Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone is back, an occasion that made us think of another 1960s anthology series that’s been put through the remake machine: The Outer Limits. With its emphasis on sci-fi — especially aliens and uncanny tech — the original episodes of The Outer Limits excelled at preying on Cold War fears. We’ve picked 10 essential episodes you should watch.
Not every episode of the series, created by Leslie Stevens (whose other genre bona fides include directing William Shatner in 1966 Esperanto-language horror movie Incubus), is a winner, though some of the weaker entries have campy elements that almost redeem them. (Witness the bug-eyed “sea monsters” in season one’s “Tourist Attraction,” maybe the most unintentionally hilarious example of The Outer Limits’ deep love of creatures that are quite plainly men in rubbery costumes.)
Other episodes of the original series, which ran for two seasons across 1963-65, are obviously dated in the same, shall we say, less-flattering ways that most vintage TV shows are (the show could’ve been called The Outer Limits… of White Men). That said, the cast does showcase some other famous faces, with actors like James Shigeta, Diana Sands, and Chita Rivera appearing alongside The Outer Limits’ rotating crop of episode stars. And many of those stars were instantly recognisable, albeit younger than we’re used to seeing them; to name just a few, The Outer Limits O.G. roster includes Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (in separate, pre-Star Trek episodes), Donald Pleasence, Robert Duvall, Bruce Dern, Martin Sheen, Dabney Coleman, Adam West, and Vera Miles. Notably, Miles had previously starred in a little movie called Psycho, which was adapted by Outer Limits season one producer and frequent episode writer Joseph Stefano.
Other than Stefano, The Outer Limits also boasted scripts from writers like prickly sci-fi great Harlan Ellison and Oscar winner Robert Towne, and also featured multiple episodes throughout its run with cinematography by Conrad Hall, who went on to become a three-time Oscar winner (including a posthumous win for 2002’s Road to Perdition).
Though it’d be understandable to write The Outer Limits off as a Twilight Zone clone — the shows are similar in many ways — the stories explored in The Outer Limits tended to hover firmly within the boundaries of existential dread, allowing precious little levity into its lessons. And those lessons were not just aimed at the characters, but also the audience as a whole — viewers were warned each and every episode that “there is nothing wrong with your television set,” but that “we will control all that you see and hear” for the duration of the broadcast, which was framed as something beaming directly from The Outer Limits’ ominous alternate reality.
Narrowing down the original 49 episodes to just 10 favourites naturally required some personal preference, so please head to the comments and share your own favourite original Outer Limits episodes, and explain why. Was it a memorable performance, or the way a particular episode interpreted each week’s creepy antagonist, or “bear,” as the show itself dubbed its go-to storytelling device? Here are our nominations.
1) “The Architects of Fear” (season 1, episode 3)
The episode said to have influenced the plot of Watchmen concerns a team of scientists who decide that in order for Earth to avoid nuking itself into oblivion, all of humankind will need to unite behind a common enemy. Instead of a space squid, however, the men decide one of them (played by Outer Limits favourite Robert Culp, whose later TV career included The Greatest American Hero) should undergo an agonising transformation into an “alien,” then flying-saucer into the United Nations to knock some sense into the world. Naturally, it gets complicated when the man’s pregnant wife (Geraldine Brooks) — who’s been told he died in a plane crash — begins to intuit that her husband is still lurking around the lab; things get even bleaker when the big reveal of his extraterrestrial form veers horribly off course. You expect the eventual tragedy, but you don’t expect how godawful the scientists’ well-meaning (but rather unnecessarily complicated) scheme will make you feel along the way.
2) “The Human Factor” (season 1, episode 8)
In an isolated, snowbound outpost, a soldier gripped by guilt so powerful it causes hallucinations from beyond the grave clashes with a scientist who’s unlocked the secret of mind-reading. When an ill-timed earthquake unexpectedly makes the sane man and not-sane man mentally switch places, it’s up to the doctor’s lovelorn assistant (Sally Kellerman) to figure out the truth. There are shades of 1951 feature The Thing From Another World (later remade by John Carpenter as The Thing) in this episode, both in the location (albeit here, it’s Greenland instead of Antarctica), and the dicey game of “who are you really?” (albeit with weird science, not aliens) that runs throughout.
3) “The Zanti Misfits” (season 1, episode 14)
Stefano penned this tale that imagines a top-secret U.S. military operation nervously awaiting the arrival of a prison ship from the dreaded planet Zanti, who have a very “my way or the highway” negotiation style. Unfortunately, a pair of lovers on the lam (Bruce Dern and Olive Deering) accidentally barge into the landing zone, setting a chain of chaos in motion. The ultimate lesson, however, is about how the inhabitants of Zanti perceive the humans of Earth — and how scarily accurate it turns out to be. Don’t be distracted by the grotesque, googly-eyed stop-motion aliens in this one, as difficult as that may be; if you get too caught up in giggling at them, you’ll miss out on one of The Outer Limits’ most deeply chilling plots.
4) “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” (season 1, episode 17)
This pretty standard Outer Limits entry about a destructive alien device gets a huge boost from Hollywood legend Miriam Hopkins, whose performance as an ageing jazz baby feels like a wondrous blend of Miss Havisham, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Grey Gardens. Beyond giving a grand dame reason to strut around in a feather boa and penciled-in eyebrows, there’s a compelling motivation for the woman’s madness: decades prior, her brand-new husband mysteriously vanished during their wedding reception, and she’s spent her entire life scheming to get him back. Since this is The Outer Limits, alternate dimensions are involved — but also since this is The Outer Limits, her plan goes horribly sideways.
5) “The Invisibles” (season 1, episode 19)
A sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a spy twist, The Invisibles imagines that a government agent named Spain (Don Gordon) has gone undercover as an operative for a secret group hellbent on world domination. That’s a pretty standard goal for these sorts of organisations, but this particular plan involves implanting influential people with insect-like alien creatures that have mind-control powers. “The Invisibles” keeps unfurling its twists until the end, with a story that features backstabbings both figural (as in, double crosses) and literal (as in, the creepy critters actually stab people in the back as part of the infection process).
6) “The Bellero Shield” (season 1, episode 20)
The Outer Limits brings back a pair of series favourites, Martin Landau and Sally Kellerman, for this Macbeth riff about an inventor (Landau) whose father has so little faith in him, he’s on the verge of naming a non-relative to head up the powerful family business. That doesn’t sit well with the inventor’s power-hungry wife (Kellerman), who greedily encourages her husband to weaponize the incredible technology that falls into his lap when an alien unexpectedly beams into his lab. As you might expect, her manipulations only bring her misery — and leave her with a parting gift (a spot of glowing alien blood on her hand) that adds that final “Shakespeare, but make it sci-fi” flourish.
7) “A Feasibility Study” (season 1, episode 29)
Just when you think you’ve ventured into the darkest depths of The Outer Limits, along comes an episode like “A Feasibility Study” to remind you how bottomless the show’s abyss really was. Set in a seemingly ordinary neighbourhood populated by average folks dealing with ordinary problems, the story opens with someone noticing weird mist in the air. You guessed it: the people have been transported to another planet. Not only that, they’re now the unwitting test subjects for aliens who’ve been scouring the galaxy for slaves capable of surviving their disease-ridden environment. The gut-punch comes not with this realisation, however; it comes when the humans band together and decide to proactively infect themselves with a hideous illness. And it works: the aliens, figuring their study was a flop, promptly cross Earth off their list of planets stocked with potential free labour. Aah! Then, The Outer Limits goes one further, dipping us back to Earth for a sec, just to make sure we understand that nobody back home ever got closure about the kidnapped humans’ whereabouts, much less knew about their sacrifice. Aaaaah.
8) “Soldier” (season 2, episode 1)
The first of two Harlan Ellison-penned episodes, the season two premiere was adapted by the author from his 1957 short story “Soldier From Tomorrow” and was famously (and contentiously) said to have influenced Terminator. “Soldier” begins as Quarlo (Michael Ansara), a fighter from 1,800 years in the future, is suddenly zapped into 1960s America. Though the weapons he brings with him are terrifyingly advanced, Quarlo’s most alarming quality is his laser focus on a single goal: eliminating his enemy. A determined language expert (Lloyd Nolan) is allowed to bring Quarlo into his home for a brief experiment, hoping to help him rediscover his humanity. When Quarlo’s dreaded enemy suddenly appears, it’s left deliberately unclear as to whether Quarlo evolves to protect the family that’s been caring for him, or reverts to his kill-crazy programming. Nobody says “I’ll be back,” but you can see why Ellison spotted a resemblance.
9) “Demon With a Glass Hand” (season 2, episode 5)
Another Ellison creation, this episode brings back Robert Culp to play Trent, the man with the fantastic hand, in a tale that also involves “time mirrors,” biological warfare between humans and invading aliens, the iconic Bradbury Building (later immortalised in Blade Runner), and the realisation that sometimes completing an epic quest can unlock not a triumph, but a grim truth. Ellison won multiple awards for his evocative, imaginative script, which creates a world so vivid it’s not hard to understand why “Demon With a Glass Hand” tends to get the nod as The Outer Limits’ best overall episode.
10) “The Inheritors” (season 2, episodes 10-11)
The only two-part episode in The Outer Limits’ original run, “The Inheritors” is a thrilling mystery starring Robert Duvall as a government agent puzzling through the strange case of four soldiers who recover rapidly from battlefield injuries that should have killed them — head injuries caused by some unusual bullets — and become much smarter versions of their previous selves. It’s soon clear that the men are working together on an elaborate high-tech construction project, spurred on by their recently implanted brain boosters. What are they building, why are they building it, and who exactly is controlling them? (And why in the hell are they going around collecting young orphans?) As Duvall’s character races to unscramble the plot, “The Inheritors” veers from the road you think it’s taking into far more thoughtful territory, helped along by Steve Ihnat’s measured performance as one of the newly minted geniuses, as well as the pacing allowed by the story’s double-wide running time.
The Outer Limits seasons one and two (along with several seasons’ worth of Outer Limits series revivals, in case you want to keep going deeper) are streaming on Amazon Prime.