Friday, September 15, 2017

Radio, Television & The Outer Limit Legacy (Part 3 of 5)

Flying Saucers, the Atomic Bomb and Doomsday: The Outer Limit (Part 1 of 5)
The Outer Limit by Graham Doar: The UFO Parable (Part 2 of 5)

In our previous installment, we looked at the original story of "The Outer Limit" by Graham Doar, and how it presented the arrival of flying saucers, as a turning point in mankind's future. Shortly after the story saw print it was adapted for broadcast, first on radio.

The Many Lives of The Outer Limit: Radio and Television

Radio once served the same purpose that television later would, to electronically deliver broadcasts of news and entertainment to millions of people's homes. Many radio producers were able to make their shows more attractive to audiences by featuring movie stars in the cast of their shows. Between 1950 and 57, there were two different scripts adapted from "The Outer Limit," with at least five different productions of it for radio, most of them in popular dramatic programs aimed at a general audience. 

Escape, February 7, 1950 was produced and directed by William N. Robson, adapted for radio by Morton Fine and David Friedkin. Frank Lovejoy starred as Major Bill Westphal (usually transcribed as Westfall). The story begins with a briefing in preparation for of the test flight of the RJX1, with Hank, the Colonel, stressing the potential danger to the pilot's life. The stakes are high, and Bill's a family man with a wife and twin boys at home. The military and technical details add to the story's credibility and tension.

Westphal's ship is launched and all goes well until he sees something, "maybe a flying disc, a big one, and it's spinning like a top!" His ship loses pressure, and is being pulled towards the disc when he blacks out. When he awakens he hears two voices of 
his two alien captors, Captain Xeglon and the Commander (name Zzyl used only in the credits).

 Xeglon asks Bill, "Can you understand me? Are we in contact?" They tell him their space ship is powered by the harnessed power of a thousand suns, and in order to demonstrate their advanced technology, take him far out into space and temporarily paralyze their captive with "a screen of force." Xeglon tells him, "You are aboard Space Patrol ship SJ23. I am Captain Xeglon of the Galactic Guard... the guardian of the galaxy, the guardian of the universes, the instrument of the Brotherhood of Worlds has set up in defense against civilizations such as yours." 

Bill is unable to see the aliens, and comes to understand that the communication is with telepathy. Xeglon tells him that their ship's ray had stopped his flight, and that his plane had been repaired and would be returned to him. He explains they detected residue from atomic bombs and traced it to the Earth, and the Galactic Council has quarantined the planet. They sealed it of with a force screen that would explode when it accumulated enough atomic bomb particles. "The Commander tells him that "We have finally outlawed war throughout space, including the Earth. ... If you continue to make atomic bombs... making war with them, exploding them, it would upset the balance of the entire universe, throwing all space into chaos." He tells Bill it is his duty to warn the Earth that "If you start an atomic war, the Earth will be completely destroyed." 

Their huge ship contains Bill's plane, and they launch it back into Earth's atmosphere.

Upon his return, Bill asks for the crew to check plane with a Geiger counter for radiation. Hank orders Bill to talk to Major Donaldson, the psychologist. Returning from a commercial break, we hear Bill wrapping up his story to Donaldson, who does not seem to believe the story of "men from Mars."

Bill becomes agitated and tells them that "one more bomb" will cause destruction of the Earth. Hank orders Bill to settle down and has the psychiatrist give him a sedative to allow him to sleep.
They leave him and Donaldson discusses how he will treat Bill's delusions, but in this version it is Hank that delivers the zinger. "When you treat him... consider this: How did he keep that plane in the air for ten hours – for ten hours, Major, when he had fuel to last him only ten minutes?”

After the story, the announcer says that, "Actual flight details were authenticated by rocket test pilot, Gene May, Sgt. Hartley Caldwell of the Air Force section of Armed Forces Information Office, and the Douglas Aircraft Corporation."

The Escape story adds some details to the story:
The UFO uses a ray to disable Bill's plane, and apparently draw it inside.
During his abduction, the aliens uses a screen of force to paralyze Bill. 
Telepathy is named as the method of mental communication.
Earth is a danger to the universe. A-bombs will "upset the balance of the entire universe."
"The Brotherhood of Worlds" sounds a bit like the space version of the United Nations.
The aliens voices, Xeglon and Zzyl, have an imperious tone, and sound a bit like snobs from space. 

The Fine-Friedkins script for Escape was used for several other versions:
Beyond Tomorrow, April 13, 1950 Once again, William N. Robson produced and directed, and Frank Lovejoy starred as Major Bill Westphal.

Movie actor William Holden starred in the 1954 Suspense adaptation.
Pictured here as his role as a test pilot in the 1956 film, "Toward the Unknown."
Suspense, February 15, 1954, directed by Elliot Lewis. The newspaper description: 
SCIENCE FICTION? William Holden, as jet test pilot Bill Westphal, will take an experimental ship up into "The Outer Limit" and return ten hours later to tell a tale which no one will believe on radio's Suspense program Monday (7 p.m., CBS). The story was adapted by Morton Fine and David Friedkin for radio production from a famous Saturday Evening- Post science fiction story by Graham Doar.
Suspense, March 17, 1957 William N. Robson, again, producing and directing.
(Suspense 1957) Newspaper description:
Lovejoy Plans Trip. Frank Lovejoy, noted radio- screen star, portrays Major Bill Westphal, pilot of a perilous jet flight into "The Outer Limit" on CBS Radio's Suspense Sunday  (3-30 p.m.). When he returns from a test flight with a terrifying warning that demands immediate attention, the Major finds his frantic efforts to report a message of doom blocked by the incredulous earth people he tries to save.

Brand X

The other adaptation of the script was made for as part of a series specialized in science fiction, but strangely, they downplayed the alien encounter in the story.

 Dimension X, April 8, 1950, was part of a science fiction series, so they jazzed things up a bit and moved the story into the future, 1965. Van Woodward produced and Edward King directed Ernest Kinoy's adaptation, which added a few science fiction flourishes, and extra drama, including having the pilot's pregnant wife giving birth to their son while he's missing. The military aspect was downplayed a bit, and the ranks for the two main characters were dropped. The pilot in this version is named Mr. Steve Weston and played by Joseph Julian, and his boss is Mr. Hank Hansen. 

There's no mention of flying saucers; the alien ship is just described as egg-shaped and smooth. Like in the original story, we don't have a scene depicting the alien encounter, and only hear the pilot describe his experience. Hank says, "Steve, this whole thing's been a devil of a strain on you. I'm going to call Major Donaldson from the Army base, ask him to sit in."

Donaldson submits Steve to questioning under "narco-psychometry," saying, "Under proper drugs I can put you back in this, uh, ship - by suggestion. Then we can get a playback record of your memory pattern on the audio circuit... an accurate memory picture of what your mind reports." He has Steve count backwards and the process resembles hypnotic regression.
Steve says the Intergalactic Patrol has outlawed war. Their detector picked up an atomic explosion on Earth, and they've quarantined it. "They've isolated the Earth, 'cause we don't know how to control ourselves yet. Until we learn, we'll be a menace to the whole universe!" Xeglon is not named, and the material from his report is not incorporated. This version adds extra tension of an atomic bomb test scheduled for midnight, which prompts Steve to threaten to blow up the base unless the bomb test is canceled. Hank puts in a frantic call to abort the test, but it was just a ruse on a dead line to pacify Steve. 
The ending is the same, but the destruction of the Earth could be seconds away. Like in the Doar's original, the psychiatrist Donaldson gets the last line, "It's outside my field, but I'm curious. How did he keep that ship in the air for ten hours - with only ten minutes' fuel?
Comments: By removing the report or any mention of Xeglon, there's a stronger shadow of a doubt in the listener whether the alien encounter was real.
A transcript of the radio play by Ernest Kinoy can be found at Generic Radio Workshop Script Library.

(Musical Trivia:  The Theremin is noted for becoming the sound of science fiction in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," but it was being used a year earlier in 1950 "Rocketship X-M," and earlier still by Albert Berman here on the NBC radio show, "Dimension X." )
X-1 (X Minus 1), November 16, 1955 used the Ernest Kinoy script, with Daniel Sutter directing and Steve Weston was again played by Joseph Julian.


Around the same time, the new medium of television was in its infancy, but two teleplay adaptations of the story were also broadcast; on CBS in 1951, and on NBC in 1953:
Donald Davis
Out There was one of the first science fiction TV shows aimed at an adult audience, a half-hour show created by Donald Davis, and its debut episode adapted Doar's story. The teleplay was by Elihu Winer, and it aired on CBS, October 28, 1951. Robert Webber played the pilot, Captain Bill Hurley, and this version includes a scene or two that features the pilot's wife. As with the Escape adaption on radio, the alien encounter was depicted. Commander Xeglon was portrayed by Wesley Addy, who was well versed in classics from Shakespeare and often mistaken for English. With that choice of actor, I'm guessing they went for an imperious tone for Xeglon's warning about Earth's doom from "The Councillors." Sadly, the series only lasted 12 episodes, is not available on video, and not much is known about it.

Robert Montgomery Presents (Your Lucky Strike Theatre) was a popular hour-long live dramatic program featuring original stories and adaptations. "The Outer Limit" adaption was written by Richard Battle and aired on NBC,  January 26, 1953. In this version, the pilot is played by Jackie Cooper and renamed Captain Peter Graves, who serves under Colonel Hank Daggers. The psychiatrist character is named General Klein, but he plays a reduced role in this version.

Reviewer Steven H. Scheuer's "Exciting science fiction yarn given a tinge of authenticity through the testing of a space jet-plane. Lots of technical mumbo-jumbo enhances realistic aspects and suspense."

Jackie Cooper was a real pilot, a Navy Reserve Captain.
Photos from the 1955 film Mister Roberts.
The story is framed with scenes on the observation deck of the RCA building where Peter Graves tells a man and his son his incredible story. "Well, it started when the Air Force picked me to fly their new eight-rocket astro; and my job was to take it up and try to crack the outer limit itself."

Teleplay script excerpts as presented in the 1955 textbook,  Prose and Poetry for Appreciation from the  L.W. Singer Company:

The captain is asked to describes the ship he saw, but is met with disbelief:
SCHILLER.  What was this ship? What did it look like? How was it powered?
PETER.  It was — egg-shaped. Perfectly smooth...
SCHILLER.  Like a — flying saucer?
PETER.  Not — unlike the descriptions we've received of — of — flying saucers.
BALL.  Captain, are you a reader of comic books?
PETER.  No, sir, not regularly.
KLEIN.  Captain, you say these — beings — they put ideas in your head and among those ideas was one concerning the distance they had come? 
PETER.  Yes, sir.

In the show, the extraterrestrial encounter was not directly depicted, we just the the pilot's description of the message they gave:
"PETER.  Atomic power, sir. Atomic bombs — stop making them — and using them. That was the warning. They knew all about atomic power — the utility as well as the danger. They have outlawed the use of atomic energy as bombs and they're on the lookout for explosions. Whenever their detectors pick up a trace of one — they send a patrol. They came here. They found what they were looking for — and they quarantined us.

He describes how the alien's doomsday device for Earth would be activated:
"An envelope, a layer of something — I'm not sure. But it's out there — about a hundred miles out! — and miles thick. It surrounds us and it's there to stay. Whenever an atomic bomb is exploded anywhere on this earth and the mushroom cloud of radioactive particles rises."

In this version the pilot is not believed and is kicked out of the service. Instead of his colonel and the psychiatrist, the closing lines are delivered by the boy and his father who've heard his tale.

PETER.  They discharged me — I don't blame them — what else could they do? I went to the newspapers, and they said I was crazy — nobody would print it. 
BOY.  They said you were crazy, sir? 
PETER.  That's right. Everywhere it was the same story. I went to my Congressman — the United Nations.  Nobody believed me.
JONES.  (laughing). Well— if it happened a few years ago as you say — how come we're still here? 
PETER.  The layer's not full yet. 
JONES.  (smiling). Oh. Well— it sure is a is a good story. 
PETER.  Yes, a good story — and some day I'm hoping somebody will believe it. Before it's too late. 
JONES.  Yes — well, thank the man for the story, Son. It's time to get home for supper. 
BOY.  Thank you — thank you for the story, sir. 
PETER.  Good night, boy. (He leaves.)
BOY.  Was that a true story, Dad? 
JONES.  No, of course not. He just made it up 
BOY.  Well, if it wasn't true what he said happened to him then where was he for those two hours when he didn't have any fuel or oxygen? 
JONES  (puzzled). Oh — somebody— somebody made a mistake, I guess. Yeah — somebody made a mistake.

Comments: Like the Dimension X radio adaptation, this teleplay does not feature the material dealing with Xeglon, and there are no scenes depicting the alien contact. The audience is left wondering about the reality of the pilot's claims, but apparently some viewers found it convincing. According to the IMDb listing, "In the closing, Robert Montgomery notes that they received some phone calls during the telecast asking if this was a true story. He assured the audience that it was complete fiction." Sadly, this episode, too, is not available on video.

This episode of Robert Montgomery Presents was noticed by the US Air Force and mentioned in Project Blue Book's files, in a graph looking a correlation between UFO publicity and sighting reports.

The various broadcast adaptations of "The Outer Limit" were surprisingly faithful to the original story, but differed in a few details and narrative choices. In some versions, the alien scenes were portrayed as a flashback, with actors providing the warning of doom, but in others we get merely the pilot's description of what he claimed happened. In all versions the colonel and psychiatrist think the alien ultimatum is a delusion, but the miraculous return of the pilot and plane suggest that it might all be true.


  1. Interesting post, since it is exposing the feedback link between popular accounts of UFOs in entertainment and subsequent accounts that appear in the UFOlogical literature. Though in this case you have a story that brings together existing threads in the UFOlogical literature, combines them into a single narrative, becomes widely disseminated by a variety of means and then re-emerges into the UFOlogical literature.

    I've not seen anything quite like this since someone alerted me to the existence of a website that had copied (fictional) material written for the Delta Green role playing game (The game itself was inspired in part by the X-Files TV series and 70s/80s UFO Lore.) and was presenting it as evidence of a US Government UFO coverup.

    1. Yes, and it probably stretches further than I've been able to trace, since I'm guessing it was imitated and assimilated so early on that a lot of its influence was 2nd or 3rd-hand. The next part is on ufology, then the last is on science fiction movies, with a rare comic book thrown along the way for good measure.

      I'd not heard about the Delta Green cycle, but ufology is chock full of such instances of the chicken eating the egg.

  2. Is there an online copy of the original short story? I would like to compare it to the radio and TV adaptations.

    I was unaware of the earlier use of theremin. Composer Bernard Hermann helped to popularize the sound in the original "The Day The Earth Stood Still." It became such a cliche that Hermann refused to use it in other movies. He came to hate that "science fiction sound."

    1. I tried posting page images here, but they are too small for me to read, even with a magnifying glass. Maybe you can do something with it.


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