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!
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.
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.”
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”)
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.