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The Outer Limits: Nightmare

The military carries out an experiment on six astronauts, and things do not go well.

Like a lot of classic science fiction, the message behind "Nightmare" is that humanity isn't very good, and we probably never will be.
During the episode, we were strongly reminded of the evils of racism, the devastation of the Holocaust, and the worst of what happened in POW camps. While all of the characters kept making references to staying human, Colonel Stone, the leader of the six astronauts, argued that the only laws they had were the ones they brought with them. But that was to justify drawing "straws" to kill one of their own that they only suspected of giving the enemy information under torture.

The fact that the aliens weren't acting alone was revealed almost immediately, when we saw two human military leader types behind the Ebonite Interrogator in the one-way glass. Why did the United Earth military do this? Because of the recorded poor performance of POWs during the Korean War? Because there was no interstellar war now, but there inevitably would be someday? Our own military tortured their own for no reason. And that was the so-called "Nightmare."

I liked the look of the Ebonites, the demonic claws, the bat wings. (Although I do have to take away points for the tights; were they deliberately going for a Batman sort of look?) And the staging of this episode was fascinating: the smooth, empty floor going off into the distance with nothing on the horizon, the blank interrogation room with no ceiling, the abstract wreckage that basically gave the actors a backdrop as opposed to shelter. "Nightmare" felt like a play on an empty stage where the goal was to make the actors turn on each other, which they obligingly did. And it was the alien Ebonites that eventually called a halt to the "immoral and inhuman experimentation," making them more humane than the humans. They had cooperated because they were trying to make up for their "mistake;" turns out that the grief and loss they caused when they attacked our planet was accidental.

There is something exceedingly disturbing about the idea of being tortured by aliens. Why is that? Because aliens might not understand how human beings are constructed? Because they might think of us as insects to be carelessly crushed beneath their tentacles, or as food for their table? And indeed, the torture that the Ebonites carried out on the astronauts wasn't what humans would do to other humans. It was all about our five senses. Dix's voice was removed. Willowmore lost his sight. Everyone saw hallucinations intended to manipulate them. Interestingly, Krug, the German who confessed that he'd turned in his Jewish grandfather to the Nazis when he was a child, had a heart attack and died, and the Ebonites promptly removed his heart. (Why?) Jong had the bones in his arm pulverized; you'd think that would have been agonizing, although Jong took it in stride and simply kept his arm immobilized by putting his hand in his pocket.

This episode had an amazing cast, I'll give them that. I thought the early scene where they were giving their name, rank and serial number while facing the camera was a perfectly written way to familiarize the viewer with each character:

1. Colonel Luke Stone (Ed Nelson), the leader of the captured astronauts, fell asleep while being interrogated. Who would fall asleep while being interrogated? Was he drugged? He later confessed that he'd almost married the "most beautiful woman in the world" but decided against it when she denigrated his career choice. Jong suggested that Stone was unnatural because he preferred the military to marriage. A heart of stone?

2. Captain Terrence Ralph Brookman (David Frankham) seemed to be all about one particular sense out of the five — taste. When he talked with the general in the interrogation room, the general said oddly that he tasted tears, he tasted guilt. The general also referred to Pavlovian training. At one point, Terry told the general, "My father's heart is already broken, and my mother's is unbreakable."

3. Which is interesting when you consider what happened to Lieutenant Esra Krug (Sasha Harden), the German who died of a heart attack, and whose body was used to freak out…

4. Lieutenant James P. Willowmore (Bill Gunn), who gave the best performance in the episode when he described the horrifying way that the Ebonites returned his sight:

"They said my blindness spoiled their fun. They said, would I like to have my eyes back, and I said yes, yes, yes. And they said, would I be willing to look at Lieutenant Krug's body, uh, his corpse. And I wanted to see so bad I said I'd look at anything, and I said yes! and I lost it (sobs). He had no heart! He had a big hole in his chest! They took his heart out!"

Martin Sheen, Bill Gunn

5. And then there was Private Arthur Dix, played by Martin Sheen at the beginning of his long and exceptional acting career. Dix was a mama's boy who undoubtedly confessed everything to his vision of her right at the beginning, when the Ebonites gave him his voice back. In fact, I think it was strongly implied that all six of the astronauts gave up the critical information. Except…

6. It was only Major Jong (James Shigeta) for whom they were about to draw straws (or in this case, rags) and kill. Yes, the Ebonite was the one who suggested that Jong had given up the critical intelligence, but Jong was arguably the one that suffered the most under the Ebonite torture and it felt like he was a deliberate victim of racism. His inscrutable-ish character also felt stereotypical. Interesting that they did this with the Asian character instead of the African American. Was the victimization of the Japanese character as well as the German character a bit of a holdover from World War II?

As a Trekkie, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that there's an episode of original Star Trek entitled "The Empath" that is very like "Nightmare." It features aliens conducting the pointless torture of human astronauts against an unreal blank backdrop. Coincidentally, or probably not, a guy named John Erman directed both episodes. I wonder how much of what we saw was his interpretation, since the writers were not the same?

Bits and pieces:

— The effects were pretty decent. The ship that the astronauts were on was seen only briefly. (Was it the same ship we saw in "The Man Who Was Never Born"?) Later, the newly arriving ship was only lights in the sky.

— I liked that the Ebonite was holding a translation device in his hands. It made sense.

— The United Earth force was international: United States, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, "Free Africa," and the cast was diverse, very nice. No women, though.

— Although... colonel, major, captain, two lieutenants, and one private? I've never served in the military, but that troop composition seemed weird to me.

— How far in the future was this? Krug had been a child during World War II, so I assume, not very much.

— James Shigeta appeared in another Outer Limits episode, "The Inheritors." Although for me, he will live forever as Nakatomi in Die Hard.

— Willard Sage (Chief of Staff) was in the other Outer Limits episodes, "Production and Decay of Strange Particles" and "Tourist Attraction." He also played one of the torturing aliens in "The Empath." (Maybe he knew the director.)

— Ben Wright (General Benton) was in three other Outer Limits episodes: "Moonstone," "A Feasibility Study" and "Wolf 359."

— David Frankham (Brookman) was also in "Don't Open Till Doomsday," and played Larry Marvick in the Star Trek episode "Is There in Truth No Beauty?"

-- Whit Bissell (Commanding General) was Lurry in the original Trek episode, "The Trouble with Tribbles."

— Joseph Stefano wrote this episode along with several others. Including my favorite Outer Limits episode, "A Feasibility Study."

— John Anderson played the Ebonite interrogator. I would have known his face if it hadn't been concealed under that mask.


There were some strange and interesting lines in this episode, so my quotes section is a bit bigger than usual.

Narrator: "Ebon. Its form of life, unknown. Its way of life, unpredictable. To the fighting troops of Earth, a black question mark at the end of a dark, forboding journey."
Black, dark, yes, we get it.

Ebonite: "Tell us true things."

Ebonite: "Your name, your rank, your serial number are useful only to those earthly relatives who will apply for your insurance."
How would aliens know about insurance? Is it a universal concept?

Jong: "It seems to me that a totally different form of life would have developed a totally different form of death. Death here will truly be a mysterious adventure."

Stone: "Krug is dead. They say he went mad. They do not permit madness on the planet Ebon. They destroy the mad."

Dix: (about the animal-feed-like trough of water) "Do we have to put our hands in it, Colonel?"

Willowmore: "Promises just roll off my back."

Jong: "At the moment, I was laughing because I felt sudden confidence. Confidence tickles."

Jong: (while being tortured) "Oh my friend grasshopper, will you play caretaker again to my little grave?"
This is a classic Japanese Haiku.

Jong: "The dead make such lovely scapegoats."

Jong: "I regret that I have but one arm to give to my planet, but I will give it."

A strange and fascinating episode. Would that make it four out of four grasshoppers?

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with the similarities with Trek's The Empath, but I felt a very strong connection to The Cage as well. The ability to control the minds of the men, but taken to extremes (using the methods of The Cage, the Ebonites would have simply made Willowmore THINK Krug's heart had been removed).


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