Season 1, Episode 16
Originally aired 1/13/1964
50 years ago tonight, The Outer Limits brought us an amusing love story... and the Martians who made it happen.
Martian Inspector Phobos-One is sent to research the act of murder, a peculiar activity exclusive to the planet Earth. He meets up with long term undercover operative Diemos, who runs a pawnshop as cover, and the two proceed to a nearby hotel to witness a murder first hand: jealous Carla Duveen is about to fatally shoot her cheating boyfriend Bert as he exits an elevator into the lobby. They set up their equipment in a discreet corner and begin the titular controlled experiment.
Using a “miniaturized temporal condenser,” Phobos-One watches the murder take place, then rewinds time repeatedly at varying speeds to see it from different perspectives (a process called “squeezing time”), but fails to achieve any clarity on why Earthlings kill one another. He then decides that the experiment is too controlled, that intervention may reveal answers. Running the murder at super-slow speed, he deflects Carla’s bullet and saves Bert’s life.
Bert promptly smooths things over with Carla by proposing to her. Phobos-One then learns that this alteration of events has caused a “fatal error” and will cause future catastrophe not just for earth, but the entire galaxy as well. He frantically alters the event again, this time letting Carla shoot Bert as she did originally… only this time he places Bert’s metal cigarette case in the bullet’s path. This change allows Bert to survive while keeping the future intact. Phobos-One requests that he be allowed to remain on Earth to further his studies.
“Controlled Experiment” was written and directed by series creator and Executive Producer Leslie Stevens (“The Galaxy Being,” “The Borderland”), though you’d never know it from watching the episode. The customary production credits (writer, director, producer) at the top of act one (right after the episode title and main cast) are conspicuously absent, at least from the current home video versions (DVD and Hulu); I’m not sure if the episode aired that way or not; in any case the credits were omitted at some point. The screen capture above is a Photoshop job by yours truly.
John Nickolaus is the Director of Photography this week. I just realized that he’s been the DOP on all of Stevens’ episodes so far, and Kenneth Peach will be DOP on Stevens’ next effort (“Production and Decay of Strange Particles,” incidentally his final contribution). This means that Conrad Hall never lensed a Stevens Outer Limits script (not exactly earth-shattering, I’ll grant you, but interesting nonetheless). Nickolaus’ work here is fine, and I don’t harbor a grudge for the irritating time-altering visual and sound effects (which would've been added in post-production, after he’d clocked out and gone home).
This is the only episode in the entire first season to feature aliens from a planet in our own solar system; moreover, it’s the only time in the entire series that said aliens are 100% human.* It’s also the only episode this season that is intended as a comedy, which seems like a wildly inappropriate idea given the series’ customarily serious, even dark personality. “Controlled Experiment” shouldn’t work, and yet… well, I was pleasantly surprised when I watched it today, having not seen it in well over 20 years and possessing extremely dim memories of it. And yes, it’s actually funny! I wouldn't have thought this possible, coming from the man whose other teleplays are so dry and cold, but there it is.
Stevens’ dialogue is clever and genuinely amusing, and it’s delivered marvelously by Barry Morse and Carroll O’Connor. Their interplay is a delight to watch: Morse’s Phobos-One is authoritative, persnickety and a bit haughty (much like his most famous role, that of Detective Philip Gerard on TV’s The Fugitive, which had just debuted a few months before “Controlled Experiment” premiered); O’Connor’s Diemos is demure, soft-spoken and languorous (for those of us who grew up watching All In the Family, it’s a bit shocking to see Archie Bunker so sedate and non-confrontational). Lesser actors could have easily wrecked the proceedings (you should’ve seen me destroy Hamlet’s second soliloquy in my college acting class!); Morse and O’Connor contribute much to the episode’s success.
Skeptics, hear me now: I think it’s important--- crucial, even--- to take “Controlled Experiment” on its own terms. If you hold it up against the better episodes we've seen thus far (“The Architects of Fear,” for example), of course it’s going to fail miserably. This episode isn’t intended to blow your mind or break your heart (or both). It’s something of a trifle, a minor and unassuming diversion to cleanse the palette halfway through the season (okay, so it wasn’t intended to be a mid-season episode; call it a happy accident). If you suspend your preconceived notions of what the series is supposed to be, I think you’ll find it a witty and charming 52 minutes. It feels almost profane to use the word “cute” anywhere near The Outer Limits, but…. goddammit, it’s a cute episode.
Retro-future fetishists (like me) will thrill to the Martian technology on display here, most notably Phobos-One’s “temporal condenser” that looks a bit like a portable O.B.I.T. machine (and is housed in what appears to be a sidewalk pitchman’s case with collapsible legs). We see two different scope viewers: one is attached to the temporal condenser which Phobos-One uses to scan the lobby, and the other is attached to a “thought beam” used by Diemos to probe Carla’s mind (an amusing bit in which tries to ascertain her name by “cutting in” on her inner monologue).
The episode manages to reference several important sci-fi concepts, which is surprisingly given its light, airy ambitions. Squeezing time, if done without extreme precision, can result in the release of “negative matter,” an idea which would form the basis for Star Trek‘s warp drive propulsion (mixing matter and anti-matter to produce a controlled reaction). The ripple effect Phobos-One causes by altering a single seemingly-insignificant event has become a genre mainstay (particularly in Trek’s various iterations). There’s talk of “wearing out” a “sample area” of the space-time continuum by replaying an event too many times, an idea which I find endlessly fascinating (it’s as if reality is a carpet, which will become threadbare the more it’s walked on).
“Controlled Experiment” was the 6th episode produced, but the 16th to air, which usually suggests a subpar episode (two recent episodes, “The Borderland” and “Tourist Attraction,” come to mind). Perhaps the series was too young to air such an atypical episode early on, so it was held back till mid-season. Or I dunno, maybe it took several months to finish in postproduction, given the varying film speeds (and directions) and the complexity of the visual effects employed for the each time-tampering event (negative image; floating/throbbing ball of light effect, double and triple-imaging). If I have a complaint, it’s that there’s just too damn much of it in the episode (but I guess they had to have something weird on screen, since there’s virtually nothing about Phobos-One and Diemos that belies their alien origin).
Left: Phobos-One. Right: Diemos.
Oh, and the spaceship seen at the top of act one (and again at the end of act four) is completely inappropriate and confusing, since Phobos-One specifically states that he “beamed in” (unless he did so from the space craft, which probably makes more sense; at least that’s what my inner Trekkie is telling me).
Or.... oh my god, this just occurred to me... could it be that the Martians are using a Chromoite teleportation agency? My head's about to explode here.
“Controlled Experiment” features an original score by Dominic Frontiere, the highlight of which is the lovely “Coffee and Cigarettes” cue heard when Diemos introduces Phobos-One to caffeine and nicotine. Since the episode was produced so early in the production run, its music appears in several episodes produced later but aired earlier (appropriate, given the episode’s backwards-and-forwards time manipulations); “Coffee and Cigarettes” was first heard as Cathy’s theme in “The Sixth Finger”; meanwhile, “The City #2” was first heard in “Corpus Earthling.”
Most of Frontiere’s TOL recordings are collected in the three-disc soundtrack set from La La Land Records, which is still available for the ridiculously low price of $19.98 plus shipping. Don’t have it? What kind of the fan are you? Grab it before it sells out!
Barry Morse is remarkable as Phobos-One in his first and only TOL appearance; he also crossed over into The Twilight Zone for one episode (“A Piano in the House”). He also played Professor Victor Bergman for two years on Space: 1999 (1975-76), a series which starred two-time TOL alum Martin Landau (“The Man Who Was Never Born”; “The Bellero Shield”). Morse is probably best known as Lieutenant Philip Gerard on TV’s The Fugitive (1963-67).
This is also the only TOL credit for Carroll O’Connor (Diemos), who probably got this gig because he’d previously appeared on the “Web of Fear” episode of Stoney Burke, Daystar Production’s pre-TOL series. O’Connor would almost cross paths with Barry Morse again when he appeared on the “Flight from the Final Demon” episode of The Fugitive later in 1964 (“almost” because Lt. Gerard didn't actually appear in that episode); however, TOL alums Ed Nelson (“Nightmare”) and Rudy Solari (“Production and Decay of Strange Particles”; “The Invisible Enemy”) were also in that particular episode, so I’m gonna count it as a legitimate TOL connection.
Grace Lee Whitney is fine as Carla Duveen, but she’ll forever be remembered as Yeoman Janice Rand on the original Star Trek, a series whose regular cast included several TOL alums (including William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and James Doohan, off the top of my head). And yes, she’s definitely a TOL Babe.
That philandering rat Bert Hamil is played by Robert Fortier in the first of three Outer Limits roles (he'll also show up in “Production and Decay of Strange Particles” and “Demon with a Glass Hand”). He also played Olin in Leslie Steven’s 1966 film Incubus, a film with tons of TOL connections (we'll take a detailed look at this weird and fascinating flick at some point; probably this summer).
Arleen Schnable, Bert’s chickadee on the sly, is played by Linda Hutchins, who will return in season two for a brief role as an unnamed nurse in “The Inheritors, Part 1.” Despite her extremely brief appearance, I’m inclined to call her a TOL Babe (she’s certainly cute, and those soft moans she makes while Phobos-One thought-beams her are…. um, yeah, kinda hot). Her two Outer Limits appearances are incidentally her final two acting credits, and I haven’t been able to track down any info on her beyond that, so I guess she either died or dropped off the face of the earth.
HOME VIDEO RELEASES
“Controlled Experiment” received the standard videotape exposure back in the late 80’s and early 90’s: the standard retail VHS release (nice cover!), and the Columbia House Collector’s Edition (in which it was paired with “ZZZZZ”).
The episode showed up on the then-premium LaserDisc format, in the second of a total four multi-episode collections. I’m gonna collect these someday. Why? I dunno. I have no legitimate reason. I just want ‘em.
VHS tapes were big and took up a ton of room. LaserDiscs were expensive. The DVD format kicked ‘em both to the curb around 1997, offering superior quality, (comparatively) low prices, and dramatically reduced shelf space requirements. The entire first season (32 episodes) was released in 2002 in a four-disc set, which I snapped up the day it came out (might’ve been the best fifty bucks I ever spent). The downside? MGM used DVD-18s (double-sided dual-layered discs; which are essentially two DVDs glued together), which had already proven problematic in other releases (particularly from Universal) due to the adhesive between the sides breaking down). My season one set still plays perfectly; however, my season two set (released in 2003, also employing DVD-18s) has a bad disc (the episode “Behold Eck!” won’t play all the way through; I guess I should be grateful that the other, better episodes on that particular disc aren't affected).
MGM announced that new Outer Limits DVD sets would be released in 2007, which was initially quite exciting (oftentimes a second release mean new mastering, bonus features, etc; the second Twilight Zone DVD sets represented a significant upgrade from the earlier releases). However, they were the same goddamned discs, this time split up into three volumes (two for season one, one for season two). I ended up buying the third volume to replace the bad disc in my season two set, so at least that problem got rectified.
The very next year all three volumes were collected into one omnibus collection, ostensibly to celebrate the series’ 45th anniversary. While notable for finally selling the entire series together, it was a deeply disappointing release: by this time the high definition blu-ray format was starting to take off, and MGM was foisting the same prone-to-failure DVD-18 bullshit on its customer base for the third time. And here, six years later, there's still no blu-ray release.
The original season sets from 2002-2003 were released in the UK in 2005 in similar packaging, but with one very significant difference: dual-layered DVD-9 discs were used, eliminating the potential for disc failure. Huzzah! The downside? The discs are in PAL format and region-restricted; however, I happen to own a region-free player, so I’m gonna pick these up one of these days (unless, that is, MGM grants me my heart’s desire and finally gets a blu-ray release rolling).
All this talk of optical discs! Hell, you can just stream the entire series for free thanks to Hulu (it’s more or less DVD resolution). The downside? You’re limited to viewing the episodes on your computer (no mobile devices, gang; this could change at some point, however).
TRADING CARD CORNER
Nothing from Topps or Rittenhouse; however, I recently discovered (and acquired) a third Outer Limits card series: a 1997 effort by DuoCards. Their 81-card offering was split between the classic series and the (dramatically inferior) Showtime series (as well as select reprints of the classic Topps cards). The classic portion focuses exclusively on the first season; however, a “season two preview” card indicates that a second set was planned (but never materialized, unfortunately). The DuoCard set is actually really nice: the first dozen or so cards feature color behind-the-scenes pics, followed by 32 cards depicting each season one episode. “Controlled Experiment” is card #30.
STOP THE PRESSES!!!
David J. Schow, author of the essential Outer Limits Companion (and TOL sensei to this writer), reminded me this morning of an apocryphal continuation of the Topps card series, created by Mark and David Holcomb (detailed here; you'll find a link to their ruminations on the series in the Recommended Reading section to the right). The Holcombs only did a few, but wouldn't you know... "Controlled Experiment" is one of 'em.
“Controlled Experiment” has never spawned a single collectible, ever. But honestly, why would it? I suppose one could create a custom Phobos-One using the Professor Bergman Space: 1999 action figure by Mego; however, Carroll O’Connor has never been rendered in any action figure format, so you won’t be able to kitbash a Diemos to complete the pair (really, there’s never been an Archie Bunker figure? Not even a bobble head?).
“Controlled Experiment” will probably never make anybody’s favorites list, but it’s quite a bit of fun if you check your preconceptions at the door. Barry Morse and Carroll O’Connor make a great team (it’s easy to imagine a sitcom spin-off following their exploits), and who knew Leslie Stevens was so witty?
*The Luminoids in “A Feasibility Study” may very well be human; however, we never see one that isn’t at least partially obscured by the unnamed affliction that gradually covers them in silvery rock-like boils, so it’s impossible to be sure. The Kyben in season two’s “Demon With a Glass Hand” are obviously humanoid, but since we never find out if their bizarre makeup is supposed to be their actual facial skin (versus some kind of mask), I can’t say for certain that they are human.