A group of military scientists working in a below freezing environment recover a dangerous weapon lost near their base. Earthquakes are expected for the next 24 hours, and the chief engineer has seen something inhuman in the wilderness. Meanwhile, in the secret Human Factor research center, a psychiatrist has developed a technology that allows him to connect electronically with a patient, collect their thoughts and feelings, and read them back in his own mind.
“The Human Factor” is the first body swap sci-fi story in The Outer Limits. This is a trope in sci-fi that often goes hand in hand with a mad scientist character. There is typically a scheme so evil and disturbing that even the mad scientist character is unwilling to do it as themselves. They have to take someone else’s identity to get away with their plan. The narratives deal with unbalanced power structures in society and the perception of guilt.
Here, the engineer is a liability to the base. His superiors want him declared unfit to serve. He’s determined to use nuclear weapons to destroy a mountain near the base. The thing he saw, the alien species, came from the mountain and poses a risk to humanity. He believes everything that’s going wrong on the base is caused by this creature. Destruction is the only option.
The psychiatrist evaluates the engineer. He wants to give a fair chance to the engineer, so he decides it’s the perfect time to put his invention to use. The engineer clearly believes what he’s seen, so the psychiatrist connects their minds so he can experience it as well. Another earthquake causes the device to malfunction, switching their minds. Suddenly, the mad engineer is in the body of the most trusted person on the base.
“The Human Factor” has an excellent set up. The first act is a tense sci-fi story playing with the uncertainty of the mind. Something is wrong, but only the engineer can see it. He believes his plan is the only option and his actions become scarier the more he gets to express everything he’s thinking.
The second act shifts it into a more traditional suspense framework, even with the body swap already in play. The truth isn’t as thrilling as the mechanism of the story. Even the screenplay spins its wheels, repeating similar scenes with little change over and over as they show the engineer adjust to his new life as the psychiatrist. No, someone not drinking coffee is not tense enough to carry a scene if no one onscreen notices something is wrong.
The action picks up again when the psychiatrist’s secretary comes back into the story. She is the original test subject of the invention and the only one to understand that something is not right. Her character is far more fascinating in this story than any potential alien invasion or attempt at nuclear destruction. A romantic interest is not uncommon in a body swap story; a romantic interest who becomes the actual hero of the narrative is.
content warning: gun violence
Up next: S1E09 “Corpus Earthling.” The Outer Limits is streaming for free on The Roku Channel.