It’s the presidential election in the United States. An unspecified East Asian country chooses this as the opportunity to take over America. They have developed technology that will allow them to transform one of their citizens into the presumptive winner of the presidency.
“The Hundred Days of the Dragon” is an intriguing political thriller driven by a sci-fi conceit. This kind of international espionage in plain sight story hit its peak in the late 50s and early 60s. The Manchurian Candidate film debuted the year before to great critical and commercial acclaim. American audiences were open to Cold War-fueled stories of espionage and The Outer Limits was right on trend.
The use of technology in the episode allows for a great transformation sequence. The scientist in the unnamed country walks the Premier step by step through the plans. First, they found a physical duplicate in height, proportion, and weight to the presidential candidate. Then, they explain the procedure. An injection will allow his molecular form to be sculpted or molded for up to two minutes. The scientist pushes the imposter’s features around his face like a clay sculpture. A plaster cast of the candidate’s face is held in place, permanently altering the imposter’s features. It’s a great transformation conceit used well throughout the episode.
Sidney Blackmer takes on the task of playing two versions of presidential candidate William Lyons Selby. The scene where the imposter switches with the real Selby is breathtaking. It’s all done with camera angles and acting. It’s a brief exchange, but one with lasting implications on how the story will be told. Selby looks up; his imposter looks down. This is in his stance, his eyeline, and his emotional outlook.
The episode does use racist devices in its storytelling. Asia is referred to as “The Orient.” While the episode actually has Asian and Asian American actors play Asian characters, Blackmer is directed to squint his eyes when the imposter drops his disguise. Later, he adopts an accent when talking in private with his allies. It’s jarring to watch, but not in the ways they intended in 1963.
The overall story of “The Hundred Days of the Dragon” works. Sci-fi and political espionage go well together. It’s a natural extension of international thrillers. We don’t know what secrets are hidden around the world, so it’s easy to buy into the conceit that another country developed a new technology that can change the world. The execution of the story is the problem here, as the use of racist filmmaking tropes pushes you out of the story at the same rate the candidate’s family and campaign team realize something has happened to him.
content warning: racism, gun violence
Up next: S1E03 “The Architects of Fear.” The Outer Limits is streaming for free on Roku.