With each episode of The Outer Limits, I find myself asking: will this start with a prequel or a preview. Disappointingly, it’s another preview – a quality that started as a lure to get viewers interested. I prefer a prequel; it could be just as compelling, but we are not spoiled by a scene that should come later in the show. It’s not as bad as The Sixth Finger but it’s a terrible practice. That preview for The Sixth Finger was like walking in on the joke at the punchline. Most Outer Limits episodes give us the preview that’s akin to the middle of the joke. “So the cop walks up to the tree where the Italian guy is hiding and says ‘is there anyone up there’…” Of course, you want to know the rest of the joke so you stick around to hear the whole joke after the opening credits roll. The irony about this joke is that almost immediately, I didn’t care about the mid-way point! I was consumed with one obsessive fact: Commissioner Gordon was in another episode, right after his appearance in the last one! In fact, this was a convergence of three shows from my youth: Batman, Space: 1999 and Star Trek. Neil Hamilton (commissioner Gordon) plays Bellero Sr. Martin Landau, Commander John Koenig in Space: 1999, plays Richard Bellero. Sally Kellerman, Dr. Elizabeth Dehner in Star Trek plays Judith, Richard’s wife. Well, I guess I didn’t care where I came in on the joke, I wanted to see how this story played out no matter what!
This episode has a pretty striking opening monologue thanks to our friend, the Control Voice. It talks about how ambition even destroyed the angels. It refers to the pitfalls of being overly ambitious. And Kellerman finds out what that entails as the story unfolds. Her ambition curses her, and it couldn’t have happened to a meaner woman. Let’s review. Judith is a woman who gets what she wants. She’s not used to manual labor as we see from her visit to the wine cellar. She picks out a wine and points to it, so her servant, Mrs. Dame can pick it up, wipe it off, then hand it back. Maybe it was too heavy? Later, when she tries to run from a perceived threat, her biggest concern is expressed by her own words: “I crawled Richard!” Yes, Judith, you did. I’d say with reason, but hey, maybe you should have walked out more calmly… or not. Mrs. Dame is more than a servant though; she’s Judith’s confidante. Dame hides in shadows throughout the house. Could you imagine a maid who is always hiding? Where is she? Playing Kato, like Inspector Clouseau’s servant, waiting to attack you, just to keep you alert. But she’s got Judith’s best interests at heart, no matter how many shadows she skulks in. The relationship makes little sense, especially when we discover she walks around the house with a gun strapped to her thigh. Judith clearly doesn’t appreciate Dame. All Judith wants is power. So she murders an alien and takes its shield but that greed comes with a price far higher than any punishment the law can mete out. (This just makes Landau’s final words funny that they should tell someone what they’ve done…) Yet this is where I found the episode so incredibly intriguing…
See, I love aliens that end up being good guys. I love when we have stories about good aliens who are undone by the real monsters, mankind. I don’t know if I like aliens who know they have to go in an “hour” but have no idea what a “minute” is, but that’s beside the point. I think stories with a good message are worth their wait – yes, wait, as in the amount of time you have to wait for the message. “No form of life should ever be owned!” Well said, Richard. (Return your pet dog to the pound, hypocrite!) But the best quote comes from Mrs. Dame, ironically, talking about the brief conversation she had with the dying alien – an alien mortally wounded by a human. She asked it, “can you help?” and the alien answered, “can I not?” If we could learn from this message, the world would be a better place. If we all could just see when others need help and know there is no choice; we have to help one another. That’s a message worth waiting for! But quotes and concepts are not the only thing on display in this episode. Nor are the wine bottles of infinite strength, that can be hurled across a room and not break. No, there’s one thing greater than all that. Imagination.
This episode is a testament to imagination. The tension is maintained by 2 pieces of plexiglass. 2 pieces of plexiglass and the imagination that said, “you’re trapped and can’t get out”. It’s not the “murderous wife” or the strange alien. Not Martin Landau’s intense eyebrows or Sally Kellerman’s strikingly angelic beauty. It’s the plexiglass that won’t go away. A trap of her own making because she didn’t care enough about another life; all she wanted was power. I found myself glued to the screen waiting for them to figure out how to resolve it. Such a simple thing but… could they get rid of the tomb that Kellerman trapped herself in? And to make it more hard-hitting, even when they do remove it, Kellerman’s delivery of “it’s still here… nothing will ever remove it” is chilling. She’s condemned to a prison of her own making. Proof that the Control Voice was teaching us a lesson: Judith had ambition, the sin by which this angel fell. ML
The view from across the pond:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set.”
… at least there won’t be when I get this vaseline off the screen. Oh, wait, they filmed it like that? And here was I thinking Doctor Who was the only sci-fi using the vaseline trick in the 60s. When the alien is on the screen on his own it works brilliantly. The problems occur when he has to share the screen with somebody else. For example, when Judith drags his body down into the wine cellar half of the screen goes blurry, including her dress. Presumably that would have been a bit less obvious on a smaller 60s television set.
This episode focuses on a very small cast, all in one location, which gives it a strong feeling of claustrophobia. The alien himself isn’t actually very scary and it is immediately obvious that he is harmless. If anything, he is afraid. So instead the director wrings every drop of fear from the way he shoots the set, all shadowy corridors and a creepy wine cellar. I loved how Mrs Dame tends to emerge from the darkness in the corner of a room.
The humans are the scary thing about this one, continuing a running theme in The Outer Limits of humans being the dangerous ones, often more so than the monsters. With Bellero Senior refusing to make Bellero Junior his successor unless he divorces his wife, it seemed like the episode was shaping up to be something akin to a Columbo, and then when a second murder took place, perpetrated by somebody different, it felt more like an Agatha Christie, but there is never any element of whodunit and nobody is held to account either. The crimes become their own punishment, with Judith losing her mind and Mrs Dame losing the woman she loves.
What, you didn’t get that? The undercurrents in this one seemed even more obvious to me than last week’s story of homosexual love and betrayal. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking what we see here in any way resembles a working relationship between a housewife and a housekeeper.
In light of that, the consequences of the two crimes are interesting. Judith is our Lady Macbeth, with the blood of her victim shown on her hand in the final shot. Mrs Dame, in contrast, doesn’t seem to be held accountable for killing Bellero Senior, but her reaction to the plight of Judith makes it clear that her punishment is going to be a mental torture far greater than any prison sentence could inflict on her. And speaking of confinement, Judith getting trapped inside that shield with escape seemingly impossible is a very scary idea indeed, and the solution to the problem was very clever. The technology worked by an IV tube, and I’m not sure it would have passed the censors at the time if the alien had described it in terms of “blood” rather than his “fluid”. I’m not sure any other sci-fi series can claim to have explored the idea of a biological creature fused with technology before this, or an alien with its own personal shielding. Those two ideas rolled into one seem to be remarkably ahead of their time.
Neil Hamilton is back from last week, in a much more measured and memorable performance. The path Bellero Sr follows is fascinating, from a man who tries to dominate his son and destroy his daughter-in-law, to a man who is begging for his son’s forgiveness. Before his demise he is a broken man, although it’s hard to feel sorry for him because the change of heart is entirely motivated by wanting to grab a slice of his son’s glory. Every performance in this episode is breathtakingly good, the best ensemble cast of the series so far in my opinion. The battle of wills between Judith and Bellero Sr is some great drama, and when Judith first realises she has the upper hand at last, the war of words between them is great stuff.
“You lust, and lust is what becomes of an aspiration when it’s allowed to grow up and become an ambition.”
The last few episodes have sailed ever closer to the wind with this kind of thing, and Judith’s speech clearly equates ambition with sexual desire. I wonder how many viewers at the time understood just how adult a series they were watching, and I am convinced none of this is accidental. We just watched two episodes about unrequited homosexual love, back to back.
It’s very clever writing, but my favourite moment of the episode was when the alien explains how he understands what Judith is thinking so clearly:
“All who have eyes have eyes that speak, and all eyes speak the same language.”
Forget telepathy, universal translators, babel fish, or TARDIS translation circuits. This is how you write a scene about communication with aliens. The eyes are the window to the soul, and Judith’s are as dark as her creepy house in the night.
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 Children of Spider County