An alien spaceship filled with criminals lands on Earth. It arrives with a simple message: if we destroy the ship, the aliens will destroy all of us. The military agrees to protect the ship, but a chance encounter with a bank robber leads to the Zanti misfits breaking out of their prison ship.
“The Zanti Misfits” is a tense episode of The Outer Limits. Sci-fi stories about prisons and other punishments are common in the genre. Far less common are stories about people observing the justice system from the outside. This episode teeters between the two approaches, creating a dark commentary on complicity in extreme judicial punishment. Even the opening narration sets the standard of “Today, on this planet Earth, the criminal is incarcerated in inhumane institutions…..or he is executed. Other planets use other methods.” The soldiers tasked with protecting the alien prison ship become an additional layer of security for a prison without any ability to influence the conditions of the prisoners.
No one is excited about the job. The soldiers apply the technology they have to track and protect the ship, but the dominating reaction is fear. The Zantis do not respond to any attempts at communication except to establish their rules and threaten consequences. This is not conversation but proclamation.
The hero of the episode is a historian specializing in encounters with outer space. Steve is sent in by the government after the United States’ response has already been established. He is far more cautious than anyone else involved in the mission. He views the message as a threat, not an attempt at collaboration, and wants everyone to take appropriate precautions. The Zanti demand protection, but the historian believes our goal should be to protect Earth itself.
“The Zanti Misfits” has a lot to say about the prison-industrial complex and the military. While the soldiers are following orders from the government, those orders put every human life at risk at the expense of maintaining the order of a prison. The Zanti use the same tactic, threatening destruction if anyone interferes with their ship. The historian points out the danger in both tactics, but no questioning of the plan is allowed to stand. The military will use every piece of heavy artillery it has to create a protective border around the newest prison in America and the punishment for interfering is certain death. Meanwhile, not one person questions what these Misfits did that required them to be sentenced to life inside a tiny spaceship on a remote planet.
The bank robber and his girlfriend are a further exploration of these same themes. They’re clearly not in a healthy relationship. They depend on each other to escape justice, but put unreasonable demands on each other to stay together. He threatens her with the legal consequences of going back to her husband, and she threatens him with abandonment in a broken car in the middle of the desert. They will be punished for what they’ve done. They’re already doing a great job mentally torturing each other for their crimes; the only other options are death or capture.
“The Zanti Misfits” is a darkly serious tale even when the Zanti species is revealed. The tension just grows in every scene until the final twist is revealed. It’s a masterful narrative of suspense and criticism.
content warning: emotionally abusive relationship (no violence)
Up next: S1E15 “The Mice”