A scientist has recreated a miniature version of a distant planet and star system known as Wolf 359. The evolution and growth of the planet is sped up significantly by its miniaturization. This includes a previously undiscovered species with incredibly destructive capabilities.
“Wolf 359” is fascinating. Similar stories have come since this episode premiered, but the premise is still relatively uncommon in cinematic science fiction. The beats of the story are familiar, a spin on the mad scientist attempting to play God. The expansive themes and openness of the storytelling is rather special.
The experiment is a rousing success on every metric imaginable. The scientist is heralded for his incredible research, going far beyond the original intentions of the project. He was given a grant to study the planet. His work was so thorough and successful that he gained the knowledge necessary to recreate the entire planet, down to the specific star providing light and energy to the surface. His experimentation with terraforming quickly fills the planet with life that could never be directly studied on the actual Wolf 359 system.
The unexpected species is a ghastly white specter rising from the abundant treetops and mists of the miniature planet. They are aggressive, attacking any other life they detect in the laboratory. This species is not happy to be contained in the laboratory and does whatever it can to take control.
There are a lot of ideas packed into this episode. In many ways, it’s a conceptual piece of sci-fi rather than a plot-driven one. There is a loose story about the relationship between the scientist and his wife being impacted by the research, but it’s secondary to the bigger ideas explored in the episode.
“Wolf 359” explores ethics in research. The scientist did something incredible in recreating the planet on a miniature scale, but what authority did he have to do it? Wolf 359 already exists. Recreating the planet and all of its life in an unnatural environment is an act of ambition as much as it’s an act of investigation. When the safety of the experiment is called into question, the scientist places further study at a higher priority than risk to human life.
The episode also explores the progression of society and violence. As the miniature planet rapidly grows through time, it starts to hit on a similar trajectory to Earth’s own history of violent conflict and escalation of weaponry for warfare. Creatures under stress will react to stress, and the laboratory conditions are a sped up pressure cooker bringing out the worst of the creatures living on it. Less pressure and more freedom might have allowed this planet to evolve in a more peaceful manner than our own.
There’s even an element exploring the morality of laboratory experiments on living things. The planet has its own consciousness and actively fights against its containment at any cost. The scientist realizes the potential danger this poses, but chooses to remove other human beings from the lab rather than change the lab conditions or even suspend the experiment to better serve the needs of the planet and its creatures.
“Wolf 359” covers so many different ideas that it feels much more open than a lot of The Outer Limits episodes. On the surface level, there’s the story of the scientist’s experiments and their impact on his own life. Viewers searching for more can read through the experimentation and suggestion of the laboratory scenes to find their own perfect vision of a sci-fi thought exercise. The episode covers heavy territory, but never speaks down to the audience or preaches a specific message. There’s an unexpected objectivity to the episode that reflects the complexity of this contained experiment in recreating life.
content warning: animal death
Up next: S2E09 “I, Robot”