The Galaxy Being, the first episode of The Outer Limits, aired in September of 1963. I was not allowed to watch this new science fiction horror show; it was shown late at night to prevent four-year-olds, like me, from seeing it. Getting the show on the air at all was challenging; the censors were troubled. The monsters, some of whom reappeared in subsequent sci-fi shows like Star Trek, were deemed too shocking for the Leave it to Beaver crowd. The famous control voice which opened the show, told the viewers that they were no longer in control of their TV. The censors argued this could confuse the viewers, making them think an emergency broadcast was about to occur. Remember, this was the month before the Start of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which we have recently learned came oh so close to ending the world. After the producers of the show placated the censors, some stations still refused to air The Outer Limits. The Cleveland affiliate, which sent its ultra high frequency waves into my house in Akron, broadcast a short a warning about the Galaxy Being right before air time. Watch at your own risk! My brothers, 12 and 13 at the time, were allowed to stay up later than I. They watched the show and probably enjoyed telling me how good it was as I whined about going to bed after watching some safe show like McHale’s Navy. It wasn’t fair. Of course, this injustice made me want to watch the show even more. Saturday morning reruns, in the basement, in front of our large black and white, allowed me to rebalance the scales of justice.
The Galaxy Being was about an alien who was contacted by a radio station operator using the radio waves to scan the heavens for intelligent life. The alien being was accidentally transported to earth by the radio engineer’s brother who had cranked up the power. The alien accidentally killed a few people because he was made of radiation. The authorities tried to shoot him, but he did not die. In the end, the radiation being dialed down the thermostat and healed the accidentally shot with his radiation. The show ends with him giving the earthlings a warning about powerful forces in the universe that were best avoided.
My favorite episode of The Outer Limits, called The Sixth Finger, was about a rebellious miner in a small Welsh town who volunteered to undergo rapid evolution. A white-coated scientist who felt guilty about helping to create the atom bomb retreated to an idyllic countryside where he experimented on a chimp. He caused genetic mutations that sped up the chimp’s evolution. His goal was to make people wiser so they could live in peace. The scientist’s work with the chimp was so successful that he felt ready to try it on a human. (Way before ethics review boards.)
The miner was played by David McCallum. He was a star in The Man from Uncle and today, at 82, he plays Ducky on NCIS. The miner wanted more from life than digging coal. After a few evolution treatments, David’s character, not surprisingly, evolved. He eventually became far smarter and more powerful than his creator. (Shades of Frankenstein.) The scientist became concerned when the miner continued to evolve without any treatment. And, now powerful, he harbored bitterness about the town. The miner did become violent after an accident, but on the verge of destroying those he hated, he evolved past the need for revenge. He loved who he was, but wanted to evolve faster. The man of the future returned to the lab. He asked his girlfriend to increase the speed of his evolution in the black evolution box. However, although he could read minds, he wasn’t smart enough to know that instead, she would turn back the clock, and de-evolved him, returning him to his original state.
The Outer Limits had a philosophical bent, typically ending with the control voice providing a moral drawn from the foibles of the story’s characters. I liked having someone explain to me what the shows meant. I enjoyed speculating about weighty matters at a young age. The show wasn’t simply entertaining; it was enlightening. The closing narration of the Galaxy Being was: “The planet Earth is a speck of dust, remote and alone in the void. There are powers in the universe inscrutable and profound. Fear cannot save us. Rage can not help us. We must see the stranger in a new light – the light of understanding. And to achieve this, we must begin to understand ourselves, and each other.”
When this episode aired, the United States was being forced to evolve. The Civil Rights movement, the Space Race, the Cold War, the Women’s movement, and the Vietnam War had begun to force Americans out of the complacency of the early fifties and society had to address the challenges of confronting “the other.” Having a show where friendly aliens were often harmed by the ignorance of authority figures suggested that strangers may only be dangerous if we allow fear to replace reason. The messages of many episodes suggested how people should react when they encountered difference:
* Whites should not fear blacks.
* America should not act hastily in its dealing with other countries.
* Things will be okay if women are no longer strangers to equal opportunity.
“The other,” the show implied, the alien, is just like you once you got to know him, her or it.
There were deeper symbolic meanings embedded in many episodes. If you looked beneath the skin of the Sixth Finger, in the opening scene, you would see the young girlfriend playing Little Red Riding Hood to the professor’s wolf. In the middle of the show, you would see the white coal miners change to black due to the coal dust. At the show’s climax, when the girlfriend returned the evolved coal miner to a human form, you would see a thinly veiled, symbolic sex scene, suggesting that love conquered all, even though innocence was lost.
Researchers “read” shows from a variety of perspectives. For example, looking at the show from the girlfriend’s perspective, they may see an innocent girl who comes into contact with a mad scientist. He first tried to subject her to his experiments, but alas, he learned that her blood type was not suitable. Later, her boyfriend protected her from sexual harassment by other miners. She suggested that the miner become the scientist’s guinea pig, thinking it would fulfill his dream of becoming someone important. As his brain and appearance evolved, she was kept in the dark. When she finally got a look at the alien with a mutated sixth finger, she ran, but her love for him allowed her to see his humanity. In her one independent act, she made a weighty decision and went against her boyfriend’s wishes. By de-evolving him, she made him human once again. (Don’t try this at home.) Richly constructed shows have many layers and multiple interpretations.
Doing a textual analysis requires researchers to look at the details in a media product and creatively try out various interpretations. Asking questions about elements of the text–interrogating it–helps provide evidence for a consistent, broadly based interpretation. A good interpretation reveals not only what is hidden in the show, but something about our culture. The process of investigating these works can be fun as researchers reveal the show’s inner workings and take them to the outer limits of their imagination. Dig in. Scoop out. Sift. Sort. Repeat. The Textual Analysis recipe.
I am returning the control of your laptop, tablet, phone, etc. to you, until the next time I post.