The narrator, or the ‘Control Voice’, in The Outer Limits (1963 – 1965) speaks to the audience as if they are subjects in a laboratory experiment: ‘There is nothing wrong with your television set,’ he says. ‘Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. … We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.’ The ‘Control Voice’, along with the Film Noir lighting, Expressionist camera angles, ordinary people in ‘ordinary’ situations, brought into contact with alien beings, and the inventive variety of monsters, all characterised the show. It’s influence on science fiction, fantasy and horror stretches far beyond the 1960s, with plot lines that influenced films like Men in Black (1997), Terminator (1984), and television series like The X Files (1993 – 2002). The scenario of a perfect geometric shape buried under the moon’s surface also appeared in 2001 (1968) — a symbiotic life-form that melds with human subjects, and people being sent back in time to save the human race, are both commonly used in science fiction.
The standard The Outer Limits plot involves a monster of some kind. They are usually scary, sometimes destructive, sometimes beneficent and mean us no harm, but always slightly creepy and weird. One of the great things about the series is the variety of monster personalities, ranging from beings that are merely lost, and hoping to return home, to guiding spirits working to ensure that the universe is kept in balance, to scheming infiltrators planning to control the earth. The monster in ‘Galaxy Being’ is a bright humanoid-shaped light; in ‘The Sixth Finger’ the monster is an ordinary man with artificially boosted intelligence; in O.B.I.T. the alien being has taken on human form and has technologies that can watch everyone; in ‘Tourist Attraction’ weird dolphin-like creatures live in the sea; in ‘The Zanzi Misfits’ an all powerful alien race is revealed to be a comical-looking bug with a human face; and in ‘Specimen: Unknown’ it’s a toxic flower.
Each hour long episode begins with a teaser, followed by the ‘Control Voice’, and the opening credits. The stories usually began slowly, building up the tension from an apparently mundane situation, gradually introducing the audience to a growing strangeness, alerting us to a character with a negative character trait, one that is likely play a critical role as the story unfolds. In the getting-to-know-the-monster section, the audience learns what motivates the monster, if it is here to help us, or it it is a threat to humanity. Part of the entertainment is working out how this plays out: friend or foe. In the problem solving section the hero learns how to overcome the monster, or help it to carry out its mission. In the climax there is a physical fight, a chase, or an unforeseen intervention occurs.
The resolution wraps things up quite quickly; it can feel awkward, pasted on almost. Finally the ‘Control Voice’ contextualises the story by relating it to a universal theme such as love or belonging. The Outer Limits is full of warnings, dangerous beings, interplanetary misunderstandings, unfortunate mistakes, as well as celebrations of friendly aliens, and heroes putting themselves in danger to save humanity.