Destruct that ship, General!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Mutant" (3/16/1964)



“The Mutant”
Season 1, Episode 25
Originally aired 3/16/1964


Annex One is hell, according to the scientists stationed there. Fifty years ago tonight, viewers were introduced to this hell’s resident devil.


Space Agency psychiatrist Evan Marshall arrives on Annex One to investigate the colony’s recent communications with Earth, which the Control Voice indicates possess “unspoken, oddly disturbing undercurrents.” Annex One is an earth-like planet except for its lack of indigenous life and intense round-the-clock sunlight. Marshall takes note of the colonists’ nervous, twitchy behavior, which is oddly not exhibited by botanist Reese Fowler, who seems to take the lead and speak for everyone. Marshall also takes note of biochemist Julie Griffith, whose husband and fellow biochemist Phillip (“Griff”) Griffith recently died under strange circumstances.




Botanist Reese Fowler was recently caught in the planet’s isotopic rain, which “charged his body with trillions of radioactive ions” and brought about several biological mutations. First and foremost, his eyes have swollen to softball-sized orbs that never blink. His touch causes a disruption to a person’s atomic structure that disintegrates them in a matter of seconds. And oh, he can read the thoughts of those around him. The psychological impact of his mutation has rendered him a paranoid dictator who lords his power over the others.





Lt. Chandler, literally eating his own words.
Lieutenant Chandler, the resident biologist, runs afoul of Fowler when he tries to pass a handwritten note to Marshall in an attempt to warn him of the colony's predicament. With a giddy, sadistic glee, Fowler forces Chandler to eat the note, after which he pointedly touches his shoulder, triggering the chemical event that causes him to disintegrate.




A side effect of Fowler’s mutation is an extreme intolerance of darkness; being in the dark causes him unbearable pain. He has been coercing Dr. Riner into treating this problem with exposure therapy, which thus far hasn’t yielded any positive results. The colonists take advantage of this weakness by using a nearby cave for secret meetings. Dr. LaCosta lures Marshall to the cave, but is killed by a mutated ant (presumably brought to Annex One from Earth, since the planet has no indigenous life) before he can tell him anything.


Griff gets flash-fried, flashback-style.
In the cave, Dr. Riner explains Fowler’s condition to Marshall, then reveals that Griff had spearheaded a plan for the group to return to Earth and leave the afflicted Fowler behind, prompting Fowler to kill him with his touch. Using hypnosis, Riner blocks Marshall’s knowledge of the colony’s woes, memories that will only resurface when Marshall hears Fowler’s name back on Earth. 





Fowler realizes that something is amiss almost immediately when he probes Riner’s thoughts and finds him actively trying not to say his name. Riner falls and incurs a fatal head injury as Fowler menaces him for answers. Only Marshall and Julie are left and, in a fit of brutal glee, Fowler locks them outdoors just as an isotopic storm moves in, demanding that they address him by name.

Marshall and Julie head back for the cave, pursued by Fowler (on the way, Fowler shouts his own name, which breaks Marshall’s hypnotic spell). Fearing the darkness, Fowler begs them to come out and help him regain his humanity, but then reverts to his less human mindset and enters the cave, groaning in pain as he searches for them. Marshall and Julie venture deeper into the cave, leaving the precarious safety of a single lit candle behind.


Fowler spots the candle and makes a fevered beeline for it, then knocks it over in his haste and screams as the darkness kills him.





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RANDOMONIUM

“The Mutant” began as a story treatment by Ellis St. Joseph (“The Sixth Finger”), which was radically reworked by series producer Joseph Stefano and Jerome B. Thomas. It was then assigned to the team of Allan Balter and Robert Mintz (“The Hundred Days of the Dragon”) to bang out a script. So right away, we have yet another teleplay with way too many cooks at the typewriter. Or writers in the kitchen. Or something. Dammit, you know what I mean.

“The Mutant” features outdoor locations with multiple characters running back and forth through them, a phenomenon shared by “The Mice” and “The Children of Spider County,” two earlier episodes that also suffer from M.W.S. (Multiple Writers Syndrome). It feels like an attempt to cover narrative gaps with something semi-action-oriented, but it’s not very convincing. And, just like “Second Chance” (another afflicted episode), we get a sudden and pointless death, completely unrelated to the Monster of the Week (Professor LaCosta in the Cave with the Bug; hey gang, let’s play Outer Limits Clue!). The whole hypnosis bit, while quite atmospheric and eerie, is laughably reckless and ultimately pointless: both Marshall and Riner are highly-intelligent doctors; why the hell would Marshall’s recall word be, of all things, Fowler’s name? That kind of sloppy crap might fly in a Vegas nightclub act, but not on Annex One (I’m frankly surprised Riner didn’t make Marshall act like a chicken while he was under). Fucking amateurs.

Despite its narrative flaws, “The Mutant” is more successful than its M.W.S. predecessors. Its plot is a bit more crystallized, we don’t have to try and make sense of a circuitous and dunderheaded alien plot and, perhaps most importantly, its aforementioned M.O.T.W. is fucking awesome. More on him in a few paragraphs.


Speaking of “The Mice,” director Alan Crosland Jr. returns for his second and final TOL gig. Crosland also directed four Twilight Zones (“The Parallel,” “The Old Man in the Cave,” “The 7th Is Made up of Phantoms,” and “Ring-a-Ding Girl”), none of which will ever be found on a critic’s (or true fan’s) favorites list. None of them are awful, but none of them are exactly notable either. His direction here is more or less fine, but there’s very little to distinguish it. I’ll say the same for Kenneth Peach’s photography: it’s sufficient, but it lacks any perceptible flourish. I do appreciate the low angle employed when Fowler intercepts Chandler in the hallway, however. I guess that’s something.






I’m not sure if I should blame Crosland or Peach for this, so I’ll cast the ol’ stink-eye at the both of ‘em: the climactic scene, in which Fowler frantically scrambles for the candlelight in the cave (then dies after he accidentally extinguishes it) is just terrible, in terms of both blocking and lighting. We've just spent an hour witnessing Fowler’s unique brand of psychological torture, and we don’t even get to see him die? This is doubly frustrating since the flashback scene depicting his initial exposure to Annex One’s deadly iso-rain --- in essence the birth of the monster --- is quite explicit and harrowing. A corresponding death scene is of critical importance as a visual bookend, but it takes place in total darkness.  Dumb, dumb, dumb. 

Up until his ill-depicted demise, Reese Fowler is a joy to watch. Insane and hideous yet darkly charismatic, he dominates the entire episode and distracts from the production’s shortcomings. His enormous, bulbous eyeballs are beautifully rendered despite their complete immobility, and their initial unveiling is one of the series’ best shock moments. I could argue that the physical manifestation of Fowler’s mutation is completely unnecessary, but I won’t. It’s a great makeup, and I’m glad it’s there. Warren Oates turns in a performance that is remarkably nuanced despite its intensity, and the gigantic eyeballs don’t get in his way at all.

Part of what makes the Fowler character so compelling are the glimpses we get of the man underneath the affliction. He laments his rapidly-diminishing human decency and clearly hates what he has become. There’s a subtle implication that he’s in love with Julie (and who wouldn't be, honestly? She’s the only female on the whole damned planet), but he can’t even touch her for fear of killing her (shades of Beauty and the Beast, even though this Belle never comes close to returning the Beast’s affection). He’s completely isolated within his mutation and only plays the role of dictator to stop the others from returning to Earth and abandoning him. Fowler is one of the most human of the series’ gallery of inhuman monsters.


The actors portraying the Annex One colonists do a pretty serviceable job of conveying their horrific existence, living beneath the dictatorial supervision of a deadly creature who can hear their thoughts. The Twilight Zone gave us a very similar character in Anthony Fremont (“It’s a Good Life”), a six year-old boy who wields his limitless powers (including the ability to read minds) to subjugate those around him, dispensing fatal justice to anyone who defies him. Fowler can’t wish folks away into the cornfield or turn hostile drunks into human jack-in-the-boxes, but he’s deadly just the same.

Apparently Julie and Griff were assigned to Annex One to test the viability of reproduction there. However, they never consummated their marriage because they apparently fell out of a soap opera: Julie only married Griff as a rebound move after breaking things off with Marshall and told him as much, which prevented the morally upstanding Griff from playing the Wifely Duty card and instead electing to be her friend. From this we can derive that she’s in dire need of some good old Vitamin D. Paging Dr. Marshall!


Marshall’s crotch rocket is the same one seen in “The Man Who Was Never Born” and "The Children of Spider County," now sporting a slick black paint job and, presumably, a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. Marshall’s ride reinforces my belief that he is basically the outer space equivalent of The Fonz. Julie practically creams her jeans when he first climbs out of his Interstellar Pussy Wagon, much to Fowler’s chagrin (clearly his male dominance is in jeopardy; there might be a pissing contest in the offing), and she spends most of the episode unconvincingly rebuffing his advances (her mouth may say no, but her eyes clearly say go). If shit with Fowler hadn't escalated so quickly, Marshall would've totally hit that.


Fans of “The Zanti Misfits” will no doubt delight to the sight of Annex One’s giant fire ant, which is a leftover Zanti with a mandible prosthetic attached. It even emits the same warbling sound as its Zanti antecedent, which makes me wonder if Annex One is in fact the Zanti home world (before you start: I know it’s not, okay? Jesus, let a guy have his fun, why don’tcha?). 



On a semi-related note, check out the closeup of Fowler during his darkness-exposure treatment. Kinda looks like a Zanti face, wouldn't you say...?











AURAL PLEASURE


“The Mutant” is stock-scored, which means that the episode’s underscore is comprised of cues composed for earlier episodes by Dominic Frontiere. I’m no expert, but I was able to identify the following:

Galaxies (Nightmare)
Alien Pond Scum or Alien Overhears Plot (The Mice)
Unopened Box, A Father’s Search (Don’t Open Till Doomsday)
It’s Here, Building Terror, Major Arrives and Talks (The Human Factor)
The Lottery, Scarecrows, Allen Leighton, Alien on the Loose, Alan Returns to the Lab
The Outer Limits Signature Loop (The Man Who Was Never Born)
To the Rescue (Tourist Attraction; composed by Robert Van Eps)

There are probably a few that I missed (like I said, I’m no expert). I should mention that most of the cue titles come from La La Land Records’ three-disc TOL soundtrack and not the original cue sheets (which I fervently wish I had access to). The earlier GNP/Crescendo soundtrack (which included “Nightmare” and “The Man Who Was Never Born”) used the actual cue titles, so those are legit.













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DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Dr. Evan Marshall is played by Larry Pennell in his only Outer Limits appearance. Marshall doesn’t have much in the way of genre experience, but he did play Clarke Gable in the “Goodbye Norma Jean” episode of Quantum Leap in 1993 and, more interestingly, the character Kemosabe in the 2002 Elvis vs. Mummy epic Bubba Ho-Tep (which is hilarious, by the way).


Warren Oates is marvelous as the fiendishly twisted Reese Fowler in his sole TOL outing; however, he was already well known to Daystar Productions: he played the scheming Ves Painter on their pre-TOL series Stoney Burke. He also crossed over into The Twilight Zone twice (“The Purple Testament” and “The 7th Is Made up of Phantoms,” the latter of which was helmed by this week’s director Alan Crosland Jr.).


Walter Burke returns as Dr. Frederick Riner (he played the hunchbacked recruiter in “The Invisibles” last month). Riner also popped up on The Twilight Zone (“The Big Tall Wish”) and in the “Dragon’s Teeth” episode of I Spy, a series which starred beloved TOL leading man Robert Culp.


The unfortunate Lt. Peter Chandler is played by Robert Sampson, who also appeared on The Twilight Zone (“Little Girl Lost”) and Star Trek (“A Taste of Armageddon”). Richard Derr (Phillip “Griff” Griffith, who we only glimpse in a flashback scene and a picture in Julie’s room), meanwhile, did two stints on Star Trek (“The Alternative Factor” and “The Mark of Gideon”).




Julie Griffith is played by Betsy Jones-Moreland, whose only other notable genre credits are three Roger Corman, um, classics: 1957’s The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (seriously?), 1960’s Last Woman on Earth (which probably prepared her for playing Annex One’s only female), and 1961’s Creature from the Haunted Sea. I’m gonna go ahead and call her a TOL Babe. She’s not on the same level as Joanna Frank or Barbara Luna, but she’ll do in a pinch.



HOME VIDEO RELEASES

Frequent readers of this blog (all 3.5 of you) are aware of my endless infatuation with the blue (sometimes blue-green) VHS boxes from the late 80's and early 90's. I've mentioned a few times in these pages that, at some future point, I might endeavor to (re) collect them (see here for more). I'm happy to report that, as of two days ago, the process has officially begun. Feast your tiny unmutated eyes!

Note that it's brand new and still shrink-wrapped (the other two I've thus-far acquired, "A Feasibility Study" and "Production and Decay of Strange Particles," are in varying states of wear and disrepair). Next week's "The Guests" is on its way to me as I type this... my plan is to snag each episode prior to its 50th anniversary, so I can include high (or at least medium)-resolution scans of the box art (front and back) with my spotlights. I've gotta admit.... just holding an Outer Limits tape in my hands after all these years is pretty awesome. The stark blue/black and white design (an aesthetic I cribbed for this blog's masthead) is evocative of the soft glow of an old (pre-HD) television set at night. It's beautiful.


VHS collectors had two options if they wanted to add “The Mutant” to their collections: the standard retail edition or the mail-order exclusive Columbia House offering, which paired it with last week’s “Moonstone.” Whichever flavor you picked, the entire series’ run was readily available, reasonably priced and easily obtained.

Damn, I've gotta get a better scan of this LaserDisc. In fact.... well, stay tuned.
LaserDisc collectors, those rich elitist bastards, scored “The Mutant” in the very first TOL LD collection, but cash-poor tapeheads like me ultimately got the last laugh when MGM stopped producing the LD sets after just four volumes, 21 episodes shy of completion. Oh snap!


Both formats were rapidly retired by DVD, that great home theater equalizer. Suddenly the quality of LaserDisc and the affordability of VHS were available in one compact package. No more buying episodes individually or in small groups; now entire seasons could be acquired in one reasonably-priced shot. MGM released the entire first season, all 32 episodes of it, in 2002. I remember eagerly paying $49.99 at my local Fred Meyer for my copy, which seemed insanely cheap (I’d paid between $12.99 and $19.99 PER EPISODE in the VHS days!). Season two followed a year later at the same price (for only half the number of episodes; however, getting the entire series for a C-note still felt like an amazing deal).  MGM later released the series in three separate volumes (2007) and then, finally, an omnibus set of all three volumes (2008); these later releases, it should be noted, include the identical discs found in the original releases, so don’t be fooled by the pretty newer packaging. The first 2002-2003 sets are still the best, since they include nice semi-glossy inserts with episode guides and whatnot.*


However, new fans don’t have to spend a single dime on the show, since all 49 episodes are available for free on Hulu (in standard-definition resolution, same as the DVDs). I harbor no ill will toward Hulu, but it pisses me off that MGM is giving the show away instead of putting together a lavish high-def Blu-ray release.


TRADING CARD CORNER

Topps devoted two cards to Reese Fowler in their 1964 Monsters from Outer Limits trading cards. The Topps cards are notorious for completely changing the backstory of the show’s monsters and aliens, and “The Mutant” is no exception. Here he’s an alien expat with “super sight” who joins an Earthly police force to help fight crime. Groan.










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MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT


Since Sideshow Collectibles’ deluxe action figure line ended way before its time, we turn to Dimensional Designs, who offers model kits of almost every TOL creature. Reese Fowler is happily on that list, in a 1/8-scale resin kit sculpted by Sean Sansom (DD/OL/RF-30) and, happily, it’s a knockout. The detail is marvelous, and the facial sculpt perfectly captures the iconic scene in which Fowler first removes his goggles. In my endless quest for usable images, I was delighted to stumble across several shots of the unassembled Fowler model. Enjoy!



I don’t currently own any TOL models, but Reese Fowler will absolutely be on my short list should I start collecting them. If you opt to do the same, you’ll pay $59.95 plus shipping.

One more "Mutant"-related item to note: I recently acquired a copy of the coveted second edition of David J. Schow's The Outer Limits Companion (finally!), and look who's on the spine!




THE WRAP-UP


“The Mutant” is cut from the same middle-of-the-road cloth as the last four episodes; however, it beats them all thanks solely to its excellent antagonist. Reese Fowler goes a long way toward salvaging the episode, but there are several script issues that are hard to ignore. I enjoy it quite a bit regardless, so for me it resides at the front of the middle of the pack. And speaking of the middle: "The Mutant" is the 25th episode in the 49-episode series, which places us smack dab in the middle. 24 more to go.....


* I’ve been meaning to scan and post those lovely DVD inserts for a while now…. stay tuned.

7 comments:

  1. She's running around in high heels and you didn't post any pictures? I need the visuals; I also got irritated that they recycled a zanti but hey, you take what bems as you can in 1964...

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  2. No mention of Warren Oates' work in 'The Wild Bunch' or 'Two Lane Blacktop', or are the shout-out's limited to cross-work with TZ only?

    I'm loving the trip down memory lane this blog is providing, thanks blay.

    LAVA!

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    Replies
    1. Well, look what the wind blew in. Hey, man. Funny, I just name dropped you in next week's entry ("The Guests").

      The cast connections are typically limited to The Twilight Zone, Star Trek and I Spy (for the Robert Culp love)... oh, and The Invaders, my latest sci-fi TV obsession. Sometimes I have to go deeper to find anything usable, which is where the Hitchcock shows or other fantasy/sci-fi/horror stuff comes in handy.

      And now you know... the rest of the story.

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    2. The teaser scene, and the first quarter hour of the show, are as powerful as anything The Outer Limits had to offer. Unfortunately though, it went downhill afterwards, especially in the scenes where we see Reese without his goggles AND without his hardhat. The earlier scenes, where he at least keeps the hardhat on, are laced with menace and tension, but once the helmet comes off he degenerates into just another B-movie monster. Putting a recycled Zanti misfit in the show was a mistake, how did it survive in the darkness of the cave when that same darkness ultimately kills Reese?

      Delete
  3. More of my old blog musings (or those possibly copped from Schow) from moons ago...

    "The Mutant" seems entirely slapped together. While the bulging eyeballs of mutant Reese are fun, the rest of the episode isn't. From the cheesy, studded 2x4 walls of the living quarters to the recycled, mutated Zanti Misfit, it all seems so cheap.

    The story, which there isn't much of, basically consists of people going in and out of doors and running back and forth between the compound and a cave. The silliness of Betsy Jones-Moreland as Julie running through the woods in high heels and tight skirt is really too much to take. The love affair of Julie and Dr. Evan Marshall is hammered upon far too long, in fact the whole relationship hardly seems necessary at all.

    The best scene is when Reese catches Chandler trying to tell Dr. Marshall about Reese's murderous ways. It's a good scene which is strangely shown in the two minute teaser before the control voice signals the opening credits. To have it repeated just a few minutes into the program is ridiculous. There is a decent effect that occurs when Reese touches someone. Simply laying his hand on his victims stuns then disintegrates them. The effect looks a lot like the "phaser" effect made famous in Star Trek.

    "The Mutant" is not up to par with most other Outer Limits episodes and probably won't appeal to anyone other than the most hardcore fan of the show.

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  4. You forgot to mention that in 1981, a year before his death, Warren Oates played stern Sgt. Hulka in the hilarious Bill Murray movie "Stripes." A misfired mortar caused Hulka to get "Blown up, sir!" about halfway into the movie.

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  5. This isn't a very good Outer Limits episode, but I don't find it to be among the worst of the worst, either. (I'm mainly talking about season one eps...) It has potential, but it's mostly squandered by a bad script. To kill time, I'm sure someone said, "hey, let's just run back and forth to the cave a bunch of times". Because that must kill 4 minutes just there. The BEAR is decent enough. Just doesn't have the GREATNESS factor that so many other first season shows had. Oh well...

    ReplyDelete