The Outer Limits: The 15 best episodes of the original series, ranked

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Jun 18, 2017, 6:48 PM EDT (Updated)

Now that we've gotten the fantastic and long-overdue news that The Outer Limits is coming to Blu-ray, it's time to pick our favorite episodes.

Rod Serling, creator and main writer of that other great 1960s anthology series The Twilight Zone, once said (and I'm paraphrasing) that about a third of that show's roughly 150 episodes were "pretty damn good," while another third were "passable" and the rest were "dogs."

The original The Outer Limits had a far shorter lifespan (just a season and a half from 1963 to 1965) and generated only 49 episodes, but we used Serling's formula to pick a little less than the third of the series that we thought were -- well, not just "pretty damn good," but perhaps some of the greatest sci-fi ever created for TV. And while these may be the best, a lot of the remaining 33 are terrific as well.

The Outer Limits, at its peak, was one of the most unique shows on the small screen: Created by Leslie Stevens but produced during its superior first year by Joseph Stefano, the show told sci-fi stories through a lens of Gothic horror, using surreal imagery and stark, even Expressionist cinematography to create an eerie mood and look. When it worked -- as it did so well in the 15 episodes below -- it was like nothing TV viewers had seen before.

I can't wait to see this show in remastered form on Blu-ray, and while we wait for that moment (Season 1 arrives later this year), prepare yourself with this guide to our favorite episodes. "There is nothing wrong with your television set ..."


"The Galaxy Being" (written and directed by Leslie Stevens)

The Outer Limits' pilot episode (originally titled "Please Stand By") established the template for the greatness to come with its quirky characters, unusual setting (a lonely radio station) and what was called in the series bible the "bear" -- the bizarre entity or monster that Stefano required for each show and was often revealed to be benevolent or misunderstood. Cliff Robertson played the station's owner, who accidentally locks onto a transmission from an alien being while researching cosmic background radiation. When the alien is pulled into the beam and arrives on Earth, all hell breaks loose. After a slow start, the episode picks up steam, while the being itself is a striking creation. A compelling and promising start to the series.


"Wolf 359" (written by Seeleg Lester and Richard Landau, directed by Laslo Benedek)

Sadly, The Outer Limits' brief second season (produced by Ben Brady after Stefano left) turned away from the first year's eclectic style and as a result did not yield nearly as many memorable episodes. This was one of the exceptions, in which Patrick O'Neal plays a scientist who has recreated an entire planet from the Wolf 359 star system in miniature in a lab. As the planet evolves at a sped-up rate, it generates a malevolent life form that threatens to break into our world. Season 2's budgetary restrictions are visible here (especially in the handpuppet monster) but the ideas are fascinating and the story has a drive that was missing from a lot of the second year's more listless segments.


"The Inheritors" (written by Seeleg Lester and Sam Neuman, directed by James Goldstone)

The Outer Limits' only two-parter, this outstanding second season offering follows Robert Duvall as a U.S. government agent who is trying to find out why four soldiers, who have nothing in common except that they were all shot in the head while serving in the Korean War, have suddenly developed vast IQs and are all working on a secret project. The late Steve Inhat (who appeared in the Star Trek episode "Whom Gods Destroy" as Garth of Izar) is excellent as the steely yet empathetic leader of the soldiers. The ultimate purpose of their mission is surprising and moving, adding a poetic ending to a gripping sci-fi procedural.


"The Forms of Things Unknown" (written by Joseph Stefano, directed by Gerd Oswald)

One of the last episodes produced by Stefano, this was actually aired by ABC at the end of the first season because it was so damn strange (it was also a backdoor pilot for a series that Stefano wanted to do, called The Unknown, and man would we have liked to see that show). The story: two women murder the sadistic blackmailer they've been forced to travel with. Looking for a place to dump the body, they stumble upon a brooding mansion where an inventor (David McCallum) is working on a device that can "tilt time" -- and which he uses to bring the dead man back to life. Although the unaired pilot version provided a rational explanation for the tale's events, the broadcast version didn't -- and it's remarkable that avant-garde filmmaking like this could make its way onto network TV in 1964.


"A Feasibility Study" (written by Joseph Stefano, directed by Byron Haskin)

An entire neighborhood is suddenly transported to the planet Luminos, where the inhabitants -- who are suffering from a hideous disease that literally turns them into living statues -- want to study whether humankind can be made into slave labor. When the residents of the neighborhood discover that they can contract the disease themselves merely by contact with the Luminoids, they elect to defiantly die together rather than give into the aliens' plans. ABC was so unsettled by the ending of this chilling but poignant tale -- essentially a scene of mass suicide -- that even though it was shot fairly early in the first season, it was broadcast 29th out of 32 episodes.


"Soldier" (written by Harlan Ellison, directed by Gerd Oswald)

One of the best episodes of the second season (it was the premiere, in fact) and one of two written by sci-fi legend Harlan Ellison, "Soldier" was also the episode that Ellison claimed James Cameron plagiarized when he wrote The Terminator (the legal battle ended with Ellison getting a credit on later prints of the movie). Michael Ansara (Klingon commander Kang in the original Star Trek episode "Day of the Dove") plays Qarlo, a soldier from 1,000 years in the future who is hurled into our time by an energy weapon on the battlefield. As he struggles to communicate with a linguist (Lloyd Nolan), his enemy -- temporarily trapped in the time matrix -- edges closer to following him into the present. Crisply written and performed, fast-paced and thrilling, "Soldier" set a standard that Season 2 rarely lived up to.


"The Architects of Fear" (written by Meyer Dolinsky, directed by Byron Haskin)

Actor Robert Culp managed to star in three of The Outer Limits' finest shows (one we'll get to later, while another called "Corpus Earthling" just missed this list), with his first appearance coming in this early classic. With nuclear war almost imminent, a group of scientists secretly decide to turn one of their own into a facsimile of an alien being -- the idea being that the nations of the world will unite against the extraterrestrial menace rather than destroy each other. Dr. Allen Leighton (Culp) is chosen and must undergo a grotesque series of operations, while his pregnant wife is informed that he is dead. Of course the plan goes awry and the episode comes to a bleak, bitter conclusion. Sure, the final version of the monster has clearly not aged well and probably even looked silly in 1963, but Culp is excellent and haunting throughout and the episode packs a profound thematic punch.


"Don't Open 'Til Doomsday" (written by Joseph Stefano, directed by Gerd Oswald)

One of Stefano's weirdest episodes ever is a tale of psychosexual obsession and alien abduction. In 1929, a pair of newlyweds receive a mysterious box on their wedding night with the cryptic message "Don't open 'til doomsday." Inside the box is an alien from another dimension that absorbs the husband into its lair. Some 35 years later, his bride -- now aged and insane -- lures another young couple to her house in order to trade one groom for another. But the price the alien demands may be too much for anyone to bear. Wildly imaginative from start to finish, with a genuinely disturbing performance from Miriam Hopkins as the crazed Mrs. Kry, this is a perfect example of The Outer Limits at its most bizarre.


"The Sixth Finger" (written by Ellis St. Joseph, directed by James Goldstone)

One of the series' most memorable and iconic "bears" stars in this episode in the shape of David McCallum (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), playing a Welsh miner who agrees to be the subject of a local scientist's experiments on evolution. The scientist speeds up the evolutionary timetable for the miner by thousands of years, turning him into a superbeing whose intellect and capabilities far surpass our own. McCallum is outstanding as the disgruntled miner, who soon sees humanity as little more than insects and behaves accordingly. A powerful and provocative episode.


"It Crawled Out of the Woodwork" (written by Joseph Stefano, directed by Gerd Oswald)

The combination of Stefano's writing and Gerd Oswald's moody direction yielded some of the finest and weirdest episodes of The Outer Limits, such as this one. At a research lab in southern California, a scientist has inadvertently created a life form comprised of pure energy. Finding a way to control it, he uses it to frighten his staff to death -- then revives them with pacemakers that will short-circuit and kill them again if he unleashes the creature on them. Despite its nod toward hard science, this is almost pure horror, with the laboratory shot to look like a haunted castle, Oswald employing all kinds of weird angles and shock cuts and rationality itself going out the window as the energy being manifests itself. You'll never look at a vacuum cleaner the same way again.


"The Bellero Shield" (written by Joseph Stefano and Lou Morheim, directed by John Brahm)

Martin Landau stars as a humble scientist named Richard Bellero who accidentally draws a peaceful alien being (John Hoyt) into his lab via a powerful laser he's fired into space. Considered a failure by his ruthless father (Batman's Neil Hamilton) and his own ambitious wife Judith (Sally Kellerman in a performance for the ages), Bellero is caught between the two of them as they plot to use a device the alien possesses -- an impenetrable force field -- as a means to advance the Bellero company beyond their wildest dreams. The Outer Limits reached for Shakespearean heights of drama with this loose retelling of Macbeth, and just about got there. A nearly flawless 50 minutes of classic science fiction television.


"The Invisibles" (written by Joseph Stefano, directed by Gerd Oswald)

Stefano and Oswald strike again, this time with their own take on the well-worn alien possession narrative of such sci-fi classics as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Puppet Masters. Don Gordon (The Exorcist III) plays Luis Spain, a government agent who infiltrates a secret organization called the Invisibles and gets much more than he bargained for. The aliens are rudimentary but the actors work hard to make the terror of the situation seem real, and the episode builds up a truly claustrophobic atmosphere of paranoia and dread, leading to a haunting conclusion.


"Nightmare" (written by Joseph Stefano, directed by John Erman)

War and its unintended effects are the subject of this powerful morality play, in which a small group of Earth soldiers are captured by the enemy Ebonites and subjected to psychological and physical torment. But all is not what it seems and the truth behind the Ebonites' actions is even more horrifying. Almost an experimental theatre piece (it's set largely on a sparsely decorated soundstage), "Nightmare" gets some intense performances out of its cast (including a young Martin Sheen) and builds to a sobering and fatalistic finale.


"The Zanti Misfits" (written by Joseph Stefano, directed by Leonard Horn)

The Outer Limits delivered one of its most brutal indictments of human nature in this classic episode, which features one of the show's most iconic and creepy menaces. The planet Zanti demands that Earth provide a penal colony for its criminals or else face destruction, but when the Zanti misfits -- grotesque ant-like creatures with eerie human faces -- arrive, it's just a matter of time before there's a confrontation and they are destroyed. The Zanti government's response ends this episode on one of the show's darkest notes. Even with the primitive effects, the Zantis are an unsettling presence and the show features several memorable sequences, including the final pitched battle between the humans and the Zantis. A gripping, suspenseful episode from start to finish.


"Demon with a Glass Hand" (written by Harlan Ellison, directed by Byron Haskin)

Every TV series has its signature episode, and this is the one that is cited by just about every fan as The Outer Limits' masterpiece. Robert Culp plays Trent, a man with no memories who is being pursued by aliens from the future that want to kill him. The only way he can learn what they want -- and what his purpose is -- is to find and restore three missing fingers from his left hand, which is not a hand at all but a speaking computer made of glass. Trent's quest leads him to shattering revelations about not just himself but the fate of the human race. Brilliantly directed by Byron Haskin (the original War of the Worlds), penned with precision and scope by Ellison and even featuring perhaps the best score of the entire series, "Demon" is regarded as not just the greatest episode of The Outer Limits but one of sci-fi's finest televised hours. Most of the episode was shot in the Bradbury Building, the same location used for the final scenes of Blade Runner, adding to its exalted place in genre history.