Destruct that ship, General!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Production and Decay of Strange Particles" (4/20/1964)



“Production and Decay of Strange Particles”
Season 1, Episode 30
Originally aired 4/20/1964


Fifty years ago tonight, The Outer Limits attempted to baffle viewers with bullshit while blinding them with lots of pretty lightning. Did it work? I dunno, I wasn’t born yet. Does it work now? Um…..


“Production and Decay of Strange Particles” introduces us to Dr. Marshall, who oversees operations at a nuclear power plant. Marshall has unintentionally exposed some high-velocity subatomic particles to Nobelium-238, which has created a highly-radioactive crack between our world and an alternate dimension. The fissure’s intense energy output vaporizes two plant workers, whose empty radiation suits rise up and inexplicably resume their work. Marshall theorizes that formless energy beings from the other dimension are occupying the suits and endeavoring to widen the crack by causing a nuclear explosion.


More plant workers are forcibly drafted into this effort, creating a small army of zombie-like stuffed suits. Marshall’s initial instinct is to run like hell, but his wife guilts him into sticking around. It then becomes a race against time as he tries to figure out a way to stop the beings’ growing fusion reaction before their China Syndrome shenanigans comes to fruition.




He finally decides that, if he can beat them to the punch by creating his own nuclear explosion, the inter-dimensional rift might be sealed; better yet, the collision of matter and anti-matter from the other dimensional just might cause time to reverse and undo the entire mess. He MacGyvers a “hydrogen thermonuclear component” out of whatever’s lying around and dangles it like a carrot in front of the lightning zombies, who drag it back to the fissure like the hulking idiots that they apparently are.

From a safe distance, the Marshalls watch as the entire power plant and the surrounding area is vaporized by a massive atomic explosion… which then reverses itself as time runs backward to the point that the inter-dimensional crack was first formed.






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RANDOMONIUM

“Production and Decay” (that’s right, I’m abbreviating the title; deal with it) is the fourth and final episode written and directed by series creator and executive producer Leslie Stevens. The above synopsis suggests that the story is fairly straightforward, right? Unfortunately, Stevens drenches the proceedings with so much technobabble that it’s easy to lose track of the narrative line. The first half moves like a scientific procedural, in which Marshall gradually learns details of the lightning zombies’ activities (at the expense of his staff, who all end up dead trying to contain the ever-growing shit storm); the second is considerably muddier, as Marshall wildly theorizes about what’s happening (and being correct 100% of the time, magically enough) and ultimately crafts his day-saving makeshift nuke. All things considered, however, it’s still easier to follow than Stevens’ earlier “The Borderland,” a mystifying exercise in the opaque if there ever was one.

If the episode is difficult to grasp on a story level, it’s at least pleasing to look at thanks to Kenneth Peach’s photographic direction. The power plant is dark and foreboding, particularly in the furnace reactor where most of the action takes place. The fusion of that darkness with the copious amounts of lightning and radioactive glowing on display creates a compelling visual depiction of the series’ horror and sci-fi hybridization ethic.


Y’now, I every time I state something definitively in these pages, I swear I end up being proven wrong. Most season one episodes open with a short teaser clip instead of an actual pre-opening title prologue. “The Special One” two weeks ago had a proper prologue, and I cockily stated that it would be the last prologue we’d see this season. So what’s the first thing I saw when I started up “Production and Decay”? That’s right, a goddamned prologue. Now, not much happens in its two-and-a-quarter minute run time; it only serves to establish the power plant setting and indicate that there’s some sort of emergency brewing, but it’s definitely a prologue. Thing is --- I checked every episode a few months back to make sure I caught ‘em all.  At least I thought I did.

But there’s more: as “Production and Decay” unspooled before my eyes, I realized with no small measure of surprise that I didn’t recognize any of it. That’s right, kids: I’m a self-proclaimed Outer Limits mega-fan, and I was watching an episode that I’d never seen. I’m still trying to figure out how this profound an oversight could have happened; suffice it to say my mind is blown. It’s an unfathomable mystery, which is oddly appropriate given the episode in question’s impenetrable gobbledygook.




So our coward-turned-hero protagonist is named “Dr. Marshall.” However…. as we get further into the episode, his wife repeatedly refers to him as, simply, “Marshall.” So… does that mean his name is “Marshall Marshall”? I vote yes, and shall refer to him thusly for the duration. On the subject of Marshall Marshall... goddamn, George MacReady hams it up big time here. Like, ridiculously so. His overacting is almost operatic at times; I almost wonder if it was an intentional choice. A more subtle performance could easily get lost within the blinding, cacophonous chaos environment of the Power Plant Gone Mad, so I dunno, maybe it was the right choice. However--- he still annoys me at times, particularly during his over the top panic attacks (I kept waiting for his wife to slap him; I probably would’ve cheered if she had). And what’s up with the scene in act three in which he stares at length directly into the camera? I know he couldn’t really see me through the TV, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t still uncomfortable. There’s also a shot in act one in which he saunters right up to the camera and sticks his face in it; the accompanying music (“Jong Returns,” a queasy li’l number from “Nightmare”) only adds to the weirdness.  Why all the fourth wall-breaking? I think George MacReady may just be The Outer Limits’ oddest, most awkward leading man.





It’s hard not to compare “Production and Decay” to the earlier “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork,” which was written by series producer Joseph Stefano. Both take place in shadowy facilities with lots of pyrotechnics and noise, and both concern incalculably powerful energy sources running amok. The main difference lies in the fact that Stefano’s “Woodwork” is populated with interesting characters and some really crisp dialogue (not to mention a complete lack of wide-eyed George MacReadys wetting their pants in terror every ten minutes). Sure, “Woodwork” has its issues (the Energy Being’s electrified dust bunny origin is ludicrous, and some of the characters’ motivations are questionable at best), but I love it because I like the characters; meanwhile, there’s nobody in “Production and Decay” that I even remotely give a shit about. And hey, if nothing else, “Production and Decay” has Allyson Ames.... while “Woodwork” has Barbara Luna. Ames is cute and all... but c'mon. You know I'm right.

There's hot, and then there's smokin' hot.





The Lightning Zombies are a pretty cool menace, unlike anything else in The Outer Limits’ roster of aliens and monsters. There’s a bit of the Frankenstein Monster there as they lumber around slowly, but modern viewers may be more reminded of Star Trek’s cybernetic Borg species. They too assimilate whoever they touch and are essentially links in a chain, pieces of a collective hive mind working in tandem toward a common task. Both species move slowly but relentlessly with purpose, and both represent a fearsome loss of identity and individuality.


The episode begins with what I can only assume is an editorial error. The very first shot we see of the nuclear power plant includes copious amounts of the radioactive lightning effect we’ll see later as the facility becomes increasingly irradiated; since the particle/element collision hasn’t happened yet, there’s no reason this phenomena should appear at this point (unless it’s some kind of foreshadowing concerning Marshall’s atomic time reversal, but that really wouldn’t make sense either). The preceding shot is stock footage of a lightning storm, which makes me wonder about the nature of the mysterious particles in Marshall Marshall’s cyclotron: did they in fact come from outer space, and piggybacked to the power plant on a bolt of lightning? Hell, maybe it’s not an error at all.

What is an error is the side shot of one of the Lightning Zombies (time stamp 24:43), which we know are empty radiation suits filled with the sentient energy creatures. So why the hell does this one have a nose....?







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AURAL PLEASURE


“Production and Decay” doesn’t include an original music score; rather, bits and pieces from earlier Outer Limits scores by Dominic Frontiere are peppered throughout (one in particular, “It’s Here” from “The Human Factor,” seems to loop endlessly throughout the second half of the episode). Here’s the rundown:

The Lottery, The Spaceship, Alien on the Loose (from “The Architects of Fear”)
Mother’s Loops, Jong Returns (from “Nightmare”)
It’s Here (from “The Human Factor”)
The Big Finish (“The Borderland”)

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DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Wow, we've got a fairly large cast this week, and they’ve all got noteworthy genre connections. Let’s take a deep breath (y’now, kinda like the one required to state this episode’s title) and dive on in.

Coward-turned-hero Dr. Marshall Marshall is played by George MacReady, last seen in “The Invisibles.” MacReady’s other genre credits includes appearances on The Twilight Zone (“The Long Morrow”), Boris Karloff’s Thriller, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and the first very installment of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (“The Cemetery”).


Laurel Marshall is played by Stockholm’s own Signe Hasso. Her genre credits are pretty slim (she appeared in episodes of the radio shows-turned-TV series Lights Out and Suspense), but she did appear in 1945’s The House on 92nd Street, a classic Fox film noir that starred future TOL alum Lloyd Nolan (who we’ll enjoy in season two’s “Soldier”). I’m delighted to report that Hasso co-starred in 1950’s Sånt händer inte här (This Can’t Happen Here), an early film by one of my favorite directors, Ingmar Bergman.


If Robert Fortier (Dr. Paul Pollard) looks familiar, it’s because he was also the philandering rat Bert Hamill in “Controlled Experiment” back in January; he’ll return in season two as the Kyben goon Budge in “Demon with a Glass Hand.” Fortier also appeared in Leslie Stevens’ post-TOL horror film Incubus (1966) and, soon after, showed up on Star Trek (“By Any Other Name,” which also guest-starred TOL alum Warren Stevens).


Dr. Pollard’s wife-slash-widow is played by the lovely Allyson Ames, who also appeared in “The Galaxy Being” as one of Gene “Buddy” Maxwell’s groupies. Before that, she popped up on Daystar’s pre-TOL series Stoney Burke (“King of the Hill”), and she could also be seen in Incubus. It’s possible she had a bit of extra casting pull on her side, since she happened to be Leslie Stevens’ wife. TOL Babe? Yes indeed.


Dr. Terrel is played by John Duke, whose Daystar association began with an appearance on Stoney Burke (“The Mob Riders,” which also guest-starred future TOL alums Bill Gunn and Curt Conway). He also did one episode of The Invaders (“The Ivy Curtain”) and two Star Treks (“The Ultimate Computer” and “The Devil in the Dark”; the latter’s Horta creature was actually Janos Prohaska’s goofy Mikie the Giant Microbe costume from season two’s “The Probe”).


Rudy Solari (Griffin) will return in season two for “The Invisible Enemy” (in which he’ll steal the show right out from under headliner Adam West), and he too showed up on Stoney Burke (“Point of Entry,” which also guest-starred Ben Wright, last week’s Luminoid Elder). Solari can also be spotted in “The Paradise Syndrome” on Star Trek.


The Civil Authority Official, only seen on a two-way video communication system, is played by Paul Lukather, who will return for season two’s “The Brain of Colonel Barham"; he too scored a role on The Invaders (“Moonshot”). Check out that popped collar.... that's one smooth motherfucker right there. Hey ladies---!


Joseph Ruskin plays Collins, the first plant worker to become a Lightning Zombie (a dubious honor, but alas). Ruskin crossed over into The Twilight Zone twice (he played the Genie in “The Man in the Bottle” and provided the voice of the various Kanamits in “To Serve Man”); he also played the vaguely Kanamit-ish Galt in “The Gamesters of Triskelion” over on Star Trek.


Leonard Nimoy plays Konig, the second Lightning Zombie, and he’ll be back for season two’s “I, Robot” (he also headlined the 90’s remake on Showtime’s Outer Limits revival series). Like many TOL actors, he can also be found on Stoney Burke (“Fight Night”) and The Twilight Zone (“A Quality of Mercy”: he’d cross paths with Rod Serling again for Night Gallery’s loopy evil cat opus “She’ll Be Company for You”). Nimoy is also quite famous for another role, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it is.*


And finally, Coulter (the only plant worker to die from radiation burns instead of being Lightning-Zombified) is played by Willard Sage in his third and final Outer Limits appearance (he was the Chief of Staff in “Nightmare” and an unnamed reporter in “Tourist Attraction”). He also popped up on The Invaders (“The Experiment,” which also guest-starred TOL alum Dabbs Greer) and Star Trek (“The Empath”).


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HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“Production and Decay” inexplicably gained a “The” in its title for its initial home video release. Both the subsequent mail-order exclusive VHS edition from Columbia House (which also featured “Cold Hands, Warm Heart”) and the UK VHS release (which also featured “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork”; now there’s a pairing with some thought behind it!) featured the altered title as well.





The title was corrected for the DVD release of season one, which hit stores in 2002. I don’t have the subsequent DVD reissues (2007 and 2008), but I have to assume they’re correct as well.


If you don’t own any of the DVD releases, I’d recommend enjoying all 49 episodes by streaming them on Hulu. It won’t cost you a dime, and their copy of “Production and Decay” has the correct title.

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TRADING CARD CORNER

Topps and Rittenhouse turned up their collective noses at “Production and Decay” for their trading card series. DuoCards, however, granted equal time to all 32 episodes of season one in their 1997 effort, so the Lightning Zombie did in fact get his own trading card (#44 in the series); unfortunately, they added that pesky erroneous "The" to the title.


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MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT


The episode has spawned no merchandise whatsoever, not even a Lightning Zombie model kit from Dimensional Designs (which is a bit surprising, actually). Your only real option here is to customize your own action figure, which is an easy task if you obtain The Simpsons Nuclear Power Planet Interactive Playset from 2000. Plop the protective head piece onto good ol’ Homer, paint some lightning on the face plate, and there you go. Just know that the figure contains a voice-activated sound chip, so he may emit his signature “D’oh!” now and then (come to think of it, that’s pretty appropriate for a Dr. Marshall toy). 


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THE WRAP-UP



Despite the sheer delight of discovering a heretofore unseen Outer Limits episode, “Production and Decay of Strange Particles” proved itself all sparkle and no substance as I trudged through it. It’s not terrible, but it’s certainly one of the lesser offerings of the show’s spectacular first season… in other words, it’s more fizzle than fusion.





* I’m kidding, of course. I’m fully aware of Nimoy’s work as master of disguise Paris on Mission: Impossible (1969-1971).


10 comments:

  1. This episode made no sense to me and when I first saw it in 1964 I was extremely disappointed but over the years it has become a favorite. Maybe it's the "glitz". Whatever it is this episode makes my top 5.

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  2. There's a ton of science blathered about here. This is definitely a second-rate Outer Limits episode but after watching "Production And Decay Of Strange Particles" a few times through, it has become more appealing.

    The acting is nothing special here, in fact, the portrayal of cowardly hero Dr. Marshall (George MacReady) is really over-the-top. His staccato readings of dramatic scatter-shot physics is practically funny.

    The story itself is very confusing, especially the time-reversal theory thrown out by Dr. Marshall. I didn't catch it until the second viewing. The atomic blue light zombies are some sort of odd representation of a chain reaction from some other -dimensional creatures...or something to that effect. The claw-handed radiation suits and the furnace reactor special effects were appealing. The screwball atomic bomb that Dr. Marshall slapped together was not.

    Overall, "Production And Decay Of Strange Particles" gets a higher grade from me than it probably should, based on it's attempt to tackle the hard science of the interesting subject of atomic power. It's not on my list of "5 Worst episodes of Season One", but it's close (opposite of you, I have a "favorite and least liked" list).

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    1. "The screwball atomic bomb" I LOVE that description of the thermo nuclear whatchacallit.

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  3. There's a huge door and special lock on the nuclear fuel room like a bank vault, implying there's no other doorway. But after Macready makes his smoking bomb, and Signe tells him the zombies are approaching, he seems to escape by another egress. It makes sense to have two doorways, but doubles the security risk. Maybe it's just the bank vault association I have with it.

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  6. Production & Decay is my favorite TOL.Can do without the screaming banshee,Ardis,but Marshal x2 is cool.Laurel,the Mrs Marshall x2 is perfect,yeah,she should've slapped him,but she was his voice of reason.Maybe forgot his Valium that day.The Marshalls make this one work for me-I love it and them.Probably went home,if they had one nd celebrated with sammies & champers!

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  7. In my ongoing binge-watching of the whole series, this is one of the 6 or 7 episodes I keep returning to, for a 2nd and 3rd look. Funny, but I don't find it to be as lame as many of you guys do. I like the atmosphere a lot, and of course the music. It's not in the Top 10 of season 1 eps, but it ain't bad. Yes, MacReady is over the top, but not to the point it turns me off. The screaming blonde woman is annoying ("I'm not leaving without-----" whatever his name was. Her husband, I guess it was.) And of course, some of the science doesn't make sense, but who watches this show for "real" science? Not I. Yep, I like this one... And yes, I think the doctor's name is Marshall Marshall.

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  8. I recently downloaded this episode from The Internet Archive. I've always been fascinated by the episode, both because of the scientific gobbledy-gook and George Macready's acting. I've even tried to memorize some of the scientific explanations. And now that I've got it in MP4, I can import it into Goldwave and run it backwards.

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  9. Born in 1956, I remember seeing this episode when it first aired.....(I also remember watching episodes of The Twilight Zone when first aired, as well).
    This episode completely freaked me out, held me in suspense the whole time. The workers in their suits taken over by the energy, and later collapsing empty, was spooky. The scenes with the head scientist and his wife, I thought were done very well. When she convinced him to take action and as he deployed the nuclear material, it was suspenseful. And the ending, with both a nuclear explosion and implosion, is still in my memory. I viewed this episode later in life as an adult, and was struck at the difference in my understanding, then and now. At that time I didn't recognize actors other than for their acting, not like today "Hey, there's Leonard Nimoy."

    One thing to reckon with for modern audiences, many TV shows of yesteryear were set at a much slower pace. Many drama shows I watched as a kid are now painfully slow. Comedy shows hold up better because they are usually set at a faster pace (Get Smart, The Munsters come to mind.)

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