Years before Star Trek gained popularity with its international crew, The Outer Limits gave us Nightmare; a story about an international crew going to war with the planet Ebon. There, the group is tortured for information about what they know regarding future invasion plans. The episode places a magnifying glass over the group of humans, forcing them to look closely at one another and wonder: who is the traitor? This episode unintentionally connects two shows, actually. We’ve got Star Trek’s international crew with The Twilight Zone’s The Monsters are due on Maple Street. “Who are the monsters” is replaced by “who sold out to the monsters” but in both cases, we get to see mankind lose sight of what it means to be human.
Like O.B.I.T., this episode offers us a lot to explore. Cinematically, we have a very barren set with few props of any kind and some heavy costumes on the Ebonite actors. The result is that the direction has to drive the story and it does that magnificently. With nothing to distract from the humans and the one or two Ebonites on the screen, there’s no room for error. And amazingly, they all pull off a powerhouse performance. If I had one issue with it, it’s the true shame of having to have a pre-credit scene; it gives too much away. Luckily, the scene in question happens within the first 5 minutes of the episode so it’s mitigated by that, but had this come later in the story (like The Sixth Finger), I would have been very down on the decision. Also, while talking about the background stuff, the music and sound effects were amazing too. It all adds to a very tense episode that deserves to be seen.
The simple line, “Ebon struck first”, gives us all we need to know really. We’re programmed to think it means that humanity is taking revenge, but when the reveal comes at the end, the real impact is made: they struck first and will do whatever it takes to make amends, even terrible things if that will help us forgive them. The Ebonites, armed with sensory control, proceed to torture the soldiers to get information out of them. But early on we are given a clue that things are not what they seem, when the camera shows humans in a booth with the interrogating Ebonite officer. They discuss who they will think will break first: Dix (Martin Sheen) has mommy issues, while Krug (Sasha Harden) is overcome with guilt for turning his grandfather in to the Nazis for not being Aryan enough. (This scene is chilling, again thanks to the simplicity. Upon hearing what he’s done, his grandfather appears and says simply, “he forgave you”. This is enough to cause Krug’s heart to give out.) They also think it might be Jung but their reason left me totally dumbfounded. “Perhaps. Recites poetry!” (It might as well have been a line in Airplane! How does reciting poetry make one a traitor? Gee, Major Jung never has a second cup of coffee at home either!) Major Jung (James Shigeta, Babylon 5’s Taro Isogi) is the only one who I really liked but even we are made to wonder if he gave up sensitive data. You’ll have to watch to find out.
Jung exposes some of the biggest truths to the cast. Talking to Dix, who had lost his voice earlier in the episode, he says “an uneducated man rarely turns down the opportunity to speak”, offering perhaps a reason Dix would have sold out his people. Turning to Willowmore, the black man who had his sight taken from him, he refers to him as a “man who has had to endure the blindness of other people”, suggesting that he may have spoken to get his own sight back, and would be particularly sensitive to the blindness (or ignorance) of others. (Alas, that too, offers a chilling, icy delivery as Willowmore breaks down explaining what he saw when his sight was returned: “they took his heart out”). And to Col. Luke Stone he says “a man who chooses men-at-arms instead of the arms of a beautiful woman” may also be the traitor. I saw Jung as the only decent member of the crew and it’s telling that at the start of the episode, when the Ebonites are asking the soldiers for “Name, alone”, he’s the only one who answers “Jung”. No title or background needed. He follows instructions. Does that mean he was willing to obey, or did he just know how to stay on the good side of the enemy?
I should have found it jarring from the start when the Ebonite talks about claiming insurance! That should have been hint #1. The humans in the control room, I took as hallucinations at first, even thinking we were being tricked by Dix’s mom being surrounded by a hallucinatory “dreamy” cloud, while the others were not, but by the time the realization hits, that’s all but forgotten. The truth is that while the prisoners are fighting to hold onto their all-too-fragile humanity, the people running the show are humans who feel justified in the torture they are having the Ebonites commit. “I’m sorry, but I do not apologize!” (Sorry isn’t an apology? Also good to know!) The Ebonites end up not being the bad guys and that’s a wonderful thing for 60’s television to emphasize because we need to remember that being different doesn’t make enemies. “An Ebonite isn’t a human being!” No, lad, you’re right, but they are not the enemy! The enemy is the human who loses his humanity; that is the enemy. When the lead Ebonite goes to share the horrible truth with the prisoners, they jump him, intent on killing him. But before they do, as the camera zooms in on him, we notice his eyes: he is dreadfully sorry. The creature doesn’t even try to retaliate when attacked.
It’s the general, played by the ubiquitous Whit Bissel who really sums it up: “It’s pointless to fight against brainwork.” It’s almost a shame that so much of the negative opinion about government ended up becoming so common place because it’s the bullies who are in control, not the thinkers. It’s the people who think, those who recite poetry, perhaps, that were able to hold onto their humanity. In the end, we are left with the hope that maybe someone will have learned from the terrible experience on the planet Ebon. Maybe not those on the planet; the lesson may come too late, but for those of us back home, perhaps we can still salvage a lesson from this classic series for the improvement of all humanity. ML
The view from across the pond:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set.”
Yes there is. Somebody has been messing with the dial marked “Acting” and now it seems to be stuck on “Overacting”. I don’t know when I’ve seen such fruity performances. And that’s a shame, because it really spoils moments like this, which should have been really shocking:
“They took his heart out!”
I wasn’t keen on the whole concept of this episode. We were expected to make the mental leap to Earth being at war with another planet, and technology reaching the point where troops could be sent on a mission there. If the episode was set in the distant future that would be fine, but it’s not. Esra Krug carries with him the burden of guilt from turning in his Jewish grandfather to the Nazis in the war, while Jong is a Korean War veteran. That places this episode not very far in the future from the time it was made.
If we can overlook that, what we are then presented with are a group of soldiers being captured immediately and placed in a prisoner of war camp, where they are tortured for information. And that’s the vast majority of the episode. Private Dix loses his nerve straight away and starts shouting a lot, at which point his Ebonite captor takes away his ability to speak. At least Dix is well named, because he’s one of a bunch of… well, let’s just say they are not the most convincing crack squad of troops. They cave in pretty easily. A couple of silly illusions and they’re ready to spill the beans. At least the Ebonites are visually impressive aliens. Whoever was doing the alien masks for The Outer Limits was really good at the job, and the bat wings help to make them something a bit different to the usual actor in a mask.
I thought the twist in the tale was a very good one, but it happened very late in the game, and sitting through the endless scenes of mental torture while the actors hammed up their panic attacks was tedious to say the least. I wasn’t expecting a twist, so was pleased when the episode actually came to life at the end, and had something important to say: the monsters here are the humans. If anyone has been following our episode-by-episode reviews of the anime series Elfen Lied on Saturdays, you will have found the same message playing out in that series, and it’s an important one. The Ebonites’ attack was originally a misunderstanding. They feel guilty and are trying to make up for it. The humans… no, let’s not just say humans. Let’s call a spade a spade. The military have leapt at the chance and are demanding a high price from the Ebonites, forcing them to play the bad guys in a hideous charade. They might just as well have asked them to go and perform in a freak show. So the whole thing was an exercise to test out human reactions to being captured by cruel aliens, the results of which will be “fed into computers for the edification and enlightenment of all the strategists of the future”. Well, I hope they are suitably edified by the results of a nasty torture experiment. The death of course is real. The poor guy’s heart gave out, and I think writer Joseph Stefano was clever to stick with that rather than reveal it was all a trick. It shows that messing with people in such an extreme manner will have consequences.
Hidden away in the midst of all this, two important messages: firstly, the human race has come together in unity against what they think is a common foe (this is pretty much the opposite message the series was selling before); secondly…
“You turned in your grandfather didn’t you. He forgave you.”
Sometimes humans are the greatest monsters of all, but we also have a gift: the capacity to forgive.
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: It Crawled Out of the Woodwork