The Outer Limits (Kino Lorber, NR)

I ‘m a big fan of framing devices in narrative, and one of my favorite examples comes from a 1960s television show:

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to – The Outer Limits.

The show is The Outer Limits, which opened each episodes with a narration delivered in fine voice-of-God style by Vic Perrin, accompanied by suitable visuals (which particularly resonated with viewers in the days of analog transmission and rabbit-ears antennas, when disruptions to the TV picture were common). The same conceit is picked up again at the end of each episode by a similar (but much shorter) closing narration:

We now return control of your television set to you. Until next week at the same time, when the control voice will take you to – The Outer Limits.

The Outer Limits was meta-television before anyone was using that term. There were different version of the opening and closing narration, but the message remained consistent—you aren’t watching just another TV show, you’re having an experience that you are not in charge of. If that doesn’t tap into contemporary cultural fears of mind control and brainwashing by forces known or unknown, I don’t know what does.

Season 1 of The Outer Limits, which aired on ABC in 1963 and 1964, contained 32 hour-long programs. So each episode was almost as long as some B-movies of the day, and I find it more useful to think of the episodes as little movies rather than as weekly TV shows (especially since that approach derails comparisons with The Twilight Zone, which ran half-hour episodes except for one, none-too-successful season). The “B-movie of the week” mindset also makes the fairly primitive special effects of many of these episodes—rubber monsters and the like—easier to take. Finally, it will keep you from expecting a unifying presence (Leslie Stevens created The Outer Limits, but didn’t do the Rod Serling thing by appearing on screen) among what are actually freestanding science fiction programs covering a broad range of subjects.

The episodes of season 1 present a catalogue of what was on American’s minds in the early 1960s, and in particular were considered the greatest threats to our way of life. These include space aliens, “Oriental” dictators, Latin American dictators, mad scientists, the Cold War, and surveillance—and that’s not a third of a way through the first season! Given the threatening and somewhat paranoid framing device, the episodes of season 1 are remarkably reassuring, delivering a message that while threats do exist, sometimes they’re not as bad as we think, and we’re generally up to dealing with them.

Screenwriting is a strong point of the series, and many of the episodes display a philosophical streak that more than makes up for what they lack in terms of convincing special effects. Joseph Stefano and Leslie Stevens both wrote several episodes, with other writers for the first season including Meyer Dolinsky, Gerd Oswald, and Robert Towne. As is typical of TV shows of the era, a lot of familiar turn up in the episodes, including Cliff Robertson, Donald Pleasance, Robert Culp, Martin Landau, and Sally Kellerman (and like most TV of the day, and even of today, most of the key characters are white men).

A remastered, HD version of season 1 of The Outer Limits is distributed in DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber as a 7-disc box set. The episodes generally look and sound great, and the release comes with a generous package of extras. These include an illustrated booklet included an essay by David J. Schow and audio commentaries for most episodes by a variety of experts. | Sarah Boslaugh

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