One of my favorite things to see in science fiction is a good allegory. It gives us a chance to look at ourselves through a critical lens. If we don’t like doing that, we can just enjoy a story for its own merits. In the case of O.B.I.T., I don’t think we have much choice because the episode is a bit slow and the real joy of this one comes from analyzing what happens. There’s been a murder at a military base and a Senator comes to investigate. He calls witnesses to see how morale is on the base. Everyone is a bit unhappy there, and he learns they are all unhappy about a peeping tom that knows everything. Talk about paranoia, huh?
The story is essentially setup as a courtroom drama with Big Brother as the guilty party. But who controls Big Brother, eh? There has to be some suspension of disbelief from the outset, because the Senator seems to have Top Secret clearance, ordering a military general to show him how the aforementioned device works. He discovers that the O.B.I.T. device has a 500 mile radius and while only 18 are supposed to be in existence, they have gotten into people’s homes and everyone is using them to spy on everyone else. Says chief villain Lomax, if you have nothing to hide, there’s nothing to fear from the O.B.I.T. device. And suddenly we’re in Homeland Security territory. How can we not appreciate the allegory?? But according to the Senator, it’s more than having something to hide! He wouldn’t want people to hear him “cussing out other senators.. to say nothing of my wife…” (Just rude and not willing to let that cat out of the bag? Or does he say worse things to his wife?) And the thing is, the writing is clever enough that it has to rope us in because we have an O.B.I.T. device in front of us as we’re spying on these proceedings. In fact, the control voice sets us up from the start saying that we are about to see a secret thing. Furthermore, when the general talks about it, he calls it an addiction. So we who sit there watching our shows are addicted to the very nature of watching other peoples lives. Like any addiction, it controls us!
Now here’s where it gets even more insidious. These devices are a prelude to an invasion; they are designed to make us complacent. Think about it. We’re so addicted to watching, we fail to act when we need to and our government falls into chaos and suddenly the monsters are in charge of the country. They can control us, but the episode doesn’t give us much idea of what their long term goal is. Are we food? Or are they coming just to conquer? Would we mind as long as we have our O.B.I.T device? Where would we be if they were not found out? To add to the allegory, the threat is controlled by a one eyed creature from another world. In some ways the TV… I mean the O.B.I.T. device is a one-eyed screen we stare at and watch what goes on. Coincidence? I think not! While the episode is slow, it certainly gives us a lot to think about and that’s where it really shines as a story!
I do have a handful of observations to dive into. Mrs. Scott has a head that rivaled most Martian invaders. I half expected her to be an alien. The cycloptic creature on screen has a voice totally unsuited for it. I found that very strange. You expect a deep, gruff, monstrous voice and you get a gentleman from next door. I thought it was very clever that the device only picked up people because it focused in on their signature (like a fingerprint). It gives the actors being viewed a chance to mimic what they were supposed to be doing without the audience actually seeing it because the device doesn’t pick up on inanimate objects. The best example is when Mrs. Scott lights an invisible cigarette, but while we can’t see the lighter, we can hear it. (Of course, here we need to suspend disbelief too. If the device can’t pick up things, why isn’t everyone naked?) I loved the Senator’s line “morality makes its own decisions”. This guy could run for the next Superman, at this rate. And when the Senator wants to talk to Dr. Scott, he says Scott had a complete physical breakdown. But that’s not the case! It’s his mind that’s shot so he had a complete mental breakdown. It takes a special skill to get that wrong!
Speaking of Dr. Scott, we have two guest stars here. Harry Townes plays Dr. Scott and I think this guy is the best. Star Trek’s Return of the Archons or The Twilight Zone’s Shadow Play are just two things I’ve seen him in and I always like that dude. But the real win for me was watching Lomax when he’s discovered as being one of the alien invaders. I guess his eyebrows remained hidden behind his Harry Potter glasses, but when he started flailing his arms as he spoke, I saw it. I saw the same actor 30 years later talking to Captain John Sheridan on Z’Ha’Dum in Babylon 5. Jeff Corey, disguise yourself as the boy wizard all you want, I found you out! I almost missed it, but that arm-flailing ending gave it away.
The episode leaves us feeling somewhat dirty, wrong… We’ve been voyeurs this whole time and we’ve been mollified into allowing an alien menace to take over our world. We don’t know when they will be back. A year? 10? 50? All I can say is, thank goodness these creatures didn’t work with Bertram Cabot Jr and create a microbe to wipe out humanity. Between these two episodes, we’d be in a science fiction story just like… hey, wait a minute… ML
The view from across the pond:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set.”
…but are you sure about that? While you are looking at that screen, how do you know somebody isn’t looking back at you? When you pick up the phone, who is listening? When you type something into a search engine, who is reading it? And don’t get me started on what your kettle and toaster are saying to each other about you.
If you weren’t paranoid about this kind of stuff before (well, maybe not your toaster), then you will be after watching this episode. If you think it’s all a bit far fetched, read up about whistleblower Edward Snowden, and what he revealed in 2013 about the troubling extent of surveillance in the US and other countries. Seriously, if you don’t know about it, go and have a look. It’s hair-raising stuff. Fifty years before those revelations, this episode of The Outer Limits is remarkably prescient.
Much of O.B.I.T. plays out like a courtroom drama. I’m not a big fan of those, and found a lot of this episode a bit talky. Some of these OL episodes can be a bit slow to get to the point. But the courtroom scenes are necessary in order to root out some secrets about the main characters and reveal the extent to which the surveillance machine is ruining people’s lives. The best example is Clifford and Barbara, whose marriage has broken down because Clifford was watching what his wife was getting up to behind his back, and misunderstood her friendliness towards another man, bringing out his jealous side. Senator Orville is a great character, well acted by Peter Breck. He is intense, firm, determined, and unwavering in his quest for the truth. He is like a dog with a bone, and even when he realises that his career is likely to be over if he continues, he won’t be swayed.
“Morality makes its own decisions.”
I love that quote. As he digs down into the situation with O.B.I.T., things get more and more sinister, particularly when it is revealed that the machines have infiltrated civilian life: industry, education, communications networks. As I said, prescient.
The more people realise or even suspect they are being watched, the more their behaviour changes: “no one can laugh or joke”. But the following raised the episode to another level of prescience:
“The worst thing of all is I watch it. I can’t not look. It’s like a drug, a horrible drug. I can’t resist it. It’s an addiction.”
As Orville says, that’s brave of Colonel Grover, because it takes a lot of strength to admit to an addiction but, more than that, isn’t that a spooky reflection of the future, as seen from the perspective of 1963. It taps into so many troubling aspects of modern society. If you’ll allow me to get anecdotal here, I’ll just mention Big Brother, a television show that is thankfully now a shadow of its former self, but when it first started it was a phenomenon. It was basically televised spying on people, and everyone lapped it up. I watched it for several years, and then eventually realised that yes, it was little more than a drug in televisual form; it was not a million miles away from being an addiction, and it wasn’t a particularly healthy thing to be watching. I went cold turkey. But that revelation about the users of O.B.I.T. is also now a reflection of internet use, or rather misuse. How many people visit sites they wouldn’t want their partners to know they are visiting, and how many of those people “can’t resist it”? Or how about scrolling mindlessly through your phone when you know you should be having a conversation with a loved one instead, or putting it down and going to sleep. We’re living the lives of O.B.I.T. addicts, or at least we probably all know somebody who is. The only difference, this being The Outer Limits, is that aliens are behind O.B.I.T. The episode leaves us with something to ponder:
“In the last analysis, dear friends, whether O.B.I.T. lives up to its name or not will depend on you.”
And the same applies to our all-pervading surveillance culture, and our technology addictions. It’s our choice where we go from here.
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 Human Factor