In the far distant future of 2021, two astronauts lead a mission to Mars. One by one, they exit the spaceship, scream, and lose transmission with Earth. Three years later, four new astronauts complete the second mission to Mars to find out what happened to the first.
“The Invisible Enemy” is a sci-fi story of misplaced expectations. We see just enough of Mars’ sandy surface to get an understanding of what the astronauts experience. Then the story cuts back to Earth and we’re left with the audio record of what happens on the planet. It’s a great technique to build a lot of suspense at the start. The focus of the episode shifts to whoever is in control of the communications, so not seeing what causes the first astronaut’s panicked screams makes sense.
Writer Jerry Sohl adapts his own short story “The Invisible Enemy” for the episode. That’s an even grander sci-fi story of a fifty person mission to a newly discovered planet orbiting a distant star. The team is tasked with investigating a slew of missing spaceships previously sent to explore the planet. Not even a forcefield can protect those unlucky astronauts sent to explore the surface of the planet. Exiting the ship is a sure death sentence, but an answer must be found to the disappearances.
The teleplay is the same concept in a more believable form. The speculation in the original story is a result of panic. The death of the first team leads to a worst case scenario guess of what could survive and attack beyond their safety measures. The TV episode acknowledges with a smirk that the room full of tracking equipment is designed to find ghosts, whatever previously undiscovered, unrecorded, and unseen thing caused the first mission’s failure. The short story is sincere; the TV episode is skeptical.
When you dig further into the production, you see many hands were involved in the new perspective on the episode. Writer Seeleg Lester, producer Ben Brady, and even director Byron Haskin rewrote the script into what you see onscreen. It works surprisingly well. The screenplay takes what’s essentially a sci-fi story of perspective in research and turns it into something far more visual and driven by narrative.
“The Invisible Enemy” is still a silly bit of sci-fi however you look at it. The second mission is armed with a nuclear-tipped bazooka to protect the crew as they explore the potential dangers of Mars. The monster, which you’ll have to discover for yourselves, is only slightly more believable than a handheld nuclear weapon.
The Mars set looks great onscreen. The shifts in terrain and rocky formations feel believable. There’s also a lovely matte painting of the landscape in the window of the spaceship, curved beyond the window to allow a shifting landscape as the camera pans or moves in the spaceship. A light shines through small holes made in the dark night sky to create stars.
“The Invisible Enemy” is a beautiful episode of The Outer Limits. The story gets its point across with a sense of self-awareness. The shifting perspective between Earth and Mars allows for an external force to criticize the actions of the crew on the spaceship while being invested in the mission’s success.
content warning: blood
Up next: S2E08 “Wolf 359”