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THE OUTER LIMITS: Returning Control of Your Television Set to You?
The show wraps up its six-year run on Showtime.
By Frank Garcia
August 28, 2000
September 3, 2000 is judgment day for THE OUTER LIMITS. On that evening, Showtime will open exhibit #132, a special two-hour presentation titled 'Final Appeal.' The proceedings will be overseen by Hollywood legend Charlton Heston as Chief Justice Haden Wainwright. The episode, written by OUTER LIMITS veteran Sam Egan, is a stunning tale in which the value of technology hangs in the balance.
It is the year 2076. Accused of treason and marked for execution is Dr. Theresa Givens, played by Emmy-award winning Amanda Plummer. Last seen in exhibit #22, titled 'A Stitch in Time,' Givens was a time traveler who had used a home-made time machine to kill murderers before they committed their crimes. Her actions were defeated by an intelligent FBI agent. In 'Final Appeal' Givens is charged with violating anti-technology laws passed in the wake of a nuclear holocaust 20 years earlier, an event that destroyed most of the world and prompted those who survived to return to the world before the Industrial Revolution.
The court must decide in favor or against the use of technology, with illustrations from six years of THE OUTER LIMITS as exhibits of evidence demonstrating the power of technology to benefit and destroy mankind. Representing the defense is lawyer Nicole Whitley (Kelly McGillis), and prosecuting the case is Solicitor General Wallace Gannon (Michael Moriarty). Overseeing the proceedings with Chief Justice Wainwright are Oliver Harbison (Hal Holbrook), Gretchen Parkhurst (Cicely Tyson), Earl Clayton (Robert Loggia) and Kendall Woods (Swoosie Kurtz).
Bursting into the proceedings in a startling fashion is Ezekiel (Wallace Langham), a strange man with a cold fusion bomb strapped to his chest and demanding to be heard. As the fate of the court and most of the Eastern Seaboard hangs in the balance, the prosecution and the defense have to present their final arguments for the court to render their decision.
In January 2000, when MGM-TV and the producers of the OUTER LIMITS came to realize they must begin thinking about the series' final episode, they were initially stumped. How should the longest running science fiction anthology in television history end?
'Sam Egan came up with a great way to do that,' grins series executive producer Mark Stern. 'Sam was very excited and came to me and [president of MGM-TV] Hank Cohen, and said, 'I have this great idea. It's a Supreme Court trial. We'll bring back Amanda Plummer and we'll put her on trial for using technology,' and we said, 'Great!' Sam put together a three-page synopsis of what the show was going to be. Brought that to Amanda through her agents, and she said, 'Yeah, I want to do this!' Once we got her, we knew we had a show. We really couldn't write that show without Amanda.'
The next piece of casting was designed to attract attention to the series' final hurrah. Mark Stern wanted Ben-Hur to preside over the courtroom. 'We wanted Charlton Heston from the very beginning. We got Amanda Plummer, and then we got Charlton Heston which was just incredible.'
Ironically, Stern had previously spoken to Heston way back in second season for a potential guest appearance in 'Resurrection' for a role in which Nick Mancuso eventually played as a robot. 'It was a real chain reaction,' recalled Stern. 'Once we got Charlton, other actors started to come in. We had Ossie Davis. He was in Vancouver for the read-throughs the day before we were shooting. But he fell ill, and we had to scramble at the last second to get Robert Loggia.'
Sam Egan's script, says Stern, 'allowed us to discuss and debate all the issues that we've been examining in the last six years. It allowed us to bring into evidence, as it were, various episodes that we had done. Although we didn't set out to do a 'clips' episode for our final show, we ended up with one. It was the most fitting ending because we wanted to appraise a lot of the various shows we've done and a lot of the themes we'd explored. The original [1963-65] show, to me, was about xenophobia and our relationship with Russia, an impending cold war and our fears about nuclear holocaust. I think our incarnation of the series has been about man's relationship with technology. Technology, not just as computers and electronics, but genetics and drugs and opening up our DNA.
'If you try and distill 132 episodes down to 'What are the common themes between them all,' one of the most common is the scientist who plays God and gets his comeuppance for it. He thinks he can control the forces of nature and gets screwed. All those themes come to play in 'Final Appeal' in a very interesting way because we don't take a stand. Sam did a phenomenal job in writing the script. Both sides are represented, hopefully with equal fervor. Ideally you want a debate. You ask the question, 'Is technology such a great thing?' Our lives are better, but they're also faster and our lives are more complicated, and we're further apart from each other. The world is getting more polluted and crowded. It raises a lot of issues, and I think I couldn't come up with a more fitting final episode for us.'
When production began on 'Final Appeal,' Stern and Hank Cohen flew up to Vancouver, to participate in the series' final days. 'They were shooting the scenes in the Justice chambers, which is where the show begins and ends. It was just great. It felt like being on a film set with an incredible group of talent. The set that [production designer] Steve Geaghan built was incredible--big, majestic. It's just really an impressive sight.'
The episode was helmed by Jimmy Kaufman, a veteran OUTER LIMITS director who has helmed three previous episodes, including 'Rites of Passage.' 'It was great to work with Jimmy Kaufman as a director because he had done a number of great episodes for us,' says Stern. 'Here's someone who was a member of the team. It wasn't like we brought in some big star name director to do the final episode. We worked with someone who we'd worked with all along who knew our show and liked it.'
The final day of shooting, says Stern, was filled with strong emotions for everyone in the production. 'Very sad. Very bittersweet. You work for six years on something like this with these people. Most of them have been there since the beginning. You feel like you're breaking up a family. I think there were a dozen people who were there for all 132 episodes. But there's a good 20 or 30 of the crew have been there from first season. That's about a third of your crew.
'It's been a great process for me both personally and professionally. I don't think there's any other show like it in terms of the rigors of production. It was 'science fiction anthology presents...' Having to completely recreate a brand new world every week and having to design and build our sets, cast actors, all in seven and a half days is an amazing process. The show has attracted great talent both behind and in front of the camera because it is that rigorous. It allows people to do things they've never been able to do before.'
Over the years, many comedy actors have visited the series, for example, and delivered attention-getting and award-winning performances in roles that are, in a word, anti-typecasting. 'We've done that at least two dozen times in this show,' Stern nods. 'We've had actors who have come in and you think you know them. Kevin Nealon, Peri Gilpin, Howie Mandel you know these people as comedians, or in a very specific way, and they come in and they do something completely different.'
Stern cites 'A Stitch in Time,' 'New Breed,' 'Bits of Love,' and 'Tribunal' as his favorite episodes over the past six years. 'They're all so interesting, engaging and emotional and so different from each other,' he says. 'I would definitely say that in terms of striking moments in the show, it was the ability of creating something novel every week, something that you've never seen before. Some of the most amazing moments were emotional. We make a visual effects shot that's just amazing; it transports you to someplace new. That's particularly true of 'Human Operators.' That whole show was a spaceship and two people on it. Yet I think we did a phenomenal thing in creating that whole outer space thing with a living ship. The set of that show was just incredible.'
At press time, news has emerged that Sci-Fi Channel was negotiating with MGM-TV to extend the boundaries of THE OUTER LIMITS to a seventh season. Showtime would not be a part of the equation. It looks as if the network wants to replicate a model they pioneered when they rescued SLIDERS from cancellation. Presumably, the negotiations also includes Trilogy. With the outcome of a seventh season remaining to be seen, there are new horizons for Stern and Trilogy. In January, executive producer Richard Lewis departed; producers Mark Stern, Pen Densham, John Watson and another partner will now transform Trilogy into Light Brigade Entertainment. 'Our next project is a [TNT] series titled 'Breaking News' which is like 'E.R.' in a newsroom,' says Stern. 'We're doing 13 episodes. It's like a CNN environment.'