September 4, 2014

Summer reruns: when government was "the good guys"


One of the goals of this blog is to analyze how television interacts with American culture - the ways in which it forms it, and the ways in which it reflects it.  This is one of those times when we look at the later.

It's all prompted by the death earlier this month of the actor Peter Breck, who was probably best known for playing Nick Barkley in the 60s western series The Big Valley.  But prior to that, on November 4, 1963, Breck starred in an episode of The Outer Limits entitled "O.B.I.T." The opening narration presents the premise:

In this room, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, security personnel at the Defense Department Cyprus Hill's Research Center keep constant watch on its scientists through O.B.I.T., a mysterious electronic device whose very existence was carefully kept from the public at large. And so it would have remained but for the facts you are about to witness…

And there's a very good reason why O.B.I.T. is kept secret: the machine "allows the observation of anyone, anywhere, at any time."  Breck enters the story as U.S. Senator Jeremiah Orville, whose committee is on the scene to investigate the murder of the center's administrator.  During the course of the investigation, Orville uncovers the truth about O.B.I.T. - that the machine is in reality controlled by "imperialistic inhabitants" of another planet, who are using their human pawns (as aliens from other planets so often do) to gain control of the planet.

Now, what I find interesting about this story - and it's the point I'm trying to make here, although I may not be doing it very well - is that there is no question about Orville being the protagonist of the story, as the dogged senator determined to get to the bottom of things and find out the truth about the strange goings-on at the facility.  His presence presents the clear message that one doesn't screw around with the United States Government.  At the end of the episode, the government smashes the conspiracy, and we are assured that "Agents of the Justice Department are rounding up the machines now."  There is, in fact, something charming about this idea - that a U.S. Senator, and the government in general, are "the good guys."  Today it's far more likely that the government itself would be portrayed as instigating the development of such an all-pervasive surveilance machine, and that the senator (or the military, at the very least) would more likely than not be involved in a cover-up of the whole thing.

That's what I like about "O.B.I.T." - it's taken for granted that the government is there to find out the truth, and once accomplished they'll see to it that the threat is destroyed.*  The assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and a host of other events have yet to occur, and the general cynicism with which the government is observed today has not yet become all-encompassing.  In fact, as author James Pierson notes in his book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, in the early 60s the government enjoyed a high approval rating from the public, who also had a great confidence that the government knew what it was doing.

*Author Mark Holcomb, in his excellent summaries of Outer Limits episodes, points out the McCarthy-era subtext in the story, which certainly isn't intended to show the government in the best light.  However, he also notes the evolution of Orville "from publicity-seeking sham to deeply concerned crusader."  This is, in fact, quite a nuanced episode in many respects, but I think the larger point remains: that Orville is from the government and is here to help.

And it's through this lens that one has to view this episode.  It reminds me a great deal of one of my favorite series, The FBI.  If you remember that show, you might recall that each week the series opened with the mission of the FBI.: "[T]o protect the innocent and identify the enemies of the Government of the United States."  That, combined with the images used in the opening (the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the Supreme Court and Treasury buildings) was enough to make any red-blooded American race out and sign up to be an FBI agent, even though it was Sunday evening and the offices were closed.

Today, we'd probably see the show for what it was, in part - a piece of Hoover-era propaganda designed to put the Bureau in the best possible light.  Just as we'd expect O.B.I.T. to be a product of a conspiracy involving the government and the military.  If anyone was to uncover it, it would probably either be an intrepid newspaper reporter, an intrepid group of high school civics students, or perhaps both.

We're right to be suspicious of government, for in many respects it has evolved into something the Founding Fathers would scarcely recognize, an invasive, intrusive, often malignant presence in the lives of Americans.  However, for better or worse we didn't always feel that way.  This episode of The Outer Limits, I think, accurately reflects how we saw the government back then - as a force for good, protecting us from threats to life and limb.  It's hard to imagine we could see an episode quite like this today.

Originally published February 27, 2012

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