A man is panicked, wandering the darkened streets alone. We hear his inner monologue. His memory has been erased, so as far as he knows, he came into being as a fully grown man 10 days ago. He removes a glove to reveal a high tech hand made of clear material. The hand tells him to destroy the gold medallions around his pursuers’ necks and stay alive at any cost.
“Demon with a Glass Hand” is possibly my favorite episode of The Outer Limits. This is the second episode Harlan Ellison wrote and one of the most acclaimed in the entire series. Ellison won a Writers Guild of America Award for the screenplay. It’s easy to see why. The episode effortlessly blends voiceover narration with action and is built on a clever mystery. This is a sci-fi/spy/thriller that immediately connects its protagonist with Gilgamesh in the opening narration.
Trent, the man with the glass hand, is introduced right after the Control Voice discusses the history of stories about men who cannot die. After his first fight, we learn that Trent will be the last man alive in 1000 years. His pursuers, the Kyben, believe killing him in the present and stealing his glass hand will save humanity. The hand tells Trent his only chance at survival is to destroy the time travelling mirror the Kyben use to pursue him in the present. Trent knows nothing about where he came from, but something gives him the ability to last another 1000 years and still be a threat to the Kyben.
The design on the episode is simple and effective. The Kyben look like humans, but have darkened eyes and wear tight fitting stocking caps on their heads. They are only able to exist in the present with the use of the gold medallions hanging around their necks. Only two can travel at a time, but destroying one instantly lets the next one arrive.
Meanwhile, Trent looks like a normal human except for his hand. It’s covered in a dark glove for most of the episode. When it does come out, it’s missing fingers. The hand, a separate voiceover narration, mentions it is not complete and therefore not at full power. It still sparks to life with some flashes of light and can guide Trent through most of the plan.
What’s so brilliant about “Demon with a Glass Hand” is the perspective. If this was a novel, it would be a third person limited text. We only know what Trent knows about the situation. He is our unreliable narrator but not by choice. Whatever stole his memories doesn’t want anyone to know what Trent knows about his past and his potential abilities, Trent included. The Kyben clearly have answers, but it’s hard to trust them when their only intention is to kill the man we have to follow through the story. It’s a rewarding choice that fills the episode with great suspense and wonderful twists.
Lead actor Robert Culp believed “Demon with a Glass Hand” was one of the greatest episode of TV ever written. I can’t say I disagree. Ellison wrote this episode to showcase what Culp can do as an actor, allowing for an incredibly deep morality play to ground a fantastical piece of time travelling science fiction into something far more open, approachable, and memorable.
content warning: gun violence, violence against women (discussed)
Up next: S2E06: “Cry of Silence.”