September marks fifty years of anthology SF series The Outer Limits. As this site is such a fan of The Twilight Zone it was even named after it, what better time to look back on one of its peers?
The first season of The Outer Limits aired from September 1963 to May 1964. Join me as I rank all 32 episodes, from worst to best...
While this article is here to look back on and praise The Outer Limits, there's going to be no suggestion that it was always first rate. In fact, from the first season, 50% of the output fell into "passable fluff" at best, and at worst... it was Production and Decay of Strange Particles. For those looking for all-out praise, then jump ahead to entry 16 and work your way forward... for everyone else, then play a game with friends who have never seen the series before: get them to guess when it was made. With the slumberous pace and melodramatic acting, this turgid episode often seems like it was shot in the 40s or 50s. In fact, even the greatest Outer Limits episodes often feel like they were shot sixty or seventy years ago, rather than being a contemporary of the final season of The Twilight Zone. But this is particularly troublesome here, with a plot that goes nowhere and acting styles that are in no way familiar with the method.
Famed as the episode with the highest viewing figures, such achievements are, of course, meaningless in the context of an anthology show. Viewers can't know what to expect when they tune in to a new story and cast each week, and so the merits of this feat are down to the strong run of episodes that preceded it. After the first twenty episodes there's a general downturn in quality - with one or two exceptions - and Specimen: Unknown continues the rot.
Of course, this only relates to the broadcast order, and three of the last dozen episodes were produced far sooner. Specimen: Unknown was, in fact, produced tenth, but pushed back in transmission order due to the makers' dissatisfaction with it. With the episode underrunning, padding was required (and it shows), including a filmed prequel illustrating the death of a spacecraft crewmember at the hands of killer plants. This does have the unfortunate effect of killing dead any intrigue, though you suspect the pre-credits teaser would have done this anyway. Things pick up moderately when the craft arrives on Earth and unleashes the alien plants, but it's all very derivative, very illogical, and the characters are underdeveloped and unconvincing. Far from The Outer Limits at its best.
Detractors of The Outer Limits like to paint it as the "monster of the week" show, but it's usually so much more than that. Producer Joe Stefano, reputedly egged on by network interference, urged that each episode should feature a "bear", his term for a monster. Stefano's guidelines included the suggestion that they would induce "tolerable terror or even merely conversation and argument", and, to his credit, many of Stefano's "bears" did just that: creatures from the ID or Freudian psychosexual creatures dominated the darker realms of his own scripts, no matter how questionable the realisation was. Here, though, things are flatly shot, and so confused the "Control Voice" narrator even has to pitch in to explain what's going on. There's some vaguely interesting sexual politics, and some political ones... but mainly it's a B-Movie homage about a sea creature with hands.
Created as the pilot for the programme under the title "Please Stand By", only a few minor changes were made after this one was bought and commissioned as a series. Made for $213,000 (Around $1.6m in today's money), The Galaxy Being illustrates how even just 50 minutes can be a long time in television terms. The opening, with the head of a radio station using the signal to contact alien life, is a strong one. And for the first ten minutes or so, events are reasonably compelling. But plots need drive to propel them, and after that opening ten minutes, precious little happens until the final credits. A number of The Outer Limits episodes, particularly those written by creator Leslie Stevens, are like this: an initial plot idea is revealed, and then things grind to a standstill. No progression, no subplots, no subtexts... and precious little interest. Despite my great love of The Twilight Zone, I spent years labouring under the misapprehension that The Outer Limits was always its tedious cousin... helped in no small part by missable episodes like this one.
A generally dreary, if not quite awful, take on FBI investigations. Even though Joe Stefano worked on scripts he didn't receive credit for, any amount of editing couldn't save this one: an inexpressive, silly-looking "monster of the week", The Outer Limits living down to its negative stereotypes. There is subtext here, but very little and not really of interest. To cap it all, the series' ability to end countless episodes with narration preaching about the power of love compounds the misery.
An alien race tries to educate smart kids into being conquerors in a rare off day for director Gerd Oswald. While some awkward moments are intentional, the blocking is stagey, and Oswald's not helped by the cast or the script. Exposition-heavy even by the worst Outer Limits standards, it features unbelievable characters doing unbelievable things. Even though the 60s were more innocent times, it features the dad of a house being chewed out in his own home by his son's new tutor... and then gives a fairly nonchalant reaction when said tutor is discovered as an alien. Although said alien is well played, the son in question is pretty flat, a characterless redhead delivering his lines as if he's suffering from chronic flatulence. And to think The Twilight Zone got Billy Mumy...
A passable and watchable piece of fluff about an alien who makes a working spacecraft out of a fairground ride. The real issue with the episode is not such trivia as the alien being played by an actor who reputedly had to have multiple takes to stop himself laughing at the shaky dialogue. Nor is it the left-field revelation of questionable character traits. It's not even that what started out as a fairly witty script was interfered with so much that the writer took her name off it and it was released under a pseudonym. All such things can be overlooked if the viewer is entertained for the duration. But when the alien takes aboard a group of disaffected, soul-destroyed humans and the episode is called "Second Chance", you'd have to be pretty clueless not to get what the plot will be about in the end. Unfortunately, this lacklustre and quite silly outing can't disguise its intent, and so the average audience member will be forced to sit through B movie dialogue and questionable acting, knowing full well how it's all going to turn out.