The Outer Limits: Controlled Experiment

Outer Limits 1963 titles logo originalA show like The Outer Limits typically stays in the realm of science fiction, horror, or periodically fantasy.  Rarely does one expect a genre show to take on comedy.  Yet that is exactly what we see here.  Controlled Experiment isn’t a strong episode.  It starts off with that damned preview of what’s coming then surprises us with a strong beginning.  The dialogue between Carroll O’Connor (Deimos) and Barry Morse (Phobos) at the “outpost” is so much fun.  Morse is especially fun because he’s coming to terms with human culture and finds humans a bit uncomfortable to be around.   Then the two get a message that a murder is going to be committed and it’s delivered with the expected brilliance of a being from another world: “”you will probably see someone kill someone.”   So Phobos and Deimos set up to analyze a murder and why humans are so prone to it as a hobby.

A large part of the fun is watching Morse come to terms with humanity; their phrases and habits are as alien to him as he is to us.  I admit, he adapts a bit too quickly, learning to enjoy coffee and cigarettes (“that’s the caffeine and nicotine syndrome”) and kissing (“every chance they get”) but the discussions are at least enjoyable.  The episode relies on a “time squeezer” – nothing like technical terms to give us a reality check – and that means we get to watch the same sequence over and over again.  In a 50 minute episode, this rapidly wears out its welcome.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the commentary the episode offered and there’s a lot to unpack here. The idea of self-obliteration puzzles Phobos and as a result, he’s turned off by humanity.  “They are a form of life, even if they are unspeakable!”  I loved his confusion over simple things referring to an elevator as a levitator.  But so much of the episode could equally be a commentary on other forms of entertainment, namely the murder mystery.  “Innocent bystanders: it’s a tradition. Each one tells a different version of what happened.”  Perhaps there was a commentary on fashion especially when lipstick is described as “sheep fat and perfume.”   Maybe it’s a commentary on people who try to sound smart using words they don’t really understand: “Latin… they use it to impress each other.”  Or perhaps it’s just an unfortunate commentary on human nature and nothing more: “one of them gets upset with the other… it’s their way of life. Bang you’re dead.”  Maybe it’s all those things and in that way, the episode succeeds.  In giving us such a repeated visual, they end up talking about far more than an episode that is spaced out more in terms of story.  So… trade off?

Still, if I didn’t have to watch Carla over and over again as she gunned down her poor unfortunate lover, I might have appreciated the episode more.  On the other hand, credit where due: they didn’t have the technology we have at our disposal today so when we see a frozen image of everyone but Phobos and Deimos, that’s the actors standing very still.  Then again, static was created using a bag of sand, so maybe I’m being too generous with my credit?  Carla (Star Trek’s Yeoman Rand, Grace Lee Whitney) is a bit too fickle for my taste too: one minute she’s willing to commit murder, the next she accepts Bert’s lame excuse for why he was cheating on her.  This was almost laughable but she buys it.  To be clear, he says he was cheating on her, but that was to test to make sure he really loved her.  I’m not going to try that to see if my wife is ok with it; I suspect only Carla Duveen could have been so gullible!  In fact, for our readers I will offer this disclaimer; do not try this at home.  This should only be done by trained professionals working with the hyper-gullible!  (Carla did make me laugh out loud when Morse telepathically asks her name.  She pauses and mentally says “what is my name?  Carla Duveen!”  The fact that she had to think about it was all I needed to burst into laughter.)

I think in the end, the real lesson is the importance one person can play in the galactic game of dominos.  Phobos is instructed to let the murder take place because by stopping it, Carla and Bert will have a child that brings about global destruction.  (Where were these guys in June of ’46?)   Allowing the murder to continue means the massive destruction won’t happen.  What I do credit is that Phobos pulls off a very Doctor Who-like move; he finds that special third alternative, allowing both to live while stopping the future calamity from happening.  This is one of those light-weight stories, but it’s still fun to pick apart.  I don’t think it will ever make a top ten list, but it’s a fun foray into the comedy that The Outer Limits was capable of.  ML

The view from across the pond:

“There is nothing wrong with your television set.”

Well something doesn’t seem quite right. I’m trying to watch an episode of The Outer Limits and instead I’ve just seen some random comedy show.

From what I can gather, this was some kind of a pilot episode for a sci-fi comedy series. Exactly how that came about seems to be shrouded in mystery, but apparently it wasn’t an uncommon thing to do at the time and was known as a “backdoor pilot”. I presume it was deliberately made as part of the Outer Limits run, using the budget allocated for this series (which is surely a bit of a cheeky thing to do anyway), rather than just stuck in as an extra because it had been made and was going spare. Either way, I can’t imagine this happening nowadays. If the famous Doctor Who music and vortex faded away to reveal an episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys, I think the viewers would have something to say about it. What they had to say about this is probably lost to history, but one thing we do know is that The Outer Limits quickly inspired a strong following of fans, with tales of some people even taking their televisions on holiday with them so they didn’t miss an episode. Anyone going to that effort and seeing this slice of silly comedy masquerading as The Outer Limits might rightly have felt a bit cheated.

It starts off quite promisingly, for what it is, with an inspector from Mars calling to visit somebody who has been stationed on “outpost duty”, and is undercover as a dealer in a pawn shop. This gives the opportunity for lots of jokes about us confusing humans, and the inspector trying cigarettes and coffee for the first time is very funny.

“It is quite stimulating.”

When Phobos One starts describing human features things start getting really silly, because of course he is human in appearance himself, as is Deimos. Even if we assume they are somehow disguising their real features, they are clearly familiar with what a human being looks like. Similarly stretching credulity is the “miniaturised temporal converter”. It’s a shame they couldn’t miniaturise those very 1960s metal switches. I suppose we can write that off as an attempt to disguise future technology as something contemporary.

What Phobos One really wants to investigate is murder, which only happens on Earth and nowhere else in the galaxy (oh, come on), and when he sets off with Deimos to go and watch a murder taking place you are going to have to resign yourself to the fact that the best part of the episode is already over. What follows are endless replays of the same murder scene, over and over again, using different tricks such as speeding up the shot, slowing it down, and playing it backwards. It is all very contrived and pointless (because how does seeing the bullet in flight, for example, help Phobos One to understand the motivation of the killer?) and seems designed to show off any form of camera trickery available at the time.

To be fair, it does have its funny moments, and the two main characters always keep things watchable at the very least. Barry Morse plays Phobos One with great gusto, while Carroll O’Connor gets all the wry lines at our expense. They are a brilliant double act. And the actors in the murder scene put in a heroic effort at holding a pose for ages while Phobos One and Deimos walk around them and chatter away to each other.

Towards the end I thought the episode was coming to life with something to actually make the viewers utilise their brains. When Phobos One flicks away the bullet there is a point to it all at last, and then he learns the consequences of his actions for the future of humanity. What could have been an interesting ethical dilemma about saving one man or the future of the human race was fudged completely. Phobos One might have found a way to trick his bosses, but the damage is still done and that’s ignored. And then the narrator comes in at the end and basically says OK, it’s fine, whatever. It’s all in the future anyway.

I’m not surprised this got turned down for a series of its own. The great performances can’t entirely hide the fact that it is a very tedious and silly idea, and not nearly as funny as everyone presumably thought it was.

“Earth creatures. They are a form of life, even if they are unspeakable.”

I have to hand it to the writer, though. There were some great one-liners. In the end, it was a reasonably enjoyable way to spend 50 minutes, but it just wasn’t The Outer Limits.

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: Don’t Open Till Doomsday

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, The Outer Limits and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Outer Limits: Controlled Experiment

  1. scifimike70 says:

    When you have a drama show, particularly SF-drama, that occasionally allows an episode with a specific comedy, it’s certainly good to have a couple of distinguished actors like Carroll O’Connor and Barry Morse as guest stars. Carroll would find fame for All In The Family and Barry for The Fugitive afterwards. So it’s a treat for their fans to see them pull their comedic weight earlier on within an SF anthology. Naming their characters here after the Martian moons is interesting. It may not have been successful outside of its two main guest stars naturally giving their best. But rewardingly enough the Junkyard can once again give us all food for thought.

    Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. scifimike70 says:

    The SF notion, whether it’s dramatic or potentially comedic, of aliens studying our human capacity for murder is as original as can be expected for The Outer Limits. In Dr. Who: The War Games, we saw aliens studying our human capacity for war for their own sinister agenda. In Star Trek: TNG’s Imaginary Friend, we saw an alien image of a little girl study us from a child’s perspective to see if we would be a threat to them. SF has explored this subject of aliens secretly studying humans in a multitude of ways since the most original depictions from The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits like Controlled Experiment. It’s always curious when SF demonstrates how aliens may have much more to learn from us than we do from them. Perhaps there is some truth to that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. P B says:

    Thanks for the incisive review! I saw this on late night TV as a kid and it always stuck with me— though it’s less impressive today, it still has a lot of cool elements.

    One detail I appreciated is how Carroll O’Connor’s “natural” Martian accent is presented as British like Barry Morse, yet when he interacts with the Earthling customer, he switches to a heavy New Yawker dialect.

    Liked by 2 people

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