It’s impossible to watch The Architects of Fear without seeing real life flash before my eyes. Ironically I just wrote another article about that in a far more positive light. But as I watched this right as the Corona Virus hit, my thoughts were understandably darker. And there’s no denying, even as I write this, we just have no idea what to expect. We’re all of the mindset that things will go back to normal eventually. But there’s this little voice in the back of my head saying, “Is this the day?”
I always loved the opening of The Outer Limits. Not just the “There is nothing wrong with your television set”, but the Control Voice openings. It gave us a taste of what was to come with a hint of the philosophical. This time it opens with the incredibly timely:
“Is this the day? Is this the beginning of the end? There is no time to wonder. No time to ask why is it happening, why is it finally happening. There is time only for fear, for the piercing pain of panic. Do we pray? Or do we merely run now and pray later? Will there be a later? Or is this the day?”
This is the first of 3 Outer Limits episodes starring the great Robert Culp; forever Bill Maxwell for me. (I was a kid when The Greatest American Hero came out and I loved that show! Bill Maxwell and Ralph Hinkley… legends!) If Culp is in an Outer Limits episode, you know it’s going to be good. In this one, scientists draw lots to see who they will physically transform. The premise is both fascinating and it leads to a strong drama for those who like to think about what they watch. Conceptually it’s down to this: the world is on the eve of destruction. (Fans of The Greatest American Hero will undoubtedly see what I did there!) If the nations had a common enemy, they might band together and stop fighting one another. Sound familiar? Fans of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel The Watchmen might recognize the idea. It’s what was behind Ozymandias’ plan; he creates a threat so vast that the nations of the world will unite to combat it. (Let’s not get into the HBO sequel of 2019!) Moore was very aware of where his idea came from.
Like Watchmen, this story has a problem with it… actually I count two for the episode. I won’t go into the graphic novel, but in the episode Allen (Culp) has a wife. I understand they wanted to make him relatable and create drama, but in doing so, they take away a sense of the reality. I don’t think any man with a family would have been selected or even in the running for the selection. In Babylon 5, Sheridan has to select someone to go on a suicide mission. He very specifically checks that the man has no family. I felt this was a mistake but maybe with the stakes high enough, the decision would have stuck. Maybe they all had families, so the decision could not be off the table. But Allen would almost certainly tell his wife, especially after he finds out his wife is pregnant. Yes, this is a product of another time, but it’s not the Mesozoic; it’s the 60’s. I can’t imagine that he would accept his “death” just to give the world a fighting chance. To give us a truly heartbreaking ending, there is a moment earlier in the episode where Allen’s wife gives him a “mark against evil”; a simple gesture where she touches his forehead and draws a line down the middle. It’s a strange idea, but it pays off in the end when the mutated life form sees his wife one more time and returns the gesture. It’s agonizing as she realizes that the creature before her is her husband, but for the viewer, it works surprisingly well.
We often forget in today’s high tech age of special effects that things were not always so high tech. The alien that Allen becomes, by today’s standards, is laughable. He can barely walk, has strings that are periodically visible, and is about as cross-eyed as one can get! But when this series aired, no one was looking at that. No one cared that when it was bleeding, its blood fell like water. No one was looking at the strings. And you know what? It was enthralling. Watching it even now I found I was still enthralled by it. That’s the power of good writing; you can look past the visuals.
But that leads to the other issue. Without special effects to speak of, we can’t be sure that the ray gun actually disintegrates the car or if what we see is simply the lack of budget to actually blow a car up, but … if they can make a disintegration gun, surely there’s some damned fine technology in this version of our world! What do we have to fear over a missile? Why not just fire a disintegrator beam at the incoming missile? Threat neutralized!
Special effects I can look past; what I can’t look past is the ideas, and they are (to quote Moore’s other masterpiece, V for Vendetta) “bulletproof”. So when the husband and wife talk and one says “something has to come along…” referring to the idea that something has to stop the inevitable destruction that waits in the shadow, my brain starts to think. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but the Corona Virus has the potential for positive effect: it can unite us; in many ways it already is doing that. The world is united in finding a cure. The news isn’t about wars, it’s about how we can stay safe and overcome this. It’s about caring for one another and being aware of our interconnectedness. We are all in this together. Maybe, somewhere, there are some architects of fear, who have created a virus in the hopes of uniting the globe. Maybe pollution will reduce and we will see a marked change in the way we take care of our world. We may be more aware of how often we nibble on our fingers in the supermarket. And we certainly will want to stay in touch with friends and family more. Maybe that architect was merely mother nature intent on cleaning what we refused to and reminding us of what we have forgotten. Whatever the catalyst, I just hope we learn from this event. I hope today isn’t the day! ML
The view from across the pond:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set.”
…although some contemporary viewers would have wondered what was going on with theirs, when Allen the Home-made Alien was replaced with a black screen. I can understand why the broadcasters might have been worried about showing him though. It’s a face only a mother could love (or maybe a wife) and it’s really scary.
Having said that, I don’t think fake-alien-Allen is the most frightening part of the episode. What really scared me was the whole process of turning a human into a monster, surgically removing his organs, etc. OK, it stretched credulity, but so have all three episodes so far. I think the only way to appreciate this series is going to be to switch off the part of the brain that’s shouting out “impossible!” I’m happy to do that, to enjoy such compelling stories.
This one was really troubling. The motives of the group of doctors made a lot of sense. Despite the claim in the ending narration that “scarecrows and magic and other fatal fears do not bring people closer together”, I think they basically had a good point that people will often set aside disagreements and conflicts when there is a common fear or enemy. The way they went about manufacturing that common enemy was horrific, but I don’t think this episode was showing us evil people. They just thought the ends justified the means. In their favour was a willing victim for the experiments, who believed in their cause so strongly that he was prepared to leave the wife he adored behind. That was a brave move from the writer Meyer Dolinsky, because it was far from being the obvious route to take. I think most writers would have given Allen a motivation to go through with the surgery beyond his belief in the project: they would have made him a lonely man in a broken relationship, or something like that; somebody who had nothing left to live for; maybe even somebody who was already terminally ill. In a way that would have been more realistic, but it would have robbed the episode of two important factors: firstly the strength of Allen’s beliefs, and secondly the absolute horror of what is being done to a happy family man, and the cruelty of leaving behind his devoted and pregnant wife. It was a hard job for the actor, because Robert Culp had to sell moments like this:
“Are you aware we’re going to change every organ in your body?”
That’s a cool customer. And all the while the creature was making terrifying noises in its box, as a reminder of what he was going to become. We never do get to see what’s in that box, but sometimes sounds and shadows are scarier than reality.
This was a troubling episode, full of psychological horror. Culp played Allen as such a calm and level headed man that seeing him snap into violent insanity for a while was shocking. We had what were basically scenes of torture with his body being forced to mutate in preparation for the operation, and then the scenes on the operating table, with his organs being removed and artificial “nitrogen filter” lungs inflating for the first time. Very Frankenstein’s monster. Ironically, Allen was transported in a coffin on the way to the launch site, and then we had the inevitable scenes where it all went wrong. To cap it all off, the moment of genius from Dolinsky when he found such a perfect way for Allen to indicate his identity to his wife: when he made the same sign that he made the last time he saw her, there could be no doubt in her mind.
It was a thoroughly unsettling episode, but I don’t think it was entirely bleak. The hope was to be found in the relationship between Allen and Yvette, and the closing narration had something important to say:
“There is no magic substitute for soft caring and hard work, for self-respect and mutual love.”
…because you don’t need a magic substitute for something that is already magical. Yvette knew in her soul that Allen was still alive, and the moment he was shot she felt the bullet enter her own body. He was a man whose strong beliefs led him down a very dark path, but even when he became a monster, he was loved.
We now return control of your computer, until the next time we visit the outer limits of the Junkyard… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Outer Limits: The Man with the Power