Destruct that ship, General!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Special One" (4/06/1964)



“The Special One”
Season 1, Episode 28
Originally aired 4/06/1964


Fifty years ago tonight, The Outer Limits presented a useful tip for parents: don't let strangers hang out in your child's room late at night. Well, duh. Were parents really that irresponsible in the 60's? Wait, I'm not sure I want to know the answer to that.



William Turner distrusts Mr. Zeno, his son’s tutor, who hails from the Government Educational Enrichment Program (an agency charged with cultivating the best and brightest young minds in the country), and arrives at the GEEP’s west coast branch office to complain. He finds the office inexplicably closed in the middle of a workday… and Mr. Zeno there waiting for him. Using telepathic mind control, Zero forces Turner to leap out the window to his death. He then telepathically contacts his mysterious superiors, identifying himself as “Xenon 6,” and advises them that he must relocate to the east coast to avoid exposure.

Zeno materializes from a bolt of lightning outside the apartment of Roy and Aggie Benjamin, whose son Kenny is also a GEEP member. He explains to the Benjamins that Kenny is a “mutation plus” due to his parents’ prior exposure to radiation, meaning that he is even more exceptional than most. Zeno indicates that he’s been sent to help Kenny on an unspecified “special project.”


Despite Zeno’s promise that said project will require only a minuscule time commitment, his tutoring of Kenny runs late into the night several days a week (it even interferes with his baseball practice, much to Roy’s chagrin). We learn that Zeno is helping Kenny construct a device that can manipulate climate conditions using sound waves, and that he is actually an alien from the planet Xenon. His species can only survive in Earth’s atmosphere for a limited amount of time due to the insufficient amount of xenon gas in the atmosphere… a problem which Kenny’s machine will help solve to facilitate Xenon’s eventual invasion of Earth. Kenny seems to be voluntarily cooperating.


Roy grows increasingly suspicious when both Kenny and Zeno repeatedly rebuff his inquiries, Late one night, he attempts to follow Zeno as he leaves the apartment… and spies him walking through a wall and doing his lightning-transmogrification trick. Roy pays a panicked visit to his local GEEP office, and is advised that the agency does not employ private tutors; worse, they’ve never heard of Mr. Zeno! Roy returns to home to confront Kenny, who insists that his father will “ruin everything” if he interferes.  Roy then attempts to thwart Zeno directly during Kenny’s next tutoring session.



Zeno fires up his signature hypnosis trick to force Roy to jump out the window to his death. In the nick of time, Kenny intervenes by resetting his climate control device to deplete the xenon in the surrounding air, causing Zeno to asphyxiate. Zeno begs to be released, promising to leave Earth. “You could have been a god,” he tells Kenny mournfully before vanishing one last time.

Kenny tells his parents that he’s been feigning cooperation until he could figure out the “right atmosphere combination” to make Earth inhospitable for Zeno and his race. He plans to turn his device over to the government to help repel any future invasion from Xenon. Awww.... out of the mouth of babes!




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RANDOMONIUM

“The Special One” is an original teleplay by Oliver Crawford, who was a fairly prolific TV writer throughout the 50's, 60's and 70's, including an episode of I Spy (“Red Sash of Courage”), giving him a highly-respectable (to me anyway) Robert Culp connection. Crawford’s other genre credits include teleplays for Star Trek, Land of the Giants, The Six Million Dollar Man, and The Bionic Woman. His work here is… well, decent; I’d never put “The Special One” on a favorites list, but it’s… well, like I said, decent. It only intermittently feels like an Outer Limits episode; most of the time it’s stuck in a very generic 60’s TV family mold. Since the series generally features intense, quirky personalities, it’s a bit jarring to spend an hour with a family unit as relentlessly prosaic as the Benjamins (versus the usual military types, mad scientists and neurotic outsiders). Having said that, Crawford does provide a few great moments and a few choice lines of dialogue, which provides just enough spark to keep things moving without inducing boredom.

Prologue alert! For the last time this season, we get a proper prologue instead of a teaser preview of the episode to come. Series producer Joseph Stefano wrote said prologue (Crawford’s script, which begins with Mr. Zeno’s materialization outside the Benjamins’ apartment, evidently wasn’t quite long enough) and, after watching the episode for first time in several years the difference was immediately apparent to me. Zeno's confrontation with Turner is probably the best part of the episode; it just plain feels like The Outer Limits. Unfortunately, such a great opening only serves to magnify the tonal shift that occurs when Crawford’s more pedestrian script kicks in.

Unfortunately, despite its effectiveness, Stefano’s prologue has the side effect of tipping Mr. Zeno’s hand way too early. We know from the beginning of act one that he’s probably not human (having just witnessed him materializing from a lightning bolt); however, absent the prologue, his nefarious nature unfolds gradually throughout the first half of the episode. Considerable suspense is lost by revealing him as a murderous baddie up front.



“The Special One” is directed by Gerd Oswald, but you wouldn't really know it from the modest staging. His work here seems a bit phoned in, light years from past triumphs like “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork,” but I imagine the script didn’t give him many creative options. Director of photography Kenneth Peach does a similarly workmanlike job, but there’s not much here in the way of imaginative camera angles or lighting effects. An exception is the scene in which Kenny tests his device on various objects in his room late at night; the noirish lighting and the disco ball-like light patterns swirling around the room mesh to create something quite eerie and lovely.




The episode presents both ends of the TOL effects spectrum. We are treated very early on to a magnificent transformation sequence as Zeno materializes in quick additive stages (skeleton, circulatory system, internal organs, skin). Late in the episode, when Kenny gets the upper hand against Zeno by depriving him of xenon gas, the entire scene plays in slow motion while white feathers (!) swirl about. I’m assuming that this is supposed to depict the lack of xenon in the air, which I guess I can buy… but the slow motion makes no sense whatsoever. Does xenon gas contribute something to the normal flow of time? Of course it doesn’t. The whole thing probably wouldn't be so ridiculous if it only lasted a few seconds; however, as presented, Zeno’s downfall sequence lasts over five minutes.




So what exactly is Mr. Zeno (and his fellow Xenons)? Is he a humanoid who can transform into a ball of lightning for travel purposes? Or is the lightning ball his natural state, and his humanoid appearance is simply a disguise? I’m inclined to go with the former, given the chest gill and all (plus noncorporeal beings probably wouldn't need to conquer a physical planet anyway). The alien invasion plot is a bit half-baked, relying on human children to betray their parents (not to mention the entire human race) but then, aren’t most of them on this show? However, a fascinating scientific fact (that’s never brought up in the episode) is that xenon gas has anesthetic properties. In other words, they could flood the atmosphere with it and render the entire population unconscious… which would be a brilliant invasion plan, and they wouldn’t need kid geniuses at all.

Speaking of Zeno’s gill, I love the blasé manner in which he reveals it to Kenny, like it’s not weird at all that he’s got a fucking set of gills on his otherwise human-looking body.

Zeno rebuffs Roy’s inquiries in act two, haughtily stating that “this little colloquy has already cost me two and a half minutes,” when in actually they’ve only been talking for 38 seconds. Maybe xenon gas really does affect the speed of time after all... or could it be that the Xenons need young human geniuses because they just aren’t that bright themselves?

Gadget porn alert! Kenny’s weather control device, with its lovely retro-futuristic design, is highly cool. I want one, even if it doesn’t really work (talk about a cool desktop knickknack, right?). Its spinning sphere could be one of those electro-static globe things… or hey, maybe we could kill two TOL prop replica birds with one stone by incorporating a Grippian Orb.



Y’now, Kenny’s Device (I hope that’s the official name for it, after the government starts mass-producing it) also reminds me of the Ion Cannon from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, which the rebels used to help repel the Empire’s invasion of their secret base on the ice planet Hoth. Yeah, that's right. 44 years old and my brain still goes straight to fucking Star Wars.





MacDonald Carey is quite good as Roy Benjamin throughout, but he’s straight up brilliant in the act three scene in which he meets with the GEEP director and practically comes unhinged as he relays the crazy (at least crazy-sounding) story of Zeno’s infiltration of his family. It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers all over again, but Carey holds it together better than Kevin McCarthy ever could. Early in act two, neighbor Joe drops by and expresses his disdain for GEEP, believing that accelerated learning can isolate kids and retard their social growth. “I wouldn’t let my kid join,” he grouses, to which Roy replies bluntly (but not rudely): “I don’t like to be snide, Joe, but your kid wasn’t asked.” Carey’s reading of that one line probably doubles my enjoyment of this episode.

But frankly, the star thespian here is Richard Ney as Mr. Zeno, who proves to be one immaculately smooth motherfucker. Once I saw the Benjamins’ impressive liquor cabinet, I half expected him to help himself to a snifter of Roy’s best brandy, or maybe a martini. You just know he could talk his way into just about anybody’s pants (male or female) if he wasn’t so dedicated to the Xenon Master Plan. When his cucumber-cool charm drops away, replaced by a snakelike steeliness, he’s positively fearsome: “In a few seconds, you will have killed yourself,” he calmly predicts when Roy finally and irrevocably gets in his way.  Even after he’s beaten, he takes a moment to collect himself and flash one last charming smile before he vanishes, presumably for good. In that moment, he strongly reminds me of a similar character from TV’s late, great Breaking Bad, Gustavo Fring (who, come to think of it, possessed a similar smooth/sinister dual demeanor), whose last act is to straighten his tie after being blown to (partial) smithereens by a strategically-placed bomb. 




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AURAL PLEASURE


Dominic Frontiere’s underscore for “The Special One” consists of stock cues from a whopping six earlier TOL episodes (this week “The Man Who Was Never Born” contributes the lion’s share). I strive for accuracy and completeness when I’m monitoring for music, but I reserve the right to miss a cue or two. Here’s what I heard: 

The Outer Limits Signature Loop, Teaser, Enter Andro, Andro & Noelle
I’m the Doctor (“The Human Factor”)
The Big Finish (“The Borderland”)


DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Richard Ney is excellent as the two-faced alien meanie Mr. Zeno. He doesn’t have much in the way of genre connections, but he did appear in Roger Corman’s The Premature Burial (1962); which was co-written by frequent Twilight Zone contributor Charles Beaumont, whose single sale to The Outer Limits resulted in “The Guests” from two weeks ago. After his relatively short acting career dried up, Ney became a successful investment counselor and notorious critic of Wall Street… which yeah, I can totally see. Oh, and his middle name was "Maximillian" (like he wasn’t cool enough already).




MacDonald Carey is equally excellent as the beleaguered Roy Benjamin. I couldn’t find much in the way of genre connections, but Carey did work for Alfred Hitchcock a couple of times, in 1944’s Shadow of a Doubt and on both of Hitch’s TV series (“Coyote Moon” on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and “House Guest” on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour). Carey is remembered fondly by Day of Our Lives fans (like my wife Teresa, who still watches it faithfully) for his work as Dr. Tom Horton, a character he played off and on for 27 years.


Flip Mark (Kenny Benjamin) has no genre connections to speak of, unless you count a 1963 appearance on My Favorite Martian (I dunno, should we?). He did a brief stint on Days of Our Lives in 1965, so maybe he crossed paths again with MacDonald Carey. I dunno. I’m not digging that deep. I don’t wanna get too bogged down with… oh, fuck it. Flip (honestly, who names their kid “Flip”?) was in the 3rd, 4th, and 9th episodes (during the first two weeks) of that venerable soap. MacDonald Carey was the main character back then, so he was in all three episodes too. In fact, according to the Days of Our Lives Family Tree (yeah, it exists), Carey’s character was Flip’s character’s grandfather (wow, Carey must’ve aged a lot in the year between The Outer Limits and Days of our Lives). But did they have any scenes together? I dunno. I’ve already spent too much time on this. I mean it. Topic closed.

Mid-60's video. *Sigh* If y'all can find a better picture, let me know.

Marion Ross is fine as Aggie Benjamin, but c’mon: she’ll always be Mrs. Cunningham from TV’s long-running Happy Days. The only other genre credit on her resume is an appearance on NBC’s 1986-87 revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The Initiation”). I guess we could also count Mork from Ork’s appearance on Happy Days as sci-fi, if we’re giving a pass to My Favorite Martian.



We've seen Edward C. Platt before, playing the douchebag Dean Radcliffe in “The Man with the Power”; he seems to be decent chap here as the GEEP’s Mr. Terrence (we’ll see him again in season two’s “Keeper of the Purple Twilight”). Platt also appeared on The Twilight Zone (“A Hundred Yards over the Rim”) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Museum Piece”).


The ill-fated Mr. Turner from the prologue is played by Jason Wingreen, whom we last saw playing a Helosian operative in “O.B.I.T.” (he’ll come back for “Expanding Human” next season as well). Wingreen has lots of genre connections, including multiple stints on The Twilight Zone (“A Stop at Willoughby,” "The Midnight Sun” and “The Bard”), The Invaders (“The Experiment” and “The Trial”), Star Trek (“The Empath”), and…. hey, speaking of The Empire Strikes Back, he also provided the voice of the notorious bounty hunter Boba Fett (however, revisionist maniac George Lucas replaced his voice work with that of Temeura Morrison, so you’ll have to track down one of the pre-2004 cuts to hear it. Original Trilogy is the only trilogy. You know I'm right).



HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“The Special One” was available on VHS in two forms: the standard retail version (above) and the mail-order exclusive Columbia House version, which also included “The Guests.” I can’t deny that I’m disappointed that Mr. Zeno in his skeleton-nervous system transitional phase (easily the coolest visual in the episode) isn’t depicted on either box. That’s really the money shot of the episode.




The series’ first season has seen three distinct DVD releases and, no matter which one you get, you’ll find “The Special One” included. The downside here is that every digital release has employed the same failure-prone DVD-18 format (dual-layered and double-sided). Those VHS tapes you've got in a box in your garage (or that I've got stacked all around my scanner) might actually last longer.


But hey, why worry about obsolete media at all? Hulu’s got you covered: they’ve got all 49 episodes of The Outer Limits (including “The Special One”) available for free streaming. That’s right: FREE. The collector in me bemoans the inevitable dominance of the cloud and the resultant disappearance of physical media, but I can’t deny that it’s kinda dumb to shell out money for the DVDs when the same standard-resolution transfers can be seen at no charge. 


TRADING CARD CORNER

Mr. Zeno appears rather early in Topps’ 1964 Monsters from Outer Limits trading card series from 1964 (card #3). Topps only had the rights to the creature likenesses, not the scripts, which required them to come up with all new backstories. Here, Mr. Zeno is reimagined as a dead lab assistant reanimated by a mad scientist. Paging Doctor Frankenstein…!




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MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT

If the Dimensional Designs website is to be believed, they offer a 1/8-scale resin model kit of Mr. Zeno, sculpted by Takeshi Yoneda (DD/OL/MZ-35), which I’d love to show you… however, the site doesn’t have a picture, which immediately makes me suspect that it doesn’t actually exist. However, they do list a price ($49.95), and there is an “add to cart” button… if anyone decides to take the risk, please let me know what happens.



Your other option is to invest in a Visible Man snap-together model kit, which looks quite a bit like Mr. Zeno in mid-manifestation.


THE WRAP-UP

For all its concerns with breathable gasses, “The Special One” lacks… atmosphere (rimshot!). But even if it’s not the dark and complex Outer Limits we’re used to, it’s still more than enjoyable, and the buildup of tension between Roy and Mr. Zeno throughout the episode feels authentic enough. I have no idea where’d I rank the episode (if I found myself doing that; I remain determined not to go that route), but it certainly wouldn’t be near the bottom. That’s actually more complimentary than it sounds.












9 comments:

  1. Another nice exposition on a uniquely enjoyable OL. Our bad guy is so like Klaatu's evil twin, by my reckoning. Both sort of formal and fastidious, kind of superior acting. Both wielding the usual ET hypno-influence power over people. The better to make them 'see nothing' as when Klaatu strolls out of the hospital (where he's being held under guard), or to make them jump out a window.

    The actor who played the object of ET attention in DTESS wasn't Flip Mark of course. But he almost coulda been. As often with OL and DTESS - sensors detect a striking commonality of theme - the "special" relationship that forms between the young man of the house, and ET visitor interested in him as involves Mission Earth. In both its the pivot point, axis on which story turns.

    BTW, that is a good first scene, dramatically well executed. Jason Wingreen puts in quite a performance, for a difficult bit. Too bad he wasn't Shatner's acting coach on STAR TREK - help with those scenes where some alien mind influence would force him to do something against his will ... like give Michael Dunn pony rides and so on (shudder).

    This one always struck me as one of OL's more unique episodes - and typically enjoyable. Great write up Craig, a pleasure reading. I learn a lot from info and details you include.

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  2. You warned us readers months ago not to comment on the good-looking woman pictured above watching her "stories". OK. But -- also as you pointed out -- at least MY wife watches The Outer Limits with me (if only a few times... years ago... and not without complaining... ).

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  3. The only that really ruins this episode is the feathers.For as good as the lightning bolt entry and exit by Zeno the feathers in the final asphyxiation scene was equally bad. The rest is OK. An 8 year old kid watching this in 1964, which I was, tends to wonder if the awe and mystery can happen in real life right in his home. Every time there was a lightning storm that spring I kept thinking Zeno was going to appear...just like I thought an Ebonite was under my bed waiting to zap me with a wand.

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  4. The first time I viewed "The Special One", I didn't think there was anything special about it at all. Upon further review, it still isn't all that special.

    One thing is apparent right away, Mr. Zeno is not particularly good at carrying out his mission because he's discovered by the parents of both children he attempts to abduct. Luckily for Zeno he is able to control the minds of the parents, forcing one to jump to his death from a high rise window.

    There are a lot of holes in this story, not the least of which is a 14-year old child out thinking a supposedly advanced alien menace.

    There is a neat special effect with Mr. Zeno materializing from a flash of lightning. This is one of the best effects of any Outer Limits episode.

    The 14-year old boy is relatively believable here and Marion Ross of "Happy Days" fame is lively and gives some grounding to the whole affair. Mr. Zeno's struggle near the end of the story is almost entirely shown in slow motion and it's evident this was done to pad out a too-short episode. "The Special One" is one of the less impressive entries of the Outer Limits first season.

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  5. What spoiled this episode for me is the notoriously bad science. Xenon is an inert gas, forming compounds only with a LOT of artificial help. It could never be the basis of a metabolism with so many other more active elements about. And the precipitating-out of the xenon in the final confrontation scene is also ridiculous--xenon is a trace gas in the atmosphere; there would never be enough for this much precipitation.

    Ah well. Still better than an episode of _Lost in Space_. But so is a root canal.

    Lurker111

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  6. This isn't a terrible TOL, and it isn't great either. But I don't mind watching it every now and then. Mr. Zeno and the dad are both excellent. The 5 minutes of chicken feathers/slow motion padding at the end are my only real negative feedback. My best friend and business partner in life is actor BILL MUMY. Mumy would have been really great in this role that Flip Mark had, but Mumy would have only been about 9 at the time of filming. Maybe too young?

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  7. Doesn't anyone else think it strange that the Benjamins lived in a city apartment whose interior looked like a two-story cape cod suburban home?

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  8. Macdonald Carey has at least one more genre connection: He starred in the Thriller episode "The Devil's Ticket".

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