January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’m dedicated every Sunday of January to celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.
Air Date: 9 July 1995
Director: Mario Azzopardi
US Network: Showtime
UK Network: BBC 2
Stars: Richard Thomas, Peter Outerbridge, and Tammy Isbell
I never watched The Twilight Zone (1959 to 1964; 1985 to 1989) as a kid; growing up, I was limited to the then-four channels of terrestrial television so my sci-fi/horror anthology series of choice was The Outer Limits (1995 to 2002). Itself a revival of the original 1960s show, The Outer Limits was an award-winning anthology series that was originally broadcast here in the United Kingdom on BBC 2; every week, a new tale would unfold, usually revolving around aliens, rogue artificial intelligence, or other sci-fi, horror, or fantastical stories, though there were also a number of recurring themes, characters, and even semi-sequential stories to be found in the show’s long history. Considering my nostalgia and affection for the series, it is gratifying to see others also have a fondness for the show and I’ll be extremely interested to see if the planned revivals ever come to pass.
Doctor Stephen Ledbetter (Thomas) makes a technological and medical breakthrough when he creates a type of tiny machine, known as nanobots, capable of curing any disease or imperfections in the human body. However, when his dying friend, Doctor Andy Groenig (Outerbridge), injects himself with the experimental nanobots, his body starts to hideously mutate!
“The New Breed” focuses on Dr. Stephen Ledbetter, a genius in nanotechnology whose research spell the potential end for life-threatening cancerous disease by rewriting the cellular structure of the bodies they are introduced to and removing malignant or destructive elements. A somewhat condescending and self-aggrandising scientist, Stephen fully believes in his work and is extremely proud of the level of intricacy and brilliance that has gone into their creation. However, like many phenomenally intelligent individuals, he is somewhat blinded by how miraculous his nanobots are, which are smart enough to replicate individually and operate independently to, in his words, improve the “flawed man”.
His grandiose claims to have surpassed God aggravate his colleague, Doctor Norman Meritt (L. Harvey Gold), who is not in the least bit amused at Stephen’s attitude and flamboyant disrespect for professional conduct. Meritt stresses that Stephen needs to play by the rules since the last time he bent them in his favour, he almost lost his job and caused the entire department to be shut down. As it’s the only way for his nanobots to see the light of day, Stephen begrudgingly agrees to play the game for the sake of his grant and the Board of Trustees despite being frustrated at having to wait for approval to begin live animal testing.
His research and the potential of the nanobots excites Stephen’s friend and colleague, Dr. Andy Groenig, a far less egotistical and driven scientist who is not only dating Stephen’s younger sister, Judy Hudson (Isbell), but is engaged to marry her in a month’s time. Things are looking good for Andy, who also just got tenure, and Stephen is overjoyed at his good fortunes (showing hat, beneath his arrogance, there is a loyal and trustworthy human being). However, when he pays a visit to Doctor Katzman (Veena Sood) regarding an lingering pain in his back, Andy’s world comes crashing down at the news that he’s suffering from a malignant form of pelvic cancer that will either kill him in about a year or leave him without his lower limbs through surgery. Desperate for a solution to this horrifying news, he presses Stephen for more information about his nanobots and is dismayed to find that the Board would never allow human testing without stringent tests, not even on a willing volunteer, for fear of a potential lawsuit.
With Judy already enthusiastically planning out the rest of their married lives, and with literally nothing left to lose, Andy breaks into Stephen’s lab during the night and exposes injects the nanobots into his body. The results are almost instantaneous; within three days, his tumour has significantly reduced, giving him a whole new lease on life and virality. The benefits don’t end there, either, as Andy awakens one morning to find that he no longer requires glasses to improve his vision. Stephen, however, is aghast at Andy’s recklessness; despite his bold claims from earlier, Stephen is enraged that Andy would put himself and both of their lives and careers at risk. Afraid of what the nanobots could potentially do to Andy, Stephen immediately demands that they be shut off but, when Andy vehemently refuses, they reach a compromise and, together, run further tests to record the benefits and behaviours of the nanobots on the proviso that they deactivate the second anything starts to go wrong. Thanks to the nanobots, Andy is able to hold his breath underwater for at least seven minutes, read even near microscopic test from a greater distance, physically push himself faster and harder than ever before, and heal from horrific injuries in seconds.
A sentimental goof, Andy is extremely grateful to the nanobots, and Stephen, for saving and improving his life; however, his increased stamina and virility begin to cause concern for Judy, whom he inadvertently hurts during sex. Concerned that he’s on drugs, Judy is nevertheless exhausted and somewhat fearful of his newfound virility and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, Andy awakens to find that the nanobots have “gifted” him with a set of gills to allow him to freely breath underwater. Both enthralled and horrified at this development, Stephen immediately attempts to expel the nanobots from Andy’s body; however, his attempts are met with unexpected failure as the nanobots believe that the “program run [is] not complete”. Consequently, Andy is absolutely horrified to find that the nanobots have grown him a new pair of eyes on the back of his head!
Unable to shut the nanobots down in a conventional way, Stephen attempts to short them out using high-intensity electric shocks; unfortunately, though, he is again frustrated by failure and reluctant to subject Andy to further electric shocks out of fear of killing him. Andy, however, begins to think that dying wouldn’t be so bad at this point and his fears and desperation only grow as his hearing becomes superhumanly acute and the nanobots shield his body from both external and internal threats with an array of jellyfish-like nematocysts and additional ribs, respectively, in a conscious effort to stop Stephen’s efforts to drive them from Andy’s body. Angered at his current physical condition, Andy is equally dismayed at his inability to die as, no matter what either of them do, the nanobots continue to revive Andy. With no other option, the two sorrowfully agree to bombard Andy to a lethal dose of electrical current to destroy both him and the nanobots; heartbroken and dejected, Stephen destroys all evidence of the event, and his research, in a fire but the episode ends suggesting that Andy has passed at least a few of the nanobots on the Judy during their earlier coitus.
As the narrator (or “Control Voice”; Kevin Conway) sombrely tells us: “Man has long worked to stave off the diseases that can ravage us, but what can happen when the cure grows more fearsome than the disease? Over millions of years man has become the very paragon of animals, but we must take care not to alter what nature has taken so long to forge…or risk being burned by the very fires of creation”. The lesson here, as with many episodes of The Outer Limits and similar tales of man trying to either play God or expand the limits of scientific research, is to exercise caution, restraint, and humility when dabbling in the fantastical and the unknown.
I’ve watched a lot of movies and television over the years, and many episodes of The Outer Limits, but “The New Breed” always stuck with me as a moving, terrifying, and poignant tale of the potential, and dangers, of science. Andy is facing his very real, and painful, death at the beginning of the episode and, as he puts it, “sells [his] soul” for another chance at life; this turns out to be more than apt as the nanobots very quickly begin to take their programming way too far. Although Andy assures Stephen on numerous occasions that he doesn’t blame him (as in Stephen) for the events of the episode, it can’t really be argued that the tests Stephen subjected Andy to were directly responsible for his gills, eyes, and other freakish enhancements. Had Andy not been so overjoyed at getting his second chance and so afraid for his cancer returning, Stephen may have been able to deactivate the nanobots before they set about further “improving” Andy’s physical condition but, instead, we’re left with a cautionary tale of the limits of science.
These lessons, while commonplace in many similar science-fiction stories and which can be traced all the way back to the likes of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (Shelley, 1818), are presented in a fascinating and terrifying way in “The New Breed”, one which left an indelible impression on me as a child. The shot of Andy’s new pair of eyes slowly, ominously blinking open through weeping pus alone is a nightmarish visual, as are the unnerving, gaping gills on his neck and the disgusting, twisted stingers that eventually cover his entire body and seem to be cocooning him for a further transformation by the end of the episode. Another comparison I could easily make would be to The Fly (Cronenberg, 1986), which is a similar tale of science at first improving a man and then quickly mutating him into some more gruesome and monstrous and my unapologetic fondness for that film may very explain my affection for “The New Breed”. Still, the episode remains as captivating and enthralling as ever (thanks also, it has to be said, to nostalgia and some intense sex scenes) and it’s just one of many strong episodes of the Outer Limits revival that I would point any self-respecting sci-fi fan to without hesitation.
Have you ever seen “The New Breed” or the 1995 revival of The Outer Limits? If so, what did you think to it and what were some of your favourite episodes? Did you enjoy the steady, gruesome escalation of the nanobots’ effect on Andy’s body? What are some other cautionary tales regarding science that you enjoy? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below and be sure to check back in next week for the conclusion of Sci-Fi Sunday.