Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Outer Limits (1963): The Architects of Fear

"The Architects of Fear." (S1E3) First aired 30 September 1963. Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by Meyer Dolinsky. Starring Robert Culp, Geraldine Brooks, Leonard Stone and Martin Wolfson. 8/10

In the hopes of preventing an eventual nuclear attack, a group of American scientists develops a plan to unite all nations by creating a common, external threat. They set out to biologically transform one of the men into an alien creature, modelling it after a creature captured from Theta. A mock saucer landing is to be staged, with the creature attacking a United Nations gathering, to be taken down by the defending humans. For the plan to be carried out successfully, the person selected for transformation must ultimately die.

The chosen candidate, selected by lot, is physicist Dr. Alan Leighton. The main complication, aside from the biological difficulties in carrying out the mutation, is that Leighton is happily married. Moreover, soon after being selected, he learns that his wife, believed to have been barren due to a murmuring heart, is pregnant.

The (mad) scientific plot to save the world is a great concept. For one thing, the "mad scientists" are, unlike standard mad scientists, trying to unselfishly save Earth rather than destroy it. The idea of transforming a man into an altogether different, alien being is fascinating, and the progression by which this is achieved in the episode is great to watch. Aside from cold, rational science, there is also the inherent moral considerations, mainly, how can a small group of men toy around with the people of the world and place them at risk? The moral consideration that the episode elects to focus on is quite simple: these men have decided to end the life of a fellow human being, and seem unaware of consequences to those he loves.

This last point is where the episode proves most effective. Leighton's loving wife Yvette is, as expected, devastated by her husband's death. Her grieving is solitary, and she is even dismissed by her husband's colleagues who push her away, and would rather focus on the delicate series of operations they must perform. The most powerful scene is not the moment of alien attack, or even the final instant when [spoiler] Yvette learns that the creature is her husband, but the scene when she appears at the lab to gather her husband's belongings. The sequence cuts from the final stages of the complex operation to Yvette. While she is grieving her husband's death, he is in the next room being made un-human, essentially being killed by his colleagues. When she is done crying in Leighton's office and steps out into the hall, the scientists have just completed the transformation and have also stepped out, pushing the stretcher carrying Leighton's body. Yvette and the men look at one another, and it is implied that she suspects what lies beneath the sheet of the stretcher. The personal crisis is proven to be sometimes greater than the international.

Again some solid performances, with Robert Culp in his first of three lead Outer Limits appearances, Geraldine Brooks is superb as Yvette and essentially steals the show, and Leonard Stone is great as scientist and friend Dr. Phillip Gainer. Directed by Byron Haskin, his second Outer Limits effort immediately after "The Hundred Days of the Dragon," who once again helps produce a patient story focusing on human elements brought together by a brief climax. The climax in this story is fully integrated with the thematic considerations, more so than with "Dragon," since the death of Leighton is what ultimately provides the plot with pure tragedy. As sentimental as the death scene might appear, it is more the powerful it, rather than weakened by it. This was the first of three Outer Limits episodes written by Meyer Dolinsky, who wrote for a variety of shows over twenty-five years, including two for Science Fiction Theatre (1956), four for Lock-Up (1960), two for The Invaders (1967) and one for Star Trek ("Plato's Stepchildren," that controversial episode that featured the first interracial kiss on western television).

And of course there's the alien. Very well conceived, the creature was evidently considered too frightening for prime time (read a summary on censorship on wikipedia). The creature holds up to today's viewer, not because of its realism, but because of the episode's involving morality, as well as the slow progression of creation, allowing the viewer glimpses of what to expect. It is early 60s make-up and costume, and the eyes look artificial to our eyes, and proves that good dramatic television transcends our need for eye candy and unnecessary violence.

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