Fun and Games

Directed by Gerd Oswald; written by Robert Specht and Joseph Stefano (story by Specht). Cast: Nick Adams (Mike Benson); Nancy Malone (Laura Hanley); Robert Johnson (voice of the Senator); Bill Hart; Ray Kellogg. Broadcast March 30, 1964. Story: Two damaged humans, abducted by the shadowy Senator of a hedonistic alien race, must combat a pair of vicious troglodytes from a third planet—with the fate of the losing team's world at stake.

Freely adapted from Fredric Brown's short-story perennial "Arena", as was the first-season Star Trek episode of that title, "Fun and Games" is an unusual drama, one which gains power from its acute emotional murkiness. While Trek interpreted Brown's tale in an enjoyably straightforward manner, with the benefit of established, stalwart characters as audience identifiers, this Outer Limits episode offers the viewer a shattering situation fed by moral ennui, psychological disaster, faint attempts at redemption, and plain bad luck. Not the usual dilemma faced by Jim Kirk and company, to be sure.

Our nominal heroes are the physically/spiritually battered ex-pug Benson (Adams) and his happenstance companion, empty martyr Laura (Malone); both are on the run—Benson from the law, for a crime he witnessed but didn't commit, and Laura from a husband to whom she is unable to commit. They're running faster from themselves, and from the full (and risky) engagement with living that would connect them with their own kind—common to the Outer Limits universe and its inhabitants, these are fallen characters, existing as outsiders. The human social glue, fostered by relationship and kindness, has failed to set within these two; in a twist familiar in Stefano-influenced episodes, these two fragile misfits must face an unavoidable responsibility rooted in their feared, loathsome burdens. They must save Earth, and all its inhabitants.

They can barely save eachother: Benson dies in a lake of fire on the arena planet (familiar symbology, evoking the episode's prominent theme of redemption); resurrected when Laura kills the sole remaining opponent and wins the battle for humanity, the fighter returns to his Earthly life of continued poor choices. Laura, willfully denying the memory of her heroism, ends the story with a perplexing shrug amid the broken glass of Benson's latest impulsive escape from the law. On the arena planet, the disinterestedly sadistic Senator (Johnson, an accountant for Daystar Productions whose sonorous voice led to his replacing the original, unsatisfactory vocal actor) turns his attention to new diversions for his cruel, vouyeuristic patrons—perhaps, unpleasantly, the most apt audienceidentifiers in "Fun and Games." Earth survives, not with a celebratory bang but an ambiguous whimper.

Despite their glaring and well-practiced flaws, Benson and Laura are sympathetic characters—they are, after all, our saviors. Their best efforts to avoid such a fate are pointless; it would require remaining in their current embattled worlds, a fate worse than the risks faced on the arena planet—risks they're prone to avoid ordinarily, but are obliged to face at the hand of a randomly cruel, technologically superior god. Benson, especially, is reluctant to fight (something he wasn't very good at anyway) for the sake of his species: in emotional terms, he's hermetically sealed, conditioned to bitterness by the myriad bad breaks he's known since childhood. Adams, a fine, underrated actor who faced more than his share of adversity (after a big start, his career ebbed; sadly, he died of a drug overdose in 1968), skillfully imbues this unlikeable soul with guarded courage and a nascent selflessness buried by primal defenses and the residue of an early, critical wound to the soul. This wounding, recounted and ultimately replayed during the arena battle, involved Benson's forced and traumatic separation from his mother (the inclusion of neo-Freudian psychology typified Stefano's writing). That Laura—accused by the alien Senator of seeking to mother her estranged husband rather than be an equal partner to him—can (and does) save her planet but cannot salvage Benson, is both her salvation and her disappointment. These are complex entanglements, alarmingly free of the surity of purpose and intent found in Star Trek's handling of the same material; it's challenging, relating to such imperfect, maddeningly patterned beings in the first place, then watching them struggle for something close to reclamation, and almost (but not quite) succeeding. It's also more emotionally rewarding, for the patient viewer.

Adams and Malone are two reasons this is a memorable, fascinating episode; equally, The Outer Limits was a show of moments— within the typically admirable milieu of the best episodes, there often existed isolated, jaw-dropping scenes so odd, so brave and abstract, that they stick in the mind long after the Control Voice has abdicated dominion. "Fun and Games" contains a doozy of a moment, a series of tightly-edited scenes linking much of the subtextual material just described: as the dark Senator harangues Laura about her spousal shortcomings, pointing out her (fear-inspired) bullying attempts to become her husband's substitute mother, images of Benson in the throes of a nightmare about his childhood abandonment are juxtaposed. These seemingly disparate scenes culminate in the accusatory Senator laughingly, cruelly bellowing "Mom", as Benson bolts awake and Laura flinches from the truth. It is an infinitely satisfying presentation, evoking admiration for the writers, actors, and technicians who infused it with such power, and at the same time eliciting feelings for these characters who are taunted by irony, and haunted by pain and loss. Stefano is a profound humanist; his gentle concern for the luckless among us is clearly abundant in "Fun and Games."

Like its protagonists, this episode is not without deficiencies. Made, as were many later first-season episodes, on the cheap, the execution of the alien effects are especially disappointing. The character of the Senator remains a commanding presence, but it's all too apparent that the silhouetted figure we see (in an Ebonite mask ill-fittingly reused from the episode "Nightmare") and Robert Johnson's authoritative voice are not in sync. The two jump-suited monstrosities doing battle with Benson and Laura also fail to convince, with the character masks so rigidly inexpressive (aside from two short insert shots featuring gruesomely lolling eyes and slavering jaws) that the menace of the creatures requires too much imagination. Hart, the stuntman portraying the male beast, does an adequate job of charging around the steamy forest location of the arena planet, and of handling that nameless species' weapon of choice (a nifty razor-edged boomerang), but he's hobbled by prosthetic foot and hand applications employed admirably, but deleteriously, for completeness of impact. Sound effects, usually so impressive in The Outer Limits, are problematic as well—the Being Teleported To The Senator's Lair noise is nothing less than the windy whoosh of George Reeves' flying Superman from the fondly-remembered crap television show of the 1950s; here, it's distracting and woefully out of place. Additionally, the placement of Dominic Frontiere's emblematic, stirring musical cues is intermittently confusing in "Fun and Games"—accumulativey, these deficits give the impression of a technical rush-job. This is no doubt traceable to budget constraints—partially imposed by ABC, and partly due to Leslie Stevens' and Stefano's eager spending of a finite budget early in the season. Any shortcomings in Oswald's credible direction, Kenneth Peach's photography, or Robert Specht's writing (the expository thrust of the story is his; he later created the 1970 television series The Immortal) reflect the monetary situation, nothing more—it is, in terms of emotional impact and existential honesty, one of The Outer Limits finest hours. Like Mike Benson or Laura Hanley, it is imperfect—but worth knowing.

—DCH

 

 

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