Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
The horror genre often gets subdivided into hundreds of categories, but in keeping with the spirit of the thing, I prefer to cleave it into two. On one side: “Halloween Horror,” the “fun” version, which turns beasts, ghosts, and bloody violence into safe, cartoony ritual. On the other: “Deep Horror,” which is darker and more punishing—meant to bruise.
Television shies away from Deep Horror. Whenever a show trots out a special Halloween episode, the writers pile on the creepshow iconography and Things That Go Bump, but with rare exceptions, TV follows the advice of Joseph Stefano, a writer-producer who put the following in a memo to the staff of The Outer Limits, back when the show was going to be called Please Stand By:
There must be terror. The viewer must know the delicious and consciously desired element of terror. Enlightenment, Education, Provocation, and Soul-moving are the end-game of all Drama, but to these must be added, for the purposes of PLEASE STAND BY, the experience of terror. It must, however, be TOLERABLE TERROR. It must remain in the realm of fiction, of unreality. When the play is ended, when the Control Voice has returned to the viewer the use of his television set, the viewer, that willing victim of the terror, must be able to relax and know self-amusement and realize that what he feared during the telling of the story could not materialize and need not be feared should he walk out of his house and stroll a night street.
Yet whatever Stefano’s intentions, The Outer Limits—like the similar ’60s anthology series The Twilight Zone—was capable of piercing to the bone. Ask most television buffs to name when they’ve felt the most frightened while watching TV, and chances are they’ll name a moment or image from The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, even though the latter was pitched primarily as a science-fiction show. And chances are, those same viewers haven’t been able to “relax and know self-amusement” in the years since they saw it. (At least not in the way Stefano meant the phrase.) It’s a marvel: Almost 50 years ago, a handful of smart show-business types staged these elaborate pieces of make-believe, and decades later, their audience is still haunted.
On October 28, 1963—Halloween week—ABC aired The Outer Limits episode “The Man Who Was Never Born,” the sixth episode of the show’s first season. Though the series never became a hit—it was cancelled midway through its second season—The Outer Limits drew a lot of media attention early on. The pilot was well-reviewed, and the third episode, “The Architects Of Fear,” caused some controversy when several local ABC affiliates determined that its monster was too hideous, and blacked out the screen whenever the creature appeared, lest the sight of it permanently scar any children that might be watching. (Never considering that the darkness might be scarier than the monster.)
The fact that a purportedly hard science-fiction series like The Outer Limits even had monsters can also be traced back to Stefano’s memo, in which he wrote, “Each play must have a ‘BEAR.’ The BEAR is that one splendid, staggering, shuddering effect that induces awe or wonder or tolerable terror or even merely conversation and argument.” (And Stefano, who at the time was famous for adapting Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho into a screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock, knew something about staggering, shuddering effects.) In “The Man Who Was Never Born,” the bear first appears before the opening credits, in a flash-forward to a scene that will come later in the story. A pretty young woman is sitting in the grass on a sunny day, smiling and playing with a tiny frog. Then, from out of the trees, a beast emerges.
Cue the now-famous Outer Limits narration:
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.
If you ask what chills me as TV viewer, it’s the implication of conspiracy and secrecy implied in the Outer Limits intro. I’ve always been fascinated by stories that initially seem to be well-resolved, until the writers add an epilogue that explains “what really happened.” Or stories in which heroes pursue quests that lead them to doors they may not want to open, lest their life-sustaining illusions be shattered. It’s both irresistible and profoundly creepy to me, this notion of gnosis: that we could crack the right book or turn down the right alley, and discover that we’ve been misinformed about the way the world works.
“The Man Who Was Never Born” has a moment like that early on. After the intro, we meet astronaut Joseph Reardon (played by Karl Held), who passes through a blip in the sky and lands on a desolate planet, where he’s approached by the same monster we saw in the teaser. There’s a hush to the episode’s first few scenes, designed to draw viewers in. Even though Reardon is carrying a revolver—and looks right strange, doing so in his space suit—nothing about the opening to “The Man Who Was Never Born” implies impending violence. Instead, the story proceeds much like we might expect. The monster introduces himself to Reardon, says his name is Andro, and explains that Reardon has landed on Earth in the year 2148. Reardon surveys the stark landscape and asks, “What could’ve happened? Hydrogen war?” Andro replies that Earth was devastated by an extraterrestrial microbe that evolved thanks to the experiments of a corrupt scientist named Bertram Cabot, Jr. Andro then invites Reardon into his shelter, promising to “show you all that is left.” (At this point, anyone watching the episode who isn’t anxious to find out what Andro is storing must be devoid of all human curiosity.)
Inside Andro’s shelter, Reardon finds shelves upon shelves of books, containing the world’s history and literature—all studied intently for years by our misshapen host. When Reardon criticizes Andro and his people for giving up hope, Andro snaps back that the situation was hopeless. The only way they could’ve stopped Cabot’s mutated microbe would’ve been to pursue preventative medicine, but instead mankind was “too busy going to the moon… too busy clubbing his brothers over the head with his newfound toy, the atom.”
Reardon suggests a possible corrective: Why not go back through the time-warp and stop Cabot before he gets his hands on the microbe? Andro agrees that it’s worth a try, and piles into Reardon’s spaceship to make the journey back in time. Then as they pass through the warp, Reardon disappears, leaving Andro alone on a lush, warm, inviting world that he’s only ever read about in books.
Luckily for Andro, his evolved brain has granted him the power of psychic suggestion, so he can convince people that he looks like a normal human being. (Or at least like Martin Landau.) He can also persuade the landlady at a local rooming house that he’s handing her money to rent a room, when he’s really just miming. But in keeping with the concept of the world beneath the world—the true world that we could see if we squinted hard enough—whenever the landlady or anyone else stumbles upon Andro when he isn’t prepared, they see him as he truly is. And they scream their heads off.
Before that can happen, Andro meets Noelle (played by Shirley Knight, who was a former Actors Studio student of Landau’s, and already a two-time Oscar nominee when she appeared in “The Man Who Was Never Born”). We saw Noelle in that brief pre-intro scene, being stalked by Andro in his monster form. Now we get to know her again as a gentle woman with the temperament of an artist, engaged to be married to a soldier who plans to become a scientist when he’s discharged from the service. The man’s name? Bertram Cabot. When Andro presses Noelle for more information, he learns that the man is Bertram Cabot Sr., and that he’s arrived on Earth before the world-destroying Bertram Cabot Jr. has been born.
So Andro goes to work on Jr.’s future father (played by John Considine), trying to persuade him with logic that if a person were to learn that he was destined to sire a fiend, that person would have a responsibility to mankind not to breed at all.
But Andro isn’t particularly convincing, largely because he has no experience with actual people—only with the versions of people he knows from his vast library. Andro’s speech is too stiff and too grand, nothing like the loose, casual Cabot. In fact, Andro is appalled that everyone he meets in the past is so relaxed, taking for granted how good they have it in comparison to the world to come.
“The Man Who Was Never Born” was written by Anthony Lawrence, who has said the episode was intended as “a romantic fairytale.” Andro, who learned about our version of humanity from classical literature, winds up living out an amalgam of gothic tales: The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Beauty And The Beast, Frankenstein, etc. Before long, the townsfolk become aware of his hideous appearance; when he crashes Noelle’s wedding, the entire congregation sees his true form and flips out, and Cabot leads a posse into the forest to hunt Andro down. Only Noelle—the sensitive one—has seen into Andro’s beautiful soul, and stands by him to the end, even agreeing to journey with him back through the time-warp to what presumably will be a much-improved 2148.
As a piece of writing, “The Man Who Was Never Born” is like a lot of science-fiction TV and movies of its era: It’s earnest and preachy, always stretching for profundity. Again, this is in keeping with Stefano’s memo, which reads:
There must be no apology, no smirk; each drama, no matter how wordless or timeless, must be spoken with all the seriousness and sincerity and suspension-of-disbelief that a caring and intelligent parent employs in the spinning of a magic-wonderful tale to a child at bedtime. Humor and wit are honorable; the tongue in the cheek is most often condescending and gratuitous. When the tongue is in the cheek it is almost impossible to speak in anything but a garbled, foolish fashion.
But as a piece of filmmaking, the episode is subtle, graceful, and powerful. When Lawrence and director Leonard Horn arrive at the moment in the story that’s teased pre-intro, the scene isn’t frightening at all. Instead, it’s staggeringly beautiful, with Dominic Frontiere’s score evoking the bond growing between Andro and Noelle.
Later, after he flees the wedding, Andro explains to Noelle about the horror her son will usher into existence, in a scene that’s simultaneously poetic and pitch-dark.
Then Cabot intrudes with his posse, and chases the couple through the woods. The music pounds, the camera shakes, the light is diffuse, and Cabot holds onto Noelle’s dropped veil as he runs, clinging to what’s left of a woman who for all intents and purposes, no longer exists on this Earth.
And then there’s the final scene, one of The Outer Limits’ most famous, in which Noelle and Andro head through the time-warp, and Andro realizes that because Noelle won’t be around to give birth to Bertram Cabot, Jr., the whole world of the future will have changed, and Andro himself will have never been born. Then he fades away, leaving us with an expressionistic shot of Noelle on an empty stage, adrift. The narrator spouts some positive words about the transformative power of love, but the image on the screen belies what he’s saying. We’re watching a woman weeping and shrinking into the vastness of the universe, completely alone.
The man most responsible for the look of “The Man Who Was Never Born” is cinematographer Conrad Hall, who went on to win three Academy Awards (and be nominated for seven more) once he made the transition from TV to feature films. Hall was a born tinkerer who believed in the power of an unconventional light-source or a moving shadow to create memorable images on the cheap. Why build a new prop or set when you can just tease the imagination? In this episode, for example, Hall uses special filters to create a hazy look whenever Andro is actively altering people’s perceptions of him. It’s most striking in the big confessional scene in the woods between Noelle and Andro, when he calls himself “ugly,” while the light illuminating the edges of face says otherwise.
The performances in “The Man Who Was Never Born” are top-notch too, with Landau and Knight bringing all their Method training to bear, conjuring whatever memories or emotions they needed to turn pretense into reality, to breathe life into characters who otherwise might’ve come off as sketchy, or even corny. Instead, Landau plays Andro as a misfit even when he looks normal, and at times even contorts his face to mimic Andro’s askew, deformed expression.
The Outer Limits was created by Leslie Stevens, a writer-director-producer who started on Broadway, then arrived in Los Angeles in the late ’50s as an independent filmmaker, determined to bring the innovations of European New Wave cinema to Hollywood. Stevens’ Daystar Productions embraced television as a chance to make some money without compromising his experimental spirit. According to Stefano, “It was kind of like what I imagine they felt like during the heyday of Hollywood, with certain groups off in a corner somewhere, getting away with murder—little kook groups making the films they really wanted to make. And those are the films we’re still watching today.” And sure enough, even though The Outer Limits bombed in its first run, it’s stayed alive in syndication, on cable, and on home video ever since. That’s a testament to Stevens, Stefano, Hall, and all the Daystar staff who made it their mission to provide their audiences with stories and scenes that—contrary to Stefano’s memo—would linger long after “the Control Voice has returned to the viewer the use of his television set.”
Ultimately, “The Man Who Was Never Born” is a science-fiction story with the trappings of Halloween Horror in its monster costumes and angry mobs, and the soul of Deep Horror in its pervasive sense of melancholy. The episode arrived on American television a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and a month before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and there are echoes of the times in the way that the hero is able to effect change, but only through a process that proves difficult and divisive. (And neither he nor we get to see the end result.) The episode originally ended with Noelle arriving in 2148 and finding a verdant, peaceful Earth, but the producers had to cut the epilogue because the show was running long. Life imitated art; circumstances intervened, creating bleak ambiguity.
In The Outer Limits: The Official Companion—the source of the Joseph Stefano and Anthony Lawrence quotes in this article—authors David J. Schow and Jeffrey Frentzen note how that ambiguity extends to the episode’s main plot-driver. We never get to see Bertram Cabot, Jr. We take it on faith from our hero that Junior is responsible for the misery of the future, but “He is another illusion, one Andro creates from history books, pursues, and never finds. He is the story’s true Beast—monster, that is—and the real man who is never born.”
This to me is scarier than any masked killer or rotting zombie: the thought that we’re all of us, always, chasing phantoms, driven not by fear of the unknown, but fear of the nonexistent. Deep Horror indeed.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: The Muppet Show, “Steve Martin”