Destruct that ship, General!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "Tourist Attraction" (12/23/1963)




“Tourist Attraction”
Season 1, Episode 13
Originally aired 12/23/1963


After the disappointingly monster-free “The Borderland,” The Outer Limits followed up with an attempted return to form with an episode featuring a gloriously grotesque and wonderfully-realized creature. It didn't come from the Black Lagoon, exactly, but it may as well have.


Arrogant rich white guy John Dexter stumbles upon --- and captures --- a large aquatic creature in the waters of the Republic of San Blas. Working with a local university, Dexter has the creature placed on ice while he arranges to transport it back to the US. The tyrannical General Juan Mercurio, San Blas’ current dictator, is having none of it: the discovery is sure to draw the world’s eye and make his upcoming World’s Fair a resounding success. He names the creature after himself (Ichthyosaurus Mercurius), declares it a national treasure and installs an armed guard to “protect” it.


The creature possesses porpoise-like ultrasonic communicative abilities, which it is using to emit a homing signal, presumably to others of its own kind. Dexter disarms the guard and attempts to smuggle the creature out of the country; however, his plan is foiled by the appearance of more Ichthys, rising out of the water to rescue their lost companion. Dexter panics and releases the creature, which promptly returns to the water with its kin. The Ichthys then concentrate their ultrasonic powers on destroying the nearby Mercurio Dam, causing a devastating flood. Among the resultant dead is General Mercurio.



RANDOMONIUM

“Tourist Attraction," which premiered 50 years ago tonight, is screenwriter Dean Riesner’s only contribution to The Outer Limits. Riesner is probably best remembered as co-writing a few of the Dirty Harry movies in the 70's and 80's; classic horror fans may be interested to know that Riesner was married for six years to Malia Nurmi, better known as late-night TV personality Vampira. According to David J. Schow in his Outer Limits Companion, series producer Joseph Stefano offered Riesner a second crack at writing an episode, an offer which he refused (considering the slogging and unoriginal work he turned in here, that’s almost certainly a blessing).

Laslo Benedek returns to direct the action (he helmed “The Man With the Power” earlier this season, and he’ll return for “Wolf 359” in season two), while John Nickolaus directs the photography. There is some decent underwater stuff, to be sure, but otherwise the episode isn’t terribly imaginative in its staging or photography. However, we get LOTS of those amazing Ichthys on display, so it's hard to complain much.



I think we can all agree that Dexter is a total dick, particularly in his callous treatment of his girlfriend Lynn and shipmate/marine biologist Tom (in all fairness, however, Tom and Lynn’s mutual flirting is pretty blatant, so some of that dickishness may be justified). Dexter’s brusque bravado is satisfyingly undercut when he pisses himself with fear as the Ichthys charge toward him in act four (okay, there’s no indication that he actually pisses himself, but I like to think he does). His subsequent reconciliation with Lynn (pathetic though it may be) effectively completes a character arc (cursory though it may be), something we don’t see a lot of on The Outer Limits (we’re more used to psychologically skewed characters with unresolved issues). I’m not suggesting that Dexter’s character arc is in any way satisfying on a dramatic level, I’m just pointing out that the arc is technically there. Do I give the episode an extra point for this? I can’t decide.


I’m absolutely going to dock a point, however, for the embarrassing ethnic stereotypes assigned to guard the Ichthy. You know, Paco and Mario. Of course they get drunk and fuck things up. Of course they do. Because that's the kind of thing Colombians do. You can’t see me right now, but I’m typing harder than usual and rolling my eyes with disgust.


I’m also docking a point for the episode’s uncomfortable similarity to Universal’s 1954 classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. This is certainly not the only time The Outer Limits will, um, borrow story material (the fourth act of “The Galaxy Being” is straight out of The Day the Earth Stood Still; the nefarious plot in “The Hundred Days of the Dragon” strongly evokes The Manchurian Candidate; “Corpus Earthling” features an alien threat very similar to the one depicted in Invasion of the Body Snatchers; “Specimen: Unknown” cribs from The Day of the Triffids, etc.), but this is probably the most blatant example. On the whole, “Tourist Attraction” doesn’t feel much like an Outer Limits episode at all; it would seem more at home on a double bill with any number of late-50's Universal films (The Deadly Mantis, The Monolith Monsters, etc).

I don’t think I’m bursting any bubbles by stating that the episode’s sole attraction is the Ichthy itself. Big, bulbous and bug-eyed, it’s one of the series’ most elaborate creature creations (I’m reminded of the Thetan from “The Architects of Fear”; interestingly, both creatures share similar eyes and skin texture). This isn’t just a man-in-a-rubber-suit deal: the Ichthy is a grand achievement in creature design. It doesn’t matter that it’s heavy and slow moving: if this thing was crawling toward me, I’d be pissing myself right alongside Dexter.

The sight of the Ichthys surfacing in the lake and climbing up onto the shore is truly a glorious sight (call it a visual strength in numbers; imagine a herd of Thetans disjointedly galloping toward the camera!). Their awkwardness is part of the success of the sequence; creatures of that build would almost certainly have difficulty walking on land. This is the scene we've waiting nearly an hour for and, if it doesn’t quite make up for the three second-rate acts that precede it, it comes damned close.

I like the “Old Gods” connection, the idea that the Ichthys are actually prehistoric denizens of the San Blas waters that have thus far evaded extinction. So many of the series’ monsters are either extraterrestrial in origin or lab creations; it’s refreshing to see something natural and earthbound (yet essentially unknown to modern society) doing the scaring and rampaging for a change. It was assumed that the Creature from the Black Lagoon was either the last of its kind or some kind of mutation (or both); the Ichthys here have apparently been propagating throughout the centuries… unless the four seen in the episode are actually centuries old (which is a distinct possibility:  the captured Ichthy’s spear wound miraculously heals itself, so perhaps these critters have life-prolonging regenerative powers). I prefer to think that they've been gleefully reproducing for ages; along those lines, I would've loved to see a pint-sized Ichthy, maybe riding on its mother’s back or something, an indication that their kind will indeed continue on. Yeah, I know, it sounds goofy. Sue me.



AURAL PLEASURE

“Tourist Attraction” features an original score by Robert Van Eps; this is the only first season episode scored by someone other than Dominic Frontiere. Frontiere does contribute one cue, “The Creature Wakes”… which is actually “Building Terror” from his score for “The Human Factor.” No, really, they’re the same. It’s not an alternate take of the other, or a re-orchestrated variation. Don’t believe me?  Check this out:


See? Identical (well, "The Creature Wakes" has some Van Eps spliced onto the end of it, but the Frontiere part is the same, bit for bit, as "Building Terror"). Unfortunately, the reuse of the Frontiere cue is the highlight of the “Tourist Attraction” score. It sounds like music from a second-rate action or monster flick, with some “exotic” flourishes thrown in to evoke the Colombian locale. The atypical music possesses none of the mystery and resonance of Frontiere’s work, further rendering the episode an ill fit within the series.

The inferior score by Mr. Van Eps sticks out like a sore thumb on the TOL soundtrack collection but, happily, it doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the Frontiere scores. $19.99 plus shipping will get you a copy of this excellent three-disc set from La La Land Records. And yes, both “The Creature Wakes” and “Building Terror” are present, listed separately but most definitely the same exact goddamned cue.




DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Ralph Meeker stars as John Dexter in his only TOL appearance. His resume doesn’t have much in the way of sci-fi/fantasy/horror, but he did grace four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He played Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in one of my favorite film noirs of all time, 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, which also starred TOL alums Wesley Addy (“The Brain of Colonel Barham”) and James McCallion (“The Man With the Power”). 


Henry Silva stands out as Gen. Juan Mercurio in the first of two Outer Limits appearances; he’ll come back in just two weeks for “The Mice,” where he’ll be much more likable than he is here. Silva’s association with Daystar Productions began when he appeared in “The Weapons Man” on Stoney Burke; he also appeared in the aforementioned The Manchurian Candidate in 1962. He played Princess Ardala’s sidekick Kane in the pilot episode of TV’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in 1979 (a role that was taken over thereafter by Michael Ansara, who we’ll see in the season two TOL episode “Soldier” along with Tim O’Conner, a two-time TOL alum).


Willard Sage appears as an unnamed reporter. We first saw him three weeks ago in “Nightmare,” and we’ll see him again in “Production and Decay of Strange Particles” in April.




Mario is played by Henry Delgado (aka Henry Darrow), who probably got the part because Daystar Productions had already used him in the “Point of Entry” episode of Stoney BurkePaul Stader (last seen as the Ebonite Guard in “Nightmare”) is on hand inside one of the Ichthy suits. But really, it’s a pretty thorough makeup, so he’s barely recognizable. Inhabiting another Ichthy suit is Bill Hart, who will also appear in next week’s “The Zanti Misfits,” as well as “Fun and Games” in March. Hart was a regular on Stoney Burke (he played Lorenzo “Red” Smith).

Which one's Stader? Which one's Hart? We may never know.


HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“Tourist Attraction” splashed into the home video market in two distinct VHS editions: first, the standard retail edition and, later, Columbia House’s Collector’s Edition series (in which it shared tape space with “Corpus Earthling”). All 24 Columbia House volumes have the same cover; note that "Tourist Attraction" is one of the four episodes depicted.


If you were one of those elitist LaserDisc collector types, you would’ve found “Tourist Attraction” on the fourth and final LD volume, which was released in 1995. You probably bought all four volumes, fully believing that the entire series would get released, only to watch the format get superseded by….


…DVD, the LaserDisc killer! “Tourist Attraction” went digital in 2002 when the entire first season was released on DVD. This set was split in half for a re-release in 2007 (the first sixteen episodes, including “Tourist Attraction,” were in the first volume). Finally, the entire series was released as one omnibus package in 2008. Obsessive collectors needn't bother tracking down all three DVD iterations, unless packaging variations float your boat: the discs in all three sets are identical. No new content, no new transfers, no new special features, nothin’.


It’s the 21st century, and streaming is well on its way to becoming the standard delivery method for films and TV shows. You’ll find the entire Outer Limits run, “Tourist Attraction” included, available to stream for free over at Hulu. You cannot, however, stream it to your TV or mobile device…. yet. Computers only, gang.


TRADING CARD CORNER


Topps allocated an impressive five cards to the Ichthy in their Monsters from Outer Limits trading card set in 1964. Since Topps only had rights to the images but not the storylines, they had to essentially create new back-stories for every TOL monster and alien they used. The Ichthy became “The Sea Beast” and, as you can see, was colored a pinkish flesh tone. I’m pretty sure it’s a law that all fish or amphibian-based monsters must be green, so I’m not sure what the hell Topps was thinking (in all fairness, the actual suit was pinkish in spots, so they weren't completely wrong).



MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT

Happily, the Japanese follow the rules (Godzilla, for example). Their X-Plus vinyl figure is gloriously green and quite nicely sculpted (it looks a bit lean, though; the actual Ichthys are plumper and even more bug-eyed). It supposedly has a hinged jaw feature that allows its mouth to open and close (though I’m not sure it ever completely closes in the episode; still a cool touch). But does this collectible actually exist? As far as I can tell, it was never actually released in early 2013 as planned, and many websites have it listed as cancelled. Midtown Comics still has it listed as “coming soon”; however, they keep moving the release date out a week at a time... so I dunno. I really hope this Ichthy does in fact surface (ha!), as I’d love to add it to my collection. I’m keeping a vigilant watch, and I’ll holler if it in fact it becomes available.


Dimensional Designs offer a pretty impressive Ichthy model kit, sculpted by Ken Ito. It’s super-accurate (it actually looks like there’s a person inside the suit; look at those legs!), and it even comes with a replica of the little statue found on Mercurio’s desk. If you've got model-assembling and painting chops, he can be yours for $69.95 plus shipping.

Ito assembled and painted one for his website, and it’s beautiful. Check it out:



The Ichthy was prominently featured in one of Milton Bradley's Outer Limits jigsaw puzzles in 1964. Note the parasite from "The Invisibles" there in the foreground.

THE WRAP-UP

It’s more than a bit deflating that a creature as awesome as the Ichthy is attached to a by-the-numbers, highly derivative script. “Tourist Attraction” could’ve been something great; as it stands, however, it emerges as a belly-flop in shallow water. This may explain why it was the fourth episode produced, but the thirteenth to air.


7 comments:

  1. "Ichthy and son"...You crack me up!

    While I don't think "Tourist Attraction" is particularly good, I do like it a little due to it being unintentionally funny. Henry Silva as the intense General Mercurio is all ego and Silva plays it up like a total ham. He's so over the top. It's actually annoying.

    Ralph Meeker as John Dexter is somehow the hero of this picture. He is Mr. Tough Guy until the end when he unexpectedly crumbles under pressure by the advancement of a pack of savage Ichthyosaurus amphibianans. It appears that they could be outrun by any child above the age of two.

    The amphibians are 100% unconvincing and not threatening in the least. Could they be any easier to capture? Only the total ineptitude of everyone involved could make the Ichthys a threat. But you're correct. They look very cool.

    This episode is totally silly, but many of its moments of unintentional humor make it a fairly enjoyable watch.

    My Rating: 4 - Fair

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  2. Stupid episode. Stupid, stupid stupid! Worst episode ever!!!

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    1. This episode has been re-watch and has been promoted from "worst episode ever" to "doesn't suck quite that bad but is still bad status"

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  3. If Van Eps scored this episode why does Frontiere get credit for it on the La La Land Collection?

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  4. I liked this show because I was a big fan of Sea Hunt and some of the other underwater shows that were popular around that time, it was like "Sea Hunt Comes To The Outer Limits". Now I would never try to argue that this is a great episode, but it works for me as a great time-killer, especially if I get drunk first. Tourist Attraction was originally intended to be the tenth Outer Limits episode broadcast, on November 25, 1963. But it was pre-empted, along with all other regularly scheduled network programming, by coverage of the JFK assassination which took place on November 22, 1963. Instead of rescheduling it for the following Monday, December 2, 1963, which would have been the normal procedure, ABC instead skipped ahead to the next show on the roster, Nightmare. Tourist Attraction was not broadcast until December 23, 1963, the week after The Borderland. The reason, I'm guessing, was ABC's concern over ratings. After a forced week off due to the assassination coverage, ABC would not have been keen on coming back with an episode as weak as Tourist Attraction, so they opted instead for the much more powerful Nightmare. It's no secret that ABC had no fondness for Tourist Attraction, due in no small part to the fact that it went way over budget and in fact ended up as the most expensive Outer Limits show ever. Their decision to show it the week after The Borderland was no doubt strategic as The Borderland was another budget-buster of an episode, ABC was, I'm sure, relieved to have gotten these two out of the way.

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  5. Hey, I like this one. I like Meeker's snotty billionaire Howard Hughes-adventurer with disdain for authority and pomp -- Meeker is great in everything -- and the matter-of-fact friends-with-benefits relationship with his assistant Lynn. Silva of course is hilariously wonderful. Great monsters, sure you can see everything coming a mile away, but the episode is all about Meeker for me. He so underplays it that you've gotta love it. Great write-up, but where's Janet Blair as Lynn? She did a good job not being Dexter's slave nor his whore but something maybe a little of both but with her own identity. I think this episode has a lot of good points!

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  6. does anyone know if original props are still warehoused or destroyed. I'm seeking this creature for a project... i can use the smaller replicas you mentioned in the story if I have to, but i would prefer to get my hands on one of the old suits.... anyone know where to find one?

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