Fifty Years in The Outer Limits

J.A. Fludd By J.A. Fludd, 11th Sep 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Film & TV>Science Fiction

Observing the 50th Annivesary of one of television classics and one of TV science fiction's greatest achievements, The Outer Limits.

America Loses Control

It was fifty years ago, September 19, 1963, that viewers tuned to ABC suddenly had their TV screens go black except for an oscilloscope line, while a strange, calm voice instructed them: “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. WE are controlling transmission.” For the next hour, Americans “participated in a great adventure” and entered The Outer Limits for the first time. Fifty years later people are still visiting The Outer Limits, and still loving it.

When series creator Leslie Stevens first pitched his idea for an anthology of science fiction plays to ABC, the network saw that what he had in mind was something similar (though not identical) to Rod Serling’s celebrated Twilight Zone over on CBS. They naturally asked Stevens if his show would have a “Rod Serling” type introduce the stories. Stevens, in a flash of inspiration, said no; instead the show would have a mysterious voice inform the audience that “WE” had taken control of their televisions and they must “sit quietly and WE will control all that your see and hear.” This was the birth of the greatest opening title sequence in the history of TV, and of the original Control Voice, played by the late Vic Perrin. The show had just gotten the green light from the network when Stevens ran afoul of his first problem: the title. It was originally going to be called Please Stand By, in keeping with the admonitions of the Control Voice. The problem was that Stevens’s show was making its debut at a time when the Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in people’s minds, and ABC was understandably nervous about having a show open with a voice instructing viewers to “Please stand by.” Consequently, the science fiction cousin of Rod Serling’s fantasy Twilight Zone was re-dubbed The Outer Limits. (More about this later.)

To help him produce Please Stand By/The Outer Limits, Stevens called on the help of an accomplished old friend, Joseph Stefano, who had become a hot property in Hollywood with his screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Though he was a great writer and storyteller, Stefano had interests and sensibilities quite opposite from those of Stevens. Leslie Stevens, like his colleague Rod Serling, wanted to do meaningful stories about the human condition on television and cloak them with imaginative ideas to get them on the air. However, on The Twilight Zone the fiction was always more important than the science; most Zone episodes are pure fantasy, and in the more science fictional episodes the SF is anywhere from flimsy to outright bad. (They’re brilliant stories nonetheless, and TV icons to boot, but they mostly really don’t stand up to scrutiny as science fiction.) Stevens actually was interested in doing stories about the stuff that science fiction is about: technology, the future, space travel, time travel, alien life, unknown creatures, the mysteries of the physical universe. Stefano did not share this particular set of interests; he was more concerned with psychology and the dark, twisted places where the human mind and character could go. Stefano agreed to produce the show on the condition that he could do it his way, and Stevens basically handed it all to him. The result was a series in which Joseph Stefano told horror stories within Stevens’s science fiction framework.

"Please Stand By" for Terror

In style, tone, and content, Stefano’s The Outer Limits was (and remains) an absolutely unique piece of work. In the series bible, “The Canons of Please Stand By” (the change in title happened after Stefano came aboard), Stefano laid out the way in which the stories on the show were to be told, including his instruction that each play was to include what he called “the Bear.” The expression dated back to Vaudeville, in which some acts were livened up by a performer in a bear suit. Stefano defined the Bear as that part of the story that would offer the viewer “the delicious and consciously desired element of terror.” This, as well as the greater attention to science fiction concepts, was what distinguished The Outer Limits from The Twilight Zone. On The Zone, Rod Serling wanted to tell you something about people that he thought was meaningful, and do it in a fantastic and sometimes disturbing and unsettling manner. On The Outer Limits, Stevens and Stefano wanted to do the same thing, but with science fiction—and scare the skin off you in the process.

The Outer Limits, while highly intelligent and catering to viewers who liked to think, was a dark, aggressive, ruthless show, and there is a generation of viewers that remembers watching in sheer terror—sometimes from behind the couch, like the kids watching Dr. Who in England—and loving it. The series was full of grotesque aliens and monsters: the electromagnetic “Galaxy Being” from Stevens’s pilot episode; the Welsh coal miner who was evolved into the biological future and grew a grotesquely enlarged skull and “The Sixth Finger”; the mysterious dust ball that fed on the electricity of a vacuum cleaner and turned into a living energy storm that fed on all power—even that of living bodies (Stephen King’s favorite episode); the little black rocks from outer space that could become slithering blobs and possess a human victim; and most famously the Zanti Misfits, malevolent alien insect forms who were criminals on their home planet, sent to Earth as an interstellar gulag. The scientist transformed into a creature from the planet Theta in “The Architects of Fear” was deemed so terrifying that in some cities the last act of the episode was blacked out and shown after the 11:00 news. Stefano and company did their job.

The Outer Limits Legacy

In the 1994-95 season, The Outer Limits, abused and prematurely cancelled by ABC and gone but not forgotten for three decades, made a comeback on Showtime Cable. In the new series something wonderfully ironic happened. The shows were made for cable and sold directly to first-run broadcast syndication to recoup the production costs, and it was in the commercial versions that a bit of justice was done. At the end of the new opening title and in the commercial-break “bumpers,” the new Control Voice (Kevin Conway) intoned, “The Outer Limits: Please stand by.” This, I have every belief, was done deliberately for people like me who had not only watched the original Outer Limits but studied the show and read everything they could get their hands on about it. I knew all about Please Stand By from the books Fantastic Television by Gary Gerani and Paul Schulman, and The Outer Limits—The Official Companion by David Schow. So the first time I heard the new Control Voice say, “Please stand by,” I nearly fell off my bed laughing. It had taken more than 30 years for the Control Voice finally to say what it was meant to say at the beginning!

(By the way, Kevin Conway had an interesting prior science fiction credit: he was the over-ambitious Dr. Haber in the public TV adaptation of The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin. And David Schow, who wrote the Companion book, went on to write an actual episode of The Outer Limits: “Corner of the Eye,” one of the best shows in the series.)

Half a century after it first seized our TV sets, The Outer Limits is still in control. Those of us who love imaginative television are happy to relinquish control to brilliance like this. So please…stand by.


1960S, Classics, History, Horror, Imagination, Monsters, Science Fiction, Television

Meet the author

author avatar J.A. Fludd
J.A. Fludd is a writer and artist in upstate New York specializing in comics and science fiction, and interested in entertainment and mass popular culture in general.

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author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
12th Sep 2013 (#)

Though I have not watched this series I get a good idea of what it is about. Feeds the imagination of science buffs - siva

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author avatar J.A. Fludd
12th Sep 2013 (#)

Everyone should know The Outer Limits; it is one of TV's true classics. You really should give it a proper watching; you'll love it.

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