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Pushing the 'Outer Limits' : SHOWTIME'S ANTHOLOGY OFFERS MORE THAN 40 NEW MORALITY TALES

March 26, 1995|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling all that you see and hear. You are about to participate in a great adventure ...

--The Control Voice

"The Outer Limits" is back. With a vengeance.

Though the original '60s science-fiction anthology series created by Leslie Stevens aired only 16 months on ABC, it has developed a cult status over the past three decades, thanks to syndication and home video.

The series boasted interesting, frightening morality tales penned by such sci-fi greats as Harlan Ellison and was a good showcase for such up-and-coming actors as Bruce Dern, David McCallum, Martin Sheen, Martin Landau, Dabney Coleman and Robert Culp. "The Outer Limits" also quickly gripped its audience with the eerie "Control Voice" who warned viewers the series was taking control of the TV.

Showtime is now bringing the show's legions of fans a new, updated and, they hope, scarier version of the series. Twenty-one episodes are scheduled to air this season with an additional 22 next year. The series also will air in syndication six months after the Showtime run.

The "Outer Limits" premieres Sunday with the two-hour thriller "Sandkings," starring Beau, Lloyd and Dylan Bridges, Helen Shaver and some particularly nasty-looking scorpions. MGM Worldwide Television Group, Trilogy Entertainment Group and Atlantis Films are the producers; Trilogy founders Pen Densham, Richard B. Lewis and John K. Watson ("Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves") are the executive producers.

Jerry Offsay, Showtime's head of programming, loved the original series. "I was completely creeped out by that voice that said it was taking over my television set," he recalls. "I remember being bolted by fear not to move."

"The Outer Limits" found a home at Showtime because MGM, which produced the original series, supplies feature films to both Showtime and The Movie Channel. "At the time we were making our deal to get into business with them, they were restarting their TV operation as well," Offsay says. "They had the idea of wanting to make 'The Outer Limits' and they thought it was the kind of thing that would work very well for us."

Anthology series such as CBS' short-lived revival of "The Twilight Zone" and Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories" haven't fared well on network TV. Showtime, though, has had great success with its erotic anthology series "Red Shoe Diaries."

Offsay believes cable can succeed with anthologies because "we can make it in the way that networks couldn't make it. You have to figure out who your audience is. The audience is people who like a scare. Possibly some of the reasons these things haven't worked on the network is the audience has an expectation built-up in seeing theatrical movies, which can go quite a bit further than television.

"The people who are fans of this kind of material sit down to watch it on (network) television and it's tepid compared to what they get in the theatrical feature," says Offsay. "What we can do on premium television is the uncensored, edgier, sexier version of it and deliver basically everything they can see in a movie. If it is too strong for you, that will be OK for us. It's intended for people who are fans of this genre of material."

Executive producer Densham believes "whoever is shooting film should see the screen as a magic mirror. You should take the audience somewhere and it should either be into great emotions or landscapes that they can't see except for your vision, or it should have some sense of escape, so that your audience is going into places where they can't go in their normal daily journey."

"The Outer Limits," Densham says, accomplished that in a film noir fashion, whereas Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone" did it by using more fantasy and humor. " 'The Outer Limits' as an anthology show was scary, but it was provocative about human issues. It always has values. I say to my (writers), 'Don't lecture.' "

The original series has endured because of its strong stories, Densham says. "These people did not cheese out on the stories. They made sure the stories had emotions to them. It wasn't just a guy in a crab suit running around. That comes from hiring talented writers."

For the new series, "We have been trying to work with either stories by science-fiction maestros, like George R.R. Martin who did the underlying story for 'Sandkings.' We also have stories in development with some of the younger new writers who perhaps the science-fiction community is familiar with. Because it's an anthology, we can go to talent and match the talent to the caliber of the material."

Densham acknowledges that anthologies are risky. "Every week no stories are the same, no actors are the same," he says. "We don't have an easy path of an ongoing character. We have to make sure that the stories are so strong."

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