Destruct that ship, General!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "The Zanti Misfits" (12/30/1963)




“The Zanti Misfits”
Season 1, Episode 14
Originally aired 12/30/1963


50 years ago tonight, the world was preparing to ring in the New Year and, to help celebrate, The Outer Limits arranged for the ants to come marching in.


The rulers of the planet Zanti have coerced the US Government into allowing them to establish a penal colony on earth (they cannot execute members of their own species for reasons never specified). Earth has nervously agreed, and a tract of California desert has been cordoned off to accommodate them. A military command unit led by General Maximilian R. Hart has been set up in a hotel in the ghost town of Morgue (talk about your foreshadowing) to oversee the Zanti penal ship’s arrival and to ensure that it is not disturbed (under threat of “total destruction”). Professor Steven Grave, a historian, has arrived to document this historic event.


Things begin to go awry when an unidentified car runs down a security guard and drives into the restricted area. The clueless interlopers are Lisa Lawrence and her lover, Ben Garth, whose car breaks down very near the Zanti ship’s landing site. Garth spots the ship and, upon approaching it, is attacked and killed by the Zanti Regent of Prisoners, a six-inch hoagie-sized insect with a humanoid face. Lisa comes looking for Garth, finds his body and runs like hell, the Zanti Regent in hot pursuit.


Meanwhile, talks have broken down between the US military and the Zanti government, and Grave convinces General Hart to let him enter the landing area unarmed as an emissary of peace. Upon arriving at the landing site, Grave is forced to smash the Regent with a rock to stop it from killing Lisa. The Zanti ship lifts off, commandeered by the now-unsupervised Zanti prisoners, and heads toward Morgue.


Grave and Lisa arrive at the hotel just as the ship lands on the roof. Zantis pour out of the ship en masse and commence their attack. An all-out battle ensues in which the humans ultimately prevail, after which General Hart worries over the destruction threatened earlier. The Zanti government then reveals that they won’t retaliate, that the massacre of their incorrigibles was the outcome they expected all along, given man’s murderous nature.



RANDOMONIUM

“The Zanti Misfits” is one of the better-remembered Outer Limits episodes, certainly due at least in part to the memorable Zantis themselves. Last week’s “Tourist Attraction” featured a wonderful creature but a subpar script, so we must cautiously ask the question: does the script measure up to the menace? It’s a Joseph Stefano original, which automatically elevates it above the ordinary (offbeat characters, great dialogue, etc.), and the premise is certainly interesting. In a way, this is a variation on his earlier “Nightmare,” which found well-drawn earthlings at odds with (seemingly) superior aliens who aren't nearly as big a threat as they first seemed. The characters here aren't so much developed as defined through brief snatches of dialogue, but they still transcend typical genre cardboard. Overall, “The Zanti Misfits” script isn’t quite on the same level as “Nightmare,” but it’s still more than worthwhile.

The series thus far has taken place mostly indoors and in the shadows, but “The Zanti Misfits” takes us outdoors into the sweeping vistas of Vasquez Rocks National Area Park, and this episode positively breathes as a result. Director Leonard Horn and Director of Photography John Nickolaus capture copious amounts of awe-inspiring nature porn, something I never really noticed when I was younger (and, admittedly, stupider). This time around I sat upright with a bolt, my mouth hanging open in surprise and wonder, my inner Trekkie hyper-stimulated (I’m sure you’re aware, dear reader, that Vasquez Rocks is something of a sacred location for Star Trek fans).


Vasquez Rocks is one of my most-wanted places to visit before I die, and when I do, I’m totally gonna bring my Sideshow Zanti and recreate Ben Garth’s fate. There will most certainly be photographic and video documentation, which I’ll be posting here if this blog (and the internet in general) still exists when I finally make it down there. Until then, this'll have to do:


And speaking of Ben Garth’s unfortunate demise, the first appearance of a Zanti is a shock indeed, literally springing forth from the penal ship to attack him. The shot of the Zanti Regent crawling up his arm is achieved using stop-motion animation, as are most of the Zanti shots (Ray Harryhausen fans rejoice!)… until the climactic battle in act four, in which the Zanti shots are laughably unanimated (the worst offender being the shots of them crawling down a wall without moving their legs, which is terribly jarring after the excellent effects work thus far).


L.A. artist Woody Welch beautifully rendered the arm shot described above with colored pencils earlier this year (I've already posted it in these pages but, since we’re deep in Zantiland this week, it certainly merits a second look). Woody is a friend of this blog, and one of the nicest guys around.

The episode is very successful at building tension, particularly in the first act. The dread is palpable in the makeshift command center; these are elite military types, presumably the best of the best, and it’s a bit unnerving to see them wound so tight (contrast this with the cool arrogance of the brass in “Nightmare”). The threat of something going wrong (and the resultant consequence) is nerve-wracking to be sure, but amplifying things considerably is the fact that nobody knows what these aliens look like. Are they ten-foot tall lizards? Translucent blobs of pure malevolence? Cybernetic beasts with twelve eyes?

Nope, they’re bugs. Big bugs with quasi-human faces and --- holy hell --- human-looking teeth! You no longer have to picture them picking you up and hurling you across the room, or biting off your head with outsized jaws, or vaporizing you with unimaginable weapons. Instead, you get to squirm uncontrollably as you imagine them crawling all over you.


Interestingly, it’s never revealed exactly how the Zantis are able to kill humans. Do they bite (their teeth aren't sharp, which would seem to indicate not)? Are they poisonous (if so, how exactly are they injecting their venom into their victims)? Or is the horror and revulsion of Zanti-on-skin contact so powerful that the victim’s body simply shuts down?


In 2007’s The Mist (based on the novella by Stephen King), a band of unlucky folks are menaced by oversized arachnids (“Gray Widowers”) from another dimension who possess grotesquely humanoid faces with flat-edged human-like teeth. Director Frank Darabont has acknowledged that their design was very much inspired by the Zantis. The Widowers were designed by special effects/make-up master Greg Nicotero, who sculpted some of the wonderful Dimensional Designs model kits we've been covering (he did not, however, sculpt the Zanti model; see below).

Now, let’s talk about the Zantis themselves for a moment. To be blunt, they are total dicks. Seriously, they’re dicks from their lowest prisoner all the way up to their supreme commander. They’re incapable of killing their own kind, but they’re perfectly willing to employ deception and coercion to force earth to do it for them, getting innocent earthlings killed in the process?  I guess they know we haven’t mastered space travel, so there’s no danger of us retaliating in a meaningful way. I have to wonder what heinous crimes their exiled citizens had to commit to get ousted by a government capable of this level of atrocity. So yeah, like I said… dicks.


It’s never made clear what Ben and Lisa are running from, but we know she left her husband for him, and that he (her husband) knew enough to warn her against associating with Ben. Ben also warns that he’ll go to prison if they’re caught, and there are bundles of cash in the glove box (“fat stacks, yo,” as Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman would say) and a gun… did they rob Old Man Lawrence? Did they knock over a bank? We’re never told.


The opening shot of act one (the tumbleweed blowing across the Morgue sign) reappears as the closing shot of the episode… in reverse.

Dammit, not that kind of rev--- aw, never mind.


TEASE ME!

This week’s teaser is comprised of the scene in which the assembled military personnel are listening to the Zantis threatening “total destruction” to anyone who interferes with them, followed by the scene in which Ben runs down the gate guard, then finishing with the first shot of the Zanti penal ship descending (all of which happens at the end of act one). It’s not a particularly exciting teaser, but it’s notable because it violates ABC’s teaser-versus-prologue mandate by not showing the aliens, preserving the shock reveal of the Zanti Regent in act two.


AURAL PLEASURE

“The Zanti Misfits” is stock-scored, meaning that Dominic Frontiere didn't compose any new music for it. Normally in these cases the music is still very recognizable (since it would come from other Outer Limits episodes); however, almost everything tracked in is unfamiliar to me, so I assume it came from Frontiere’s work on Daystar’s pre-TOL series Stoney Burke.


However, both the “Alien on the Loose” and "The Point of the No Return" cues from “The Architects of Fear” are heard in act four when Grave and Lisa arrive at the command center.


DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Speaking of Stoney Burke, there’s a whole herd o’ connections this week. Saddle up and read on, pardner.

Prof. Stephen Grave is Michael Tolan’s only Outer Limits role. I had a hell of a time looking for a usable series/genre connection, but I did discover that he had a recurring role on TV’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which co-starred TOL alum Ed Asner. It’s a bit thin, but there you go.


The sympathetic, immensely likable General Maximilian R. Hart is portrayed by Robert F. Simon in his only TOL appearance. He doesn’t have much in the way of genre credits on his resume, but he did cross over into The Twilight Zone once (“No Time Like the Past”). He also portrayed Peter Parker’s cranky boss, J. Jonah Jameson, in the short-lived live-action Amazing Spider-Man TV series in 1979.


The twitchy and uneasy Major Roger Hill is played by Claude Woolman in his sole TOL role; however, genre fans might be aware of his participation in the hysterically awful Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978, in which he played an unnamed Imperial Officer.


As Ben Garth, Bruce Dern turns in his only TOL appearance; however, Daystar Productions knew him quite well, as he had a recurring role as E.J. Stocker in their pre-TOL series Stoney Burke.


Corp. Delano is played by Bill Hart in the second of his three TOL appearances (he was one of the Ichthys in last week’s “Tourist Attraction,” and he’ll return in March as one of the Calco Galaxy aliens in “Fun and Games.” This is the only TOL episode in which we actually see his face; however, he flashed his mug in 30 episodes of Stoney Burke as Lorenzo “Red” Smith.

Michael T. Mikler makes his Outer Limits debut as the unnamed Air Police Sergeant; he’ll be back in season two’s “The Invisible Enemy.” Mikler is also a Stoney Burke veteran (he appeared in the “Tigress by the Tail” episode, which also featured the above-mentioned TOL alum Ed Asner).

Joe E. Tata is on hand as the unnamed Radar Operator, and he’ll return in “The Children of Spider County” as an unnamed alien bastard (IMDB’s wording, not mine). I can’t believe I’m about to do this, but my wife is sure to appreciate it: Tata is probably best known for his role as Nat, the proprietor of The Peach Pit (and its nightclub equivalent, The Peach Pit After Dark) on Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000; he reprised the role for a few cameos in the more recent 90210 sequel series). Betcha didn't think you’d ever see a BH90210 reference here, didja? Fuck, neither did I.



HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“The Zanti Misfits” has enjoyed two distinct retail VHS releases 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 (which is hideous; what’s up with those green eyes?).

But wait! There was a third less-obvious VHS option: Columbia House made the entire series available via mail-order exclusives, each volume containing two episodes. “The Zanti Misfits” was paired with season two’s “The Invisible Enemy,” which seems like a strange combination, but I guess watching both together would very plainly illustrate how dramatically the two seasons differ from one another (another good illustration of this contrast is the volume with “The Bellero Shield” and “Keeper of the Purple Twilight” on it).


Only 28 of the series’ 49 episodes were released on LaserDisc, and “The Zanti Misfits” was one of ‘em. It can be found on the second volume (out of a total four).

I’m running out of unique ways of explaining the series’ convoluted history (thus far) with regards to the DVD format, so I’m gonna go easy on myself this week and recycle/ repurpose a paragraph from an earlier entry (that’s right, folks, this blog is going green!): “(“The Zanti Misfits” has) shown up on DVD three different times: in 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 (which happened to be the show’s 45th anniversary; gee thanks, MGM, for marking the occasion by releasing yet another repackaging of the same goddamned discs).”

Don’t feel like loading up those unreliable dual layered/double-sided DVDs? Point your browser in the direction of Hulu, which currently offers the entire series gratis. That means free. Like, you don’t have to pay for them. You can watch all 49 episodes at no cost whatsoever. I certainly would never give up my DVDs, but it’s nice to know I can watch one in a pinch should the need arise. However, you should know that Hulu Plus (their monthly subscription app for smart phones, enabled blu-ray players and game consoles) does NOT offer the series at all. So those of us who pay their monthly fee can’t stream the series, but anyone with a computer can watch them for free. What the hell???


TRADING CARD CORNER


“The Zanti Misfits” were included in Topps’ Monsters from Outer Limits trading card series in 1964. Several TOL creatures were depicted multiple times in the series, but the diminutive Zantis were only allowed one measly card. Last week’s grande-sized Ichthyosaurus Mercurius, meanwhile, had five cards all to itself, so maybe size does matter.  


MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT


Sideshow Collectibles’ decision to render their 2003 Zanti action figures in the 1:1 scale (aka life-sized) was an inspired one (they took a similar approach with The Invader in their Twilight Zone line). Two distinct Zanti figures were released: the Prisoner and the Regent. Both have identical bodies with slightly-varying paint jobs. The antennae and all six legs more independently of one another, and the three body segments (head, thorax, tail) are separate pieces, allowing for further poseability.


We see a lot of the Zanti Regent in the episode, which means Sideshow had plenty of reference shots. Their Regent figure’s face isn’t terribly accurate to the character, but it’s quite successful as a more generic Zanti. It has rooted hair for its eyebrows and chin beard, and both (or all three, technically) are long enough for some creative grooming. Damn, look at those caterpillars! I, um, gave mine a name: readers, meet my good friend Martin ScorZanti.




The Zanti Prisoner isn’t featured as prominently in the episode, but it can be seen eagerly exiting the spacecraft after it lands on the roof of the hotel in act four. In fact, it’s easy to spot because that particular shot is used three or four different times, horizontally flipped every other time (the captures above occur at time stamps 44:55 and 45:09, respectively).

The Prisoner figure’s face seems more screen-accurate than the Regent. I’m sure those white muttonchops have something to do with the illusion, but I can’t say for certain because, as of this writing, I haven’t managed to get my own yet. It will be mine one day. This I swear.


The Zanti figures aren't easy to find, nor are they cheap (my Regent was $120.00 plus shipping, which is actually a bargain). If you're gonna track 'em down for yourself, be prepared to part with some serious cash. Having spent some time with my Regent, I can honestly say it's one of the coolest action figures I've ever owned, and it was totally worth it.

A model kit of the Zanti Regent Commander is available from Dimensional Designs (OL-07), sculpted by Jeff Sargeant. The box indicates that it's made of resin and metal. I was able to find a picture of the unassembled pieces (thanks Google Images!), but I don't see any metal...


The Zanti model looks a bit cartoonish on the box but, thanks to our friend Mr. Enamel, we can see that it’s actually much more impressive in person. 


Dear god, it’s got hair. I don’t know if the model comes with it, or if Mr. Enamel customized his, but it looks awesome either way. And I love his monochrome paint job, too. If you want to acquire your own model, it’ll set you back $49.95 plus shipping.


THE WRAP-UP

“The Zanti Misfits” is one of The Outer Limits’ most iconic episodes, due in large part to the unforgettable, wonderfully creepy (yet oddly compelling) Zantis themselves. The remote setting is highly effective, and the Vasquez Rocks scenery is breathtaking. The story, while interesting and exciting, disappoints a bit in the end with its “humans are savage murderers” axiom but, on the whole, the episode is eminently entertaining. Not sure it’s a top ten favorite of mine, but it’s close. Top twenty for sure.




5 comments:

  1. Lots of great pictures of the little buggers here!

    "The Zanti Misfits" is a fast-paced story with a neat premise…what are societies to do with their misfits?". Once this question is asked by the Control Voice, the episode is off to the races. The acting is quite good and is more impressive because the Zanti aliens are hardly intimidating. The actors do a fine job of portraying the Zantis as a superior race of beings even though the limitations of the special effects display otherwise.

    The whole idea of an alien penal camp in the desert is brilliant and that a portion of the Earth be set aside for it makes for a very attractive story. Director Leonard Horn and crew do the best that they can to make the Zantis seem dangerous. Fortunately, the stop-motion effects of the Zantis manage to make them sufficiently creepy. The isolation of the desert adds to the effect as well. However, the best that the episode has to offer comes with about six minutes left.

    The Zantis land their penal ship on the roof of the military base and attack. It is probably the craziest six minutes of television you'll see. Gunfire, grenades and plain old hand-to-Zanti combat ensues complete with screaming and explosions. The B-movie camp is so far over the top that I didn't even care that the Zantis were motionless props. It's such an out of control sequence that it guarantees "The Zanti Misfits" a place on my list of favorite Outer Limits episodes.

    My rating: 10 - Excellent

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  3. The Zanti crawling up Bruce Dern's arm scares the shit out of me to this day. He played that perfectly. Back at the base where all are listening to his pleas for help is simply bone chilling. I also like the scene where the Zanti ship lands on the roof of the base. You hear it and they know it's up there but not having scene the Zantis yet what is going to happen now?

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  4. That's not Joe E. Tata (or "Joey Tata" as he was credited in this show) as the Air Force communications operator (sergeant) pictured -- that's character actor Lex Johnson! Joe E. Tata was the radar operator in this episode. Interestingly, both character actors would again have small roles together in the 1970 TVM "Along Came a Spider" (which starred Suzanne Pleshette and Ed Nelson) -- Lex Johnson as Dr. David Furie in the crucial opening sequence, and Joe E. Tata as Dr. Hernandez, whose phone call to Pleshette from San Salvador gives the plot a critical twist. Lex Johnson had one starring role in his career -- in the 1962 Mexican "sword & sandal" movie "The Rape of the Sabine Women" (aka "The Shame of the Sabine Women"), and numerous small roles in American movies and TV, including "The Invaders -- Summit Meeting" and "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

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  5. At the risk of posing a possibly insipid or even inane question, I dare to offer up for consideration a factor of the Zantis which has somewhat puzzled me ever since first seeing this episode as a scared-silly eight-year-old child. Yes, I do believe my hair was standing straight up! That question is, even though the Zantis had proven to be capable of word-based speech, (Lanz trinsini lobo zan a mang lis lanz ob.), they only verbalized in this manner when communicating via radio transmission. Never once during actual encounters with humans did any of them attempt to speak in that way. Not even the initial one-on-one encounter between the Zanti Regent and Ben Garth. During those scenes the Zantis only verbalized in that unnerving warbling buzz sound, which was highly effective (scary) but incongruous with earlier Zanti communications. To-date, even 50-some years later I have only been able to surmise that sound was used as a sort of battle cry, seeing as any and all personal encounters between Zantis and humans were attacks culminating in mortal combat. It's just one of those hanging unresolved loose-thread sort of things that has perpetually bugged me. (okay, pun maybe intended...) Has anyone else in this audience ever pondered that? Anyone care to weigh-in on it?

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