I’m betting most of you know the story of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. At least, you’ve either read the Illustrated Classic as a kid, or you’ve seen the Disney movie, or you just know the story because it’s one of the original science fiction stories. But have you ever read it? It’s not that it isn’t good; there is a story and it is intriguing but the book reads a bit like a text book. It’s slow and chock full of facts about the depth of the sea and the water pressure that accumulates per square inch, and it talks about the various life under the sea… in short, it reads like Verne is teaching a bunch of bored kids and he puts a story to it to keep them interested. Not a bad strategy but a bit slow by modern standards. Wolf 359 is conceptually marvelous, but in production, it’s one of the slowest episodes of the series, rivaling The Production and Decay of Strange Particles. That’s saying something!
The idea is that a scientist, John, has recreated an exoplanet in a controlled environment. They can simulate the passage of time (11 days go by every second) so they can see how earth developed and what will happen to it in the future. Some of that sounds like real science. Alas, that latter bit gets a bit hard to explain as John watches an atom bomb go off during the planet’s 20th century. John refers to the time period as “the refinement of evil”. What was the message? Oh, I bet it was the infamous: science is bad. Haven’t heard that before in this show. Frankly, I didn’t really get it! Most of the episode goes by without any sign of life except a strange bat-like creature, but somehow bombs are going off on “Dundee Planet”. I must have faded when they talked about that part of the evolution because, did I mention, the episode is slow. The idea of using this planet to see the future of our own was an interesting concept, but I wasn’t sure if the writer was trying a different take on a horror trope about being obsessed with seeing the future. It didn’t work well in any event. That’s not all that didn’t work well. John is a scientist and he’s helped by a younger man named Peter. His wife lives with him in the same house where they run their experiments. When John takes Ethel out for the night, leaving Peter to watch over their experiment, he comes home to see things are amiss. John has already seen signs of things going wrong, yet when they come back and trees crumble to the touch, John doesn’t worry because he’s obsessed with his experiment. He even tells his wife, “why don’t you go lie down”. I kept thinking he’d see his wife go into the house while he was looking at the rotted flora and race in after her to tell her to get out. Nope. He’s about as cool as a cucumber and about as interesting. Like the entire story, actually.
What really stinks, beyond John’s cigarettes, is that the episode started with such promise. The music and the use of shadows and dark corridors was fantastic, if short lived. I’m amazed when watching The Avengers, another 60’s product, that the music is so jarring, but this series frequently uses music to excellent effect. It’s not without fail from time to time, but this episode does a great job with it creating a sensation of mild discontent throughout. There is also a welcome cameo from our Macra-Drashig from last week’s episode as some life has been seen evolving on the planet. (Not humanoid life that would build hydrogen bombs, mind you, but life of some sort.)
The best element of the episode is absolutely the weird bat-creature which dislikes light and buries its face in its hand-like wings. It’s pretty evident what went into making this creature for the screen, but it’s still marvelously alien to watch. But it also holds the key to the most interesting part of the story; an idea never vocalized, but one that popped into my head while watching it. In one of our Crusade reviews, we discussed the Genius Loci; the spirit of a place. For earth, we refer to Gaia, or Mother Earth as if the planet is a living entity. Maybe it does have a spirit of a sort, one that watches over us all. I couldn’t help but think that in the controlled environment of the lab, this planets Genius Loci was visible to the scientists. Could a planet (or place) be intrinsically evil? Was Dundee Planet doomed to be destroyed because the genius loci was a malevolent force? When Ethel is looked through the scope at the creature, she says it stared at her for several seconds without moving. Remember every second is 11 days on the planet. One adage about evil is that it is patient. You’d have to be very patient to stay in one place, starring at your enemy for that long. But that was what really entered my mind; not the story as it was told, but maybe a hidden message behind the story. John created a world like a god, and in so doing, he saw the spirit of that world and it wanted to destroy him. And that’s actually pretty scary.
Wolf 359 was one of the most boring episodes of the classic series, and yet it still managed to make me wonder. I wish we had more shows like that in our modern television landscape! ML
The view from across the pond:
We are going to get into some deep territory with this episode, but before all that I’ll start with a silly little observation. I was just admiring what an organised mind scientist John Meridith must have, because he organises his books in height order on his desk, when the scene cut to his colleagues bursting in and they had magically rearranged themselves into a different order. What fiendish monster could have done that to John’s meticulously arranged book collection? Well, let’s see…
When the camera panned towards a microscope and then took us through it, I knew we were in for a good one this week. When a director gets that inventive it’s likely that he has been inspired by an interesting script, and that’s certainly the case for Wolf 359.
The creation of a planet in miniature is a fascinating idea. For every second that passes on Earth, over eleven days pass on Planet Dundee, so scientist John Meridith is able to watch evolution happening in real time. Although he doesn’t expect life to form there, or at least says he doesn’t (perhaps being modest), that’s exactly what happens. It’s slightly frustrating that the episode touches on so many fascinating issues and then doesn’t really do much with them. The creation of an inhabited world in miniature obviously has moral, ethical and philosophical implications, none of which are really explored.
The reason those issues are never explored is we don’t get the point of view of the people living on Planet Dundee, and that’s a glaring omission. As fascinating and fun as the spirit of the planet is, and I’ll come to that, it would have actually been so much better to keep a tight focus on the planet itself, and show us more about the inhabitants. There are so many unanswered questions. Do they form religions, and are they aware of the people looking at them? Do they create telescopes and can they see into the room beyond their planet? They eventually become the equivalent to a 20th Century civilisation, so presumably they can, but what are the implications of that? Is John their god? Heck, this is such an incredible idea that it needed to be a whole series, not just one episode. Somebody needs to take this idea and make a series out of it.
What John achieves is exciting but also terrifying. Imagine the responsibility. He has presumably millions, if not billions of people on that planet. Depressingly they wipe each other out, and that is a bit too convenient because it stops John and Meridith having to weigh up John’s life against the lives on the planet. He is able to tell his wife to smash the glass without having to live with those implications. Imagine if there were still people on the planet and she just committed genocide. Seriously, somebody make a series out of this idea!
The Outer Limits has always strongly reflected 60s issues, and here we have a planet that mirrors our own. I didn’t buy the idea that everything would develop along exactly the same lines, but if you roll with that then it’s pretty horrifying to see “the refinement of evil”, with the inhabitants nuking each other out of existence. John was waiting to find out the future of the human race by seeing what happens to his little people, and that’s his reward: no future at all. It’s as bleak as OL has ever got.
I’ve got this far without talking about the spirit of the planet, but what a fascinating idea that is as well. Visually it’s just Batfink in a sheet, although the simplicity does actually make it quite effective and almost frightening. But conceptually… wow. It would have been a great episode without it, but the idea that the planet has a soul which can manifest is amazing, and in this instance that soul is evil (or at the very least isn’t happy about being gawped at through a microscope). The episode deftly blends the scientific with the magical. We get evolution, and we get the spiritual, proving that a writer doesn’t need to set those concepts in opposition to one another.
So this, for my money, is the best episode of the season, and the most thought-provoking episode The Outer Limits has ever done. While I was typing that sentence the power cut out and the room went dark. I was half expecting that bat creature to appear. I had better go and check my book collection… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Outer Limits: I, Robot