A large tape reel plays in a laboratory, black and white

The Outer Limits: S1E31 “The Chameleon”

The Outer Limits is streaming for free on The Roku Channel.

An alien spaceship lands on earth. A US military patrol is wiped out while trying to investigate. Now it’s up to Mace, a CIA agent, to save the planet. He’s genetically modified to pass for an alien, but begins to lose his humanity when he arrives at the ship.

“The Chameleon” is a spy thriller episode of The Outer Limits. The episode slowly builds to Mace’s transformation into one of the aliens, with the lingering promise that he could return to his human form if the mission is successful. There’s a drastic contrast between the opening fight scene we get to see and the only footage the government has of the aliens realizing they’re being observed. It’s the greatest source of tension in the episode.

The impetus for this drastic action is the threat of nuclear destruction. The government analyzes the ship and believes that it contains nuclear material. If the aliens retaliate again, the ship could explode with enough force to be the largest nuclear attack we’ve ever seen. The aliens are considered armed and dangerous, and the only way to stop them is to infiltrate and destroy from the inside.

This is an attempt to stop destruction by any means necessary. If the aliens are destroyed, they can’t detonate their weapon or explode their ship. Then they can safely contain the biggest threat. Once Mace enters the ship, the conflict becomes a question of morality. Is it okay to kill a small group of people to prevent the threat of more casualties? What if that group aims for peace unless attacked?

The alien design is compelling. These creatures have large round eyes in the middle of the face, creating a sort-of twisted baby doll look. They almost look like cartoons, with oversized eyes, tiny mouths, and foreheads wrinkled with worry. We know from the cold open they can kill, but their appearance and behavior makes it seem unlikely. It’s another The Outer Limits episode where the creature isn’t necessarily the monster and the alien design helps create that doubt.

The theory of the transformation is fascinating. Scientists are playing with two levels of technology here. The first is the ability to analyze and record the entire genetic makeup of any creature onto a tape reel. Mace is shown a reel that contains all the data that makes him who he is. He’s then injected with the genetic material of one of the aliens. This is programmed to create the transformation by playing the alien’s reel directly into Mace’s body. This is purely speculative on the process of the writers, but it’s so well presented in the episode that it feels real.

“The Chameleon” is one of the really thought out episodes of the series. No detail is too small to address in the screenplay. The result is a deep exploration of perspective, expectations, and morality. Is the potential access to dangerous material justification for destroying seemingly peaceful lives? The episode doesn’t make it easy to take a side.

Up next: S1E32 “The Forms of Things Unknown”