How The Original "Outer Limits" Changed Sci-Fi On TV Forever
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I was privileged to grow up in what I consider to be the glory days of sci-fi on TV. Star Trek was a global phenomenon when it first aired, even though it only lasted three seasons. But years before, two amazing and groundbreaking shows preceded it: The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.
The Twilight Zone is universally known and loved by all genre fans, and rightly so. But for my money, The Outer Limits hit me deeper in my soul. It is the under appreciated cult fave that was hardcore sci-fi as opposed to its morality play counterpart Twilight Zone.
Psycho Beginnings: The People Behind The Outer Limits
The show was created by Leslie Stevens, but the mastermind and main creative force behind it was Joseph Stefano. That name might sound familiar to some of you, as he was the screenwriter of the epic Alfred Hitchcock classic horror film, Psycho. He wrote most of the episodes, and had assistance from the likes of the legendary Harlan Ellison, and Academy Award winner Robert Towne.
Both were anthology shows, but the main difference between The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone was the tone: while the former was fantasy and morality based, usually with an ending twist everyone loved, the latter was far more nuanced in its depiction of the hard choices of mankind regarding technology and the human condition. It was, in its own way, a precursor to the popular present day series Black Mirror.
The look of The Outer Limits was visionary as well, for the time period, thanks to the brilliant work of cinematographer Conrad Hall. His vision for the show essentially brought the shadows and light interplay of film noir to science fiction and horror, with amazing effects. Here is what Hall said about his experimental approach to the show:
"I was fairly new to the game, and had a chance to experiment a lot. Anything I'd ever heard about, dreamt about or thought up - I tried everything in the book. 'The Outer Limits' became a school for the development of my craft."
The central thing that set The Outer Limits apart was the very format of the show, as conceived by Stefano. Borrowing from the idea of the "McGuffin," Hitchcock's story device really didn't do much except to advance the plot of his films. However, Stefano came up with something that changed the game in sci-fi and horror on TV forever: the concept that is now universally known as the "Monster of the Week," but actually originated in The Outer Limits. Stefano called his plot device "The Bear."
The big and bad that was at the center of the plot that week was coined "The Bear," in other words the thing that would scare the bejesus out of you. Even though some sort of monster was a central aspect of each episode, the emphasis on actual science gave the show a perceived reality and gravitas that The Twilight Zone simply didn't have.
Every show in this genre since, including Buffy the Vampire, Slayer, The X-Files, Supernatural, The Flash, and countless others, owe a good portion of their popularity to the concept of "The Bear" later called "Monster of the Week." Subsequent shows wisely integrated an overarching mythology into their storytelling, as the "Monster of the Week" can get stale after a while. Make no mistake however, The Outer Limits created the standard bearer in sci-fi and horror, and should be remembered and celebrated for that.
Where No Man Has Gone Before: The Star Trek Connection
Something most people don't know is that many of the creatures and special effects from The Outer Limits made their way into the equally influential Star Trek. The "transporter beam" effect in Star Trek? Yep, it came from a technique used in The Outer Limits episode "The Mutant," and Spock's pointy ears derived from a concept The Outer Limits makeup team created for the episode "The Sixth Finger."
Some of the creatures in The Outer Limits were even straight up reused, or re-purposed in Star Trek. Take a look at the example below:
The influence of The Outer Limits even made its way into the psyche of the notable Director James Cameron, who was sued on behalf of The Outer Limits writer Harlan Ellison's estate, contending the plot for Terminator was heavily influenced by two of The Outer Limits episodes ("The Demon with the Glass Hand," and "The Man Who Was Never Born"). Cameron conceded the direct influence, resulting in Ellison getting credit on the movie Terminator.
The Legacy Of The Outer Limits
Called by horror legend Stephen King as '"the best program of its type ever to run on network TV," The Outer Limits stands as one of the all-time greatest shows in the history of TV, and deserves the same recognition that the more popular The Twilight Zone and Star Trek already enjoy. And not for nothing — what show can boast such weird and creepy ''Bears" like these:
Photo credit: cover from the Everett Collection