Outer Limitations

by Nancy Scott


There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to the OUTER LIMITS.

These are the opening words to my favorite science fiction television show, “The Outer Limits.” I have always been fascinated by science fiction. As I child, I read books like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. I loved watching “The Twilight Zone.” My favorite, though, was always “The Outer Limits.” It had a fairly brief run from the early to mid-1960’s. When a cable network recently had an “Outer Limits” marathon, showing some ten episodes in a row, I stocked up on videotape and programmed my VCR. As I watch these episodes, I observe a recurring theme running through them: The answers to our complex human problems lie in the realm of science; science will ultimately solve humankind’s greatest problems.

The “Outer Limits” was actually a very philosophical show, and the writers were quite bold in communicating their beliefs. For example, in an episode titled “The Galaxy Being,” Cliff Robertson plays Alan Maxwell, a radio station owner who uses the equipment to contact intelligence in outer space. He scans microwave frequencies and listens to meaningless static until a humanoid image begins to form on the screen. He eventually makes contact and has a meaningful conversation with the Galaxy Being, who is, like himself, broadcasting illegally. The conversation goes like this:

AM: Do you have life?
GB: Not the same. You are carbon cycle; we are nitrogen cycle.
AM: Where you are? Do you have death?
GB. Repeat.
AM: We have end of being–we stop moving, stop breathing, no thoughts, nothing–we call it death.
GB: Death is property of carbon cycle in three dimensions. No death in our dimension. Electromagnetic waves go on to infinity.
AM: Do my brainwaves go on?
GB: Yes.
AM: What about wars? Do you have wars?
GB: Repeat.
AM: Battles, atom bombs, radiation fallout?
GB: Forbidden. Reason we are not allowed to contact you. You are danger to other galaxies.
AM: What about God? Do you have a god?
GB: Explain.
AM: An all powerful being–a force underlying everything.
GB: Electromagnetic forces underlying all.
AM: No, I mean an intelligent force–God.
GB: Electromagnetic force–intelligence–matter, space, time, all the same.
AM: All the same?
GB: Different name–infinity. Infinity is God. God, infinity, all the same. All the same.

The story continues as the Galaxy Being’s atomic structure and mass is transmitted through the screen (a precursor to “Star Trek’s” ever popular reorganization of molecules known as “beaming up”), and he wanders earth accidently killing people with radiation. The army aims their arsenal, but to no avail. Finally, Alan Maxwell gets to him and tries to help, but Alan’s wife is wounded in the crossfire. The Being proves his own goodness and power by healing the bullet wound. He explains to Alan that he cannot go back to his planet because they will destroy him for breaking the law and contacting earth. Alan protests, but finally the Being turns down the microwave signal. He fades away into infinity, since electromagnetic forces go on forever. In the epilog, the narrator responds:

The planet earth is a speck of dust, remote and alone in the void. There are powers in the universe inscrutable and profound. Fear cannot save us; rage cannot help us. We must see the stranger in a new light–the light of understanding. And to achieve this, we must begin to understand ourselves and each other.

In another episode, “The Sixth Finger,” David McCallum plays a rough-cut youth who volunteers to participate in the experiment of a geneticist who has developed a machine that can move the process of evolution forward with tremendous speed. The young man enters the machine and evolves to a superior level of intelligence, looking like a futuristic alien. Once outside the machine, he continues to evolve, and fortunately, progresses beyond his desire to destroy the ridiculously archaic humans around him. At this stage, he testifies that he is on his way to the ultimate state of mankind, that of becoming purely thought, no longer constrained by a body. He has moved beyond hatred and revenge. The story concludes as the love interest of the character agrees to help him advance to his ultimate destiny. Once he is in the evolution chamber, however, she finds that she cannot lose him to the future, and she reverses the process. At one point he is regressed to an ape-like form, but she manages to bring him back to the present stage of evolution, and he is himself again. Again, the epilog:

An experiment too soon, too swift, and yet, may we not still hope to discover a method by which within one generation the whole human race could be rendered intelligent beyond hatred or revenge or the desire for power? Is that not after all, the ultimate goal of evolution?

The optimism with which the writers were breaking free from the constraints of our “outmoded” Christian world view at the time is striking. They seem to be saying that without the notion of God, we can embark on the true path to human enlightenment, the ultimate goal of evolution. However, what the writers fail to recognize is the inconsistency in their own view. They appear to be close enough to their theistic heritage not to bring into question the issue of meaning. If all we are is electromagnetic waves going on to infinity–the product of time, chance, and matter–where does meaning come from? This raises other questions as well. Why would it matter whether the Galaxy Being is destroyed upon his return to his planet? How is it that Alan recognized a form that was worth communicating with, that was different from the meaningless static through which he had been sifting, if all was, indeed, just different forms of electromagnetic waves? In “The Sixth Finger,” why would it matter for us to progress beyond hatred? Why is this a worthy goal? Is it a worthy goal?

The world view espoused by the writers of the “Outer Limits,” naturalism, has been widely held by the America of the late 20th century. The basics of this belief are evident in these episodes: prime reality is a closed system consisting of time, chance, and matter; there is no God; we are just meaningless, random assortments of atoms and molecules–electromagnetic waves going on to infinity. James Sire comments in his book, The Universe Next Door, that “The one who remains a consistent naturalist must be a nihilist.” Yet, the writers remain optimistic about the hope of mankind, and about the value of pursuing positive change. This conclusion is inconsistent with their naturalism.

God has given humans a sense of meaning and purpose. Apart from His existence, meaning ceases to exist. C. S. Lewis believed that our drive toward meaning and purpose is evidence for having been created by a personal God. He comments on this in Mere Christianity:

Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.

I have always been intrigued by science fiction. I have only lately become intrigued with philosophy. Every work of fiction has a philosophy behind it, and the goal of the work is to communicate that philosophy. We have seen much change in the thirty years since “The Outer Limits” first aired. I have not, however, observed that science has moved us any closer to solving the problems of humankind. Rather, I sense we are further from these solutions, and no longer optimistic about the ability of science to take us there.

As proposed in “The Sixth Finger,” I believe that the ultimate destiny for humans is to exist in a glorious state of moral beauty and perfection, beyond hatred and revenge. The society filled with these glorious creatures will be utopian. But I do not believe that this will come about through science or evolution. Indeed, this utopia is the kingdom of heaven, of which Jesus spoke during his time here. It is God, who exists and is outside of us, who will bring about this kingdom.

Ours is a fundamentally moral problem, and the answer lies outside of ourselves. Like Paul in Romans 7, I find that the harder I wish for the ability to do the right thing, the more I find that it is out of my grasp. “For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish.” Paul concludes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

The hope of the gospel gives the only real hope for a solution to our complex human problems. It is only when God changes the heart that we will be saved. The good news is, that is exactly what he intends to do.

Copyright January 1994 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Nancy Scott