B&W, 1963-64, 975, 1632 mins.
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
One of the most pivotal anthology series from the golden age of television's science fiction and horror boom, The Outer Limits has always been more of a cult show among baby boomers and subsequent generations than the more celebrated and frequently rerun perennials like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Launched in 1963 on ABC by creator and occasional playwright Leslie Stevens, the series was bolstered by a strong array of talent in front of and behind the camera including many notable actors and writers. The (very long) first of its two seasons was produced by Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano, who served as a strong creative voice during this period and wrote numerous episodes. Like another two-season wonder, Thriller, the series became a fan favorite among monster kids, primarily to the frequent device of relying on what became known as "the bear" (a memorable creature that gets teased at the beginning and plays a large role throughout the story). The bear idea applied to most of the season one episodes, reaching its most bizarre apex in the crazed stop-motion alien ant frenzy "The Zanti Misfits," but it also tends to overshadow the fact that the series was also willing to go in some truly wild narrative directions with evocative monochrome photography, tingly music by Dominic Frontiere, and tight writing resulting in memorable one-hour chamber works that still feel wholly unique today.
The Outer Limits has remained available on home video on and off since the VHS days, with superb (for the time) MGM laserdisc boxes becoming hot items among many collectors. The videotape editions (one episode each) were hugely popular in the wake of a lengthy, perceptive analysis of the series by Stephen King in his seminal book, Danse Macabre, and a lesser but sometimes interesting revival series (initially on Showtime) running from 1995 to 2002 continued to keep the name alive. (Unfortunately the newer series has only been released on DVD in heavily butchered editions and desperately needs the special edition treatment.) The original Outer Limits debuted on DVD from MGM in 2002, featuring no extras and generating controversy over the heavy amount of compression that compromised the same laserdisc-era masters and the decision to author the discs on the short-lived and problematic DVD-18 format, basically jamming more episodes onto two double-sided layers per disc that sent more than a few DVD players into fits. To top it off, that also meant no disc labels so you only had the very tiny writing on the inner ring to figure out which disc you were even holding.
Fortunately you can now chuck that old DVD set in the donation bin thanks to the 2018 Blu-ray release of season one from Kino Lorber, which represents a gargantuan leap in both video and audio quality. The DVD in particular suffered from flattened, often lifeless sound quality that's thankfully corrected here with far more dynamic range, bringing the careful sound effects and music to life with far more energy than before. The image quality is simply gorgeous with the vivid 35mm photography (thanks to expert work by future Oscar winner Conrad Hall) sparkling like never before; you can also make out lots of fun details like visible makeup on actors' faces in close ups.
The series has also been given the special edition treatment at last, with many episodes getting brand new audio commentaries overseen by producer David J. Schow. Episodes here include "The Galaxy Being" (commentary by Schow), "The Hundred Days of the Dragon" (music-focused audio commentary by Dr. Reba Wissner), "The Architects of Fear" (commentary by Pumpkinhead screenwriter Gary Gerani), "The Man with the Power," "The Sixth Finger" (commentary by Schow), "The Man Who Was Never Born" (commentary by Gerani), "O.B.I.T." (commentary by Craig Beam), "The Human Factor," "Corpus Earthling" (commentary by Beam), "Nightmare" (commentary by Schow), "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork," "The Borderland," "Tourist Attraction," "The Zanti Misfits" (two commentaries by Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas and Gerani with King Cohen director Steve Mitchell), "The Mice" (commentary by Wissner), "Controlled Experiment" (commentary by Wissner), "Don't Open Till Doomsday" (commentary by Wissner), "Zzzzz" (commentary by Lucas), "The Invisibles" (commentary by Lucas), "The Bellero Shield" (commentary by Lucas), "The Children of Spider County," "Specimen: Unknown," "Second Chance," "Moonstone," "The Mutant" (commentary by Schow), "The Guests" (commentary by Beam and Schow), "Fun and Games" (commentary by Schow), "The Special One" (commentary by Gerani and Mike Hyatt), "A Feasibility Study" (commentary by Schow), "Production and Decay of Strange Particles" (commentary by Lucas), "The Chameleon," and "The Forms of Things Unknown" (commentary by Lucas). The commentaries offer a broad, informative snapshot of the season including a wealth of info about Stevens and Stefano, careful dissections of Frontiere's contributions, and the roles of such significant directors like John Brahm, Gerd Oswald, and Robert Florey, as well as actors like Cliff Robertson, Robert Duvall, Robert Culp, and Salome Jens. It's a little shocking that crucial episodes like "It Came Out of the Woodwork" and "The Chameleon" didn't get the commentary treatment, and less so in the cases of disposable entries like "Tourist Attraction." The series is spread out over seven discs, allotting five episodes to each disc apart from the last one (which only features two). The set also includes a lengthy insert booklet featuring a detailed history by Schow of the show's origins and first season, plus a list of episodes. For some reason you aren't given a listing of which episodes are on each disc, so you have to do a little math work to figure out how they break down (five at a time). Hopefully the upcoming second season will either list the episodes on the disc labels or break them out in the booklet.
Watching the show today, it's striking how well it holds up and benefits in this case from the lack of a traditional host (apart from the familiar "control voice" bookending each episode). It's great having names like Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) or Boris Karloff (Thriller) on hand for their iconic programs, but here the absence of a recurring human link gives the show an odd, otherworldly feel that still clicks perfectly. The premiere episode, "The Galaxy Being," is still a fine introduction with a good turn by Robertson in the lead, with other highlights including a transforming Culp in the Cold War pacifism study "The Architects of Fear," the highly atmospheric "The Man with the Power" featuring a great turn by a telekinetic Donald Pleasence, a memorable mutating David McCallum in "The Sixth Finger," the time-tripping "The Man Who Was Never Born" with Martin Landau, the interesting psychological exercise of "Nightmare," and the fun queen bee yarn "Zzzzz," just to name a few. Perhaps most surprising today is how adventurous and borderline abstract the show could get, including the pared-down moodiness of "The Guests" and especially the beautiful, hallucinatory final episode, "The Forms of Things Unknown" (with Vera Miles and a returning McCallum), which comes about as close to Last Year at Marienbad as American TV could possibly manage. In short, it's absolutely essential viewing and a major release of one of genre television's finest achievements. Bring on season two!
Reviewed on April 16, 2018.