“There is nothing wrong with your television set”: The Story of THE OUTER LIMITS
By John C. Alsedek:
Before I get into the meat of this article, a little personal story. I work with some elderly folks in the greater Los Angeles area, one of whom was a Czech/German immigrant—a man whose life would honestly make a great book. Anyway, one day I’m doing a repair job for him and he’s asking me about my radio show; I tell him how I’m the writer, editor, director, and producer. He says, “Really? My brother-in-law was a TV producer.” Mildly curious, I ask what he produced. “Ah, some science fiction show, can’t remember the name.” Interest now fully piqued, I ask the brother-in-law’s name. “Leslie Stevens.”
And just like that, I found myself one degree of separation from the co-creator of my #3 all-time TV show, The Outer Limits.
The Outer Limits was an anthology series that, in its original incarnation, ran on ABC from 1963 until 1965. Today, it’s most often compared to The Twilight Zone, but beyond the different-story-each-week format, the two programs weren’t all that similar. While it had sci-fi episodes, The Twilight Zone was by and large dedicated to fantasy. But The Outer Limits? Straight-up science fiction.
But a TV viewer of the early sixties wouldn’t have had to watch a full episode to appreciate the difference between the two shows. Anyone who’s ever owned a television knows how The Twilight Zone opened: Rod Serling’s staccato narration complemented by the single most identifiable musical theme in TV history. But the opening for The Outer Limits was much more low-key: an electronic buzz, Dominic Frontiere’s dreamlike orchestral intro, and Vic Perrin as the "Control Voice" reading this:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly, and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: There is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to . . . The Outer Limits.”
The Outer Limits was the brainchild of Leslie Stevens and his good friend Joseph Stefano, an up-and-coming writer coming off an Edgar Award win for his adaptation of Robert Bloch’s Psycho. Stevens, already an experienced producer who had just helmed the critically acclaimed modern Western Stoney Burke, handled the bulk of the production duties; Stevens and Stefano both provided scripts. They were aided and abetted by an outstanding production crew operating out of the KTTV/Metromedia Square studios on Sunset in Hollywood. Dominic Frontiere’s moody, evocative compositions were matched by the expressionistic camera work of future Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall and the unique creature effects of the Project Unlimited Crew: stop-motion animator Jim Danforth, designer/sculptor Wah Chang, and visual effects artist Gene Warren. Along with makeup artist John Chambers, the Outer Limits production team helped bring the stories of Steven and Stefano to life.
For Stevens and Stefano, The Outer Limits was what The Twilight Zone had been for Rod Serling: a forum for thought-provoking tales that wouldn't get past network censors if not dressed up in sci-fi/fantasy trappings. And the duo took full advantage. "Nightmare" delved into the physical and emotional effect on prisoners of war as aliens interrogated captured Earth soldiers. "Obit" used a mysterious listening device that could tune in on anyone, anywhere to decry the surveillance state in an episode that hits even harder today. "The Architects of Fear" took the prevalent fear of nuclear war and boiled it down to the horrific cost to one young couple. These episodes and others pushed the envelope on what could be broadcast on network television.
However, Stevens' and Stefano's excitement over the new series was slowly eroded by network demands and interference. The overarching demand was that each episode have a "bear," an alien or monster that would be prominently featured in the pre-intro sequence. That the "bear" often either had little to do with the episode proper or was not, in fact, a monster in the context of that episode didn't matter to ABC brass; they just wanted something to grab viewers before they could change the channel. Stefano and Stevens went along with it for the most part, sometimes too effectively; the "Thetan" in "The Architects of Fear" was considered too horrifying by some ABC affiliates, who blacked out the screen whenever the creature appeared, effectively censoring the show.
For Stefano, the final blow came when ABC moved The Outer Limits from its 7:30 p.m. Monday time slot (where the show had been doing solidly in the ratings) to Saturday night directly up against the hugely popular Jackie Gleason Show. Stefano felt that the move would kill The Outer Limits, and so left the show before the second season. Stevens continued on as producer, but what Stefano had feared quickly came to pass; the show’s ratings tanked, and ABC first cut the show’s budget and then pulled the plug entirely midway through season two. The final episode, "The Probe," aired on January 16th, 1965, a lackluster ending to one of TV’s great science-fiction series. It was revived in the mid-90s for Showtime/SyFy.
Between them, Joseph Stefano and Leslie Stevens wrote the majority of the scripts for The Outer Limits. But the legendary Harlan Ellison penned two of the series’ very best episodes: "Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand." We’ll be looking at the life of Harlan Ellison in an upcoming article. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.