The Outer Limits, for those that don't know, is a long running remake of a 60's TV show wherein quirky short stories are told in one encapsulated episode. The topics are, therefore, varied with only rare instances of plot crossover. In short, Outer Limits is a bit like Tales of the Unexpected but without the same spark and diversity.
You see, whereas Tales of the Unexpected had such wide ranging stories like someone having a heart attack over the price of a painting, Outer Limits is far more regimental. The vast majority of episodes take place in military institutions, medical research facilities or involve shady government agents - or all three if the writers have just finished reading the Illuminatus Trilogy for a bit of inspiration. Basically, over half of the episodes have some kind of laboratory in the story and you can only take so much pseudo-science prattle and blinking control panels until you become numb to the whole series.
Then there is the structure of the whole series. You see, as a viewer I want to be surprised by the episode so that I can become immersed by the story. I cannot understand why people read all these TV magazines with a gossip column telling them what's going to happen in some turgid soap opera for the next two weeks. At least you can choose not to read the article or not watch the program at all, for that matter... Well, Outer Limits takes things a little further by having a pretentious introductory narration which, in all but a few cases, completely reveals the story over the next 45 minutes. I really don't want to know the story before the episode has even begun, thanks - that's why I am watching the bloody episode to start with!! What makes things even worse is that a completely redundant end narration confirms what you have just watched, in case you have the mental faculties of a shoe and can't count past the size that's written on the bottom of it! It's not like there is a whole heap of time to spare for these speeches, either.
Apparently each episode is 44mins and 20 seconds short. This means that each episode flies like a bullet and doesn't stop until the cheesy end-credit music starts. Sometimes this works well, with an incoming scene distracting us from a plot hole two seconds back. Second Soul is one of the more successful episodes in this regard where a truly progressive story keeps you guessing to the future rather than the shaky past. Like any good short story, Second Soul concentrates on the situation and uses the characters therein to highlight story developments. Indeed, the end of this episode I found to be very satisfying and not at all what I expected.
Too often, though, stories focus on the relationships between onscreen characters to develop a story. This is fine for something like Lost where there are whole episodes devoted to one character. Outer Limits just doesn't have the time to develop any kind of deep characterisation for one character, never mind three or four! Instead a bare minimum of expositional beats are hit, making an episode of Outer Limits appear like a “Previously on...” montage so quickly are stories set up, explored, confronted and resolved.
Like the new Doctor Who series, so little time is available that the enemies never seem real either, often coming across as a flat, two dimensional photocopy of a da Vinci sculpture. In The Choice, a daughter of 8 years or so decides to leave her parents to the dubious care of a nanny, whom the family has only known for a couple of weeks. Yes, there were some extenuating circumstances, like the daughter having telekinetic skills, but come on! Are we really expected believe that her parents would so easily give up access to their daughter? That the daughter herself would leave with just a couple of tears? That the police would not be called or something giving even a tacit nod to family unity? Alas no, as there is no time left and that godforsaken narrator has to give us his conceited epilogue to another contrived story.
You could argue that all TV is contrived, seeing as there is always something that has to happen. Otherwise we would get a series depicting plain everyday life, and who would want to watch that, I wonder? I suppose Outer Limits is not trying to be anything fancy, appealing to the switch off, switch on and watch audience. In doing so maybe the whole point is that the episodes are easily digested, allowing anyone to just “drop in” mid season and enjoy an episode just as much as someone who has watched the whole season. In this regard there are some things to appreciate with the series. Another plus point would be where actors are often given the chance to act outside their normal roles. Take Leonard Nimoy who, in his role as Spock, is often seen as a solemn, stoic character with little emotional range. In Outer Limits, Nimoy plays a lawyer with some aplomb making me think that his range is a little wasted in his alien façade. Robert Patrik (Terminator 2) and genre specialist and all round good character actor David Warner (loads of stuff, but Tron is probably most applicable) both play some memorable, if not entirely new, roles in Outer Limits, too.
But again, the lack of anything special raises its head despite the undoubted acting calibre. For a series that ran for seven seasons I shudder to think of the plot churn rate considering the lack of variety on show in this first season.
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