Note: To Mr. Gorn who kindly commented upon the first part of my introduction to The Outer Limits: here at last is the second part of my behemoth of a blog post. I hope that it was worth the wait.
Comparing The Outer Limits to the vastly more optimistic Star Trek is naturally more difficult – an ironic fact, as the two actually share one thing in common: a story. In June 1944, the science-fiction magazine Astounding Stories published “Arena,” by Frederic Brown, a story about a man and an alien who are forced by another alien of a superiorly-evolved species to fight a duel to the death in order to determine whether the race of humanity or the enemy alien’s race will ultimately be annihilated by this higher species. In 1967, Star Trek featured an episode with the same title based upon this story, an episode that would later become one of the best loved of the show’s first season. However, Gene Roddenberry was not the first to come up with the idea of adapting Brown’s tale. It has long been conjectured that the Outer Limits episode “Fun and Games,” which aired in March 1964, draws upon Brown’s “Arena” as well for inspiration, though this is not explicitly stated.
Like Brown’s story, the Star Trek version of the tale dwells upon the idea of a dispassionate, god-like extra-terrestrial arbiter who, perceiving the foolishness of warring humanity and its alien enemy, decides to settle the conflict once and for all for the good of one species and the final downfall of the other. In Star Trek, the optimism of Brown’s tale (in which humanity triumphs) is heightened still more when Captain Kirk philanthropically chooses not to dispatch his rival, opting for peace rather than genocide. Their superiorly-evolved arbiter, impressed by this act of mercy, remarks rather sententiously, “You are still savage, but there is hope.” The episode suggests that in order for the human species to survive, peace and the ability to coexist are not only necessary but possible: an optimistic idea for an obvious Cold War allegory.
Yet the interpretation of Brown’s tale could not be more different when in the hands of The Outer Limits’ screenwriters. The highly-evolved alien arbiter in “Fun and Games” is still a superior life-form, but he is no longer the peacemaker: rather, he is the Senator of a race of aliens called the Anderians for whom he collects the denizens of different planets in order to pit them as dueling gladiators against each other, solely for the amusement of the Anderian citizenry. All the qualities of dispassionate justice are thus taken from his character and he is relegated from a coldly god-like status to a gloatingly devil-like force of implacable power. His character is suitably modified as well: whilst the toga-attired arbiter in Star Trek is coolly distant to the point of an almost milquetoast apathy, the Senator is a force of relentless, sardonic energy. Brilliantly voiced by Robert Johnson with a melodrama that positively drips with its genteel English accent and cruel jollity (it is easy to see why the Anderians chose him as their game host), the Senator is not only presented to us as a villain but an arbitrarily-minded one as well, possessing none of the ennobling motivations of his Brown-engendered predecessor or later Trekkian descendant.
In a similar fashion, the personalities of the protagonists are significantly altered as well. The heroic, readily likable Captain Kirk in Star Trek is replaced with two characters who could easily have fit the requirements for a ninety-minute 1940’s noir: Mike Benson (Nick Adams), a small-time hoodlum and ex-boxer, and Laura Hanley (Nancy Malone), a woman suffering from a troubled marriage. Both are deeply flawed and yet deeply sympathetic human beings, tormented as much by their own psychological makeup as by their cruel environment. The spaces that they inhabit on Earth are constrained in the 50-minute episode to dark, cramped apartment rooms, narrow staircases, and gambling rooms lit only by a single light suspended from the ceiling. The nightmarish surrealism of the atmosphere is enhanced by the tortuous wide-angle lenses often employed in the film’s opening sequences, most notably during a gambling game when the camera, positioned close to the center of the card players’ table, slowly pans to focus upon each gambler whilst grotesquely magnifying the size of their card-holding hands to emphasize their grasping, greedy nature. When the game takes a nasty turn and culminates in a shootout and murder, it is almost a relief when Mike – fleeing the scene of the crime in order to escape the police – is ‘electro-ported’ to the Senator’s chamber along with innocent bystander and total stranger Laura.
The Senator delightedly informs his two victims of the “wonderful, terrible game” for which they have been chosen, introduces them to their reptilian gladiatorial rivals, and then explains that the sole reward of winning the game will be the safety of Earth, the home planet of the losing side being obliterated by the Anderians upon conclusion of the game. “Will it be quick?” Mike asks.
“In your reading of time, the entire display will take approximately five years. For us, it will be as a firecracker in a black summer sky,” the Senator replies with his usual grandiose relish. Refusal to play the game would result in the automatic destruction of Earth, since their reptilian opponents would thus win by default.
However, Mike has few qualms about abandoning Earth to its fate. “Five years,” he remarks. “Long enough to enjoy just about all there is to enjoy in the world.” Laura, far more idealistic than the embittered ex-boxer, pleads with him to change his mind but he ignores her, demanding that he be sent back to Earth. “What do you owe the human race?” he counters viciously when Laura again attempts to change his mind. The Senator chooses to compromise, saying that he will send them back and allow them twenty-four hours to decide whether they will participate in the game or not – at the end of which, if Mike still has not changed his mind, Earth’s doom will have been sealed.
In another departure from Frederic Brown and Star Trek’s “Arena,” Mike does not change his mind due to any sense of responsibility but because of his overwhelming fear of prison – a fear that has followed him ever since childhood when he had been locked in a cage by his rambunctious playmates, resulting in a phobia of enclosed spaces. When a policeman knocks on his door, Mike is instantly jolted out of his callous indifference and the camera’s uncomfortable close-ups of his terrified face forces the viewer to participate fully in his psychological torment. At that moment, perceiving Mike’s desire for any escape, the Senator electro-ports both him and Laura once again to Anderus and, to avoid the prospect of cooling his heels in a cell, Mike accepts the Senator’s offer, choosing to fight alongside Laura against the two reptilian gladiators.
“Your opponents are already on the planet we call the arena,” the Senator genially informs them. “They’re waiting. Good luck, Ms. Hanley, Mr. Benson. May the best team win. As I told you, the unpleasant planet that we call “the Arena” is somewhat similar to the planet Earth – I should amend, of course: Earth as it was a million years ago.” The arena’s identification with an earlier, mythic Earth and the visual nature of the set – a world of shadowy fronds, boiling rivers, and drifting, humid vapors – both create an eerie blend of a prehistoric Eden and a sweltering Hades. It is an appropriate enough environment for two characters who – while confronting their reptilian nemesis – must also confront the more dangerous flaws within their own souls. For Mike, it is his childhood horror that cramps his ability to have courage and faith in himself and the world. For Laura, however, the root of the problem is subtler and thus more difficult to confront. And that is when the character of the Senator re-enters the plot – but in a significantly altered fashion.
When the two protagonists discover that their supply of food will only last for six days, Laura chooses to run away from Mike, hoping to sacrifice herself so that he will survive long enough to kill their alien opponent and save humanity. Unsurprisingly, the alien manages to track her down – but just as he raises his weapon to slay her, the Senator intervenes, saying apologetically, “Oh, I can’t let you kill her just yet. She hasn’t begun to suffer.” Then, speaking to her over some mysterious, invisible transmission, he says, “Miss Hanley, wasn’t it our understanding that you and Mr. Benson were a team? You’ve run away again, haven’t you? Why have you run away from him, Miss Hanley? So that he can eat all the food? So that he can do all the fighting? Your heart is a bottomless box of virtuous motives, isn’t it? Whatever you do, you do for someone else’s good, don’t you? Your husband didn’t want you to mother him, Miss Hanley. He wanted you to help him. It hurts to admit that you’re afraid that you can’t help someone, doesn’t it?”
There is a frightening indictment in the languid mockery of the Senator’s questions: the central flaw in Laura’s idealism is her inability to fight the good fight herself without fleeing at the first sign of possible defeat. This is the subliminal reason she has fled Mike and this is also the cankerworm at the heart of her troubled marriage. But in the process of addressing Laura, the Senator calls our attention to his own role within the narrative, that is, the jarring shift from sadistic demon to sardonic judge. Previously his presence seemed yet another tormenting device to inflict pain upon the tortured principal characters; after this dialogue, however, his character seems far more ambivalent – far more in keeping with the hitherto rejected model of the god-like, moral arbiter in Frederic Brown and Star Trek’s versions.
This ambivalence is further exploited when – as the battle between Laura, Mike, and their opponents progresses – the Senator, in a voice-over, urges his unseen Anderian audience to observe the actions of the gladiators closely. The shock behind this sudden remark stems from the fact that – because we are never shown the Anderian audience – his remark seems directed toward us: we are, at that moment, equated with the Anderians themselves, voyeuristically watching the physical and psychological travails and struggles of the two principals to satisfy our own “passions,” as the Senator earlier put it. This is enhanced by the manner in which the combat is frequently filmed with the camera observing the action through the projection screen that the Senator has set up in his chamber.
But if we are relegated to the status of the Anderian voyeurs, then we are also very close to Laura by the end of the episode when she asks the Senator whether she shall have to remember all that has taken place within the arena. “Only those memories which might be helpful to you and perhaps to your marriage,” he replies, rather tersely summing up the goal of every cautionary tale: to entertain the audience and to leave them with a moral that they shall never forget as long as they live.
At this point in the episode, the Senator’s character seems, in our mind, significantly transformed: if he is indeed cruel and arbitrary, then he is also a redemptive force, offering both Laura and Mike changed perspectives of themselves and their world and allowing them to escape the psychological cages that they have welded for themselves. They return as less flawed beings to their equally flawed world. As such The Outer Limits eschews the sunny Star Trek resolution. The Senator’s show for the Anderians, like Stefano’s show for us mortals, jolts us with its unrelenting darkness and its portrayal of human desperation, but the darkness and the desperation are not without a didactic purpose. And the lesson – once learned – will not easily be forgotten by those fortunate enough to encounter this or any other episode of The Outer Limits.