Review: ‘Outer Limits’ full-series DVD box is TV at its best

Stephen King once wrote that the original 1963-65 The Outer Limits was “the best program of its type ever to air on network TV.” I couldn’t agree more. But what is The Outer Limits’ “type”?

Returning to DVD today from MGM in a handsome full-series box set of 49 episodes, The Outer Limits was an anthology science-fiction show, albeit with hearty doses of gothic dread and monstrous horror. That stance, in itself, doesn’t make it a classic. Yet even with the limitations of meager budgets and no strong network track record for sci-fi — a marginal genre at the time — The Outer Limits did, indeed, push the limits of imaginative, thought-provoking entertainment in an “exploitation” genre, and has ultimately revealed itself as a monumental achievement.

Introduced by a “Control Voice,” story after story produced intriguing, insightful looks at humans —  often scientists — whose thirst for knowledge led them to expand horizons — sometimes in the form of alien contact — while learning that such progress rarely comes without a price.

Though The Outer Limits was a humanistic show, full of compassion for our small selves on a fragile planet, such humanism also extended to many of its aliens, who weren’t evil bug-eyed fiends but wise and peaceful explorers (“The Galaxy Being,” “The Bellero Shield”). It also taught lessons in enlightenment, as with the masterful tale of rapid human evolution called “The Sixth Finger.”

The series was blessed with outstanding creative work in almost every department, starting with the scripts written or overseen by producers Joe Stefano (Psycho) and Leslie Stevens. Outer Limits writers included future Oscar-winner Robert Towne (Chinatown) who wrote “The Chameleon” episode and sci-fi stalwart Harlan Ellison, whose acclaimed “Soldier” and “Demon With a Glass Hand” scripts informed The Terminator so much that he successfully sued for credit.

Outer Limits casts were incredible for network TV, from Cliff Robertson, Robert Duvall, Carroll O’Connor, Martin Landau and Robert Culp to Sally Kellerman, Vera Miles, Martin Sheen, Bruce Dern and Edward Asner. That’s not to mention future Star Trek stars William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and James Doohan.

Much of season one’s cinematography was by another future Oscar winner, Conrad Hall, whose use of handheld cameras, available light, creative framing and stark shadows was unprecedented for TV at this time. Too, the melodic and memorable first-season music by Dominic Frontiere was haunting, eerily beautiful and inspiring. And special effects, though done cheaply, could be striking and innovative.

Unfortunately, ABC killed the show in Season Two, giving it an unfriendly time slot and finishing it off at mid-season. The Outer Limits wound up with 32 first-season episodes and 17 in the second season, but that total of 49 is a full two seasons’ worth by today’s standards. And the franchise’s renewed life years later as a Showtime series (which remade several ’60s plots) has helped cement its status not just as a fleeting aberration amid a TVscape littered by slight sitcoms and “doctor” shows and recalled fondly only by aging Baby Boomers, but as a lasting phenomenon whose sheer artistry has made it more timeless and impressive than any other series of its day — and of any “type.”

Personal favorite episodes? Mine start with one which melds sci-fi trappings to a sheer “beauty and the beast” fairy tale, “The Man Who Was Never Born.” But Culp’s three episodes also are outstanding, from the horrific romantic tragedies of “The Architects of Fear” and “Corpus Earthling” — two of Outer Limits’ scariest yet most emotional stories — to Ellison’s time-tripping “Demon With a Glass Hand,” set largely in the wrought-iron interior of the Bradbury Building, which I’ve had the privilege to visit in downtown Los Angeles. (Blade Runner also shot there.)

Landau’s “The Bellero Shield” is a remarkable Shakespearean spin on ambition corrupting science, while rich gothic horror awaits in “The Guests” and “Don’t Open Till Doomsday.” And David McCallum played perhaps the greatest character arc any actor can claim in the rapid evolutionary tale of “The Sixth Finger.”

I could go on — there’s much more — but suffice it to say that King was right. This is TV at its finest — and often most cinematic — from an era when no other program challenged viewers and challenged itself with such ardent and inspirational creativity. A true treasure trove awaits you. Enjoy.

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One Response to “Review: ‘Outer Limits’ full-series DVD box is TV at its best”

  1. RIP, Robert Culp: A great actor–& don’t forget ‘The Outer Limits’ « Tripping the Light Says:

    […] RIP, Robert Culp: A great actor–& don’t forget ‘The Outer Limits’ By farsider All the obits on the late Robert Culp rightly focus on his groundbreaking work on TV’s I Spy as the first network series to co-star an African American (Bill Cosby) in the ’60s. But let’s not overlook Culp’s extraordinary work on another ’60s series before that: The Outer Limits. […]

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