The original ‘The Outer Limits’ – sixties SF TV on MGM+

Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We have control of your streaming app. We have provided you with access to The Outer Limits (1963-1964), the original incarnation of the TV science fiction anthology series.

It wasn’t the first such program and it was always in the shadow of its more literate (and more popular) cousin The Twilight Zone, but the hour-long The Outer Limits made its mark on the minds of many of the fans who grew up in the show; Stephen King called it “the best program of its type to ever run on network TV.” It didn’t invest in the twist ending or social allegories that defined so many episodes of The Twilight Zone but rather took on a combination of science fiction and suspense to delve into the dark side of humanity in episodes tragic, poignant, and comic beginning with the pilot episode. Written and directed by series creator Leslie Stevens and starring Cliff Robertson, The Galaxy Being offered a compelling tale of human hubris and first contact with an eerie visual style.

Stevens and series producer and frequent writer Joseph Stefano, who scripted Hitchcock’s Psycho prior to this assignment, established a hook to further define the show: “the bear,” the network code name for the weekly creature. The bear could be anything, from almost human to practically abstract: a glowing creature from another dimension in “The Galaxy Being,” a mutant victim of a future holocaust (played with touching poignancy by Martin Landau) in “The Man Who Was Never Born” (S1 E6), an weird, amorphous blob in a peep show box in “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” (S1 E17), and the show’s most memorable creatures, demented alien ants with vaguely human faces and a drive to conquer in “The Zanti Misfits” (S1 E14) featuring guest victim Bruce Dern.



Unfortunately for its devoted viewers, the already stretched budget was cut (along with the episode count) for the second season and producer Stefano left, with Ben Brady overseeing an abbreviated final season. The quality was more variable from episode to episode but is highlighted by “I, Robot” (S2 E9), starring Howard Da Silva as a salt-of-the-earth lawyer who comes out of retirement to defend a robot on charges of murder, and two episodes written by legendary science fiction author Harlan Ellison. The season opener “Soldier” (S2 E1), starring Michael Ansara as a soldier in a future war inadvertently pulled back into 20th century America, was famously the basis of a lawsuit against The Terminator (which Ellison successfully argued was inspired by his teleplay), while the award winning “Demon With A Glass Hand” (S2 E5) is a surreal, existential thriller in an abstract world where an amnesiac (Robert Culp) runs from futuristic soldier determined to murder him. Shot almost entirely in LA’s atmospheric Bradbury Building (so memorably used in Blade Runner and the original D.O.A.) by director Byron Haskin, whose fog and shadows style pushes the dislocation to unsettling extremes, it remains one of the great moments of TV of the fantastic.

What’s surprising is how well the show holds up after all this time. Though woefully underfunded, this series had a wicked creative streak running through it (give much of the credit to Stefano, who helped bring a dark dream sensibility to this show), expressionist photography that gives some episodes a dreamy, surreal quality (future Oscar-winner Conrad Hall shot 15 episodes of the show), strong casts, and solid directors. Among the episode stars are Donald Pleasance, Shirley Knight, Miriam Hopkins, Warren Oates, Gloria Graham, Robert Duvall, Vera Miles, and future SFTV icons William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, and the director roster includes big screen veterans Byron Haskon, Laslo Benedek, John Brahm, and Gerd Oswald.

While it never achieved the sharp writing and creative ambition of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits remains an essential work of small screen science fiction storytelling.

It was nominated for an Emmy for its art direction and production design and Ellison was honored by the Writers Guild of America for his original teleplay for “Demon with a Glass Hand.” The series was revived for pay cable in the 1990s but that incarnation never quite found its voice or its audience.

We now return control of your streaming app to you, until next time the Control Voice will take you to… The Outer Limits.

Black and white

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The Other Limits: Season 1 [Blu-ray]
The Other Limits: Season 1 [DVD]
The Other Limits: Season 2 [Blu-ray]
The Other Limits: Season 2 [DVD]

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The Blu-ray and DVD releases include commentary on multiple episodes, bonus interviews with cast and crew members of the show, a discussion with series veterans from the Museum of Television and Radio’s William S. Paley Festival, and promos and TV spots among their supplements.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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