Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Outer Limits: Please Stand By (Pilot)

The Twilight Zone had its share of extra-terrestrials, but first contact and alien invasion were really specialties of The Outer Limits. The was true right from the start—the very start. The first episode aired that under the title, “The Galaxy Being” was very slightly re-edited from the unaired pilot, appropriately known as “Please Stand By.” That “being” was from another galaxy, who did respond well when he suddenly found himself in our world. In honor of the show’s 60th anniversary, the original pilot screens tonight at UCLA.

Sit back and enjoy, because cosmic forces will be controlling the transmission we are about to watch. Allan Maxwell is a brilliant scientist, who uses his radio station as a cover for his underground SETI research. Basically, his DJ-brother Gene “Buddy” Maxwell programs polite jazz and bachelor pad-ish easy listening. It was probably a good spot on the dial to hear Joe Bushkin and Eddy Duchin, if you could pick-it up. Dr. Maxwell deliberately keeps the output low, so it does not interfere with his own experiments.

Much to his surprise, Maxwell’s microwaves create a link through which he and a mysterious alien from Andromeda start communicating. The scientist could continue their trans-galactic exchange all day, but his wife insists he attend their local town’s long-planned awards ceremony in his honor. He turns the station’s output down even further, to maintain a stable connection, while the “Galaxy Being” “holds the line,” but the fill-in DJ cranks it way up, inadvertently dragging the alien into our world. Havok soon follows.

Obviously, the network picked up
Outer Limits, but they had creator Leslie Stevens (who wrote and directed the pilot) somewhat water-down its intensity. They also cut a line from the Galaxy Being that suggested his people might just come to Earth and kick our butts, now that they knew of our existence. That is especially unfortunate, because it represents one of the earliest pop-culture manifestations of Cixin Liu’s “Dark Forest” concept, decades before the Chinese novelist’s Three-Body trilogy.

Regardless, the “Galaxy Being” effects still look distinctively retro-cool, especially considering the limited budget. Future Oscar winner Cliff Robertson (for
Charly, which was also sort of considered sf in its time), is terrific as Maxwell, portraying him as absent-minded and obsessively-driven, but still sufficiently connected to real-life to be credible. Lee Philips (who became a prolific TV director, whose credits include the TV-bio-pic Louis Armstrong: Chicago Style) provides a somewhat more identifiable counterpoint as his more worldly brother.

In many ways, “Galaxy Being”/“Please Stand By” almost completely established the stylistic and thematic templates of
Outer Limits, right off the bat. For example, “The Bellero Shield,” which also screens with the original pilot, similarly features an egg-headed scientist who makes first contact, only to have it perilously screwed up, by the flawed people around him. Both episodes express the cautionary fears regarding science that were common to 1960s sf, but “Please Stand By” has wider implications and much more mayhem. The radio station setting also adds a memorable element. Highly recommended, “Please Stand By” screens tonight (3/18) in Los Angeles.