Once upon a time, TV Science Fiction was literate, thoughtful, and could be, on occasion, profound. From the long lost but quite well done One Step Beyond, to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, television that focused on the strange and alien unknown sought to fire our imaginations and move our thoughts beyond the common, mundane, and trivial. These genres (science fiction and the supernatural) were used to explore the human condition by situating human dramatic conflict within strange, fantastic, alien contexts and environments. Within this context, the great dramas of human existence, such as the overarching struggle between good and evil and the struggle within each of us between our baser and higher natures, can be articulated with unusual clarity and depth.
Much modern science fiction over the last 30 to 40 years, both television and cinematic, has retreated into two fundamental corners: sheer visual stimulation and politics. Not so with the classic television series, The Outer Limits. From the moment one hears Dominic Frontiere’s errie and evocative score, to the point when the “control voice” invites us to experience “the awe and mystery” of the “great adventure” of our journey to the Outer Limits, our imaginations and minds are open and receptive.
So let’s take a look back at a classic anthology of science fiction stories, unencumbered by ideological sermons, incessant pop cultural references, gratuitous titillation (as with the rather sex obsessed 1995 remake), and intellectual fluff, and look at some celluloid science fiction that conservatives can really sink their teeth – and minds – into.
10) The Galaxy Being
Our first stop will be the pilot episode.
In this episode, Cliff Robertson plays an obsessed scientist who has constructed a machine capable of transmitting and receiving radio transmissions and, as he comes to find out, matter itself, from the far flung reaches of deep space. Tuning his machine to the Andromeda galaxy, he comes into contact with a strange alien being of vast intelligence and utterly different physical constitution (the Galaxy Being is “nitrogen cycle” as opposed to our “carbon cycle”). In contrast to most contemporary cinematic and televised sci-fi, the interest here is not in fashionable ideological trends in the larger society but in the perennial questions of human existence.
Robertson asks the alien some of the greatest questions of that can be asked, those about death and God. While the alien hardly gives specifically Judeo-Christian answers to these questions, the answers he does give bespeak writers who took their material and their audiences seriously (again, a large contrast to much contemporary screenwriting).
This constitutes a great deal of philosophical food for thought. What it patently is not is the standard pop neo-Pantheism one normally encounters in many modern science fiction and fantasy films, or the cynical secularist atheism (see 1990’s Flatliners for a classic example of this approach) so common in Hollywood’s treatment of religion (save to two noticeable exceptions over time, American Indian beliefs, and Islam).
Finally, the Galaxy being accidentally comes materially into our world (and his highly energized body does not react well with our physical environment) and is confronted by (useless) military force. Before departing, he gives the puny humans a lecture on their very real present puniness, warning them that “There are powers in the universe beyond anything you know.” He then invites them to return to their homes to “give thought to the mysteries of the universe.”
Yes, not a big budget lesson in post-colonial theory (Avatar), eco-feminism (Jurassic Park), or capitalist generated global ecological collapse (Silent Running), but a call to humility and awe before the cosmos.
9) The Architects of Fear
Probably one of the most philosophically important episodes of the entire series, and one probably of preeminent interest for conservatives would be The Architects of Fear.
This episode explores the consequences that history and recurring, painful human experience teaches us are the inevitable outcome of hubris. It is the same hubris that the 20th century has witnessed, time and again, in the form of “progressive” social reformers and saviors who come to believe that they have discovered the gnostic key that unlocks the secrets of righting all human wrongs and bringing all humans together in fraternal brotherhood.
In this case we have a group of scientists who wish to unite humanity together in a common cause, believing that, in so doing, mankind will learn to work together and put aside their ideological and philosophical differences (a common theme in much post WWII Sci-Fi and having an eerie resemblance to the allure of AGW for many leftists). The scientists hatch a scheme to medically transform an air force pilot (Robert Culp) into an alien life form. Culp will then land a mock space ship and pretend to be the vanguard of an alien invasion.
Casting aside thousands of years of wisdom, philosophy, human experience, and religious teaching, our archetypal Progressives medically alter Culp into a hideous alien creature. The transformation, however, ultimately simply kills Culp, sacrificing him in vain to the wide eyed dreams of those who would reform human nature through politics and, ultimately, nothing more than a grotesque form of political theater.
Geraldine Brooks, playing Culp’s wife, delivers what could be the classic denunciation of the archetypal academic progressive dream. “Please try to understand,” one of the doctors intones, “we thought…”
“I know what you thought.” she replies, “He told me what you thought. But how could you think?”
Well over one hundred million people, sacrificed to socialism’s utopian ideals, are somewhere still perhaps asking that very question.
8 ) The Sixth Finger
Hubris, and its destructive conflict with the very real limitations and weaknesses of human nature are the theme again in The Sixth Finger. In a small Welsh mining town, an uneducated coal minor (David McCallum of The Man from Uncle) becomes the subject of the scientific experiments of Professor Mathers (Edward Mulhair), who has discovered how to drastically accelerate the process of evolution.
McCallum begins to evolve at a substantial rate, developing fantastic intellectual abilities (including devouring books in massive quantities and becoming a concert pianist overnight). Interestingly, however, as McCallum’s intellectual abilities expand fantastically, his moral qualities undergo a different change, yet one that a traditional religious understanding would not find at all unexpected. The more cognitively intelligent he becomes, the more aware of his intellectual superiority he becomes. As his abilities advance to reading the minds of others and the ability to project an invisible beam of force against those who displease him, he becomes ever more emotionally distant and is finally consumed by his perception of absolute superiority to what he comes to consider the puny, insect-like beings around him.
Intellect and advanced cognitive abilities (the same qualities that fooled the unfortunate Christian minister in George Pal’s War of the Worlds), do not necessarily walk hand in hand with morality or humility (both prerequisites for handling intellect and power appropriately), nor does simply increasing the power of the intellect, even exponentially, alter the deep wellsprings of human nature that religion teaches us must ultimately be changed through other means.
Anyone who has acquaintance with French philosopher Michael Foucault’s concept of the Panopticon and the “panoptic society” may see parallels (though, given the date, probably only coincidental) in O.B.I.T., about a Defense Department employee who disappears and triggers a government investigation.
A U.S. Senator is dispatched to the government research facility where the disappearance occurred, only to be confronted by stonewalling, deception, and a culture of paranoia and fear. The reason for all this is a machine known as the Outer Band Individuated Teletracer (O.B.I.T.) that is able to tune in on anyone, anywhere, at any time and observe them without their knowledge. The machine is actually an alien device, smuggled in by Dr. Lomax, who is the vanguard of a future alien invasion.
Focault parallels aside, there is plenty of food for thought here for conservatives regarding the effect of attempts at pervasive social control, both by the state and by powerful cultural groups who gain dominance within the institutions of society. The effects O.B.I.T. has on the objects of its scrutiny, are, in Dr. Lomax’ own words, chillingly similar to those intended by the purveyors of political correctness. The purpose, according to Lomax is to “demoralize you, break your spirits, create such rifts and tensions in your society that no one will be able to repair them!”
6) The Invisibles
Those familiar with the concept of “radical chic” and the penchant of leftist cultural elites to romanticize, valorize, glorify and depreciate themselves before even the most barbarous and deviant members of society (the Black Panthers etc.) will like The Invisibles. The episode is about a secret cell of subversives who serve alien creatures (which look like a cross between a more ferocious kind of trilobite and a lobster) that desire to conquer the earth.
The leadership chooses three societal outcasts – criminals and sociopaths – to lead the coming conquest by taking into their bodies the alien creatures (which enter into the body and bond with it as a kind of parasite). The aliens are then able to command and control the humans, and their mission is to infect others with other alien crustaceans.
One of them is actually a government agent, sent to infiltrate the cell. The revolutionaries here are not the heroes, but the U.S. government and its agents. That in itself is rather startling, and there is no particular ideology in play (a modern treatment would surely cast the bad guys as Nazi-like racists, or, as with John Carpenter’s They Live, corporate CEOs) save the naked desire for power.
No trendy ideology to massage here, just “sick, nameless nuclei that waited a billion billion years for that precise, ungodly moment.”
Except for the billion billion years, this sounds a lot like the Bolsheviks, doesn’t it?
5) The Bellero Shield
Our Next episode is The Bellero Shield, in which scientist Richard Bellero (Martin Landau) is experimenting with laser technology, trying to impress his father whom Bellero hopes will name him as head of the elder’s high tech development corporation when he retires.
When an alien being descends from outer space on the laser beam (which Bellero sends out into space from an aperture in his home laboratory) bearing a device that creates an invulnerable shield of force around anyone holding it, Bellero’s wife (Sally Kellerman) sees the key to unlock her husband’s future fame and career.
She kills the alien (or so she believes) and takes the device, then convinces her husband’s father that the hand held device (which can expand the force field to encase entire cities, making them invulnerable to nuclear attack), is her husband’s invention.
She stages a demonstration for her father-in-law, using herself as guinea pig. Placeing herself within the shield, she becomes invulnerable to gunshots, or anything else used to penetrate the force field. However, the device itself functions on the blood, or bodily fluid, of the alien, and as it runs out of fluid, Kellerman finds herself trapped within the force field with no conceivable way out. Nothing can penetrate the Bellero Sheild, and Kellerman becomes ever more mentally distraught as each and every attempt to remove her from within it fails.
It turns out that the alien has not, in fact, been killed, and he reappears, reconnects the device to his bodily fluids via a tube, and turns off the shield. Kellerman, however, driven to a kind of nervous collapse by her ordeal, will not believe the shield is gone. Symbolically trapped in her own mental world of petty avarice and lust for status and wealth, she steps forward toward her husband waiting arms and collides with a Bollero Shield that is no longer there. “It’ll always be here” she says. “Nothing will ever remove it.”
“When aspiration becomes ambition,” so the control voice tells us, we have “the sin by which the angels fell.”
4) Second Chance
In this episode a bird-like alien being has disguised his spaceship to look like a carnival attraction (a mock ride on a space ship) to lure a select group of humans into the ship for the purpose of abducting them for a very special mission. A gigantic asteroid is on a collision course with the alien’s planet, and he has abducted the humans hoping to convince them to help him avoid that collision. Further, that collision will set in motion a series of consequences that will led to the destruction of Earth itself.
The group is selected because it is composed solely of people who feel, in one way or another, that their lives have been wasted, or are running away from past failures or moral failings. As the alien makes his intentions clear, there is anger, hostility, and rebellion against the extraterrestrial kidnapping.
The alien, who has been on earth a long time, probing and analyzing the minds of human beings, believes he has chosen wisely. He chooses “those of you who would have the least regret, who would leave the least behind, and who would have the most to gain by a new chance in a new, undistorted world.” During the trip, each of the passengers comes to confront his own deepest inner fears, weaknesses, and aspirations for redemption.
The problem, however, is in the alien’s choosing them, and not respecting their own human agency to choose for themselves. All do not, and will not sacrifice their own personal desires in life even to save their own planet from eventual destruction, save for a couple (the idealistic “captain” of the carnival ride and a female assistant) who decide to go with the alien and help him.
In the process of the difficult and even violent conflicts with his human passengers as he tries to convince them of the rightness of his cause and his methods, the alien himself learns that he has misjudged the humans, assuming a uniformity of motives, psychology and perspective that does not exist (all leftists and socialists take note). The captain tells him to take those who are determined to rebel and resist back to earth, and that “When you take them back, ask for volunteers. And I’m sure we’ll start off again with a whole shipload of illogical human beings. And eventually others will join us. Others who will come willingly.” In the end, both the rightness of the alien’s cause and the imperative importance of the free agency and self determination of the individual are affirmed.
3) Feasibility Study
This episode is, perhaps, save for one other (which we will look at next), the one most clearly representative of a sensibility to Christian conceptions of human relations that would be nearly impossible to find in Hollywood science fiction over the last several decades.
The alien beings from the planet Lumina are born much like normal human beings, but as they mature, they become mutated and distorted by a horrible genetic disease that causes massive, tumorous tissue growth over their entire bodies. In time, they cannot move or do any kind of manual or technical work. Their solution is to use their vast technology to transport the population of Earth to their own planet for use as slaves, to do all their work and maintain their physical technology.
There is a problem, however, in that the disease may be highly contagious to humans, and if humans are easily infected, the plan becomes pointless (both a doctor’s wife and a neighbor contract the disease just by breathing the same air as the Luminoids). Given this, they pick a small American town as a “feasibility study” to see if the plan is workable, and transfer it (leaving a gigantic crater-like area where the town once lay) to Lumina.
If infection is rare, the entire population of Earth will be transported to Lumina and enslaved. If it is common, the plan will be abandoned. In a deeply moving scene at the end, the infected neighbor, now an ugly and pathetic figure covered with hideous, scab-like sores, comes to a church where the town’s residents have gathered, seeking his wife. Two large young men are guarding the church door from the inside to make sure no infected person enters. As he begins pounding on the door, the minister tells them to open it, but they ignore him. The priest approaches the men and they close ranks, barring his way. Then the priest, head bowed, solemnly raises his hand above his head, and walks forward. The two men, respecting his ecclesiastical authority, give way, and he opens the door, to find the man and the doctor’s wife, both infected, seeking their marital companions.
“This man,” says the minister as the man sobs piteously, “who does nothing and still strikes fear in your hearts, is your neighbor.”
The Good Samaritan looms large on this hostile, repugnant, alien world, and the doctor, sensing the full reality of the situation at hand, and with billions of other human lives in the balance, appeals to the assembled townspeople:
There is no escape for us. Not for us. We need not suffer the same fate as Ralph Cashman. Not so long as we stay in our homes and never wander more than six blocks in any direction. But we will never go back to the world we’ve been stolen from. Understand that. Never.
Its a lonely feeling, isn’t it? But we won’t be lonely very long. Soon the entire Earth’s population will be teleported to this place. We will live in labor camps. We will toil and sweat, and die in controlled areas. Some of us may become infected. Contagion can occur even when we breath the same air in a confined space. But enough of us will survive to make their project feasible. Out of the whole world of us, enough will survive. If we survive.
We are their guinea pigs, but we are human guinea pigs, which gives us some choice in this experiment. Human choice. We can choose to make their enslavement of our earth infeasible. We can choose not to escape infection. We can deliberately become what they are. My wife has already been infected. I’m going to take her hand.
Will someone take mine?
One by one, all assembled in the church take each other’s hands in a unity of purpose and ultimate sacrifice. “Never”, as Winston Churchill said of the pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain, “in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” This story expands that principle and places it on a far more expansive, yet morally and spiritually indistinguishable stage.
2) Wolf 359
The other episode that symbolizes a central theme within the general Christian worldview is Wolf 359.
Professor Jonathan Wragg (Patrick O’Neal) creates an artifical planet in his laboratory, introduces DNA into its biosphere, and watches as evolution begins taking place and life begins developing at a highly accelerated rate (one second of our time equals eleven and a half days on the miniature planet).
At first only plant life is preset, but soon animals (including what appear to be gigantic predatory dinosaur-like creatures) make their appearance and proliferate. After a time, however, another being appears; a disturbing, ghostly creature that is connected to the planet yet independent of it, and which is aware of the humans watching it through Wragg’s optical equipment. As it grows more powerful, it leaves the artificial planet and begins exploring the laboratory and Wragg’s home, killing vegetation and laboratory animals (which it unambiguously attacks).
What is it really? No one knows, but Wragg develops a theory, from watching the development of civilization on his model planet. In time, the planet becomes wracked with evil, war, hate, and cruelty. The longer it develops, the greater the chaos and carnage, and the more powerful the spectral creature becomes. The planet becomes, in Wragg’s own words, “a place without a God.”
The creature isn’t an “inhabitant” of the planet, like the other creatures there, but “seems to be the spirit of the place.”
Hubris again? The story asks the question of what would happen if humans were to “play God” and create an artificial world? And if it were possible, what kind of world would it be? Is DNA, organic molecules, and the matter of which it is composed its only important constituent elements? Or is a world populated by intellectually and morally aware beings more than the sum of its basic material building blocks? Are there forces in the universe science does not understand, forces with moral implications that influence the way we look at the world and each other? Did professor Wragg’s experimental world take those forces into consideration? Could he have?
1) Fun and Games
Our last example is about “bread and circuses,” a perennial subject of political and moral philosophizing that is placed in a fantastic alien context in Fun and Games.
A boxer and petty criminal (Nick Adams) witnesses a murder while observing a poker game at an urban tenement building, and while seeking means of escape, barges into the apartment of Laura Hanley (Nancy Malone). Both Adams and Malone are carrying deep psychological and emotional scars, and are judged to be superb material by “The Senator,” for his “fun and games”.
The “fun and games” in question are gladatorial hunts and combats between various alien species periodically abducted from their home planets and brought together in an “arena,” which is a rather hostile, jungle-like world used specifically for these “games.”
The Senator teleports both to the planet Andera for an initial interview, in which they are informed that if they do not choose to play the games, Earth and all its people will be exterminated “for the enjoyment of our citizens.”
This episode explores the dark aspects of human nature, and the manner in which even the most technologically, economically, and scientifically advanced civilization, that judged by its technical achivements and living standards, appears “civilized,” can in reality be morally degenerate and, indeed, barbaric.
The inhabitants of Andera, having long ago conquered all material want, have become bored, effete, and decadent. “One elusive conquest” remains for the Anderans, and that is “pleasure.” The Anderan’s do not engage in wars and civil strife any longer. They enjoy “self respect, peace, and affluence.” But a “high order of civilization” does not necessarily “lift the low order of passion.” Hence, like ancient Rome, the government of Andera provides its citizens with “an unbroken succession” of “passionate games” to appease and control the passions and lusts that still simmer and churn below the veneer of “self respect, peace, and affluence.”
Yet again, we confront some of the deep, terrible questions of human existence, including the ultimate question of the conquest of self, not simply of the material conditions within which the self has its experiences and relations.
This episode revisits, without the Freudian overtones, a very similar theme seen in MGM’s Forbidden Planet, in which the fantastically advanced Krell were still not able, despite their stupendous intellectual development, to ultimately conquer the lower aspects of themselves (which Christians will understand as the “fallen” or “natural” human constitution) that they had repressed and ignored at their own peril.
Deep questions for our own time and culture, as some look wide eyed at a future of human cloning, genetic manipulation, embryonic stem cell research, and virtual reality technology. How “civilized” are we really?
Our culture has changed substantially since the early sixties when this series first aired. Hollywood itself, artist colony that it is, has both lead and reflected those changes. While this, for the most part, extremely well written and conceived series, explores the philosophical and ethical questions of existence, one’s jaw almost drops at its absence of overt political content. There are a few passing references, here and there, to contemporary concerns (such as the threat of nuclear war), but these are treated as problems of the human condition generally, without any of the ideologically self conscious preachiness one finds in modern cinematic or TV Sci-Fi.
Oh, and “give thought to the mysteries of the universe” now and then.