The first time I’d watched The Outer Limits, I was not yet familiar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Anyone who’s read The Color out of Space has experienced the terror and the dread of that remote farmhouse and the strange lifeform that crashed there. I don’t remember any Outer Limits episode being quite so Lovecraftian as Cry of Silence. It’s actually a very frightening episode and I was amazed at how fast it went by. I wonder if anyone else has made the connection with The Color out of Space, but having recently watched the Nick Cage version, it’s fresh in my mind. (Although in reality, that one has never faded from my memory!)
I’m going to jump over to a drama starring Paul Newman. Cool Hand Luke has a quote that most people will be familiar with and it embodies this story perfectly: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” You said it Luke! Andy and his wife Karen Screamalot have a run in with a rock that stalls their car. Karen gets out of the car and has a nasty spill that hurts her ankle leaving the two travelers stranded in the desert. Karen observes that the nearby tumbleweed seems to move of its own volition. When Lamont shows up, he helps them back to his farm where they are surrounded. Lamont seems to be slowly losing his mind, furthering my feeling that there’s a very strong connection to Lovecraft! The intelligence ultimately moves to frogs creating a weirdly unsettling moment as hundreds of them leap at once, seemingly to attack the terrified humans. Finally, it moves to the body of Lamont after he is accidentally killed by a falling rock. Then Andy has an idea which elevates the episode to one of those all time classics. Andy allows the intelligence to occupy his mind so that he and his wife might learn about it. The most tragic element is that upon taking over, we hear the creature’s words through Andy but it cannot hear his wife’s voice. The entity leaves peacefully but terribly sad that it was unable to make contact.
Andy is a smart man. At first, I thought he was oblivious as he seemed to ignore the evidence of his own eyes, but it seems he was just reluctant to believe the incredible. Once he verifies it, he actively starts thinking through the issue. (Early in the episode, Andy is identified as an engineer in a very Dr. McCoy way: “I’m an engineer, not an ornithologist!” But that engineers mindset is probably what helps him think through the problem!) Sadly, I can’t say what his wife was as she seemed to be screaming and freaking out a lot. The only time she’s really coherent was when she doubted Lamont which seemed like such a break from what we had seen before, though when she presents the evidence, she ends up being completely right. Regardless, the audience still can’t help but identify with the terrified duo. There are only three players in the whole narrative as they try to stay alive during a very weird encounter.
The scenes of the tumbleweed moving towards the humans was reminiscent of many horror movies where plant life goes on the attack, but I am most strongly reminded of Doctor Who’s The Seeds of Doom during Tom Baker’s era. The moment the tumbleweed rises up en masse just screamed “krynoid” to me. As it’s one of my favorites, I can’t complain. “How can you animate a dead weed!” Another way in which the episode reminded me of a Doctor Who story is that it’s largely a base-under-siege tale; these were very common on Doctor Who, especially during the Pat Troughton era.
This is one of those stories that most might say has a happy ending. The alien leaves in peace, Andy and his wife escape and only one fatality occurs and it’s not even intentional. But while viewers of the series may see this as a good ending, I’m not so sure. I wanted the alien to make contact; they seemed so sad that they were unable to communicate with us. But then, that’s sort of the point: even on this planet, we have people who speak different languages and struggle to communicate. It even happens between people who speak the same language. What hope do we have of communicating with an alien intelligence. Actually, I suppose all we can do is hope. ML
The view from across the pond:
So far the second season of The Outer Limits seems to be taking very simple ideas and stretching them over 50 minutes. Demon with a Glass Hand was the exception. The story this week amounts to nothing more than aliens possessing objects, and that’s about it. In fact, it’s basically a poltergeist story made sci-fi.
When Andy and Karen drive over a tumbleweed on the way to check out a farm property, I jokingly thought “don’t run over the tumbleweed, that’s cruel”. But I never thought for a moment the episode was actually going to be about that. All I could do for a while was laugh at the silliness of it all, especially the sight of distinguished actor Eddie Albert pushing a tumbleweed against his own face to pretend it’s attacking him. It reminded me of Christopher Eccleston attacking himself with a mannequin arm in Doctor Who. If you can get past the silliness of it all, it is actually quite a scary idea, and the tumbleweeds were much more effective as enemies when piling together en masse to create a barrier to imprison the Thornes.
Just when I thought this was going to be the OL version of Day of the Triffids, the aliens started possessing frogs instead, and that bit really was quite creepy. Then we had rocks coming to life, which are so much more dangerous than tumbleweed and frogs that you wonder why the aliens didn’t start with those instead. Changing the manner of the threat in this way keeps things fresh, but loses the tight focus and logic that Doctor Who achieved with the alien possession of plastic in Spearhead from Space, etc. If the aliens can possess any object at all then all hope for Andy and Karen should have been lost immediately, and the farmhouse should not have been a safe haven. Reaching the episode running time relied on the aliens possessing things that lacked the ability to break into the farmhouse, or indeed possessing objects inside, or the very fabric of the house itself. That’s where things end up making a lot less sense when you take a supernatural idea like poltergeist activity and fit it within the straitjacket of sci-fi.
When we finally get our explanation about what is going on, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I do like this series’ commitment to portraying aliens as not necessarily hostile, and a failed communication attempt was a good idea as the basis for an alien story. But it’s very hard to accept these aliens as having peaceful intentions. Killing Lamont and turning him into a zombie could be explained away as a misunderstanding I suppose (!) but why would they feel the need to possess tumbleweed and then use it to somehow eat cattle? Also, the whole possession idea doesn’t really fit with the altered properties of the things they possess. Why does the tumbleweed explode, and why do the frogs dissolve in water?
Normally I would be praising an episode for having a tight focus on just a few characters. This is actually my favourite kind of storytelling. Broadly speaking it’s a base under siege story, trapping a small number of people somewhere with hostile creatures outside. But if you’re going to have as few as three cast members then you need to make damn sure they’re charismatic and can carry the episode on their own. Instead we have Eddie Albert who is competent but forgettable as Andy, Arthur Hunnicutt who is a bit better as clichéd hick Lamont, but as for June Havoc as Karen… Well, great name by the way, I’ll give her that. Karen seemed to be a character with so much potential at the start of the episode, displaying a sense of humour and then interestingly perceptive, seeming to sense that something was wrong, but then she descended into depressingly textbook panicking woman acting. I can’t stand all that hysterical woman acting, and there was just so much of that to suffer this week. I know it’s of-its-time, but I find it very hard to stomach, and the writers missed a trick by not utilising her apparent psychic abilities to communicate with the aliens, instead of Andy hypnotising himself with a spoon on a piece of string (sigh). It’s almost as if they wrote that into the episode for a reason, and then forgot why.
“Anybody with six drinks in them can write this kind of junk.”
Sadly I think that quote sums up the episode. It had its moments, and there was a good idea bubbling under the surface, but it was all far too annoying and silly. I suppose there was a moral to the story that we should keep in mind: don’t be like Andy, driving at high speed along country tracks and running over anything in your path. Drive safely. And be kind to tumbleweeds, just in case. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Outer Limits: The Invisible Enemy