From Starlog Magazine, August 1997


David McCallum & Joseph Stefano re-adjust your TV set for a classic revisited at The Outer Limits.

An angry crowd has assembled outside Daniel Tenzer's front door. Yesterday, he was just another middle-class workaholic, keeping his nose to the grindstone and maintaining a measured distance from his suburban neighbors. Today, everyone on his block knows he has something they all want: a gas-powered generator. If they can use the generator to fire up another neighbor's ham radio, they reason, perhaps they can send out a distress signal. On the other hand, who will hear their cries for help, now that they're millions of light years from Earth, hostages of  an alien race determined to make them slaves? 

If this storyline sounds familiar, perhaps that's because it first appeared as an installment of ABC's innovative SF anthology series The Outer Limits some 34 years ago. Now, "A Feasibility Study" is being reworked for he new Outer Limits, currently in its third season on Showtime (with episodes broadcast later in syndication on local TV stations). This is a reunion show of sorts in that it was written by Joseph Stefano (who, with Leslie Stevens, created the original Outer Limits) and stars David McCallum, who graced two of the black-and-white program's most memorable entries, "The Sixth Finger" and "The Forms of Things Unknown" (also written by Stefano). 

Stefano has been associated with the new Outer Limits' creative staff since the revival's inception. As the show's patriarch, he reads scripts and offers feedback on their merits (and shortcomings). He admits that his title, "creative consultant," has been largely honorary in nature. Until now.

Contemporary Ideas

new Feasibility Study Dressed in black and seated in a comfortable chair at the Outer Limits production offices in Vancouver, British Columbia, the distinguished-looking Stefano says the idea of remaking "A Feasibility Study" made him once again write for television. That, and the draw of "getting at least one star from the original series to appear in the show. I sent the producers [of the new series] a list of people I thought would be good for the part of Joshua Hayward. And, happily, David wanted to do it. The idea of redoing `A Feasibility Study' seemed to be on everybody's minds--it was one I wanted to do, and the [producers] felt the same way. I thought it would be challenging to redo a show I had done all those years ago."

But why that particular episode, one of the original series' better efforts? Wouldn't it have made more sense to remake one that failed to live up to its potential? "For me, it was the show's eternal theme of people sacrificing themselves for the good of others," says Stefano. "I felt it was something we ought to be hearing, especially now, since we don't seem to have a sense of heroes anymore. The other shows did not, in my mind, reach out beyond a certain level, even though I liked some of them very much. I'm not sure what episodes like `The Invisibles' or `Don't Open `Til Doomsday' would mean to audiences today."

Sam Egan, co-executive producer of this year's 22 episodes of The Outer Limits (it has already been renewed for a fourth season), cites the remaking of another vintage Outer Limits episode ("I, Robot") as "precedent for going back to the archives and pulling an episode that had particular power and fascination for audiences, and re-crafting the original story in new and exciting ways." 

Again, the question is posed: Why "A Feasibility Study?" "The core of  every Outer Limits episode, particularly the successful ones, is a parable, a morality tale," explains Egan, who also penned this season's "Second Thoughts" (starring Howie Mandel) and "A New Lease" (directed by Jason Priestley), as well as 22 episodes of Quincy, on which he served as supervising producer. "We thought this one had a  very strong parable to tell. Also, the hook into the story is quite dramatic: An entire neighborhood is ripped from its moorings and transported to the moon of a distant planet, millions of light years away. People wake up believing that the only thing unusual is that the sky is a slightly odd shade, and the weather seems to have taken a bad turn. Other than that, they think everything is normal. There's no power, no water, all the utilities are gone, but still, nothing seems amiss until they drive a few blocks and realize they've reached the edge of the world. 

"It has a very strong emotion al core too, which has to do with alienation in our modern world between neighbors, or between father and daughter, l as in the case of the story's lead characters. It's a rich tradition in SF, to take an ordinary setting and have extraordinary events transpire around it."

Before sitting down to rewrite "A Feasibility Study," Stefano took another look at the original episode. "I had the script, but I never referred to it," he says. "I took no dialogue from it consciously. If there's anything in it that's exactly the same, I would be very surprised." 

He watched the show as a reference guide and also to "see what not to do" the second time around. Like what? "There were things in my writing I wasn't too crazy about. Some of the dialogue sounded a little high-flown. I guess at the time, it was [due to my] having the freedom to say anything I wanted. I said it in the best possible way I knew, but some of it comes off as a bit stuffy. My style is much more lean and economical now, and I trust the audience more than I did then."

Cautionary Tales

Overall, Stefano is happy with the first "Feasibility Study" (FX aside). That's why the new version is closely patterned after his original script, with three major differences. First, there are two sets of aliens, rather than only one. The first is represented by what Stefano terms "the Triune," three powerful but physically frail creatures who rule the dying planet and need laborers to do their work. The second group constitutes the Triune's first attempt at a controlled "feasibility study"--creatures who cannot tolerate the atmosphere of their new home and are slowly turning to stone (thus the need for a second study, involving human beings). Explains Stefano, "The failures from the first experiment are called the Infeasibles. We have to be able to see their faces well enough so the audience knows they're not human beings. The only one I've  seen [in makeup] so far was today [on the set]. He's one of the younger ones, and he hasn't completely turned to stone yet-his tissue is in the  process of petrifying. He touches Sarah, and that's what causes her to contract the disease, which she in turn spreads to the other humans."

In the new version, Stefano has also included a scene involving the abduction and probing of Joshua and a neighbor (the Triune's attempt, it is suggested, to find a human they can manipulate to their advantage), which promises to make good use of the quality special FX for which the current series is noted. Finally, he has changed the central conflict between the two main characters from a husband and wife to a father and his daughter. "The conflict between the first two people, though it might still be relevant, has been done over and  over," concedes Stefano. "But to have a conflict between a parent and child works almost any time."

Director Ken Girotti, who previously helmed two episodes of the new series ("The Refuge" and "Falling Star"), did not screen the original episode because "I wanted to respond to the story on the page, without a prejudice view of how it should be told. I wanted to bring my awn sensibility to it, without being influenced by how it was done in 1964.

Girotti agrees that it is the story's emotional core that made "A Feasibility Study" ripe for remaking. "What jumped out of the story for me was the emotional side of the relationship between Joshua [McCallum] and his daughter Sarah, that being a microcosm of the grander, more universal story of this community falling into anarchy when they're faced with this, horrible event--and in the end, having to do the altruistic, right thing for the greater good. What I hope I bring to it is the ability to distill the larger picture down into an emotional center regarding Joshua and Sarah."

Working with McCallum has been a distinct pleasure for the director, who calls the former Man from U.N.C.L.E. star "a sweetheart. He has been around the block and he knows his stuff. I just love the work he has done on the episode. What's nice is the way he works with Laura [Habitat] Harris, who plays Sarah. We tried to give Laura an edge by giving her a ring in her nose and suggesting that she's tattooed all over and that she's a rebel. David plays the Establishment father who's having a major fallout with her over a boy. He has struck all the right emotional chords. Yesterday, we were shooting a scene in the kitchen and someone suggested that maybe David should feel bad about the way he has treated his daughter, because he broke up her relationship the night before. David's feeling was, `No, no, no. This should be like the last time you see a really good friend and you have a real rip-snorter of an argument and you think you'll never talk to them again. The next thing you hear is that they've been killed in an auto accident. That's what it should be like.' His take on it was perfect. He ends the scene by telling her, `I expect to see you here when I get back.' The next thing that happens is he finds out she has disappeared. So, it takes him even lower, and he feels worse about fighting with her, and he's even more desperate to find her. It was exactly where the scene needed to go, emotionally speaking."

Communal Sacrifices

McCallum calls his role as patriarch Joshua Hayward "one of those unactable parts. By which I mean, you really have absolutely no idea what a person would do in his circumstances, faced as he is with the end of everything he knows to be true, and then discovering that he's one of a group of human guinea pigs. Secondly, his daughter is dying and the only way to save humanity is to kill off everybody [in the group of kid nap victims]. It's the kind of thing I'm not faced with while living in New York. It's close, but even New York is not quite as devastating as that. The challenge [from an acting point-of-view] is in figuring out how to deal with everything that he's going through, and not to overdo it to the point where it becomes comical."

The Scottish actor signed on for "A Feasibility Study" even before seeing the script, largely due to his prior involvement with the series. "I knew all the old Outer Limits scripts, and every one was a great success. Also, my manager, Abe, assured me there would be no prosthetics [which proved cumbersome for the actor in "The Sixth Finger"], it was a great part, I would love it, etc. When I arrived in Vancouver [to shoot the episode], I discovered that when the episode was done way back when, my part was played by Sam Wanamaker, a very good friend of mine in England before I came to America. So, I feel this episode is a modest tribute to Sam."

Stefano's script seems, on the surface at least, an anti-authority diatribe as well as a reminder about the dangers of urban isolation. But don't ask McCallum about any message it might offer. "Joshua is definitely a heroic character. But it's heroism in the face of the inevitable, to a certain degree. As far as a message, I never think about things like that. I like entertainment. So, I just try and do the words as written."

Like McCallum, Girotti is less concerned with making a statement than capturing viewers' interest. "I don't think the story is delivering any great message other than asking the question, given the choice [between becoming slaves and dying], what would human beings do? And in this particular case, the answer is that they would do the right thing. It's a story with a happy ending. For the greater good, these people make the ultimate sacrifice. I'm just hoping I can entertain the audience and get under their skins a little bit and make them think."

In Stefano's hands, "A Feasibility Study" remains a cautionary tale about complacency, mistrust and self-sacrifice, complete with a spiritually uplifting ending where the townspeople join hands in solidarity inside a church, knowing that tactile contact will turn them all to stone thus making them useless to the aliens as slaves. Adds Stefano, "The Triune thinks that [the humans' collective petrification] is due to their climate. So, when the humans fail through their own gesture, it appears that there's no sense in going back to Earth for any more humans." 

That final shot--everyone joining hands as they turn to stone--was, as directed the first time around by War of the Worlds' Byron Haskin, the original episode's finest moment. The ending is more or less the same here, though Girotti plans to end with a series of still photos showing the group as stone figures, frozen in their tracks. 

The only thing missing in the 1997 version, happily, is ABC censor Dorothy Brown, who made life a living hell for Stefano when the first episode was in production. She felt the ending was an endorsement of mass suicide, which began a chain of events that delayed the episode's broadcast by some eight months. "Dorothy and I had conversations almost daily about the show," recalls Stefano. "She would complain about something, and I would ask her what she wanted us to cut, and she would say, `I don't know; you've just got to do something.' On this episode, the network told us it looked as though we were condoning mass suicide. As the writer, I couldn't believe they could see it that way. They clearly didn't know the difference between suicide and heroism. I pointed out that this was a heroic act by a group of people who were going to save the rest of the people on Earth. They really couldn't argue with that. They were very moved when they saw the completed episode."

Having been on the set to observe a few days of filming, Joe Stefano is clearly impressed by what he has seen thus far. Now, he and his wife Marilyn and son Dominic plan to duck out of town for the weekend to visit Victoria, B.C. He obviously feels his script is in good hands. Adds a smiling Ken Girotti as he's called back to the set, "Joe is very pleased with how we're executing his concept, and I think he'll be very happy with the final result."

Forms & Fingers

Old Outer Limits Joe Stefano has director John Huston to thank, albeit in a roundabout way, for David McCallum's two-episode association with the original Outer Limits. "I saw David in [Houston's film] Freud and was very impressed with him " recalls Stefano. When it came time to cast "The Sixth Finger," Ellis St. Joseph's teleplay about a scientist's (Edward Mulhare) attempt to speed up evolution using high-frequency electronics, Stefano asked the show's casting director to see if McCallum could be signed for the role of the coal miner-turned-man of the future "and we did. We were very fortunate. David's face and the camera are very good friends. He can act anything you throw at him. And I used him again in `The Forms of Things Unknown.' "

Stefano characterizes `The Sixth Finger" as that rare "perfect script. It was the only script I had gotten up to that point that I did not have to rewrite--I literally rewrote every script that came in. Then, we got that dream cast: David, Jill Haworth, Mulhare. It was going so beautifully. The dailies were gorgeous. Then, the production manager came to me one day and said, `We're five minutes short. "It was like having the rug pulled out from under me."

As St. Joseph was unavailable to contribute additional material, Stefano wrote a scene ("under protest") that he hoped director James Goldstone would be able to "stretch out." (Stefano admits that he doesn't remember the scene--which he thinks "took place in a bar"--very well. When informed that no barroom scene appears in the episode, he suggests it may have been eliminated in the editing room.) It was McCallum who came up with the idea of having his newly evolved character spontaneously play a complicated piece of music on a piano in the professor's house. Stefano insists neither he nor St. Joseph contributed dialogue to this scene, that it was most likely improvised by McCallum and Mulhare. "David saved the day with that one," he smiles. "I saw it the next day in dailies and it worked beautifully."

Stefano's general comments about "The Sixth Finger" reflect his ongoing admiration for the episode: "It had very fine writing, very good direction and incredible special FX. It was just one of those shows where everything came together. David was willing to come in at 4 a.m. and start his makeup. He asked that the makeup people leave his eyes and mouth exposed, because one can't act without those. That was one of the very early examples of melding a prosthetic mask onto a person's skin."

While the show has an atypically happy ending for the series (McCallum is returned to normal using the same machine that turned him into an arrogant superbrain), its underlying statement, according to Stefano, is "it's very dangerous to be different. People don't take too kindly to it. And smart is great, as long as you're not too many degrees smarter than the other guys in the class. I mean that in the ironic sense, of course."

"The Forms of Things Unknown" was Stefano's stab at a Diabolique-like horror tale involving the murder of a greedy blackmailer (Scott Marlowe) by two women (Vera Miles and Barbara Rush), and an eccentric inventor (McCallum) who takes them in during a rainstorm. Of the  unusual episode, which was edited into a pilot version for a proposed anthology series called The Unknown that never got off the ground, the writer/producer says, "Just before we went into production, the head of ABC asked me if I could do a version of it without science fiction, for an anthology series. I didn't rewrite much, I just took out the ending [David's character, Tone, uses his time-tilting device and  disappears right in front of the two women]. In the alternate version, it's clear that Tone is mad. At the end, he thinks he's going to go forward in time, and  Vera Miles comes in with a gun and shoots him. So, he can't go forward in time after all. I've led you to believe in this SF device, but it turns out it's all in his mind. He thought that by tying strings to clocks he could go backward and forward in time-he was utterly convinced of it, and so, hopefully, was the audience. It was a lot like some of the French and Italian movies at the time, which I enjoyed."

Stefano lists "The Forms of Things Unknown" as "my favorite episode I did for The Outer Limits. Gerd Oswald [the director] did a fantastic job." However, the episode almost didn't get made at all, Stefano says. "At first, the network didn't want to do it. I told them, `I don't care if you don't do it. We do it my way or we won't do it at all.' they didn't understand it. It didn't have a monster, it had this strange young man with blond hair, and these two women who have this dead guy in the trunk of their car who comes back to life. The trunk opens at one point and you see him. He's supposed to be dead. Barbara Rush says, `He blinked!' and runs off, terrified. That was very scary stuff for TV. 

"The network was like, `Are these women lesbians? Is that what you're trying to say?' I said, `I have no idea!'"

--Kyle Counts