Destruct that ship, General!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Specimen: Unknown" (2/24/1964)



“Specimen: Unknown”
Season 1, Episode 22
Originally aired 2/24/1964

Fifty years ago tonight, ABC viewers got a preview of the Flower Power movement that would sweep our great nation just a few years later. I’m not suggesting that “Specimen: Unknown” was the opening salvo in the societal pushback against the Vietnam War; rather, I’m suggesting that Allen Ginsberg could’ve been an Outer Limits fan. Just maybe his idea of flowers having great power stemmed from a seed planted in his head by this very episode.


No?  Yeah, probably not. But inspiring such a landmark piece of our history would certainly lend an air of legitimacy to an episode that most definitely lacks it. The fact is, “Specimen: Unknown” is one of the season’s weakest offerings. 


Lieutenant Rupert Howard is analyzing some mushroom-like barnacles aboard the Space Station Adonis. He places one inside an incubator, inside which it quickly grows into a foot-high flower with a bulbous pod at its base. The flower promptly launches dozen of spores and emits a poisonous vapor, which kills Howard within seconds (but not before he’s able to jettison the matured flower from the station).


The crew is due for their rotation back to Earth, so they perform a burial in space for Howard before they leave. They bring the remaining spores with them for the return trip to Earth; predictably, in-flight turbulence causes the containers to open, releasing the specimens. Soon the capsule is overrun with the flowers, and the men are beginning to die from exposure to the toxic plants.

Captain Doweling (the only crewman still conscious) insists that the capsule be destroyed in the air to prevent the plants from spreading on the Earth, but Ground Control orders him to land regardless. Doweling successfully crash-lands in the woods, and the spores immediately begin taking root in Earth's soil. The flowers proliferate impossibly quickly, covering the surrounding area in a matter of minutes, and the news of a coming rainstorm instills dread and fear in all present. The capsule’s crew (one of them is already dead; the others are in coma states) is loaded into an ambulance and blood transfusions commence.


The rain begins, and all seems lost. Then, unexpectedly, the flowers emit an agonized wail and begin to die. It seems water is lethal to them, and the day is anticlimactically and all-too-easily saved.

RANDOMONIUM

We've already seen scripts penned by multiple authors (“ZZZZ” and “The Mice” come to mind), but “Specimen: Unknown” is unique in that different writers contributed separate entire chunks. Stephen Lord’s original teleplay as filmed ended up being several minutes too short, so series creator and executive producer Leslie Stevens wrote additional scenes as a kind of prologue to the story (everything up to Howard’s burial, for which he received no screen credit). The dry, protracted scene in which Howard performs various lab tests on the alien spores (which look like Styrofoam mushrooms) is pure Stevens.


The same patchwork approach extends to the episode’s direction as well: Gerd Oswald directed Lord’s teleplay, while Robert H. Justman was brought in after the fact to direct Stevens’ prologue scenes (and like Stevens, he received no screen credit). Conrad Hall is the only Director of Photography credited, so I can only assume that he filmed both chunks. Speaking of Hall, attentive readers are probably recalling my report last week that Kenneth Peach would be the DOP for the rest of the series. So what’s Hall doing back already, you ask? Various post-production issues (the short running time; the production of Stevens’ additional material, etc.) delayed the completion of “Specimen: Unknown” considerably: it was the tenth produced but the twenty-second to air, which means it actually fell within Hall’s tenure. It certainly looks like a Hall job: the space station is draped in atmospheric shadows (particularly Howard’s burial scene). Even the later outdoor scenes have a richness that Peach (or John Nicklaus for that matter) will rarely if ever achieve on the series. Hall will be back for one last hurrah: the season finale “The Forms of Things Unknown” in May.

“Specimen: Unknown” is stiflingly generic sci-fi. Nothing feels original; the plot and its inhabitants are all cardboard genre clichés (the episode would feel much more at home in season 2, alongside Johnny Astronaut affairs like "The Invisible Enemy" and "The Brain of Colonel Barham”). The alien flowers are easily the lamest creatures in the entire series, even beating out the ambulatory tumbleweeds in “Cry of Silence” or that two-dimensional rascal Eck (from “Behold Eck!”). These fuckers exude no gravitas whatsoever; despite witnessing first hand just how deadly they are, alone or in numbers, it’s impossible to perceive them as a credible threat. Further problematic is the fact that they look too much like normal everyday Earth flowers; honestly, if I saw a bunch of them I wouldn't think twice (until they sprayed me, at which point I’d wish I’d paid more attention when I used to weed my parents’ flowerbeds when I was a kid). Daystar and Project Unlimited could’ve made the killer plants look like anything…. why the hell did they choose plastic white stargazer lilies?


When Howard handles the mushroom-like specimens, he's careful to use tongs. However, mere moments later when he takes the matured flower out of the incubator, he picks it up with his bare hands. Evidently the station has no Safety First protocols (here’s hoping they at least wash their hands after using the bathroom). As my office's designated safety committee representative, I’m shocked and appalled.





Howard's subsequent burial in at space is certainly a moody and eerie scene, with the body gently floating out of the airlock; however, I have a hard time believing that they would jettison the body from a space station that’s orbiting the Earth. I could see it if they were on a deep space mission or something, but that close to home? That body’s probably going to burn up in the atmosphere, and just maybe his family would like to give him a proper burial on good ol’ Terra Firma. Since the crew is scheduled to return to earth the next day, dumping the body seems particularly asinine. So when Major Benedict makes the comment about Ground Control having to fill in the blanks with regards the cause of Howard's death, it's a bit of a cringe-worthy moment. And oh, it gets worse: the executive decision to jettison the body was apparently a precautionary measure to prevent the pathogen (if indeed there was a pathogen) from being released on earth. If that’s the case, then why the hell is the crew returning to earth at all? Wouldn't it have made sense for them to stay up there a while longer, under observation by the relief crew, just in case they might be infected too?


I love the artificial-sunbathing bit (nothing says “fuck you” quite like putting on some sunglasses and kicking back under a hot lamp in outer space), but I'm wondering if Stanley Kubrick ripped that off for 2001: A Space Odyssey. I bet Kubrick fans are gonna crucify me for even suggesting that (sorry, Bill). Moving on---- what's with the trembling bunny rabbit? The poor thing seems to know it's about to die and, sure enough, when we cut back to it, it’s a stone cold goner (sorry, PETA). At least we aren't subjected to an agonizing animal death, like we were in 1971's The Andromeda Strain. My wife Teresa, whose nickname is “Bunny,”* was horrified when I showed her this scene (sorry, babe). Man, I’m just full of apologies this week.

At time stamp 14:13, Major Benedict states that “the Human Factor boys have got it all worked out” and, sure enough, Ground control’s name badges look just like those displayed in “The Human Factor.” So perhaps the two episodes take place in the same fictional universe…? The name badges match the show’s titles (same font as the credits, white on black, etc.). Do (or rather, did) space agency name badges actually look like this? Any readers who may have worked for NASA in the early 60’s, please feel free to chime in.

If they needed more footage to meet the mandatory 52 minutes, why didn't they show the changing of the guard as the space station crew is relieved? Or, better yet, a nice establishing shot of the capsule leaving the space station? Or hey, both would've been nice; it just seems a bit abrupt when we suddenly join the crew already on its way back to Earth. The shaking capsule scene, which is already a bit silly thanks to the ridiculous sound effects, is rendered utterly comedic by the sight of those specimen cases sliding across the floor and then breaking open. Were they not even locked shut...? The sheer incompetence on display is staggering. Was I supposed to laugh here? I thought “Controlled Experiment” was the only comedy this season…?

So now we’re in a mobile space craft, and we've got an episode running short on time. Time to throw in a slow-mo spacewalk to kill a few minutes. Since by now it’s apparent to this viewer that the episode sucks, I’m free to start giddily imagining random shit. I found myself hoping against all logic that the Gremlin from Twilight Zone’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” would swoop in and land on the wing.





So we have a space capsule crash in progress, and only a car and an ambulance are dispatched to meet it? No fire engines? No army jeeps? No fucking tanks? If they know there's a deadly extraterrestrial plant that will very likely spread beyond the crash site, why the hell don't they have some guys with flame throwers on hand to torch 'em? They're so concerned about the imminent rainfall, yet there's no attempt to set the little buggers on fire to slow or even stop their spreading (there’s an offhanded observation that the flame-throwing crew is on its way, but it’s too little late at that point, right?). Every fucking person on TV in 1964 was a smoker, so they would've all had lighters on them. At the very least, start hacking them down with a machete, or a tire iron, something, anything!



And for god’s sake, why the hell aren't they wearing hazmat suits when they go to open the crashed capsule? I guess Ground Control doesn't observe Safety First either. And oh, it gets worse: after Sergeant Bobbitt gets showered by a burst of spores, MacWilliams touches his face with his bare hands, knowing full well the plants are spewing a deadly contagion. He then walks right up to a big patch of the flowers and stares stupidly at them, as if daring them to spray him too. Jesus, this cat's suicidal.


It can't all be bad, right? When MacWilliams finally pries the capsule door open, a dead astronaut tumbles out. The shadow of one of the flowers crosses his dead face, the only time they even seem remotely ominous.

We’re told that Sergeant Bobbitt is “looking better” thanks to a blood transfusion less than four minutes after being gassed in the face. My nursing-student wife Teresa informs me that transfusions can in fact have almost immediate positive effects, but I'm still gonna call bullshit here. There's no way there was time to get him to the ambulance, hook him up to an IV, and see an improvement. ER personnel, EMTs, phlebotomists or anyone else in the know, feel free chime in here.



Oh no! The flowers have proliferated under the hood and the car won't start.  So what can you do? Get back in the car, make a phone call, and think about escaping on foot. Wait, what? The flowers are STATIONARY creatures. They can't chase you, and the longer you wait, the more of them there will be. Run, you dumb fucks, RUN. Oh, okay, maybe walk slowly instead. You're still faster than they are. Oh wait, there's a bunch of them blocking the road, but spaced far enough apart that you could totally sprint through them. No? You're just giving up, then? Oh, okay.



I'm not clear how exposure to rain kills the flowers. There's water in the soil that they're sitting on (and rooting into, even though their roots are clearly not actually attached to anything), not to mention the moisture in the air. How they're able to thrive in our atmosphere with its intrinsic hydrants at all, then die when hydrated, is a mystery... or some seriously lazy writing. Take your pick. I’m going with the latter.


If attentive viewers in 1964 found the crashed spacecraft mock-up familiar, it was because they’d seen it three months earlier on the “Probe 7, Over and Out” episode of The Twilight Zone. It must have appeared that The Outer Limits was picking up TZ’s sloppy seconds, when in fact the reverse was true: “Specimen: Unknown” was produced from August 12-20 of 1963, while “Probe 7, Over and Out” was produced during the following week (August 22-27). Due to the aforementioned production delays, “Specimen: Unknown” didn't hit the air for almost six months after principal shooting was completed, giving TZ considerable lead time. Interestingly, both episodes are subpar and highly derivative. Maybe that capsule mock-up was cursed….?


DEJA VIEW

If the capsule’s descent into Earth’s atmosphere looks familiar, it’s because it appeared at the beginning of “Nightmare” to represent Ebon’s accidental attack on Earth. A couple of “Nightmare” music cues are used this week too (most prominently the “Galaxies” cue at the start of act one; see below). “Nightmare” contributed some footage to last week’s “The Children of Spider County” too; I guess if you've gotta find stuff to recycle, it helps to pick a good place to dig.


AURAL PLEASURE


“Specimen: Unknown” is tracked with pre-existing Dominic Frontiere cues from numerous TOL episodes. Highlights include:

The City #1, Coffee and Cigarettes (“Controlled Experiment”)
Galaxies, Zap Willie (“Nightmare”)
Outer Limits Signature Loop (“The Man Who Was Never Born”)
Building Terror, It’s Here, Monster Appears, Escape, The Key (“The Human Factor”)


DRAMATIS PERSONAE

The major players (Stephen McNally as Colonel MacWilliams and Richard Jaeckel as Captain Doweling) this week have little to no genre experience. The supporting cast, however, is a different story.

Major Benedict is played by Russell Johnson, who also headlined two Twilight Zones (“Execution” and “Back There”)… but of course he’ll always and forever be Professor Roy HInkley from TV’s Gilligan’s Island (1964-67), a role that defined the rest of his career (I guess there are worse fates; Bob Denver would always be Gilligan to the world).


Lt. Garvin is played by Arthur Batanides, who also crossed over into The Twilight Zone twice (“Mr. Denton on Doomsday” and “The Mirror”). He also beamed onto Star Trek as the ill-fated Geologist Lt. D’Amato in “That Which Survives" (however, he got touched by the delicious Lee Meriwether, so it was probably worth it; he also might be the only Trek redshirt who wasn't wearing a red shirt!).


The first victim of the killer spores, Lt. Howard, is brought to life (and eventual death) by Dabney Coleman, who we saw recently in “The Mice” (and who we’ll see again in “Wolf 359” next season). Coleman also made two appearances on The Invaders (“The Saucer” and “The Innocent”).


TOL babe alert! Gail Kobe makes the first of two TOL appearances as Janet Doweling; she’ll be back next season in “Keeper of the Purple Twilight.” Her association with Daystar Productions began with the “Sidewinder” episode of their pre-TOL series Stoney Burke. She also graced three Twilight Zones (“A World of Difference,” “In His Image,” and “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross,” which just turned 50 last month).



Bobbitt, the Air Force Sergeant who tries to pry open the capsule door and gets a full-on facial for his trouble (not that kind, you perv), is played by Walt Davis, who showed up three times on Star Trek (“Dagger of the Mind,” “Balance of Terror,” and “Errand of Mercy”). John Kellogg, here playing Major Jennings, also appeared on Stoney Burke (“The Scavenger”) as well as The Invaders (“The Organization”).



HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“Specimen: Unknown” has enjoyed three distinct VHS releases: the standard retail version in the late-80’s (which, I must admit, has a pretty nice cover), followed by the second-generation retail release in the mid-90’s (which doesn’t show the flowers at all, instead opting for a red-eyed vampire vibe for some unknown reason), and the mail-order exclusive Columbia House tape, which paired it with “The Galaxy Being.” That’s right, Columbia House offered this crappy episode on its very first volume, along with the series pilot. Color me mystified.


“Specimen: Unknown” also found its way onto the fourth (and final) Laserdisc volume in 1995. A little over half of the series (28 out of 49 episodes) made it to LD, which must have really pissed off completest collectors (since by then the entire series had gotten the VHS treatment). Little did everyone know at the time that LD (along with VHS) was about to be phased out by the next big home video format….


Digital Versatile Disc. The size of a CD, much cheaper than LD, with generally better quality (I never owned an LD player, so I can’t provide any firsthand information here; let’s just say my research indicates that DVD improved on it, particularly in the sharpness area). Anyway, “Specimen: Unknown” 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 (just in time for the show’s 45th anniversary; however, its 50th anniversary has come and gone without a single peep from MGM).


And finally, MGM has made the series available for standard-def streaming on Hulu, but there’s been no indication that the series will ever be remastered in high definition (for Blu-ray, 4K, HoloCube, direct neural interface, or whatever new formats might loom on the horizon). 


TRADING CARD CORNER

Topps and Rittenhouse Archives completely ignored “Specimen: Unknown” in their respective trading card sets, which means we’re stuck with a single lonely card from DuoCards' 1997 effort.


MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT


The episode doesn’t really lend itself to merchandising; however, Dimensional Designs does offer a 1/8-scale resin and metal model kit (DD model DD/OL/MP-25), sculpted by Todd Bates and Danny Soracco (wait, it took two people to sculpt this?). All things considered, it ain't half bad… however, I couldn't find a single picture of a finished model (not even from our friend Mr. Enamel), which means the box image is all we have. The flowers (here called “Malignant Alien Plants”) actually look a bit more menacing here than they do in the episode, which is certainly a plus. If you want to start your own garden, it’ll set you back $59.95 plus shipping.










THE WRAP-UP

Hmmm. Well, it’s obvious that I don’t hold “Specimen: Unknown” anywhere close to my heart. It’s dull and predictable, it’s got a silly alien threat that isn’t the least bit scary, and its cast is full of stiff, 50’s Spaceman-Central types. It may not be the worst episode of the season, but it’s definitely down there near it. I’d rather watch “The Children of Spider County” any day. However, the climactic rainstorm does provide the visual delight of Gail Kobe getting drenched. It’s the closest The Outer Limits will ever get to a wet T-shirt contest, so at least it’s not a total loss.

Gail Gets Wet. *Sigh*









Silly rabbit.











* So my wife Teresa’s nickname is Bunny and, when she’s cranky, I call her a “Crunchy Bunny.” Several years ago, I had my mom Frankenstein a Crunchy Bunny stuffed animal using two Beanie Babies: a bunny and a lobster. Needless to say, it’s a cherished family heirloom now (she’s got it on her nightstand to this day). 




Why am I discussing this here? Because I’m now wondering if I was subconsciously influenced by the similarly-clawed Chromoite from “The Mice.”



8 comments:

  1. Kubrick probably did get the sunlamp idea from this episode! Didn't he watch all the science fiction he could get his hands on before starting the "2001" project? I like the idea that he got inspired by one of the very best sci-fi series around, if not the best episode from that series. I was never crazy about this one either. Don't know where I heard this - maybe David Schow's book - but isn't "Specimen: Unknown" the highest Nielsen-rated episode in the entire series? Just shows how meaningless ratings can be.

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  2. This is basically a campy '50s Sci-Fi story. I do, however, think the Alien series of movies owes a little something to this episode in that the space flowers are found by the crew of the ship and they are overwhelmed by them.

    This one gets a higher rating from me because of its aggressive storytelling. We start with the discovery of a spore on a space station. Next, it mutates into an alien invader which overwhelms the crew of a space shuttle. The crew crash lands on Earth and the flowers quickly spread and become a threat to Earth. The crew of the shuttle is rescued and must then escape the invading flowers. Earth itself is also in jeopardy as the flowers spread at an incredible rate. There's a lot going on.

    There are also a lot of special effects crammed into this episode that I enjoyed. The little dormant mushrooms that grow into flowered "invaders", the spores that the flowers eject (which Schow says were puffed wheat cereal), the crashed space shuttle and the space station.

    Negatively, the officers of Project Adonis including Colonel MacWilliams, are practically awful trying to decide whether to allow the shuttle to self-destruct or to bring it in for a landing on Earth. Gail Kobe co-stars as the wife of one of the shuttle crew officers who is likely to die during the crisis. She is reduced to a cliched wife in distress. Later, she is attacked while sitting helplessly in the backseat of a car. She reacts a lot to the peril that she is in but not much else. The flowers are annoying at times because they are inconsistent in their attacks on the rescue team once they quickly spread around the crashed space shuttle. I imagine this is due to difficulty in executing the flowers vapor attack.

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  3. When I was a kid and saw this episode it was impressive. We had barely gotten into the Gemini shots so a Space station and a shuttle was a pretty cool thing to see. Watching this episode as an adult kind of makes me want to smack my 8 year old self silly. Gail Kobe is nice to look at, however.

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  4. It's a pity that Gail Kobe isn't given much more to do that look concerned and scream in anguish.

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  5. Not so far fetched. As usual, the show was ahead of its time.

    Axinaea Flowers Blast Pollen at Bird Pollinators, Study

    Jul 7, 2014 by Sci-News.com

    « PREVIOUS



    Plants in the Central and South American genus Axinaea have a unique and highly complex bird pollination system, according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology

    http://www.sci-news.com/biology/science-axinaea-flowers-blast-pollen-bird-pollinators-02045.html

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  6. That the flowers, which require flexibility to shoot out their spores (and thus must contain _some_ water) are eventually done in by rain is a stretch.

    Now, the wife has some shamrocks that she's managed to keep alive for 15 years, and those are extraordinarily sensitive to too much or too little water, so maybe this is a matter of the plants just being drowned by more water than they can stand, rather than by the water itself.

    Still, the ending reeks of "gratuitous irony" by the writers, and is therefore not believable. But for a 12-year-old to watch, it was fun then, and--I'll admit--it's still fun to watch now.

    Lurker111

    "Gratuitous Irony"--something I coined after being totally exasperated by the Twilight Zone episode, "Time Enough At Last," with Burgess Meredith, where for no reason he breaks his glasses at the end. There's no point to be made by the glasses breaking, and although the rains save humanity's bacon in this OL episode, the feeling I got was much the same. Gratuitous Irony tended to destroy several TZ episodes.


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  7. Look, it's a sentimental favorite because I remember so well how FRIGHTENED I was back in the 60s. Those flowers terrified me. And the rain sequence was "beautiful" to me back then. So I cannot say anything bad about it today. From an 8 year-old kid back in those innocent times, I will always remember this warmly... BUT WHAT do I think of it today? I'd rather not say anything at all - it would spoil the wonder I felt back then. And that's OK.

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  8. You know what the problem is with this episode? It's dumb. Stupid. Simple as that. One of the 2 or 3 worst eps of the whole first season. Really bad. Full of fluff, which makes it even worse. Even at 30 minutes long it would have been lame. I'm trying to watch it again during my ongoing OL binge, but I'm having trouble getting through it for even the 2nd time. It's making me fall off the edge of my oscilloscope. It's making me hungry though, for a nice big bowl of puffed wheat.

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