones and assorted other mobile devices are so cool, so sexy, that we’re willing to leave ourselves wide open to silent and unseen scrutiny? Look at all the oversharing we do on Facebook; not only have we renounced our right to privacy; we've been somehow convinced that we want to put everything out there loudly and proudly. And I’m sure most of us have experienced conflict and the resultant deterioration of relationships through our overreliance on social media versus actual human contact… so our machines, which thanks to microtechnology are handheld instead of the size of an O.B.I.T. console, are already creating strife and demoralization across the planet.
In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), Batman hacks into all the cell phones in Gotham to create a highly-detailed echolocation network, an O.B.I.T.-like approach that’s likely possible in the real world (and might already be happening). Consider that iPhone in your pocket for a moment... have you ever wondered what it’s doing when you aren't using it?
“O.B.I.T.” is written by Meyer Dolinsky, who also wrote the universally-praised “The Architects of Fear.” He’ll also pen “ZZZZZ” later this season, which isn't as universally praised (I like it quite a bit, however, and not just because of my fevered, near-irrational lust for Joanna Frank). In the director’s chair is Gerd Oswald for the first of a whopping fourteen episodes he’ll helm (he’s far and away the most prolific director in the entire series’ run). It’s important to note that while “O.B.I.T.” is the first Oswald effort to hit the airwaves, it wasn’t the first produced: that honor goes to “Specimen: Unknown,” which took longer to complete in postproduction for a variety of reasons (one of them being an unfortunate tendency to suck; we’ll examine it--- or, more likely, rip it to shreds--- when we get to it in February).
Note that when an individual is being monitored by O.B.I.T., inanimate objects they are holding (cigarettes, lab equipment, etc.) aren't visible. It’s a nice touch, but it makes me wonder why their clothes wouldn't be invisible as well. Oh yeah… because it’s 1963 television. I’m a bit surprised Showtime didn't remake this one during their revival series, since nudity wasn’t really a barrier for them (and still isn't, based on what I saw while channel-surfing last Saturday night).
I’m unclear what the hairy hands are supposed to signify (other than to clue us in that those who sport them are probably the bad guys). Is it some side effect of whatever form of masquerade they’re employing to appear human? In any case…. ew. The sight of Lomax stroking Barbara Scott’s face with that tribble jutting out from the back of his hand…. ick. It looks like his hand is wearing a goddamned toupee. Learn to use a razor, you Helosian apes!
And speaking of the Helosian’s human disguises… Barbara Scott is having an affair with Lomax, and doesn’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary. I mean, um... well... she's participating in the affair, seemingly oblivious to... uh... I guess my point here is.... well dammit, those disguises must be pretty comprehensive. I mean, those Helosian geneticists must've thought of everything, every possible detail, right down to the, um.... y'now, nuts and bolts.
I like the acronym “O.B.I.T.” We know it of course as the shorthand abbreviation for “obituary,” which at first seems like a meaningless coincidence… until you consider the ultimate goal of the machines’ proliferation; in effect O.B.I.T. is here to write our collective obit. The closing Control Voice narration actually makes this point, so I guess I just spent an entire paragraph thinking I was being clever when in actuality… well, damn it.
The O.B.I.T. console's viewscreen resembles a TV set which, combined with Colonel Grover’s impassioned testimony about the machine’s addictive power, adds up to a (presumably) intentional commentary on the dangers of excessive TV watching. As I rewatched the episode recently, I noticed something: the various shots of the console being operated from behind don’t really look like a person watching TV anymore (our modern sets are much larger, so we sit further away from them). Now, fifty years later, it evokes something else that we all probably do way too much of...
“O.B.I.T.” is stocked scored, which means no original music was composed for it; however, given its courtroom drama format, its musical requirements are pretty small. We hear a cue from “The Architects of Fear” (“The Lottery”) and a couple from “The Human Factor” (“it’s Here” and “The Monster Appears," both will be heard repeatedly going forward). However, one cue is used repeatedly that I can’t identify for the life of me, and it’s driving me six shades of crazy. It’s first heard early in act one at time stamp 6:04, and then five more times throughout the episode (12:14, 18:10, 18:28, 22:24 and 24:01). I was positive it was on La La Land’s 3-disc soundtrack, but I've been listening to that thing front to back for a week straight and I can’t find it anywhere, which suggests that it’s an existing Frontiere cue brought forward from Stoney Burke... but dammit, it sounds very TOL-specific. Here it is:
Can anyone shed some light on this? I tend to obsess over minutiae like this, so I’d be eternally grateful for some clarification from someone in the know (Larry Rapchak, if you’re reading this…!).
Peter Breck’s star turn as Senator Jeremiah Orville isn’t his only Outer Limits connection. He also appeared in Showtime’s revival series in 1996 (“Mind Over Matter”). That’s about it for Breck’s sci-fi/fantasy work… he has a long association with television Westerns, however (Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, etc.).
, on the other hand, should be familiar to genre fans. He appeared in two of The Twilight Zone’s best episodes (“The Four of Us Are Dying” and “Shadow Play”), as well as Star Trek (“The Return of the Archons”), the Planet of the Apes TV series (“The Interrogation”) and The Incredible Hulk (the two-part episode “The First”). He’s excellent here as the thoroughly-demoralized Dr. Clifford Scott.
Colonel Grover is well-played by Alan Baxter in his only Outer Limits role. He has the distinction of appearing in the very first episode of The Twilight Zone, which wasn't really a Twilight Zone episode at all (Rod Serling's "The Time Element," which was produced by Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse in 1958).
Fred Severn (the other O.B.I.T. operator/Helosian) is played by Jason Wingreen in the first of his three Outer Limits appearances (we’ll see him again in “The Special One” and “Expanding Human”). He also did three tours of duty on The Twilight Zone (“A Stop at Willoughby,” “The Midnight Sun,” and “The Bard”) and, believe it or not, he provided the voice of notorious bounty hunter Boba Fett in 1980’s Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Yeah, it blew my mind too). Unfortunately, revision-happy George Lucas had Wingreen’s voice dubbed over with another actor’s voice in 2004. As an original trilogy purist, I find this act reprehensible.
As long as we’re off on a Star Wars tangent, the Helosian would fit right in with the assorted wacky aliens in that universe, particularly the famous cantina scene in the original 1977 film. Somebody with some semblance of Photoshop skills should mock something up. I’d do it, but… well, y’now, I’m busy writing this damn thing. No, I mean it, stop asking. Sheesh.
Ahem, back to business.
Konstantin Shayne turns in a brief but memorable (and kinda heartbreaking) appearance as Dr. Phillip Fletcher, and he’ll return in season two’s “The Duplicate Man.” Shayne also provides me with the exciting opportunity to connect The Outer Limits to my all-time favorite film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which Shayne played San Francisco history expert Pop Leibel.
Sam Reese (Clyde Wyatt) stops by for his first of two TOL appearances (we’ll see him again in season two’s “Behold Eck!”). Lindsay Workman (Dr. Anderson) also appeared on The Twilight Zone (“No Time Like the Past”).
HOME VIDEO RELEASES
“O.B.I.T.” was, of course, released on VHS along with the rest of the series, in the late 80’s-early 90’s. This is one of my favorite covers in the entire 48-tape series; it simply and perfectly captures the essence of the episode (I love the subtlety of having Lomax in the foreground, and only a shadowy Helosian behind him). The UK release (which paired the episode with another paranoia-drenched classic, “Corpus Earthling”) featured the same cover. The Columbia House release (which paired the episode with yet another paranoia classic, “The Invisibles”) had the same cover as every other volume (an approach which I alternately like and loath, depending on the day).
That same cover design carried over onto the 4th LaserDisc volume, which featured “O.B.I.T.” and five other episodes (among them the aforementioned and unfortunate “Specimen: Unknown”). Out of the four LD releases, this is the only one with an episode-specific cover (so hey, maybe I’m not the only one who likes it).
The series’ first season has seen three distinct DVD releases and, no matter which one you get, you’ll find “O.B.I.T.” The downside here is that every digital release has employed the failure-prone DVD-18 format (dual-layered and double-sided). Those VHS tapes you've got in a box in your garage might just last longer.
If you’re too lazy to load up the DVD (I've certainly been guilty of this from time to time), it can be streamed for free thanks to Hulu. They’ve got the entire series, so if you want to endure an ass-numbing Outer Limits marathon in front of your computer, that option is happily available to you. However, if you’d like to do the same in front of your TV, DVD is your only option since the series isn’t available on Hulu Plus (unless you've got an internet-connected computer hooked up to your TV, that is).
If you’re a blu-ray nut like me, and you want to enjoy “O.B.I.T.” in pristine high definition… well, you’re shit outta luck, partner. The Outer Limits appears destined to remain stuck at a resolution of 720 x 480.
TRADING CARD CORNER
The Helosian seems like a natural for the Topps treatment, right? Well, no dice. Nothing from Rittenhouse either. Damn, where’s the love?
Sideshow Collectibles, on the other hand, appreciated the Helosian enough to offer him in 12” deluxe action figure form back in 2004 (in a two pack with Andro from last week’s “The Man Who Was Never Born”). These were the final two figures in the line and were produced in relatively small numbers, so they aren't that easy (or cheap) to come by. I recently saw the pair on eBay for $130.00 (they usually go for much more) and, like a chump, I waited too long and missed them (despite the urging of TOL Companion author/TOL guru David J. Schow to jump on ‘em). Someday, dammit… someday.
Oh, the things you can find on Google Images! An individual calling himself “loosecollector” over at Figure Realm put together an impressive custom 6” Helosian action figure in 2009. It lacks the transparent skirt, and I’m not sure I agree with the color choices, but it’s highly cool regardless. I’m actually considering getting into the custom action figure game, with the express purpose of creating Outer Limits figures of my own (since nobody seems interested in making legitimate ones; my friends over at Bif Bang Pow! shoot me down every time I ask/beg/plead with them to pursue the license).
Dimensional Designs offers high-quality model kits of most of the series’ aliens and monsters, and the Helosian is no exception, only theirs is called the “O.B.I.T. Creature.” I’m not sure the terms “Helos” and “Helosian” are ever actually heard in the episode, so I’m gonna let this one slide. Anyway, it’s a great sculpt by Chris Choin, and you can order yours here.
“O.B.I.T.” is another excellent Outer Limits outing. It succeeds as a courtroom-type drama (it’s basically an hour of people talking, yet somehow it manages to be riveting) and, under closer cross-examination, it’s an effective catalyst for meditating on the death of privacy in these modern times. The episode ends on a hopeful note, with the machines being “rounded up”… but what about our machines?