The Outer Limits: S1E12 “The Borderland”

An accident happens at a magnetic research lab, leading to an incredible discovery. The scientists visit an investor who is holding a séance at a dinner party. They debunk the medium’s tricks, then convince the investor that their research is the real key to exploring dimensions beyond our own.

“The Borderland” is an exploration of skepticism to the unknown. The investor wants nothing more than to believe a psychic medium can reach out to his dead son, but has nothing but questions and doubt for investing in a scientific exploration of new properties of magnetism. Meanwhile, the scientists are quick to dismiss the possibility of a psychic medium having any power, but believe without a moment of doubt that their accident is proof that they can unlock alternate dimensions with electromagnets. It’s a great way to set up the conflict of the story.

What is the proof that the scientists have? Their lead researcher shoves his left hand into an active experiment, reversing it to be a second right hand. This is all the proof they need that alternate dimensions can exist. It’s quite a jump of logic that is explained as a clear scientific theory.

What proof do they have that the psychic medium cannot be real? She uses a parlor trick to levitate a napkin through a tablecloth. When the trick is exposed, she explains a clear method to her psychic abilities and believes her deception is necessary to harness enough energy to get clear readings.

This conflict in approaches plays out the entire episode. The story jumps back and forth between the scientists and the psychic, both trying to get their claim of the investor’s money. They exploit both the sympathy of the investor and the ambition of the research lab in the quest to prove which method is the true way to reach out to other dimensions. Whether it’s the afterlife or alternate dimensions, everyone believes they have the exact method to harness the invisible energy that surrounds us to break through new borders.

The scale of “The Borderland” is massive. These laboratory sets are huge. Equipment seems to go on for miles. More researchers join with every scene. It’s a visual metaphor for the experiment in magnetism gaining more support, arguably believers, as the scientists’ tests produce more elaborate results.

The effect of reversing objects by reversing polarity becomes more elaborate each time. The effect is a simple editing gag at first. The actor hides his left hand in his pocket until the double right hands are shown in close up. The next experiment uses some animation over blocks to show something has happened. Then they flip more distinct objects, tracing over the shapes in white and flipping the image as the objects themselves flip onscreen.

The newer members of the team become more convinced in the methods of the experiment even as things go wrong. The core team is not as confident, but their new support staff is ready to keep cranking more power and resources into the tests. They saw it work on a small scale, so they believe it will work to send living beings to another dimension. Any failure is irrelevant to their theory of success.

“The Borderlands” is a clever sci-fi story about skepticism. Its goal is not to make you question the scientific method, but to understand how a hypothesis becomes an actual scientific theory. The parallels to the psychic medium, cut to again and again breaking down the theatricality of the scale of the experiment, define the tension and doubt the scientists may not show if they want their experiment funded. Only when the lab is empty can the scientists discuss their actual concerns, but they’re left with the same dilemma as the medium: prove your method or be cast aside for someone who can.

Up next: S1E13 “Tourist Attraction.”