Friday, June 24, 2011

The Outer Limits: Was "Wolf 359" Stolen From Sci-Fi?

Reading a book the other day, I observed the author's take on an episode of The Outer Limits, "Wolf 359" (original telecast November 7, 1964), claiming it featured a premise stolen from a 1956 television episode of Science Fiction Theatre, titled "Living Lights." While I agree that years after this episode aired, The Outer Limits would feature a premise not too different from the 1956 production., I would like to clarify what is an apparent mis-conception: they were two separate original stories that (by coincidence) happened to contain a similar premise.

"Wolf 359" on The Outer Limits
The Outer Limits episode concerned a scientist’s efforts to speed the evolution of an alien culture under glass. Working on behalf of corporate interests, scientist Jonathan Meridith creates a miniature version of a remote planet in his laboratory. When a mysterious life form evolves along with the developing experiment, Meridith must weigh the value of his experiment versus the possible dangers. The Outer Limits version was based on an original story treatment by Richard Landau titled “Greenhouse.” I would also like to add that this same idea had been explored through numerous other science-fiction stories, including Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God,” originally published in the April 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

Since fans of The Outer Limits are no doubt familiar with "Wolf 359," it seems fitting that we explore the Science Fiction Theatre episode, "Living Lights," with more clarity. The plot concerns young college instructor Bob Lurie and his wife Grace, who steal a number of supplies from the college laboratories to create a synthesized atmosphere of the planet Venus in a bell jar. Their homemade science project was designed in the hopes of proving that living organisms can adapt themselves to such a hostile environment, as he grows a small crop of lichens in the bell jar. To his surprise late one evening, a ball of light appears in the jar. It moves about, consumes the lichen as though feeding on them, causing chemical changes in the atmosphere of the jar which seems to help the lichens grow. When the living light leaves the bell jar and travels around the lab, Bob realizes it is alive. This theory is confirmed with surprising repercussions in which mankind and all living inhabitants of the Earth are endangered. Bob and Grace call for the assistance of friends to help. Soon after the threat is discovered, the living lights decide to eliminate their existence before they can be studied. 

Science Fiction Theatre, for the benefit of those who never saw an episode of the television program, was produced by Ivan Tors, the same man responsible for such classics as Riders to the Stars (1954) and television's Sea Hunt. ZIV-TV, the same company responsible for Highway Patrol, Bat Masterson and Meet Corliss Archer, syndicated the program across the country from 1955 to 1959, on various stations coast-to-coast. The series placed a strong emphasis on science and little emphasis on fiction. This might be the reason why the series is considered by fans as one of the top ten science-fiction series ever produced for the boob tube. Today, the series is best remembered among fans of trivial pursuit as being referenced by Marty McFly's father in the 1985 classic, Back to the Future

Joan Sinclair panics in "The Living Lights"
“The stories retain an appealing human touch,” reviewed a critic for TV Guide. “For example, when a ship from outer space, trying to visit the Earth, is destroyed just short of its goal, is our Army elated at thus escaping a potential menace? Not at all. The authorities regret losing an opportunity to learn from an obviously superior species of life. This particular story dealt with extra-sensory perception. Others have told of a search for a new artificial foodstuff, a visit by residents of a future world, mankind’s first flight into outer space. The films, featuring well-known Hollywood actors, are well acted, directed and produced.” 

Further details about this particular Science Fiction Theatre episode are contained below for your amusement.

Episode #56 “LIVING LIGHTS”
Production #1056 / 56B
Dates of Production: May 25 and 28, 1956
Directed by Herbert L. Strock

First draft by Ellis Marcus, circa April 25, 1956
Final draft by Ellis Marcus, May 14, 1956
Teleplay by Ellis Marcus, based on separate short stories by Ellis Marcus and Ivan Tors.

Darlene Albert (Elaine Foster, $200); Michael Garth (Charles Irwin, $80); Skip Homeier (Bob Lurie, $1,000); Jason Johnson (Prof. Adams, $200); Joan Sinclair (Grace Lurie, $200); and Robert Weston (Doctor Bane, $80). The talent fees (what the actors were paid) are listed respectfully for each actor.

1ST ASST. CAMERAMAN: Jim Bell (un-credited)
1ST CO. GRIP: Carl Miksch (un-credited)
2ND ASST. DIRECTOR: Jay Sandrich (un-credited)
2ND CO. GRIP: Mel Bledsoe (un-credited)
ASST. PROP MAN: Ygnacio Speulveda (un-credited)
AUDIO SUPERVISOR: Quinn Martin (yes, that's the Quinn Martin!)
BEST BOY: Charles Stockwell (un-credited)
BOOM MAN: Elmer Haglund (un-credited)
CONSTRUCTION CHIEF: Archie Hall (un-credited)
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY: Monroe Askins and Curt Fetters
ELECTRICIANS: Charles Hanger, Mike Hudson and Glen Knight (all un-credited)
FILM EDITOR: Duncan Mansfield, a.c.e.
GAFFER: Al Ronso (un-credited)
MAKE-UP ARTIST: George Gray (un-credited)
RECORDER: Lloyd Hanks (un-credited)
SCRIPT SUPERVISOR: Jeanne Lippman (MAY 28) and Larry Lund (MAY 25)
SET DECORATOR: Bruce MacDonald
SET DESIGNER: Robert Kinoshita
SET LABOR: Bill Bentham (un-credited)
SOUND EDITOR: Sidney Sutherland
SOUND MIXER: Garry Harris
SPECIAL EFFECTS: Harry Redmond, Jr.
STILL MAN: Charles Rhodes (MAY 28, un-credited)
WARDROBE: Alfred Berke (un-credited)

-- The stock footage of the college is the same featured in the episode “Who is This Man?”
-- The entire episode was filmed on Stage 5 at the studio.
-- On the afternoon of April 6, 1956, Ellis Marcus had a story conference with Ivan Tors and after working out the details of the story, agreed to change the title to “The Living Lights” and Marcus was assigned to do the teleplay based on the two original story outlines.
-- The female assisting Truman Bradley in the beginning of this episode is actress Bek Nelson, making her screen debut. Her credits immediately following this production included television commercials and background walk-ins until she appeared in an acting role in 1957 on Tales of the Texas Rangers. Afterwards, she appeared in supporting roles for dozens of television programs and would later play the recurring role of Dru Lemp on Lawman and Phyllis Sloan on television’s Peyton Place.

Herbert L. Strock directs an episode.
The August 8, 1956 issue of Variety reviewed this episode:
         “In the vicinity of Cal Tech this series must be avidly devoured. Surely where more beer is sold, on the East Side (not the brand of the sponsoring brew), they’d flee these excursions into biochemistry like a fallen meteor. Patently inspired by what narrator Truman Bradley called the ‘Lubbock Lights,’ which apparently created some stir among Texans and headline writers, this episode concerns a ball of light which breaks out of its glassed-in-confinement to befuddle the scientists and almost blind a girl student with its ultra violet intensity. What it proved is for more scholarly minds than those unscientifically inclined. Bradley did open his thesis on some such explanatory note as ‘The earth is the only place suitable for life’ and epilogged that ‘it’s a step forward into the unknown.’ The atmosphere of Venus is more like our own, the viewer is told, so it must be assumed that planet will receive the first caller from this could sod of ours. Skip Homeier, for a change, is cast in a sympathetic role and plays the experimenting young scientist as if he had come out of MIT. Joan Sinclair and Darlene Albert act their way through the esoteric fog with agreeable pretense, and the male supporters snap to their assigned auxiliaries. Ivan Tors and Herbert Strock knew what they were doing as producer-director team or so the impression prevailed. Narrator Bradley’s voice sounds much like that of KRCA’s top newscaster, Jack Latham.”

Reprinted below, for your review, are the two plot summaries that formed the basis of this Science Fiction Theatre episode. They are reprinted word for word, including any errors in grammar and typos you might observe.

DATED: APRIL 6, 1956
Professor Arthur B. Lurie, astrophysics department of State University, has been devoting every moment of his spare time to his pet side interest . . . forms of life which exist on Earth without oxygen, light, etc. These include sea creatures which exist in the depths of the oceans. It has occurred to Lurie that these crystalline forms of life exist under conditions of temperature, pressure and lack of breathable atmosphere similar to those found on other planets. He compares their chemical components with chemical data obtained by spectroscope from Venus and discovers marked similarities. In a large bell jar he synthesizes the atmosphere of Venus complete with temperature and pressure conditions and introduces the deep-sea crystalline forms of primitive life into the bell jar. After a time he observes a strange glow in the bell jar. This glow behaves in a very odd way—it moves out of the bell jar, consumes leaves from a planet, floats around the lab. It generates a small amount of heat, which fluctuates arbitrarily from ten to ninety degrees centigrade. Periodically it returns to the ball jar and seems to “feed” on the atmosphere and chemicals there.

POSSIBLE PLOT LINE: Lurie calls in a colleague to show this Venusian beast, but the beast has disappeared. Later it returns to the lab and the bell jar to “feed” but to Lurie’s astonishment it brings three other fellow light blobs with it. Investigation reveals these light blobs came from the sea. Lurie’s original beast somehow propagated them there. There is a threat that these beasts will multiply uncontrolled on Earth.

Danger — they create a gas which is part of Venus’s atmosphere and which is poisonous to animal life on Earth. Lurie and colleague are in a sweat. They finally trap all beasts by placing the bell jar in a large, light absorbent box. The beasts go in there to feed and Lurie closes the box on them. Days later when the box is opened the beasts are gone. The atmosphere in the bell jar has been consumed and the black velvet lining of the box is encrusted with chemical deposits which turn out to be the “remains” of the beasts. Their light energy was “sucked” out of them. Now that he is able to control the light blobs, Lurie sets out to create and study more of them. He has proved that forms of life, not dependant on oxygen, can exist on other planets.

DATED: APRIL 2, 1956

         A young scientist refuses to believe that life can exist only in the presence of oxygen. He observes how life can exist under the most difficult conditions, like 30,000 feet under the sea. Crystals are life forms which do not require oxygen.
         He creates, in a bell jar, conditions which are identical to the surface of the planet Venus, by filling the jar with gases exactly like those which compose the atmosphere of that planet. After a period of waiting, new life forms appear. These are globes of light. Whether they can think is the question our story will tell.

Excerpts and material above was reprinted from the Science Fiction Theatre book, due for publication this November from Bear Manor Media.