The Inheritors

Directed by James Goldstone; written by Seeleg Lester, Sam Neuman, and Ed Adamson. Cast: Robert Duvall (Adam Ballard); Steve Inhat (Lt. Phillip J. Minns); Ivan Dixon (Sgt. James Conover); James Frawley (Pvt. Robert Renaldo); Dee Pollack (Pvt. Francis Hadley); Donald Harron (Ray Harris); James Shigeta (Capt. Ngo Newa); Dabbs Greer (E.F. Larkin); Ted DeCorsia (Randolph Branch). Broadcast November 21 and November 28, 1964. Story: Four Vietnam combat soldiers miraculously survive bullets to the brain; they subsequently embark on a shared mission which controls and confuses them, and arouses the hostile suspicion of government agents.

To begin, a lengthy digression: it's possible to classify the small array of certifiably bad episodes from The Outer Limits first season according to the varying degrees of interest they maintain and effort they evince despite their uniquely substandard gestalt. There are the interesting failures, like "Moonstone" (undone by a muddled script, and by classical director Robert Florey's bland confusion at unfamiliar terrain), "The Man With the Power" (flat and predictable, it is sustained by the perpetually interesting Donald Pleasence), "Second Chance" (two hours worth of story crammed into an hour, with the odd result of seeming twice as long as it should be), and the altogether weird "ZZZZZ" (its nihilistic final act almost counteracts the patently smarmy preceding forty minutes). There are the quickie "bottle shows", rushed through production to fill the time slot while something more involved (and involving) brewed—"Production and Decay of Strange Particles", Leslie Stevens's authorial and directorial meltdown, is the prime example here. And there is the unavoidable rot, entries which just don't play, for virtually any reason you could name: the torpid Black Lagoon rehash "Tourist Attraction", featuring nothing less (and little more) than Ralph Meeker in a speedo; the aptly titled "Specimen: Unknown", a painfully padded catalogue of cliches; the competing redundancies of "The Special One" and "The Human Factor." Bad? Yes, subjectively so; significantly, they exhibit lapses of one sort or another—but they are not part of a self-defeating template of mediocrity. That was reserved for the second season....

When The Outer Limits was renewed—barely—for a second year, the braintrust of ABC network administration elected to switch its time slot from the moderately successful 7:30 Monday evening spot (this was an era before early primetime was crowded with syndicated reruns) to Saturday night opposite the CBS powerhouse The Jackie Gleason Show. Joe Stefano saw the writing on the wall, and left the show (Dominic Frontiere, among others, followed him); he was replaced by network honcho and former Perry Mason producer Ben Brady, a man whose grasp of genre was (to understate) limited. Brady and Leslie Stevens reportedly couldn't stand eachother, ultimately forcing the show's other key creative force to depart for other projects. Brady's Outer Limits was a different beast entirely: the budgets were cut to the bone; scripts were solicited from "known" science fiction writers and fitted to the new, tighter confines; network meddling was no longer deflected. Replacing Stefano's and Stevens's transcendent vision was, well, Perry Mason with rubber monsters; lousy episodes became the norm, as evidenced by the maddeningly vague "Cold Hands, Warm Heart", the all-too visible "The Invisible Enemy", another aptly named hour—"Behold, Eck!" a would-be comedy torturously devoid of humor, and perhaps the series nadir, the Al Adamson-esque "The Brain of Colonel Barham". The list goes on; that any decent installments issued from Brady's network toadying quagmire is surprising. That a few truly resplendent entries emerged is testament to the series' good name, and to a handful of people still dedicated to it. "The Inheritors", due chiefly to Seeleg Lester and James Goldstone, is that rare gem, and one with an altogether ironic subtext: a driven, visionary collective of men attempt something risky and noble, while staunch proceduralists hound and revile them, suspecting only the worst in their motives and actions. In this story, unlike the reality played out behind the scenes of The Outer Limits, the rigid autocrats are proven wrong (and accept that fact humbly), while the sage idealists carry out their worthy plan. Alas, fantasy.

Frustrating parallels aside, "The Inheritors" ranks as an exemplary Outer Limits and as exceptional, even daring television. Imagine: a roughly two-hour narrative in which the primary audience identifier—a government agent, no less—does everything by the book, elicits our support and arouses our fear, and turns out to be flatly, uncharitably wrong. Though we're never led to believe that the inspired Minns and associates are intentionally malicious (they are presented, and uniformly well-played, as likeable and sympathetic men), we don't really know what they're up to, and in a sense must tag along on Ballard's increasingly insupportable crusade. We do know that an alien presence guides the soldier's hazy, massively scaled project; eventually, we also know that children are involved, and so the nature of the plan becomes even darker for modern viewers than it was for audiences in the mid 1960s (no need to illuminate that dire fact).

There is a strong theme at work in Lester's tale, examining the sometimes terrifying vagaries of inspiration—from random source (here, four hand-crafted, alien-tinged bullets), through baffling process, and ultimately to the epiphany and vindication of fulfillment. Strength of theme flourished in Stefano's and Stevens's first season—it was, to some degree, required by Stefano's "canon" for the show's writers—but under Brady's production line approach, other components drew focus. Usually, this materialized as a roomful of men in business suits or lab coats talking endlessly, feigning intensity or even interest. While Lester's story was held under the same confining budgetary and creative strictures that produced such "talking head" episodes, his writing (the best he ever did, both in and out of The Outer Limits) is involving, moving, and at times unquestionably profound. Hired by Brady as series story editor and associate producer, Lester found his voice with "The Inheritors"; that voice was given vision by director Goldstone, who surmounted second-season malaise by imbuing the episode with a pace that simply rolls over any clear production deficits—this one moves. Goldstone, who directed the first-season classic episode "The Sixth Finger", presents a lean, remarkably edited combination of detective story (a common ploy under Brady, though here with the previously mentioned twist that the good guys blow it completely) and graceful enactment of Lester's inspiration theme.

The casting is astute, with Robert Duvall (another first-season holdover, from the excellent "The Chameleon") giving a balanced interpretation of the obliquely ferocious Ballard. Duvall gives ample evidence of the talent which ultimately brought him acclaim: Ballard's single-minded devotion to his assigned task—his own inspiration— may prove wrongheaded, but is never less than affecting. As Minns, the Czechoslovakian Inhat, usually cast in villainous roles (he overdid it madly in Star Trek's "Whom the Gods Destroy", most likely just to keep up with Shatner), is ideal as the advanced, beatific leader of the four changed men. He convincingly portrays a man being "fed" thoughts, words, and actions by an alien second brain scant moments before he expresses them; further, his interactions with the cast-off children at the heart of the alien mission are among the most tastefully poignant of the entire series (though Harry Lubin's unsubtle, syrup soaked score grates throughout). Dixon, Frawley, and Pollack are each given a showcase for their character's intimidating new talents and concurrent doubts, and each does a fine job eliciting a mix of awe, dread, and compassion. Bit parts are filled well, notably Dabbs Greer as an entrepreneurial scumbag, and a very young Morgan Brittany (one of thousands of 1980s primetime soap queens) as a blind girl. There are two unavoidable technical weaknesses slightly hampering "The Inheritors" (aside from Lubin's music, a fairly consistent drawback for the season): the alien spacecraft being built by our mysterious protagonists is presented impressively while still a collection of unconstructed components; once built, it looks like nothing more than a biggish pizza oven on stilts, entered by way of a hardware store stepladder. The money, as noted, was tight. Finally, Kenneth Peach's photography is frankly bad in many scenes, making the episode occasionally resemble poorly-stored archival footage; Peach could do fine work, but it seems as if a director with a keen design sense was needed to extract his best effort. Goldstone, for all his clear potency, wasn't that.

Inarguably, though, these minor gripes can't dampen the spirit and execution of "The Inheritors". The inspiration, of the characters and their creators, shines beacon-like in the morass of Ben Brady's half hearted filler show (the fate, sadly, of The Outer Limits in its second incarnation). Along with "Demon With a Glass Hand", "The Duplicate Man", perhaps "Soldier", "Wolf 359", and "Cry of Silence", this is the minutely thin layer of cream atop something distressingly, willfully spoiled. Seek it out—skim it off and savor it before dipping deeper into the rightly notorious second season.




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