What does Star Trek’s Hikaru Sulu have in common with Torchwood’s Ianto Jones? The both love a good countdown and my guess is The Outer Limit’s might have inspired them both. “Oh my!” Does this episode have a litany of countdowns and technical jargon! I wish I had counted, but that seems so redundant. 10, 9, 8… I realized the actors were probably rattling off phone numbers like Tom Baker because the script would have been utterly devoid of life if they had to remember the sheer amount of lines like “1, 1, 1, .4,” etc etc. And this episode is really all about numbers! So much so, that its 4 act breakdown is very concise with little overlap: Act 1: the setup. Talk a rich man out of spending money on a medium to instead finance an endeavor into the unknown. (Were the costs similar? Powering an entire city for an hour seems like it would cost way more than getting a medium to contact one’s dead child, but what do I know about such costs?! Maybe I should get free estimates to see…) Act 2: rattle off numbers and do countdowns pretending to test that things can reverse on camera. Act 3: have a test subject go a little wrong to up the ante, but salvage it at the end because without that, act 4 goes nowhere. Act 4: Have Mr. Price (Star Trek’s Professor Crater from The Man Trap) sabotage the experiment to spend the remainder of the final act with a mix of shouting, loud music, and repeat images. I really should have counted how many times Ian calls out for Eva; it had to be 75 times! The Borderland is a tough episode to like.
To compound matters, the control voice ends with a lesson about the power of love. I wanted Bryan Adams to break into song, but realized the timing was a bit off. But the thing is, while it is Eva who saves Ian (and it may be an act of love in reality) it’s no more than any coworker would do for another if they could. All she does is holds his hand to prevent him from being lost in another world. A neighbor did that for a man in The Twilight Zone and I don’t think the two men became an item after it (Little Girl Lost)! There is so little in the story to show any love between the two that it feels tacked on. Maybe that’s why the control voice says the ending so quickly; a sort of “gee, I hope no one notices… let’s move on!” I’d do exactly the same for a friend in that position: hold on for dear life trying to pull him or her back. What power of love? It’s the power of decency! Humanity!! And frankly, the special effect of the episode, the 2 right hands, has to be the lamest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s so abundantly clear that it’s another man’s hand that it loses any believability. That was the best we could do??
As if that’s not enough, no one is particularly likable in this story. Ian Fraser is too obsessed with cutting corners; something every scientist knows to avoid. His partner, Linc, seems to hit on Eva telling her that if anything happens to her husband, he’ll take care of her. Go away, creepster! Mr. Price is an obsequious sycophant pandering to Mrs. Palmer, an evident charlatan pretending to commune with the dead. What she is good at is extortion and blackmail. Real likable pair! And then there’s Mr. Sawyer who should have been thrown into the machine just for being a money hungry leech. I was waiting for someone to kick him in the teeth. Lastly we have Hartley, the financial backer who is so obsessed with his son’s death that he will be taken in by anyone claiming to be able to help. It’s a cast from hell in an episode that was once again all about the message: “be careful when tampering with the forces of nature”. We’ve seen this with The Man With the Power and It Crawled out of the Woodwork. This is the third time and it’s still no more appealing. The only character who has anything worth liking is the kind Eva, and even she really comes down to someone who yells a lot. Whoa…
Oh, and let’s just address those horrendous pre-credit sequences which showed us what’s coming. Thanks to It Crawled out of the Woodwork, which used the pre-credit scene as a prologue, we know now that we can’t just skip them. They may have important information in them! But this one is entirely disingenuous because it shows things out of order. Hartley does not leap into the firestorm and explode; he turns to a skeleton and vanishes. So these pre-credit sequences are abysmally placed and dreadfully misused.
“So tell us how you really feel,” I hear you say. Most of the episode reminded me of Contact with Jodie Foster. That whole movie was a 2 hour buildup to reveal nothing, which I really hated. But this has something going for it: I am a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. That actually helped salvage this episode for me. Oh it doesn’t make it likable, but it makes it a bit more palatable. You see, in some of the more modern Lovecraft stories, games, comics, etc, there is a place called The Borderlands and I’ve seen images of it that were reminiscent of what we see superimposed here. It seems to be entered through dreams but the fact is, it’s a terrifying place of odd, “non-Euclidean geometry” and strange creatures. Conceptually, right up my alley. I like to think that Ian Fraser saw into that Borderland. I’d like to believe that what he saw there was a hint of the things from the land of Cthulhu and Yog Sothoth and his kin. Oh, it’s not started or even likely that it was intended, but I’m a dreamer and that’s exactly the right thing to be for entering the Borderlands. It’s not going to win this episode a place in the top 10… or top 40… but it’s enough to make it watchable.
So no, I think this is an episode of sound and fury signifying nothing, but a little imagination adds just enough to keep it watchable for me. Sadly, what’s on the screen isn’t enough, but the brief images of that other world give us just enough gas to get this car to the next station. Now if only we had some Lovecraftian sea creatures coming out of those borderlands, I might have loved this episode. Oh, well… maybe next time. ML
The view from across the pond:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set.”
…but did you know it’s powered by ELECTRICITY! OMG! That’s scary stuff. Hey, wait a minute. That was last week. But once again we are in the realms of electricity as something dangerous and frightening, this time combined with magnetic fields. Ian Fraser has reversed the polarity, and opened a “doorway into the fourth dimension”.
Scientists must really hate this series. If you’re looking for realistic drama based around what is scientifically possible you won’t find that here. I think I’m going to have to say this a lot for The Outer Limits: I don’t care about what’s possible. If there’s a good story to be told, I don’t want boring things like the laws of science to get in the way of that. Feed a load of power into some magnets to open a door to another dimension? Yes, I’ll buy that.
Almost as if writer Leslie Stevens knew he was stretching credulity, he first compares his idea with something far more ridiculous: a medium holding a séance. I was pleased to see the hatchet job the writer did on those charlatans, who prey on the grief and desperation of the vulnerable. The medium’s lackey, Mr Price, was an odd character, because he seemed to know that she was a fraud and yet had some kind of a twisted belief in her way being “the right way”, even driven to murder for her. But I think that makes an important point about the harm this kind of nonsense can do. The great con trick that is the psychic industry is not a victimless crime.
Almost falling prey to Mrs Palmer is poor Dwight Hartley, who lost his son in a traffic accident aged 17. Asking Ian Fraser to try to contact his son in the “fourth dimension” was a very weird mental leap to make, with nothing to indicate that the “doorway” led to anywhere other than a place where things get reversed, but grief does strange things to people.
The episode broke with tradition by not having a monster as such, although I suppose you could count Ian with his two right hands. That was unintentionally amusing, and set me off on a train of thought about how useful it could be. You could shake hands with two people at the same time, write two things at once, or even use those two right gloves I somehow ended up with. No, wait. They’re both lefts. Never mind.
Having given us that big moment of revelation with Ian placing his right hand and somebody else’s right hand on a table (I wonder who played the other hand, and did he get paid for it?), I suspect everyone involved in making this went, “oh dear… hold on a minute”, because after that his left hand had to be kept hidden in order to maintain the illusion. That led to a lot of clumsy moments with Ian standing at a slightly unnatural angle so his left side is concealed, or even worse standing around with one hand in his pocket all the time. That didn’t exactly help with the moments of tension, because he looked like the most casual person who was about to risk his life ever.
Despite this handicap (no pun intended), the episode cranked up the tension steadily until the moment of Ian getting stuck in a sort of limbo between worlds, which was a thoroughly gripping piece of television. The idea of getting stuck, “falling” between dimensions, was terrifying, the window to another world was tantalising, and the “power of love” message at the end was unusually upbeat and inspiring for The Outer Limits. I wonder what happened to Dwight Hartley though. Maybe he found his son after all.
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: Tourist Attraction