Destruct that ship, General!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Wolf 359" (11/07/1964)




“Wolf 359”
Season 2, Episode 8 (40 overall)
Originally aired 11/07/1964


Fifty years ago tonight, a determined scientist cloned an entire planet and still had time for cocktails, steaks and sex. Damn, this cat is sci-fi's answer to James Bond.


Doctor Jonathan Meridith has constructed a complete replica--- in extreme miniature--- of a distant planet in the Wolf 359 system (hence the title) and, since billionaire tycoon Philip Exeter Dundee (no relation to the Exeter of This Island Earth as far as I know) is funding the project, the mini-planet is christened “Dundee Planet.” Time passes at a profoundly accelerated rate inside the hermetically-sealed room which houses the planet, thanks to the planet’s diminished scale, allowing Meridith to witness environmental changes over the centuries, and to determine if the actual planet might be safe to visit or even colonize. When Dundee asks if it’s possible that “animate life” might develop, Meridith coyly repliesthat he “wouldn’t dream of anything like that.” However, the smile on his face clearly indicates that he’s hoping for that very thing, and his introduction of human DNA into the planet’s ecosystem proves his ambition.


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The experiment works, and a miniature human race develops and rapidly evolves, its history paralleling that of the earth. Unfortunately, something else develops as well: an evil phantom creature which is able to transcend Dundee Planet and can leave the greenhouse room at will, killing anything it comes into contact with.



Meridith becomes aware of the creature’s lethality and takes it upon himself to complete the research alone, sending his wife Ethel to stay elsewhere and firing his assistant Peter to protect them. He witnesses his tiny offspring gradually succumbing to the pervasive influence of the entity until, consumed with hatred, they bomb themselves out of existence. The phantom then turns its deadly attentions to Meridith.




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Ethel arrives, having experienced a premonition of sorts that Meridith is in trouble. As the entity chokes the life out of him, he begs her to destroy the planet, which she does by hurling a chair through the protective glass of the greenhouse. The miniature planet’s atmosphere dissipates and the creature vanishes.



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RANDOMONIUM

“Wolf 359” began life as “Greenhouse,” a story treatment by Richard Landau (probably best known to genre fans for co-scripting the 1955 cult classic The Quatermass Xperiment), and was crystallized into script form by associate producer/story editor Seeleg Lester. The five-pronged cast evokes Joseph Stefano’s scripts of season one, particularly “The Bellero Shield” and “The Forms of Things Unknown,” both of which are populated by quintets. While “Wolf 359” doesn’t quite attain the theatricality (or the audacious brilliance) of those earlier efforts, it’s still a nice subliminal throwback. And with its meditation on human/alien evolution, it evokes season one’s “The Sixth Finger” as well. The core idea--- a miniature model of an alien planet spawning a demonic entity--- is one of season two’s more interesting concepts, something the season one gang might've exploited much better... but that's not to say that the episode as is is a failure by any means.


“Wolf 359” is directed by Laslo Benedek (who also helmed five Stoney Burkes as well as “The Man with the Power” and “Tourist Attraction,” both in season one). Much of season two is brightly lit and relatively flat, so it's a welcome surprise that this week's offering has much to offer in the way of atmosphere and shadows (it feels a bit like season one at times, particular during Ethel's late-night stroll around the house). There's a nice sense of space throughout; ample time is allowed for characters to simply react with silent dread to the impossibility of the ghostlike creature hovering before their eyes, effecting a creepy vibe that never feels like unnecessary padding. Director of Photography Kenneth Peach contributes an awesome first-person POV shot approaching--- and then looking through--- the periscopic viewfinder at Dundee Planet and it's resident cranky critter, which is generally referred to as the Plag Creature, even though it's never called that in the episode.

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The barbecue scene in act one looks like an outtake from a Mad Men episode. We got the men discoursing about bourbon and martinis while Meridith’s wife just sits there looking pretty and doling out canapés (and enduring the thinly-veiled come-ons from her husband’s boss). Speaking of come-ons, what’s with the overlong shot of the Meridiths in bed, stroking one another’s hands in the dark? It’s gotta be an implied sex thing, only a lot more subtle than the customary train going through a tunnel shot.

On a related note, was anyone else driven to distraction by that phallic cactus on the Meridiths’ porch (time stamp 29:38)?

Insert (har har) dick joke here.


It gets worse (or sexier, depending on your level of sexual deviance): we learn that Meridith uses human DNA, presumably his own, to spark the emergence of sentient life on Dundee Planet. I’m reminded of that wicked and wacky Doctor Pretorius from 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, who successfully grew miniature people (his beloved homunculi) using his own “seed.” We unfortunately aren't privy to the specific details behind Meridith’s injecting of his genetic material into the planet, but I’m envisioning a cocktail-heavy Saturday night in which he forwent his comely wife’s advances and instead stuck his, um, phallic cactus into that hot, curvy little planet in his lab.


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Oh hell, there are guinea pigs in the lab! As soon as I saw them, I just knew they were gonna die…. Just like those bunnies in “Specimen: Unknown” last season. Oh shit, the ant colony too? Too bad Henry Mancini didn’t score this episode (get it? Please tell me you get it). And holy fuck, now the parakeet’s dead? Y’now, this whole thing is starting to feel like a variation on Shelley’s Frankenstein, with its lab-created monster rampaging around and slaughtering folks. Wait, it kills a fucking tree too? This is nothing short of a bona fide massacre! It’s really a shame that this episode wasn’t ready to go a week earlier... between its devil-like antagonist and overall spooky atmosphere, it has Halloween written all over it.  Plus, c’mon…. that Plag Creature looks a lot like a ghost, don’tcha think?

 Good grief! Sally's head looks a helluva lot like the Plag, which opens up a whole different Pandora's Box of weirdness.


Science types are probably aware that Wolf 359 is a red dwarf star in the constellation Leo (it's that little orange dot in the middle of the picture at right; thanks, Wikipedia!). Sci-fi nerds like me, meanwhile, know it best as the location of The Borg’s massacre of the Federation fleet in “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2” on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The aftermath of the battle at Wolf 359. This isn't actually an image from the show... but it's way neater than anything I could've possibly screen-capped from the blurry version Netflix has to offer.




“Wolf 359” was parodied on The Simpsons in 1996 in Treehouse of Horror VII (the “Genesis Tub” segment). Lisa Simpson unwittingly grows a colony of miniature people after her extracted tooth is charged with electricity. She observes them evolving at an accelerated rate and is revered as their benevolent God. In a nice twist, they regard her obnoxious brother Bart as the devil.



The Plag Creature is one of the subtlest, most minimalist “bears” in the entire series (even less complex than that light-up Christmas tree-topper Eck), but somehow its simplicity serves to enhance its malevolence; it’s as if  possessing less detail streamlines the evil that emanates from it. It’s like a spectral Terminator: “It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” But it is really simple… so simple, in fact, that I’ll bet a talentless oaf like me could make his own. That’s right, kids, it’s time for another installment of Project Limited, Ltd.!


My first inclination was to somehow pull this off using Kleenex tissues and a lollipop, but it was just too damned small. Here's what I used instead:


His dork materials:
gloves, balloons, chopstick. Sharpie and Scotch tape not pictured.

To quote Dr. Finkelstein from The Nightmare before Christmas: “(It’s) construction should be exceedingly simple.” But was it? More importantly, did it turn out okay? See for yourself: ladies and gentlemen, I give you--- His Satanic Majesty!






I cribbed Meridith’s climatic showdown with the Plag Creature for The Adventures of Can’t-Miss Craig, a collection of short films I made way back in 1992. The premise involved a guy (played by me; I worked cheap) who experiences a crisis of faith and challenges God to prove his existence by helping him sink difficult basketball shots (this was back in my Christian days, before I became enlightened--- and essentially agnostic if not downright atheist). He then finds himself cursed with the inability to miss a shot, no matter how impossible (the moral: don't challenge The Lord thy God, lest thou be ever afflicted. Subtle, eh?). The concept mutates throughout the shorts until the ball itself emerges as a sentient nemesis. One Halloween night, our unfortunate hero finally snaps and murders the ball with a butcher’s knife… only to be haunted by a hysterically stupid in-camera effect intended to represent the ball’s ghost. Have a look:


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DEJA VIEW


Judging by the photographic evidence, it appears that the miniature Dundee Planet is a combination of the Mars from “The Invisible Enemy” and the future Earth of “Soldier.” The use of the Martian Sand Shark is an interesting choice in particular, given the fact that Lester’s original script (and maybe Landau’s initial story treatment too, I dunno) dealt with a miniature duplicate of… yep, you guessed it, Mars.

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GRILL OR BE GRILLED

Ye olde pastime of barbecuing animal flesh, first glimpsed in “Cold Hands, Warm Heart” last month, is depicted again this week, gloriously so: a gorgeous closeup of sizzling steaks on the grill opens act one. I’m a sucker for a good steak, so my mouth instinctively began watering when I saw it (it’s watering again as I type this, in fact). Summer’s long gone, but I’m a staunch supporter of year-round grilling, so some medium-rare cowboy ribeyes may be on the menu very soon….

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AURAL PLEASURE

Harry Lubin’s contributions this week include a lovely cue called “Celestial Bodies,” which sounds vaguely similar to his familiar end title music (“Supernatural"; also heard during the episode this week), chilled out and augmented with wordless female vocals (think Alexander Courage’s Star Trek theme, which was still a couple of years off in 1964). Other Lubin pieces underlining “Wolf 359” include “Mental Anguish” (also heard in “Soldier”), “Hostile Galaxy” (accompanying the Control Voice prologue intro), “Hostile Space” and “Evil Apparition.”

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DRAMATIS PERSONAE

This week’s cast all have something in common (besides their appearing together here): all appeared on at least one of Alfred Hitchcock’s television series. Cue Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette and read on.


Jonathan Meridith is played by Patrick O’Neal, whose genre credentials include two run-ins with Rod Serling (“A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain” on The Twilight Zone and “A Fear of Spiders” on Night Gallery). O’Neal also showed up on Alcoa Presents One Step Beyond (“The Return of Mitchell Campion”) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Bed of Roses”).





Sara Shane (Ethel Meridith) has very few genre credits, and all of them came at the very end of her career. She popped up on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The Old Pro”), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Captive Audience”) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (“Long Live the King,” which guest-starred TOL alum Carroll O'Connor and was her final acting gig). She’s now known as Elaine Hollingsworth, controversial holistic medicine proponent and Director of the Hippocrates Health Centre in Queensland, Australia. And yes, she’s definitely a TOL Babe (she still looks pretty damn good at 86).




If Ben Wright (Phillip Exeter Dundee) looks familiar, it’s because he’s already visited The Outer Limits three times  before (“Nightmare,” plus he did voice work on “Moonstone” and “A Feasibility Study”). He first blipped on Daystar Productions' radar when he scored a gig on their pre-TOL series Stoney Burke (“Point of Entry”). Other genre credits of note include three appearances on The Twilight Zone ("Judgment Night," "Death's-Head Revisited" and "Dead Man's Shoes"), three on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“A Home Away from Home,” “Murder Case” and “Thou Still Unravished Bride”), and one-offs on The Fugitive (“Nobody Loses All the Time”) and The Invaders (“Summit Meeting: Part 1”).





Peter Jelicoe is played by Peter Haskell, whose other genre credits include roles on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (“The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair”), The Fugitive (“Runner in the Dark”), Land of the Giants (“Return of Inidu”), and The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The Canary Sedan” in 1986). Fans of cheesy horror film sequels may recognize him as the assholish Mr. Sullivan, CEO of Play Pals Toy Company, in both Child’s Play 2 (1990) and Child’s Play 3 (1991).


Dabney Coleman turns in his third and final Outer Limits performance as James Custer (you can spot him in “The Mice” and “Specimen: Unknown,” both from season one).  Coleman’s other genre work includes an impressive four stints on The Fugitive (“World’s End,” “Nicest Fella You’d Ever Want to Meet,” “Coralee” and “Approach with Care”), two on The Invaders (“The Innocent” and “The Saucer”), and two on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Dear Uncle George” and “Isabel”).



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HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“Wolf 359” was released on VHS in 1991 (one of the final dozen Outer Limits episodes to hit home video) and sported a classy, understated cover. As with many of these tape boxes, the cover image was a collage of multiple images from the episode, in this case these two:

For its inclusion in Columbia House’s mail-order Collector’s Edition club, it shared tape space with “Cry of Silence,” which made for a dry n' dusty desert double feature.


I have a love-hate relationship with MGM Home Video, and here’s why: they released the entire series on DVD (season one in 2002, season two in 2003), which is awesome since one could replace his/her 48-volume VHS collection with higher-quality versions for a fraction of the cost (SRP was $12.95 per tape, and each DVD set was around $50.00, so… you do the math, I’m busy typing), saving large amounts of shelf space in the process. What’s not so awesome is the fact that they used double-sided DVDs, which have proven immensely unreliable (even prone to failure) over time. They then re-released the series in 2007, split up into three volumes, which would’ve been awesome if they’d used single-sided discs… but they didn’t. That’s right, kids, they foisted the same unreliable double-sided discs onto an unsuspecting public. A mere year later, they collected those three volumes into one omnibus collection, still using the same accursed discs. This means that they’ve been selling the same exact discs for twelve freakin’ years, and there’s no indication that they’ll ever remaster the series in high-definition for a Blu-ray release. So I guess my relationship with MGM is more hate than love.



If you’re a relatively new fan, or a longtime fan who never bought the series, and you’re considering seeking out the series on DVD, stop right there. Why would you give MGM any of your hard-earned cash? You all have computers, and you all have an internet connection (obviously, since you’re reading this blog), so point your browser of choice (I prefer Google Chrome, personally) to Hulu, where you can stream all 49 episodes of the series absolutely free. Too good to be true, you say? Perhaps… or maybe it’s the universe making up for MGM’s bullshit.

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MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT


Models are usually more impressive if they’re packed with intricate detail; however, sometimes simplicity and clean lines can yield something compelling and beautiful. Case in point: Dimensional Designs’ 1/8-scale resin Plag Creature model kit (DD/OL/PC-27), an elegant and graceful sculpt by Chris Choin. Obviously there’s no assembly required, and for all I know the thing is already white out of the box, but damn is it ever gorgeous. Here’s Mr. Enamel’s completed specimen, which is just plain breathtaking:


If I ever get around to collecting some of these (which will require me to employ someone with finesse, patience and artistic ability to do the painting), the Plag Creature is definitely on my short list of must-haves. If you’d like your own Plag Creature, be prepared to pony up $49.95 plus shipping.

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THE WRAP-UP
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“Wolf 359” is one of season two’s better offerings (I’d probably put it in my top five). The premise is intriguing, the effects are well done (that foggy planet behind the glass really adds to the production value), the acting is uniformly good… and yes, the steaks are grilled to perfection. Delicioso!  








Oh, and speaking of delicioso.... here are a couple of modeling shots I found online of the breathtaking and exquisite Sara Shane. Le sigh.



11 comments:

  1. 1. Another nice review, Craig! "Wolf 359" is rarely mentioned when people are discussing the better second season episodes; while it may not be a classic like "Soldier", "Demon with a Glass Hand" or "The Inheritors", it's certainly above average for Brady, Lester and company.

    2. Somewhere, I have a umpteenth-generation VHS dub of this episode with the original 1964 commercials. Viewers were invited to "come alive" with "the Pepsi generation", presumably when they weren't boozing it up like Meridith and his friends.

    3. On Dabney Coleman's sci-fi credits: What, no love for War Games?

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  2. I never really thought of War Games as sci-fi, but I can see how it sorta overlaps its way into the genre.

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  3. I had to laugh when Plag attacked Meredith in the bedroom. He was laying on his back on the bed. He looked like a dog wanting his belly rubbed. Hahaha.

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  4. Your _Man from U.N.C.L.E._ reference reminded me of the episode, "The Project Strigas Affair," which featured Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner and Werner Klemperer (Col. Klink). A truly bizarre combination of actors.

    Lurker111

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  5. Top 5 Season 2/ Much better the second time I saw it in 1966. When I saw it originally in 1964 I was still pissed off that the show was on Saturday instead of Monday. I was pissed off the music was not Frontiere's and I was pissed off the "monster" was a fucking rubber glove. When it went into syndication it was on 4PM on...well...Saturday. Of course my whole Saturday was built around the show even though I was still pissed off the original show was cancelled. I had anger issues then.

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  6. Further comment: I thought the miniature-planet idea had enough potential on its own. I also thought introducing the planetary ghost was a devil-ex-machina thing that never rung true. It seemed to be an excuse to never develop the issues of my next paragraph:

    Viz., what about the cosmology of the inhabitants of the planet? Do they see a sun that rises and sets? What about the stars? Are there other "planets" wandering across their skies? These would be interesting questions to address.

    Lurker111

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    1. That's a great question (one that I humbly admit never occurred to me)... the miniature planet doesn't turn. Hmmm.

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    2. Here's a link to a Wikipedia article about a similar story:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microcosmic_God

      by Theodore Sturgeon, of course.

      Lurker111

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  7. I like Wolf 359 but am frustrated by the shortcomings of it. The Dundee Planet is literally under the microscope of Jonathan Meridith, a scientist played unconvincingly by oddball Patrick O'Neal. I don't like O'Neal in this role or many other roles for that matter. He never relays the required intensity of a man obsessed with witnessing an evolving and soon-to-be future Earth. I like the idea of the story but the cast never sells it, and the Plag is a mostly embarrassing hand...actually two-handed puppet. I think the story is most disappointing in its lack of ability to demonstrate the stages of evolution on Dundee Planet. Discovering the unknown is one of the key ingredients in pleasing a discriminating Sci-Fi fan. All we get from this is a recycled picture of the sand shark from "The Invisible Enemy" episode which had been broadcast just three weeks earlier. This one climbs no higher than a middle of the pack Season 2 episode for me.

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  8. What does this remind you of?

    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2015/01/new-image-reveals-mysterious-mouth-of-the-beast-nebula-1300-light-years-from-earth/

    I don't know how long articles on Raw Story stay up, but I think they're good for a while. Enjoy.

    Lurker111

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  9. One of the better season 2 eps. The music even works for me. The hand puppet, well, I try to suspend my disbelief, and for the most part I can. Not a bad episode.

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