Nightmare

Directed by John Erman; written by Joseph Stefano. Cast: Ed Nelson (Col. Luke Stone); James Shigeta (Major Wong); Martin Sheen (Pvt. Arthur Dix); Bill Gunn (Lt. James Willowmore); David Frankham (Capt. Terrence Brookman); Bernard Kates (Lt. Ezra Kruge); John Anderson (Ebonite Interrogator); Whit Bissell (Commanding General). Broadcast December 2, 1963. Story: An apparent war between Earth and the planet Ebon sets the stage for torture, betrayal, and paranoia among six human prisoners, their Ebonite captors—and the startling force behind the struggle.

This well-known episode is typical of the series: an embarassment of riches in virtually every sense, it offers such a feast of ideas and achievements that any attempt at a complete breakdown would result in just that. While the delineation of motif, structure, and technical aspects (a useful method of analysis) can take on a rote "verse-chorus-verse" predictability that bleeds attention from something truly masterful, reducing focus to a few stand-out elements seems a pale response in the face of such abundance—never moreso than with "Nightmare." There is no easy way out, then: a fitting dilemma, considering the no-win terror posed by the narrative at hand; another simultaneously enthralling and repellent ordeal within The Outer Limits.

Among other things, we are asked: can anything be learned from systematized violence and deception? What remains when duty and patriotism are necessarily cast aside? Offering more questions than answers (a series specialty, to be sure), "Nightmare" raises political doubt, but it is more a sociological reckoning than a pre-Watergate lesson in mistrust. It is, as well, true to its title—coercion, guilt, capitulation, and the gut-aching power of fear are prominent here, as they are in the sweaty thrashings of adult bad dreams. And gargoyles: the Ebonites, led by Anderson's light-depleting interrogator, appear to have fallen from the high stone battlements of a Gothic cathedral, or, more accurately, from a monster-filled childhood fright dream. It's complete, then: the nightmares of social reality and of dreamtime, of adulthood and youth. Faced with that, the regressive Private Dix makes pathetic sense. You might want your mom, too.

Of methodical design, this story could have easily succumbed to contrivance if not for Stefano's careful blending of emotional and intellectual impact. The set-up—a Unified Earth army of multi-ethnic composition, cooperating for survival—was not the hackneyed devise that would later plague episodic television ("Approaching warp five, Captain..."); Stefano adds the element to his usual heady brew of psychoanalysis and existential dread. The result is a vigorous exploration of the limits of group allegiance, of imposed vs. "natural" identity, and the confounding, difficult struggle to trust across (or within) boundaries. That the characters represent the subdivisions of Earth is an artful and meaningful stroke, not an arbitrary attempt to appease viewer demographics, and no pat conclusions are offered; we are left knowing only that it is hard—to fight, to trust and obey, to cooperate. It's no consolation that pertinent authority (here, the military) is so entrenched in antagonistic role-playing that an accidental attack becomes the platform for experimentation in soul-conquering. Ebon struck first, perhaps, but Stefano suggests that fragile and defensive Earth, too predictably, struck worse. Although it's tempting to view "Nightmare" as a diatribe against the administrative abuse of power, such a reading is simplistic and belongs more to the cynical current era than to the time of the show's production. Rather, as Stefano often insinuated, our humanity defines our institutions (at least as much as the opposite is true); alternately glorious and profane experience and intent are reflected as culture. Such conventions, the "unreal games" the Control Voice speaks of, are not inherently benevolent or evil, though we humans can be (sometimes concurrently, as Nelson's stolid, mistaken Col. Stone makes clear). It's a bad dream, then: decry these customs at your own risk—you'll spoil the whole game.

This has been called the show's finest hour; it's the debut of noted television director Erman, a Daystar executive who followed Leslie Stevens to The Outer Limits with the intention of directing. Stefano, rather inexplicably, didn't care for the finished product; Erman quit the series after "Nightmare", accurately doubting that he'd be given the chance to direct again. Just as inexplicably, Erman badmouthed the episode in lectures given at San Diego State University in the 1970s, bemoaning the small budget and smaller set—one of the show's distinctive features—while generally praising the series' personnel (though, again unaccountably, he has no acclaim for cinematographer John Nickolaus). Disputes aside, the episode remains a masterwork of detail and character. The combination of lighting, make-up, sound effects, and music render the Ebonites among the series' most genuinely alien, and frightening; Anderson's ultimately benevolent Interrogator literally sucks light from the room as he enters the prison compound, with a presence felt as much as observed (an admirable feat in filmed drama). The ensemble cast of Unified Earth POW's succeeds, even when unchecked by their first-time director: the late Gunn, a painter and filmmaker whose Ganja and Hess (1973) is a well-regarded voodoo epic (and a Black American film which manages to avoid the patronizing trappings of its era), tends to overdraw Willowmore, though he never loses the character, or audience sympathy. Sheen, as the repulsive, racist Dix, similarly lets loose with both barrels and still manages to inspire compassion, while the taciturn, frequently underestimated Nelson comes off well as a creature of habit and discipline undone by the madness of his mission. Shigeta, the episode's acting stand-out along with the (literally) oddly-shaded performance of Anderson, makes Wong a subversive of the heart—he recites poetry, a crime unto itself to the militaristic minds controlling the harsh experiment; he's the logical one to be marked for death, given the counter-logic of the situation.

A star turn in a different realm, Dominic Frontiere's bizarre, singular score deserves attention. The composer's contribution to the show as a whole is immeasurable: from the grabby pulse of the opening theme to the uplifting swell of the closing suite, and with every distinctive cue in between, Frontiere gave The Outer Limits an aural character perfectly harmonized with the emblematic visual and thematic style of the show. For "Nightmare", he largely abandoned the orchestral sound he usually employed, utilizing instead an eerie blend of electric guitar, harp, flute, and electronic dirge. The effect is alien and intimidating, and doubtless intended to unnerve; it does so, in spades. When Harry Lubin, an altogether more conventional composer, took over scoring duties for the series' second season, Frontiere's work on this episode seemed to influence Lubin's incidental cues considerably. If he had to crib from somebody, he picked the right musician; it actually lends a thread (granted, a slender one) of consistency between the seasons. Frontiere's work could never be topped, though, and his score for "Nightmare" ranks among his best. It's available on GNP Crescendo Records' compilation recording of music and sound from the show (conceived and produced by Neil Norman, and unfortunately including the banal music from the severely dated episode "The Hundred Days of the Dragon"); to date, it's the only volume in a proposed series. This score was re-used and expanded upon in various later installments, always to good effect.

The questions raised earlier are never answered outright. In The Outer Limits (essentially, Stefano's universe), the speculation is the thing; if it betrays ugliness, it almost always raises hope as well. In "Nightmare", it's painted as the ability to awaken—to end the bad dream, to communicate across a dark void of guile and ignorance, of primitive response and thoughtless custom. The Ebonite Interrogator steps forward and identifies himself: the prospect of reason, driven by the same impulse that spares Wong from execution by his peers. He is not so different from the varied mix of men he is compelled to brutalize (both the torture and the remorse highlight that fact). The nightmare ends when the belligerent charade becomes apparent, and the notion of "alien" takes on an entirely altered meaning—not who, but why. Not "them": rather, us.

—DCH

 

 

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