Through the decades, anthology series have came and went with varying degrees of success. Many are generally forgotten, either by being so short-lived and/or failing to generate viewership, like ABC’s The Darkroom (1981), which ran a mere seven episodes. But other shows, like HBO’s Tales From The Crypt (1989-1996) enjoyed multiple seasons and currently the UK’s Black Mirror is enjoying critical success. Without question, the show that ultimately popularized the format and has remained influential to this day is The Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959-1964), with Rod Serling’s eerie intros and the macabre twists at the end of each episode are iconic.
In 1963, ABC launched their own series, called The Outer Limits, created by Leslie Stevens. The first season was produced by Joseph Stephano with cinematography by Conrad Hall, John M. Nickolaus, and Kenneth Peach. This team created a unique aesthetic for hard science fiction television, mixing German Expressionism and Film Noir, with wide angles and heavy shadows. A number of notable writers also worked on the show, including Harlan Ellison, who wrote two episodes of Season 2, one of which, “Soldier” was the basis for his lawsuit against James Cameron and Orion pictures over The Terminator (1984) borrowing too heavily from the concept.
Like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits boasted an impressive list of guest stars, among them Donald Pleasance, Mimsy Farmer, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, Martin Sheen, Robert Culp, Martin Landau, and many others. These were great performances too, in almost every episode. Pleasance, for example, in “The Man With the Power,” gives a sympathetic and emotional, layered performance. Regardless of how outlandish a plot may get, the show almost always played it straight — occassionally it would stray into unintentional silliness, but the grounded performances nearly always save the dated special effects.
My first exposure to The Outer Limits was as a little kid sneaking some late night TV in. I’d seen the original The Twilight Zone and its mid-80s reboot, Tales From The Darkside (1983-1988), and Amazing Stories (1985-1987), but The Outer Limits struck me as more eerie and adult than any of them. Even when you see the Zanti Misfits, big bugs with humanoid faces, regardless of how fake it looks, the grounded, grim tone of the show gives it all a creepy gravity. Re-runs never played often enough or with any consistency, so the show sort of took on this mythological status in my mind. Re-visiting the show as an adult, I’ve found it exciting to see the proto-versions of some of my favorite things in film and television. Going in, I thought I knew something about The Outer Limits, but the Season 1 box set proved to be an exciting journey of discovery.
One of the first things I was struck by in the first three episodes was the kinship to Twin Peaks: the Return (2017). The eerie special effects and sound design of “The Galaxy Being” and the weird killer thought cloud of “The Man With The Power” seemed to directly inform the scarier part of the Twin Peaks revival and the latter also points towards 1981’s Scanners while the episode “The Invisibles,” with it’s parasitic slugs controlling politicians for an alien takeover is the same neighborhood as Cronenberg’s parasitic slugs turning people into sex zombies in Shivers (1975). Hell, even the slow transformation body horror of “The Architects of Fear” predicts the 1986 remake of The Fly! Aliens play a huge role across the series, but there are touches of the supernatural and even a spy thriller.
The Outer Limits was a hit in it’s original time slot of 7:30 on Monday nights, but moving it to Saturday nights for season 2, going up against Jackie Gleason, not only killed the show after seventeen episodes, it cost the show Stephano who left to be replaced by Ben Brady. Its pointless to speculate how long the show may have run if it had not been rescheduled, but the impact it clearly had on science fiction and horror can’t be denied. It’s been praised by Stephen King as “the best program of it’s kind…” and horror author/screenwriter David J. Schow wrote The Official Outer Limits Companion, with Jeffery Frentzen, in 1986.
Schow also wrote the accompanying 40 page book that comes with the set and provided indepth commentary tracks for key episodes, with Tim Lucas (Mario Bava; All the Colors of the Dark), Craig Beam (My Life in the Glow of the Outer Limits), Dr. Reba Wissner (We Control All That You Hear: The Outer Limits and the Aural Imagination), Gary Gerani (Fantastic Television), Michael Hyatt (film historian), and Steve Mitchell (King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen) adding great commentary tracks for other episodes. Kino Lorber’s superb set looks and sounds amazing. From the presentation of the packaging, to the content The Outer Limits: The Complete First Season was assembled with love and is an important and worthy addition to your home library.