A pilot episode entitled “The Galaxy Being” premiered on American national television on September 16th, 1963, heralding a science fiction/noir series that would run for a total of only two seasons but would leave behind an impression that still lingers powerfully in contemporary audiences’ imaginations. “The best program of its type ever to run on network TV,” Stephen King would later say of it. The Outer Limits, though never as popular as Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, was the brainchild of producer and screenwriter Joseph Stefano – and, like Serling, he had a taste for the macabre as well as the fantastic in fiction: a taste that is evident throughout his Serling-esque series. Stefano, who had adapted Robert Bloch’s sensationally chilling novel Psycho for Hitchcock’s eponymous film, was peculiarly suited to cross-mixing genres. In Psycho, he had worked on a noir/horror/ psychological melodrama; for The Outer Limits, a show in which his screenwriting capabilities are evident time and again, he let that peculiarity run rampant, blending the elements of science fiction and horror with expressionist film noir a full two decades before Ridley Scott directed the neo-noir Blade Runner.
But the time of noir had passed; the sixties, no longer quite as preoccupied with the internal corruptions of capitalist government and suburban life, now focused upon the imminent crises of nuclear conflict and Communist expansion. Consequently, the destruction of the world, the misuse of technology, and the loss of individuality in a mechanized, totalitarian society – rather than brutal street life melodramas and police procedurals – occupied much of the darker cinema of the decade. Cinematic style had changed as well: more and more directors were filming their projects in dazzling Technicolor and though the black-and-white film had not yet died, it was certainly on its way out. As a result, the deep chiaroscuro shadowing and German Expressionist sets so prevalent in the noir – and in the art design of The Outer Limits – was on its way out as well.
Yet if The Outer Limits was uncharacteristic of the sixties in style, its thematic obsessions were every bit a product of its time. Cold War paranoia, the quest for an identity and loss of individuality, sci-fi technology’s uses (and, of course, misuses) dominate many of Stefano’s relentlessly dark episodes alongside the more traditionally noir themes of existential alienation and surrealism. As stated before, Stefano’s genius lay in his ability to take the traditional atmosphere and dramatis personae of the noir and update them with the bells and whistles of science fiction and the Cold War concerns of the sixties. The result was a very dark – oftentimes horrific – but nonetheless fascinating television series that, in addition to featuring Stefano’s talents, would often make use of other accomplished writers such as Harlan Ellison, Robert Towne (of Chinatown fame), and Jerry Sohl.
When watching The Outer Limits – or any science fiction show of the period, for that matter – one inevitably compares it to the more well-known Star Trek and Twilight Zone. The latter, as I already mentioned, was very similar thematically to Stefano’s show; yet the mood of Serling’s Twilight Zone in spite of its occasional expressionist and surrealist touches, is warmer by worlds than The Outer Limits. While Serling’s plots, in the main, focus upon an unsympathetic anti-hero and the rightful judgment visited upon him or her, Stefano’s tend to focus more often upon the anguish visited upon flawed but nonetheless sympathetic characters who live out their lives in a cold, harsh, and unjust world. This is not to suggest that while Serling seeks to be more conventionally moral, Stefano means to portray the cold, harsh truth of ‘reality.’ Both shows are at heart morality plays that seek to point out the flaws in mankind and society. However, while Serling enjoys introducing the concept of a just and implacable Fate that awaits each of his unsavoury protagonists and serves them appropriately ironic ends, Stefano prefers to allow his more sympathetic anti-heroes to struggle in a surreal and oftentimes alienating world with a knowledge of what is morally right and morally reprehensible and a power to act upon those principles, even if their fate may be ultimately and undeservedly dark. Or, to put it in more apocalyptic terms, if Serling with his dry wit and sense of poetic justice is the Inferno’s cheerful usher visiting judgment on the odd malefactor in an otherwise decent society then Stefano is Purgatory’s gloomier apologist (or, perhaps more fittingly for both Serling and Stefano, dis-apologist) for a society in need of a systemic overhaul, one overburdened individual at a time. That happy day must await the hereafter, perhaps. Until then, from The Outer Limits perspective, i.e., Stefano's, – whether on Earth or in one of her neighboring galaxies – one is on one’s own. And -- whether utilizing the motifs of horror, science fiction, or horror -- the uniqueness of this perspective is made manifest in each episode, both defining and separating the show within and apart from the mere constraints of genre.