Monday, October 31, 2016

Terror TV Blogathon: “The Bellero Shield” – The Outer Limits

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s entry in The Terror TV Blogathon, hosted by The Classic TV Blog Association and currently in progress from October 29-31.  For further information on the participants and topics discussed, click here.

There is nothing wrong with your television set.  Do not attempt to adjust the picture.  We are controlling transmission.  If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume.  If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper.  We will control the horizontal.  We will control the vertical.  We can roll the image, make it flutter.  We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity.  For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear.  We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set.  You are about to participate in a great adventure.  You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to…The Outer Limits!

No less a horror authority than author Stephen King described The Outer Limits as “the best program of its type ever to run on network TV.” (Though to be honest, he also made a similar statement about Boris Karloff’s Thriller.) Which you’ll have to admit: that’s heady praise for a program that couldn’t quite make it across the finish line in its second season.  (I’m talking about its original 1963-65 run; the revival that began in 1995 had a bit more success, sticking around on small screens on Showtime and the Sci-Fi Channel until 2002.)  Outer Limits most assuredly deserves its cult reputation, however; though there are a few clinkers in its catalog (“The Hundred Days of the Dragon,” “Tourist Attraction”) its best episodes can stand up to anything cranked out by Thriller or The Twilight Zone any day of the week.

In fact, I’ve often discussed OL episodes with my geek friends in the past…and if I had a nickel for every time one of them remarked “Was that on Outer Limits?  I could have sworn that was a Twilight Zone!” I would be so wealthy as to be completely inaccessible to you “proles.”  (I’m just kidding you.  I wouldn’t change.  Much.)  It’s easy to confuse the two shows (although TZ was only an hour-long presentation in its fourth season): both used its horror/sci-fi elements as commentary on the human condition, and both frequently employed the “twist ending” as a plot device.  But there was something a bit more sinister about OL episodes as a rule, defined by its dark, textured cinematography (with echoes of German expressionism and the film style later defined as noir).  And then…there was “the bear.”

“The bear” was the nickname bestowed upon the monsters/creatures featured in Outer Limits installments, an element insisted upon by both ABC and producer Joseph Stefano to heighten fear and suspense.  (When Stefano vacated the producer’s chair in the show’s second season, “the bear” went with him—though there were episode exceptions.)  OL was created by Leslie Stevens, whose previous series Stoney Burke (an underrated Western program starring Jack Lord) has been cancelled by ABC after a solitary season.  Stevens sold the network on a show he called Please Stand By, but when ABC insisted that the title of the series be changed, The Outer Limits became the substitute.  September 16, 1963 marked the debut of OL with “The Galaxy Being,” a slightly-tweaked version of the Please Stand By pilot.

Like The Twilight Zone devotees, fans of The Outer Limits cherish their favorite episodes.  Some of the best-remembered include “The Architects of Fear,” “The Sixth Finger,” “The Zanti Misfits” (TV Guide gave this one the #98 spot on its “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time” in 1997), “Nightmare,” and “Demon with a Glass Hand” (#78 on TV Guide’s revised “Greatest Episode List” in 2009).  Our fearless leader and founder of the Classic TV Blog Association, Rick of the Classic Film and TV Café, even got into the act with a post listing his five favorites in 2012 (he includes “Zzzzz” and “The Inheritors”).  My own personal preferences include “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork,” “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” …and the episode that I shall take as my text for this blogathon: “The Bellero Shield.”

"There is a passion in the human heart which is called aspiration.  It flares with the noble flame, and by its light Man has traveled from the caves of darkness to the darkness of outer space.  But when this passion becomes lust, when its flame is fanned by greed and private hunger, then aspiration becomes ambition—by which sin the angels fell."

Scientist Richard Bellero (Martin Landau), who has longed for the approval of his father (Neil Hamilton) throughout his entire life, has been experimenting with a laser device that he hopes will convince the senior Bellero to hand over control of his company upon his retirement.  Richard, Sr., however, is not impressed; this infuriates Bellero’s ambitious wife Judith (Sally Kellerman), who takes out her frustration on a bottle of champagne with her husband’s laser gun.  This action produces a visit from a glowing extraterrestrial (John Hoyt), who explains that he hails from a world that “hovers just above the ceiling of your universe” and has ridden Bellero’s laser “bridge” down to earth.

The alien is equipped with a device capable of generating an impenetrable shield, protecting him from the human nature hostility of Judith (fear caused her to point that same laser gun at the being).  While an astonished Richard welcomes the alien visitor, and converses with him at great length about Earth’s scientific advances (science!), Judith schemes to obtain the device for her and Richard’s personal enrichment and acclaim.  She gets her chance when the alien momentarily lets down his defenses (the shield) and she puts a bullet in his brainpan.  With the help of her loyal housekeeper, Mrs. Dame (Chita Rivera), she drags the dead alien down into the cellar for a later dirt nap.

Having relieved the dead E.T. of his device, Judith demonstrates to Richard, Sr. its amazing properties (the senior Bellero is a bit of a peacenik, and is averse to using such a knick-knack for purposes of war) with the help of Mrs. Dame.  The problem is—she can’t deactivate it.  Judith’s salvation arrives when Mrs. Dame discovers (after introducing Richard, Sr. to the business end of a blunt object) that the alien hasn’t yet rung down the choir invisible; with his dying breath, he rescues Judith with his alien blood (the prime ingredient in activating the shield).  But there’s a price to pay: Judith is convinced that she’s still trapped in the shield, a prisoner of her madness.

Normally, I’d state that any resemblance between “The Bellero Shield” and the Shakespearean work known in the the-ah-tah as “the Scottish play” is purely coincidental…but that would be a fat stinky fib.  There’s no mistaking the parallel between “Shield” and Macbeth, particularly in the Lady Macbeth-like Judith Bellero, who’s every bit as ruthless as her literary counterpart.  To make certain we don’t miss the connection, both women go “a little funny in the head” at the end of their dramas, and both are plagued by a “damn’d spot” of blood on their hand (a physical manifestation of their guilt).  (Even the narration—by “Control Voice” Vic Perrin—paraphrases lines from Shakespeare’s play.)  Sally Kellerman’s performance as Judith will blow the first-time viewer away, and I’d argue that it’s one of the best things she’s ever done.

Martin Landau’s Richard, though a pliable sort, isn’t quite as bloodthirsty as Macbeth (so the comparison kind of falters in that respect), but he nevertheless gives a solid performance as the scientist suffering from some “daddy” issues.  The rest of the cast—Hamilton (a couple of years away from his signature role in Batman), Hoyt, and particularly Rivera (her character goes without shoes for unexplained reasons, and so we detect her hovering presence with eerie close-ups of her bare feet)—acquit themselves admirably as well.  Written by OL producer Stefano, “The Bellero Shield” owes its moody, claustrophobic atmosphere to the first-rate direction of John Brahm (The Lodger, Hangover Square) and most effective cinematography by three-time Academy Award-winner Conrad Hall.  (Okay, I will admit that the first time I saw “Shield”—during my Marshall University days, watching WVAH-TV—I asked out loud of Hall’s low-key lighting: “This guy’s a wealthy scientist and he can’t even keep the lights in his house on?”)

In The Outer Limits’ second season, ABC decided to put what one author called its “child prodigy” up against Jackie Gleason on CBS (talk about a suicide mission); it’s believed that this is why Joseph Stefano hung up his producer shingle and the chores were handed off to Ben Brady.  OL came to an end on January 16, 1965…but its forty-nine episodes collected a generous pension in The Old Syndication Home, and they’ve been released to home video on a number of occasions (I started to sweat when I couldn’t get my disc to play; fortunately I had made a back-up copy the last time this happened) in addition to being available online at Hulu.  I now return control of this blog to you.  Until the next blogathon, when the control voice will take you to…The Outer Limits.


Jo Gabriel The Last Drive In said...

Ivan- I enjoyed reading this so much! The only show I love as much is Boris Karloff's Thriller... You really caught the essence of the show's moody atmosphere and I enjoyed your personal witticisms--Great choice for the TERROR TV BLOGATHON-cheers Joey

Unknown said...

What you have to remember about Outer Limits is that it's really two different shows:

- OL #1 is the dark, moody show that you're praising here, with the shadows all over the place, the odd camera angles, and the glowering performances.

- OL #2, the second season, was more brightly lit and conventionally photographed, with standard issue acting.
The sole exception to the above was Harlan Ellison's "Demon With A Glass Hand", which was filmed mainly on location at LA's famous Bradbury Building, which was too dark to brightly light anyway.
I'll note in passing that Ellison has always disdained OL #1 as "bug-eyed monster" type 'sci-fi' (which he always pronounces 'skiffy').

The fans of the two Outer Limits have been at odds about which season is the better one since they originally aired.
The film school types favor OL #1, and the hard-SF fans lean to OL #2, which used actual genre writers more than regular scribes.
You pays your money and you takes your choice ...

Lisa said...

Such a great write-up for one of the series' truly haunting episodes! The alien is great, the actors are great, and Sally Kellerman stuck inside a real -- or imaginary -- force field is unforgettable! Very nice choice for this Terror TV blogathon! Thanks for the memories! The Outer Limits is one of my very favorite shows of all time and it is truly unforgettable!

Rick29 said...

Ivan, you've written some wonderful posts over the years, but I must say this is one of my favorites. I say that while also acknowledging that it made me knock my head against the wall ("Macbeth"...of could I have missed that?). While I love TZ, I'm flummoxed as why TOL never achieved such massive fame. It's ratio of brilliant-to-good episodes may not be quite as high, but it's pretty darn close. "The Bellero Shield" is a first-rate outing with strong acting from the leads and another memorable alien. By the way, thanks for the plug and, more importantly, for lending your talents to the Terror TV Blogathon.

rnigma said...

I also have a fondness for "Don't Open Till Doomsday," because of the performance of Miriam Hopkins, whose makeup here is reminiscent of that worn by her former rival Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"

The Comet TV network is rerunning the '90s version of The Outer Limits, but I haven't seen them running the original.

Joanna said...

Ooohhh Martin Landau makes another appearance in our Terror TV blogathon. I don't deserve such riches. Thanks for the reminder about this fantastic episode.