The Outer Limits: The Zanti Misfits

Prisoners from the planet Zanti are sent to Earth for incarceration, and things do not go well.

I really like this one, despite its ultimate and very Outer Limits message – that humans are not only bad, we're really, really bad. In fact, we're such "practiced executioners" that our lethal behavior is predictable by aliens.

But this episode gets big points for discussing a critical and almost insoluble problem: how does a society deal humanely with its criminals? Rehabilitation, prison, the death penalty, all are imperfect solutions. The Zantis claimed that they were incapable of executing members of their own species. Why? Some sort of biological imperative, since they were also capable of tricking another species into doing it for them?

We expected the Zantis, when they finally showed up, to be monstrous. The surprise was that they were small – like rat-sized ants with human faces. It's really a tribute to how well this show creates tension that we didn't laugh at their appearance – hey, a few cans of Raid, some big shoes, no problem, right? Instead, the story played successfully on our fears of big, hairy bugs, of a horde of insects on the attack. Those huge bugs gave a pretty good account of themselves during that tense battle at the base. The Zanti crawling under a soldier's pants leg was inspired, too. Who hasn't been freaked out by that?

Our lead, Stephen Grave (Michael Tolan) got to be all upright and heroic and a foreign correspondent wannabe, rescuing the damsel in distress and everything. But a young Bruce Dern stole the show as Ben Garth, a human misfit, a bad guy on the lam who very nearly destroyed our world just by crashing the gate to the facility and... being bad. How Ben Garth and the unfortunate Lisa and all that money in the glove box wound up in the middle of nowhere wasn't explained, but it sure enlivened the story. And I absolutely loved how Dern curled up his body like a dead bug after the Zantis killed him.


Lisa (Olive Deering), the unhappy housewife who ran away with Garth, was a discordant note in what was otherwise a terrific episode. She kept whining about her boring life, or wildly gesticulating with fear, or falling in the dirt and sobbing helplessly. Was it a poor performance, or was she simply doing her best with what was written for her? And hey, it was the desert and everyone was sweating, but Lisa was wearing a fur coat. Seriously? I realize it was a character statement, but still.

I don't have much to say about the soldiers, who with the exception of the compassionate General Hart, came across as cold and inhuman. I'm sure that was supposed to demonstrate the point that the Zantis made. During one scene, the soldiers were all standing there motionless and expressionless as they listened to Garth dying, screaming for help. Of course, Garth did just kill one of their own, but still.


The photography in this episode was exceptional, and it wasn't just the stop-motion Zanti bugs. Not only did they give us an old West ghost town called Morgue, complete with tumbleweeds and reminiscent of those fifties monster-bug movies, but they also heavily featured the stark, gorgeous Vasquez Rocks, a site north of Los Angeles used often in filming – most notably in another sixties classic, the original Star Trek.

There was clever prison-bar imagery throughout the episode, too: action scenes shot through the spidery branches of leafless trees, the weirdly inappropriate beaded curtain in the military base's office, the vertical glass panels covered with decorative diamond shapes. And the Zanti ship looked very much like a white cowboy hat. Was that deliberate?


Bits:

— There's a delightful bit of foreshadowing early on when Grave sees a large ant on a wooden post and flicks it away.

— General Hart initially used the word "destroy," but later used the word "destruct" instead. As in "Destruct the ship." It just stood out to me, so I mentioned it.

— Stephen Grave's official title was "Historian of Interplanetary Events." He must have gotten the job because his father was a friend of General Hart's. Nepotism is everywhere.

— At one point, Garth stared at the back of Lisa's head. The way the camera focused on the swath of hair and the barette holding it back made her look alien.

— How did the Zantis kill? Bites? Poison?

— Points for using a computer to translate messages from the Zanti, instead of having the aliens speak English.

— When I lived in Los Angeles, I kept planning to go visit Vasquez Rocks, but never got around to it because it was quite a drive. I always regret that I didn't do it when it pops up on television. Maybe when I get out there to visit someday...

— "The Zanti Misfits" was written by Outer Limits producer Joseph Stefano, who also wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock's Psycho.

Quotes:

Grave: "History has been recorded in some pretty morbid places, Major. But when a historian named Grave finds himself in a ghost town called Morgue..."


General Hart: (discussing the use of automation instead of soldiers) "Of course, computers don't bleed."

Ben Garth: (explaining why he ran down the guard at the gate) "I would never kill a reasonable man."

Excellent episode. Four out of four inappropriate fur coats,

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

1 comment:

percysowner said...

This is one of the episodes from OL that I really remember. The Zanti scared the hell our of me. They were freaky and terrifying. This is a great episode.