The Outer Limits: S1E20 “The Bellero Shield”

A scientist has invented a powerful laser that can reach outer space. His entire operation is in danger of being shut down as his father believes there is no practical or profitable application for the laser. His wife causes an alien to ride the laser back to Earth. She fires a smaller laser at it, revealing an unexpected defensive property to the laser. This is the story of the accidental invention of Bellero Shield and all the destruction it causes.

“The Bellero Shield” is a tense first contact story adapted from a story by Arthur Leo Zagat, a prolific pulp sci-fi author with over 500 stories published in the 1930s and 40s. The pulp noir influence is inescapable. This episode is filled with inky black shadows, curious camera angles, and characters barely emerging into the light as they reveal their ideas and desires.

The enduring legacy of “The Bellero Shield” is one you might not expect. This is often credited as the first visual representation of the gray alien. One of the monsters in the episode is an alien species of little grey men: short, bald, and with large wraparound black eyes. The episode even aired shortly before the Betty and Barney Hill abduction story was first reported to Betty’s hypnotherapist. While she claimed to not know what The Outer Limits was, her description of her captors matched the aliens of “The Bellero Shield.”

The other monster of the episode is the wife. Sally Kellerman’s Judith is often interpreted as a modern adaptation of Lady Macbeth. She is driven by an overbearing sense of ambition to advance her husband’s career at any cost. This ultimately leads to her falling into madness over her obsession with the shield and its potential power. The Macbeth allusion doesn’t line up perfectly as Martin Landau’s Richard is nothing like Macbeth, but the dialogue-heavy episode driven by passion, ambition, and violence feels quite dramatic in its presentation.

Rounding out the small ensemble cast are Chita Rivera as housekeeper Mrs. Dame and Neil Hamilton as Richard’s father Richard Sr. This cast is phenomenal. They are all working together as a unit to tell this high-stakes story about first contact and it works. The acting style works so well because the dialogue is driven by human conflict over the discovery, not the discovery itself for most of the episode. This is a power struggle between humans fighting for ownership of an idea. Replace the alien with any potentially world-changing invention and the interpretation would work the same.

I do think the Shakespeare influence is there, but I think it’s not as direct as you would imagine. This is a mix of Shakespearean characters thrown into the same narrative. Judith is a Lady Macbeth and Mrs. Dame is an Emilia from Othello, a woman who knows everyone’s secrets and is skilled at setting up others with a word or a gift. The two women work together to take power in a situation the rest of the world would never allow them to have. Richard Sr. is a King Claudius from Hamlet, stealing control of his son’s success while insisting he is the rightful owner of it all. Poor Richard himself is a Richard the Second, a man with the potential to have all the power in the world who allows everyone to step all over him until he could never have power on his own again.

Where does this leave the alien? He does speak and show his own powers and desires, but they are pushed aside for everyone else’s gain. Shakespeare’s work is filled with fascinating characters who don’t get to be the hero of their own story beyond inciting events. The alien is an Ariel in The Tempest, a Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet, or even a Mechanical in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The story could not exist without him, but his own role in the story is to set up key elements of the conflict.

“The Bellero Shield” is another example of how free the production of The Outer Limits really was. Even more than The Twilight Zone, every episode tells a wildly different story in content, tone, and style. A tragedy can exist in the same series as spy thrillers, psychological horrors, and cautionary tales of power and politics. The only rules to The Outer Limits were tell a sci-fi story and include a monster. Everything else was limitless possibility.

Up next: S1E21 “The Children of Spider County.”