Sci-fi cards of the past, present, and...
By Kurt Kuersteiner (© 2003 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine
This season may be cold outside, but inside, sci-fi fans have two hot new sets to collect from Rittenhouse. One is for the 1990s version of Outer Limits, and the other is for the 1960s sci-fi shows of Irwin Allen .
The Outer Limits: Sex, Cyborgs and Science Fiction has been out several months. I was too busy with other projects to acquire it until recently. I'm glad I finally did! It's a well executed set and profiles 16 episodes from the show. Like the Outer Limits of the 1960s, the remake was also an anthology series. This means each episode tells a completely different story with a completely different cast. The writers have one hour to make the audience care about their characters, reveal a new sci-fi or horror concept, and then pull the rug out from underneath viewers with a twist ending. The new series had even more twist endings than its predecessor. Many of them were very downbeat. It was a refreshing change for a tv landscape infested with laugh-track sitcoms and insipid reality programs.
Some of the best plots can be seen on The Outer Limits. One episode featured a teleportation device. People could "beam" across the universe, just like in Star Trek. But it was a little different. A duplicate being was reconstructed on the other planet and the original was destroyed back on Earth. It's the only way to "balance the equation." Needless to say, a real dilemma erupts when one transfer is aborted because the duplicate isn't confirmed. The original traveler wakes up and waits to find out if she exists somewhere else and has to be killed. I won't reveal the ending, except to say that if you love happy endings, you probably hated Outer Limits!
The series also had one of the best premiers of any sci-fi series (called The Sand Kings). It was also unusual in that it was a two-part story about ant-like creatures found on Mars and sneaked back to Earth without telling the general population. (We wouldn't want to scare anyone, would we?) Of course, the creatures are kept in a very controlled environment that no insect could escape. But what if the bugs had brains and could think? Heh-heh-heh...
The Outer Limits body count was one of the highest on TV. Being produced for the pay cable channel made the series even more daring. You just never knew what to expect. Sure, there were plenty of stinkers too. Like the 1960s version, about a third of the stories were duds, a third were average, and a third were FANTASTIC! It's that exceptional 1/3rd that made your spine tingle whenever you heard the famous control voice say, "There is nothing wrong with your television set..."
You can guess the basic Rittenhouse breakdown of this set. It's similar to most of their other products. There's 81 episode summery cards, a 9 card opening narration set, an 18 card character set, and an impressive collection of autograph cards. They include signitures from Hal Holbrook, Alan Thicke, Rebecca Demornay, Brent Spiner, Michael Ironside, Margot Kidder, Natasha Henstridge. And get this: There's three autographs per 40 pack box. Not bad.
The preview set of The Fantasy World of Irwin Allen is available now and the set is due out in February. Irwin Allen sci-fi shows were the opposite of Outer Limits in almost every respect. They were predictable, tame, and camp. Many of their plots bordered on the absurd-- and so did several of their characters! But that's also what made some of their shows so appealing. Like the matinee series of yesteryear, they were innocent fun! But each of these programs deserves special attention.
Irwin Allen was the first producer to have a different program on every network at the same time. His string of success began in 1964 with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It was a spin off from the movie starring Walter Pidgeon (which Irwin directed). The TV series replaced Pidgeon with a less expensive Richard Basehart. Irwin also saved money on the props. The miniature subs and interior sets were all reused from the movie as well. (The various models cost the movie $200K to build. That was big bucks back then.) Irwin added David Hedison to the crew (of The Fly fame.) The first season was shot in black and white and featured spies and lots of natural disasters. The next three seasons were shot in color, and the conflicts became more colorful as well. Monsters, mutants, robots, time travelers, even evil leprechauns and killer clowns! Hey, the sea is a big, BIG place!
How was the acting? Well, bland, which is rather remarkable given the outrageous situations the cast was placed in. Imagine how difficult it must have been keeping a straight face while looking down the gun barrel of a killer clown. Did it have bullets? Or a flag with "BANG!" printed on it? The regulars bit their tongues and played it straight. No doubt Basehart's Shakespearean acting experience deserves ample credit.
My favorite part was how the Seaview (the atomic submarine and real star of the show) would ward off giant monsters. If a huge squid gripped her, the engineer would take a wrench and short out the batteries to the hull. It was never enough power to hurt the man holding the wrench, but it always dislodged the giant menace. (Never mind that sea water grounds electricity.)
Lost in Space was next in 1965. It started with a rather serious science fiction premise: Launch the Swiss family Robinsons into space, then make them lost. The first season was black and white and took itself pretty seriously. The next two seasons were color, progressively sillier, and they STILL took themselves seriously. Doctor Smith began as an evil saboteur, but wound up becoming a clown. This isn't to say I didn't like him. I LOVED him. But let's face it-- who could be scared of someone that inept?
When I was a kid, I used to go to bed at night wishing I was Will Robinson. How cool it must be to have your very own robot and live on a spaceship. As an adult, I now realize how stupid that dream was. The person to be was Major West. He was the only available bachelor of a crew with two cute chicks and the entire galaxy to colonize. Oh sure, there was Dr. Smith, but that guy was celibate at best. I mean seriously, he turned his nose up at The Girl from the Green Dimension. He had to be nuts (or w/out).
The Time Tunnel was next. First aired in 1966, this was Irwin's only sci-fi series not to become a commercial hit. It's also the only one that didn't generate a Topps card set. Ironically, it was my favorite of the bunch, probably because it was the most serious sci-fi concept. The government develops a teleportation tunnel to allow researchers to go back and forth in time. Eager to prove it works for a visiting Senator, Dr. Tony Newman (James Darren) jumps into the device. He materializes aboard the deck of the Titanic a few days into its fateful voyage. He discovers the device can't retrieve him. He tries to warn the captain about the upcoming iceberg, but is tossed into the brig. Scientist Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert) travels back with a newspaper about the tragedy to stop the shipwreck. But the future seems resistant to change. The captain ignores the warning. The ship sinks and our two heroes are teleported to a new time and location. And so it went every week.
One neat aspect of this show is the closure. (Well, sorta.) Unlike other sci-fi shows, The Time Tunnel made an official last episode. The scientists never make it home. Instead, they return to the deck of the Titanic, leaving the impression that the entire series continues in a loop. Ewww... Ahhh...
Land of the Giants began in 1968. The story followed the exploits of the passengers and crew of the Spintdrift, a subordital craft that tries to fly to London in the distant future (1983). The craft encounters an electrical storm and enters a strange white cloud. When they crash land, they discover everything is 12 times its normal size. Cats, snakes, and rodents are suddenly dangerous. The giant humans are the biggest menace. Although they speak English, the government is totalitarian and out to capture them.
The special effects saved this show. They spent $250K per episode to create giant pencils, hands, tweezers, etc. It must have been difficult for Irwin to part with that money. He was notoriously cheap and recycled nearly everything. Whenever a monster appeared in one series, it always seemed to reappear in another. Irwin also borrowed costumes from other shows as well, including Twilight Zone, Batman and Star Trek.
The series ended in 1970, and not a moment too soon. If "the little people" had to rescue that stupid little dog one more time, I would have called long distance and turned them into Kobick myself. But alas, all of Irwin's creations were off the air by then. An age of innocence had come to a close. It was an ignominious end to a golden era.
The Rittenhouse 9 card preview set looks colorful and clear. It's limited to 999 sets, but rather pricey. The regular series is limited to 6,000 boxes. The plan is to include 2 autograph cards per box. Too bad Jonathan Harris wasn't arround to sign. (Oh the pain, the pain!) If you're a big Irwin fan, you'll want to dive, launch, time travel or fly to get these little dandies when they arrive in a couple of months.
Although gone, Irwin's campy classics are not forgotten. We remember you Irwin, whatever dimension you're in!
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