Though I had seen many episodes of The Outer Limits as a kid, it wasn’t until adulthood that I saw it and realized I needed to see them all. It took one episode to sell me on that fact: Ellis St. Joseph’s The Sixth Finger starring David McCullum as Gwyllm. And it caught me right from the word go, when a clip is shown from mid-episode. At the time, I was fascinated and wanted to see more. Many years later, I wondered: why on earth would you show the “monster” so early? Where was the sense of buildup? (I found out too, with a bit of research: the network felt the show needed a lure to grab the audience!)
McCullum teams up with Edward Mulhare; surely you remember Devon Miles from Knight Rider who helps Michael work on Kitt. (Shame he’s not so good with working on women! When Kathy goes into hysterics, his solution is to shake her so violently, she has shaken baby syndrome for weeks! Fair dues, though, she does calm down!) Mulhare wants to do a demonstration on evolution because, why not? He builds an easy-to-use control panel (push forward to advance, backward to regress) and speeds up where man will go in the next million years. (Sadly, we don’t get to look like Babylon 5’s Kosh, but we develop heads that actually make mine look small!) McCullum asks the pointed question “how can you go forward in such a backward place?” Well, he’s about to find out.
The evolution was brilliantly depicted. He first develops a slightly larger head with minimal hair, a stump where a 6th finger is developing, and at least low level telepathy. But the evolution continues without the aid of the machine. His ears become wonderfully pointed, his head becomes enormous and his eyes sink deeply. At this point, he has developed telekinetic abilities and when he kills the landlady, he sees it no differently than when we kill a bug. He’s already evolved so far beyond us that he cannot relate. He doesn’t even seem to look at Kathy with the affection that started off the story.
A side note about Kathy – wow was she pretty! She loves Gwyllm (McCullum) and wants him to be happy, but when she sees what he’s becoming, she observes that “all that’s left of Gwyllm is his hatred of this town”. For me, she offers a deeper insight into the story than Gwyllm’s evolution. Yes, Gwyllm hates the backward town with its insipid people and when he rages, he says “your savageness must end”. He uses his mind to fling cops around like rag dolls and in his moment of savageness, he evolves again, growing past his hate. He goes back to the house and asks Kathy to help him evolve further. But here’s the thing: he had telekinetic power, he didn’t need her. He could have done it himself, but something tells me, he couldn’t. So he says to her, go forward, “not backwards!” Now look, she was a simple girl from a mining town and couldn’t even add money to get the right change, but she was smart when it counted. Her IQ was no match for her EQ! She knew what was being asked!
It’s never explicitly stated but I believe she knew Gwyllm had evolved past hate and was able to love and I think somewhere inside, he wanted her to bring him back. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing; maybe he wanted to go forward consciously but buried deeper, he wanted to come back to her, to be himself again. In the end, her love brings him home. Hopefully he’s wiser for it. Worst case, he dies as a man in her arms, not as a super-entity so far beyond us that people don’t matter. Superpowers are great, but if they make us forget what it is to be human, what’s the point? I’d rather die a man knowing what love is than evolve into a being that can’t appreciate all that is beautiful in life. And Kathy was that! Not just physically, but emotionally as well. Thanks for reminding us what really matters, Kathy! ML
The view from across the pond:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set.”
Yes there is. I want to watch a different story but it keeps showing me one I’ve seen before. Here we are again with a scientist experimenting on a human being to create something different in order to find a shortcut to force humanity to live in peace, thinking the ends justify the means, and using a willing victim who is keen to escape his humdrum existence because he feels he is better than that. Oh, and those magic invisible waves are back again:
“With the use of selective wavelengths I can stimulate the genes in every cell in your body.”
That’s a whole lot of repetition but for some reason I didn’t mind too much. There is value in making the same point in different ways, and these episodes are just so compelling and fun to watch that I can forgive the similarities. It just seems odd that these episodes weren’t split across the series a bit more… unless it’s all going to be like this.
So we have Professor Mathers, another scientist with a vision. He wants to create the “man of the future”, who will usher in a time of “peaceful and civilised co-existence”. In a moment of revelation I thought was very clever, we learn that he previously worked on the design of an atomic weapon, and now he wants to make war impossible, to atone. He has already made progress by experimenting on a monkey (well, let’s face it, a man in a monkey suit, which I suppose is one way to earn a living) and he has named his monkey Darwin.
Apparently the channel execs got their knickers in a twist about all this evolution stuff. How dare anyone suggest we evolved from something else? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, over a century after On the Origin of Species was published there was still a problem in the US with a television show daring to suggest that evolution is a real thing. The scene with Gwyllm devolving at the end had to be cut after the first stage, although that wasn’t much of a loss. It was going on a bit, and it was rather silly to see Cathy leaving that lever down after Gwyllm had returned to normal anyway. For anyone who still isn’t keen on the idea of evolution due to their religion, here’s a bit of free advice: just rationalise it as a trail of red herrings put there by a creator god, in order to keep meddling scientists busy. While they’re looking at bones they’re not making nuclear weapons or something. There you go, you can stop stressing about it now.
In any case, the writer of this episode presumably didn’t have a clue about what evolution actually means (when the words “missing link” are mentioned you can tell that for a start). A giant lever that is labelled “Forward” and “Backward” gave me a momentary chuckle, but it propagates the myth of linear evolution just as much as the myth of the missing link. Evolution branches. It’s not a straight line.
But let’s not allow facts to get in the way of a stonking good story. I’m not going to contradict my previous reviews and start worrying about whether something the Outer Limits is showing me is scientifically possible or not, or even particularly realistic. Giant levers pushing somebody along a linear evolutionary path to mankind’s future is fine with me. There were many unintentional laughs along the way in this joyously fun episode: Gwyllm evolving a bad hairstyle and a giant forehead… well, more of a fivehead; a “bud of a sixth finger” sticking out of the side of his hand; Wilt playing a concertina without moving his fingers, something that even Fivehead wouldn’t be able to do. But there was a lot to admire too. I admired Jill Haworth’s smile especially, which lit up the screen on several occasions. I also admired the acting range of the legend that is David McCallum, who basically had to play several different characters and did that effortlessly.
For the first time we had an episode with something approaching a happy ending. It’s open to interpretation, because Gwyllm never got to travel “to infinity” and was dragged back to the man he used to be, but I think the old Gwyllm inside the new super brained Fivehead might just have wanted exactly that, deep down. Bearing in mind his telepathic abilities, how could he not have realised Cathy was going to pull the lever downwards? You wouldn’t even need to be telepathic to guess that. So I think that might have been what he truly wanted. Faced with the choice of infinity, or the love of a good woman with a beautiful smile, infinity can go hang.
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 Who Was Never Born
The Sixth Finger remains a cornerstone for how SF could dramatize the consequences of human evolution going too fast. We have seen so many beings throughout SF thinking they can get away with anything because of all their great powers, from Star Trek’s Gary Mitchell to Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man. David McCallum’s incisive acting style makes this occasion most crucially chilling, with the equally crucial message that being evolved enough for the power of love is how better off we contemporary humans are, even if not enough people on Earth have realized that.
It’s good that this SF subject is among the most frequent on the Junkyard. Especially now thanks to The Outer Limits. Thank you both for your reviews.
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McCallum’s haunting delivery of “It is a high price to pay for power over other men.” is timeless.
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Glad I discovered this blog! I love science fiction/fantasy anthology shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, etc., and I’m glad to see them discussed here. I just watched The Sixth Finger on DVD, and I found the ending, and Kathy’s words, “I brought him back,” very moving. However, I wasn’t sure what was happening to Gwyllm. Was he dying at the end?
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Delighted that you found our site. We have a wide range of SF and that list is growing.
Re: the Sixth Finger, I don’t think they make that clear. I feel like there was no reason for him to die and maybe he was just beat from the transition. I think it’s up to the view to decide. Was he brought back simply to die as himself? Maybe. But I’d like to think he survived and stayed with Kathy. That’s my optimism showing I guess! ML
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