By Rattus Scribus© 31 January 2010
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?
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."
"Mini-skirts? Hah! Who wears a mini-skirt to a bikini fight? Earthlings, fools all! Prepare to die embarrassed!"