Tuesday, March 23, 2010

There is a fear that is unlike all other fears.


When the first and only complete season of ABC's The Outer Limits came to a conclusion in May of 1964, producer and head writer Joseph Stefano could look back upon a year of hard work and glorious results. With twelve of the thirty-two episodes bearing his teleplay or story credit, no one else could claim a greater hand in establishing the show's distinctive sci-horror feel. Stefano, who had written the screenplay based on Robert Bloch's novel Psycho, turned down offers from Hitchcock to do likewise for The Birds and Marnie so that he could work with good friend and Executive Producer Leslie Stevens on the hour-long series. Though it was sold ostensibly as Science Fiction, Stefano made no secret of his desire to give the show the gothic feel of German Expressionism or the French New Wave, with canted angles, angular shadows, and a palpable, off-kilter sense of foreboding. Science Fiction this may have been, but it was viewed through a glass darkly, and no other series before or since has looked quite like Year One of The Outer Limits.

Stephano's episodes were among the more horrific of that year: the cloud creature of "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork," that got sucked inside of a vacuum cleaner, only to grow and grow and grow; the nightmarish "A Feasibility Study," in which six city blocks are transported to the festering planet Luminos, to see if humanity may be impressed into slavery; "Don't Open Until Doomsday," about an abandoned honeymoon suite, a mysterious
box, and the misshaped monstrosity that lives within it; and "The Invisibles," with its howling, wriggling crustaceans that affixed themselves to the spine and controlled their human puppets (with apologies to Heinlein and Finney). Horror was where Stefano's true passion lurked (it was his idea to give the series its vaunted "bears" - monsters - all the better to scare the viewers silly with), and the ones that bore his name were the most successful at causing sleepless nights.

The show's first-year ratings were high enough to warrant a renewal, but relations with the network were contentious, and Stefano was growing weary. Still, he had one ace up the sleeve. He envisioned the finale of the first season - "The Form of Things Unknown" - as a pilot for another weekly hour-long anthology, but one dedicated purely to Horror and Thrillers. This was the story of two murderesses (Psycho's Vera Miles and Barbara Rush) looking to dispose of the body of a blackmailer, when, seeking refuge from a storm, they come to the brooding manse of inventor Tone Hobart (David McCallum), who has invented a device that is able to "tilt time" and bring the dead back to life. The episode also exists with its science fiction element excised (for example, Hobart only thinks that his machine can resurrect the dead), but both versions - directed by series stalwart
Gerd Oswald - set the benchmark for the series' unique, otherworldly look. (The episode owes more than a subtle debt to the French arthouse success Les Diaboliques.) Now, there is some chicken vs. egg debate as to which version came first, but I prefer to credit Stefano as being savvy enough to recognize that the teleplay could simultaneously serve a dual purpose, acting as a pivot point between one series and its spin-off.

The network did not bite. Adding insult to injury, ABC announced that the series would be bumped from its Monday night perch (to make way for Irwin Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), and do battle with the Great One, Jackie Gleason, on Saturday nights. Stefano knew a fool's errand when he saw one, and exited in disgust. He was replaced by Ben Brady, who brought a more antiseptic, straight-ahead SF approach to the show, and although it also managed some excellent installments (including "Soldier" and "Demon With a Glass Hand," both from the pen of Harlan Ellison), the show ceased production with a truncated second season of only 17 episodes.

But we still have a clue of what we might have seen in 1964, had ABC indulged Stefano's great passion. Below is the opening sequence and closing credits for the unaccepted pilot The Unknown. (The theme music might sound familiar - it was recycled years later for ABC's The Invaders, which, when you stop and think about it, was a pretty gauche thing to do on the network's part.) I love the way the credits come "ripping" through the previous card, and that great, pregnant silence before the first "tear" at the end of the hour. Imagine that it's the 9:00PM hour, and you've just dimmed the lights and settled down for an hour's worth of entertainment. And if this doesn't get your nerves to jangle...well, then, be that way. But how I would have loved to have seen at least one season of an anthology series that opened like this...



4 comments:

davidfullam said...

Ever hear the urban legend about the reason for show's second season switch? Legend has it that an executive's wife got scared silly by something in the first season (possibly The Invisibles). While not powerful enough to get the show cancelled, he was powerful enough to get the show switched to a slot that would kill it.

senski said...

Yeah, I had read that, too - was it in the Schow OL Companion? My copy is in storage, but my memory is shoddy - and that is certainly the definitive work on the show...

davidfullam said...

To be honest, I don't remember where I first read it, but I'm sure that Schow had to have touched on it. Considering he knows the history of the show inside and out. If my memory serves me right (and it probably isn't) I think I recall reading about it in an interview with someone. Maybe Fangoria or Starlog?

Carl (ILHM) said...

Very interesting indeed Sen, I had no idea Stephano was attached to The Outer Limits at all, but that should come as no surprise since I havent seen a single episode since I was 4-5. An interesting little story for sure though, I guess the good old boy just didnt hold as much sway as we might have hoped!