Pauline Kael once wrote, with characteristic insight and predictable condescension, that pulp "can take a stronger hold on people's imaginations than art, because it doesn't affect the conscious imagination, the way a great novel does, but the private, hidden imagination, the primitive fantasy life."

If, for the sake of argument, her statement is true, then every week from September 1963 to January 1965, the destabilizing, incantatory phrase that began each episode of The Outer Limits—"there is nothing wrong with your television set"—announced that the series planned to combine art and pulp in a way that had never been done before. Or, arguably, since.

Implying that bad things could befall the usually placid, placatory piece of living-room furniture that brought the show into our homes wasn't any more commercially viable or artistically self-preservative then than it is today (perhaps explaining why the colorless 1990s series that bore The Outer Limits title, which opened with the same words but utterly misread their intent, aired on a cable network where ratings and ad revenue were moot). The original series is thus best considered as the noble and maverick experiment it was.

Ironically, the unfamiliar anxiety this opening sentence evokes is what makes the series both impossible to forget and resistant to widespread adulation. Like the gently metallic admonitions of its omniscient Control Voice, this boldly reflexive, intelligently pessimistic, and understatedly humane show is as refreshing now as it was 40-odd years ago—and as unnerving, a sure key to its low ranking in the pop-culture trade. Such negligence is particularly misguided because, while other fantasy-based series from the era had bigger audiences or proved more adaptable to the nostalgic whims of their aging fans, none remains as vivid or provocative as The Outer Limits.

This artistic stamina is all the more impressive considering that The Outer Limits aired only a scant 49 episodes over a meager season and a half. Compare that with the roomy five seasons of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling's jazzy, pedagogical masterwork, or the embattled three of the insta-kitsch franchise classic Star Trek. While justifiably adored, these shows persist largely because they don't stray far from the rationalism that drives most American entertainment: their human characters are fallible, impulsive creatures uniquely adept at fucking up, but every emotion, relationship, and deeply held conviction they have is still largely intact at the end of each episode. However comforting, this refutes the everyday experience of those of us who tuned in to watch.

The Outer Limits wouldn't, or couldn't, cater to such needs. Series creator Leslie Stevens and producer/visionary Joseph Stefano had something less conciliatory in mind for their sci-fi anthology, and the synthesis of their often opposing frames of reference proved to be uniquely potent. Stevens's predilection for the poetry in science and technology, and Stefano's relentless excavation of the heartsickness underlying that poetry, revealed a universe ruled by labyrinthine pressures and transient pleasures, where meaning and morality were in constant flux and human beings fought desperately—sometimes heroically—to keep up. It's this starkly recognizable, brilliantly wrought milieu that makes The Outer Limits television's most abashedly modernist work—and among its most consistently relevant.

At the same time, the series adapts the accoutrements of the science-fiction and horror genres for its celebratedly off-kilter edge. These familiar trappings aren't designed to soothe audiences (at least not during the show's first season), but to provide an exhilarating, topsy-turvy entry into its more complex concerns. That juxtaposition, itself a modernist device, is the series' trump card.

These accomplishments are what prompted the pages you're about to read. They aren't intended as a minutiae-rich reference for or exhaustive history of the series; David J. Schow covered that territory in his essential The Outer Limits Companion (GNP/Crescendo)—which, if you don't already have, you should get. Nor are we attempting to convert the uninitiated: If you have no prior interest in the series or familiarity with its episodes, you aren't likely to get much from what follows. Our goal instead is to explore in detail the aesthetic, narrative, and structural conventions of the episodes, and—with luck—divine from them the show's deeper, more enduring implications. If we succeed, this ongoing project will be an extension of The Outer Limits itself: lofty, groping, honest (sometimes clumsily so), and altogether human.

Eventually, we plan to cover all of the series' episodes, even when doing so will tax our interest and ability (don't expect more than a couple of paragraphs on "The Probe," for instance). For now, we've covered those episodes that have had a lasting impact on us as individual viewers (and, we believe, on the medium of television), as well as those that have been, for one reason or another, overlooked and deserve to be given their due. In an attempt to further categorize an essentially uncategorizable group of films, and as a kind of critical shorthand, we've also developed a (hopefully) useful method of rating the episodes. Each review includes one of the following three icons:

 

The important episodes that ensure The Outer Limits a lasting place in television history. These are the classics, and each one contributes to the series' permanent, broadening effect on the medium.
Episodes that are interesting, but perhaps not seminal. These entries may not live up to the best of The Outer Limits, but each one achieves something uniquely intriguing and characteristicly profound.
These episodes are inconsistent with the series' established themes and style. Far from the worst The Outer Limits has to offer, they are simply problematic in structure or intent, or both.

Among the recurring themes in The Outer Limits is that of the clarifying effect of dreams. Aabel, the misguided, insectoid Erosian from Anthony Lawrence's "The Children of Spider County," equates dreaming with spiritual and biological fertility; he refers to the human soul as a "dream machine." Perhaps what The Outer Limits does best is remind us to dream of our better selves in the face of cosmic and intrinsic indifference. We hope to do justice to this ideal and to the series that contained it, because it represents not just a high watermark in television, but a time when that medium adopted, if only briefly, the fashion of dreaming.

—Mark Holcomb and David C. Holcomb

 

 

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