The Outer Limits: Demon with a Glass Hand

Outer Limits 1963 titles logo originalIn 2018, before Roger and I decided to dive into The Outer Limits as a weekly review, I’d flagged one episode for special notice.  Today, it still stands out as one of the very best the series had to offer.  That was true of all of the Robert Culp episodes; they were all among the very best.  Not that there aren’t a bunch of excellent ones to talk about, but it’s just that Culp features in three, and all three are outstanding.  There are a number of little brush strokes that make this episode stand out too.  Whether Consuelo is muttering a quick “God forgive me” before pulling a necklace off a Kyben or Trent’s distracted musings, “…the E on the door”, those moments add to an already-fantastic episode.

Harlan Ellison wrote this; it’s his second of two episodes but this one deserves special notice.  It also spawned a graphic novel, Night and the Enemy, taking place during the Earth/Kyben war.  The story of Demon with a Glass Hand is simple: 1000 years in the future, on an Earth of 70 billion people, we are attacked by the Kyben and defeated in 17 days.  And then mankind vanished overnight.  One man, Trent, has been sent back to the past and the Kyben are after him.  They want to know what happened to mankind of the future.  Trent has a clear, robotic hand that might hold the answers and they track him to an office complex and will stop at nothing to get their hands on it.

The episode is shot in a very film noir fashion with shadows cast on doors to let us see people speaking.  Long, dark shadows through the office complex add an air of danger to the adventure.  Then Trent meets Consuelo and has a companion for the story but she’s a flighty sort.  At first she’s utterly terrified of Trent, and within the space of a few hours, she claims to be falling in love with him.  (A few hours after that, she shuns him when he proves not to be “man enough” for her… he’s a bit too robotic for her liking.  One might have thought she’d have been put off by the robotic hand, but credit to her, she sees past it.  But some things are just a step too far!)  Arlene Martel, who played Consuelo, was a beautiful woman who we lost in 2014.  She is probably best known for the role as the coldly logical T’Pring in Star Trek, Amok Time.

The episode is not flawless, it’s just so well done that we tend to ignore the flaws.  The necklaces worn by Trent and the Kyben connect them to the future.  Rip off the necklace and as they shoot into the future, it kills them.  So I ask: why not tuck the necklace into the shirt to make it less obvious?  And when Trent holds a gun in one hand then clasps his hand over a terrified Consuelo’s mouth, he’s clearly using fingers!  They seem to remember that later when he has to open a door; he drops the gun into the mostly-useless hand so he can turn the doorknob with the real hand, but moments later, he pulls off two necklaces at the same time, thus indicating they’d already forgotten he couldn’t use one hand as a hand.  It’s also sort of funny that Trent starts off with a hand perfectly suited to mime making a telephone call, then adds one finger (which works like data storage units), giving him the ability to go to rock concerts and blend in nicely.

The real tough part this time was that I watched it in 2021, just as our Covid pandemic is causing a rise in cases due to a “delta variant”.  This is significant to the episode because when mankind of the future vanished, they created a virus that would kill both human and Kyben alike.  They then sent Trent back in time to wait out the war.  (Let’s not think too much about this because it means by the time they make Trent of the future, there’ll already be one of him walking around!)  But the plague they create means that once they send him back, they are exposing man of the past to a virus that could wipe them out long before the Kyben ever arrive.  It’s a hugely dangerous risk when you think about it.  Even the Kyben seem to overlook this, but really if they were upset about the man of the future, they have time travel technology to go and stop mankind ever being a threat at all.  In other words, it took them 17 days to defeat man of 1000 years from now on an Earth populated by 70 billion people.  They can go back to the 1960’s when there were 67 billion fewer people and defeat man in 17 hours!

The punchline of the episode is too good to spoil here, though if you look at my previous article, it is discussed – just beware: spoilers!  Roger and I often discuss that popular opinion can sometimes be the result of being influenced by others; call it group think or herd mentality, but I still think this episode stands head and shoulders above the rest; in other words, I agree with all the fans.  Sometimes there’s a reason a thing is praised!  Demon with a Glass Hand has its mistakes, but it’s still an incredible hour of television and well worth seeking out.   ML

The view from across the pond:

In the early days of the Junkyard, Mike wrote a review about this episode of The Outer Limits, which proved to be one of the most popular articles on the blog. That prompted us to consider writing about every episode, in the same way that we have written about various other series on an episode-by-episode basis. I remembered that this was Mike’s favourite episode, but that was all I remembered about Mike’s review, and I decided not to re-read it until I had watched the episode myself, in order to come to it fresh. After an apparent massive downturn in quality between seasons one and two of The Outer Limits, I was curious to know how a second season episode had become Mike’s favourite.

This is a complex idea, given a very simple treatment by Harlan Ellison. The complexity lies in the mystery of what has happened to the human race, and the way information is revealed piecemeal, each time Trent gains a finger for his talking glass hand. It should be a silly idea, but it works, mainly because the prop is well designed. The simplicity is in the way the story is basically 50 minutes of hiding from enemies in a big building, with occasional confrontations. That could have been a tedious escape/capture story, but it is helped enormously by its setting, the Bradbury Building on Broadway. It’s one of the stars of the show, in its role as the Dixon Building, with beautiful and haunting architecture and some great, echoing acoustics. I adore that lift (I suppose I should say “elevator”), and as somebody who generally hates the things that’s saying something, but gosh that’s a gorgeous bit of engineering.

Despite all that, the hiding-from-aliens story does wear a bit thin, and the sense of jeopardy is not helped by the fact that they don’t seem to pose a credible threat and are very easy to defeat. I see no reason why they would wear those medallions outside their clothing (after all, if walls don’t block the signal then fabric isn’t going to), allowing Trent to easily win his battles. It’s all a bit too convenient. And when Trent is apparently killed himself, he is brought back to life with a damp flannel, which I thought was all a bit silly.

But that’s pretty much the sum total of the negative things I can say about this one. On the other hand, it has the benefit of an atmospheric, shadowy setting, made the best possible use of by an inspired director, and the best actor who ever featured in The Outer Limits. Robert Culp puts in a faultless performance here. Arlene Martel is also great as Consuelo, although I’m never keen on a woman confessing her love for a man she’s just met, a problem that has blighted other OL episodes. Show attraction, sure, but don’t call it “love” after a few minutes, because it feels like the writer is forcing a romance story. Then, as quickly as she falls in love with him, she falls out of love again when she discovers the truth, which makes her at best fickle and closed-minded and at worst xenophobic. The way she turns her back and walks away is just horrible, but depressingly it’s probably not an unrealistic reaction.

There were two great ideas here. Firstly, the idea of the whole human race being stored digitally on one small piece of wire must surely have seemed absurd in the 1960s, and now seems like a progression of where we are heading in terms of miniaturisation and ever-increasing memory capacity of small devices. It’s one of the cleverest predictions of the future I’ve ever seen represented in sci-fi. Secondly, the twist in the tale about Trent works brilliantly, and I honestly didn’t guess it for one second. I just assumed he was a human who had been fitted with the glass hand, which is of course what I was supposed to think. It doesn’t pay to think too hard about why he’s going around with a hand that seems to be a separate computer system to himself, or why he is hampered by a system of removable (and therefore steal-able) fingers containing vital data, but it actually works quite neatly as a successor to memory sticks. I also thought the idea of Trent having to take the slow path to the future, waiting 1200 years with “movement, but not life”, was a very mature bit of writing, and it would take Doctor Who another five decades to figure out how to play with time travel so cleverly. It’s a melancholy ending to a fabulous episode, which even includes magic time travel mirrors, a concept I absolutely adore. You can read more about those here:

What is Who? A Mirror

And here’s a link to Mike’s original article about this episode, which sparked off our whole Outer Limits journey:

Six Degrees of Who: Demon with a Glass Hand

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is my own favourite episode of The Outer Limits, because nothing will ever top the magnificent Zanti, but it’s certainly right up there with the best this series has to offer, and I can completely understand why Mike loves it so much. It has an intelligence and an atmosphere that has been sadly lacking so far this season. Let’s hope it’s a springboard to better things to come.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Outer Limits: Cry of Silence

About Roger Pocock

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2 Responses to The Outer Limits: Demon with a Glass Hand

  1. scifimike70 says:

    For one of the most significantly original sci-fi stories of the 60s, I can happily recommend Demon With A Glass Hand. Its haunting conclusion, depending on how you may define conclusion for the role of Trent (Robert Culp again at his best), is a science-fictional portrait of how some missions in life may come with too high a price. Whether it’s Ellen Ripley devoting herself to her ongoing war against Aliens or John Connor leading us in the Judgment Day war against Skynet, or of course the Doctor as the last of the Time Lords facing a chain reaction of dilemmas, the reminders of how the key figure in our salvations can earn great sympathy can be most indebted to Trent. As a role that was based on the legend of Gilgamesh, we are again certainly reminded of the curse that comes in the form of immortality.

    We’ve had a lot to say about Culp’s acting contributions in recent months for The Outer Limits and Columbo. Along with Arlene Martel, it’s one of the Junkyard’s best homages to revisit the story for 60s’ SF TV that they can be most pivotally remembered for. As well as Abraham Sofaer (Arch) who was also the ghostly Thasian face in Star Trek’s Charlie X. Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steven Kelly says:

    My two favorite episodes are also Zanti and Demon.

    Liked by 2 people

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