March 19, 2021

The Outer Limits of Spying: O.B.I.T.

VHS cover art, O.B.I.T., episode of The Outer Limits, 1963
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 "O.B.I.T." (Episode of The Outer Limits; first aired November 4, 1963)

Pros: Great script that explores sophisticated themes; Its message still resonates almost 60 years later.
Cons: Slow-paced and heavy on dialog for some tastes; The monster is awkwardly shoehorned into the plot.

Note: This post is part of the "7th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon" hosted by Terence Towles Canote at his blog A Shroud of Thoughts. Stop on by for a panoply of bloggers' picks from classic scripted TV shows.

Now that we human beings are always on and connected via our smartphones and social media apps, it’s apparently time for all the appliances and devices we use in our daily lives to get in on the fun as well.

Here we are in just the second decade of the 21st century, and we’re already ordering our personal digital assistants and smart devices around like a drunken 23rd century starship captain. We can unlock and start our cars with our phones, change the house thermostat from the office, have Alexa order groceries for delivery -- your every wish is some device’s command.

But there’s a cost to all the convenience. The tiny corners of our lives that are ours alone and no one else’s business continue to shrink. Everything we do online is tracked and recorded. Not only is Alexa listening to us, but there’s growing evidence that our smartphone apps are listening in as well

We might want to reconsider allowing smart devices to infiltrate every aspect of our daily routines. If your car can record your driving habits for insurance discounts, what’s to prevent it from ratting you out to the DMV or the traffic cops? And what if your Fitbit decides you’re being too inert, and reports your lazy a** to your health or life insurer

Can’t or won’t happen? That’s what they said about the government indiscriminately hoovering up Americans’ emails and phone data, and look how that turned out

HAL 9000 smart-aleck refrigerator
"Open the refrigerator doors Hal."
"I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that. You've exceeded your caloric limit for today."

Nearly 60 years ago, The Outer Limits, a TV show known for its dark, horrific slants on sci-fi themes, presented its own vision of a dystopian surveillance society. Considering that back in those days, spying was hardly more sophisticated than pressing your ear to a glass held to the wall, the technology featured in the episode "O.B.I.T." (first aired on Nov., 4, 1963), is surprisingly sophisticated, computerized, and all-pervasive -- kind of like an unholy union of an NSA supercomputer and the ever-present, all-seeing, all-knowing Facebook app. 

Peter Breck stars as Senator Orville, a youngish, telegenic politician who has decided to investigate the murder of an army captain at a government research facility, as well as rumors of terrible morale problems at the center.

In the course of his investigation, Orville opens a Pandora’s box of problems that has culminated in murder: divorces, suicides and a toxic work environment that’s fueling anxiety and mistrust among the scientists and staff. To further complicate matters, the civilian head of the facility, Dr. Clifford Scott (Harry Townes), has had a nervous breakdown, and no one seems to know (or is willing to say) where he is.

Peter Breck as Sen. Orville, O.B.I.T., The Outer Limits, 1963
Sen. Orville (Peter Breck) is having a hard time getting straight answers.

After questioning the center’s staff, Orville learns of a new piece of technology that has recently been introduced, the Outer Band Individuated Teletracer (O.B.I.T.). Interim project head Byron Lomax (Jeff Corey) cooly informs the Senator that the device can tune in to any individual’s brainwaves and other bodily “transmissions” within a radius of 500 miles in order to monitor everything that they say and do.

When Orville suggests to Lomax that O.B.I.T. might be at the root of the center’s morale problems, Lomax responds like a classic bureaucrat: “People with nothing to hide have nothing to fear from O.B.I.T.” (Compare with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s statement about privacy: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”)

Orville is having none of it: “Are you that perfect Mr. Lomax? I’d hate to have that thing trained on me when I was cussing out my fellow senators, or the President of the United States, or my former law partner… to say nothing of my wife!” (It seems that politicians were more circumspect back in those days.)

The senator finally tracks down the elusive Dr. Scott. The head scientist tells him that he had been against the installation of O.B.I.T., but the Defense Department went ahead anyway because of its potential for dealing with “undesirable elements.” When Scott himself used the device, he saw something that looked like it came from a “nightmare world,” and suffered a complete breakdown as a result.

Harry Townes and Peter Breck in O.B.I.T., The Outer Limits, 1963
Dr. Scott and Senator Orville are in the dark, literally and figuratively.

It starts to dawn on Senator Orville that O.B.I.T. is not only a monstrous concept, but might just be a tool of actual monsters.

In addition to high concept plots, episodes of The Outer Limits typically featured some sort of horrific monster or alien. Producer/writer Joseph Stefano quirkily referred to his creatures as “bears,” feeling that their presence heightened the show’s awe and fear factors. This monster-of-the-week approach led some to initially think of it as a kids’ show, but if so, it was an awfully dark, brooding and frightful one. 

Often, the monsters functioned as window dressing for serious examinations of adult themes and current issues. In the episode "The Hundred Days of the Dragon," scientists of a hostile nation invent a way to mold human flesh, and agents proceed to impersonate the president and other high officials in a bid to take over the U.S. government. In "The Architects of Fear," scientists create a monster out of a human volunteer in an attempt to trick a world on the verge of war into uniting against an alien invasion. And in "The Sixth Finger," an inventor speeds up the evolutionary process in a simple working man, to the point where the human guinea pig has nothing in common with and zero empathy for crude, barbaric humans.

O.B.I.T. includes Stefano’s requisite “bear,” but it’s an afterthought in an episode that features some of the most sophisticated themes in the entire series, and one that’s uncannily prophetic about our surveillance society almost 60 years later.

O.B.I.T. plays out like a political junkie’s nightmare. Large chunks of it are devoted to Orville’s interrogations of the scientists and military people attached to the research center. The murder of the Army captain is but the tip of an iceberg of deceit, oppressive spying, and good old-fashioned bureaucratic inertia and incompetence.

The O.B.I.T. operator is about to get a neck massage -- and not a good one.
"If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times -- stop sneaking up on me like that!"

Aside from the good senator, everyone (with the exception of the enigmatic Dr. Lomax) is compromised and afraid. The center’s military liaison, Col. Grover (Alan Baxter), tells Orville that he’s surprised that even a U.S. senator got clearance to see O.B.I.T. Under questioning, Grover admits that he doesn’t know who submitted the O.B.I.T. project proposal or who signed off on it. But now it’s popping up everywhere, including civilian industry.

Predictably, in the world of O.B.I.T., everyone is a suspect. At the beginning of the episode, we see the Army captain using it to monitor one of the scientists, who is complaining about his new boss’ lack of qualifications. The soldier duly notes the scientist’s “derogatory remarks against a superior,” and the number of times he’s made similar remarks.

Later, another harried scientist reveals to Orville that he was harshly interrogated and reprimanded for merely writing letters to his son. Finally, at the climax, even the upright, by-the-book military man Grover breaks down and admits to O.B.I.T.’s oppressive influence:

“It’s the most hideous creation ever conceived. No one can laugh, or joke. It watches… saps the very spirit. But the worst thing of all… I watch it! I can’t not look! It’s like a drug, a horrible drug, and you can’t resist it! It’s an addiction.”
Dr. Scott demonstrates O.B.I.T. to Senator Orville, The Outer Limits, 1963
"Just give me a second, I'm sure we can tune in WandaVision on this thing."

In this early ‘60s dystopian vision, O.B.I.T. is imposed from the top down. Today, we all rush to embrace technologies that leave little room for privacy. But maybe we still need to heed O.B.I.T.’s message -- that constantly being watched oppresses the spirit, and constantly watching is like an addictive drug.

In his excellent book The Outer Limits Companion, David J. Schow relates that the genesis of O.B.I.T. was an obscure book about privacy issues that Stefano had passed on to one the show’s writers, Meyer Dolinsky. Dolinsky was very much interested in the excesses that even free societies can indulge in when fear takes over:

“[I’m] also concerned that we do have restraints against extreme totalitarianism. The political focus of ‘O.B.I.T.’ is all mine; it’s a reverse on the H.U.A.C. [House Un-American Activities Committee] thing. These people, far from helping a free society, are really its worst enemy, in the sense they breed so much hostility and fear that they curiously accomplish the very thing they are trying to prevent. Witch-hunting is the wrong way to go about it.” [Schow, The Outer Limits Companion, GNP/Crescendo, 1998, pp. 117-118]

Ironically, Jeff Corey, who played the sinister, bespectacled scientist Lomax, had himself been caught up in the H.U.A.C. hearings a decade before, and spent most of the ‘50s blacklisted. O.B.I.T. was one of Corey’s first acting jobs after Pat Boone, one of Corey’s friends, went to bat for him and helped resuscitate his career. [Schow., pp. 118-119]

Alien monster from O.B.I.T., The Outer Limits, 1963
Hideous alien monster or Silicon Valley CEO? You make the call!

O.B.I.T. is not one of the original series’ best-known or more highly regarded episodes, at least in part because it comes off as relatively slow-paced courtroom drama with sci-fi touches. I suspect most viewers will readily pass on it in favor of far more notorious episodes like "The Zanti Misfits" or "Demon with a Glass Hand."

That’s a shame, because it has some of the best writing and acting in the entire series, and its themes are as fresh today as they were back in 1963. It’s also intriguingly layered, like a Russian nesting doll. Schow cleverly observes that

“The ‘peeping Tom’ nature of the O.B.I.T. machine neatly implicates the TV viewer as well, in Dolinsky’s slick plot about moral conquest. As the OBIT men spy on their subjects, they are in turned watched by the Outer Limits audience, who, by extrapolation, is probably also being monitored.” [Ibid., p. 118]

Well, it's not like the show's control voice didn't try to warn us: “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission…”

That’s odd, I have this prickly sensation on the back of my neck like I’m being watched. And my laptop is acting kind of weird. What’s that on my Facebook feed… it’s a video of me, composing this post! What the…?!! [Transmission ended].

Where to find it: You can relive the awe and mystery of the original series on DVD, or individual episodes are available to stream.


  1. I love the way you brought your article full circle back to the program's introduction. I'd ask if everything is OK, but I don't want anyone to know that I'm thinking about such a thing.

    1. Glad you liked the post. The O.B.I.T. episode put a whole new spin on the show's ominous introduction.
      P.S.: I'm fine, turns out it was just Facebook trying to sell me the Blu-ray set of The Outer Limits. :)

  2. Great review, Brian! You can always count on The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone to be entertaining while also making you think a little. (And for the record, being a sucker for monsters, I like the alien. :D )

    1. Thanks Michael! Yep, that was the beauty of the show, it gave you food for thought and a cool monster as a bonus. Making the alien one-eyed (and presumably tunnel-visioned about invading people's privacy) was very clever.
      P.S.: your preference for monsters has been duly recorded, and your file is being securely stored in a secret underground government facility. :)

  3. An excellent post! "O.B.I.T" may not stand out in the way some Outer Limits episodes do (for instance, "Demon with a Glass Hand"), but it is one of the more disturbing episodes. Many who first saw it decades ago probably thought, "That can never happen. It's science fiction," but then look at where we are now? Anyway, thanks for taking part in the blogathon!

    1. Thank you for hosting a great blogathon! For me, O.B.I.T. doubly hits the mark in the scene where the Colonel admits that he uses the machine, and that constantly watching people is a horrible addiction. Which is a fix a lot of people are in right now. :)

  4. I always though The Outer Limits was a much better anthology seres than The Twilight Zone - much less sentimental and more thought-provoking. And O.B.I.T. is indeed a very strong episode.

    1. I agree! Many of the Twilight Zone episodes tried to hit you over the head with a message or were cloyingly sentimental, or both. The Outer Limits episodes were more consistently dark and uncanny, and the messages were more subtle.