Destruct that ship, General!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Children of Spider County" (2/17/1964)




“The Children of Spider County”
Season 1, Episode 21
Originally aired 2/17/1964

Twenty years after running out to get a pack of smokes, an absent father returned home to connect with his son and hopefully makes amends. Not exactly a new story idea, I'll grant you that... but when you consider that the father is an alien from a planet billions of miles away, it suddenly seems fresh and interesting. Fifty years ago tonight, The Outer Limits proved that, in addition to brilliantly realizing great scripts, it could also half-ass less-than-brilliant ones.



(from left: Hainsley, Wheatley , Masters, Robertson, Ethan Wechsler)

The United States Space Security Agency is investigating four missing scientists who share a number of strange connections: each was born in the rural Spider County (Massachusetts? Connecticut? Rhode Island? It’s kinda hard to tell from that map), all four were born within a month of one another, and each of their fathers disappeared shortly after their births. Agent John Bartlett heads to Spider County to investigate; his first order of business: connect with a fifth individual matching the MO of the missing men who hasn’t gone missing… he’s being held in the Spider County jail.

Spider County’s “Witch Boy,” Ethan Wechsler, is a social outcast feared by the hillbilly citizenry for supposedly possessing supernatural abilities. He’s being charged with first degree murder (a charge which he denies) and is being escorted in handcuffs to his court date. A hideous alien in a suit and tie appears in the middle of the road, causing the police car to careen off the road and flip onto its side. The alien disintegrates the deputy before he can take action, then takes on a human form before fleeing with Ethan in tow.




The two take refuge in a barn at the Bishop farm, where Ethan's girlfriend Anna lives. The alien, Aabel of the planet Eros, explains that Ethan is one of five human-Erosian hybrids. The Erosians lost the ability to bear male children, so five of their men came to earth to interbreed. Aabel, who is Ethan's father, has come to bring all five back to Eros. Ethan is in love with Anna and refuses to go.



Anna's father shows up toting a shotgun and ends up disintegrated for his trouble. Ethan and Anna flee into the nearby woods and are eventually apprehended. Agent Bartlett meets with Ethan and convinces him to help the Space Security Agency stop Aabel. Aabel breaks Ethan out and takes him to his space ship's secret location deep in the woods, where the other four hybrids are waiting. Aabel realizes that Ethan has betrayed them: he's wearing a homing signal device, and the authorities are closing in.

Aabel goes to disintegrate Ethan, but finds himself unable to destroy "the better part of himself." Ethan (along with his fellow hybrids) refuses to leave Earth and, defeated, Aabel boards his ship and leaves, and Ethan is reunited with Anna. 



And you thought The Outer Limits never had happy endings...!


RANDOMONIUM

“The Children of Spider County” is writer Anthony Lawrence’s second (and final) contribution to the series. His previous “The Man Who Was Never Born” has stood the test of time as one of the show’s greatest achievements; unfortunately, this week’s offering… well, hasn’t. It’s not terrible; it’s not even bad, necessarily… it’s just not great. I’m not even sure it’s good, truth be told. There are some interesting themes present (the importance of dreaming, society’s bullying of the intellectually gifted, the relative benefits of being a lazy dreamer versus an insect-like worker drone), but they’re addressed so haphazardly that they don’t inspire much rumination after the fact. Schow describes the various script revisions in his splendiferous Outer Limits Companion, so I won’t detail them here (I’m assuming everyone reading this already has a copy… right? If you don’t, head over to the We Are Controlling Transmission blog, which includes tear sheets from the book; you’ll find the relevant pages here). I think it’s safe to say that sometimes the first draft is the best, and that endless revising is tantamount to dilution (at least, this is what I tell myself every time I finish writing something and don't ever want to touch it again).


In the director’s chair is Leonard Horn, who previously helmed Lawrence’s “The Man Who Was Never Born” and, more recently, “The Zanti Misfits.” Director of Photography Kenneth Peach makes his debut this week, and we’ll all have to get used to him pronto because, aside from a few notable exceptions, he’s shooting the rest of the series. He’s no Conrad Hall (I’m gonna try like hell not to compare them every week; I'm not making any promises), but he does have his moments. There seems to be a conscious effort on the part of both Horn and Peach to replicate the visual style of “The Man Who Was Never Born”; this is most evident in act three’s forest chase, which is adorned with swirling fog, smeared lenses, and cameras pointed directly at the sun. This is all derivative of a vastly superior episode, sure, but it does impart a somewhat-similar dreamlike quality to the proceedings. The shot of Aabel, wearing his true alien face as he walks through shafts of light and fog, is a stunning composition (time stamp 32:08). 




The first half of the episode cruises along fairly smoothly; unfortunately things go progressively awry as the second half trudges on. Plot points and events become scattered and increasingly confusing. At the 23:25 time stamp, Bartlett hears a high-pitched whining sound and sees a glowing light-bulbish object gradually descending from the sky. Back at the Gibson farm, both Aabel and Anna see it too. What is it? What it its purpose? Who the fuck knows? It's never seen again.

We do hear it again, however: at 32:43, Aabel emits the same ear-piercing screeching sound, which is heard by the various parties bumbling around in the woods, for no apparent reason and with no apparent result. Several minutes of screen time are subsequently wasted on Ethan and Anna finding a canoe (which he spends way too long staring at, incidentally), hitting the lake and attempting to cross it…. only to give up and immediately return to the dock when the authorities arrive on the scene (never mind the fact that they're almost to the other side!). If the intent was to build up dramatic tension leading up to Ethan’s capture… well, it’s neither tense nor particularly dramatic. At no time does Ethan’s flight feel particularly urgent; however, it’s possible that the languid pacing may be an intentional choice to underline the wispy, dreamlike visuals. I’m willing to cut the episode some slack; however, by the fourth act my patience is gone, baby, gone.

The missing four human-Erosian hybrids finally appear in act four, hiding in the forest near Aabel’s ship. As Aabel pleads his case to Ethan one last time, he appears to wake each of them with a soft touch to their heads. Were they sleeping, or perhaps in some kind of hypnotic trance? We’re never told, but either way it’s a gentle, ethereal moment; a sweet morsel in an otherwise bitter-tasting sequence. That's right, I said bitter-tasting. Things really go to hell at this point in the episode, as all parties converge for a seriously lacking climax. If the earlier acts were languid and dreamlike, the distractingly choppy cutting here is a rude wake-up call. Several shots are repeated, presumably to cover a deficit in usable footage, particularly a jarring zoom shot of Aabel’s face (more on this below).

What prompts the boy geniuses to suddenly turn on Aabel? We see each of them close their eyes for a moment, which might suggest that they’ve been under Aabel’s hypnotic whammy the whole time (and are snapped out of it by Ethan’s passionate defense of humankind)… but who knows? We aren’t given enough info to make the call; whatever the case, it smacks of plot expediency.  The boy geniuses are frustratingly underdeveloped; it would've been nice to get a bit more on them and a lot less of all the aimless running around that comprises much of the episode (season two’s “The Inheritors” will also deal with four men under an alien influence, but it will be a two-part affair, allowing for copious amounts of satisfying character development; it goes without saying that it's a vastly superior episode).

And speaking of these boy geniuses, what’s the story with their mothers? We’re told that they “are unwilling to admit or even discuss” the nature of their offspring… and U.S. Space Security is cool with that? Seems like they’d go to greater lengths for answers in the interest of national security, doesn't it? If this were a true story, I’m pretty damned sure our government would be detaining, polygraphing and probing the hell out of those uncooperative ladies, then or now. Are they aware of their offspring’s true natures? Or were each of them brainwashed (or coerced) into not cooperating? Your guess, the old saying goes, is as good as mine.


Another parallel to “The Man Who Was Never Born” is Aabel’s ability to conceal his true appearance by telepathically implanting a different (i.e. human) visage in the minds of those around him. Andro’s illusion included period-appropriate clothing to conceal his tattered burlap-sack robes; Aabel, meanwhile, wears a suit and tie in both guises. It’s certainly a strange sight, seeing those lumpy clawed feet sticking out of his slacks (he adds Florsheims when he appears human, which makes me wonder if the whole outfit is in fact an illusion; maybe Erosians are of the au natural persuasion, but 1960’s Standards and Practices frowned on nudity of an kind, including arachnid alien nudity).

I may be wrong, but those Erosian feet look a lot like the Helosian feet from “O.B.I.T.” (the fact that the two species rhyme is probably a coincidence, but one never knows).




In any case, the idea of an alien wearing semi-formal human clothing is pretty nifty from a surrealist standpoint. It's an effective juxtaposition of two things that are (pun alert!) alien to one another but forced to coexist; a visual contradiction of sorts. The Outer Limits, however, wasn’t the first to do it. Two years earlier, The Twilight Zone featured an alien in a swingin’ turtleneck-and-blazer-combo in its “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby” episode.


Aabel has demonstrated that he can easily disarm people by telepathically lulling them into a trance; why is it necessary for him to kill (sorry, uncreate) two different people? The deputy he dispatches in act one didn't even draw his firearm; it seems his only crime was looking at Aabel with a semi-perplexed look on his face. Mr.Bishop is certainly more aggressive, but he's just a small-minded yokel trying to protect his daughter, hardly deserving of his death sentence (sorry, uncreation). Aabel's powers seem limited to telepathic suggestion (and really thick skin on the bottoms of those bare feet)... so how exactly is he not harmed by Bishop's point-blank shotgun blast? If he's somehow immune to gunfire, then those two deaths (I mean uncreations) are completely gratuitous, which makes him a total dick.



And I have some issues with the Erosian plan to sire human-Erosian hybrids. The men of Eros have evidently lost the art of dreaming, thereby rendering them unable to sire male children. Um... what now? Even if the lack of dreaming could impact a man's fertility, how the hell could it be a gender-specific? If the problem is that its men can no longer sire males, shouldn't they have brought Erosian women them to test Earth's "favorable climate"? If interbreeding with humans was the only option (and I can't fathom why it would be), wouldn't it have made more sense to send Erosian women to mate with Earth men? If their men are a dying breed, why risk five of them on an interstellar voyage? 

At time stamp 11:48, we watch as a newly-sprung (yet already exhausted) Ethan tumbles into a nearby pond, and dramatically splashes water on his face. 1964 viewers must have found this particular bit painfully familiar, since David Jansen was doing the exact same thing every week during the opening credits of The Fugitive (which also aired on ABC). And look! Both have a pair of handcuffs hangin' off of 'em.


Speaking of familiar sights, the arguing shadow heads in Ethan's cell sent me on a pretty intense brain-racking. What the hell did this remind me of? I finally figured it out, several hours later: one of my favorite shows as a kid was PBS’s Electric Company, which featured a recurring segment in which two silhouetted faces over-enunciated two-syllable words. My sister Karin Siccardi and I riffed on this routine for years as we grew up. Viva nostalgia!




DEJA VIEW

The zoom shot of Aabel’s face mentioned above is used no less than four times in ninety seconds, which is the visual equivalent of a firecracker in a quiet room, since none of the surrounding shots come close to matching its frenetic energy. It’s even shoved into the middle of Aabel’s final longing look at Ethan as he boards his ship, completely wrecking the scene’s tone. Elsewhere, we see the same shot of a police car driving down a tree-lined road three different times (it’s either recycled from “The Mice” or was shot at the same location), one of which is horizontally flipped (presumably for variety, the way shots were repeated in flipped form in “The Zanti Misfits”). An early shot from “Nightmare” showing the Earth ship cruising toward the obsidian planet Ebon is recycled here, also flipped horizontally; this time it depicts Aabel’s ship returning to Eros, which I guess is also an obsidian planet (for that matter, I guess rocket construction is standard across the galaxy).


Actually, it appears that the shot was actually reversed in "Nightmare": the serial number on the ship is clearly backwards, something I'd never noticed before. For it's reuse here, it's unreversed (revealing that the native language of Eros is in fact English).



TEASE ME!

This week’s teaser is the act one scene in which Aabel’s presence in the road causes the sheriff’s car to flip onto its side, followed by his unceremonious uncreating of the deputy. It seems to be the same shot-for-shot sequence (though, curiously, the music kicks in earlier in the teaser). The real difference here is the amount of Vaseline blur on the screen: it’s much less pronounced in the teaser, which indicates that the effect was added in post-production (versus smeared onto the camera lens during shooting).



AURAL PLEASURE


Like every episode for the rest of the season (except “The Forms of Things Unknown” in May), “The Children of Spider County” doesn’t feature original music. This week we get selections from several Dominic Frontiere scores of episodes past, including the following:

Building Terror, It’s Here (from “The Human Factor”)
Washington D.C. (from “The Hundred Days of the Dragon”)
A Father’s Search, Zapped into Box (from “Don’t Open Till Doomsday”)
Allen Leighton, Alien on the Loose (from “The Architects of Fear”)
Coffee and Cigarettes (from "Controlled Experiment")

That's quite a varied list (it's by no means complete, by the way; these are just the cues that stood out for me).


DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Hoo boy, we've got all kinds of cross-connections this week. 

Ethan Wechsler is played by by Lee Kinsolving in his only TOL appearance; he’d also appear the same year on The Twilight Zone (“Black Leather Jackets,” which just turned 50 a few weeks ago). Kinsolving’s acting resume is pretty brief: he retired from Hollywood after a scant eight years.


Kent Smith plays Aabel (in his human form) in the second of his TOL turns (he was the nefarious Dr. Bloch in “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork” back in December). He also popped up in the “Always Say Goodbye” episode of TV’s I Spy in 1966, a series which starred TOL leading man Robert Culp. Smith also had a recurring role as Edgar Scoville on TV’s The Invaders (1967-68), a series which guest-starred most of this week’s cast at some point or other.


Aabel’s alien form is inhabited by TOL legend William O. Douglas Jr. in his final appearance on the show. He played Andy the Andromedan in “The Galaxy Being,” the Ghost of Private Gordon in “The Human Factor,” and the ill-fated Henry Castle in “The Invisibles” two weeks ago. Before all this, he appeared in “The Weapons Man” on Stoney Burke, Daystar Productions’ pre-TOL series.


Space Security Agent John Bartlett is played by John Milford, whose Daystar Productions association began with the “Web of Fear” episode of Stoney Burke. He appeared three times on The Invaders (the pilot “Beachhead,” plus “Counter-Attack” and “Inquisition,” both of which also featured Kent Smith). More recently, Milford appeared on The X-files (“Our Town”).


The shotgun-toting Mr. Bishop is played by Dabs Greer, who will return in season two’s “The Inheritors” (where he’ll also point a gun at someone, and will again be disarmed via telepathic hypnosis). He also did two Twilight Zones (the aforementioned “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby” as well as “Valley of the Shadow”), two stints on The Invaders (“Beachhead,” where he crossed paths with John Milford, and “The Experiment”; neither episode featured Kent Smith), and of course we all know all know and love him as Reverend Alden on TV’s long-running Little House on the Prairie. Before all of this he popped up in the “Image of Glory” episode of Stoney Burke.



Joe E. Tata is back as Wheatley, one of the boy geniuses (he played the unnamed radar operator in December’s “The Zanti Misfits”). Sheriff Stakefield is played by Crahan Denton, who will return in season two’s “Counterweight.” Mr. Greenbane (Ethan’s attorney) is played by Joseph Perry, whose face we never see (the closest we get is the silhouette sequence described above). Perry also appeared as the Chief of Police in “The Galaxy Being” (where he crossed paths with William O. Douglas Jr.). He also did two Twilight Zones (“Nightmare as a Child” and “The Gift”), plus the “Five by Eight by Eight” episode of Stoney Burke, which also featured Bennye Gatteys, here playing the nubile Anna Bishop. 



HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“The Children of Spider County” hit VHS in two flavors: the standard retail release (which, like most of MGM's TOL tapes, featured a beautiful cover) and the mail-order exclusive Columbia House release, which paired it with the upcoming “Second Chance." LaserDisc collectors were stuck with one of these options, since the episode wasn’t included in the four Outer Limits LD sets.


The episode has shown up on DVD three different times: the season one boxed set in 2002, the volume 2 set in 2007 (which comprised the first second of season 1), and the complete series boxed set in 2008 (which is just the three 2007 volumes combined into one box). I bought the 2002 release the day it came out, so I skipped the later releases.

If you’re one of those forward-thinking types who’s already phasing all physical media out of your life in favor of the brave new world of streaming content, point your browser to Hulu, which has the entire Outer Limits run (including “The Children of Spider County”) available for free. Yep, you read it right: FREE. I should be angry, seeing as how I paid full retail for the VHS tapes (I owned half the series back in the day, so that would've been roughly $300.00 in late-80’s dollars) and the DVD sets ($100.00 for both), but hey, I’m learning to let go of my anger as I get older. All would be instantly forgiven, of course, if MGM would announce a Blu-ray release of the series….

TRADING CARD CORNER

Like many TOL creatures, Aabel was part of the Monsters from Outer Limits trading card collection in 1964. You’ll find him on card #9, in which he is recast as an earthly landlord who also happens to be a vampire. *sigh* Well, wait... I guess maybe he does have a bit of a Nosferatu vibe about him....


If you were buying the cards back in '64 (I wasn't, since I wouldn't be born for five years), you could also find Aabel on the front of the display box. Aabel was also seen on the backside of the "00" card in the reprint set from 1995, which depicted the outer wrappers of the cards.




MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT

We touch on Dimensional Designs’ TOL models almost every week (since they’ve got a kit for almost every episode), but imagine my surprise when, as I was doing research (i.e. scouring the internet) for this week’s entry, I unearthed no less than three different model kits of Aabel. Let’s look ‘em over….


A 1/8 scale resin model kit of Aabel’s true form is available from Dimensional Designs (“Eros Creature”, DD/OL/EC-26), sculpted by Jon Wang ($49.95 plus shipping, if you’re so inclined). It’s got the iconic pose, which I do appreciate, but… well, let’s look at what Mr. Enamel has done with it:


I dunno. This one doesn’t do much for me. The problem is the face. I’m not sure if it’s the sculpt job or the paint job, but it’s not really speaking to me.


Another resin model kit (also 1/8 scale) was offered by Lunar Models at some point. I’m not really crazy about this one either. Not sure why he was painted brown here, but I get a serious Wolf Man vibe… which I’m pretty sure wasn’t the intent. I’m not sure how one would acquire this, except possibly on eBay.


A third model is available from Saturn Ltd., which is bigger (1/6 scale) and, out of the three, probably the best. I’m still not 100% happy with it, but I think it’s mostly the paint job on the sample that’s keeping me ambivalent about it (the mandibles shouldn’t match the skin tone, should they?). I actually prefer it unpainted… it looks like a statue. And hey, that pair of handcuffs on the base is a clever touch. You can snag your own for $139.99 plus shipping over at Monsters In Motion (which I just discovered today; they also carry most if not all of the Dimensional Design kits).



An individual who goes by the moniker “Loosecollector” over at Figure Realm created a custom action figure of Aabel back in 2010, calling him the “Vampire of Spider County” (apparently he took the Topps card as gospel). Now THIS is more like it! This rendering of Aabel has some serious swagger going on, and the detail is marvelous. Love it.


We've seen this guy’s work before: he was also responsible for the custom Helosian figure I gushed over back in November’s “O.B.I.T.” spotlight. I love the idea of smaller-scale Outer Limits figures (as awesome as the Sideshow Collectibles offerings are, they’re kinda huge), and wish like crazy somebody would pick up the license and start churning some out.


THE WRAP-UP

“The Children of Spider County” is ultimately an exercise in frustration. It definitely has an intriguing premise, the cast is quite good (I'll watch Kent Smith in anything), and there are a few cool things going on visually (first and foremost Aabel’s dapper dress code); however, the whole thing unwinds irreparably as it wears on, and whatever potential existed at the outset evaporates. For me the episode lands in the lower middle of the season one heap (however: it’ll probably look a lot better after next week’s episode).

My nephew William Siccardi, whose Spider
Sense is always tingling.
One final thought: so Ethan and the other four boy geniuses are now free to interbreed with human women and create more hybrids... how long before a generation of spider babies rises up to take over the world?





























This week's entry is brought to you by Black Widow Porter, a seasonal offering from McMenamins (one of the many reasons why the Pacific Northwest is the undisputed mecca of craft beers). I had a bottle left over from Halloween and, given this week's spider-centric episode, it seemed like the perfect time to bust it out.



10 comments:

  1. Great blog, even though you're right that it's not much of an episode. Craft beers are disappearing (uh, UNappearing) from most places, even Germany, so you guys are lucky in the Pacific NW. I think this is your first mention (?) of The Invaders, an under-rated classic despite the Quinn Martin white-collar-crime aliens. I always admired Roy Thinnes for carrying that show solo for about a year before they added another recurring character (Kent Smith, as you mentioned).

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  2. PS: I actually know someone (though not very well) who was in one episode of The Invaders. That's my "Brush With Greatness" -- though it doesn't compare with Bill Huelbig's meetings with top OL actors.

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  3. My thoughts from years ago, treading little new ground...

    "The Children of Spider County" is a boring episode. The story is setup well enough as a dying alien race tries to save itself by breeding with humans to create male aliens.

    What isn't so bad is the makeup of Aabel, the alien from the planet Eros. The alien mask does look frightening at times and gives you something to look forward to while the story's endless dialogue nearly puts you to sleep.

    I thought that Kent Smith did a good job as the alien father of Ethan. Ethan is played by Lee Kinsolving, who turns in the stiffest acting performance in any Outer Limits episode.

    A compass would have been handy to help me get my sense of direction while watching this. The characters spend endless amounts of time romping through the woods.

    The story does nothing but burn time because Aabel not only doesn't convince Ethan to return to his home planet of Eros, but none of the other four human/alien males return with him, either.

    On top of all this, it appears that Aabel's alien spaceship is emblazoned with the star and stripes Air Force logo.

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  4. This week is as good as any time to ask: is "ing ob e lanz trinsni ob lo sans de lanz!" Zanti for "my dogs ate my copy of The Outer Limits Companion" or is it French for something "without the Lanz"?

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  5. Adrian - I'm tempted to leave this a perpetual mystery, but... okay, twist my arm. It mean absolutely nothing. It's just a meaningless string of Zanti words.

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  6. Well, that's OK, because my "comments" are meaningless strings of ENGLISH words. It was obvious that I exhausted my OL "insights" pretty early. But, otherwise, the level of reader comments is always very high. For example, whitsbrain's observation that the plot of "Children of Spider County" is like a firecracker whose fuse fizzles (there is no saififying resolution) explains why I could never remember the ending.

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  7. Adrian - I couldn't disagree more. Your comments are often invaluable, as are Whit's and Bill's and... well, just about everyone. For some reason The Outer Limits isn't widely loved, so any discourse on it is better than silence.

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  8. After re-watching this episode this week for the first time in a couple of years, I really enjoyed it. There really isn't an episode in the first season that I dislike, and this one is no exception.
    Honestly, I love The Outer Limits so much that I just simply love watching and enjoying all of the episodes again and again. Each episode takes me back to a special time in my life when everything was new and exciting and anything was possible.
    Craig, I'm glad you started this blog, it's given me the excuse to pull out my DVD's and enjoy them again for the first time in a while.
    Adrian, I'm glad you mentioned The Invaders, it is a definite classic and a must see for fans of classic sci-fi television. Roy Thinnes is one of my favorites! Also, Dominic Frontiere composed the haunting theme song for The Invaders as well.

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  9. When the teaser came on and Aabel undreates the deputy my Mom pulled me away from the television and told me I could not watch it...it would give me nightmares. I never saw the whole episode even in syndication until the middle of the 1980's one late night showing on WOR. This is one of two episodes that escaped me in the series first run. The other was Don't Open Till Doomsday which I finally saw in 1966 syndication. Little did Mom know I was watching the show anyway at a friends house so she finally relented and just went to another part of the house when it was on. SCORE!!!

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  10. Boy, what a mess of a first season episode. Horrible script. Lots of extra shots thrown in, probably because they needed more time filler. I love almost every 1st season show, but I go out of my way to avoid this mess.

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