That’s the trouble with rummaging through the Junkyard; sometimes we find things in the wrong order. For instance, The Outer Limits aired several years before Star Trek even started, but Star Trek’s This Side of Paradise may have been influenced by this Outer Limits episode, especially the way the spores spray their deadly poison. Specimen Unknown takes a page from such classics as Day of the Triffids, postulating that life in space may not be in a shape we’re expecting. No little green men are showing up in this episode, but a far more likely treat from space is found: spores. It does make one wonder; if life is out there, are we deluding ourselves in thinking that we’ll encounter humanoid life forms?
Having been watching so many Star Trek episodes lately, I had forgotten about the previews in The Outer Limits. But this seemed to be the only time to my recollection that it actually worked. Sure, it does spoil the surprise a bit, because I really did not know what was causing the crew to get sick, but even when it is revealed in those first few minutes, we still have a lot of questions. So the surprise isn’t completely destroyed, like it was with that horrible opening for The Sixth Finger. This episode is both a tribute and a curse to the time it was made. Not much goes on yet, I found myself proverbially biting my nails, waiting for the outcome. The audience discovers what’s killing the crew early on but, in the best tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, we don’t know when things will go wrong. Hitchcock said that there is a difference between surprise and suspense. By showing the audience the bomb under the table, he created suspense. We knew it was there, but not necessarily when it would go off. Everything leading up to the detonation becomes suspenseful and even something as mundane as a bit of motion sickness takes on new meaning. As a result, the entire episode is a work of masterful suspense.
Unfortunately where it fails as a product of its time is in a handful of small notes. Russell Johnson plays Major Benedict but I could only see him as the Professor from Gilligan’s Island. (Luckily, unlike his rank, his role is minor, so I never expected him to invent anything of use!) The spores being packed up front was bad enough but a child could have tied better knots! And Jennings was such an annoying contrarian during the ethics debate, I felt like he would have disavowed himself of any wrongdoing no matter what. Specifically this is when discussing the disposal of a corpse in space. He claims he told MacWilliams to bring it home, but he also told MacWilliams not to do so in case it was dangerous. Good job, Jennings! And what about that “ambulance”, huh? Two people are suspended from the ceiling of the station wagon! Whoa… guess the space capsule wasn’t that cramped after all!
But if there is anything really wrong with the episode, it’s during the equally tense ending. The ship has crashed and the plants are everywhere. It’s alarming to see how much they’ve spread and one could only imagine the terror that would generate! But the Colonel orders his men to pry open the door of the crashed ship. Yet no one has anything protective to wear. Not even Covid-friendly masks, let alone oxygen masks or entire hazmat suits. The car keeps its windows open too! Why roll up a window when you can inhale poisonous gas? Sure, this scene builds suspense brilliantly as we are left to wonder when the spores will attack, but it is a bit poorly thought-out. And then the Colonel says the rain is coming which will spread the spores even faster! And even that is slowly realized, to keep us sweating!
It’s not the best of the series, but it is a masterclass in suspense. It has that ethical dilemma surrounding what should be done between saving four men vs potentially an entire planet. Thankfully the right choice is rewarded and rain takes care of the rest. Sometimes being merciful pays off in the most unexpected ways! ML
The view from across the pond:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set.”
But you might want to put that pot plant outdoors, just in case. Yes, this is Outer Limits doing The Day of The Triffids. Every sci-fi series seems to have a go at this eventually. Doctor Who had more than one attempt, and I have to admit to being a bit more disappointed about The Seeds of Death than I used to be, after watching this. It post-dates this episode, and I had never realised just how derivative it was, right down to the rain killing off the alien spores.
I thought last week’s episode was a simple story without much to talk about, but this is something else. Alien plants infect a space station, a rocket brings them to Earth, they start to spread, and it rains. That’s about it. Not much to fill 50 minutes, is it? That’s why the episode feels so padded at times, such as the rather silly spacewalk scene (don’t you need to be attached to the thing you’re walking on in space?)
Having said that, the big problem with this episode is not its simplicity. It’s how badly scripted the episode is. The alien threat relies entirely on everybody doing really, really stupid things, all the time. So we have astronauts bringing alien mushroom things on board their space station, and then failing to keep them isolated whatsoever. The guy that gets killed even handles them with his bare hands. Then, after his death, nobody really joins the dots, and when the remaining space mushrooms start reacting to artificial sunlight they still leave them hanging around to grow, and kill a rabbit, of all things. I hate it when animals get killed in sci-fi and horror, especially as the poor thing already looked terrified to be there.
It’s not just the astronauts who are lacking in any basic common sense. The rocket is allowed to crash land, and then is met by just a couple of vehicles, although they know there is some kind of infectious plant life on board. Some flamethrowers might have been a start. Then when the plants start spreading around, everyone is very quick to just give up rather than try to fight them. There are very protracted scenes with the Colonel and Janet wandering around amongst the plants being very cowardly while no harm comes to them at all, and then giving up when they see a whole bunch of plants blocking their path. I mean, there’s maybe about 20 feet of plants in front of them, about ankle height. How about stomping on some of them, for a start! Failing that, stop walking, and start running! It’s not as if they can follow. As threats go, it’s a very static one. Within the claustrophobic environment of a space station or a rocket it works well, because there’s nowhere to run, but as soon as the threat is out in the open the whole story relies on people not using their legs.
Although the resolution was all too easy, the screaming plants was a very eerie moment, and I suppose there is a poetic logic in blind luck saving the human race from their own stupidity. But as themes go, it’s not a very fun one: look what a bunch of idiots we all are. If you’re watching The Outer Limits for escapism, you might want to skip this one. In showing humans making all the wrong decisions, it perhaps hits a little too close to home.
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: Second Chance