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’ve been dedicated every Sunday of January to celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.
Air Date: 16 June 1995
Director: Brad Turner
US Network: Showtime
UK Network: BBC 2
Stars: Robert Patrick, Nicole de Boer, and Mark McCracken
The Twilight Zone (1959 to 1964; 1985 to 1989) wasn’t on when I was a kid; growing up, I only had the then-four channels of terrestrial television available to me so my sci-fi/horror anthology series of choice was The Outer Limits (1995 to 2002). A revival of the original 1960s show, The Outer Limits was an award-winning anthology series originally broadcast here in the United Kingdom on BBC 2; every week, a new tale would unfold, usually revolving around aliens, 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’s great to see others also have a fondness for the show, and I’m always happy to revisit it when I get the opportunity.
Mankind is fighting a losing battle against an aggressive alien race; at the height of the conflict, Major John Skokes (Patrick) is captured and imprisoned alongside a young cadet, Bree Tristan (de Boer). While Stokes is determined to escape and return to the fight, his defiance is rattled when he discovers that the alien jailers have begun experimenting with grafting samples of their own skin onto Bree in an effort to make her one of them!
“Quality of Mercy” begins with Major John Skokes being forcibly dragged and manhandled into a prison cell on an alien world but a physically superior, war-like race of aliens who have been locked in a one-sided battle against Earth’s United Nations Defense Forces (UNDF) for some time. An abrasive, proud, and stubborn military man, John’s first instinct in all things is to fight back, even when he’s clearly outmatched by his alien captors. This instinct extends not just to his defiance at being thrown into a cell, right when he’s at the peak of the war no less, but also to his determination to find a way out of the cell and to his initial militant attitude towards his cell-mate, the timid and terrified Bree Tristan. While John is a combat veteran who has fought on the front lines of the war for so long that he hasn’t actually been back to Earth in years, Brie is a cadet (second class) from Europa base who has only ever flown and fought in training missions. Captured during the “second Europa raid”, Brie estimates that she has been imprisoned and tortured for about three months and has been by herself for some time after her commander, Hartley, a much older and physically impaired man, died some time ago. She’s been kept there, in the dark and alone, ever since; forced to scavenge for food by chasing after the odd little rubbery parasites her captors toss to her and having lost all track of time and hope, Brie’s state of mind is only further fractured by the horrific experiments the aliens have been conducting on her as they have been routinely grafting their skin and DNA onto her body into an effort to physically transform her into one of them!
While Brie is off getting tortured, John busies himself exploring every inch of their cell, which is home to a pool of acid-like liquid and a curious red vegetation that seems more than a little inspired by the works of H. G. Wells. Although the diamond-hard walls cannot be breached, John is able to climb them to a barred ventilation shaft in the ceiling, through which he can hear the screams and desperate cries of Brie (and other humans) being tortured. After fashioning a cutting tool from a shard of the rock, John sets to work using all of his strength and free time trying to cut through the bars in the ceiling; although Brie is wracked by pain and despair at her condition, John offers her hope not only in his discovery but in giving her physical comfort. Having been caught up in the conflict, Brie has lived without love and passion or the touch of another, and derives much solace and comfort from even John’s hesitant attempts to console her. While Brie desperately tries to cling on the love and believes it’s what separates humanity from their enemy, John has been consumed by hatred; he is so resolute in his determination to escape that he’s even willing to go down fighting, if need be, but considers this a worst-case scenario. Feeling sympathy for her plight and virginity, having been so caught up in conflict that he has lost touch with the simple pleasures of life, John takes his sexual urges towards Brie and uses them as more motivation to cut through the bars, and pays the price for his stubbornness when his leg is shredded by a ravenous little creature in the vent and his hand is cut off at the wrist when he foolishly tries to keep Brie from being harmed further.
John’s determination stems from a deep-rooted need to get back into the fight because the future of humanity depends upon it; he was excited to deal a decisive blow against the enemy for the first time and to prove that they could be bested, and is angered at being captured right when he’s needed the most. John’s mindset contrasts heavily with Brie’s and both characters provide not only different perspectives on the conflict but to the world-building of this episode; John apparently embodies the single-minded, militaristic focus of those in the thick of the fight, while Brie seems very much against the war. Since John has been fighting pretty much non-stop for the last four years, he hasn’t seen what’s become of the Earth; Brie has however, and horror stories of a world turned into a police state, churning out munitions and training soldiers in a constant cycle to feed the war effort. John, however, remains adamant that humanity will come out of the war stronger than ever; he believes that the conflict will unite humankind, ending their petty squabbles and political and racial differences, to come together as one unified race. Forced into service by a standardised test and lacking John’s passion for the fight, Brie is ashamed to admit that she caved under torture and spilled everything she knew to spare herself further pain (though, as a mere cadet and a trainer, neither she nor Hartley had no information of real value) and she doesn’t share John’s fighting attitude or confidence that their enemy can be defeated. Of course, her will is only further sapped by the continual experiments and violations she suffers at the hands of their captors; the alien skin grafts cause her incredible physical pain and cannot be forcibly removed, despite John’s best efforts. Brie is taken away again and again, changing a little more each time, and her sense of identity and humanity degrade a little more each time she returns. At first, the graft is simply a leathery, reptilian wound on her arm but, soon, her entire back is converted into a sickening alien flesh and part of her face is lost to the aliens’ appalling visage.
With Brie’s transformations becoming more and more severe, and John’s injuries effectively crippling any minor chance they had at escape, the two begin to realise that their options have become severely limited. With a heavy heart, John admits that he can’t fulfil his promise; earlier, Brie talked about how she and Hartley had planned to commit suicide but he was too weak to go through with it and she was too scared, and sadly John is unable to bring himself to put her out of his misery due to how attached to her he has become. Still, Brie is grateful that John was able to give her a brief, shining moment of hope for herself and for humanity and, with the end in sight, John tries one last time to comfort her with the knowledge that, although it may be the end for them, humanity will live on. John reveals that the UNDF has been feigning defeat and have held back a massive armada of their strongest fighters on the far side of the Sun, which were due to launch a devastating attack on the alien home world thirty days before John was captured. He fully believes that this desperate military strike will be a turning point in the war, and enough to strike a crippling blow against the enemy even though the two of them won’t live to see it, but he is left screaming in despair when Brie drops a bombshell of her own. When the alien jailer (McCracken) returns once more, Brie willingly goes to it and reveals that she was being changed back into one of them, thus exposing herself as a sleeper agent who has manipulated John into revealing humanity’s greatest military secret and assumedly dooming the human race to destruction.
“Quality of Mercy” is one of a handful (something like six to eight) episodes of The Outer Limits that really stuck with me, both as a kid when I first watched it and now, later in life. I remember enjoying this episode so much, being so influenced by it, that I plagiarised it for a short story assignment at secondary school! Although the episode is pretty much confined to one rather uninspiring location (an alien prison cell that looks to have taken a leaf out of Star Trek’s (1966 to 1969) playbook) and only really feature three character’s, its themes of human determination, and naivety, beautifully summed up as always by the narrator (or “Control Voice”; Kevin Conway): “Men of war have long known that warriors must often abandon those verities they defend. Peace, human kindness, love…for they hold no meaning to the enemy. And so, to win, do we become what we despise…and despise what we become? In the darkest of hours…in the greatest of battles…we must never forget who, or what, we are.“
Although they’re not given a name, we are told quite a few things about the alien force that has imprisoned our main characters. They are a war-like race with little compassion and, though they can apparently understand human language and speak it through a machine, they have no understanding of concepts like “mercy”; they treat their prisoners like rats to be observed, forcibly experimented on, and dissected to learn more about their ways and their enemy. They seem oddly curious about human beings; they left Commander Hartley’s body in the cell with Brie for some time as if expecting her to do something with it (and John suspects that they eat their dead) and were fascinated by the differences between male and female bodies and sexual organs. Brie recounts with disgust and dismay how they forced her to strip down and violated her with probes and instruments, and of course she is horrified at the continued alterations being made to her body by their experiments. The aliens are depicted as huge, armoured creatures that tower over and physically dominate their captors, despite John’s best efforts to fight them back and, though we don’t see their forces in this episode, we do here many a horror story from John about how the alien’s ships have decimated humanity’s forces and proved to be a high-unconquerable enemy. And yet, despite Brie trying to encourage John to partake of the limited sustenance the aliens provide and talk him out of the futility of trying to escape or discover some weakness in their captors, John’s resolve remains absolute and steadfast His immediate focus is on learning the layout of their cell, figuring out how observed they are, and gathering as much information as he possibly can about where they are and what options are available to him, and he continually shouts defiance to his captors, taunting them with the revelation that he personally destroyed on of their capital ships and remaining adamant that they aren’t as indestructible as they immediately seem.
In the end, “Quality of Mercy” is a harrowing tale of desperation, deceit, and determination; John and Brie couldn’t be two more different, contrasting characters and they react to their hopeless situation in wildly different ways that both define and alter their characters and add to the intriguing lore of this world. Set in a future where humanity has been locked in an interstellar war for so long that Earth’s entire society has changed to become entirely focused on producing weapons, soldiers, and ships for the conflict and hatred for their aggressive, uncompromising alien enemy has become the norm, over-riding compassion, love, and the simple pleasures of life. John embodies this perfectly, being a good soldier who is frothing at the mouth to get back out there and fight, whether it means his death or not, and is defiant right up until the moment where he realises that the only way out is suicide. Of course, the most memorable moment of this episode is the shocking twist ending; this blew my mind as a kid, and I really think the episode does a great job of building up to this reveal as Brie is so timid and frightened and clinging to her humanity with everything she has and is positioned as an innocent victim of horrendous torture. The slow degradation of her body is juxtaposed with her failing hope for the future of humanity, and every action John takes is geared towards restoring that hope and finding a way out, and a way to fight! Ultimately, however, he is just another pawn manipulated by a superior alien force; the final shot of him screaming in hopeless defiance is extremely powerful and has stuck with me for decades. I’ve always enjoyed the bleak twist endings that closed out many episodes of The Outer Limits, and “Quality of Mercy” is easily one of the best for that thanks to how strong the two lead’s performances are and how well the episode uses every bit of its limited budget and run time.
Have you ever seen “Quality of Mercy” 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 see the twist coming or were you as shocked as I was when I first saw this episode? What are some other stories of alien transformation and conflict that you enjoy? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to sign up and leave a comment below or leave a reply on my social media, and be sure to check back in next week for the conclusion of Sci-Fi Sunday.