There are a number of things I don’t understand about the episode Counterweight. I always let the Control Voice finish his monologue at the end before stopping the episode, but noticed this one had extra time, because there was a scene at the end listing the cast with names and who played each character. Why was that there? And the standard blurb that all characters and events were fictitious. Was this actually a real event that they were trying to hide?! I didn’t understand why the title was Counterweight! What was the counterweight? To what??? And why did the plant kills its fellow plants? And why did it grow when a light touched it? And why did it have teeth!?!? And why did I like this episode so much?! Oh, God, whyyyyyy!?!?!
Maybe it was that we had some believable elements tied into the story. The food concentrate was a fascinating idea, though the spray can to smell the food might have been a bridge too far. And the stewardess who tucks people in while a captain flies the ship created a sense of realism, building off the world we know with passenger planes. And we can’t forget the jerks! There’s always one, am I right?
The crazy truth is, I found this episode very engrossing. When I was young, which was a long time ago now, I had a book called The Book of Questions. One question, and I’m paraphrasing it here, asked if you could be in a fully provisioned Antarctic shelter for 2 years, who would you want to take with you. That idea has been one I think of often! Well, this story is a bit like that. 8 people are on a simulated spaceship to see how they will cope with being cutoff from all that they know. The trip is supposed to take 261 days, which I’m clocking in around 10 months though I haven’t really thought it out heavily. No matter what, it’s under a year. Now, that’s not a terribly long time and I do feel like I’d be ok hanging out with 7 other people for 10 months but who can really say? A good friend of mine likes to ask me hypothetical questions about how I’d react under various circumstances but the truth is, as I’ve told him, no one knows. But then I’m mentally sound, or at least think I am! And if I could have an external hard drive with access to all my shows, I’d get my blog writing done ages in advance! But the people in this story from 1964 didn’t have access to blog writing and the group of people chosen for the flight are not mentally sound. As I am not a trained psychologist, you’re wondering how I know this? Because the light-snake-alien helped me find out…
So the alien seems to be a snake made of light. It’s probably the weakest effect the Outer Limits has ever used to create an alien. We spend an inordinately long amount of time watching it move from one person to another and getting in each of their heads to hear their thoughts. (In fairness, the effect of it going into their heads is cleverly achieved and the music for this sequence was delightfully haunting!) By the end of day one, we’ve learned that all the member of the crew have heavy emotional baggage. One has been strangled in his sleep and the other finds his dead daughter’s doll in bed with him, which isn’t creepy at all (he says, sarcastically). Weirdly, we then jump to day 169. The crew has been under a lot of pressure in that time. Early in the episode, the message we are given is “the worst danger is the one we make for ourselves.” This, in a nutshell, is what it’s all about. The big threat comes from the minds of the people. Most of the episode shows us that the psychology of the crew is the biggest danger of all and that’s some clever storytelling. The light snake is of little significance up until this point, other than to give the audience some access into the minds of the characters. And then this happens…
The plant that was being grown in the (ahem) botany bay (sorry…) springs to life and starts unfurling its tendrils at people. As if that’s not weird enough, the light snake touches it and boom, as all plants do when given light, this one grows to enormous size and has a face and teeth in need of braces. It then tells the people, without moving that useless mouth, that they are a menace to the world they are heading to, and in one fell swoop, all the conversations I’ve had recently with my friends about our right to go to another world come crashing down because of a damned twisty-twirly plant. Maybe one day we’ll return as friends. With all the craziness going on in our own world between Afghanistan and Covid and Presidents and zebras (I was trying to stay alphabetical, I don’t know if anything is going on with zebras), the idea that we might meet an alien race seems increasingly unlikely. Then again, in that alphabetical order of mine, UFO’s seem to be on people’s minds and the government is releasing more footage, so maybe, just as we need them most, we’ll get some friends from another world. One can hope! I’d even be happy if they have unfurling tendrils and bad teeth!
This season of the Outer Limits is a crazy one indeed! ML
The view from across the pond:
I liked the idea of this one. A group of people are being tested for their suitability to go on the first civilian flight to another planet, and unplanned problems start happening. It’s therefore only natural for the test subjects to assume that the problems and strange occurrences are part of the test, while those conducting the experiment have no way to communicate the problem without invalidating the whole process, and it’s a test that takes 261 days. Even when the mole in the group tries to come clean, how can anyone know that he’s telling the truth, and his revelations are not still part of the test? Well, the giant plant with teeth might be a clue.
With everything taking place on one fairly small set, the episode was always going to live or die on the combination of people we see here. It’s like watching a very strange stage play that somebody has filmed. In fact, this episode could be mounted as a play in a theatre with virtually no need to rewrite, although the giant plant with teeth might be difficult.
The most interesting character is of course the (sort of) villain of the piece. I’m not quite sure I’m comfortable with the only working class person here being completely demonised, but really Dix has little going for him other than determination. He’s in this whole experiment for the wrong reasons, he’s greedy, and he’s ruthlessly xenophobic.
“What if there are… um… Indians.”
“They go. You can’t let savages stop the progress of civilisation.”
But he also has a great philosophical point to make when he says that “the worst dangers are the ones we make for ourselves”. If this had actually just been a simulation and a real alien hadn’t got involved, Dix would have breezed through the process, with his logical approach of treating everything that’s going on as if he’s an actor in a movie. The effects are just effects. He leans on the fourth wall just a little bit, and I liked that.
I’m not going to run through everyone on board, but let’s just acknowledge that they are nearly all good characters. I’ll just mention a couple more. Alicia Hendrix is the only one who lets the show down. She’s a hideous portrayal of a woman as written by men in the 60s. She can’t just be a scientist, she has to be “a woman, more than a scientist”. The implication is that she has done something wrong by doing a man’s job, and should have been having kids instead, and she is such a broken woman that she wants to jump on any man she can. She works to “forget the children” she never had. She can’t just have a career, she has to have a career as a substitute for motherhood. I realise this is entirely of its time, but yuck.
“A woman depends on a man, and I’m a woman without a man.”
The other character I want to mention is poor old Matthew James, who is grieving for his whole family, and carries the burden of guilt for not saving them, and then his late daughter’s doll turns up in his bed. Its face is crushed inwards, presumably something that happened during the accident that took the lives of his family, which is horribly cruel. How the alien manages to get the thing is a mystery, considering it presumably had no prior knowledge of these people’s “deepest thoughts”.
The way it collects those thoughts was really creepy: a little wandering light, sneaking around like a snake and going into their ears. It was frightening at first but it went on for so long that the fear factor was lost and it became tedious. But the best bit of the episode was the plant coming to life, being taken over by the alien. I adore stop motion animation and have been pining after the Zanti, so this was the next best thing. One plant killing another was oddly frightening, although it made little sense. Then it turned into a puppet with teeth and eyes, which was also a great iteration of the monster. Nothing’s going to challenge the Zanti for the crown of the best OL alien, but the Antheon-possessed plant certainly comes close.
Counterweight suffers a similar problem to many OL episodes. It doesn’t know how to conclude. The panic button gets pressed and that’s it, leaving us to guess at how these broken people manage to go back to their lives as failures in the test through no fault of their own, and whether the experiment simply starts again with another group of people. The ending is abrupt and unsatisfying, but the journey to get there was certainly a lot of fun, with emotion, scares, and three great versions of the monster along the way. The Outer Limits has already made me nervous of ants. Now I’m giving the plants on the window sill a wide berth. Better safe than sorry. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Outer Limits: The Brain of Colonel Barham