The crew of the space station Adonis are tasked with preparing future space missions for any surprises they might encounter thousands of miles from Earth. They find a strange barnacle-like organism growing on the side of the ship. When exposed to light and air inside the space station, the space barnacles grow into flowers. These flowers have a deadly secret that puts the entire mission and all of humanity in danger.
“Specimen: Unknown” does quite a few things different from the rest of the series so far. The episode features slow motion sequences. The cold open introducing the monster of the week is much longer than usual. Even the Control Voice speech is long, giving out dates for timeline references. If you haven’t guessed it yet, the first cut of the episode was too short to broadcast. The creative team went back in to film a longer prologue and speech, slow down footage for the slow motion effect, and even add in additional establishing shots of the spaceship and other settings before most scenes.
This is still one of the most ambitious episodes of The Outer Limits. The scale of the practical effects in quantity and function is impressive. The bear of the episode is the space barnacles species and they look great. They are animated through stop motion to grow from the barnacle to the beautiful flowers. Some are even active props able to shoot out theatrical haze or physical spore particles the actors can interact with.
The set and costumes look great, as well. The cast members wear a number of spacesuit accessories as they work in and around the space station. Their very tall boots for outer space research slow them down just enough to denote shifts in gravity. It’s all a trick of layering. The taller boot platforms clip onto the costume, the same as the resource packs on their backs, gloves, or helmets. This all makes the base jumpsuits seem like a wider variety of costumes.
The episode also uses a different studio than usual for the spaceship interiors, which makes it possible to have repainted card catalogues look like stacks of computer equipment when mixed with the recognizable buttons and levers of their sci-fi computer stock. There’s even an interactive space shuttle exterior used for a key travel scene. Everything still looks great decades later.
Perhaps the most rewarding choice in the episode is the use of Hitchcock-style suspense. We know from the first scene that these space barnacles are deadly to humans. So does the first victim who tries to save the mission by throwing the plants into the airlock before his death. No one else on the space station or on Earth can prove it. For them, it’s a medical mystery to determine the cause of death; for us, the plants are an explosive we’ve seen hidden in plain sight, ready to go off and bring total chaos and destruction at any moment. No amount of forced slow-motion or gratuitous use of establishing shots can cut back on the tension created by this storytelling technique.
content warning: animal dead body
Up next: S1E23 “Second Chance.”