Destruct that ship, General!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Repeat Report: Summer 1964 (Part 1)


Remember when television seasons ran for 30 weeks or more? When so many episodes were produced during the year that the summer rerun season wasn’t enough to repeat them all?  Those days appear to be long, long gone (do the networks even rerun stuff anymore?). These days a show starts a new season, runs for 13 weeks, and then vanishes until almost a year later (but gets a DVD/Blu-ray release before the next season starts). I miss the old days, when a show occupied a time slot year-round. Same day, same time, same channel… that’s where it lived; where you could always find it, new episode or not.

Fifty years ago tonight, The Outer Limits aired its very first repeat, launching an 18-week look back at its triumphant first season. We’ll address the first half here, and the other half… well, halfway through.






5/18/64: The Sixth Finger





6/01/64: Moonstone




6/08/64: O.B.I.T.




6/15/64: Nightmare




6/22/64: Corpus Earthling





7/06/64: 


The first batch of reruns is a mixed bag. It starts off on a seriously questionable foot with “Specimen: Unknown,” possibly the worst episode of the season (feel free to argue; I know many of you would rate “The Special One” beneath it, maybe “Production and Decay of Strange Particles” too). We do get mostly top-grade episodes throughout, though I’d argue that both “The Human Factor,” "Moonstone," and the aforementioned “Specimen: Unknown” should’ve been ignored in favor of episodes that weren't repeated at all. For your reading (dis)pleasure, here are the episodes that were never reprised:





Kinda horrific, ain't it? I know not every worthwhile episode can be repeated, but there were certainly enough grade-A episodes to fill the entire summer without revisiting the lesser efforts

As you’ll see in a couple of months or so, the second half of the summer will include choices that are even more mystifying.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Forms of Things Unknown" (5/04/1964)




“The Forms of Things Unknown”
Season 1, Episode 32
Originally aired 5/04/1964


In March 1964, Daystar Productions closed up shop for the summer as The Outer Limits’ first season wound down, with no guarantee of a renewal due to the show’s mediocre ratings. As fate or luck would have it, the final episode on the schedule was a bold and impenetrable Gothic nightmare which, if the show was in fact cancelled, would serve as a glorious “fuck ABC” blaze-of-glory exit. 


Blackmailer Andre and his female companions, the vixen Kassia and the brittle Leonora, are en route to extort money from Leonora’s rich father. They stop at a lake for a drink, which the sadistic Andre insists be served to him as he stands waist-deep in the water (the women must leave their high heels on). What he doesn’t know is that they’ve spiked his drink with a leaf from the highly-toxic Thanatos tree and, within moments, he’s nothing but a floating corpse.


Kassia stashes the body in the trunk, and the girls hit the road just as a violent rainstorm kicks up. Leonora sees the trunk pop open in the rear view mirror and screams (her first of many, many screams), assuming Andre is in fact alive. Kassia pulls over to show her the body and prove her wrong, but Leonora mistakes a flash of lightning for a blink of his eye and runs like hell. Kassia pursues her to the front step of a dark mansion, where a blind servant, Colas, invites them in to dry out by the fire.


The presumed master of the house, a scientist named Tone Hobart, is experimenting with time manipulation, to which end he’s created a “time-tilting” device that allows the dead to be brought back to life, in their pre-death condition no less (no zombies here; sorry Walking Dead fans). When Kassia leaves the house to bury Andre’s body, Tone reveals to Leonora that he removed Andre’s body from the trunk and attached it to the device, which resides in a small workshop on the second floor. He takes her upstairs to show her, but the body is inexplicably gone. Outside, Kassia hears Leonora’s (inevitable) scream, where we see Andre’s still form inside the trunk, apparently undisturbed.

Tone concludes that his device did in fact succeed, and that Andre must be roaming the countryside, confused. He races out into the night to find him and explain his miraculous reanimation to him. Meanwhile, Colas reveals to the ladies that he is in fact the master of the house, and Tone is his guest. Colas explains that Tone’s first time-tilting experiment was to bring himself back from the dead, which he did successfully. He suggests that they are in danger, and that they should leave immediately. They open the front door… where they find Andre, asking for a refill of the fatal cocktail that did him in.


Colas finds Tone prone in the nearby woods, having narrowly escaped being run down by Andre’s Rolls Royce as he sped to the mansion to collect his mischievous lasses. Tone realizes that bringing Andre back was a mistake, a mistake that must be rectified. Back at the mansion, he pulls a gun on Andre, who easily disarms him. Andre drives away with Kassia, leaving Leonora (who is hiding upstairs) behind. Kassia leaps from the moving car, having decided not to continue her extortion spree with Andre. Andre tries to run her down but crashes the car, killing himself in the process.

 



Tone, meanwhile, has decided that he wants to return to the “safe, harmless quiet of the past” and asks Leonora to destroy the time-tilting device after he’s gone. Just as Kassia arrives on the scene, Tone enters the spider’s web-like mechanism and vanishes.



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RANDOMONIUM

The Outer Limits Holy Trinity reunites this week for the last time. Think of it as your favorite band’s last concert; however, unlike KISS and their many farewell tours, this band will never, ever reunite. 

Joseph Stefano’s “The Forms of Things Unknown” has the narrative opacity of the rain-streaked windshield of Andre’s Rolls Royce. The events of the story are linear enough, but the tonal emphases feel random, even inappropriate at times. We desperately want more information about Tone’s death and rebirth, and how exactly his time-tilting device works, even if it’s complete gobbledygook (this is a sci-fi series, after all), but we’re only given a vague notion of the past and present “coiling about one another.” Much time is spent, however, on lengthy near-Shakespearean exchanges that neither advance the plot nor shed light on what makes these people tick (pun intended). Tone’s disappearance into his device is treated as the climax; however, it has little to do with the main story, which is the ladies’ rocky road to liberation from Andre’s domination (at least I think that’s the main story).


It’s impossible to care about characters if you can’t trace their motivations. Sure, other Stefano efforts have quirky ‘n murky characters too, but we usually get a smattering of backstory to at least partially inform their actions. In “Forms,” however… well, good luck figuring out why these people make the choices they make (particularly frustrating is Tone’s sudden desire to die, when in fact the world could be his to command since he alone knows how to manipulate time). And why is Leonora involved with the blackmailers to begin with? I understand the others’ roles (Andre is the mastermind, Kassia is the femme fatale), but why would their intended target’s daughter be helping them? Most reviews of the episode indicate that both women are Andre’s mistresses, but there’s nothing in the episode supporting this presumption… so what’s her connection? And why is she such a trembling basket case to begin with? Why does Colas allow Tone, his freeloading guest, to bark orders at him? Like the forgotten dolls in Rod Serling’s “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” over on The Twilight Zone, this quintet is a collection of question marks.



As I’m typing this, it occurs to me that this type of character micro-analysis is utterly pointless. It’s not all going to make sense, because it’s not supposed to make sense. Given the episode’s visual audacity and heightened theatricality, it’s only appropriate that the story possess a certain level of artifice all the way through. What we’re observing is more construct than organic story, so it probably shouldn’t be inhabited by real people. This is, more than anything else, a technical exercise. 


But oh, what a beautiful technical exercise it is. Directed by Gerd Oswald through the eyes of Director of Photography Conrad Hall, “The Forms of Things Unknown” is packed with startling, compelling imagery that was generally exclusive to foreign films at that time, particularly those of Jean Cocteau (his Orphic Trilogy, produced between 1932 and 1960, and certainly 1946’s Beauty and the Beast), and Ingmar Bergman (1957’s The Seventh Seal, 1966’s Persona, and 1968’s Hour of the Wolf); domestically, some of Orson Welles’s output reached these kinds of visual heights (1952’s Othello comes to mind, a brand new restoration of which is currently touring the US, not to mention 1948’s Macbeth and of course 1941’s Citizen Kane). You just didn’t see this kind of thing on TV in 1964, and I imagine quite a few minds were blown when this episode first aired fifty years ago tonight, and probably a few of those minds were opened in the process.

Rather than describe various shots with repetitive synonymous adjectives, I’ll show instead of tell. Damn, this stuff is gorgeous.



Black and white television was, for the most part, limited gradations of gray with shallow contrast. Series like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits used cinema-grade lighting and framing techniques to elevate the material beyond the typical static talking heads seen on most shows. Black became every bit as important (if not more so) than white, and suddenly TV was able to achieve the same striking, shadowy compositions seen on the big screen, particularly in the film noir genre. The fact that these types of shows (NBC's The Fugitive is another example) still look amazing today is a tribute to the care and forethought put into them, which is why it continues to frustrate me that only The Twilight Zone has received the white-glove high-definition treatment for the home video market. The Outer Limits, “Forms” in particular, would absolutely shine on Blu-ray. With its impossibly-deep contrast (there’s very little gray to be found), “Forms” may very well be the single greatest argument against the asinine practice of colorizing classic films. Artificial color (hell, real color as well) would literally ruin this episode. I indicated recently that "A Feasibility Study" was the most visually arresting episode in the entire series run... well, let me take a moment to eat my words. "The Forms of Things Unknown" may be the single most beautiful black and white film produced for television in the medium's history. 


When Tone (David McCallum) informs Andre that he intends to return him to his dead state, Andre asks “Would you be willing to go back?” In “The Sixth Finger,” when Professor Mathers threatens to reverse the accelerated evolution of his subject Gwyllm Griffiths (also played by McCallum), the response is almost identical: “Would you be willing to go back to being an ape?” It’s nice to see him on the other end of that conversation, experiencing the opposite point of view. It creates a cool déjà vu moment for attentive viewers.


I love the moment in which Colas instinctively offers a light to Kassia as she pulls out a cigarette, and the smile that crosses his face when she accepts it.  However, I can’t help but wonder how the hell Colas is able to pull off more difficult tasks, such as maintaining his mansion without help. There’s no indication that anyone else lives there (no butlers, maids, housekeepers, etc.), and I can’t see Tone lifting a finger to help out around the place. He describes how he cared for Tone during his coma, and how he “carried him to his bed” after his resurrection in the time-tilter… how did he do that, exactly? I have a sneaking suspicion that the old guy’s not really blind at all. By feigning sightlessness, he’s able to observe without participating, and offer commentary that sounds more insightful than it actually is. If I’m right, he’s one sly cat. Respect.


Leonora screams way too goddamned often. Every time she turns her head and sees somebody standing there (even if it’s someone she’s not afraid of), she screams. She screams a total of 8 times throughout the episode... I know because I counted. I can still hear it, echoing in the back of my head. Barbara Rush is by far the weakest link in the thespian chain here, but the constant screaming elevated my relative indifference to hate-filled rage (when I’m yelling at a person through the TV, you know I’m annoyed as hell). I kinda wish Tone had dragged her into the “safe, harmless quiet of the past” along with him.


Most fans are aware that “The Forms of Things Unknown” is the surviving half of a much more ambitious project. ABC had expressed interest in developing a horror/mystery series, so Stefano wrote an alternate version that removes the supernatural fantasy elements entirely: Tone’s time-tilting device doesn’t actually work, the Thanatos tree is merely a fiction invented by Andre (he only pretends to be poisoned) and, rather than vanishing into his contraption at the end, Tone is shot to death by Kassia. This alternate version was filmed simultaneously with “Forms” as the intended pilot for Stefano’s The Unknown, which he would also produce. ABC drew the line at letting Stefano direct, however, which resulted in a brouhaha that not only killed The Unknown as a viable series, but found both Stefano and executive producer Leslie Stevens (and, later, production executive/composer Dominic Frontiere) disassociated from The Outer Limits.*




I was able to acquire The Unknown version of “Forms” on a bootleg DVD-R from Finders Keepers LLC (which also includes the original Please Stand By pilot version of “The Galaxy Being”). The quality ranges from mediocre to fairly crappy, but it’s certainly watchable (and it’s sure as hell better than nothing). One minor concern: The Unknown’s run time is 46:34, several minutes shorter than “Forms” (I’m not sure why, since it’s fully produced with titles and end credits; it should be around 52 minutes, right?).

Here are The Unknown's opening titles and end credits:

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The following Unknown clips contain significant deviations from their “Forms” counterparts. Enjoy!

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There’s really no excuse for a historical curiosity like The Unknown to remain buried but, as anybody who owns the existing Outer Limits DVDs can tell you, MGM didn’t bother to include a single bonus feature. It’s only hope is to be included in a near-future Blu-ray set… so yeah, let’s all hold our collective fucking breath while we wait. 

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TEASE ME!

This week’s teaser is a variation on the scene in which Tone proudly shows off his time-tilting device to an apprehensive Leonora, who screams (of course) and runs for her life. The teaser employs a rapid-fire series of shots, presumably to mirror her frenetically-scattered brain; the actual scene simply has Tone opening the door, at which point she immediately screams (‘natch) and runs. The teaser runs 35 seconds, while the sequence within the episode runs a scant 22 seconds; I guess we can call the teaser an extended remix of sorts.

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AURAL PLEASURE



“The Forms of Things Unknown” and The Unknown share the same original score by Dominic Frontiere. It doesn’t quite feel like an Outer Limits score, which may be why La La Land Records chose not to include it in their three-disc soundtrack set. They did release it, however, paired with Frontiere’s score for A Name for Evil, a 1973 horror film which starred three-time TOL leading man Robert Culp. The CD is unfortunately out of print, so you’ll have to hit the secondary market if you want it (glad I scored my copy before it became scarce). The Unknown’s “Main Title” cue would resurface a few years later as the theme music for Quinn Martin’s The Invaders, which aired for two seasons on ABC (another QM Production, the aforementioned The Fugitive, frequently used Frontiere’s Outer Limits scores as stock music). The Invaders also used the tearing-paper design of The Unknown’s opening titles, and… well, here, see for yourself:

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DRAMATIS PERSONAE

The femme fatale Kassia Paine is well-played by Vera Miles in her only Outer Limits role; however, she has another tangential connection to the series: she guest-starred on an episode of I Spy (“Affair in T’Sien”), a series which starred the aforementioned Robert Culp. She also crossed over into The Twilight Zone in “Mirror Image” (a favorite of mine), and she still owes me a goddamned autograph (see here for the sad tale). She appeared on both Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Revenge”) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Don’t Look Behind You” and “Death Scene”), as well as the Hitchcock features The Wrong Man (1956) and Psycho (1960; she also reprised her role in the 1983 sequel). I first became aware of her thanks to her appearance on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in 1980 (“Flight of the War Witch”), and I’ve had a bit of a crush on her ever since.


Barbara Rush (the shrill and fragile Leonora Edmond) would return to The Outer Limits (sort of) in the “Balance of Nature” episode of Showtime’s revival series in 1998. Before that, genre fans may have been her in the “Cool Air” episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery in 1971. She also appeared in glorious 3D in 1953’s It Came from Outer Space. Because of her incessant screaming and questionable acting skills, I’ll never be a fan (again, my head is still ringing thanks to her).


If Scott Marlowe (Andre Pavan) looks familiar, it’s because we last saw him banging the breathtakingly luscious Barbara Luna  in December’s “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork,” a gig he likely scored because of his prior work for Daystar Productions (the “Point of Honor” episode of their pre-TOL series Stoney Burke, an episode which also guest-starred TOL alum Bruce Dern). Marlowe’s other genre credits include appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The Throwback”), Alcoa Presents One Step Beyond (“The Gift”), and Boris Karloff’s Thriller (“The Premature Burial”). More recently, he appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Ensign Ro” in 1991).


David McCallum (Tone Hobart) is already an Outer Limits icon thanks to his marvelous portrayal of the super-evolved Gwyllm Griffiths in “The Sixth Finger.” Like the aforementioned Barbara Rush, he popped up on Showtime’s Outer Limits revival series (1997’s “Feasibility Study”); speaking of revival series, he appeared in the “Murder Party” episode of NBC’s revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1988. He crossed paths with Rod Serling in “The Phantom Farmhouse” on Night Gallery in 1971. Modern viewers no doubt enjoy him on N.C.I.S., which is currently in its 12th (!) season.


Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s turn as Colas is the penultimate performance in his long, quite impressive career. In 1963, he played the titular character in Twilight Zone’s “Uncle Simon.” He appeared twice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Wet Saturday” and “A Man Greatly Beloved”); he also had roles in the Hitchcock features Suspicion (1941) and Rope (1948). He enjoyed prominent roles in genre classics like RKO’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), The Invisible Man Returns (1940), Invisible Agent (1942) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) His distinctive voice provided narration for the 1945 horror classic The Picture of Dorian Gray; he could also be heard providing commentary in 1953’s H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (which was directed by TOL alum Byron Haskin and the cast of which includes two actors from last week’s “The Chameleon”).


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HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“The Forms of Things Unknown” was one of the earliest episodes to hit VHS when the series came to home video (I vividly remember buying it the same day I picked up “Demon with a Glass Hand” and “The Inheritors”). These early releases are easy to identify because MGM employed some fairly obnoxious visual effects for the box covers, presumably to simulate a vintage TV screen’s rolling picture (on “Forms” and “Demon,” anyway; I don’t know what the hell they were simulating on “The Inheritors”... maybe the horrendous cutting they did to it when they combined the two parts into one faux feature-length episode?).




Columbia House also scheduled "Forms" early on in their mail order club series (it shared the fifth volume with “The Man with the Power”).


LaserDisc collectors would’ve found “The Forms of Things Unknown” on the second LD collection, released in 1992, which contained brilliant episodes like “Nightmare” and “The Man Who Was Never Born” alongside bottom-of-the-barrel crap like “The Brain of Colonel Barham” and “The Probe.” Of the four LD collections, this one’s by far the most schizophrenic in that respect.


The episode has shown up on DVD three different times: 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 (which is just the three 2007 volumes combined into one box).


I have no doubt that “The Forms of Things Unknown” would look stunning in high definition, but apparently MGM doesn’t give a fuck. That’s why I have no qualms about telling new fans NOT to buy the DVDs; rather, stream all 49 episodes for free thanks to Hulu. I’m sure my attempts to undermine MGM’s bottom line won’t faze them in the least, but I’ll continue undaunted.
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TRADING CARD CORNER

Topps and Rittenhouse ignored “The Forms of Things Unknown” when choosing episodes for their respective trading card offerings; fortunately, DuoCards stepped in and saved the day with two cards (one for “Forms” and one for The Unknown) in their 1997 series.



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MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT

Since the episode features no aliens, monsters or mutants, it doesn’t really lend itself to action figures or model kits; therefore, not a single collectible exists for this episode (not even a commemorative pair of “fine stiletto heels,” dammit). A deluxe model kit of Tone and his time-tilting device would be stellar, but I think Dimensional Designs has all but given up creating new Outer Limits kits.

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THE WRAP-UP

It’s sadly fitting that this episode aired as the final episode of the series’ first and best season, since its troubled production was the catalyst for the departure of series creator/executive producer Leslie Stevens, producer Joe Stefano, and composer Dominic Frontiere. The series as we know and love it ends right here. ABC would ultimately renew the series for the 1964-65 season (and subsequently cancel it halfway through), but it wouldn’t be the same… “it” in this case representing not just The Outer Limits, but sci-fi television in general. Fifty years later, it still isn’t.


And now…. commence summer break! Our coverage of the series’ 50th anniversary will resume on 9/19, when “Soldier” will open the second season. That’s four-and-a-half months away… whatever shall we do in the meantime? Next week I’ll run down the summer repeat schedule, but beyond that…. well, I’m not promising much. I do want to highlight a few items (my Gwyllm Griffiths and Ebonite Interrogator action figures, the short-lived Dell comic book series, etc.), but it’ll be pretty quiet around here for the most part. Behind the scenes, I’m hoping to update the earlier episode spotlights to match the current format (bigger pictures, cosmetic adjustments, etc.) for uniformity’s sake (I’ve already done it with “Corpus Earthling”). I’ll also start working on the season two episode spotlights early, to give myself a bit of cushion with regards to those pesky deadlines (believe me, this blog takes up way more time than you’d probably think).





* This is a gross oversimplification of the situation. The full story can be found in David J. Schow’s essential Outer Limits Companion… which you all already have, right? If you don’t, click here for the relevant pages (you’ll need to scroll down a bit).