Destruct that ship, General!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Counterweight" (12/26/1964)



“Counterweight”
Season 2, Episode 14 (46 overall)
Originally aired 12/26/1964




WEBLOR ONE PASSENGER ROLL CALL!


Top row, from left:
Alicia "Hands Off" Hendrix (sexually-repressed anthropologist)
Joe "Six-Pack" Dix (working class engineer)
Keith "Horse Teeth" Ellis (roving reporter/default hero-type)

Bottom row, from left:
Henry “The Mole” Craif (ecologist/really good listener)
Michael "Green Thumb" Lint (plant-obsessed botanist)
Matthew "Dr. Feelbad" James (physician/grieving widower/bed-wetter)

This wildly disparate group is participating in a 261-day isolation test to determine whether or not they can withstand the rigors of an extended trip to the planet Antheon. Coexisting in a mock-up of the actual space craft, they are waited on by Maggie, a glorified stewardess, and supervised via remote camera by Captain Branson. There’s a panic button on board that, if pressed, ends the experiment and makes all six ineligible for the real trip. Tensions start up almost immediately, thanks mostly to the loud, boorish behavior of construction man Joe Dix, who plans to strike it rich by monopolizing the construction of human cities on the alien planet.

While the passengers sleep on the second night, a squiggly lightning streak entity visits their compartments and reads their minds. It attempts to strangle Dix, prompting him to suspect his fellow passengers of trying to kill him. Doctor James, who recently lost his family under tragic circumstances, discovers his late daughter’s doll in his bed, which sends him over the edge.


Several months later, the passengers are treading heavily on one another’s last remaining nerves. Ellis and Dix nearly come to blows, but are interrupted by a chance oxygen failure which temporarily knocks everyone unconscious. Botanist Lint goes to check on his plants, and is horrified to watch one of them come to life and strangle its closest neighbor. He drops dead of shock, prompting Craif to make a play for the panic button. Dix stops him, threatening death to anyone who pushes it. Captain Branson intercedes with a revolver, at which point Craif tries to diffuse the situation by confessing that he is in fact the experiment’s control person. He shows the group a hidden panel of buttons that he’s been using to cause artificial meteor showers, power fluctuations, and other annoyances designed to test the participants' ability to deal with the unexpected.


Dix wrestles the gun from Branson and jealously protects the panic button. Lint’s plant climbs out of the botany compartment and, after the lightning streak entity enters it, grows to over six feet tall. A terrified Dix empties the revolver into it, which has no effect. The plant creature addresses the group as a representative from Antheon and demands that Earth keeps its grubby mitts off their planet… or face dire consequences. Lint wakes up, apparently having been misdiagnosed as dead, and heads for the panic button at Craif’s prodding. Dix moves to intercept him, but is stopped by the Antheon Creature… who forces him to push the button.

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RANDOMONIUM


“Counterweight,” which turns 50 years old tonight, began life as a 1959 short story by Jerry Sohl (who also wrote the base story for “The Invisible Enemy”), first published in If: Worlds of Science Fiction Magazine and later anthologized in 2003 in Filet of Sohl, a posthumous short story collection (which I bought for research purposes in preparation for this very entry; it also contains “The Invisible Enemy,” so I probably should’ve bought it sooner). The brief tale centers on a large-scale (1,000 passengers plus crew) flight to Antheon, during which a terrorist called Red Mask stirs up trouble in order to give the passengers a common enemy, which successfully prevents the group from coming completely unglued and massacring one another during the long voyage. Milton Krims adapted it for The Outer Limits (as he did with Stephen Lord’s “Keeper of the Purple Twilight”), retaining a few basic story elements but narrowing the focus considerably and boiling the group down to six (eight counting the crew). In all honesty, the two are so different that direct comparison isn’t terribly useful.  Perhaps it’s better to ask, simply, which is better? We’ll come back to that question.


“Counterweight” is directed by Paul Stanley and lensed by Director of Photography Kenneth Peach, both of whom served in the same capacity in “Second Chance” and “The Guests” in season one. The whole thing takes place on one set; consequently, there’s nothing terribly interesting as far as staging goes. It feels a bit like a stage play at times. Peach does provide a couple of interesting shots (discussed below), but the real star is the stop-motion animated Antheon Creature which, happily, gets adequate screen time once it joins the cast late in act three.

I should mention that I hadn’t seen “Counterweight” in well over twenty years before just a few days ago, so my memory of it was slight at best.  As I watched in alternating stunned silence and chuckling disbelief, I recorded my thoughts on my iPhone for later transcribing. I’m a big fan of stream of consciousness narratives, so I’m going to present said thoughts with as little editing as possible, which means I’ll be hitting things more or less chronologically with the episode. It also means my thoughts will likely be even more scattered than usual (blame it on my ADD).


That little montage that opens the episode, with all those celestial bodies, is just gorgeous. The series tends to reuse its space shots, but I don’t remember seeing this one before. The stock shot of a spaceship in flight is a bit misleading, since we naturally assume that this is the ship that our characters are aboard (before we discover that they’re only in a simulation). Like the ship that book-ended season one’s “Controlled Experiment,” it’s completely superfluous and contradicts the actual events that unfold.



So we have a group of people stuck together in a confined faux spaceship, which “Second Chance” already gave us in season one, meaning that this is basically another rehash of Twelve Angry Men. People forced to exist with one another in close quarters reveals humanity’s baser nature, blah blah blah. The “Second Chance” ship was an amusement park ride retrofitted to actually travel in space; this ship is a fake from start to finish. Both contain alien presences with opposing missions: the Empyrian wants humans to leave Earth to provide assistance, while the Antheon just wants them to stay on Earth where they belong. In any case, the "Second Chance" fake ship is way cooler than the cramped, unimaginative simulated ship here. We don't really need more examples of season two's inferiority to season one, but should we ever find ourselves wanting more... well, look here:



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Our first look at the odd plant in Lint’s botany cabinet is accompanied by an ominous musical stab, which of course will make sense later. In retrospect, it’s a bit heavy handed. But that's not all that's wrong.... the very first shot we see of the curly-Q critter is more slender and angled than it is in every other shot of it throughout the episode. Continuity be damned!

And hell, we might as well just throw out racial sensitivity along with it. While Dix is regaling the group with his plans to exploit Antheon, Dr. Hendrix brings up the possibility of "Injuns" getting in his way (swear to god, that's what she calls them*), Dix replies with the following colorful (no pun intended) sentiment: "They go! You can't let savages stop the progress of civilization." Cringe. The only saving grace of this bit is the sight of Maggie just straight up glaring at the back of his head (below). A bit later, when Dix wonders if his snoring is a legitimate reason for someone to murder him, everyone walks away from him without saying a word. Priceless.


Despite his obvious racism and overall crudeness, Dix reels off some pretty fascinating meta-ish thoughts mere moments later. He explains that movie heroes aren’t afraid of danger because they’re aware that “it’s just a movie”; a few moments later, act one fades out on him looking straight at the camera and muttering “Oh, what an act.” Now of course he means the captain’s behavior, but it also feels like a backdoor subliminal reference to the eleven minutes we’ve just watched. It’s like he knows it sucks.



Act two opens with a surprising bit of camera work: we pan across the characters from underneath the glass table at which they are seated. This is highly reminiscent of a similar shot in the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “Third from the Sun” and, while I appreciate the effort, it doesn’t really match anything else in the episode.


As the passengers sleep, the lightning streak entity enters into their heads and reads their minds (a simple but neat effect in which light is projected through a cut-out and moved around; you can easily replicate this at home should you want to reenact this episode… but God, why would you?). Rather than employing simple voiceovers, however, the characters speak their thoughts aloud… an odd choice. The thin burn around Dix’s neck is exactly what you’d get with a garrote, not a jagged lightning streak. It disappears while Doc James traces it with his finger, which gives the impression that he’s somehow erasing it. Talk about a healing touch! I want this guy next time I burn myself taking something out of the goddamned oven.

Immediately after asking Doc Hendricks to leave his room, presumably because she’s just given the grieving widower his first post-funeral boner, Doc James finds his late daughter’s doll in his bed. It was precisely at this point that I asked that ageless question, aloud for all to hear: WHAT THE FUCK? That doll looks seriously pissed (is it maybe a knockoff Talky Tina?). And why is its face smooshed in? Doc James lost his family under unclarified circumstances in which he was unable to save them, and his daughter had the doll in her possession when it happened... so maybe it was a car accident, and he was the driver? Shit, was the doll’s face crushed in the wreck? We’re never told. We’re also never told how the doll got on board at all, unless the Antheon lightning streak can create or transmute matter. I guess it’s also possible that Doc James is even more deranged over losing his family than we’re led to believe, and his Tyler Durden personality brought the doll just to screw with him.


The impossible doll incident happens on day two of the simulated flight. Fast forward to day 169, and Doc James is still wandering around in a stupor holding the goddamned doll. Almost six months later.  Professor Craif advises him against depression, which represents some seriously lacking diagnosing skills on his part. The good doctor is clearly veering dangerously close to Crazytown.

Oooh, groovy hi-fi. This is probably the only space ship--- real or, as in this case, simulated--- ever seen in film and TV with a built-in turntable… at least that I’m aware of. I imagine y’all will let me know if there are other vinyl-friendly rockets that have escaped my notice. I’m a bit of a record junkie, truth be told. My office is equipped with a record player, but the closest I get to space is spinning Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon by candlelight.


Doc Hendricks has experienced a sexual awakening and now demands to be referred to as Alicia, The Hot And Bothered. Doc James isn’t interested since he’s a chronic sufferer of MED (Mourner’s Erectile Dysfunction), but what about the other guys? 169 days in confinement, and none of ‘em jumps at the chance to get all up in Alicia’s lady business? I call bullshit. Yeah, her desperate behavior is awkward as hell and unintentionally hularious, and she’s nowhere near as hot as Maggie, but I’d probably still hit that. Yeah, I said it, and I’m not even worried about potential fallout from my wife, since she never reads my blogs.




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Ray Harryhausen fans rejoice! The Antheon Creature represents the second and final time stop motion animation was used on The Outer Limits (those wonderful “Zanti Misfits” were the first)… and despite its brevity, it’s glorious to behold. However, its appearance just confuses matters: once it grows larger and leaves the botany closet, the lightning streak shows up and enters it, causing it to grow even larger and start talking. So… what made it grow larger to begin with? And what prompted it to attack the plant next to it? I get that the Antheon hates humans, but what did that poor thing ever do to it? What a dick.

Plant lover Mike Lint spies the newly-anthropomorphized plant strangling its neighbor and promptly drops dead of fright, his face a frozen mask of terror (remember Stu’s postmortem mug in “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork”?). It’s interesting to note that the actor playing Lint, Charles Radilac, had a bit part in William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus just a few years earlier, a film about a man whose face is similarly frozen.

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Okay, so shit’s clearly going to hell at this point. There’s a gun changing hands, the bomb gets dropped that the trip is fucking rigged, humanity gets another slap on the wrist from a cranky, superior alien, and the panic button finally gets pressed. Oh, and Lint isn’t dead after all, which suggests that Doc James isn’t the know-it-all physician he’s assumed to be (I dunno, he’s probably a podiatrist or some shit). There’s nothing here even approximating a satisfying resolution, unless you find the act of ending this train wreck satisfying enough… which you certainly can’t be faulted for. But goddamn, despite all the lousy writing and unlikable, half-baked characters the episode subjects us to, that Antheon is just plain wonderful: a beautiful creature design, unlike anything we’ve seen before, with glowering, glowing eyes (and fangs!) and that booming authoritative voice… pure awesomeness, baby. I don’t imagine the full-size puppet (used after it outgrows the botany closet) still exists, but it would look awfully cool occupying a corner in my office. It would also make one helluva Halloween costume…




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The holographic chess game between Chewbacca and R2-D2 in 1977’s Star Wars features a veritable menagerie of creatures, all stop-motion animated. One in particular looks quite a bit like our Antheon, wouldn’t you say?

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AURAL PLEASURE

As with all season two episodes, Harry Lubin dips into his extensive library of stock music from One Step Beyond to provide the underscore for “Counterweight.” We’ve heard much of this music in previous episodes, including “Celestial Bodies” (used in “Wolf 359”) and “Supernatural Planet” (used in “Cold Hands, Warm Heart”). Another cue, “Haunted Cry,” seems very familiar, but I can’t place it.


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DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Now this is odd. Each of the players receives an individual credit at the end of the episode, right before the actual end titles commence. The credits (which are comprised of two cards for each; the character name and the actor’s name) are superimposed over a scene in which each passenger checks in with stewardess Maggie, who dutifully marks them off on her clipboard (this was presumably originally intended as the opening scene of the episode). Their mouths are almost constantly moving, so there’s clearly lots of dialogue happening, but the only audio heard is a Lubin cue (any professional lip-readers out there willing to transcribe this scene for me?).

Jacqueline Scott (Dr. Alicia Hendrix) is a TOL vet from the very beginning: she played Allen Maxwell’s bitchy wife Carol in “The Galaxy Being” (she wasn’t quite a ball-buster, though; maybe ball-squeezer?). Daystar Production first utilized her services in “The Wanderer” on their pre-TOL series Stoney Burke. Genre fans are sure to recognize her from her work on The Twilight Zone (“The Parallel”), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Terror at Northfield”), Mission: Impossible (“Homecoming”), and TV’s Planet of the Apes (“The Good Seeds” and “Kira”). She also enjoyed a recurring role as Donna Kimble Taft, The Fugitive’s sister, throughout that series’ four-year run. On the big screen, she can be found in Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) and Empire of the Ants (1977). She doesn’t look particularly alluring here, but she’s still a TOL Babe based on her other work.


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Michael Constantine (Joe Dix) has quite an impressive set of genre credits to his name. He appeared on The Twilight Zone (“I Am the Night – Color Me Black”), The Fugitive (“Everybody Gets Hit in the Mouth Sometimes,” “A Taste of Tomorrow,” and “The Judgment, Part 1”), The Invaders (“The Possessed”), Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (“The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes”), and the short-lived 80’s series Darkroom (“Guillotine”). He also appeared twice on I Spy (“A Gift from Alexander” and “Sparrowhawk”), landing him a double Robert Culp connection.

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Larry Ward (Keith Ellis) also enjoys a Robert Culp connection on his résumé due to his participation in the I Spy episode “A Day Called 4 Jaguar.” Ward can also be spotted on The Fugitive (“When the Wind Blows”), The Invaders (“The Condemned”), Lost in Space (“All that Glitters”), The Time Tunnel (“One Way to the Moon”) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (“Flight of the War Witch”). And no, before you ask, I don’t really consider Lost in Space to be legitimate sci-fi (it’s more like a space adventure comedy, which isn’t a blend I find particularly appealing).

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Not to be outdone, Sandy Kenyon (Professor Henry Craif) has a Robert Culp connection as well, thanks to his appearance on I Spy (“Casanova from Canarsie”). He’s also a Twilight Zone three-timer (“The Odyssey of Flight 33,” “The Shelter” and “Valley of the Shadow”) and a twice-decorated Fugitive veteran (“Angels Travel on Lonely Roads, Parts 1 and 2” and “Corner of Hell”); his one-offs include The Invaders (“The Saucer”), Boris Karloff’s Thriller (“The Hollow Watcher”) and Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond (“Front Runner”)

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Botanist Michael Lint is played by Charles Radilac (Michael Lint), whose limited genre work includes appearances on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (“The THRUSH Roulette Affair”) and Mission: Impossible (“The Phoenix”). Also as mentioned earlier, he appeared in 1961’s Mr. Sardonicus (1961).

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Crahan Denton (Dr. Matthew James) returns for his second Outer Limits (he played the crunchy Sheriff in season one’s “The Children of Spider County”). Denton can also be found in most of the shows we cross-connect with in these pages: Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Incident in a Small Jail” and “Coming Home”), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“The Star Juror”), Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond (“The Executioner”), and Boris Karloff’s Thriller (“Pigeons from Hell”). He also appeared in a whopping five episodes of The Fugitive: “The Witch,” “Dark Corner,” “End of the Line,” “Second Sight” and, finally, “The Devil’s Disciples” (his last credited role before passing away in 1966).

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The stiff ‘n stoic Captain Harvey Branson is played by Stephen Joyce. His only other true sci-fi credit is the 1997 TV miniseries Invasion, but our wider cross-genre net reveals a single appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The Young One”). It’s not a series that we usually brush up against, but he also did a Peter Gunn (“Spell of Murder”); I’m allowing it because of my deep affinity for film noir, which the show sorta qualifies as.

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Finally, stewardess Maggie O’Hara is played by the lovely Shary Marshall, who also crossed paths with Sandy Kenyon in “Angels Travel on Lonely Roads, Part 1” on The Fugitive. Her only other genre credit is a bit part in 1962’s Panic in Year Zero! She certainly qualifies as a TOL Babe.

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The sequence ends with the standard “characters and events” disclaimer, and completely negates the need to list the players in the end credits. Said credits still run the usual 51 seconds, however, so the names of the production staff end up with a few extra seconds of screen time.







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HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“Counterweight,” like much of season two, didn’t show up on home video until 1991, the tail end of the five-year release cycle. Members of Columbia House’s Collectors Series Club found the episode paired with next week’s “The Brain of Colonel Barham.”



The episode wasn’t released on LaserDisc (along with twenty others), but it was of course included when MGM started cranking out all-inclusive DVD sets. Season two was first released in 2003, then re-released in 2007 (as “Volume Three”), then again in 2008 in a 45th-anniversary set of all 49 episodes. I’m something of a completist, but even I never bothered with the ’07 and ’08 releases, because they contain the exact same double-sided prone-to-failure discs from the initial ’03 effort.


Things have changed on the Hulu front since last week (thanks to David J. Schow for alerting me to this). Only the first three episodes of season one (“The Galaxy Being,” “The Hundred Days of the Dragon” and “The Architects of Fear”) are still available for free streaming on your PC; if you want the whole 49-episode enchilada, you’ll have to pony up $7.99 per month and become a member of Hulu Plus. This will allow you to watch any episode you want on both your home computer and your mobile devices. I’ve been a paying member for quite a while because of their giant library of Criterion Collection films, and I’m happy to recommend it. Being able to access TOL on my phone during my lunch breaks is just icing on the cake.

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MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT





A cool alien like the Antheon Creature certainly deserves to be immortalized in collectible form, right? Well, sadly, the only game in town is the Dimensional Designs 1/8-scale resin model kit (DD/OL/AC-14), sculpted by Takeshi Yoneda. I couldn’t find a single assembled/painted specimen online, so if you want to see it in its completed form, you’ll have to shell out $49.95 plus shipping and go the DYI route. I did stumble across a picture of what you'll find inside the box, however (left).





Happily, the Antheon has been artfully rendered in two dimensions by several talented folks. First up we have the late John Fasano’s gloriously green effort, done at the tender age of nineteen (above left). Famed horror comic artist Bernie Wrightson chose a quite compelling action pose for his stab at it (above right). Both were displayed at the Creature Features gallery show in March. Finally, friend of this blog Woody Welch checks in with his own delightful take on the leafy critter (right).



















Desperate for a taste of the art spotlight, I raided the appetizer platter during Christmas dinner yesterday at my parents’ house to put together my own edible version. Je suis un artiste!


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THE WRAP-UP

So is the Outer Limits adaptation better than Jerry Sohl’s original story? I’m inclined to say no, but the episode is kinda fun in that “so bad it’s good” vein (it’s certainly good heckling fodder; I’d love to see the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew get ahold of it). And the Antheon Creature, which isn’t in the Sohl story at all, gives the story a huge boost. But is a good episode? Nay, I say, nay. As with the Venusian in “Cold Hands, Warm Heart” and Ikar in “Keeper of the Purple Twilight,” we have an awesome monster trapped in unworthy surroundings. “Counterweight” may be frustrating from a dramatic standpoint and difficult to watch, but that big beautiful plant almost makes it worthwhile. Almost.



* Someone hiding behind the "Anonymous" moniker posted the following in the comments section: "You might want to listen Dr. Hendrix's question again.....She says,,,"What if there are (pause)..INDIANS"....Not INJUNS as you had stated....." (typos retained for posterity). 

Since not everybody reads the comments, I'll copy my response here for future readers with the same question:

If it's "Indians," her D is so soft as to be more or less inaudible. I always heard it as "Injuns" with the J pronounced as a Y, as it is in Swedish, Finnish, and Spanish (among other languages). And I'm sorry, is "Injuns" somehow more offensive than "Indians"? It's a slang mispronunciation that you'll arrive at if you speak quickly and slur a bit. Frankly, even if she does say "Indians," the whole bit is no less uncomfortable.