The rebooted ‘new series’ of The Outer Limits (1995 – 2002) continued the science fiction related themes of the classic 1960s episodes, but with less of the monster focus apparent in Season One (1963), and more of the situational challenges from season two (1965). Thirty years later, it’s interesting how much has changed — and how little has changed. Characters struggle to comprehend the consequences of actions and, in the process, grapple with the ethical implications required to solve their predicament.
The go-ahead for the reboot, which had been planned as far back as the 1980s, finally emerged following the success of series like the X-Files (1993 – 2002), and Star Trek: The Next Generation, which demonstrated a public appetite for science-fiction. Featuring a computer generated, and highly surreal, title sequence, the ‘new series’, as it is often called, adapted original story ideas from: classic science fiction, old episodes of The Outer Limits, popular horror fiction, and contemporary themes influenced by scientific advances in genetics, cloning, and virtual reality. While the ‘new series’ covered a broad thematic scope, it frequently returned to issues about the nature of reality: copies and simulations, reversals of perception, and paradoxical ironies — robots possessing genuinely human characteristics, identical clones who think as individuals, virtual experiences that feel real, time-loops, and an abundance of alien life in a variety of shapes and forms.
Alarming scenarios force characters into difficult, identity-based choices. And the convenience that technology brings comes at a price — even newly acquired knowledge requires increased responsibility. Characters experience threatening situations, or receive a ‘gift’. But they must go with their conscience, and fight injustice, whatever form it takes.
In Replica (2001) a scientist clones his wife after she falls into a coma. One year later, now living with his wife’s identical clone, his wife wakes up and returns home. Even though his wife and the clone are identical, he is only capable of loving his wife. In a reveal, near the end, we see the husband, wife and clone getting along with one another, and in the last shot a clone of the husband appears and sits next to the clone of the wife. In a classic 1960s episode, such a scenario would have resulted in a fight between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but now science can provide an answer that satisfies everyone.
In Valerie 23 (1995) an attractive female android is assigned to a lonely and nerdy laboratory worker, but when he develops a relationship with a real women the robot becomes jealous. Her dangerous and erratic behaviour, leads to her own destruction, but, in the process, suggests that she may be a conscious life form, because she fears for her own death.
The Gun (2000) features a gun-peddling alien on the search for mercenaries to fight a war on a distant planet. The alien matches up his victims with a gun that fuses to the human body, gradually taking it over, energised by the hosts hatred and violent thoughts. The idea of a gun melding itself onto the human body is reminiscent of Videodrome (1983); both these stories are metaphors about technology desensitising a character to violence, resulting in the loss of their individuality and self-identity.
What does it mean to be human? This question forms the basis of The Glitch (2000) when an ordinary man discovers that he is is not human: he is an android. While coming to terms with this surprise he discovers that his wife is also a robot — together, realising the bonds of their common ‘humanity’, they fight the system. The revelation that a character is actually an android also featured in Demon with a Glass Hand (1965), but in that episode the android was condemned to eternal suffering in order to carry out his duty to mankind — here, the realisation that you are not biologically human is inconsequential to who the ‘person’ is, and self-acceptance becomes liberation. While the episode I, Robot (1996) is a like-for-like retelling of I, Robot (1964), with the same plot point about the robot sacrificing himself to save a human; showing that he is capable of empathy and altruism.
It’s difficult not to view the classic series from the 1960s without being conscious of the Cold War: ‘reds under the bed’, communist infiltration, the mistrust and paranoia; the backdrop to an era. But, as well as the fear of the other, there are progressive storylines about helping out well intentioned strangers (aliens). The ‘new series’ explores: the corporate reality of 90s America, the so-called military-industrial complex, and conservative values. In Family Values (2001) a robot with a conservative agenda dominates a family home; in A New Life (2001) a conservative religious organisation is the front for socially manipulative alien slave traders; in Deja Vu (2001) the military, intent on ‘weaponising’ a tele-transporter, sabotage an experiment, with potentially devastating consequences; in Relativity Theory (1998) mercenaries, intent on gaining a profitable bonus for discovering a resource rich planet, wipe out what they believe is a native population.
The focus for the protagonists tends to be their own inner struggle. They must think quickly ‘on their feet’ and make sense of what is really happening around them. In The Light Brigade (1996) a hero, believing he is saving humanity from destruction, unwittingly brings about Earth’s demise.
The anthology format of The Outer Limits allowed the writers to introduce new characters and situations — without an established cast of heroes (who had to return for next week’s episode) — any character could succeed, or be killed off; this uncertainty created an interesting tension. Star Trek used the device of the tele-transporter, beaming its characters down to a succession of planets, opening them up to new adventures, and killing off the unfortunate shipmate wearing the red top — otherwise it would have become a sitcom in space. Unlike the classic The Outer Limits the ‘Control Voice’ in the ‘new series’ acts as an intelligent commentator; his brief observation bringing perspective and continuity to the anthology format.
The ‘new series’, with its variations of tone and mood, sometimes hopeful, sometimes pessimistic, examines what it means to be ‘us’. It’s less interested in what motives ‘the other’, focusing instead on our ability to connect with our own humanity.