We’ve reached the halfway point in our review series of the first season of The Outer Limits. This week is the first time I get to grapple with an episode I’ve seen before. “Controlled Experiment” sees two Martians disguised as aliens investigate a murder in real time with a device that can fast forward and rewind recent history. Read the full review at The Avocado.
An alien species decides it’s going to investigate a phenomenon that can only be observed on Earth: murder. They travel down to earth with a device that can rewind time so they can study a murder about to happen as a result of a love triangle.
“Controlled Experiment” is the first episode of The Outer Limits I remember watching before. The image of two men who are really aliens scrubbing through a murder scene with a control console is etched in my memory. It’s a concept that became more popular in indie video games willing to take a risk with narrative structure. I actually think I saw this episode previously while working on a review of DontNod’s Remember Me, a game where your character can scrub through the timeline of memories for observation and manipulation.
“Controlled Experiment” is one of the episodes of the series designed to make you question the monster concept. The two Martians are non-human characters who want to conduct experiments on human beings. However, the humans they’re experimenting on are horrible people. They lie, cheat, and ultimately destroy each other in a fit of passion just because they can. It’s not an uncommon angle in science fiction, but it’s handled well with the novelty of the story structure.
The episode starts with the murder rewound onscreen as the aliens hover over the console. They’re trying to find the exact moment when the crime becomes inevitable. The story actually starts with the one alien’s cover operation. He’s running a pawn shop that lets him observe humans in more desperate situations. Another alien arrives on Earth specifically for the murder study. Until that is revealed, you watch two aliens experience life on Earth. The new alien tries a cigarette and a cup of coffee for the first time just to see how the “caffeine-nicotine cycle” actually works. It’s a great way to establish that they’re not quite human even if they look like they are.
The ambition of the episode becomes clear once it reaches the murder site. There are a lot of moving pieces in play. The murder will happen in a hotel lobby. The two Martians hide behind a large plant with their console. There’s a receptionist, a bellhop, and other guests in the lobby that are not involved in the crime. A woman anxiously waits by the door, opening and closing her purse. The elevator is on one side of the lobby and the front door is on the other.
The aliens know that a murder will happen because of probability analysis conducted on Mars, but they don’t know who is actually involved. Their device can scan and send thoughts to give them more data as they wait for the exact moment of the crime. They can’t interfere with the murder without ruining the experiment protocols, but they can rewind and fast forward as much as they need to for the data they want to observe.
“Controlled Experiment” is about the structure of the experiment, not the narrative being told. The Martians want to understand murder, but the crime itself is done in an instant, especially if a gun is involved. They gather more details as they relive the experiment over and over again but they struggle to understand what could actually cause murder. The structure is the plot as the plot is analyzing the structure of a crime.
There’s more going on with this episode. It’s quite similar to horror stories where an unwitting writer can control the specific narrative but not the circumstances that led to that narrative coming to life. It’s a frustrating story about the illusion of power and influence without an easy answer.
content warning: gun violence, smoking
Up next: S1E17 “Don’t Open Till Doomsday.”