The Zanti Misfits
Episode of The Outer Limits
Director: Leonard Horn
Writer: Joseph Stephano
Starring: Nobody I've ever heard of
The Zanti Misfits starts in the middle, leaving the viewer with the uncomfortable impression that he walked in after the first commercial break. It begins with a demand for privacy from some unknown source. "Don't worry." We are assured. "If anyone's anywhere near that ship when it lands, it'll be over someone's dead body."
Sure enough, a car crashes through a military-controlled gate, killing the guard, and speeds into the small desert ghost town where the alien spaceship is scheduled to land.
Cue the familiar opening credits: "There is nothing wrong with your television set..."
After the commercial, we're given some background information, both in the form of the opening narration and then by some military personnel holding the ghost town. An advanced alien civilization called the Zanti have decided to use Earth as a penal colony for their misfits, or criminals. Earth was not given a choice in the matter, so the US Air Force does what it can to secure a landing area for them.
And that's when the car smashes through their gate, killing the military guard.
It wouldn't be an episode of The Outer Limits if everything ran smoothly, now would it?
The unexpected invasion of the Zanti's landing zone touches off a standoff of mistrust and suspicion between the Zanti misfits and the Air Force. The Zanti suddenly cut off communication, and the Air Force needs to maintain control over the compromised landing area but are afraid of making the situation worse by sending more people into their zone of privacy. The situation is made more tense when the commanding officer receives orders to send a man in if the Zanti don't respond within 15 minutes.
Briefly, paranoia rules the day. The Zanti are a vague and unknown threat, promising "total destruction" if they are betrayed, and must be of immense power if they could master interplanetary travel. The military, meanwhile, are practically frozen with indecision due to the unwillingness of the Zanti to clarify whether they want to deal with the intruders themselves or have the military come in and take them away. And one cynical major is very vocal about his belief that they have a patriotic duty to destroy the Zanti ship — the United States is not to be coerced into a course of action on its own soil by alien governments.
The last time a powder keg of this magnitude failed to go off was in 1605, so the confrontation between the Zanti misfits and the military garrison was inevitable. In a short battle sequence, the Zanti prove to be nowhere near the threat level that was assumed. The ship was unarmed, and the Zanti themselves turned out to be foot-long ants with human faces. Creepy as all hell, but ultimately vulnerable to conventional weapons and even well-thrown rocks.
After the battle, the garrison is left wondering how humanity will be punished for killing the misfits, but in an unexpected twist, a message from their homeworld reveals that the Zanti are ethically unable to execute their own criminals. They sent them to Earth fully expecting us, as experienced executioners, to do their dirty work for them. A classic "Who are the real monsters?" moment if I've ever seen one.
The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits share many similarities. Unlike a typical television show, they're both collections of independent stories rather than a continuous narrative, and they both promise fantastic, highly imaginative stories with unexpected twists. But The Outer Limits never quite achieved the same level of pop culture fame that The Twilight Zone did.
If The Twilight Zone had a definitive episode, it must be To Serve Man. In the case of The Outer Limits, it was The Zanti Misfits.
Looked at from today's perspective, the special effects are laughable. The bug-like Zanti are small, barely a foot long, and animated in some sequences with cheap stop-motion effects (with identical footage re-used several times) and other times are clearly inanimate models pulled by visible strings. They never convincingly pose any kind of threat other than the fact that they're as creepy as anything that ever crawled out of the uncanny valley. How they managed the two or three kills they did, even with their great numbers, is simply implausible. They could have been given some weapons, or at least wings, to present some kind of danger.
Still, many who grew up in the 60s or saw reruns in later decades have nightmarish memories of these hideous little aliens, so long as they weren't too old when they saw it. The episode is memorable if only for the dramatic reveal of the first Zanti who crawled out of the spaceship.
Ultimately, the best part of the episode was the military trying to deal with the paralyzing indecision of what to do about the violation of the Zanti's much-desired privacy while facing a vague threat of "total destruction". This quickly gives way to the action sequence, however, and ultimately the twist ending of the last Zanti message of how we played directly into their hands, or rather pincers. The message does build a good feeling of suspense, however, as we must wait for it to be translated before understanding the consequences of the plot.
Great TV? Hardly, but worth a viewing as one of the classic episodes of our parents' generation. As Nick at Night used to say, it's part of Our Television Heritage.