Just at a point where I was feeling The Outer Limits was getting a bit repetitive, The Chameleon comes along. Weirdly, I had vague memories of this episode and they were not positive ones. Yet watching it now, as an adult, I realize I love this episode. It features Robert Duvall as Louis Mace, a man of action. It’s established early on that he is a tool, designed to do a job no matter the cost. He is recruited by the military to infiltrate an alien ship and destroy them.
Initially, I found the idea a strange combination of The Architects of Fear and The Sixth Finger, two of the best episodes of the series. (Later, there is a bit of The Bellero Shield thrown in for good measure!) The scientists are going to change Mace to look like the aliens using samples they pulled from under the fingernails of dead soldiers who encountered the aliens before the episode opens. To do this they put him in a room and morph him. Go back to the two previous episodes to see the similarities! (However, this must take place a bit later farther in the future than The Architects of Fear as the scientist says he can change Mace back whereas for Culp’s character, it’s a one way ticket!) But the episode started to falter at this point.
Is this the very attitude, often used in so many comedies, that says all people of a different-culture-from-our-own look alike? Just because the aliens look similar to us, do they look that way to one another as well? I don’t believe that’s true of humans and I don’t think it would be true of aliens either. Mace is also told he will have a cover story: he can tell the aliens that he escaped their clutches etc etc… but I thought: tell them how? The genetic sequence doesn’t contain language knowledge! Surely he can’t, for instance, run into a pack of dogs and speak to them because he was made to look like a dog. Is that any different with aliens? Luckily, once Mace boards the ship, all of that just faded away. The aliens knew that he was a genetically altered human and they knew our language, so all the pretense is tossed out the airlock. Rightfully so too because that was just the stuff needed to set the stage for what was coming. And that’s when the episode skyrocketed to new heights!
First, a few diversions. Humorously, when Leon says “we don’t know who these creatures are,” I laughed because he really wanted to know their intent. I wanted Mace to say, “yes we do! That’s Carol and Bob from Alpha Centauri!” When Mace is being put under for the alteration, the doctor asks him to count backwards from 100. Why so high if he was unlikely to get below 90? Why not say from 10? 20? Humor aside, the transformation of Mace is handled marvelously. He makes a noise which might be laughter, but it’s a deliciously creepy, unsettling noise. His line to the humans was equally strange: “You do look a little peculiar, man”. Coming from the alien to the humans, that was outstanding!
Back to what made the episode great… The aliens said they were peaceful and they avoid making contact with destructive races. They just want to go home but need to fix their ship. They ask Mace for help and he seems to be willing to aid them. Then Mace gets the signal to carry out his mission just as it looks like he’s planning to defect. He grabs a gun and murders one of the aliens. The other takes off, racing through the woods, but Mace pursues. Before killing the other creature, he acknowledges that humans are destructive and asks if the alien would still accept him. Wait for it… The alien says it’s a long way to his home and he would rather make the trip with a friend. FINALLY we have non-hostile aliens and man getting it right! Mace is accepted even after he made a terrible mistake. It’s redemption made possibly through friendship! But wait, there’s more! The general is going to shoot them down. He calls for support and tells his people… to stand down. They are not to interfere with the ship. Even the military mind allows the aliens to leave in peace. The joy I had in my heart was palpable. Talk about a punch-the-air moment!
This is the sort of message we need on our televisions right now. The “other” is not always our enemy and when we befriend them, we often gain so much more as a result. This might not be the best episode of the series, but it certainly has risen into my top 10 list. Maybe my top 5. As if the episode didn’t impress me enough, the Control Voice ends with a message near and dear to my heart. It says, “A man’s survival can take many shapes, and the shape in which a man finds his humanity is not always a human one.” Yes, I accept that. Being human is not the same as being humane. In fact, I might argue that being human is about all the negative things, the baggage and the mistakes and the mistrust. We have to remember not to be that, but to be humane, kind! That’s the true testament of our character. The episode was set up talking about our adaptability. Perhaps it should have been about our capacity for kindness and for being better than our base selves. This was a resounding victory and a must-see episode. ML
The view from across the pond:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set.”
Then why is it showing me bits of old episodes cobbled together, instead of a new one? If you get a sense of deja vu when you watch this one, that’s probably because just about every aspect of the story is a rehash of previous episodes, but at this stage in the game it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. This is the penultimate episode of the first series so a Greatest Hits of The Outer Limits actually feels quite appropriate at this point. It’s just a shame the Zanti didn’t turn up to the party.
The most notable repeated idea here is the transformation of a man into an alien. In one respect it solves a problem that The Architects of Fear had, when it was hard to believe that a happily married man would destroy himself in such a manner, with no way back, even for a cause he believed in. This is more believable because it is explicitly stated that the process is reversible, and the guy chosen for the job has no life apart from his occasional secret agent work.
“I have no-one, I care for no-one and I’m cared for by no-one, so all I have is what I can do.”
It’s an interesting examination of what motivates a man to go to extremes, and the great Robert Duvall of course does all this stuff brilliantly. We’re very much in the realms of magical science; Mace is reconstructed by “supersonic sound”. That’s nice – just sing a song to his genes, eh?
I never really mind the silly science, but this iteration of the transformation idea has an additional problem as well as solving one. We get to see the alien race that Mace is going to turn into before he gets transformed, and although it’s one of the more effective monster designs this series has given us, it’s still clearly an actor in a mask, with those tell-tale immobile eyes. So it begs the question of why they go to such extremes to transform him, when they could simply disguise him in the same way that actors are disguised as monsters for a television show. Too meta a concern? No, it’s actually really odd when writers seem to pretend that things that are faked for television couldn’t be faked in the same way for other purposes. You might argue that they wanted Mace to be able to pass medical examination, but that’s all somewhat irrelevant considering the disguise doesn’t fool the aliens for one second.
There is also a major theme that we have had before: humans are the aggressors, not aliens. The following speech from the chief alien (a very thoughtful, softly spoken performance from William O’Connell) sums this up beautifully:
“Your spur is fear, your answer is destruction, and your people would destroy us and we have done them no harm.”
I think if I had to pick one quote out of the whole series that sums up The Outer Limits, that would have to be it. This episode is a grim representation of humanity, or at least the American military. They attacked the spaceship instead of trying to communicate in peace, and lost a platoon when the aliens acted in self-defence. The only reason the General isn’t “blasting them off the Earth” is that they are detecting nuclear material. He consistently describes the aliens as “the enemy” although they are nothing of the sort, and when they want to leave peacefully with their new buddy he comes up with a ridiculous excuse to try to stop them, worrying about “blackmail” and the idea that a completely peaceful alien race will try to conquer us. The poor things just want to be left alone until they can fix their ship and go home, and in contrast they are a remarkably forgiving race. Even when Mace kills one of them, the one remaining survivor still accepts him as a friend and is willing to take him home. The closing narration suggests that “the shape in which a man finds his humanity is not always a human one”, but I think there’s a wider point to consider than that. We are all born human, but “humanity” is something we all need to strive for.
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 Forms of Things Unknown