There is Nothing Wrong With Your Televison Set: ‘The Outer Limits’ Turns 60!
As a child of the 1960s, I wasn’t so much worried about monsters under the bed because I could usually find them on TV, just where I wanted them.
Few shows creeped me out with more shivery delight and foreboding than The Outer Limits, the ABC science-fiction/horror anthology that aired weekly (at the early hour of 7:30pm) from 1963-65 and in syndication thereafter. Guided through its first season by writer Joseph Stefano, who wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s influential shocker Psycho, this low-budget but adventurous creature feature brought eerie and usually alien forces into our living rooms week after spine-tingling week.
The very first episode, by series creator Leslie Stevens, set the tone with a “Galaxy Being” that radiates pure electromagnetic energy, with two eyes peering from an indistinct and thus deeply unnerving form of humming, buzzing destructive force. Summoned by a radio engineer (Cliff Robertson) possessed of the mad scientific obsessions the genre requires, the Andromeda alien means no harm, but as it inadvertently crosses into our own world, panic ensues, and the fevered imagination runs wild.
Stefano referred to the monster-of-the-week device as “the bear,” and while the stories often shared The Twilight Zone’s more philosophical and ironic meditations on the human condition, it was the threat and promise of the bear — bug-eyed, tentacled, you name it — that captivated and riveted viewers.
They often took conventionally scary sci-fi forms, such as the menacing Ebonite aliens of the war allegory “Nightmare,” with elongated faces and spindly hands that would influence a generation of Star Trek entities. (The Outer Limits was in black and white, but you imagined them in color.) Quite often, they defied precedent: the devastating energy cloud of “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork” — my favorite title — or the antlike invaders with terrifying human faces from “The Zanti Misfits.”
The most iconic creature may be the mutant played by future The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and NCIS star David McCallum in “The Sixth Finger,” a Welsh miner subjected to an experiment that speeds up human evolution by eons. With its bulbous head and sunken intelligent eyes, this vision from the outer limits of existence haunted me for years.
Seen today, many of these imaginative monsters appear primitive, even laughable, but they were no joke to those who willingly turned over control of their TV sets each week to fiendishly inventive storytellers testing the boundaries of the still-young medium.