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The Duplicate Man

dir. Gerd Oswald
1964 / United Artists Television / 51′
written by Robert C. Dennies
from the story by Clifford D. Simak
director of phogoraphy Kenneth Peach
original music by Harry Lubin
starring Ron Randall, Constance Towers, Mike Lane, Steven Geray and Konstantin Shayne
available on DVD from MGM, or for free viewing on Hulu and Youtube

There is no shortage of promise to be found in the truncated and too often disappointing second season of The Outer Limits, but Gerd Oswald’s late-run effort The Duplicate Man offers more in the way of it than most. Adapted from the Clifford D. Simak story Goodnight, Mr. James (published in the March 1951 issue of Galaxy for those interested – it’s an excellent read!) and ambitiously set in the future of 2011 The Duplicate Man never really transcends its limitations of time and budget, each of which was in ever shorter supply at this point in the series’ history (the episode was produced shortly before ABC let it known that the show was to be cancelled all together), but at least it tries.

The story concerns one Henderson James (Ron Randell), a noted astrobiologist who, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, has been secretly studying a deathly dangerous space creature known as the Megasoid in his estate. Fearful of their superior intelligence, telepathic abilities and murderous inclinations, the governments of Earth outlawed the importation of Megasoids in 1986, leaving James in quite a pickle when his own smuggled specimen escapes. Too much a coward to hunt down the creature himself, James turns to a drunken has-been with connections to the Federal Duplication Bureau, an institution that clones human beings in an extensively regulated manner, for help.

Shortly thereafter Henderson James awakens near a natural history museum, and finds himself armed with a handgun and driven by a singular purpose – kill the Megasoid, which has taken to hiding in one of the museum’s displays. The intervention of a museum security guard leads James to suddenly remember more about himself, his address, his job, and so on, facts that confuse his purpose and lead him to explore more about who exactly he is. When James eventually encounters the Megasoid things become even more complicated. The creature reveals that James is not James at all, but an exact duplicate of the real James manufactured for the express purpose of doing his dirty work. Though wounded in their encounter the Megasoid escapes, putting James mark II on the hunt for both the creature and existential enlightenment.

Robert C. Dennies’ penultimate contribution to The Outer Limits complicates the more straight-forward Simak source story in any number of ways, as in its focus on both James instead of just the clone and in the addition of a troubled marriage to the mix, but is most destructive in its expansion of the story’s relatively minor kill-the-alien opener into a full-fledged subplot (a move made to sate ABC’s demand for monsters). The more interesting human drama of The Duplicate Man is interrupted early and often, either by the appearance of the Megasoid itself or by the constant need to include it in the considerable conversation (like many of the second season episodes The Duplicate Man is talky stuff).

It’s a shortcoming that would be easier to overlook were the monster not such a dire creation, an ungainly gorilla-sloth-thing that adds to Second Chance‘s convincing Empyrian mask a ridiculously overstated forehead and a beak of hysterical proportion. Director Gerd Oswald is forced to cut the critter far too often, as it stalks endlessly about James’ property to fulfill its bloated narrative obligations, and unfortunate gaffs (like the appearance of actor Mike Lane’s shirt between the neck and body of the suit in some shots) only result in further embarrassment.

Otherwise The Duplicate Man‘s greatest failing is to be found in its two central performances. Co-stars Constance Towers (Shock Corridor), Steven Geray (Spellbound) and Sean McClory (appearing from beneath a ludicrous and ill-fitting leather head piece meant to cover unseen scars from a Megasoid attack) all do well enough in their respective, but relatively minor, roles. Star of the show Ron Randell (The She-Creature), as both Henderson James and James mark II, doesn’t fair nearly so well. Randell’s performance is leaden throughout, and serves only to detract from what should be the episode’s most appealing moments – like James mark II’s discovery of the simple pleasures of water fountains and greenery or Henderson’s eventual reconciliation with his wife. I’ve only seen Randall otherwise in the dreadful 40s sci-fi throwback The Most Dangerous Man Alive from 1961, and he made no better impression there.

On the brighter side of things The Duplicate Man‘s ambitious aesthetic often belies the paucity of its budget, and Oswald and his crew manage some creative futuristic flourishes through intelligible location scouting and the modification of everyday objects. The Chemosphere house in Los Angeles adeptly doubles for the residence of Sean McClory’s scarred smuggler, while James encounters plenty of familiar items with a modern twist (a public water fountain activated by a beam of light, a touch tone telephone decked out with a video display). My favorite touches have to do with the clothing, which is delightfully strange. The upscale suits the two James spend their time in are lacking any kind of lapels, while their collared button-up undershirts are punctuated with slim knotless ties. Nevermind that these changes could have been accomplished by any costume designer with a couple of minutes and a pair of scissors to spare, as the minimal effort pays off wonderfully in expanding the episode’s future setting.

It’s undeniable that there’s a lot wrong with The Duplicate Man, which too often undermines its big-idea aspirations (a rare enough thing in a second season episode) with silly pulp trappings – that monster is nigh unforgivable. But it certainly strives to be better than it is, with even the capably mundane director of photography Kenneth Peach putting in extra effort to give the show some much-needed visual oomph. All in all The Duplicate Man is one of the last really interesting things to come out of The Outer Limits before ABC kicked it off the air in favor of a low-cost variety show, and worth a watch if for that reason alone.

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