“There are powers in the universe beyond anything you know!” Quite right too! That’s the awe and mystery of the universe and it’s rather aptly spoken by the titular Galaxy Being. The first episode of The Outer Limits is a completely captivating and a fantastically hopeful piece of television history. That opening alone is magnificent and I loved that those sine waves that will be seen in every subsequent episode have their origin here. Imagine what it was like in 1963 when something suddenly “took control of your television set” and did things to it that you could only do by getting up and pressing buttons. Remarkable.
The story is an interesting one. A man (played by Cliff Robertson) who works at a radio tower makes contact with a being from Andromeda. An accident pulls the being to Earth. Said being goes on a rampage, and eventually leaves with a bright and hopeful message for all of us. All things considered, it’s a very brief story but the writing keeps it going for nearly an hour and at no point does it drag. (And how about that, huh? Nearly an hour! Say that with me! Today’s “hour long” dramas are between 41-43 minutes. Back in 1963, we were pulling in 51 minutes per story. Talk about bang for your buck. 9 minutes of commercials vs nearly 20! This is why so many people remember “the good old days”!)
What made the episode great is that it probes questions that we wonder about. It reminds us that we are not that different and there are far stranger things to be weary of out there, in the darkness of space, but it’s not all bad. To some, we’re the worst it gets; sounds like we should improve our act! Mostly, it’s a positive story about a friend from another star, even if people are injured during the episode. Let’s look at it more closely. Both people, Allen and the Andromedan are breaking the rules. Allen is syphoning off power to track radio signals; the Andromedan is exploring dangerous worlds and making contact. He’s forbidden from doing so because beings like us are aggressive, harmful. (So if I have any issues with the episode, they are these: knowing he’s not supposed to even talk to us, do you sit around with a signal open for 1 hour? Second, when the power is cranked up, the being comes through as if he had been in the other room. This latter may be a limitation of the effects at the time though.)
That said, let’s take careful note of something: the parallel between Allen and the Andromedan is made clear when Allen’s wife, annoyed that he puts so much time into his experiments asks “Who are you?” Her point is coldly asking, who are you that you think you’ll discover anything when bigger facilities have not. His response is astounding and speaks of what it really means to be human:
“Nobody. Nobody at all. But the secrets of the universe don’t mind. They reveal themselves to nobodies who care. …The big laboratories spend millions of dollars… they work slowly and surely, and they get results but not the big steps. Those come form the human mind, not from a laboratory. Call them inspiration, call them intuition, maybe blind luck. Maybe it’s God saying ‘now’s the time’…”
But to draw that parallel home that these two people are the same: Allen’s very first question to the Andromedan is “Who are you?” Like Allen, he’s probably a nobody, just an Andromedan who cares, who wants to know the big questions: what’s out there? Are we alone? Do we matter?
Along with those questions, Allen and the Alien discuss carbon based life and nitrogen based life. They talk about what death is and what God is. The discussion is fascinating considering it comes down to simple science in the eyes of our galactic neighbor. God is infinity. There’s something both beautiful and terrifying in that. Speaking of their discussion, the dialogue happens due to a universal translator that Allen cobbles together as one does; it comes down to simple binary in the end. This got me wondering how that would be handled when the being got outside the lab. At first, I thought they wouldn’t address it or they’d have him speak ignoring the earlier established fact, but they didn’t make that mistake. That’s when it hit me. It was when the human shot at the being and was met with what resembled a Dalek energy blast. It took me all this time to realize: he was speaking. Maybe saying, “please don’t shoot”… but it was any time he spoke without having the translator, it burned people. And that was a wonderfully clever idea. The writers cared enough not to forget that they established an idea and they stuck with it.
Visually, this show impressed me to no end. While it was evident to modern eyes that the being is always against a certain background, he was a damned awesome looking life form. I loved when he looked in the binoculars and they lit up to the camera. I loved so much about this episode but I think it’s because I too am a nobody and maybe I can still meet something like this guy. It filled me with hope.
The Being tells the humans who are gathered outside to explore, reach out, and to “give thought to the mysteries of the universe” and then he walks back into the station (“I will leave you now, in peace”) to say goodbye to the human within whom he found a kindred spirit. The Andromedan accepts that this is the end. Allen asks what will happen, and our alien explorer says “unknown”. In that moment, the viewer becomes aware that he will be embarking on another journey of discovery. He ends simply with the words: “End of transmission” and he fades away.
The control voice sums it up: The planet Earth is a speck of dust, remote and alone in the void. There are powers in the universe inscrutable and profound. Fear cannot save us. Rage cannot help us. We must see the stranger in a new light – the light of understanding. And to achieve this, we must begin to understand ourselves, and each other.
And control of our television is returned to us as we give thought to the mysteries of the universe… ML
The view from across the pond:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set.”
Actually there is. It’s a big ugly square box, the screen is all curved, and it’s in black and white. That’s because we have journeyed back to September 1963 for our first trip to The Outer Limits.
To place this in its proper context, it’s two months before the BBC will show a madman in a box heading off on his first adventure, and three years before a starship will go where no man has gone before. More importantly, The Twilight Zone has been going for four years and still has a year to run, and on first impressions The Outer Limits is pretty much the same series. I mean, if you stuck in a man with a cigarette at the start you would probably struggle to identify any differences.
Sci-fi in the 60s was full of excitement for the future. Nowadays we are used to a small handheld device that can do just about anything, but we are journeying back to a time when computers were huge, mysterious boxes with tapes whirling round and the pace of scientific discoveries meant that anything seemed possible. Things like microwave energy were new and exciting, and that was a gift for sci-fi writers. They could use science to do anything, and it didn’t matter too much if it made no sense. And do you know what? I love that kind of sci-fi. I love it when somebody makes an impossible three dimensional version of sound waves in a box, uses those impossible sound waves to impossibly communicate with an alien whose impossible image appears in the impossible box, and then the alien impossibly smashes his way out of the box and starts rampaging around. It doesn’t make sense, you say? Well I couldn’t give a monkeys, because it’s hugely fun and exciting.
So if you’re going to enjoy this episode you have to be able to look past the silly science, which is really only ever going to be a means of getting the right pieces into the right places on the game board anyway. This is an alien first contact episode, and it packs in a whole bundle of fascinating themes. Firstly we have Allan, who has an obsession. He proves his point that great discoveries come to tenacious amateurs much more than the guys with the big bucks. But he also shows the dangers of not having a life balance. He is making an amazing discovery, but on a personal level he is causing his family a world of pain. His wife feels like she is losing him, and his business is about to go down the pan. The flipside of his ambition is represented by Eddie Phillips, who wants to steal fame rather than work for his achievements, seizing his chance to broadcast to the whole country and causing a catastrophe in the process, all because he is smarting about his employer “trying to save a buck on my time.”
As for the alien, on a superficial level I just want to mention what an amazing special effect that is for the time, and how frightening it is when he starts smashing his way around. Try to get into the mindset of a viewer in the 60s and imagine watching that for the first time, in the days long before we were used to anything being possible on our television screens. It must have been terrifying to watch. But more importantly, the alien is an intelligent representation of life beyond our galaxy. Alien races in sci-fi so often have a particular modus operandi, so you get pan-cultural behaviours and motivations, with no individuality. Not so here. Immediately the alien is shown to be an individual among his people, breaking the rules just as much as Allan. He is also peaceful. His rampage is an accident, and as soon as Allan turns up he gets the situation back under control. There is no anger there, just a series of mistakes. It’s remarkably enlightened. Of course, we have to have the gun-crazy cops, who shoot first and ask questions later, the one reason why I could never live in a country that values guns more than human life, but the numpty cop shooting Carol does bring the episode round to an important point: the alien’s warning against “using force”. Call it pacifism if you like, but that kind of intelligent thought will always find a voice in film and television, and already was in the 1960s with perfect clarity. Put your guns away.
“End of transmission.”
Read next in the Junkyard… The Outer Limits: The Hundred Days of the Dragon