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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Wisdom from the Outer Limits

By Rattus Scribus© 31 January 2010

Movies and television programs have long provided a window into contemporary culture and issues. Today we are thoroughly shaped by the corporate interests behind most of the audio-visual media we consume (film, internet, advertising, music, etc.). The unabashed and openly stated goal (as one 1950s advertising executive put it) has been to create a culture where people find their very identity, their spiritual and ego satisfaction in consumption (see, for example, the documentaries: "The Persuaders" and "The Merchants of Cool").

But there have always been attempts to use film to critique contemporary culture, events and trends. The most obvious form of informative and analytical film is the documentary. But once in a while, creative stories and a desire for social commentary combine to create highly rated TV shows. One such ground-breaking show was the 1960s prime-time series, "The Outer Limits." It aired for only two seasons (1963-64 and 1964-65), but it was popular for its day and left a lasting impact. When released on DVD in 2002, popular novelist Stephen King called The Outer Limits, "The best program of its type ever to run on network TV." The program still has a loyal following of rerun and DVD watchers; and several decades later a new series of The Outer Limits ran for seven seasons (1995-2002).

When writing about what the past can teach us today, it is important to play fair. For example, it is easy to critique, even make fun of, old TV programs for the inferior production values of the past, with their very visible "invisible" wires suspending people and objects, serious characters made to wear cartoonish make-up and costumes, and painfully obvious set miniatures. Inadequate as they were, these were the cutting edge "effects" of the day. It therefore makes no sense to compare The Cold War era "Outer Limits" (OL) with, say, James Cameron's recent CGI movie blockbuster, "Avatar," any more than it makes sense to criticize the past for its horse-drawn carriages because it had nothing that could match the Ferrari of today.

It is, however, fair game to point out, for example, how many old TV shows where hopelessly mired in the contemporary values and worldview of the dominant social group of the era, which was overwhelmingly white Midwestern middle and upper class males. For example, in the context of the civil rights movement, the 1960s original Star Trek series did try to push the boundaries of race relations: to wit, when the corn-fed Iowa interstellar playboy Captain Kirk (William Shatner) kissed the Bantu African beauty Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols).

Star Trek, "Plato's Stepchildren" (Nov 1968). Considered by many to be the first interracial kiss on U.S. television, but African American entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. gave a friendly kiss to white female singer Nancy Sinatra on her variety show on Dec 1967. And in fact Shatner had kissed an Asian actress in a previous Star Trek episode. But the Shatner - Nichols (white - black) kiss that was overtly romantic had the whole studio buzzing prior to and during the filming. It was too much for some TV stations in the south which (according to some accounts) originally refused to air the episode.

Yet, despite the underlying presumption of human evolution, and predicted scientific and social advancements hundreds of years into the future, such as faster than light travel, teleportation, and interstellar civil rights, the U.S./earth-centered Federation of Planets will still be predominantly a male-run affair. Meanwhile, the women of the future will, apparently, still be bouncing about like forest nymphs in 1960s style mini-skirts.

Because…what woman wouldn’t want to wear a regulation uniform with the coverage equivalent of a scarf, while splayed out under an electronic panel trying to restore subspace communications after a deadly Klingon attack?

Or, when forced into mortal combat with a Barbie-bodied female alien from another galaxy who, miraculously enough, is wearing a regulation bikini from 1960s Earth. Apparently, females are the same in every corner of the universe: men wear clothes during space travel, or in battle, or you know, in public. Women? What need have they of anything more than a mini-skirt when they accompany men to other worlds, or get into a cat fight with Alien Malibu Barbie who knows better than to wear even a mini-skirt to battle, when far less will do?

"Mini-skirts? Hah! Who wears a mini-skirt to a bikini fight? Earthlings, fools all! Prepare to die embarrassed!"

Nevertheless, despite its historically captive shortcomings, certain Outer Limits episodes sought to inject cultural critique into the American social conscience, albeit sometimes naively and inadequately, but at least causing us to question the "official story," and the obvious gaps between what nations, people, even religions claimed to value and what they did. The Outer Limits was among my earliest introductions to a fairly intentional cultural questioning on network TV. In the next several installments, I will be writing partly serious, partly humorous pieces on the insights and, dare I say it, "wisdom" we can glean from some of the episodes of the 1960s television show, "The Outer Limits."


Debbie said...

WOW Ruben, most interesting! My memory of The Outer Limits is that of a kid so it will be most interesting to see how, after 30 years, the social relevance of this television program speaks to us today. I CAN'T WAIT for the next installment. But please, don't test me at the end okay? LOL!


Patricia Cabrera said...

Good morning Ruben~*grin*
I want to thank you for visiting and leaving me such a lovely note.
Have a wonderful and blessed day!

Patricia Cabrera said...

Ruben, I am not familiar with the Outer Limits but I can agree that the television programs have always tried to modify, influence or simply question ourselves and our beleives.
It is hard to beleive that during the 1960's woman wear this tiny skirts. lol, but then again... the world has been the same sinse Sodom and Gomorrah...

KeKe said...

Rueben, interesting post, however, that show was before my time and I can't say that I really remember it. I've hear of it, though. Sorry.
I love older televeions hows because while technically they might not have all the bells & whistles when it comes to graphics, the story lines, in my opinion showed great creativity, unlike today. hence all the reality TV shows-

KeKe said...

Sorry about the spelling erros in the above post...My typing dyslexia kicks in every now & again ;)

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Hey you! Again, another well-written and thoughtful post. I agree with Keke, who by the way is a great pal and super creative. She is also married to a man who builds things, and is extremely talented. As she said, even though we can look at these old shows and literally see the invisable wires, the content, the intent and the messages still live on today and the writing was trying to get to the core of culture and took chances. Unfortunately today, it's ALL entertainment and shock value. Thank you dearest...

synnøve said...

Hello Ruben :)
Interesting post again and no; no mistake visiting your
blog! I just had to "see": who was the lucky man married to Anita!
I find both of you to be interesting and good writers, and it will be a joy to visit both your blogs!

Have a nice day,

Angelsdoor * Penny said...

Hello Ruben
Thank you so much for visiting and your kind words. It was most appreciated.
The outer limits... yes I remember. I feel many of the old programs had more of a genuine content than what is shown today. Even with visible "invisible" wires...
I also would prefer the horse-drawn carriage...
Thank you for the great post..

Marie said...

Ruben, Juan Carlos and I watched The Outer Limits just the other night. We giggled a little at some of the techniques of that time. I can recall being honestly scared while watching and thinking how absurd some of the ideas seemed. Now...hmmmmm, not SO absurd...

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The Dutchess said...

The Outer Limits ..I don't know that show...I do know Star Trek...I was a big Captain Kirk fan! 'To go where no one has gone before'..with a big trunk of clothes,(you never know where you end up).;)
Scotty beam me up please...lets hit the galaxy..
They don't make this kind of television anymore.
My husband and I are now watching Rawhide...all woman in that show are ,or ,very helpless,or they cary their brain in their cleevidge!!
Great post dear friend..

Fete et Fleur said...

The Outer limits, a family favorite. I remember those days! I can't wait to hear what you have gleaned.


Bonnie said...

Hi Ruben, I remember being very frightened sometimes watching The Outer Limits. I used to sit next to my mom and bury my head in her arm, lap whatever was nearby!

As for that Space Cowboy James T. Kirk, I'm surprised he never got some intergallatic STD! I always wondered why the women of the Enterprise wore such short skirts. Guess it was because we were into minis and micro minis ourselves. But I did notice that alien women where always in various stages of undress when it came to their clothing. I sometimes think their costumes were held together with very sticky double sided tape! You couldn't show a married couple sharing the same bed but you could show a woman with hardly any clothes on. What?????

Anyway, great post! I'm going to get caught up with your other articles.