Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Fredric Brown's "Arena" and The Outer Limits
"Fun and Games" is based on "Arena," a science fiction story by Fredric Brown that was first published in the June 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The Outer Limits credits do not list the story as a source, but reading the story and then watching the show make the inspiration clear—as clear as "He's So Fine" begat "My Sweet Lord" and "Soldier" begat The Terminator.
The story begins with Bob Carson awakening in an unfamiliar setting, naked, lying on hot blue sand under a blue dome. Moments before, he had been a fighter pilot, alone in a small ship on the edge of our universe, part of a fleet waiting to intercept the invading fleet of the Outsiders. The two fleets were poised for a final, massive showdown.
Just before his ship engaged with the enemy, both ships suddenly plummeted toward a planet that came out of nowhere. On the planet, Carson hears a voice inside his head telling him that it belongs to a highly advanced being, one who is intervening to prevent the destruction of two races.
The notion of a "watcher" from beyond pops up to this day in fantastic fiction, from The Watcher in the Fantastic Four comic books to the dapper, bald men on the current TV show, Fringe.
The watcher has selected a champion from the human race and another from the Outsiders; they will fight to the death and the loser's race will be wiped out. "Brain-power and courage," the voice tells Carson, "will be more important than strength." Time stands still outside the dome, awaiting the result of the contest. And the Outsider, Carson's opponent, is described as a "red sphere of horror . . . rolling toward him."
The trick to the story is that an invisible barrier separates the combatants, and only "Brain-power and courage" allow Carson to solve the mystery of how to cross the invisible wall and dispatch the alien. Along the way, the two are contrasted: Carson is young, filled with self doubt but compassionate, while the Outsider exudes waves of hatred and thoughtlessly tortures a lizard, the only other conscious being in the arena.
The contrast between Carson and the Outsider is stark, and it mirrors the time of the story's writing. Americans were fighting Nazis and Japanese, and it is no accident that the Outsider is a red sphere, much like the red circle found on the flag of Japan. The war flag of the Japanese imperial army, used in World War Two, features a red ball with rays extending out from it on all sides—very much like the Outsider and his retractable tentacles.
It must have been tempting to Fredric Brown and his war-weary readers to imagine that the Second World War could end in a moment after a battle of champions, with the winning side unharmed and the losing side eliminated.
Carson deduces that the invisible barrier is one of consciousness and knocks himself out with a stone so that his body rolls across to the other side. On awakening, he brutally kills the Outsider, saving the human race.
In David J. Schow's book on the Outer Limits, he writes that "Fun and Games" may have been inspired by Brown's story. Robert Specht wrote a script called "Natural Selection" and Joseph Stefano rewrote it to make the program that was broadcast.
The comparisons between TV show and story are instructive. The show opens with stock footage of the Roman Coliseum and Roman soldiers marching, as the narrator talks about ancient times and fun and games. The program then shifts to the present, as a card cheat in a poker game is shot to death and bitter ex-boxer Mike Benson finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Soon enough, Benson and Laura Hanley, a pretty woman who lives in the same building, are "electroported to a planet called Andara. It is a million million light years away from your own." The watcher of this story is visible (though he always appears in shadows), rather than the telepathic voice Carson hears in the short story. As in the story, Benson wonders if he is dead, but instead learns that he and Hanley have been selected as Earth's representatives to fight two representatives from another planet in the "arena." The winner's race will be preserved, the loser's will die.
Unlike the short story, this contest is a game, a spectacle presented for the enjoyment of the watcher's race, who are so far advanced that they essentially have nothing better to do.
There is some back and forth with Benson and Hanley going back to Earth until Benson agrees to participate in the contest; he is not a heroic character and he only agrees because he fears being arrested for the poker player's murder and being locked up. The arena where the contest takes place looks suspiciously like the usual Outer Limits woods, and while the watcher tells Benson and Hanley that it resembles Earth of a million years ago, the only difference seems to be a fiery, bubbling river.
The aliens of "Fun and Games" are not very frightening, with their rubber ape masks and furry gloves, and when they first appear they utter a combination of a roar and a meow. One alien apparently kills the other right away and spends the rest of the contest winging a serrated boomerang at our heroes with the accuracy of a gangster shooting at the cops in an old Warner Brothers flick.
Benson is not smart or heroic; those qualities belong to his partner, Laura Hanley. Both have psychological problems that prevent them from doing much beyond talking, and the watcher monitors their every move and comments mockingly. "Fun and Games" is as grounded in the world of early 1960s television as "Arena" is a product of World War Two-era fear and desire—Benson is a cheap, semi-tough ex-boxer with a sort of a Brooklyn accent; Hanley is pretty, serious, and right-thinking—I was waiting for her to identify herself as a schoolteacher, but she never did.
Laura runs away from Mike, either out of self-sacrifice or fear, and he finally meets the alien on a log spanning the fiery river. Mike falls and hangs by his fingers as the alien tries the old trick of stomping on those same fingers with his big, furry foot. It is up to Laura to save the day with some boomerang throwing skills she probably did not know she possessed.
The Watcher wearily admits that Mike and Laura's actions have saved the human race, and the program ends with neither the participants nor the rest of humanity having changed as a result of the ordeal.
Although the story has been adapted and expanded to fill a 50-minute time slot, the basic premise of "Fun and Games" tracks that of "Arena" closely. One clever and subtle aspect of the TV show is the way it comments on us, the viewers—the Watcher follows the action on a TV screen, and his fellow citizens presumably do the same. Mike, Laura, and the aliens perform for the viewers' enjoyment, as do the actors every week on The Outer Limits.
On a side note, I suspect that "Arena" was the first Fredric Brown story I ever read, when it was reprinted in the March 1977 issue of Starlog, along with Boris Vallejo's illustration reproduced above. Almost 34 years later, I still enjoy reading Fredric Brown's work.
"44: Fantastic Four #13." Marvel Genesis. Web. 05 Feb. 2011.
Brown, Fredric. "Arena." The Best of Fredric Brown. Ed. Robert Bloch. Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, Inc., 1976. Book Club Edition. 8-34.
"Hulu - The Outer Limits - Original: Fun And Games - Watch the Full Episode Now." Hulu – Watch Your Favorites. Anytime. For Free. Web. 05 Feb. 2011.
"Rising Sun Flag." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 06 Feb. 2011.
Schow, David J. and Jeffrey Franzen. The Outer Limits: The Official Companion. NY: Ace Science Fiction Books, 1986.
Topel, Fred. "All Is Revealed about Fringe's Bald Alien-like Observer." Blastr. Web. 05 Feb. 2011.