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A group of research scientists are conducting experiments on subatomic particles. They’re fully within a lead research lab working with radioactive material. One by one, the scientists who interact with this experiment become overtaken by it, their suits filled with the sparking energy of the reactor.
“Production and Decay of Strange Particles” is the closest The Outer Limits gets to hard sci-fi. This episode is about new developments in nuclear research, including neutrinos, anti-matter, and the first fictional reference to quasi-stellar objects. The opening narration is even all about sub-atomic physics, calling out different areas of research. This was cutting edge knowledge at the time.
This is used to build a lot of tension. There are the researchers who have been exposed to some new form of radioactivity from an experiment gone wrong in the reactor. Then there are the people analyzing and financing the research who are trying to keep up with all the new discoveries. The victims of the accident aren’t able to describe what happens as they are taken over by the energy now contained within their suits. The scientists have to work together to find a solution to a problem they created through research they haven’t begun to understand.
The monster of the week is essentially a chain reaction. The first scientist effected freezes in place, his research tools attached to the substance. The next scientist goes in to rescue him, then also gets trapped by the same force. Their suits fill with a glowing cloud of smoke and electricity that matches the experiment. Then they gain enough energy to leave the lab and begin to infect the other scientists with contact.
“Production and Decay of Strange Particles” does not underplay the danger of radiation. It actually leans into it for horror. The facility plans to evacuate if the experiment cannot be contained. The head researchers try to talk the scientists out of entering the reactor again because of the radiation levels. One unfortunate victim who isn’t fully taken over describes what he saw while covered in burns and losing his vision. The scientists want to believe the talk of the energy-possessed scientists is delirium, but the witnesses who were attacked confirm all of it is real.
The science element here is used for the unknown. The episode aired in 1964, and the study writer/director Leslie Stevens borrowed the title from, “Cloud-Chamber Study of the Production and Decay of Strange Particles,” was published in 1956. It even leans into the strangeness property of particle physics, dealing with decay and electromagnetism. The setting of a horror/sci-fi story about radioactive particles possessing scientists to spread their influence is literally set in a laboratory researching strangeness.
The episode shifts further and further into science fiction territory as it goes on. Any of the harder sci-fi episodes of The Outer Limits eventually declare the real culprit is aliens. “Production and Decay of Strange Particles” just lives in the world of physics longer than most episodes do.
content warning: gore
Up next: S1E31 “The Chameleon.”