Destruct that ship, General!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Fun and Games" (3/30/1964)



“Fun and Games”
Season 1, Episode 27
Originally aired 3/30/1964


During the week of January 30-February 6 1964, the Ninth Olympic Winter Games were underway in Austria. In an interesting bit of synchrony, production on the Outer Limits episode “Fun and Games,” which involved a high-stakes contest of wits and wills, was underway back home at the same time. Two months later, the U.S. was still smarting from their embarrassing showing (they won a paltry six medals, only one of which was a gold; the Soviet Union, meanwhile, cleaned up with 25 medals, 11 of which were gold). Fifty years ago tonight, “Fun and Games” premiered on ABC... unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly gold medal material either.


A high-stakes poker game leads to a murder, and unlucky Mike Benson is the only one left at the scene. Frantically searching for a way out, he races through an unlocked door and finds himself on the planet Andera, millions of miles from Earth. He’s been chosen to participate in the televised Arena Games, in which pairs of warriors from two different planets must battle to the death. And you thought you were having a bad day.



“The Senator” is the ringmaster of The Games, which he controls from an O.B.I.T.-style console in a darkened room. Laura Hanley, who lives in the building where the poker game murder took place, is chosen as Mike’s teammate. They are advised that not only the losers of the battle will die--- their entire home planet will be destroyed. Mike refuses to cooperate, which will count as a forfeit and guarantee Earth’s destruction. The Senator grants him 24 hours to reconsider and returns them to Earth; they arrive at the same moment in time that they left, in which Mike is searching for an escape from the crime scene. He breaks a window and flees via the fire escape. Laura spends most of those 24 hours finding Mike’s apartment. He’s still not interested in fighting for Earth’s survival but, when a detective shows up to arrest him for the murder, he quickly changes his tune.

The pair finds themselves on a primordial jungle-like planet with three days’ worth of food. Their opponents are a male and female from the Calco Galaxy, primate-like beasts armed with serrated boomerangs. The Calco male murders its female teammate to double its food supply, prompting Laura to ditch Mike, leaving him with all their food to level the odds.



The Calco male pursues Mike onto a primitive wood bridge that spans a lava flow, leaving its boomerang behind as it tries to force Mike off the bridge to his death. Mike hangs on for dear life as the creature stomps on his fingers, forcing him to cry out for help. Laura comes running and, spotting the unattended weapon, manages to slay the enemy with it. Unable to hold on any longer, Mike follows the beast into the lava below.

The Senator congratulates Laura on her (and Earth’s) victory, but she is inconsolable over Mike’s death. The Senator informs her that Mike isn’t really dead (the rules only require that the victors survive a split-second longer than their vanquished foes). He returns the pair to Earth, to the chaotic moments following the poker game murder. Mike breaks the window and flees via the fire escape, just as before, and Laura quietly retreats to her apartment.


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RANDOMONIUM

“Fun and Games” began as a teleplay by Robert Specht called “Natural Selection,” which was rewritten by series producer Joseph Stefano (enough of Specht’s material was retained to gain him both a story credit and a co-credit for the script). It’s believed by many that Specht’s script was a conscious adaptation of the well-known Frederic Brown story “Arena” (first published in 1944); however, history records no purchase of the rights to Brown’s story and, if you take the time to actually read the story (which you can do here), it’s apparent that only the core idea exists in “Fun and Games.” By contrast, a similar episode on Star Trek a few years later was much closer to Brown’s story (and was even titled “Arena”; Brown was given screen credit to avoid a lawsuit).



Back at the helm this week is Gerd Oswald, the series’ most prolific and stylish director (and one of the prongs in the Holy Outer Limits Trinity, along with producer Joseph Stefano and director of photography Conrad Hall). “Fun and Games” is unfortunately a bit boring next to his earlier achievements (maybe “boring” is too harsh; how about “less amazing”?). There are exceptions: both the opening poker game and the Senator’s chamber are beautifully dark and smoky; as with last week’s “The Guests,” DOP Kenneth Peach is admirably keeping Hall’s trademark look alive (maybe working with Oswald inspired him). This will change in season two, but for now… let’s just enjoy it.


Hoo boy. This episode frustrates me. I find the idea of a straightforward rollicking gladiator-type action outing quite appealing, particularly after last week’s heady, near-hallucinatory “The Guests” (that’s not to say I don’t love it, because I definitely do; I’m just craving a palate cleanser) and, for all its promise, “Fun and Games” doesn’t quite deliver. Far too much time is spent on Earth as Mike is gradually convinced to participate in the games. There are some admittedly nice character moments, but overall the Requiem for a Heavyweight-style soap-operatics prove to be a major drag on the narrative. Things don’t start rolling until halfway through the episode, but even once the Arena Games begin, there’s precious little action and way too much insight into Mike’s character. There’s nothing terribly compelling or entertaining about the contest, which ends almost before it begins.

I think some seething, simmering sexual tension between Mike and Laura would've made things much more interesting. These two are thrust into a life-or-death battle with pretty low odds of survival.... wouldn't you think they'd at least demonstrate an interest in hooking up? Yeah, I know... she's just divorced a damaged mama's boy, and he's.... well, another damaged mama's boy. If it was me doctoring Specht's teleplay, I would've jettisoned both their woeful backstories; it's not as if all the therapeutic talking they do resolves any of their lingering issues anyway. In my script, Mike and Laura would be two ordinary people without all the emotional baggage, they'd engage in some playful innuendos, and we'd see a lot more action. As it stands, as Mike flees into the night and Laura just sorta walks back into her apartment at the end of the episode, the whole thing feels incredibly meaningless.




After the blatant reuse of the Chromoite head in last week’s “The Guests,” it shouldn’t surprise me to see another distinctive alien doing double duty. The Ebonite Interrogator mask from “Nightmare” reappears here on the Anderan Senator but, since he’s almost always hidden by shadows, less attentive viewers may never notice (given the period’s tiny TV screens, it was probably a tough catch). The Senator’s hands, which we see often, aren’t Ebonite in origin: they appear more or less human but terminate in long, curved, Fu-Manchu-style black fingernails. 





I’m not clear what’s so “primitive” about the Calco aliens, seeing as how they wear tailored clothing and wield intricate forged-metal weapon. Regardless, they aren’t among the series’ better creature creations. Unblinking eyes are one thing (we see them repeatedly on the series, so I’ve learned to give ‘em an automatic pass), but this bugger’s entire face is completely immobile; it’s painfully obvious that it’s wearing a pullover rubber mask. After elaborate makeups like the Thetan and Gwyllm Griffiths (or, more appropriately here, the Ebonite), this is disappointingly simplistic. I do appreciate the two-toed feet, and I’m happy to award a point for that wicked boomerang (though it’s an accessory and not actually part of the costume). And hey, am I the only one who sees a bit of Donald Duck in that face…?





And speaking of Star Trek, the Calco mask would reappear a few years later in that series' pilot "The Cage" (as a Talosian illusion to thwart Captain Pike's hostile tendencies). "The Cage" was never aired, but most of it was used as flashback footage for the two-part "The Menagerie." The critter appears to have grown quite a bit of fur in the ensuing years, not to mention evolving a different pair of eyes.


The female Calco Galaxy Primitive sounds like a goddamned cat in heat. I know because I’ve been listening to one outside my window for the past several nights. So yeah, I’m automatically rooting for the humans, even though neither of them particularly appeals to me.


The foggy forest is seen yet again this week. The image of Laura and Mike running through it evokes earlier entries like “The Man Who Was Never Born” and “The Children of Spider County” (which featured another immobile mask, by the way), but there’s none of the romantic mystique present here. Instead of providing one of those warm and fuzzy visual continuity moments, it just feels like a visual retread.


The 360-degree panoramic shot of the poker players, shot from the center of the table, is clever and well-executed (and elevates the tension of the scene considerably). A similar shot can be seen in the “Third from the Sun” episode of The Twilight Zone (which also takes place during a card game). Modern (okay, younger) viewers will likely recognize this type of shot from the long-running That 70’s Show, which used it frequently to imbue it’s pot-smoking scenes with a tinge of disorientation).





It’s funny watching this episode now (probably 20 years or so since my last viewing), in this age of rampant reality TV competitions (we’re not having contestants kill each other at this point, but who knows what the future will bring? I suspect it’s only a matter of time). This time around I was strongly reminded of Suzanne Collins’ 2008 novel (and 2012 film) The Hunger Games, with its televised battles to the death, not to mention Koushun Takami's manga series (and 2000 film) Battle Royale, which I suspect probably, um, inspired Collins to some degree. It’s fascinating to trace a potent idea through multiple generations, inspirations and permutations.



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AURAL PLEASURE


“Fun and Games” is stock-scored with previously-heard cues by Dominic Frontiere; almost all of them from “Don’t Open Till Doomsday.” Here’s a partial list (I say “partial” because I’m only human and I might’ve missed a couple):

Washington D.C. (from “The Hundred Days of the Dragon”)
Building Terror (from “The Human Factor”)
A Father’s Search, Bride Be Gone, Justice of the Peace*, Scared, The House Is Destroyed, The Price of Freedom, Zapped Into Box (from “Don’t Open Till Doomsday”)


DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Nick Adams stars as Mike Benson in his only Outer Limits, um, outing. His other notable genre experience is comprised of three films late in his short career: the 1965 Boris Karloff vehicle Monster of Terror (aka Die, Monster, Die!), which was written by Jerry Sohl (who will pen season two’s “The Invisible Enemy”), Invasion of the Astro-Monster (aka Godzilla Versus Monster Zero), also in 1965, and Mission Mars in 1968.






Nancy Malone holds her own against Adams as Laura Hanley; this is also her own TOL turn. She also appeared in “Stopover in a Quiet Town” on The Twilight Zone, an episode which will turn 50 in just a few weeks.


Theodore Marcuse is the body under the Ebonite (er, Anderan) suit; his impressive genre credits include two Twilight Zones (“To Serve Man” and “The Trade-Ins”) as well as single stints on I Spy (“My Mother, the Spy”), The Invaders (“The Leeches”) and Star Trek (“Catspaw”).



Hidden under that Calco Galaxy Primitive’s rubber mask is Bill Hart, who was similarly concealed in one of the Ichthyosaurus Mercurius suits in “Tourist Attraction.” However, we did catch a quick look at his human face in “The Zanti Misfits,” and said face was proudly displayed weekly on Stoney Burke, Daystar’s pre-TOL series, in which he played Lorenzo “Red” Smith. And, as it turns out, he's also one of the guys in the poker game this week!**


The unnamed detective chasing after Mike is played by Ray Kellogg, who also appeared on The Twilight Zone (“A Kind of Stopwatch”; below left) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Final Escape”); he also popped up in three episodes of The Invaders (“The Prophet,” “Wall of Crystal” and “The Leeches”; that last one also guest-starred the aforementioned Theodore Marcuse). Jack Perkins, here laying one of the players in the opening poker game, also appeared on The Twilight Zone (“The Last Flight”) and, more importantly given this week’s theme of organized barbarism, played the Master of Games on Star Trek’s “Bread and Circuses” (below, right; he's the one who utters the immortal line "You bring this network's ratings down, Flavius, and we'll do a special on you!").


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HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“Fun and Games” has enjoyed quite a bit of exposure on the home video scene. It saw three distinct VHS releases: domestic retail (above), mail-order exclusive from Columbia House (paired with “Soldier”; below) and UK retail (paired with “A Feasibility Study”).




The episode was among the chosen few (okay, eight) to ring in the first appearance of the series on LaserDisc in 1990, holding court with major players like “The Architects of Fear” and “Demon with a Glass Hand.”


In 2002, MGM released the entire first season in one DVD package, the re-released it in two chunks in 2007, followed by a big set of both seasons in 2008. Before you get excited, be warned that all three releases contain the identical discs (the same unreliable double-sided discs), which means the episodes haven’t been revisited, remastered or restored…. for TWELVE FREAKIN’ YEARS. Unless they’re working on a Blu-ray release, that is. I haven’t heard anything, but it does appear that the DVD sets are now out of print, which is kinda odd. I dunno, maybe MGM is working on a 51st-anniversary re-release of the same goddamn DVDs.


Don’t own the DVDs? Don’t feel like spending the money on failure-prone double-sided discs? Don’t worry; you can still enjoy the awe and mystery of The Outer Limits by simply visiting Hulu, where all 49 episodes can be viewed in standard-definition resolution (same as the DVDs) at no charge. To quote local legend Tom Peterson: “Free is a very good price.”




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TRADING CARD CORNER

The Calco Galaxy Primitive graced three cards in Topps’ semi-legendary Monsters from Outer Limits trading card series in 1964. Topps evidently didn’t have permission to use the actual storylines of the aliens and monsters their cards depicted, which meant entirely new (and usually hysterically stupid) back-stories were created. In Topps’ hands, the Calco Galaxy Primitive is reborn as a Venusian criminal who escapes to Earth, but finds the climate dangerously cold. He ultimately freezes to death because he mistakenly seeks warmth inside an air-conditioned house. You can’t see me as I type this, but I’m shaking my head in stupefied wonder.

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MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT


The Calco Galaxy Primitive is available as a 1/8-scale resin and metal model kit from Dimensional Designs, sculpted by Chris Choin. I’m assuming the “metal” is the boomerang, or rather I’m hoping (because, y’now, that’d be pretty cool). I was only able to track down a single image of an assembled and painted specimen (where’s Mr. Enamel when you need him?). If you want your own, you’ll shell out $49.95 plus shipping (DD/OL/CP-06).



Currently on display at Creature Features in Burbank, California (as part of the There is Nothing Wrong with Your Television Set art exhibit, which runs through 4/12) is a marvelous piece by comic artist Steve Bissette, depicting the Calco Galaxy Primitive hurling its boomerang. If only the actual episode achieved this level of dynamism….


Nothing else of note on the merch front… I guess you could repurpose your Sideshow Collectible’s Ebonite Interrogator figure (you do have one, right?) as an Anderan Senator in a pinch (just turn the lights down low).







THE WRAP-UP

“Fun and Games” certainly isn’t bad, and I certainly don't dislike it.... but it could’ve been great, and it just frustrates the hell out of me that it's not. And if I’m being completely honest, well... I actually prefer Star Trek’s version. The Gorn is way more badass than the Calco twins could ever hope to be. I know, I know.... heresy! Let the flaming begin…..



I aroused the ire of my University of Oregon-loving wife Teresa by using the classic Disney version of Donald Duck instead of the Oregon Fighting Duck. To avoid getting smacked, I agreed to give good ol' Puddles equal time.

Distant cousins?








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* ”Justice of the Peace” is part of a small suite of cues called “The Years Pass/Phone Call” on the "Don't Open Till Doomsday" portion of La La Land RecordsTOL soundtrack collection. The suite actually contains a total of four cues: “The Years Pass,” “Phone Call,” and two others that aren’t identified. For my own reference purposes, I call them “Justice of the Peace” and “Arrival at the Kry Mansion.”



** Thanks to the imminently cool David J. Schow (author of The Outer Limits Companion and The Outer Limits at 50) for pointing this out to me (I incorrectly identified him when this post first went live). It's not the first time he's corrected me, and it probably won't be the last. But seriously, how cool is it that he reads this blog at all? And further, that he cares enough to correct my error-filled prose? I'm not suggesting that I screw things up on purpose, just to hear from him... but I could. I'm just sayin'.




7 comments:

  1. Another informative and interesting write-up on an episode I personally rate highly - without disagreeing on any specifics. As you note, its not flawless. But in its favor I find 'Fun and Games' stands out for quite a distinctive mix of elements - the steaming jungle with river spouting flame, the calco alien effect design sort of anthropoidish, etc. - lots of weird atmospheric effect. And that saw-tooth boomerang, what a story device.

    I always found 'Fun and Games' measures up to standard pretty much. In hindsight it seems to me ahead of its time and still a uniquely fun, memorable view. I notice a lot of people who aren't OL-literate necessarily but grew up in the golden era, remember seeing this when it aired back when - it made an impression. On the other hand, I'm biased critically in favor of OL usually. I like just as much recent episodes you've treated, 'The Guests' and 'The Mutant' etc. They each have their unique qualities. Together the help define or establish the OL 'mojo' or style, its storytelling range.

    Amid the STAR TREK refs I looked for, and missed, any mention of our 'Fun and Games' alien mask (minus eyes) cameo in its pilot, TREK's only two-parter, 'The Menagerie.' Also, ROAD WARRIOR - with the Feral Kid's boomerang routine so closely recapping OL's. I don't know or can't think of a precedent that would match likewise, seems kind of innovativey for this episode?

    Nice write up, cool blog.

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    1. DAMMIT. I knew I forgot something. It's been nagging at me for several days now.... hang on.... Please Stand By.... okay, fixed! Thanks.

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  2. I always loved the poker scene. The music fits like it was written for it, especially the part after the gun shot. Fabulous tension and panic! Was that one of the bits later used in "The Fugitive"? Craig, you hit the right balance of appreciation for this episode and frustration over its near-failure. I watched it with my wife (she groans at all this kind of stuff) and I noticed the very uneven PACING, like they couldn't gage or control how quickly or slowly some scenes play relative to others. That may be the most common problem with the first season, great as it usually is.

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    1. Yeah, it's so unbalanced that it practically wobbles. So, so much potential.

      And hey, at least your wife watches The Outer Limits with you. Mine won't come near it.

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  3. The Anderan Senator turns an otherwise underwhelming episode into an enjoyable hour of sci-fi. I love the concept...the destruction of a planet by the Anderans purely for their own entertainment, not for conquest. The Senator sits behind a circular desk in a dimly lit control room and transports unknowing contestants here to instruct them on the rules and stakes of the Anderan game. The Senator obviously enjoys his work as he wisecracks and heartily laughs at the predicaments of the contestants. In fact, mental torture might be a good way to describe his demeanor.

    Earth's contestants, Mike and Laura, are pitted on a planet called "The Arena" against a male and female pair from the Calco galaxy. A rather lame fight to the death ensues on the planet's surface. Throughout the battle, the Calco male uses his own weapon, a sharp-edged boomerang. He throws the boomerang numerous times, mostly missing Mike and Laura every time. At one point, mostly passive cheerleader Laura picks up the weapon which is totally foreign to her, and throws it perfectly, striking the Calco being squarely in the head. Very convenient. The Calco beings are not very effective, but neither are their human counterparts. Overall, this is another good episode thanks in large part to the Anderan Senator.

    Mike and Laura are not easy characters to like. I know they are supposed to have their flaws, which is why they were chosen, but they irritate me more than anything. And how long does Laura need to climb up the log bridge? It looks like the Calco beings wearing janitor overalls. I wonder how they slipped them on over their big, floppy lizard feet.

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  4. I put this episode right in the middle of season one shows: Not great; not horrible. Just ok. It has some good moments. The "Ebonite" Senator. The boiling river. Poker game, and a few more. But it's all pretty simplistic stuff. Hey, if I feel I could've written a show like this one, you KNOW it ain't so great..... Just sayin'.....

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  5. How can you overlook the marvelous work of voice actor Robert Johnson in this episode. His wry and often amusing comments about the going ons during the "battle" on the planet are truly the highlight of the show. Kiefer sutherland displayed similar verbal antics in the film phone booth.

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