I have a theory that I’ve been wanting to put forth for a while, bear with me a moment while I explain this and how it ties into this review of The Outer Limits’ first season. I was born in 1985, twenty years after The Outer Limits ended production. Yet, I knew about The Outer Limits growing up and I distinctly recall coming across it on TV one afternoon and finding the famous “There is nothing wrong with your television set” opening somewhat ominous. School friends said they liked The Outer Limits more than The Twilight Zone as it was “scarier.”
So what’s my theory? Simple, I call it “The Nick-at-Nite Effect.” The idea that there’s a fair amount of people in my age group who have a fondness for TV series from the ‘50s and ‘60s. It was natural for us kids to hang around after Nickelodeon went off the air to see what was coming up on Nick at Nite. Friends and I used to watch Get Smart and talk about it the next day at school and watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents on the channel when I was all of five was my first introduction to the director.
In the 1990s cable TV wasn’t new, but it wasn’t old either. During that decade, channel options were maybe 25-30, depending on your local—and they use to be local—provider. Many of these stations were run by baby boomers who packed the airtime they needed to fill with reruns of shows they grew up on. Remember when the channel FX was running out of an apartment in NYC and showed Wonder Woman? I do. Cable in the 90s was peak weird too. AMC used to not only show movies, but devote an entire night’s line up to crazy, mid-century pop culture showings, and TNT used to show wild B movies at night under the moniker “100% weird.”
TNT is also where I first ever saw The Outer Limits. I knew the show, but I didn’t dare watch it all as it seemed too frightening for me to endure. As I’ve grown I’ve still held a particular love for genre TV of the 1960s, thanks to “The Nick-at-Nite Effect.” I was delighted when the Boris Karloff hosted anthology series Thriller was given a DVD issue eight years ago, and I was just as thrilled when Kino Lorber Studio Classics announced they were issuing, and restoring, The Outer Limits: Season 1 on blu-ray. So with that out of the way…
“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission.”
These cryptic words spoken by the unseen Control Voice (an uncredited Vic Perrin) first invaded American television sets on September 16th, 1963 at 7:30 PM when “The Galaxy Being,” the pilot and first episode of The Outer Limits, was broadcast by ABC. Anthology Series were commonplace on American TV of the mid-century, and even Anthology shows bent towards the realm of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror was not uncommon.
By the time The Outer Limits premiered, its closest TV kin, Rod Serling’s venerable The Twilight Zone was in its fourth season on CBS. On NBC the year prior, Alfred Hitchcock Presents had evolved into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, now in year two. 1962 saw the end of another NBC horror anthology, the aforementioned Thriller, which ran for two years, and Limits’ own network ABC had been the home to the supernatural leaning One Step Beyond from 1959 to 1961.
The Other Limits was created by Leslie Stevens, a Broadway playwright, and veteran of live TV. Stevens wrote, directed, and produced the pilot under the title Please Stand By. The change over from Please Stand By to The Outer Limits would come at the behest of ABC, who worried that in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis a show that opened with an ominous voice saying “Please Stand By” every week would scare viewers into thinking that actual death was moments away.
To take over the day-to-day running of The Outer Limits, Stevens hired Joesph Stefano, a screenwriter best known for adapting Robert Bloch’s novel into Hitchcock’s Psycho. The two men’s visions created the look and feel of The Outer Limits: Stevens bringing the hard science approach, and Stefano adding a touch of the Gothic and paranoia to the series. If the two did take a cue from Serling’s show, it was that you can tell stories about society and voice your concerns in a way that won’t get blocked by network interference, because it’s been dressed up in rocket ships and monsters—to put it broadly.
Historian and author of the book “The Outer Limits Companion” —and frequent commentator on this set—David J. Schow, notes in his wonderful essay included with the set that to compare The Outer Limits with The Twilight Zone is very easy shorthand that doesn’t do the series justice. Saying that Zone scribe Richard Matheson (who wrote some of Roger Corman’s “Poe” films) referred to that series as “ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events” wherein Limits the reverse is true, showing extraordinary people being invaded by the ordinary.
“The Galaxy Being” stars future Academy Award winner Cliff Robertson as a highly skilled engineer at a remote radio station. Robertson’s character is experimenting in the station’s transmitter room, where he makes contact with a being from another dimension. But though this being looks like a monster, and acts like one to the humans gathered—as his highly radioactive manner causes burns—he is a benevolent alien who is just as curious about life on Earth as Robertson’s engineer is about his way of life.
It’s a hell of a debut episode for any series, and what blew me away as I watched the first season was that it aired Monday nights at 7:30 PM. Perhaps ABC was hoping to grab a younger audience with “way out creatures” each week? Legend has it devoted fans would lug a TV set around with them rather than risk missing an episode. True or false, it’s a testament to the early power of Prime Time.
As with most anthology series, The Outer Limits had its share of duds over the first season’s 32 episodes. But when all the elements clicked, there were some truly superb hours of television. Visually, The Outer Limits looked unlike anything else on TV at the time, employing an impressive team of cinematographers (including future Oscar winner Conrad Hall) who gave the show a noir look with deep, rich shadows.
That look can be appreciated even more today thanks to the truly impressive HD scans on Kino Lorber’s first season blu-ray box. With assistance from MGM using original 35mm elements, the results are stunning. I often found myself pausing just to marvel at how a shot looked.
With The Outer Limits getting its blu-ray debut, it’s a chance for younger generations to discover the show. The special effects may be primitive by today’s standards, but it’s still impressive, considering episodes were shot in a mere six days!
What ends up on screen is the skill and talent of countless people who poured hours of time into creating impressive effects and even more impressive costumes. I constantly tried to figure out how some of the effects were achieved in this analog world. It took a few viewings of the “Bear” (the term the production team used for each week’s monster) on one of the show’s finest outings, “The Architects of Fear,” to figure out how they were pulling off the costume. In fact, some affiliates were worried that “Fear’s” monster was so scary, they actually blacked out the screen when it was revealed, or delayed the footage to after the 11 o’clock news the night of the broadcast!
Another delight for younger viewers discovering the series is recognizing familiar faces when they were still up and coming. Over the course of the season you can see: Ed Answer, Robert Culp (two times), Bruce Dern, Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman, Martin Landau (twice, and in full monster make up in one episode, no less!), David McCallum (two years shy of becoming a teenage idol on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Leonard Nimoy, and a VERY young Martin Sheen.
Reviewing this set was a little overwhelming due to the amount of material present. All 32 episodes of the first season are included uncut, running at 51:00 minutes on average—even having the original United Artists Television bumpers on the end of each show. In addition to this, bonus material comes as 24 audio commentary tracks by series fans and historians. Some of the commentators will be familiar to fans who own the blu-ray and DVD sets of Twilight Zone & Thriller, including David J. Schow, Tim Lucas (of Video Watchdog), Craig Beam (author of “My Life in the Glow of The Outer Limits”), Dr. Reba Wissner (author of “We Will Control All That You Hear: The Outer Limits & the Aural Imagination”), Gary Gerani (author of “Fantastic Television”), film historian Michael Hyatt, and Steve Mitchell (author of “King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen”). Each brings great enthusiasm, as they’re clearly excited to share stories and celebrate the show getting a blu-ray release.
These tracks provide so much depth about how The Outer Limits was made, its legacy, and how it inspired future sci-fi shows. You can easily draw a line directly from The Outer Limits to Star Trek, where a number of the show’s “bears” were reused, to the 1970’s Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and even all the way up to The X-Files.
Kino Lorber, MGM, and everyone involved with The Outer Limits: Season One blu-ray box should be congratulated. as this is hands down one of the best blu-ray box sets to come along in a while, and front runner for release of the year.
The Outer Limits has always lived in the shadow of The Twilight Zone. This is not a knock against either series as I could watch The Twilight Zone all day long too. But even though I couldn’t help but use Zone as a discussion point in this review, it’s time—with the help of this set—for The Outer Limits to stand on its own and be appreciated as much as Serling’s series. It’s a shame that both Leslie Stevens and Joesph Stefano are no longer with us, as I’m sure they would be blown away by this collection, and thrilled over how the show they both cared so much about looks for future generations.
We hear so much how physical media is dying and there is little interest in older TV being seen in high def. This set proves that myth wrong. At a retail price of $99.00, The Outer Limits: Season 1 is a steal for its eight-disc collection. A must own for anyone who loves 1960s TV, anthology series, or even a newcomer curious to discover how inventive and daring network TV used to be—even at 7:30 on a Monday night.