Destruct that ship, General!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Episode Spotlight: "The Probe" (1/16/1965)



“The Probe”
Season 2, Episode 17 (49 overall)
Originally aired 1/16/1965


This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

                               --- T.S. Eliot (The Hollow Men)



Fifty years ago tonight, The Outer Limits unspooled its final “great adventure” for the loyal fans that were still tuning in after the Brady regime had scraped away most of the show’s brilliant first-season luster with a crowbar. It opened on a cargo plane, flying through some scary-looking storm clouds, carrying Amanda Frank to her wedding in Tokyo... but that pesky Ma Nature just ain’t having it. Coberly, the pilot, attempts to avoid certain disaster by flying into the eye of the hurricane... and everyone promptly blacks out. They wake up in the plane’s inflatable life raft in a swirl of fog, but quickly discover that they aren’t floating in the ocean: they’re inside a large structure with plastic flooring.


Strange mists and beams of energy are directed toward the raft, one of which nearly freezes Navigator Dexter to death. Coberly, Amanda and Jefferson Rome (the group’s de facto leader), set out to explore while Dexter stays behind to warm up and radio for help. A bulbous, slithering blob appears out of nowhere and appears to swallow him. Rome launches into some serious scattershot and baseless theorize and determines that they’re trapped inside a gigantic microscope of alien origin, an automated interstellar probe roaming the galaxy for research purposes. They too encounter the bloblike creature, which Rome figures is a mutated microbe that’s somehow immune to the probe’s super-hygienic design. The probe’s internal mechanisms douse the trio with a chemical repellent that protects them from the microbe’s advances, at which point it occurs to them to try to communicate with the alien scientists who are likely monitoring the probe from afar.


Amanda pleads with the unseen aliens to set them free before the probe leaves Earth for its next destination (which the group has determined to be Venus, thanks to a convenient map incorporated into the probe’s machinery). All seems lost when suddenly the group finds themselves outside the probe, adrift in their raft, with help on the way to pick them up. Flying back to civilization, they see the probe rise upward into the sky---- and promptly explode. They surmise that the aliens destroyed it to prevent the microbe from infesting Earth, and deduce that, some day, the aliens will return.

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RANDOMONIUM


“The Probe,” which was both the final Outer Limits episode produced and the final to air, was written by Seeleg Lester from a story idea by Sam Neuman. In the director’s chair was Felix Feist (director of 1953’s Donovan’s Brain, which The Outer Limits kinda blatantly ripped off for “The Brain of Colonel Barham” two weeks ago). Feist directed a few film noirs (1947’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride, 1949’s The Threat, and The Man Who Cheated Himself in 1950) and, after his work here, would direct six episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea before passing away in 1965.

The director of photography duties were split between Kenneth Peach and Fred Koenekamp (I’m not sure why; perhaps Peach was already gone when pickups and/or re-shoots were required). Koenekamp served on a whopping 90 episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (a series which starred TOL alum David McCallum), two episodes of Mission: Impossible (a series which starred TOL alum Martin Landau), and the pilot episode of Tales of the Gold Monkey in 1982 (which didn’t feature any TOL vets, but it’s a show that I enjoyed the hell out of). His theatrical cinematography credits include genre releases like The Swarm (1977), the original Amityville Horror (1979), and (deep breath) The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension (1984).

The show’s cancellation had already been announced when production on this final episode started, so it’s hard to imagine Brady and Company breaking a sweat trying to achieve anything remarkable. And… yeah, it shows. There’s so little here to grab onto in terms of story or character development that the entire affair just feels vacuous and pointless. Every character is flat and indistinct; we aren’t given an ounce of information about any of them. We know that Amanda is about to get married, and that the crew is flying her to Tokyo to meet her fiancé, but that gives us no insight into her connection to them, or who she is, or what she does for a living, or why she’s getting married in Tokyo, or how the crew knows her to begin with, or where they took off from. We do learn about halfway in that she majored in ancient languages in college, but that fact ultimately has no bearing on anything. Now, I’m not the type who necessarily requires three-dimensional lifelike characters to enjoy a good story… if that’s what it is: a good story. This ain’t, primarily due to the lack of focus in the story or, more to the point, the lack of story in general. It’s basically four people inexplicably stuck in a strange location with virtually no help from anyone (unlike the Darcys last week, this group doesn’t even have a Limbo Being to sashay in to drop clues), who eventually figure out their situation and somehow survive/escape it. The episode is somewhat reminiscent of The Twilight Zone’s “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” and not just because the two share similar themes: the giant half-circle set piece donation barrel used in that episode, which reappeared as the space craft’s fuselage in “The Inheritors, Part II,” is on hand here as part of the oversized interior of the probe.


So we’re facing a dearth of believable characters and a lack of story. What’s left? Might there be some other aspect of the production that can provide a least a modicum of relief for the viewer, rendering the experience at least semi-bearable? I’m happy to report that there is: the visuals. The sets and effects are the best thing about the episode, a surprising achievement given the lack of money and time invested. The probe set ---- essentially three connected rooms--- is spacious and enormous, lending an impressive sense of scale (and an automatic boost to the production value). There’s a curious lack of close-ups throughout most of the episode; everything is shot medium or long, which contributes to the illusion that our heroes are in a large environment (this may or may not have been intentional; it’s entirely possible that there wasn’t enough time to get sufficient coverage). There’s a nice surreal quality to the imagery, starting with the (quite effective) reveal that the lift raft is sitting on a hard floor instead of floating in the ocean. It’s just plain eerie to watch the various gasses and mists moving toward the characters slowly and purposefully, as if alive and sentient (remember Finley’s energy cloud in “The Man with the Power” and the Energy Being in “It Crawled out of the Woodwork”?). The glass tubes that envelope the characters to “inoculate” them against the Microbial Menace™ are glorious from a pulp sci-fi standpoint, and hearken back to season one’s “A Feasibility Study.”

Question: is Jeff the captain of the cargo plane’s crew? He assumes the leadership role, despite the fact he's only the radio operator. Coberly is the pilot, but he clearly defers to Jeff in all respects. And Amanda is a passenger, yet she pours coffee for the crew and hands out life vests as if she’s a stewardess. I dunno, maybe she's working off the price of the flight...? The guys refer to her as "babe" and "honey," so she may be doing more than just flight-attendanting.


Mikie, the series’ final alien antagonist, is embarrassingly ridiculous. It’s not as bad as last week’s Limbo Being, but it’s not far off. It’s hysterically awful, but it does work as comedy relief in an otherwise dour and humorless story (I chuckle every time I see it, so it definitely succeeds on that level). It’s an oversized microbe, an organism too simple for facial features, but I swear to god it’s got a goddamned face. There’s one shot where it turns toward the camera and damn it all, it’s got eyes, or little holes that look like eyes. I hate to say it, but the damned thing is kinda cute. It takes on an almost canine demeanor, toothlessly menacing our heroes like a skittish and tentative dog lacking any formal guard training. When the globular critter divides and multiplies, its diminutive offspring (let’s call it Mini-Mikie™) possesses a wiggling phalange of sorts that could easily be interpreted as a wagging tail. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, when it shimmies its way up onto the life raft, it engages in some decidedly doglike behavior… yeah, that’s right, it totally humps that thing.

Woof, baby, woof.


So the mysterious alien race is presumably benevolent, since they safely return our heroes and then destroy their probe to prevent Mikie the Malevolent Microbe™ from infecting Earth… why, then, do they destruct the probe in our atmosphere, where its remnants will fall into our ocean and very possibly lead to the very catastrophe they’re striving to avert? They may not be as intelligent (or as benevolent) as they appear.


I received a rather humorous e-mail from my friend David J. Schow,* author of The Outer Limits Companion (or, if you’re me, The Holy Bible), the other day. He happens to own all 49 Outer Limits episodes on 16mm film, many (if not all) containing the commercials shown during the original broadcasts (!). In honor of “The Probe” turning 50, he dug his print out and---- well, I’ll just hand him the mic and let him tell the tale himself:

I swear I was gonna do you a solid.  Watch "The Probe."  Send images and a list of the commercials that were broadcast thereof, the consumer items The Outer Limits was "brought to you by" on this particular swan-song week.

Threaded it up.  That print probably hasn't projected for 15 years at least.

And the drive wheel inside the projector goes sproooooinggg!

And I dismantle the thing but cannot ascertain the nature of the malfunction (other than by saying, "Projector broke.")

Minutes before I had unreeled a commercial mailed to me by a friend -- supposedly an Outer Limits spot but it turned out to be a trailer for a Sherlock Holmes movie.  All was well.

Yes, "The Probe" was so awful that my projector refused to show it.

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DEJA VIEW


Mikie the Microbial Horndog™ would resurface, in modified form with a splashy paint job, as the tunneling Horta creature in Star Trek’s “The Devil in the Dark” in 1968.  But this isn’t just a case of a reused costume or prop: Janos Prohaska, the man inside the microbe, climbed back in to play the Horta, giving us one last Outer Limits-Star Trek connection before we amble off into the sunset.

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AURAL PLEASURE


“The Probe” affords us one final dip into the deep pool that is Harry Lubin’s library of stock music. Selections swimming their way to the top this week include "Hostile Space," which appears multiple times throughout the episode, along with "Imminent Ambush" and "Dark and Scary." There are others, to be sure, but... yeah, I'm done trying to identify these goddamned cues.


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DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Mark Richman (Jefferson Rome) has a long list of sci-fi/fantasy/horror TV credits, and is a Daystar Productions vet to boot: he starred in season one’s “The Borderland” after a guest appearance on Stoney Burke (“The Journey,” that series’ final episode) the year before. You’ll find him on The Twilight Zone (“The Fear”), The Fugitive (“Ballad for a Ghost” and “The Last Oasis”), The Invaders (“The Leeches” and “Inquisition”), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Man with a Problem” and “The Cure”), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (“The Seven Wonders of the World, Parts I and II”), and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (“the Monster’s Web” and “Secret of the Deep”). In my lifetime (1969 onward), he appeared on Mission: Impossible (“Gitano,” “My Friend, My Enemy” and “Underground”), Galactica 1980 (“The Night the Cylons Landed, Parts I and II”), The Incredible Hulk (“Triangle”), and Star Trek: The Next Generation (“The Neutral Zone”). You may also recognize him from the comedy masterpiece Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989).



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Peggy Ann Garner (Amanda Frank) ain’t no slouch in the genre connections department. She popped up on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Victim Four”), Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond (“Tonight at 12:17”) and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (“The Project Strigas Affair," which also guest-starred TOL alum William Shatner). She can also be found in the Fox film noirs Daisy Kenyon (1947) and Black Widow (1954) and, even further back, played Young Jane alongside a young Elizabeth Taylor in the opening scenes of 1943’s Jane Eyre (also from Fox).



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William Boyett (Co-Pilot Beeman, that poor sumbitch) holds the sole Robert Culp connection this week (he appeared in “The Tiger” on I Spy). Boyett’s other genre credits of note include appearances on The Invaders (“Summit Meeting, Part I”), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Silent Witness”), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“The Dividing Wall” and “Beast in View”), Mission: Impossible (“Leona,” which also guest-starred Dewey Martin from last week’s “The Premonition”), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (“The Secret Sceptre Afffair” and “The Man from THRUSH Affair”), The Incredible Hulk (“Veteran”), Circle of Fear (“The Ghost of Potter’s Field”), Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories (“Alamo Jobe”), and Star Trek: The Next Generation (“The Big Goodbye” and “Time’s Arrow, Part II”). On the big screen, he played an unnamed crewman in 1956’s Forbidden Planet.


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Wriggling around on the floor under a thick layer of silver latex as Mikie the Microbe is Janos Prohaska, who also inhabited the elaborate Thetan costume in “The Architects of Fear” and played Darwin the chimpanzee in “The Sixth Finger.” As previously mentioned, Prohaska would don the Mikie costume again in Star Trek’s “The Devil in the Dark,” which was one of a total four Treks he’d appear in (he also brought to life the Mugato in “A Private Little War,” Yarnek the Living Boulder in “The Savage Curtain,” and both the Anthropoid Ape and the Humanoid Bird--- which was the Empyrian costume from TOL’s “Second Chance”--- for “The Cage”). He also played Heloise, a female chimp, in 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes.




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Ron Hayes (Pilot “Cobe” Coberly) has a pretty paltry selection of genre credits outside of The Outer Limits: a single stint on The Invaders (“Valley of the Shadow": below left) and two on The Bionic Woman (“The Jailing of Jaime” and “Sister Jaime”). William Stevens (Navigator Dexter), meanwhile, doesn’t have any genre credits outside of The Outer Limits, but he does hold the unique honor of appearing in both the very first--- and very last--- episodes (he played a police officer in “The Galaxy Being”; below right).


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HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“The Probe” was released on VHS in 1991, one of the remaining dozen episodes that hadn’t been released up to that point. But retail wasn’t the only game in town: Columbia House offered the series in a mail-order “Collector’s Edition” subscription series, which offered two episodes per tape (“The Probe” was paired with its predecessor, last week’s “The Premonition”).



MGM released the episodes on VHS in groups of three, ignoring both the original broadcast schedule and production order (they focused on the more iconic episodes early on, which I guess makes sense from a fiscal standpoint). This approached carried over into the LaserDisc releases, which collected eight random episodes in each volume (volumes three and four contain six episodes each, however). How random, you ask? “The Probe,” certainly not one of the show’s better efforts, was included in the second set, ahead of classics like “The Sixth Finger” (volume three) and “O.B.I.T.” (volume four). I know, it boggles the mind.


The arrival of the DVD format, which quickly made both VHS and LaserDisc obsolete, fixed this randomness with full season sets in 2002 (season one) and 2003 (season two). Suddenly it was possible to own the entire series and only sacrifice three inches on one’s video shelf (as opposed to the four feet a complete set of the VHS tapes required; half that if you went the Columbia House route). How could you not love MGM? Here’s how: they subsequently released the exact same discs two more times in different packaging (in 2007 and 2008) without once remastering the episodes or producing a single supplement (documentary, commentary track, etc.); worse, they still haven’t brought the series into the high definition realm.


But this is the Digital Age now, so who wants to hassle with physical media at all? Throw your VHS tapes and DVDs into a landfill, kids, because you can stream the entire series from the Holy and Benevolent Cloud that hovers invisibly overhead, keeping our entertainment heritage safe forever (or until the internet collapses). All 49 episodes are available on Hulu Plus, which costs $7.99 per month (despite this paragraph’s heavy sarcasm, it's actually a really great deal).

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MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT

Dimensional Designs has released resin model kits for most of the monsters and aliens that inhabit The Outer Limits, and their website does list a Mikie Microbe Monster (gawd, the three M’s!) kit, sculpted by Danny Soracco in the 1/8 scale (DD/OL/MM-37); however, there’s no price listed and no option for ordering. So maybe it was planned but scrapped….? I dunno.


The closest you can get to owning your own Mikie would be to pick up Diamond Select’s action figure diorama commemorating Star Trek’s “Devil in the Dark,” which includes a Mr. Spock action figure and the Horta. Pick up a can of silver spray paint and you’re all set. Or you can endeavor to make your own… like I did. That’s right, bugs and ghouls, it’s time for one last Project Limited, Ltd.!

So I could’ve taken a couple of different paths with this one. My first impulse was to twist a bunch of silver balloons together, since Mikie is somewhat puffy looking. But I felt compelled to sculpt, to squish my fingers in something cold and sticky and, y'now, create. But I was also mindful that every one of these projects invariably ends up in the garbage, so I wanted something that would, y’now, reduce my carbon footprint or whatever. Teresa was watching one of the endless cooking competitions on the Food Network in the background as I mused, which inspired me to make an edible Mikie, which would minimize waste (other than the time I’d be wasting, but I clearly have a lot of that on my hands). It was decided. I dug a pound of ground beef out of the freezer and went to work.

Turns out Mikie’s quite tasty with a slatherin’ of barbecue sauce.

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THE WRAP-UP

Here we are: the end of the line. Final episodes are rarely satisfying (exceptions include Breaking Bad’s “Felina” and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “All Good Things…,” both of which are excellent; don’t even get me started on that bullshit Lost finale). The Outer Limits certainly deserved a great sendoff, but it just wasn’t meant to be (some will argue that the show actually died with the departure of Leslie Stevens and Joseph Stefano at the end of the season one, a point of view that I can't argue with, even though I don't really share it). “The Probe” does have its moments (well, maybe one or two)… and lots of cool visuals… and that damned Mikie is almost charming, but… there’s just nothing here to latch onto or care about. Fifty-one years and six months ago, The Outer Limits took control of television sets across America and, fifty years ago tonight, relinquished it one last time with nothing more than a feeble blip.



13 comments:

  1. Thank you Craig, for all this work. Now I feel a sense of loss, similar to reading the end of a great book...Well, one thing to do - re-read the whole blog again, from the start!
    Oh, and for the record, I knew in my 8 year old heart that something had radically changed when "Soldier" aired. The tone was different. There will never be anything as creepy as a Zanti...or as romantically haunting as a Thetan. Godspeed, Craig Beam....

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  2. Nice writeup, Craig! I'll really miss your blog--it was always hilarious, and sometimes even thought-provoking. I look forward to whatever you write next.

    I may be the only Outer Limits fan who doesn't hate "The Probe". I'm not saying it's good, but it has its moments, and I've seen worse. If anyone's interested, my nominee for the worst OL episode is "Cold Hands, Warm Heart"; those awful, contrived speeches ("You married a man, not a headline..." "He loves me better than you! I'm his best world!") push it over the line for me. Still, even at its very worst, The Outer Limits is always worth watching.

    Two notes about the cast:

    1. If animation counts, then (Peter) Mark Richman has a few more genre credits--most notably the 1986 series Defenders of the Earth, where he co-starred as the venerable superhero The Phantom.

    2. "The Project Strigas Affair" featured at least one more TOL alum, some nobody named Leonard Nimoy. You know, the guy who played Paris on Mission: Impossible? I think he was on another show too, but nothing comes to mind; I'll have to check IMDb.

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  3. Wow! What a great Mikie project! It looks delicious to me, but I don't think my wife would be as enthusiastic if I make it for dinner tonight.

    More thoughts I typed up during my own personal TOL marathon years ago:

    I still don't know whether I understand "The Probe" but in a strange sense, I have learned to enjoy it. The best thing about it is the inventive set, which is cheesy to be sure, but fun to look at. For instance, the big chemistry set is great and the communicator with its alternating symbols reminds me of the symbols displayed in the hatch on "Lost".

    Jefferson Rome (played by Mark Richman) has got to be the smartest man alive as he figures out exactly what "The Probe" is with minimal clues. The "mikie" germ is funny and I understand it later played the Horta creature on the original Star Trek (I think Spock mind-melded with it...I remember him shouting "the pain!!!"). Anyway, the whole idea of being scooped up out of the ocean by an alien probe is quite a concept. The fact that the probe exterminates itself because it could somehow harm the Earth should prove satisfying for "save the planet" types. Once the probe takes to the air we see it in all of its glory, looking like an oversized bobber. I like "The Probe" for it's campy pleasures, but it doesn't have much else going for it.

    Craig, thank you for doing this blog. It has provided me with many laughs and will be an often referenced resource in the future as I will no doubt continue to obsess over this show.

    -Whit

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  4. As George C. Scott said in "Patton", talking about World War II, all good things must come to an end. You did every episode proud, even the less-than-classic ones. In fact, whatever values those episodes lacked, you made up for with some of your most entertaining observations. Thanks so much. Long live The Outer Limits! Another 50 years, to start with?

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  5. Where art thou Leslie Stevens, Joe Stefano, Dominic Frontiere? We need you, all three, and fast before I too go the way of The Outer Limits. Only the greatest television show EVER!!!

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    Replies
    1. Thous art right, Steve Mitchell. And thanks for mentioning Dominic Frontiere as part of the TOL 1st season's "Holy Trinity" -- his music was often the heartbeat of the show.

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    2. Dear Adrian and Steve,
      Just chanced upon this blog. Your comments about my husband's work are very kind and I will pass them on.
      I know he'll appreciate it.
      Robin Frontiere

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  6. Just a bit sad that we've come to the final episode, and the final entry on this blog. Hats off to Craig Beam for a truly outstanding job.

    Regarding TOL on Blu Ray - obviously MGM won't do it, but I wonder if Shout Factory might be persuaded to license the series and release it. This would be right up their alley. They've done an excellent job with other period TV series.

    Finally, an oddball question: has anyone else had a dream in which an original, unaired Outer Limits episode is somehow discovered, and you get to watch it? I have this dream once every year or two.

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  7. Or possibly Image Entertainment? Their Twilight Zone BluRays are awesome.

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  8. William Boyett will always be, to me, Sergeant MacDonald on "Adam-12".

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  9. Again, thanks for everything you have done Craig.
    I will miss your Outer Limits reviews, but on the plus side we can all look forward to your updated reviews on your Twilight Zone blog.
    Keep up the great work.

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  10. Perhaps the weakest episode of the entire series run. Boy, this one is SO bad, I feel I could have written it..... That tells me everything right there. Really hard for me to watch this. Talk about going out on a low note..... Probe this!

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  11. I'am glad to read the whole content of this blog and am very excited.Thank you.

    แคมฟรอก

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