The Outer Limits
The narrator, or the ‘Control Voice’, in The Outer Limits (1963 – 1965) speaks to the audience as if they are subjects in a laboratory experiment: ‘There is nothing wrong with your television set,’ he says. ‘Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. ... We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.’ The ‘Control Voice’, along with the Film Noir lighting, Expressionist camera angles, ordinary people in ‘ordinary’ situations, brought into contact with alien beings, and the inventive variety of monsters, all characterised the show.
Its influence on science fiction, fantasy and horror stretches far beyond the 1960s, with plot lines that influenced films like Men in Black (1997), Terminator (1984), and television series like The X Files (1993 – 2002). The scenario of a perfect geometric shape buried under the moon’s surface also appeared in 2001 (1968) – a symbiotic life-form that melds with human subjects, and people being sent back in time to save the human race, are both commonly used in science fiction.
The standard The Outer Limits plot involves a monster of some kind. They are usually scary, sometimes destructive, and sometimes beneficent and mean us no harm, but always slightly creepy and weird. One of the great things about the series is the variety of monster personalities, ranging from beings that are merely lost, and hoping to return home, to guiding spirits working to ensure that the universe is kept in balance, to scheming infiltrators planning to control the earth.
The monster in ‘Galaxy Being’ is a bright humanoid-shaped light; in ‘The Sixth Finger’ the monster is an ordinary man with artificially boosted intelligence; in O.B.I.T. the alien being has taken on human form and has technologies that can watch everyone; in ‘Tourist Attraction’ weird dolphin-like creatures live in the sea; in ‘The Zanzi Misfits’ an all-powerful alien race is revealed to be a comical-looking bug with a human face; and in ‘Specimen: Unknown’ it’s a toxic flower.
Each hour long episode begins with a teaser, followed by the ‘Control Voice’, and the opening credits. The stories usually began slowly, building up the tension from an apparently mundane situation, gradually introducing the audience to a growing strangeness, alerting us to a character with a negative character trait, one that is likely play a critical role as the story unfolds. In the getting-to-know-the-monster section, the audience learns what motivates the monster, if it is here to help us, or it it is a threat to humanity. Part of the entertainment is working out how this plays out: friend or foe. In the problem solving section the hero learns how to overcome the monster, or help it to carry out its mission. In the climax there is a physical fight, a chase, or an unforeseen intervention occurs.
- The hero’s journey is a framework that identifies the various stages a hero passes through as he/she goes on their adventure. It sees the hero achieve their goal, and in the process of winning that, gain new friends, and become the person they have to be in order to transform from an ordinary person into a heroic figure. The hero’s journey originates from various notions about a great epic story, an ‘original’ story that transcends cultures: the monomyth. Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) was the first analysis to coherently rationalise, and popularise, the classical myth form as the hero’s journey. A number of storytelling experts, academics, writing coaches, screenwriting gurus, have built on Campbell’s work, adapting aspects of it, and emphasising specific areas to suit contemporary genres. In Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers (2007), a popular screenwriting textbook, the essence of Campbell’s work is simplified for contemporary writers. These, and other, archetypes tend to be highly symbolic, influenced by Jungian notions of the subconscious, internal conflicts, and the persona. The hero may initially appear to be a fool, but will eventually develop his skills and behaviour, to become the respected hero. Alternatively, the hero may be marked out from birth as being a ‘cut above the rest’, destined to take on the role. The second in charge, will often act as a foil, or contrast with the leader: he or she may initially fight the leader, before joining him or her on the quest. They may have the same common enemy. The magician is the wise one, often a professor or a thinker who has previous experience of the enemy, or monster, and can provide useful advice. The muscle man sees the world simplistically, but has incredible physical strength. The love interest, usually acts to encourage group harmony. The hero will often have allies with special powers, skills or gifts. These may initially appear pointless, or ineffective, but they turn out to be invaluable to the hero’s success. Along the way, the hero’s allies will also be transformed into heroes of a kind – the coward learns to be brave, the mysterious one reveals himself, the unskilled fighter becomes a warrior. These transformations are akin (but different) to mini coming-of-age stories, which involve self-discovery, but they are not age related.
- The body swap and transformation story involves a radical change to a character’s body, usually a change of age, gender, sometimes even species. In a body transformation story the change occurs to one character: in the body swap two people exchange bodies. These transformations take the two characters from their mundane reality into a new world, usually with increased or reduced powers. The transformation creates a challenge for both characters: now they must re-experience the ordinary world that we take for granted. Body transformation and swap stories provide storytellers with a way of turning a character’s ordinary world into something strange and challenging. This allows the storyteller to explore prejudice, social expectation, injustice, wish fulfilment, and many other ‘what if…’ scenarios. And, along the way, the protagonist will overcome their fears, discover their identity – learn who they really are. They will use their new understanding to rectify old mistakes, to value the ordinary world in a fresh way. Or, by turning into a ‘monster’, appreciate what they lost when they became the ‘other’, something less ‘human’ on the outside, but just as human on the inside.
- The films Arrival (2016) and Life (2017) offer two versions of the ‘first contact’ story – humanity’s initial encounter with alien life. Both these stories feature plots based around the mystery of figuring out what motivates the alien life. Are they hostile? Should we trust them (and discover amazing things)? In Arrival, the aliens appear in an advanced space craft using technology beyond our comprehension. In Life the alien being is a micro-organism discovered in a Martian soil sample. In many respects, these two stories are diametrical opposites. The alien in Arrival uses advanced technology, which could be a threat to humanity, but in Life, because the alien grows from such an apparently simple organism it’s assumed to be less of a threat. Alien monsters were first popularised in comics, and horror films in often salacious and titillating fantasy adventure. Arrival and Life are more sophisticated stories, nonetheless they both refer back to the same challenge that Flash Gordon and others face – comprehending an unknown world where we should not always rely on easy assumptions. Arrival is the hopeful story of an encounter with a friendly alien and Life is a warning about monsters in space. They reflect different attitudes to life, space, and humanity. These very different stories, and very different aliens personify selflessness versus selfishness – the story as a hopeful celebration versus the story as a stark warning.