Quarlo is a foot soldier trained from birth to fight for the government. His only purpose in life is to kill the enemy. His enemy and him are hit with laser beams mid-combat and enter a spinning portal. When they emerge, it is 1964. The two soldiers were battling in the distant future of Earth.
“Soldier” is the first episode of the second season of The Outer Limits. It already feels like a different show. The cast is bigger and the production elements looks more expensive. Everything from props to costumes to sets is on a grander scale.
The other big changes are subject and genre. Season two stepped away from the bear–the monster of the week. Aliens and murderers may appear, but they’re not an essential element of the show. Instead, we’re dealing with cinematic sci-fi shot for television.
“Soldier” has some fascinating ideas mixed together into one story. We’re used to the supersoldier concept now, but there is something very different about a society that trains children to fight to the death from birth. The implication is fighters free of any emotions or thoughts of their own. This is instantly disproven when Quarlo panics upon arriving in 1964. It’s confirmed with the clear fear shown when he’s locked in a padded room with a gun pointed at him. He only knows how to interact with the world as a soldier but there’s more going on than his training would explain.
The episode focuses a lot on the evolution of language and communication. Quarlo is speaking while being held by the government, but no one can understand him. A philologist is brought in to figure out what he’s trying to say. He instantly recognizes the language as some dialect of English, but struggles to piece it together. We know that Quarlo’s from the future because of the opening narration, but that’s a mystery to the people trying to understand the man with the laser gun and a suit of armor.
Quarlo’s enemy combatant is stuck in time, trapped between his present and the distant past. His orders to “find the enemy” and “kill” are screaming over and over through his helmet. Where Quarlo is met with the patience of the philologist, his enemy is tormented for failing his orders. The helmet, the method used by these warring armies to control their soldiers, is the difference between being a human and a human weapon.
“Soldier” arguably had more of an impact on pop culture than any other episode of The Outer Limits. This is the Harlan Ellison screenplay, adapted from his short story “Soldier from Tomorrow,” that led to the lawsuit against The Terminator. The similarities between “Soldier” and Terminator led to a settlement for an undisclosed amount of money and future home video releases of Terminator having the credit “Acknowledgement to the Works of Harlan Ellison.” The ideas explored in Ellison’s story, Ellison’s screenplay, and in James Cameron’s The Terminator are still novel enough that we see their fingerprints on similar sci-fi texts decades later.
“Soldier” is a great piece of science fiction. Some of the language used related to linguistics is incredibly outdated, but its use in the story is still fascinating. This is an action/sci-fi story about war that hits the pause button for 30 minutes to explore the evolution of language and the nature of humanity.
content warning: gun violence, smoking
The Outer Limits is streaming for free on The Roku Channel.
Up Next: S2E02 “Cold Hands, Warm Heart.”