The Duplicate Man

Directed by Gerd Oswald; written by Robert C. Dennis; based on the story "Goodnight, Mr. James" by Clifford D. Simak. Cast: Ron Randell (Henderson James); Constance Towers (Laura James); Sean McClory (Captain Emmet); Konstantin Shayne (Murdock); Steve Geray (Basil Jerichau). Broadcast November 4, 1963. Story: After the Megasoid he's smuggled to Earth escapes confinement, ambitous researcher Henderson James has a clone, or "duplicate," created to do battle with the bloodthirsty creature.

Probably the last place you'd expect to find one of The Outer Limits most brooding and thought-provoking entries is just four episodes away from its wholly apathetic finale. But just as the inauspicious "The Special One" would have been more at home in the show's prosaic second season, "The Duplicate Man" is reminiscent of the darker, more layered episodes of its premiere season. Sadly, it also happens to be the final noteworthy film the series had to offer.

One of the more successful implementations of Ben Brady's edict that second-season episodes be based on literary sources, "The Duplicate Man" is rife with traits we've come to associate with The Outer Limits's first season. Foremost among these is the moral conflict that arrogant Henderson James undergoes once his duplicate insinuates itself into his personal life. Like a terrestrial variation of the Helosians, Ebonites, or Zantis, the duplicate serves to emphasize how severely compromised its human counterpart has become. Long before the events of the episode occur, James has lapsed to a point where he has more in common with the murderous alien he's thoughtlessly loosed upon the world than with his own life-loving, "newborn" double. The strain that James's ambition has placed on his marriage recalls the anguish of similarly undermined couples from the series (like the despondent and uncommunicative Clifford and Barbara Scott from "O.B.I.T.," or the brutally acrimonious Richard and Judith Bellero from "The Bellero Shield"), and his preoccupied neglect of Laura has left her emotionally ragged and, unusual for the prudish second season, apparently alcoholic. The outcome of his carelessness is as inevitable as it is disastrous: James must literally split himself in two in order to salvage his life from a beast he had neither the right nor legal sanction to hold. As conceived by Robert Dennis, Henderson James is a complex, divided, and barely scrupulous man; he is, in a word, Stefanoesque.

But James resembles one of Stefano's morally discordant anti-heroes in another important respect: despite his undeniable corruption, he's not quite beyond redemption. The Megasoid's escape and the affirmative example of his duplicate's fervent awakening (which echoes his younger, more passionate self) offer James the chance to recapture a compassion he's almost forgotten. Though in the end the alien and the duplicate are neatly dispatched, James' self-centered isolationism has been irreversibly exposed—to his wife, to himself, and to the world at large. His life, like the window in the episode's brilliant closing shot, is both shattered and wide open. Whether he can assemble the remnants of his better nature and realize a lasting redemption remains unclear, as James's final, existential (if not exactly grammatically correct) lines to Laura reveal: "All the while he was coming to life, he was dying and not knowing it." The couple's awareness that this statement could apply to James as easily as to his clone makes for one of the series' most poignant codas since "The Architects of Fear," and it serves to underscore the ambiguous hope and grave foreboding that places "The Duplicate Man" squarely outside the adolescent framework of The Outer Limits' dismal last season.

Much of the success of "The Duplicate Man" can be attributed to Ron Randell's performance as the two Jameses. His stiff charm plays equally well as the awkwardness of a grown man experiencing the sensations of human existence for the first time, and as the bitter resignation of a man whose self-awareness and sensuality have long since abandoned him. Randell makes both the original James and his duplicate oddly sympathetic and even heroic, and by the episode's end we, like Laura James, find it difficult to choose between the two. The supporting cast is equally fine, although Constance Towers' Laura is given little to do until the hesitant reconciliation that closes the episode. In those scenes, however, she is genuinely touching.

As assured as its human characterizations are, "The Duplicate Man" still bears some of the lesser qualities of the second-season episodes. Chief among these, of course, is the "design" of the Megasoid. Its hybridized bird/ape/reptile appearance is disconcerting enough (sometimes laughably so), but its behavior is another matter altogether. Described as a fiendish killing machine bent only on murder and procreation throughout the film, the creature has a brief, confusing—and vocal—moment of lucidity that only serves to cast doubt on its reputation. (That it speaks in a trembling whine doesn't help.) It's difficult to tell whether Dennis intended such ambiguity or not, for it does shift that much more culpability onto James: not only has he subjugated Laura all these years, it may be that he's also captured and held a benevolent, reasoning creature only to satisfy an odious sense of curiosity. Whatever the case, restricting the Megasoid's powers of speech to a single expository scene makes the sequence more of a distraction than a revelation. Also serving to detract from the episode's power is an emotional flatness to its scenes; director Gerd Oswald (along with cinematographer Kennth Peach) supplies the necessary visual tone and pacing, but it's evident that by this point in the series he'd lost interest in motivating his cast and crew beyond anything outside the routine. Thank goodness for Dennis's intricate, textured writing and Randell's intense and dedicated performance: without them, the film could easily have been a misfire on the scale of "Moonstone" or "Soldier."

Instead, "The Duplicate Man" is a subtle, strangely uplifting episode that too often gets overlooked because of its place in the series' production and broadcast schedule. Its doleful exploration of human reawakening makes it memorable and, for devotees of the series, a little nostalgic and sad. Such uncommon elegance in a network television show was as rare then as it is now, and the demise of The Outer Limits has only made it that much more so.

—MH

 

 

© Wild Picture. All rights reserved.