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THE OUTER LIMITS COMPANION
Author David Schow on the enduring appeal of the original show
By Frank Garcia
March 29, 2000
'There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission...'
Is anyone out there not familiar with these words, which were first enunciated with kaledioscopic black and white test patterns, sine waves and fluttering imagery, over the airwaves on the evening of September 16, 1963? On that evening, we lost control of our television set.
Perhaps you nostalgically recall it from its original two-season broadcast on ABC between 1963-1965? Perhaps you caught it on endless local station reruns or on the TNT network in the intervening 35 years? Or maybe you snatched a video, and in a pitch-black living room scared yourself and your girlfriend silly in an evening with popcorn, beer and a blanket?
One of the few SF anthologies on television, THE OUTER LIMITS gave us episodes like 'The Galaxy Being,' 'Demon with a Glass Hand,' 'Soldier,' 'Feasibility Study,' 'Fun and Games,' 'The Zanti Misfits,' and 'The Chameleon.' The work of creator Leslie Stevens and producer Joseph Stefano has endured the test of time. Each week, the series explored our deepest fears in literate tales of science fiction, suspense, and horror. Each week we were greeeted with a monster sometimes monstrous, sometimes human. What has sustained the show's popularity over decades is the fact that these tales were presented with high quality acting, writing, directing, music, makeup and just plain eerie atmosphere. Sure, a lot of them have that amusing sometimes hilarious 1960s 'look,' but many 'classic' moments of television science fiction have come out of THE OUTER LIMITS. Many notable actors who participated in the series are still in the business today, and many behind the scenes artists are at the top of their field as well.
The series is so fondly remembered that it has spawned a second series that updates the original's work. MGM-TV and Showtime are now completing a sixth season of their version of their anthology series, which will eventually have 132 episodes. In addition to modern tales of SF, suspense and horror, the series has produced four remakes from the original series: 'I, Robot,' 'Feasibility Study' (rewriten by its original author Joseph Stefano), 'The Inheritors,' and 'Nightmare.' Criminally evil space ants, whose jaws delivered nasty, fatal bites and uttered whining screams as they are killed. 'The Zanti Misfits'
On the evening of March 10, 2000, in a sold out event, the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles paid tribute to one of television's most celebrated science fiction series. Those who stood before some 500 fans included actor Martin Landau, producers Joseph Stefano, Robert Justman, associate producer Lou Morheim, and series cinematographer Conrad Hall. Attending the event with those celebrities was David J. Schow, who authored THE OUTER LIMITS OFFICIAL COMPANION. A fan of the series from its original broadcast, Schow is one of the best experts around regarding the show's production history.
'We outdrew and outsold the MASH event which had, like, 15 people from that show there. Everybody clapped nobody booed,' says David Schow. 'Many people who were fascinated by THE OUTER LIMITS while young have tried to perpetuate its pleasures by pursuing careers in writing or film. All the attendees at the Museum's tribute evening to the show described not a workaday 9-to-5 job hacking away in TV; rather, they saw it as a magical and unsuspected collision of talent and incident that achieved fission and produced something lasting, something whose long-term effects are only just now being examined, dissected, and enjoyed.
'THE OUTER LIMITS has kept me interested for decades,' he adds, 'and exploring it to the degree I have has been a great pleasure to me.'
In addition to authoring a Companion to the series, Schow co-wrote THE CROW (1994) feature with John Shirley, and he appeared in the 1997 TV mini-series THE SHINING as a ghost. Moreover, he's a writer and editor specializing in a brand of horror fiction he calls splatterpunk. He's got two novels, THE KILL RIFF (1987) and THE SHAFT (1990). His stories are collected in SEEING RED (1990), LOST ANGELS (1990), and BLACK LEATHER REQUIRED (1994), and he edited the anthology SILVER SCREAM (1988). This year, he has another anthology, WILD HAIRS, a compilation of non-fiction and Fangoria columns, plus THE LOST BLOCH, Vol. 2, and he's editing a volume titled HELL ON EARTH.
Schow's first exposure to this two-season, black-and-white TV series that scrambled our television signals was, in fact, the very first episode, 'The Galaxy Being,' broadcast in September, 1963 and starring a very young Cliff Robertson. 'The biggest attraction, then, was that it was the first time I'd ever seen a computer used to decode an alien language,' says David Schow. 'The alien itself made the expected impression as well.' (Show refers to the now-iconographic image of a 'reversed image' alien who was pulled to Earth, caught by Robertson's character, who was experimenting with equipment at a radio station.) Schow denies the series ever gave him nightmares, but ''Corpus Earthling' made me look askance at my rock collection for a couple of days,' he grins.Rocks transformed themselves into ambulatory gobs of parasitic protoplasm, sucking the life's blood from human victims. 'Corpus Earthling'
THE OUTER LIMITS OFFICIAL COMPANION first appeared in print as a 400-page trade paperback from Ace Books in 1986. Schow says that the initial research was aimed for magazine publishing. 'The actual genesis of what became the book was two-fold,' explains Schow. 'First, in the early-to-mid 1970s it became possible to buy certain episodes, then made from 16mm internegative dupes. Second, I lost my mind and decided to call Joseph Stefano on the telephone, completely out of the blue ... and he talked to me about the series for over an hour, way back in the early 1970s. The first time I actually submitted an article to a magazine was when Starlog
was brand new. Gary Gerani beat me to the finish line on that one, and his similar piece was published in Starlog #4, which will give you an idea of how long ago this happened.
'Then I met Jeff Frentzen. We pooled resources and immediately began to talk about doing a book-length study on the show. Since we both worked briefly at Cinefantastique
, that magazine seemed a logical contender for an article version of the ever-growing whirlpool of research, but the editor was such a huge STAR TREK fan that he wanted the article to reflect his view of THE OUTER LIMITS as secondary, and inferior, to STAR TREK, when we wanted it the other way around. Jeff and I realized we'd have next to no editorial control over our own article.'
However, the two authors' LIMITS research did find a home in the pages of Rod Serling's TWILIGHT ZONE magazine as a six-part series complete with an episode guide that ran from 1983 to 1985. 'The first three installments were pivotal in securing the book contract from Berkley [Ace] Books,' says Schow. The book was published in 1986, and in 1987 Berkeley paid for a trip to New York so that Schow could attend the induction of the 'Galaxy Being' into the Museum of Television and Radio. Ultimately, Schow's very specialized documentary book sold under an estimated 20,000 copies, but its history did not simply end there. In 1999, Schow managed to conjure up an expanded second edition in a larger trade paperback format with a new wraparound cover of the 'Galaxy Being.' The title was now changed to simply, THE OUTER LIMITS COMPANION. 'It sold well enough to engender enough of a reputation to get me to the new edition,' says Schow.
There's a fascinating history behind the birth of the second edition, as Schow explains: 'I had just returned home from a long trip. Waiting on my answer phone was a call from Neil Norman, who I'd been trying to contact for over a year in regard to his CD of OUTER LIMITS soundtrack music.' Neil Norman, of Crescendo Records, is well known in science fiction circles as the producer of many STAR TREK and Irwin Allen television series soundtracks.
'Turns out he'd been trying to contact me in vain for the same period; our lines just never crossed,' says Schow. 'I called him back and he came over about 1:30 a.m., to look at photos to illustrate the CD booklet, to which I also wound up contributing copy. This established a pattern, which continues to this day, where I'll take stuff over to Neil's at 2 a.m., and his phone will ring, and he'll tell the caller, 'I'm in a meeting,' and it's true! That very night he uttered the very fateful words, 'I don't see your book in any of the stores. Someone should put out a new edition on better paper with more pictures.' Two years later, Neil green-lighted the new edition, handled permissions, and began to write a hellacious amount of checks. For assorted reasons, the new edition absorbed three more years, with most of that being me playing catch-up with the text. The hardcore labor on my part commenced in earnest in July, 1997, when I crash-learned a ton of software and started laying out the pages a millimeter at a time. We polished off the project and finally saw printed copies right before Christmas, 1998. And just as you ask this question, Neil called today to say that the book has earned back all its costs, which were substantial, and now maybe I can pull a buck or two off it, as well.
'The second book is much more visible than the first edition. People who sell it tend to re-stock it, something that rarely happened with the first edition, despite the fact it sold out wherever it was stocked. The first edition was, basically, for the publisher, a very elaborate one-shot with no follow-through.' The scientist with an profoundly expanded cranium evolves beyond hatred and is saved from a fate of super-intellectualism by the simple love of a village girl. 'The Sixth Finger'
For the author, the most enjoyable aspect of creating his massive documentation of one of the 1960s best science fiction television series was 'By far, the interviews, then watching all the bits and pieces coalesce into new questions, which led to more interviews. Most of the people involved in the show were still within the confines of L.A. County, and about half the interviews were phoners. No one turned down a request for an interview or a followup, although there was one fellow (who I won't name) who was exceedingly truculent both then, and to this very day.'
By digging very deeply into the series' history, Schow has gotten to know the series' creators very well. 'Joe Stefano put up with more encores than anyone, and he and Marilyn became wonderful friends,' says Schow. 'Never a dull moment with Leslie Stevens. Everyone we talked to was extremely gracious and patient, and virtually all of them remain in the TV or film industries today. [Director of Photographer] Conrad Hall just [won] an Oscar, for AMERICAN BEAUTY.'
There's just one aspect of the making of the series that Schow heavily laments: 'I wish someone had saved some of the bloopers frequently referenced by many in the crew. They sounded hysterical and many are noted in the book.'
Hand-picking his favorite episodes is a tough job for Schow, who sees many to choose from. 'I prefer many of my favorities for obscure or unusual reasons that would take a long time to explain rationally,' he says. 'Probably the best-written of all the episodes is 'Nightmare.' Most famous or iconographic episodes: 'Architects of Fear,' 'The Sixth Finger,' 'The Man Who Was Never Born,' 'The Zanti Misfits,' 'Demon With a Glass Hand.' 'The Galaxy Being' pilot is essential even though it isn't one of the strongest shows. The two-part 'The Inheritors' is an excellent show virtually no one remembers. Guilty pleasures: 'The Mutant,' 'Keeper of the Purple Twilight.' 'The amnesiac man with a Glass Hand and missing fingers discovers he's being chased by humanoid aliens. With each confrontation, he manages to recover a digit. The stakes? The final fate of the human race. 'Demon with a Glass Hand'
All episodes of THE OUTER LIMITS have been released on videotape, and Schow also foresees the possibility of the series on DVDs. Says Schow, 'MGM is currently striking new interpositives from the original 35mm negatives. This was not done for the video releases, so I guess that indicates that OUTER LIMITS DVDs may not be far off.' Meanwhile, the TNT network has the broadcast rights, and Schow challenges all loyal fans, 'Bug them to do more OUTER LIMITS marathons!'
Looking back at his dedication to documenting OUTER LIMITS, it was all worthwhile because 'The reviews for both editions were nothing short of glowing. I get e-mail feedback from the new edition, and e-mail didn't exist in any practical sense when the first edition came out. Readers seem to just love it.
'Joe Stefano said recently, upon re-reading the new edition of the book: 'It's like you were there, every minute we were doing this,' as though I'd time-traveled which means I accomplished the perspective I'd set out to capture, long ago. I can't think of a higher compliment.''We now return control of your television set back to you, until next week at this same time, when the Control Voice will take you to THE OUTER LIMITS.'
For a copy of THE OUTER LIMITS COMPANION, check out Crescendo Records.