I think The Zanti Misfits is one of the stronger Outer Limits episodes and doesn’t even spoil the big punch like so many other episodes by giving us a glimpse of the alien in the pre-credit sequence. In fact, what they do, while still giving us another sneak peak, is audio only: we hear only a very eerie voice on a speaker to let us know that something strange is coming. While I dislike the pre-credit sequences, if they have to do it, let it be done where it maintains a sense of mystery.
The episode opens properly when the Control Voice introduces us to the plot: a hyper-evolved race that has no death sentence, must do something about its criminals and the people of the planet Zanti have a solution: ship them off to our planet. Earth as a penal colony; what could be easier? It’s not that dissimilar to shipping people to another country, like Australia! When we are introduced to our main protagonist, Steve Graves, he is busy speculating on what the people of Zanti look like. And this leads to the biggest fail of the episode for me. Don’t get me wrong: I loved the discussion about super-human, sub-human, or just non-human and even loved the foreshadowing of their appearance with the ant on the wall that Steve flicks off. Conceptually great stuff, and worth the price of admission! But his first encounter with them is when he saves Lisa, a lowlife who’s run off with Bruce Dern rather than stay in her happy marriage because she likes bad boys and is sick of being “safe”. But what lead Steve to believe that the creature attacking Lisa was a Zanti? Until that point, everyone thought that these beings are “people” of some sort. He encounters a creature attacking Lisa, throws a rock at it, killing it, and runs off. I had been wondering in that moment: did he know that was a Zanti or did he mistake it for a particularly nasty looking desert insect. When he gets back to the base, he says he killed one of them. Frankly, I think this was a massive mistake. I think it would have worked far better if he did not know what he just killed. Upon finding out, the threat of destruction might have been far more believable and we could have built off of that. Of course, this could simply be the limitation of the 50-minute format. But it does lead to another question when we see the base-under-siege that the episode transforms into once the menace is revealed: how many Zanti creatures fit into that small capsule? No wonder they were so ornery! There had to be at least 50 of them – one for every minute of the show!
The 50-minute format certainly hurts TV anthologies in some ways: the writers have a very limited time to build the characters and have the audience care about them. A movie gets more time to work with that, as does a series, but a single episode is a challenge. So when we meet Bruce Dern’s Ben, we see only that he “would never kill a reasonable man”, but the security guard just wasn’t “reasonable”. As a result, Ben’s death is a footnote and of little interest. He’s merely a more disposable version of “Barbara Wright”, there to be menaced by the Zanti equivalent of a Dalek plunger as we see the stop-motion antenna poking through the window as Ben approaches. The best thing that comes of his death is the very disconcerting view of his contorted face when Lisa sees it through a crack in the rocks. By contrast, Steve is given just a few lines to establish that he is a good man. When asked if he would have wanted to be in Hiroshima, he surprises the general with a “If I could have helped!” In one fell swoop we like Steve while in an equally quick stroke of the brush, we find Ben a deplorable person (to say nothing of the way he treats his runaway bride.)
In typical fashion, this series has a thing to say about the human condition but it gets more right than it might have expected. Uncertainty is called “one of the worst things a country could suffer”, and I’ve rarely heard truer words. Human kind has gone through many periods of uncertainty but living through one while watching this series makes the sentiment more palpable and disquieting. But the bigger, perhaps worse, message is that humanity is a race of “practiced executioners”. The Zanti tricked us to taking their prisoners knowing we “could not live with such aliens in your midst” but that’s a horrible thing to believe. Are we really so ready to treat those who are different like they are our enemies? Sadly, if I’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that the answer is a bleak: yes. We really do have a problem with anything “different” and members of our own race are treated like aliens, so what hope do we have of peaceful First Contact in our lifetimes? We will undoubtedly destruct any race that comes here and that’s a constant source of bother for me!
Sorry, what? No I meant to say “destruct” because everyone in this episode uses it synonymously with “destroy”. How many times do we hear “destruct that ship, general”. Destruct and destroy might both be about the same thing, but wow, that was a shock to hear it said so many times. By the time I realized it, I had not started counting, but it would have been a funny tally to work on. It’s as if the script writer was rapidly filling in lines and got confused: “something doesn’t sound right with this… ah, no one will notice…” The episode also destructed my belief that Kirk fought a Gorn on an alien planet when I recognized the same location for the Zanti landing. Damn destructors!
Mostly, I think this episode is as strong as it is because of the strangeness of it. The Zanti are not what we expect. They have different beliefs and drastically different appearances. Their silhouettes as they attacked the base coupled with that outstanding sound they made definitely helped create a memorable episode. On top of that, the stop-motion was also a brilliant touch that is sadly lacking in today’s CGI-heavy world. While CGI might look more “real”, it lacks the alien, unnervingly disjointed quality produced by the older form of filming and sometimes, less is more. We tend to forget that but it’s still true: less is often more. Much like these creatures, in fact! They may seem smaller, but The Zanti Misfits certainly pack a punch! ML
The view from across the pond:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set.”
That’s true. Nothing whatsoever, because that was brilliant. This is one I have been looking forward to because Mike has mentioned it a few times. Having said that, I didn’t really know much about it other than the monsters are memorable.
Maybe it’s because I’m of a vintage before CGI was much of a thing, but I love stop motion animation. As I child I was thrilled by the Ray Harryhausen movies. Even now, this kind of effect convinces me more than a lot of CGI, because it’s something that is genuinely, physically there. It must have taken a lot of work, and I don’t expect to see this sort of thing on a television budget, but the Zanti are absolutely brilliant. What a great effect. The eyes moving really sell them as living creatures, and they are incredibly creepy models. There is something truly disturbing about a giant insect with a recognisable face. The “wawawawa” sound adds to the fear factor, and oh, those screams!
Even when stop motion animation isn’t being used, the Zanti still work well as a scary monster, whether they are shadows moving down a window, or latched onto somebody’s neck, or swarming all over somebody. Scary stuff. And that Zanti crawling onto the car windscreen is going to have me checking my car over very carefully before I drive off. The Zanti climbing up somebody’s trouser leg doesn’t even bear thinking about. If creepy crawlies bother you then this one will really play on that fear, and I really don’t like crawling insects, so naturally I loved the Zanti!
But the episode has even more going for it than memorable monsters. It has Laura Dern’s dad. It also has an important message from writer Joseph Stefano. I pondered over what that message might be for a while. Initially, it seemed to be this: we’re Australia. Perhaps this was going to be an indictment of the past of the British Empire, sending convicts to another country. But no, like many an Outer Limits episode, the message was this: humans are idiots. Harsh, but apparently true, because I think the way alien first contact plays out in this episode is a frighteningly accurate representation of what would really happen.
Take the aptly-named Steve Grave, for example. He’s the “official historian of interplanetary events”, who goes around shouting “we’re going to destroy this entire area!” Yeah, shout that out. That’s a good idea. No wonder the “misfits” attack the military base in desperation, and it is a move that clearly indicates the last roll of the dice, because it’s an obvious suicide mission. As frightening as they are, they don’t have much to compete with bullets and grenades. Then he encounters an alien for the first time who has, as far as he is aware, done nothing yet to harm anyone, and throws a rock at it. Some interplanetary historian he is!
The General is a more sympathetic representation of humanity, trying to avoid a war, but he is a lone voice, and has to put up with his superior phoning him up and giving him 15 minutes until the area is bombed. 15 minutes! But yeah, if aliens landed for real that would probably be about as long as we could hope for, until the first shots get fired. Maybe in a hundred years or something we will be ready, but not now.
The only problem with this episode is the message gets a bit muddled. As much as the “practiced executioners” line hits hard, what happens is less the result of basic human nature and more the result of the warring factions being non-representative of their respective races. On the one side we have a ship full of convicts, and on the other side we have a plan that was apparently working peacefully, getting messed up by the presence of a criminal and his moll (and by the way, wasn’t she irritating, with such poorly-timed self-reflection). So the humans never actually had a chance to prove that they were anything other than “practiced executioners”. I would have also liked to have seen the philosophy of the Zanti challenged, because that did truly reflect an issue that humans tend to hide from: sending somebody off to be executed by somebody else is still an execution. The Zanti (non-misfits) kept their own hands clean, but they are still killers, just as much as if they had destroyed those misfits themselves. I wonder how many people who advocate for execution of criminals could really flick that switch themselves.
So this was almost a perfect episode, but fell at the last hurdle by never quite joining the dots. I still loved it though, just because of those creepy crawlies with faces. I don’t think I’ll forget them in a hurry. I’ll be keeping my bug catcher handy for a while…
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 Mice