Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Outer Limits: “The Zanti Misfits,” “Demon with a Glass Hand,” “The Inheritors” (Daystar Productions, Villa Di Stefano, United Artists Television, 1962-63)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I went to the “Vintage Sci-Fi” monthly film screening in Golden Hill, where they were showing three episodes from the surprisingly compelling early-1960’s science-fiction anthology TV series The Outer Limits. The show had a great introduction I still remember from my childhood (though I really wasn’t old enough when it first aired to appreciate the show itself): an announcer called the “Control Voice” told us that for the next hour “we” would be taking control of our TV set, and we shouldn’t attempt to adjust the horizontal or vertical controls (younger readers will have no idea that back in the 1960’s you had horizontal or vertical controls on TV’s and you frequently had to adjust them to prevent the picture from jumping uncontrollably) because they were going to control what we saw until the hour was up, whereupon the same voice announced, “We now return control of your television set to you.” For the first season the show-runner of The Outer Limits was Joseph Stefano, who at the time had just done the screenplay (based on Robert Bloch’s novel) for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho. It was Stefano who made one of the crucial decisions in the success of that movie; instead of making the killer a middle-aged nerd (anyone who reads Bloch’s Psycho will probably come to the conclusion that he was basing Norman Bates at least in part on his good friend H. P. Lovecraft) he would be a young, attractive man who would have a surface charm and be a psycho killer only underneath. Stefano wrote and produced the first episode shown last night, “The Zanti Misfits.”

It takes place in the California desert and deals with aliens from the planet Zanti, who have decided that since they cannot execute their most dastardly criminals — their moral sense prevents it — and they’re running out of room to incarcerate them on their home planet, they’ve decided to land some of them on Earth and set up a Zantian penal colony in an abandoned ghost town called “Morgue.” A scientist named Dr. Stephen Grave (Michael Tolan) is assigned to work with the military in general, and General Maximillian R. Hart (Robert F. Simon) and Major Robert Hill (Claude Woolman) in particular, to clear out a space for the Zanti to set up their extra-planetary prison and have the absolute privacy they want, unencumbered by any pesky human looky-loos. Unfortunately, two pesky human looky-loos crash through the security gate and run down the soldier who was supposed to be patrolling it, killing him. The two are escaped criminal Ben Garth (a young and barely recognizable Bruce Dern — who, like Stefano, was also Hitchcock-connected: he had a small but crucial role in the flashback sequence that ends Marnie and he would star in Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot) and his girlfriend Lisa Lawrence (Olive Deering), who left her husband to run away with Ben because she thought a run on the wild side would be fun and exciting. Instead she’s lost in the middle of the desert in an overheated car that can’t be used because all its radiator water has boiled away and there’s nowhere to get any more, and as if that isn’t bad enough she’s forced to clamber around the desert rocks (“played” by the Vasquez Rocks north of Los Angeles, site of a million “B” Westerns and sci-fi films) in high-heeled shoes, which she quickly removes à la Marlene Dietrich at the end of Morocco. Ben tries to escape and is cornered by one of the Zantians, who turn out to be nine-inch long insects that seem to be the result of a cross between a tarantula and a wingless bee; they’re crudely manufactured (it looks like the prop department made them out of pipe cleaners and Styrofoam) and with risible heads that are supposed to look sinister. They’re a good deal more frightening when we see them in silhouette than when they’re shown full-face — suggesting that Stefano and his director, Leonard Horn, might have been better off going the Val Lewton route, never showing the beasties full-on and using shadows and sound effect to hint at their sinister presence.

Instead one of the Zantians, flush with having killed Ben, turns on Lisa — and Dr. Grave, who volunteered to go out to the desert and try to re-establish communication with the Zantians (they cut off ties to the Earthlings when Ben and Lisa showed up and they figured Earth’s military was reneging on its promise to leave them alone), bashes the Zantian to death with a convenient boulder. It turns out that the one he killed was the “Regent,” the Zantian commander responsible for keeping order among the prisoners — and without him the Zantian cons are ready to make their escape. They fly the Zantian spaceship out of the protected zone and the military people realize it’s now out of range for them to be able to destroy it — their fallback plan in case anything went wrong. Instead the Zantians escape en masse and the U.S. crew have to kill them by any means available — shooting them, clubbing them, ultimately massacring them with flamethrowers. Then there’s a tag line containing the sort of surprise twist not only this but virtually every sci-fi TV series in the early days, including Tales of Tomorrow and The Twilight Zone, insisted on: the Earth base personnel get a message from Zanti (automatically translated into English, like the previous messages from the Zantian ship, from the Zantian language by their big mainframe computer) explaining that the death of all the Zantian convicts at the Earthlings’ hands was exactly the result the Zantians in charge back home wanted. It seems they’d studied Earth’s history and realized what efficient killers of our own species we are, and so they figured they’d send their own “misfits,” including a so-called “Regent” who was getting a bit too drunk with power for the Zantians to feel safe having him around their own planet, and we’d provoke a quarrel with them that would end up with us knocking them off en masse and therefore eliminating them in a way the Zantians themselves couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do. It’s a neat, if rather obvious, little moral to wrap up a quite well-written and suspenseful show, even though some of Lisa Lawrence’s dialogue was pretty preposterous (particularly when she says, “I’m not afraid to die”), and while others at the screening were criticizing her for overacting, I said, “It’s not that — it’s that Joseph Stefano didn’t have Alfred Hitchcock around to tell him he was over-writing!” 

The other two (or three, since one of them, “The Inheritors,” was a two-part show and both parts were shown) episodes of The Outer Limits shown last night were both from the second season, in which Ben Brady replaced Joseph Stefano (who’d feuded with the honchos at ABC, where the show aired — and whose programs were so chronically poorly rated that later in the 1960’s a joke around Hollywood went, “You know how to end the Viet Nam war? Just put it on ABC and it’ll be canceled in 13 weeks!”) as producer and show runner (under Leslie Stevens, a quirky director who is credited for creating the show’s concept and who made a number of oddball independent films, one of which was the terrible Incubus, starring William Shatner in a tale of demonic possession filmed entirely in Esperanto — ineptly pronounced Esperanto at that) and Harry Lubin replacing Dominic Frontiere as composer. The first second-season episode shown was “Demon with a Glass Hand,” which has more réclame than most of the Outer Limits shows because Harlan Ellison wrote the script and Byron Haskin (the 1953 War of the Worlds and 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars) directed. Ellison won the first of his four Writers’ Guild best-screenplay awards for this and he later sued James Cameron because he claimed the original 1984 film The Terminator had been ripped off of this and another Outer Limits script he’d written called “Soldier.” He also bitched about how “Demon with a Glass Hand” was rewritten; at a Star Trek convention he told one contributor, “Imagine: creatures from a far-future century fist-fighting and shooting at each other with pistols! Gimme a break!” (He was similarly bitchy towards the version of his acclaimed Star Trek script “The City on the Edge of Forever” that aired; at the Star Trek convention at which I heard Ellison he said that when he gave his draft screenplay to William Shatner, Shatner meticulously and carefully counted both his and Leonard Nimoy’s lines to make sure he had more than Nimoy, and when Ellison asked why, Shatner said, “I’ve got to have more lines than he does! I can’t compete with those ears!”)

Whatever Ellison’s complaints (and he’s a notorious complainer about virtually everything — when he harnesses that into his stories it actually helps him be a great writer!) about it, “Demon with a Glass Hand” is an effective suspense tale about a man named Trent (Robert Culp) who comes to consciousness on Earth with no memory of his identity or his past, sort of like Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne. He has a black-gloved hand which, when he peels back the glove, turns out to be made of glass; he has a thumb and a little finger which are components of a super-computer that apparently contains all of Earth’s knowledge, or at least what he needs to complete his assignment, though he’s not too clear about what that assignment is. It turns out that a thousand years later Earth was conquered by a race from another planet called the Kyben, who were so far ahead of us technologically they kicked our butts in just 19 days — only just as the Kyben were about to occupy Earth and enslave its inhabitants, all 70 million Earthlings disappeared overnight and neither the Kyben nor Trent had any idea what happened to them. The Kyben keep sending emissaries back into time to kill Trent before he can reassemble the missing fingers of his gloved-hand computer, and to do this they wear gold medallions and use a giant computer they’ve hidden somewhere in a derelict office building (“played” by the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, so familiar a location from films noir one expects Philip Marlowe to have his office in it) currently occupied only by a ladies’ garment distributor and a passport photo studio.

Trent runs into Consuelo Biros (Arlene Martel, later Spock’s fiancée in the “Amok Time” episode of Star Trek), who’s been running the ladies’ garment business since her husband died, and the two become collaborators — she’s attracted to him but he insists he can’t love anyone for reasons he keeps mysterious. Eventually he gets back the missing fingers of his computer-hand, and with the information it provides him he locates the Kyben’s time mirror — it’s concealed in the passport-photo office — and destroys it and the remaining Kyben that are after him. But at the end it turns out that he isn’t a real human being; he’s a robot, and the reason he was picked for the mission of returning to Earth’s past and protecting the humans (whose essences were uploaded to a piece of wire that was embedded inside Trent — when it explains this to him the computer says that in the modern day we’re able to store sound and pictures on magnetic media, and in the future humans will be able to store the code of their own life forms similarly) was because he could not be permanently killed; in one scene he was shot by the Kyben but, working from his instructions, Consuelo restored him to full life and health … or at least functionality. The show ends with a bittersweet Third Man-style rejection scene in which Consuelo walks out on him because she’s lost all romantic interest in him now that she knows he isn’t human (I couldn’t help but joke, “But I’m still a good lover! The people who made me gave me very big … uh, hands!”), and the narrator (who doubles as the “Control Voice” that gives that chilling intro about how “we” have taken control of your TV) explains that Trent is really a tragic figure because he will live forever but without experiencing human emotions, including love. It’s not all that fresh a science-fiction story (and I suspect it may have been influenced by Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the source for Blade Runner), but it’s what Ellison, Haskin and Culp do with it that makes it special — and it’s easy to see why Culp acquitted himself so well as an action figure that his next assignment was to play a secret agent in the TV series I Spy!

The last Outer Limits on last night’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” program was “The Inheritors,” which despite the absence of any major science-fiction “names” on either the writing (Ed Adamson, Sam Neuman and Seeleg Lester) or directing (James Goldstone) credits, proved a quite compelling story with a surprise twist that made me wish Steven Spielberg had grabbed the remake rights and done it as a feature film. The star here is yet another actor who, like Bruce Dern and Robert Culp, went on to biggers and betters: Robert Duvall, playing a scientific investigator for the “Federal Bureau of Security” named Adam Ballard, who’s investigating the mysterious fates of four U.S. military men who were wounded in a war — it’s not clear what war but the fact that both the enemies and the U.S.’s principal allies are Asian and there’s a reference to the enemies coming from the North makes it seem like an early skirmish in Viet Nam. They were all shot in the head with a special bullet made from a meteorite; the components are those of a normal bullet — iron and lead — but they’ve been stacked together molecularly in a way totally beyond normal Earth technology. The four men who’ve been wounded by these peculiar bullets are Lt. Philip Minns (Steve Ihnat), Sgt. James Conover (Ivan Dixon, an African-American at a time when people of color generally and Black people in particular almost never appeared in science-fiction shows), private first class Francis Hadley (Dee Pollock) and private Robert Renaldo (James Frawley). When they’re in hospital photos of their brain waves reveal two sets of brain waves — an alien brain has superimposed its impulses on their own and taken them over, forcing them to develop super-intelligent powers and use them to manufacture a spaceship. Conover becomes a superb metallurgist who devises (or discovers) an alloy far beyond anything Earth knows and a way to fasten parts made of it together by electromagnetic impulses so they don’t need rivets or any of the other comparatively clumsy ways Earthlings make things out of metal. Hadley researches gases to fuel the ship and sets up a factory in Wichita, Kansas and uses his mental powers to force the owner to sell it to him at the price they negotiated but which the man tried to renege on; he wills the owner to hold a gun to his own head and says his choice is either sign the paper and let the factory go at the previously arranged price or shoot himself. Renaldo researches the propulsion principle, which works on an anti-gravity system similarly beyond modern Earth technology, and Mimms becomes a Wall Street speculator, works a nest egg of $500 into a $405,000 fortune and sends wire transfers to the other three to fund their activities.

The story plays out as an odd combination of This Island Earth and Village of the Damned as the Fantastic Four suddenly develop an interest in certain Earth children — all of whom seem to be blind, deaf, crippled or otherwise disabled, and all have been bounced around between foster homes because the system has had trouble finding foster parents who can handle what are today euphemistically called “special needs.” In the climax, the spaceship gets built and is readied to take the children back to the aliens’ home planet —and [surprise!], in the plot twist that made me think this would have been a good story for the Spielberg of the 1980’s, the aliens, whom both Adam and we have been assuming all story had sinister, malevolent intentions, turn out to be on the side of good. It seems that the kids can be cured of their disabilities if they’re exposed to the aliens’ sort of atmosphere, but will instantly gain them back once they’re taken out of it and put back into normal Earth air. Eventually Adam and the U.S. military men let the spaceship fly to wherever with the kids and the four soldiers who built it inside. It’s an ending at least one reviewer denounced as unbearably sappy — “A group of children are targeted. They have a plethora of disabilities. One is blind; one can’t walk; etc. They are gathered up by the brains of the outfit as Duvall yells superlatives. It is so unrealistic that it is laughable. There are connections here at home that would have made this such a breach of simple decency. The writers never took into account the realities of the world, despite the relative unfairness of them. Sludge!” — and yet I found the ending both believable (within the conventions of science fiction) and genuinely moving, a good though unexpected capstone to a quite intense suspense tale, effectively directed by Goldstone and acted, especially by Duvall, Dixon and Frawley (the latter two being the ones among the four who had twinges of conscience about what the aliens were making them do, with Dixon’s character taking refuge in religion and Frawley’s in alcohol).