The Outer Limits

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The Outer Limits

From 1963 to 1965, The Outer Limits was the gold standard of television science fiction. The hour-long series, broadcast weekly by ABC, adopted the anthology format of such earlier series as Twilight Zone and Tales of Tomorrow. Outer Limits distinguished itself from these seminal programs by its high production values and its emphasis on "hard" science concepts and themes. "What is all this experimentation and exploration getting us?" the series asked time and time again. A kick in the chops from a large mutated alien, came the standard answer.

Outer Limits was the brainchild of two men. Producers Leslie Stevens and Joseph Stefano both came with theatrical and feature film backgrounds. Stevens had written the script for The Left-Handed Gun, a 1958 western starring a young Paul Newman. Stefano had had even more success, penning the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho in 1960. The pair teamed up in 1962 to begin work on Stevens's idea for a sci-fi anthology series, originally entitled Please Stand By.

After a year of work, Please Stand By had germinated into The Outer Limits. A pilot was sold to ABC, and the series premiered on the network on September 16, 1963. In some ways, it was a typical sci-fi genre show. Like Twilight Zone, the stand-alone stories were bracketed by narration. Voice-over specialist Vic Perrin supplied the all-knowing "Control Voice" for these segments, reminding viewers that "there is nothing wrong with your television set." But the program's startling visual effects were light years beyond any show of its time, evidence of the care and thinking lavished on the series by its creators. As the playlets unfolded, television watchers of the early 1960s were introduced to a number of performers who would go on to become household names on other series, including Martin Landau, William Shatner, and Robert Culp.

Today, The Outer Limits is remembered primarily for its elaborately realized monsters—or "bears" as they were known in the series's production parlance. Notable entries in this derby of horrors included "The Zanti Misfits," a race of antlike extraterrestrials; a hissing lizard-like creature in "Fun and Games;" and the amphibious beasts of "Tourist Attraction." A crack team of production specialists, including makeup wizard Wah Cheng and professional monster performer Janos Prohaska, was brought in to bring these exotic creatures to life.

When Outer Limits wasn't shocking the bejesus out of viewers, it could also generate terror in subtler, more suggestive ways. Episodes like "The Man Who Was Never Born," about an earth inhabitant of the far future who returns to the present day to kill his own father and thus prevent a worldwide plague, featured little of the pyrotechnics customary to the "bear" installments. Another classic episode, "The Hundred Days of the Dragon," involved the replacement of an American presidential aspirant by a double created by the Chinese—a plot strongly reminiscent of the feature film The Manchurian Candidate.

These atypical stories were among the series's finest, but they became increasingly rare as low ratings forced network executives to ratchet up the monster content. By the show's second season, a "bear a week" policy had been put in place—albeit with budget cuts that compelled the supplanting of intricately designed creatures with cheaply constructed puppets. Leslie Stevens and Joseph Stefano left the show altogether, and while a number of classic episodes were filmed—"Demon with a Glass Hand" by veteran fantasist Harlan Ellison is a notable standout—the quality of the show slipped precipitously. The axe of cancellation fell in January of 1965.

Outer Limits never lost its core fan following, however. Reruns of the show continued running in syndication, introducing it to a whole new generation of viewers. In 1994, the Showtime cable network revived The Outer Limits, using the same sci-fi anthology format but largely foregoing the "monster of the week" approach. Stefano himself returned to contribute scripts for the new show. Directorial chores went to the usual sci-fi veterans, as well as such "outside the box" choices as Beverly Hills 90210 heartthrob Jason Priestley, SCTV alum Catherine O'Hara, and blaxploitation pioneer Melvin van Peebles. Still running as of 1999, the series spawned the development of an The Outer Limits feature film by the Trilogy Entertainment Group for MGM.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Schow, David J., and Jeffrey Frentzen. The Outer Limits: The Official Companion. New York, Ace, 1986.