The Outer Limits Episode Broadcasters Feared
One of the greatest intros in TV history opened with an ominous voice informing the audience they should not “attempt to adjust your picture…we are controlling the transmission”. With that chilling message viewers knew they were watching classic science fiction anthology series The Outer Limits. But for many on September 30, 1963, they learned that despite the foreboding message it was actually the network affiliate who controlled the transmission. The episode in question is one of the best the series produced “The Architects of Fear” written by Meyer Dolinsky and directed by movie/TV veteran Byron Haskin. A particularly thought-provoking tale “Architects of Fear” featured Robert Culp as Dr. Leighton, a member of a secretive collective of scientific-minded intellectuals in an era where a nuclear conflict looms large. Seeing a war which would doom the planet on the horizon, this cabal hatches an unconventional plan as a last ditch effort to unite the planet. Using a series of horrendous surgeries and experiments one member of their ranks would be transformed into a creature from the planet Theta. With the threat of an alien invader, the nations of the world would have no choice but to unite against the “Thetan”. Lots are drawn and Leighton is the one chosen by fate to bring world peace at a great cost. Oblivious to this plot is Leighton’s loving and pregnant wife Yvette, but she is keenly aware that her usually loving spouse is becoming increasingly distant. A fake death is orchestrated so that the dutiful scientist can be transformed into a creature from another world, but Yvette refuses to believe he is truly dead. As plans do, things go awry as instead of landing at the United Nations as planned, the newly monsterized Dr . Leighton ends up in a forest where a group of hunters shoot him. Mustering the strength he has left, Leighton returns to his laboratory and waiting for him is none other than Yvette. Despite being transformed into a creature which could not be any further from human, the loving wife immediately recognizes the man she loved.
The strange and completely inhuman look of the “Thetan” left an impact on anyone who saw it. But, for many ABC network affiliates the look of this creature seemed to perhaps be too frightening for viewers and they took matters into their own hand. When “the Architects of Fear” aired several viewers across the nation had a completely different experience as when the horrifying monster Leighton becomes finally emerges in the episode’s climax their screen went black. The flow of the episode would go from Yvette then cut to a black, but one could still hear the audio. This protected the sensibilities of their poor audiences, but inadvertently this also made the episode even more terrifying for many. The monster of the week was so terrifying that the network was too afraid to even show it, this is the kind of move where your imagination fills in the blanks no doubt conjuring something far more monstrous than the one which was actually in the episode. This is only amplified by the already scary style of the Outer Limits in general. Like the series it is often compared to The Twilight Zone, the Outer Limits had no problem cranking up the fear factor. Not only did the show feature terrifying aliens and monsters but it was filmed in a gothic and moody style. So when a show that is already terrifying creates a monster too horrifying to even look at it no doubt aroused curiosity and fear. For my money the alien from Theta is far from the biggest source of dread in “the Architects of Fear”, that honor goes to the emotional aspect of the episode. The chemistry between Culp and Geraldine Brooks who plays Yvette is incredibly strong and their relationship is the heartbeat of these events. The affection they share for each other is incredibly strong which makes the heartbreak when Leighton has to face his fate that much worse. These two expecting parents will likely never see each other again and that in of itself is a terrifying aspect. It is his feelings for his losing wife that makes Leighton’s transformation into a Thetan that much more traumatic for the scientist. That final moment where the separated couple reunites with one of them turned into something monstrous is bound to grab any viewer by the emotions.
The legacy of “the Architects of Fear” is a fun bit of TV trivia as legend has spread of the episode so scary, a number of broadcasters could not even show the monster. Outside of the television medium, this Outer Limits episode did in fact inspire Alan Moore when writing his comic book classic The Watchmen. Most every list of the greatest Outer Limits episodes lists this one among the highest ranked. Finding an absolutely perfect balance between horror and heart, “the Architects of Fear” proved to be a milestone TV episode.