Destruct that ship, General!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Mice" (1/06/1964)




“The Mice”
Season 1, Episode 15
Originally aired 1/06/1964


Last week we saw the US government duped and manipulated by an alien species, and this week it happens again. Will we tread more cautiously in light of the Zanti Misfit Incident, or will we pull the proverbial boner twice in a row?


The planet Chromo has initiated an exchange program with Earth in which each will send a representative, presumably in the interest of interplanetary relations. To facilitate this, they've provided earth with blueprints for a “teleportation agency” device and, once it’s built, earth successfully tests it by teleporting mice to Chromo through it. Prison inmate Chino Rivera volunteers to be the human subject.


The Chromoite subject arrives on earth intact (though initially disoriented) and is given complete access to the compound and the surrounding grounds, apparently without any supervision whatsoever. It tosses what appear to be seeds into a nearby lake, which grow into a thick dough-like substance. Dr. Richardson discovers the foreign substance and, while attempting to destroy it with pesticide, is caught and drowned by the Chromoite.

Something goes wrong with Chino’s teleportation to Chromo and, inexplicably, Chromo stops responding to earth’s hails. Both Chino and Dr. Harrison (who clearly has a crush on him) spy the Chromoite eating the lake substance, which is puzzling since their species is supposed to be photosynthetic. The proverbial jig being up, the Chromoite attempts to use the teleporter to return to Chromo. Chino and his assigned guard attempt to intervene and, in the ensuing struggle, Chino shoots the Chromoite with the guard’s gun.


Chromo reestablishes communication with earth and confesses that the whole thing has been a ruse to test earth’s ecosystem for compatibility with the doughy substance, their true food source (their planet has become barren and can no longer produce it). Their deception revealed, they promise they won’t encroach on earth any further.



RANDOMONIUM

First off, let me confess something: for the last 30-odd years, since I first discovered The Outer Limits in middle school, I've always thought the alien was a Chromite (as opposed to a Chromoite). Okay, that’s not exactly an earth-shattering admission, but it does call my TOL prowess into question. What else have I been getting wrong all these years?

The authorship of “The Mice” is a bit convoluted. Bill S. Ballinger submitted a teleplay called “Exchange Student,” which was based on a story idea he developed with Associate Producer Lou Morheim. Producer Joseph Stefano heavily rewrote the teleplay, changing the title in the process (both Stefano and Ballinger receive screen credit). This was to be Ballinger’s sole contribution to the series; however, Morheim would provide story ideas for “The Bellero Shield,” “Moonstone” and “The Chameleon,” as well as co-write the teleplay for “Second Chance.” So what results from this many cooks in the kitchen, you ask? Unfortunately, the convolution carries over into the finished product: the plot is plagued by several logic problems (detailed below), and things become increasingly sloppy after a pretty tight first half. However, there are enough positive aspects to keep things rolling (and retain the interest of easily-distracted types like me).

In the director’s chair is Alan Crosland, Jr., who will return to direct “The Mutant” in March. He also helmed four episodes of The Twilight Zone: “The Parallel,” “The Old Man in the Cave," “The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms,” and “Ring-a-Ding Girl” (which just turned 50 a week or so ago). I’d call his direction “functional” versus “stylish” or “memorable” (he’s no Gerd Oswald or Byron Haskin, let’s put it that way). Happily, the brilliant Conrad Hall is on hand to direct the Photography, which means we get to enjoy his rich palette of shadows; his noir aesthetic shines through the relatively uninspired direction.


Henry Silva is a revelation as Chino. Sharp, mischievous and quick-witted, he steals every scene he’s in. Too often The Outer Limits is peopled with morose, troubled anti-heroes; Chino does (admittedly) fall into that category, but his impishness makes it near impossible not to love him. It’s a testament to both the script and Silva’s talent that we like Chino immediately and immensely, despite the fact that he’s a convicted killer, before we ever learn that his crime was justifiable. The significance of this should not be understated: we take antiheroes for granted today, but in 1964 most heroes were good, decent, morally upright folk, and bad guys were… well, bad guys. TV characters were as black and white as the stock their shows were filmed on. Chino is complex, like many Stefano characters, but he seems more clearly drawn than most, more complete.


The Chromoite… oh boy. Well, it’s certainly alien looking, isn’t it? It has a giant translucent head, a midsection from which crustaceous claws jut out (as opposed to hanging at its sides), and scrawny humanoid legs. The three main bodily regions appear to have come from three different creatures, Frankensteined together in some bizarre intergalactic experiment. It reminds me of one of those trisected character toy things (I don’t know what they’re called) where you can interchange heads, torsos and legs.



The human mind’s pareidolic tendencies compel us to examine the Chromoite’s visage for recognizable features. Does it have eyes? Maybe, or maybe it perceives its surroundings via some type of echolocation. Nose? Perhaps those dangly things process odors. There’s definitely a mouth, since we see it stuffing its edible Play-Dough into it, but it’s somewhat hidden behind what appears to be a large vertical gill. Our specimen’s head sports several semi-phallic protuberances that might just be sexual organs (perhaps the Chromoite is intended as a dry run for the blatantly sexualized Box Demon, which will assault our senses in “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” in two weeks). Moving down the body: what the hell are those long stringy things hanging off of its midsection? Are they flat tentacles, a carryover from an earlier (perhaps aquatic) evolutionary state that serves no current purpose, like the human appendix? Some kind of sensory feelers? Or is it the Chromo equivalent of a grass skirt? And what about those bristly tassel-like things sticking out of it? Are they tufts of hair? Maybe this particular specimen is middle-aged and balding; maybe younger Chromoites have a full head of the white whiskery things.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with the Chromoite’s outrageous and cumbersome design in and of itself. What troubles me is the improbability that a race of such awkward creatures could ever master intricate technology. We see their representative wring its claw hands endlessly, but it clearly has difficulty turning dials on the teleportation machine that its own people designed. I suppose it’s possible that the device on Chromo is built differently, and that the corresponding machine on earth has a different design that takes advantage of human dexterity, but this possibility opens up yet another mystery: how could Chromo have known anything about human physiology in the first place?

Let’s break down the Chromoite plan: so their soil can no longer yield crops, and they need another planet to grow their food. Okay, makes sense so far. Unfortunately, everything that follows just raises another slew of questions. What’s their end game? If Earth proves viable, they’ll… what, exactly? Invade and take over? How, exactly? Through the teleporter, one at a time? Or do they possess interstellar flight capabilities along with their amazing teleportation technology? And why does the discovery of their deception mean the immediate termination of their plan? Did their success or failure hinge solely on whether or not they could grow their food (and kill several humans) without being noticed? 

And why the hell isn’t the visiting Chromoite under constant supervision? The compound has a force field preventing Chino from getting out, but evidently the Chromoite can pass through it repeatedly with ease. And this compound is advanced enough to have a force field in the first place, but it doesn’t have security cameras strategically located throughout?


In reviewing the “Valley of the Shadow” episode in my Twilight Zone blog last year, I jokingly intimated that the advanced devices depicted therein (replicators and transporters, specifically) were co-opted By Gene Roddenberry for Star Trek. Well, the “teleportation agency” device in “The Mice” is very similar to Trek’s transporter, so I’m gonna make the same winking insinuation here too. The concept of matter teleportation dates at least as far back as 1931 (thanks, Wikipedia!), but that doesn’t mean Roddenberry didn't get the idea from “The Mice.” I’m just sayin’.


There's a (probably unintentionally) hilarious bit in act four when the Chromoite comes after one of the guards. The flash zoom, coupled with his reaction, is hysterically over the top.


After Doctors Richardson and Kellander discover the strange doughy substance growing in the lake, and determine that it's "alien," their immediate thought is to use a combination of pesticides to eradicate it rather than study it. Plus, they're handling the stuff with no precautions whatsoever (ever hear of gloves, guys?). These are scientists, right? Okay, just checking.


The unfortunate casualties aside, Earth has still gained something of remarkable value through all this: the Chromoite teleportation device. While humanity may not be able to travel to other planets with it (since they’d need one at the other end), they can easily build more units and place them all over the world, rendering conventional travel obsolete. This one device could end world hunger and war, ushering in a new Utopian age. So hey, thanks, Chromo!


TEASE ME!


After last week’s subtle teaser, in which the alien menace wasn’t even shown, we get a good long look at this week’s disgusting nonhuman almost immediately. However, considering how much screen time it gets overall (seriously, the camera almost seems to fetishize the damn thing), I guess up-front subtlety would've been a lost cause.



AURAL PLEASURE

“The Mice” features a semi-original score by Dominic Frontiere. I say “semi” because much of it is actually reorchestrated from his earlier “Nightmare.” If I understand correctly, he took the existing cues and added more music on top of them. The score for “The Mice” contains a bit called “Kill Jong” (which was a “Nightmare” cue), so there ya go. Impossible as it seems, Frontiere managed to make weird and wild music even weirder and wilder this time around, which is appropriate given the episode’s wacky alien menace. It’s hard to describe it, but… well, imagine you’re having a vivid dream in which you’re drunk at a circus. That bizarre music you hear in the background? Yeah, it’s like that: atmospheric and surreal (dizzyingly so), with some military snare and timpani thrown in for… what, exactly? I have no idea, but it all sounds amazing. I've been listening to the score nonstop for two weeks straight (which may prove to have unanticipated side effects; hopefully my driving isn’t being affected).

Frontiere’s gloriously bizarre score for “The Mice,” along with most of the music he composed for the series, can be found on the excellent 3-disc soundtrack from La La Land Records, which is a steal at $19.98 plus shipping. Order yours today!






DRAMATIS PERSONAE

The high-powered Chromoite teleportation device can’t match the energy brought to proceedings by Henry Silva in his second TOL appearance (we saw him two weeks ago as the nefarious General Juan Mercurio in “Tourist Attraction”). His Daystar association goes back to Stoney Burke, their pre-TOL series (“The Weapons Man” episode). He also played Chunjin in one of my favorite films, 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, in which he got to beat the crap out of Frank Sinatra.


Diana Sands is quite good as the sympathetic Dr. Julia Harrison, her only TOL role. I had to dig a bit to connect her further to the series, but here goes: she appeared in the “Turkish Delight” episode of I Spy (a series which starred three-time TOL alum Robert Culp); further, she had a bit part in 1959’s Odds Against Tomorrow, a favorite film noir of mine that also starred TOL alum Gloria Grahame. Yeah, I know, those are kinda flimsy, but they count. I make the rules here, dammit.


The unfortunate Dr. Robert Richardson is played by Ronald Foster in his only TOL gig; he also appeared in “The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms” on The Twilight Zone, an episode which just turned 50 last month.


Dr. Williams is played by Dabney Coleman in the first of three TOL appearances (we’ll see him in “Specimen: Unknown” in February and “Wolf 359” next season). The prison warden is played by Francis de Sales, who also showed up on The Twilight Zone in 1964 (“Sounds and Silences"). And finally, Chino's guard is played by Bill Hickman, who appeared in the "Ring-a-Ding Girl" episode of The Twilight Zone (which just turned 50 a little over a week ago).



HOME VIDEO RELEASES


If you were collecting The Outer Limits on VHS back in the 80’s and 90’s, you either had the standard retail version of "The Mice" or the Columbia House club version (which also included “The Borderland” from a couple weeks back). If you were collecting the series on LaserDisc, you were SOL as far as “The Mice” was concerned (it and 19 other episodes were never released on that format).


DVD swooped in to save the day, however, when the entire first season was released in one set in 2002 (the abbreviated second season showed up in 2003). Apparently MGM felt the day needed additional saving, as it re-released season one (this time split into two halves) in 2007, then again in 2008 when it finally released the entire series in one big set. There’s no difference whatsoever between the discs in the three different releases, so if you bought more than one… well, you’re kind of a sucker. Sorry, but you are.


And now, today, in this technologically advanced 21st century, you can stream “The Mice” (and any other Outer Limits episodes you choose) for free on Hulu. If you have a reasonably fast internet connection, they’ll look as good as the DVDs.


Christmas has come and gone, and I didn't get my most-wanted gift: the series on blu-ray. Okay, MGM, 2014 better be the year. Get crackin’.


TRADING CARD CORNER


The Chromoite was featured on three cards (#6-8) in Topps’ 1964 Monsters from Outer Limits trading card series in 1964. Here he was dubbed “The Jelly Man,” a creature spawned in the Louisiana bayou who menaces the locals until being successfully trapped in a refrigeration unit and frozen. *sigh*


MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT

Dimensional Designs offers two distinct Chromoite model kits. The first is a 1/8 scale rendering by Greg Nicotero (DD/OL/CR-17), for which you’ll pay $49.95 plus shipping. A Deluxe Chromoite is also available, sculpted by Takeshi Yoneda (DD/OL/CX-28), which is 1/6 scale and will therefore set you back $125.00 plus shipping. Something seems very wrong with this math, but I’m hardly an expert in such things. Nicotero’s sculpt appears much more accurate to me, sleek and detailed; by contrast, Yoneda’s looks lumpy and less distinct (as if chiseled from stone), but that could be the fault of the monochromatic paint scheme shown on the box. 


THE WRAP-UP

The story has some pretty obvious holes, and the Chromoite plan is just plain stupid (particularly for a race intelligent enough to master interplanetary teleportation!). The Chromoite creature design is really over the top, hovering dangerously close to comical. However, “The Mice” is still imminently entertaining (even though it does meander some in the second half), and Henry Silva is fantastic in the lead. I give it two crab claws up.





6 comments:

  1. I'm not sure what the consensus is for "The Mice", but it is one of the craziest Outer Limits episodes ever. The whole exchange of an alien for a human is an extremely cool premise. Also interesting is the fact that the alien race, Chromoites, sent plans to Earth so that humans could assemble a teleportation device using the Chromoites advanced technology. This is similar to the alien-tech idea behind other episodes like "O.B.I.T." and reminded me of the Jodie Foster vehicle, "Contact".

    When one of the Chromoites is "beamed" to Earth, its appearance is shocking to say the least. The jelly-like head and body of the alien, its two arms with crab claws for appendages. It's a strange creation. And why does it look to me like it's wearing leather pants?

    Henry Silva is again great here as the convict who is supposed to be sent to Chromo but as it turns out, he is key to the discovery of the aliens' actual plans.

    One of my absolute favorite parts of this episode is when we see the Chromoite skimming up some white goop on the surface of a pond and scooping it into its mouth, which looks like puckered lips to me.

    For reasons based on its insanity, I really enjoy "The Mice".

    I'll give it an "8" - Very Good

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  2. The Chromoite, as seem by an 8 year old which I was the first time I saw the episode in 1964, is a very scary sight. Almost as frightening as the Ebonite Interrogator or the Helosian. It is something totally and completely alien and worked for me. The music is superb as always

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  3. I read a lot of smack talk about this episode all over the internet. Boy, it must be me, 'cuz I like this one a lot! The BEAR looks scary as heck! Except for his spindly little legs of course. Otherwise, it looks like mother nature haphazardly threw this alien together, but I mean that in a good way! Totally works for me. I like the script, dialog, the whole works. Silva did a great job in it. Good one!

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  4. I had to love this blog. Great writing. I came here in search of finding out who the actress was. Sorry to read that she died at 39, back in '73, I didn't see her name in the credits... but thank god they let us know who the Key Grip was. Didn't know that was Dabney Coleman either.

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    1. Actually, Diana Sands gets top-of-the-episode billing, right behind Henry Silva (although Michael Higgins' name shares the screen with hers).

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    2. Speaking of which--Craig, why wasn't Higgins mentioned in your review? He has a major role, after all.

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