Behind the Scenes

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22 more episodes head into syndication, while Season Six preps for Showtime.

By Frank Garcia     October 27, 1999

With thousands of digital television signals streaming into our homes, channel surfing with our thumbs on TV remote controls has become an exercise in its own right. As we attempt to make sense of the kaleidoscopic images offering infinite choices, there remains one science fiction television show that has captured your imagination, that has sharpened to crystal clarity: The Outer Limits. Loyal viewers have kept their eyes on this anthological SF series in the last four years by watching Showtime pay cable and syndication. The awe and mystery of the series continues this fall when fifth season begins in syndication, and reruns on the Sci-Fi Channel. Meanwhile, at The Bridge Studios in Vancouver, Canada, the production team is reaching into the inner mind to conjure up 22 new episodes for sixth season, which will debut on Showtime next spring. This means that, as a body of work, the new Outer Limits has 132 episodes more than any preceding anthology TV series except for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which lasted for 10 straight seasons.

Creating this show has been an arduous task for Richard Barton Lewis, who produces the series with his partners at Trilogy Entertainment, Pen Densham and John Watson. Squeezing in a few minutes between hectic meetings, Lewis found time to sit down with Fandom.Com and discuss what he and his team had achieved in the fifth season. 'The episodes I enjoy are the ones that happen to be contemporary: 'Can this happen to me?' A slight half-step into the future stories,' he remarked.

Be prepared to be greeted by an eclectic collection of science fiction concepts throughout this fifth season. Imagine, if you will: What alien spacecraft crashlanded in the woods near your backyard? What if...your neighbor in an apartment complex suddenly gained telepathic powers? What if...the high-tech building that you lived in suddenly shut down and rebelled against you? What were a scientist involved in a teleportation experiment and got caught in a time loop? Also expect to see another remake from the original series. They've filmed 'The Inheritors' with X-Files star Nicholas Lea in a pivotal role.

Several episodes have already aired in syndication, and the latest ones being transmitted are important moments in the series' history: 'Joy Ride' and 'The Human Operators.' The former was written by Sam Egan from a story he created with Dan Wright and Dave Alexander. What made this episode so special is that it stars the very first actor to appear in the original 1963 Outer Limits series pilot, 'The Galaxy Being.' We're talking about Cliff Robertson, the Oscar-winning lead actor for the 1968 film Charly. In this adventure, Robertson plays an ex-Mercury astronaut who has a strange encounter with an alien presence during his mission, but over the years, his obsession with the incident has tarnished his reputation. When he has an opportunity to return to space in a private rocket ship, like the real-life Senator John Glenn, he takes it hoping to solve the mystery that has plagued him for most of his life.

'Joy Ride's' origins began with an e-mail to Lewis. Dan Wright, a childhood friend with whom Lewis had not spoken for 25 years, sent him a storyline that Wright claimed he'd had for years. 'He proceeded to tell me this idea,' recounted Lewis. 'I thought it was cool. If I can go on a spaceship for $20,000... I think that's going to happen in my lifetime. I pitched it to the [writers and producers] gang, and they said, 'We don't get it!' During a story conference phone call after the first six episodes of Season Five had been written, Lewis tried once more tried to champion the merits of the story, finally demanding, 'We're not getting off this phone call until we figure out how to do it!' Sam Egan took a look at the idea and crafted a screenplay that was finally met with approval.

'The Human Operators,' another special episode airing after 'Joy Ride,' marks the return of the famed, multi-award-winning writer Harlan Ellison to the series. In 1963 and 1964 Ellison wrote two classic episodes, 'Demon with a Glass Hand' and 'Soldier.' The teleplay for 'The Human Operators' was adaptated by Naren Shankar from a 1970 short story by A.E. Van Vogt and Harlan Ellison.

In the episode, starring Event Horizon's Jack Noseworthy and Canadian actress Polly Shannon, artificial intelligence drives starships floating across deep space. In fact, there is an armada of 30 starships. 'Each ship has one human operator to help repair things,' explained Lewis. 'When they get done with that human who lives to 40, 50, or 60 years,' a woman comes aboard the starship and mates with the male in order to create a child to run the next set of ships. 'One fellow has reached the age to procreate. He's never seen a woman and doesn't really know and she educates him to the point where he feels the need to be educated. It's a metaphor for slavery.'

'Every year we talk to Harlan,' explained Lewis. 'It's an ongoing dialogue. I think it's exciting. We're always looking for people from that area. I'd love to do another George R.R. Martin story. It would be nice to pull from that world. It gets complicated sometimes to choose or if there's enough money. We work under restrained budgets. We're not going to spend $50,000 [to buy] a story.' (George Martin is the author of the novella 'Sandkings' the basis for the series' 1995 pilot starring Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver.)

For deeper secrets inside the Outer Limits latest season, co-executive producer Chris Ruppenthal and Sam Egan provided the details. Responsible for writing two episodes in the fourth season, 'Josh' and 'Monster,' this year Ruppenthal has written 'Ripper.' 'We go back to Victorian England to see Jack the Ripper!' Ruppenthal chuckled. 'We don't do very many period episodes here. The opportunities we get here on Outer Limits is to challenge ourselves with something different. To even talk about trying an episode like this is a huge challenge and enjoyable because you don't do that in other shows.'

Ruppenthal also dropped a bombshell of an idea that truly stretched the defining boundaries of the outer limits of this anthology when he proposed 'trying to do a science fiction musical. We're supposed to push our limits,' he grinned. The title of this effort is 'Starcrossed,' a segment that aired on Showtime as episode #21 starring Poltergeist actors Derek DeLint and Robbi Chong, directed by their friend and colleague from THE LEGACY, actress Helen Shaver.

Asked to transport us into the story conference when he made his initial pitch, Ruppenthal recounted the reactions. 'It ranged from 'Yeah! Go for it!' to 'Are you kidding me?' Six guys in a room and you have six different opinions. But overall, 'Wow! Are you really serious?' 'Yeah!' 'Okay! Why don't you go for it? Let's bounce it off Trilogy and see what they say...' But the thing we all said was, 'It's a really big gamble but we've got to crack the story first before we do anything and see how it goes! We'll be really cool or we'll have crashed on a mountainside trying to fly this thing.''

Little Shop Of Horrors is about as close as one can get to a SF musical, but that tends to be more in the comedy/horror vein. 'It's got a sort of Roman Holiday feel to it,' said Ruppenthal. 'It's about tragic lovers. They fall in love but they can't be together. I would say Roman Holiday meets Splash meets Cocoon. It's falling in love with an alien on Earth and the alien has to leave in the end.'

The rationale behind even considering such an offbeat idea, said Ruppenthal, is simple: 'I like musicals. It's a huge challenge. It is so difficult to do. That's what's so appealing to everyone here. It's 'Wow! It's a really scary idea. Not sure how to do it. What a great challenge to try and crack!' That's what I'm trying to do right now.

Musically, Ruppenthal considered a range of styles: 'love duets and ballads and one uptempo song at least,' he said. 'It's all depends on what is the emotion of that particular scene I'm trying to convey.' At the time of conception, when Ruppenthal hadn't yet put fingers to the keyboard, so to speak, he had hoped for three or four songs with lyrics to be written by him and music supplied by John Van Tongeren, the series' resident composer. The final episode actually only had two songs from lead actress Angeline Ball, and no duets.

By contrast, executive producer and writer Sam Egan is on a totally different wavelength, reaching into the darkest past of human history for inspiration. He described 'Tribunal,' starring Saul Rubinek and Lindsay Crouse, as a Schlinder's List meets the Outer Limits episode 'A Stitch in Time.' He explained, 'It's a time travel story about the Holocaust. The one-liner is that a Nazi hunter goes back in time to nail a war criminal who's responsible for the death of many of his family members.' Writing this episode was very personal for Egan because his father Leo was a survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps, where he lost a wife and daughter.

'I take my hat off to the original 'Stitch in Time.' There's nothing trickier than a time travel story,' said Egan. 'The key is not to avoid the conundrums because they're inevitable. But to find a consistency in the execution so the audience understands it and that there's a satisfying quality to it.'

Addressing the Outer Limits beyond sixth season, Richard Lewis mused that the future is cloudy at best. 'I'm hoping to make it less hazy,' he said. 'I'd love to keep it going for another five years. We have another season after this [fifth], so I've crossed my fingers that we keep going after that. I do enjoy it, but it's demanding. Is there any shortage of stories we want to tell? No. Does it have the quality of writing? Absolutely. In producing? Absolutely. I'm extremely proud of the show. As proud as anything I've done in my career. It's hard work. I'm very demanding of my staff to deliver first rate work.'

Lewis' final word on the future of the Outer Limits is this: 'I'm hoping to do a motion picture.' However, until the MGM/UA studios crawls its way out of the economic straits they are currently experiencing, it will be unlikely to see any projects in the near future. 'Creatively, we're all very excited. We've got a couple of scripts we think work.'

THE OUTER LIMITS PART TWO: A visit on the set of 'Joy Ride' and an exclusive interview with star Cliff Robertson!

THE OUTER LIMITS PART THREE: A conversation with the award-winning author Harlan Ellison, about his return to the Outer Limits in 'The Human Operators.'


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