I’ve talked recently about a couple of the most admired episodes of The Twilight Zone and Thriller. Now it seems appropriate to consider a highly regarded episode of that other notable anthology television series, The Outer Limits. I’ve chosen the fifth episode of the first season, The Sixth Finger (written by Ellis St. Joseph), originally broadcast in 1963.
The Outer Limits ran from 1963 to 1965 and differed from the other popular anthology series in having a mostly science fictional slant. It was a pretty uneven series and although the ideas were often brilliant the special effects didn’t always do them justice. You don’t need expensive or elaborate special effects to do science fiction well but unfortunately the kinds of stories this series attempted often tended to be stories that really did need fairly convincing effects.
In spite of these weaknesses The Outer Limits was a bold and innovative series and often breathtakingly ambitious. And The Sixth Finger aims very high indeed - it deals with a million years of human evolution!
Professor Mathers (Edward Mulhare) is a scientist working on the problem of human evolution. The problem with human evolution as he sees it is that it is much too slow. He wants to speed it up. Speed it up dramatically. He believes that our only chance to avoid self-destruction is to become much smarter and we need to do it now. Professor Mathers conducts his researches in a small village in Wales.
He believes he has found the ideal subject in coal miner Gwyllim Griffiths (David McCallum). Gwyllim is reasonably intelligent and ambitious and he desperately wants to escape from life as a coal miner. He is also filled with resentment and anger but it doesn’t occur to Professor Mathers that this might be a problem.
You see the experiment had some unexpected results. Gwyllim has evolved some disturbing powers - he can read minds and he can inflict injury or even death at a distance purely by mental means. Given that he has the character flaws mentioned above he is now a very dangerous young man. The question is, is intelligence enough to compensate for everyday human weaknesses? An even more urgent question is - can Professor Mathers deal with the potential problem he has created? Is there any way to control Gwyllim? And what if Gwyllim decides he’d like to do some more evolving?
It’s a brave attempt to tackle some serious issues - intelligence versus emotions, the possibility of human perfectibility, the dangers of too much progress too soon. There are some scientific absurdities - there are some fundamental misunderstandings about how evolution actually works. Despite this it does have some real impact. It’s not a complete success but it’s typical of The Outer Limits in its willingness to tackle Big Ideas. And David McCallum does a pretty fair job, particularly when encumbered by some drastic makeup effects.
The Outer Limits was always interesting even when is stumbled a little. The stumbles were generally due to excessive ambition and it’s easy to forgive a show that was genuinely trying to push the boundaries of television science fiction. What’s most surprising about this series if how often it actually succeeded. The Sixth Finger might be only a partial success but it’s a bold and interesting partial success. Recommended.