dir. Leslie Stevens
1964 / United Artists Television / 51′
written by Leslie Stevens
director of phogoraphy Kenneth Peach
music by Dominique Frontiere
starring George Macready, Signe Hasso, Allyson Aimes, Rudy Solari and Leonard Nimoy
available on DVD from MGM, or for free viewing on Hulu and Youtube
Executive producer and sometimes writer and director Leslie Stevens (Incubus) was in something of a fix towards the end production on the first season of The Outer Limits, and in desperate need of a show to please the bean counters – an episode that would come in on time and under budget, and put the books back in order. Every bit as ridiculous as its bloated title would suggest, Production and Decay of Strange Particles was Stevens’ answer, a stripped down bottle episode that covers its budgetary shortcomings with lots of (literal) flash and reams of impenetrable pseudo-scientific exposition. Particles never really makes much sense, even by the suitably bizarre standards set forth by earlier episodes, but the tremendous pace and unremitting oddity of the thing help to make it one of my favorites just the same.
Limited almost exclusively in setting to the various corridors and chambers of the Broadridge nuclear plant, a fictional isolated desert reactor site in which atomic research is ongoing, Production and Decay of Strange Particles begins with the creation of an intensely radioactive and nigh uncontrollable new isotope in the plant’s cyclotron. As plant workers strive desperately to prevent a potentially devastating chain reaction elder on-site scientist Dr. Marshall ponders the isotope’s significance. Created from the smashing together of a known isotope and heavy cosmic particles gathered from a quasi-stellar radio source (quasar for you hip young’uns) the resulting substance is ferociously active, defeating all attempts by the plant staff to contain them. But there’s more…
As workers protective gear comes into contact with the isotope its particles seep inside, destroying the human structure within and replacing it with a fiendish, electrified malignence. Soon the furnace room is overrun by a horde of devilish atomic zombies, who work slowly and steadily in unison to expand their territory and numbers. Dr. Marshall theorizes that the isotope is the Earthly manifestation of some dreadful intelligence pouring forth from another dimension of time and space. Unless the gateway through which it is entering our own dimension is closed it’s only a matter of time before the entire planet, and more, is engulfed.
Unlike The Children of Spider County, an episode whose various ambitions were squashed by excessive rewrites and a complicated production, Production and Decay of Strange Particles began its life with the express purpose of being as swift and cheap to produce as possible. It fares all the better for the difference. Stevens’ narrative is appropriately slim, with monsters at one end of a plant doing god-knows-what and men at the other end trying to stop them. His script is loaded for bare with technical gibberish and allusions to actual science (cyclotrons, quasars, chain reactions, etc.) but offers very little in the way of story development beyond this, that, or the other running into the energy monsters and being summarily absorbed into the collective.
Thankfully, Stevens proves better than most at scripting such ungainly mouthfuls of science-ese, and better yet, he knows how to direct it as well. It’s impossible to really understand what’s being said here even if you can parse out the legitimate science in the rough, but Stevens’ direction ensures that it all at least sounds important. An early bit of conversation from plant worker Griffin (Rudy Solari, who would co-star in the second season’s The Invisible Enemy) is indicative of the rest, but is delivered with such immediacy that you can’t help but believe it. When asked the suspicious isotope’s atomic weight he glibly explains, “Somewhere over two-five-six. It’s a freak reaction. Marshall said some cosmic particles penetrated the shield, the gold foil disappeared and the lambda process set in.” It’s impossible for me to believe that Solari knew any better than anyone else what he was saying, but, like the rest of the cast, he manages to get away with it all the same.
Just as the drama is constrained in scope, the special effects budget for Production and Decay of Strange Particles is kept to a bare minimum, not that it really shows now nearly fifty years after the fact. The majority of it seems to have been spent on some simple composite work, as the Broadridge nuclear plant becomes increasingly alive with arcs of electricity. Otherwise it’s all smoke and mirrors (and one briefly-glimpsed disco ball), with brilliant white blooming out of reactor windows and what looks to be a clump of plastic wrap with a few lights stuck inside substituting for the mysterious isotope at the heart of the mess. It’s a no-budget mix that’s astonishingly effective in context, with even the blatant stock footage (a montage of atomic test films, negative printed and run both forward and in reverse) feeling less offensive than it really should.
And then there are the monsters, a uniform collective of crackling energy-stuffed radiation suits who rank among my favorite threats of the entire series. The oddball concept is put into practice with the same no-frills simplicity that marks the rest of the show. In far shots the creatures are just men in suits with brilliant lights shoved into their helmets (barring that, they just walk with their backs turned!), while a handful of close-ups are expanded with a bit of flickering The Man With the Power-esque composite work. Stevens imbues the rabble with a palpable sense of purpose (dubiously explained though that purpose may be) as they creep steadily from one corridor to the next, nuking leaden doorways with glowing flasks of atomic whatsit. There’s just something creepy about them, a creepiness bolstered by the decidedly darker tone of the episode as a whole. Contrary to the norm for the series Production and Decay of Strange Particles is quite brutal at times (in so much as 60s television could be), with the energy-men burning hapless plant workers with their radioactive gazes or smashing them outright under sheets of lead shielding.
Production and Decay of Strange Particles will never be confused for the sort of substance-rich gothic science fiction that most people rightly associate with the series, but it is a suitably diverting hour of television that manages to be more than the sum of its admittedly silly parts. The most noteworthy aspect of the production may be its fine cast, headed by veteran actor George Macready. Recognizable from classics like Paths of Glory and The Big Clock and the earlier series episode The Invisibles, Macready takes to the material with admirable conviction, even if he’s obviously at a loss for how to deliver some of the show’s more ludicrous lines. Signe Hasso (The House on 92nd Street) fits neatly into the role of Macready’s wife and conscience, while Leonard Nimoy (just two years from his iconic turn in Star Trek) makes the most he can of a bit part as an ill-fated plant technician.