A genetic researcher has developed a machine that allows him to speed up the genes responsible for evolution. A young woman volunteers for the chance to become smarter, but she isn’t fit for the experiment. Her boyfriend is a match and is evolved 10000 years into the future in mere moments. The first tell that he’s changed is the development of a small sixth finger on each hand. Soon his intellect, mind reading, and telepathy present themselves. The force of evolution cannot be stopped or controlled, only studied.
“The Sixth Finger” is wild. Everything in the episode is an amalgamation of popular theories of how humankind will evolve in the distant future. This is The Outer Limits going into hard sci-fi territory, and it was not without controversy. The screenplay alone forced the censor at ABC to demand cuts to specific mentions of Darwinism and the role of evolution in the development of humankind.
However, it appears screenwriter Ellis St. Joseph expected that kind of backlash from the start; it’s built into the script. The setting is a small mining town in Wales, filled with citizens who are terrified of change. They mock anyone who tries to grow beyond the culture of mining and self-sufficiency. The citizens even warn each other to stay away from the professor from London doing experiments in his mansion on the outskirts of town. Everything taken away by the censors only adds to the realization that denying the potential advancements of science or evolution doesn’t mean they aren’t real.
It goes so much deeper than that. There’s an undercurrent of classism and privilege in the story. The test subject, Gwyllm, is all too eager to grow beyond the limitations put on him in a coal mining town. He’s smarter and more empathetic than his coworkers, which leads to ridicule in his daily life. The professor is hesitant to hire Gwylim because he is not trained in any of the technology or knowledge necessary to work in the lab. Instead, he uses the all too eager miner as a lab animal for his experimentation.
The moral core of the episode is the young woman, Cathy. Her interest in the Professor’s research comes from a desire to be treated better by her family and friends. They constantly call her stupid and worthless for simple mistakes in her life. She’s willing to face the risks of whatever is happening in the Professor’s lab for the chance to grow as smart as a chimpanzee that’s been evolved to serve as an office assistant. Cathy is the one to push Gwyllm to apply for the research assistant position and fights for him to be taken seriously.
That’s when the Professor uses Gwyllm as a lab rat. The experiment is a success, but with unexpected costs. Unlocking the genes that have the potential to evolve humankind so quickly forces evolution to move at an exponential rate. In a matter of hours, Gwyllm can use his mind to get whatever he wants. He can control the people around him and stop anyone from harming him. The Professor wants to evolve humankind to a place where we inherently understand the value of peace, but discovers soon enough that survival, not peace, is the driving force of evolution.
The special effects work on the episode is excellent. Gwyllm’s evolved forms are a series of exaggerated human proportions. His sixth fingers start as little nubs on the side of each hand and quickly grow to be full size fingers. His head grows larger scene by scene, suggesting the ever-growing size and power of his brain. The skull reshapes, creating almost armor-like structures around the nose and eyes for further protection. Most fascinating for me is the slow disappearance of hair from the top of the head. Gwyllm’s hairline falls further and further back until there is no hair left, changing to finer and finer textures as the need for hair as protection for the head lessens over time.
“The Sixth Finger” is a silly title for an excellent piece of science fiction. The changes demanded by censors actually strengthen the overall narrative, creating a story of potential evolution that can only suggest the what ifs of scientific theory. This creates a far more suspenseful story. We know that is happening to a point, but are ultimately as removed from the true nature of the experiments as the townspeople whispering about the mad scientist’s experiments.
Up next: S1E06 “The Man Who Was Never Born.” The Outer Limits is streaming for free on The Roku Channel.