O.B.I.T.

Directed by Gerd Oswald; written by Meyer Dolinsky. Cast: Peter Breck (Senator Jeremiah Orville); Jeff Corey (Byron Lomax); Harry Townes (Dr. Clifford Scott); Joanne Gilbert (Barbara Scott); Alan Baxter (Colonel Grover). Broadcast November 4, 1963. Story: While investigating a murder at the Defense Department's Cypress Hills facility, Senator Orville discovers a group of aliens who plan on demoralizing the human race to the point of collapse with the aid of their sophisticated surveillance device O.B.I.T. (Outer Band Individuated Teletracer).

For reasons understandable and otherwise, it's easy to overlook the fact that many of The Outer Limits' most memorable episodes were not conceived by Joseph Stefano or Leslie Stevens. Stefano's deeply symbolic, resolutely ambiguous tales of moral muddle and Stevens' loopy riffs on scientific exploration gone awry combined to set the tone for the entire first season. The pairing of their wildly differing styles and interests defined the show almost by default, and one is hard pressed to recall the series without conjuring the usual associations of paralyzing internal ambivalence and inexplicable external forces. Yet one of the series' most meaningful episodes succeeds by altogether different means, and cleverly bends the show's established themes at the same time that it rigorously adheres to them.

Meyer Dolinsky's "O.B.I.T." employs far less overt symbolism than does the typical Stefano screenplay, although it trades in a similarly harsh and inconclusive assessment of human behavior. Nor does it linger over the verisimilitude of its scientific trappings like Stevens's handful of episodes, despite the repugnant cultural (if not technical) feasibility of the O.B.I.T. machine. Instead, Dolinsky crafts a deceptively straightforward, utterly compelling plot- and character-driven story that, considering its disturbing content, makes for a most peculiar breath of fresh air.

In the most obvious sense, "O.B.I.T" is a broadly cautionary tale that serves as distant cousin to Stefano's "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork," with its mysterious, impervious setting and oppressive atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia. But while the Cypress Hills Research Center and NORCO definitely inhabit the same universe, the force dividing Cypress Hills is much less obscure than the uncontrollable energy cloud in "Woodwork"—and much more identifiably human, despite the presence of hostile extraterrestrials. Superficially, "O.B.I.T." concerns the intrusion into individual privacy by outside forces, in this case the imperialistic inhabitants of the planet Helos (Dolinsky's name for the home of the episode's alien race, omitted from the final shooting script). That the real culprits are not the colonization-bent Helosians but weak-willed human beings—or, more accurately, insidious human traits—only reinforces the comparison to "Woodwork" and its author, and lends a depth to the goings on. The Helosians, similar to Stefano's more villainous bears, effortlessly exploit and (like the oversized glasses they wear in earthly form) magnify our predilection to dishonor the boundaries of all lives save our own. Also like Stefano's belligerent alien species, the Helosians don't have to work very hard to ensure the erosion of human society: they simply provide us with the means to systematically reveal the intimate details of each others' lives, and stand aside while we do all the eroding for them. It's a simple ploy that appears to work, and therein lies the difference between Stefano's grim fables of aliens provocateurs and Dolinsky's—in "O.B.I.T.," there's little doubt that the bears get away with it.

But Dolinsky and the filmmakers never imply that the intrusiveness underscored by the Helosians is restricted to Cypress Hills, nor to the machine's realm of influence. "O.B.I.T." cannily reveals the pervasiveness of our need for the details of other lives in several intriguing ways. For one, the episode's hero, Senator Orville, subtly engages in the very behavior he condemns: his probing into the bizarre events at the facility is only nominally different from what the O.B.I.T. operators do. Despite his ultimately altruistic motivation, Orville's methods serve more to punctuate the Helosians' view of human behavior than to undermine it. Other such details abound: director Oswald's arch juxtaposition of the stenographer's typing hands with the demonstration of the O.B.I.T. machine; the use of multiple key lights in the hearing room, visually depicting the tiny blasts of inappropriate clarity the machine makes possible; and the intense, painful scrutiny of the hearing process itself all make the Helosians' hideous plan seem all too plausible—if not downright justifiable.

In some ways, "O.B.I.T." also plays as Dolinsky biting the hand that feeds him. The O.B.I.T. machine's resemblance to an outsized television set can't be overlooked, nor can the emphasis placed on the addictive nature of the machine's appeal—a common and valid concern of anti-television advocates then as well as now. (Colonel Grover puts it succinctly when he breaks down on the stand, sobbing "I can't not look...".) In this sense, the hermetic Cypress Hills facility could easily stand for the Hollywood film community, besieged and demoralized by the "peeping-tom machine" that, as Lomax claims, is "everywhere." But TV had long since displaced movies as the entertainment of choice by 1963, and Dolinsky's jab, though clever and potent, is more far-reaching than a simple, sour "television is bad" statement. His concern seems to lie more with the capacity for technology—any technology—to drive human beings apart, and his alarm focuses on the vulnerability of a people given to sitting alone in the dark in front of backlit monitors discreetly observing the thoughts and opinions of others (not unlike what you and I are doing at this moment). Such endeavors, he implies, rob us of valuable, vital experience, and lessen us in virtually every sense of the word. It's a difficult point to disagree with, and he makes it with grace, subtlety and a refreshing lack of moral absolutism.

There's a final audacious element to "O.B.I.T." that emphasizes the theme of compromised privacy, and ties it in neatly with Dolinsky's sly observations on a beleaguered Hollywood. The rampant persecution at Cypress Hills and the resulting hearing process recall nothing less than the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that occurred in Hollywood in 1947 and 1951, and whose effects were still being felt into the early '60s. During that time, dozens of screenwriters, filmmakers and actors were forced into artistic exile, while others were cajoled into testifying on (and in some cases fabricating) the Communist sympathies of their co-workers. Dolinsky exposes the persistent sting of this brand of McCarthyism early on in the hearing, when Orville cracks that "a senator must learn not to be impulsive," to knowing chuckles from the hearing committee members and observers. These real-life trials and their aftermath inform "O.B.I.T." throughout, and offer a chilling reminder that the threat to personal privacy and integrity is far from outlandish—not that we need reminding these days. Voracious public scrutiny not unlike what takes place at Cypress Hills is sadly real, and comes at a brutal price: it's worth noting that Sam Wanamaker, star of the Joseph Stefano-penned episode "A Feasibility Study," paid that price—blacklisted in the early '50s, he was unable to find film work for more than a decade.

The performances in "O.B.I.T." are typically outstanding. Peter Breck is outstanding as the abrasive, self-satisfied Senator Orville, whose early scenery chewing is offset by his dawning awareness that he's stumbled upon something truly monstrous—and, perhaps even more confounding to him, that he has the capacity to care. Breck expertly captures this character's emotional development, and makes Orville one of the first season's most compelling protagonists. Harry Townes is equally good as Clifford Scott, and he and Joanne Gilbert manage to bring real pathos to the Scotts' troubled marriage (a theme common to all three of Dolinsky's Outer Limits screenplays). It is, in fact, this relationship that instigates the change in Orville from publicity-seeking sham to deeply concerned crusader, and the wonderfully conveyed undercurrent of enduring tenderness between the Scotts makes the change believable.

The undeniable star of "O.B.I.T." is, of course, Jeff Corey as the Helosian Lomax, in one of the best performances of his career. Corey beautifully underplays Lomax as a calculating manipulator who can barely contain his glee over what he and the O.B.I.T. machine have wrought; beneath the character's calm demeanor, Corey makes it abundantly clear that the Helosians are a species that enjoys steering people into compromising situations and then shamelessly observing them once they're there. Corey gives Lomax an impassive but seductive quality that's infinitely more threatening than any sort of telegraphed menace, and when he whispers—his preferred mode of speech—to Barbara Scott that she should "just keep on trusting [him]," we can understand why she would. This culminates in the episode's final soliloquy, in which Lomax passes merciless judgment on the human race before vanishing smugly into thin air. Corey has the skill and sensitivity to temper the alien's triumphant tone with a trace of regret, and it gives Dolinsky's bleak story an elegiac dimension it might not have otherwise had.

It's only natural that an elegy should accompany an obit, though, and what Dolinsky ultimately mourns is the death of human dignity. It's death by suicide, as Lomax emphasizes in the film's climactic confrontation: like so many of The Outer Limits' first-season bears, his presence is hardly required to ensure the species' downfall. Our habit of preoccupying ourselves with the inner lives of others compromises the chance for any inner life of our own, and makes trust as unlikely as community is impossible. And without these, Dolinsky concludes, we may as well begin writing our collective death notice now.

—MH

 

 

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