The Outer Limits: Nightmare

For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to – 

"The best of its kind ever made for television." - Stephen King.
Tonight's excursion:

Season One, Episode Ten.
I discovered this site in my internet wanderings and if there are any Outer Limits fans out there who haven't seen it, you're in for a treat. Very good stuff. And if there are any readers who have never seen the show, you're in for two treats: the pleasure of seeing it, and then the pleasure of making your way through that site afterwards. It's a damn odd show, but if you're a fan of any mid-20th-century sci-fi, The Outer Limits is, as Sai King describes above, a mansion with many windows.

Anyway, that The Fashion of Dreaming site has a great review of "Nightmare," and I'll be quoting sections of it throughout this post. Starting with: 

This well-known episode is typical of the series: an embarrassment of riches in virtually every sense, it offers such a feast of ideas and achievements that any attempt at a complete breakdown would result in just that. 

While the delineation of motif, structure, and technical aspects (a useful method of analysis) can take on a rote "verse-chorus-verse" predictability that bleeds attention from something truly masterful, reducing focus to a few stand-out elements seems a pale response in the face of such abundance—never moreso than with "Nightmare."

Okay, that sentence isn't all that easy on the eyes, but"Nightmare" is a great example of something that loses something in translation. The Outer Limits in general is like this. It's difficult to convey a true sense of the show from reading a plot summary or seeing a clip. The best episodes employ the Iceberg Theory to great effect; the worst are awkwardly fascinating. "Nightmare" is one of the best. Each character has a developed backstory and psychological profile, and the above-board story is provocative and surreal.

Spoilers ahead.
The voiceover after the credits immerses you immediately in the deep end.
"In this war between Unifed Earth and the planet Ebon, Ebon struck first. (...) 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, foreboding journey."

I wouldn't blame you for thinking a race-relations sort of metaphor was being set up here - white panic or something, particularly with the name of the planet, the procession of adjectives (dark, foreboding, black) above, and era in which it was produced - but "Nightmare" isn't limited to ethnocentric anxiety; its madness (and its message) goes much further.

Among other things, we are asked: can anything be learned from systematized violence and deception? What remains when duty and patriotism are necessarily cast aside? (...) "Nightmare" raises political doubt, but it is more a sociological reckoning than a pre-Watergate lesson in mistrust. It is, as well, true to its title—coercion, guilt, capitulation, and the gut-aching power of fear are prominent here, as they are in the sweaty thrashings of adult bad dreams.

The shot above is a bit of unexplained foreshadowing - it's only on-screen for a second or so. Fairly daring in its trusting the audience to catch it and remember for later. 

Once the Unified Earth crew is captured, they are told they will each be interrogated. 

Martin Sheen plays the guy (Dicks) who flips out almost immediately.

His interrogation includes some really well-done stuff with his mother. The 50s and 60s have so much of this kind of lack-of-a-better-term Freudian angst:

even better because of all the nuclear panic / Korean War Brainwashing (something explicitly commented on by the characters in this story) going on in the background.
Of course, she's not really there.
The process of informing on your fellow prisoners and grappling with your inner demons - all under the eye of this strange being with a retro Hurt Box - drives everyone crazy in their own ways. Not so much from their places of origin on Unified Earth but from their own personal (and well-sketched) experiences.

Each member of the crew finds and discusses his breaking point.

The first fatality is the German character, whose trauma-overload death spins out of the auditory hallucination the Ebonites provide for him: "You turned in your grandfather / he forgave you." 

As mentioned above, the experience of United Nations POWs in the Korean War is explicitly mentioned by a few of the characters. Especially Major Wong:

Portrayed by James Shigeta.
Perhaps best-known as Joseph Takagi in Die Hard.
 In an episode with Martin Sheen freaking out and that Ebon interrogator guy, it's impressive that his performance is equally memorable.
Shigeta, the episode's acting stand-out (...) makes Wong a subversive of the heart—he recites poetry, a crime unto itself to the militaristic minds controlling the harsh experiment; he's the logical one to be marked for death, given the counter-logic of the situation. 

As it became more widely known, the notion of Chinese "brainwashing" on captured UN forces understandably haunted the American imagination of the early 60s. It was completely different than previous POW experiences. And although military analysts say very few soldiers were actually effectively brainwashed, somewhere around 38% of POWs "psychologically surrendered." The echo of such experiences informs everything we see here. It's rare to see the matter dealt with so imaginatively and without resorting to dramatic shortcuts.

There are some great lines throughout the episode ("The only laws we have here are the laws we brought with us" and "'Your name, your rank' are only useful to those who will apply for your insurance" come to mind) and they all speak to the themes in play, but it's the revelation at episode's end that elevates the proceedings to Closet of Mystery status. 

The reader will recall this somewhat creepy image noted above.
The Ebonite attack on Earth was a mistake. To try and make amends, Ebon agreed to participate in a Unified Earth capture and interrogation procedure to test its troops' preparedness for interstellar conflict.

Ebon struck first, perhaps, but Stefano suggests that fragile and defensive Earth, too predictably, struck worse.

All too unfortunately pertinent to life in 21st century America.

Of course, it's just a nightmare, albeit one cooked up in a military space lab with bona-fide extraterrestrials. The powers that be would never exploit a tragic mistake to enable further violence and torture and murder its own people... right? Surely the idea that the government of "Unified Earth" would wield its subjects as blunt, disposable instruments pursuant to its own covert agenda is just science fiction.

The ending voiceover offers scant consolation (abridged:)

"The exploration of human behavior under simulated conditions of stress is a commonplace component of the machinery called war. These unreal games must be played, and there are only real men to play them. The results of these maneuvers will be recorded in books and fed into computers for the edification and enlightenment of all the strategists of the future."

Sheesh. Not the kind of outro that leaves you whistling your way back to your car. But a story true to its title and a great example of The Outer Limits at its best: uncompromising, urgent, and unselfconscious sci-fi.  

"We now return control of your television set to you."
The TV Tomb of Mystery is an ongoing catalog of one man's attempt to stave off  acquisition of any more impulse-buy DVDs until he can take better inventory of the ones already in his possession.

"Nightmare" was

(also the producer / Gene Coon of the show) and

Here's something fun: John Erman later directed "The Empath" (ST: TOS s3) where Kirk, Spock, and McCoy spend most of the episode on a minimalist set, tormented by aliens. 


  1. I'm going to skip reading this, because I have every intention of watching the entire series at some point in the not-too-distant future, and want to keep myself unspoiled.

    It's a mark of shame upon my house and my head that I have never watched the show. Of the various classic series I'm not very familiar with, this and "The Twilight Zone" share the top spot on the list of mistakes I intend to remedy.

    Whenever that happens, I'll come back here and give the post a read!

  2. I've watched both season of the original series and I have to say. It's a shame it never gets the recognition it deserves, and always has to live in the Twilight Zone's shadow.

    Don't get me wrong, the Zone is classic, however the original Limits still has a lot going for it, and this episode showcases a lot of it's strengths.

    It's interesting you mention Freud, as according to "The Outer Limits Companion" by David J. Schow, Joe Stefano (Psycho) was by his own admission undergoing therapy at the time (for what, he doesn't say). However I think it's that neurotic vibe that runs through even the most "flabby" episodes (King's words) that still give them a strange, weird power.

    I think the main reason Zone and Limits still pack a punch is because, like Breaking Bad today, the shows pretty much "live" off of the cultural fears going on at the time (if that even makes any sense), and this somehow lead to the strangest scenarios ever seen on genre television.


    1. That's a good point about living off the cultural fears of its (and BB's off its) time. Makes total sense to me.

      You know, you just reminded me - I totally meant to review the Danse Macabre sections on Outer Limits for this post and completely forgot. I started this before the arrival of baby #2 and finished it in more or less a REM-sleep-less haze, so I'm amazed it makes any sense at all - thankfully, most of the legwork was done before heading to the hospital. But totally dropped the ball on reviewing Danse Macabre.

      Next one I do from TOL, tho, I definitely will.