Monday, July 04, 2011

Nightmares in Camelot, Part 1: The Outer Limits

In my previous post I'd mentioned how the prospect of doing The Outer Limits justice was too much for me at the moment, given my current responsibilities. However, I also realize that some of you might not be familiar with the series or the esoteric topics I was going to examine it in the light of. This all demands a book-length treatment, but an ongoing series of blogposts would do nicely as well.

There are several major issues that I would like to tackle with this series. The show has always been an enigma to me, and becomes more so as I continue to explore the issues the show itself explored. I watched reruns of it when I was very young, which was probably a mistake on my parents' behalf, given how mind-scarringly kid-unfriendly the series was. It left a very strong impression but I had no exposure to it until much later, sometime in the late 80s. Which, not coincidentally, was the same time I was beginning to explore UFOlogy more seriously.

Having spent the intervening years soaking up The Twilight Zone (TZ), I didn't quite get The Outer Limits (TOL) then. I was so used to the quick, jazzy rhythms of the Zone that TOL just seemed like that dreary TZ season when the network ordered Serling to do it as an hour-long. But there was something that nagged at me, something that told me I wasn't quite ready to understand TOL yet.

There's a fair bit of Outer Limits fan material on the web and some "critical" analysis of the show that isn't much to write home about. John Kenneth Muir has served up some worthy posts on TOL on his blog but too much of the rest of what's out there on the series is typical babyman fanstuff.

Much more interesting is Bruce Rux's analysis in Hollywood vs The Aliens. Rux posits that the show was part of a UFO educational program undertaken by more enlightened toilers in the MIC. Rux's thesis is that there's a struggle taking place in the corridors of power between those who want to quash the UFO issue and those who believe the public deserves to know the "truth," whatever that might be.

Rux has a pretty good smoking gun in the person of Outer Limits creator, Leslie Stevens. Born in the belly of the Beast (aka Washington, DC) into a powerful military family (his father was an admiral), Stevens of all show biz types would have access to classified or suppressed material about UFOs. He also had a strong rebellious streak, leaving DC at a young age to work for Orson Welles at Mercury and plying his connections to build a career on Broadway, where he met future TOL producer/head writer Joseph Stefano.

After Outer Limits was quashed (foll0wing his 17th second-season episode), Stevens took William Shatner and a film crew to Big Sur, where he shot his cult horror classic, Incubus (much, much more on that cursed production later).

Stevens seemed to spend some time with the locals in Big Sur and developed some very radical ideas -- anti-globalism and anti-corporatism wed to a Leary-esque futurism and proto-Alex Jones constitutional purism --which he spelled out in est: The Steersman Handbook. The acronym was later swiped by Werner Erhard, but Stevens' "est" stood for electronic social transformation. Quite the futurist.

Part of the enigma surrounding The Outer Limits is its repeated use of abduction tropes, which are de rigeur now but almost invisible then. Skepdicks cite TOL ep "The Bellero Shield" as the model for the Greys (via the Hills), overlooking the fact that the most distinctive feature of the Greys- the enormous, disc-like eyes- are MIA in the story's visitor.

Even so, there is still the fact that many of the show's legendary aliens are Grey-types. But the skepdicks deliberately obscure the immutable fact that the Grey archetype has been seen all over the world for thousands of years and that Stevens' connections might point to a leak (or muddying the waters on the part of Stevens' feeders).

From what I gather, there wasn't much going on in UFOlogy at the time following the successful quashing program of the 50s and many of the now-classic abduction reports (many of which took place in Europe in the late 50s) were either unpublished here or not widely circulated. Abduction reports were not necessarily unknown in 1963 , but nuts-n-bolts types were dominant at that point, and they still tend to steer away from abduction phenomena, as it's usually subjective and untestable. We saw hints of abduction in Invaders from Mars and Earth Vs. Flying Saucers, though not exactly the kind we came to know with the Hill situation, ie., the tests, the prophecies, the safe returns.

Of course, abduction lore is rife in fairy stories and it's in that spirit (if not context) that we see these accounts in TOL. Likewise, we see contact narratives in TOL in a similar traditional spirit-- gods, angels, devils, Djinn, Fay-- coming to grant wishes and otherworldly knowledge to solitary seekers such as Alchemists.

Most importantly, the show is almost oppressively intimate- we don't see any War of the Worlds mass invasions, but quiet, deliberate insinuations that are all the more terrifying in that they deprive the contactee of fellowship (not to mention certainty).

So, here are the main talking points I wish to explore in this series...

Telling Tales Out of School: Was classified material about UFOs and alien contact (whether factual or not) being disseminated in The Outer Limits? Was the point to educate or to mislead (ie., allow skepdicks to cite the series as the source of abduction reports, as was done in the Hill situation), or both?

The Elusive Companion Hypothesis: Leslie Stevens seemed to be well-versed in the supernatural. Did he see UFOlogy as a new mythology or as the reason/explanation for the old? The contact scenarios seem to suggest a more familiar relationship between the "aliens" and ourselves. They walk among us more often than they touch down in their chariots.

Nightmares in Camelot: The Outer Limits premiered just a couple months before the Kennedy Assassination. The episode aired following the events featured JFK mega-resonator Martin Sheen as a POW subjected to mind control experiments. More so than The Twilight Zone, the show seemed to presage the unraveling of America's Camelot and its descent into nightmare.

America's military and technical prowess was merely papering over the deep schisms in the culture, despite the air of confidence the Kennedy Administration wished to project. Prescription drug abuse, racial and religious ruptures and an unspoken suspicion that America was sacrificing its children to some dark, unknowable god on the killing fields of southeast Asia would tear down the castle walls as sure as any war machine. The Atomic and Space Ages would be more like The Munsters than The Jetsons.

An alien tries to decode the Great Seal in Stevens' Controlled Experiment

The Occult Limits: Jack Parsons' restless ghost seems to hover like a storm cloud throughout the entire series, especially in Stevens' own screenplays (it's a good bet Stevens at least knew of the Rocket Man) The mixture of high-tech and high magick may not always be textual but was most certainly subtextual. The very first episode posited a modern alchemist scanning the heavens for Enochian angels and forbidden knowledge. Stevens' other scripts likewise presented scenarios of dimension-crashing coupled with occult trappings.

The Inner Limits: Joseph Stefano -best known for his screenplay for Hitchcock's Psycho- wasn't much interested in sci-fi, which of course resulted in him writing some of the greatest science fiction ever made. What interested Stefano was the psychology of alien contact and the psychology of those on the outer limits. The oft-cited film noir look of the show was meant to act as a externalization of the inner conflicts the characters experience (a move picked up by The X-Files).

Stefano's experience on Broadway also gave him insight into the outer limits of New York's demimonde, especially the then-underground gay scene. Sexual boundary-crossing seems to be a thruline in Stefano's scripts. There's been a fair amount of comment on the relationship between the Sally Kellerman and Chita Rivera characters in "The Bellero Shield," but similar themes repeat throughout the first season (esp. "The Forms of Things Unknown"). There's also the velvet mafia subtext of "The Invisibles" and the sexually predatory tutor in "The Special One." The symbolism is pretty wild once decoded.

The Not-So Outer Limits: Stevens and Stefano handed the showrunning over to lesser hands for the second season, and the show became considerably less weird and resonant. Which is not to say there weren't some great stories (Harlan Ellison pitched in with two well-regarded scripts), but the direction and production were a lot less effective.

Even so, the second season boasted some high weirdness and effective strangeness. "Expanding Human" is essentially a dry-run for Altered States, in which testing of psychedelic drugs causes one scientist to evolve/devolve into a primitive/superior being. "The Inheritors" (with a star-making turn from Robert Duvall) has dying soldiers in Vietnam possessed by alien walk-ins from a dying planet who need children to replenish their population. The script doesn't shy away from the creepy undertones you'd expect from such a situation.

"Keeper of the Purple Twilight" is a space-age update of the Faust legend (written by Goethe, who meticulously recorded his own close encounter in the 18th Century) and "Counterweight" is an exercise in psychological horror in which a disembodied alien entity infiltrates a simulation of a commercial flight to Mars.

I also want to explore how The Outer Limits revival-- which was more successful than the original, running an impressive seven seasons-- almost completely missed the point of the Stevens/Stefano episodes, yet still managed to put some quality Vancouverian sci-fi on the idiot box.

More will come as the series evolves, but that's a basic sketch of what I want to explore. But before I do that I want to explore the long and storied history of otherworldly contacts, particularly those recorded by the Alchemists and their fellow travelers. Once you're familiar with some of these narratives, you'll look at The Outer Limits with brand new eyes, I guarantee it.

NEXT: Encounters with the Elusive Companions