Eddie Albert, sentient tumbleweeds, and the ramblings of a deranged mind

“Thought has no language. We think in pictures and sensations. And then we translate these ideas into our own words and sentences.”

–Andy Thorne, played by Eddie Albert, in the “Cry of Silence”, Outer Limits (1964)

To be honest, I had never gotten past Eddie Albert and wife being attacked by sentient tumbleweeds. What might have been a workable idea in Louis Charbonneau‘s original story looks beyond ridiculous on TV. Tumbleweeds creep up, creep back, hurl themselves at Eddie. At one point he grabs one and smooshes it all over his face as if he’s being attacked. After a struggle, he wins. Did you see that honey? he asks. That thing attacked me! You actually feel bad for Eddie Albert, the actor, at this point. Eddie Albert, who wrote and starred in the first ever teleplay on television way back in 1936. Eddie Albert, hero of Tarawa. Eddie Albert, anti-hero of Attack. And here he is battling a crazed tumbleweed. There are hundreds of the things. Vast hordes of murderous tumbleweeds. We get back to town, Eddie tells his wife, and l’ll give up the idea of living on a farm. That usually did it for me right there.

This time I stuck it out but nearly gave up after they were attacked by hundreds of frogs. The scene lacked even the production values of the Ray Milland opus a decade later. Here, someone appeared to be hurling basketfuls of frogs at them. Worse yet, they were apparently living frogs, big bull frogs. You’ve never seen so many bullfrogs. The frogs squirmed, the wife screamed. They retreated back to the farmhouse. Their next foray out almost made it to the car but was driven back by deadly sentient rocks. It looked liked Buster Keaton in the avalanche scene in Seven Chances except Arthur Hunnicutt, playing a farmer named Lamont right out of Green Acres (and whose house they had sought refuge in) is struck and killed. That never happened in a Buster Keaton movie.

Then the story begins to get interesting. For one thing, in a clever expository device, it turns out that Lamont the farmer had been quite the writer, leaving behind a fascinating notebook full of observations about the late weirdness. No mere Green Acres throwaway our Lamont, it was the presence of the alien that rendered him a bumpkin. A week before he’d been a veritable chicken-fried Boswell. Reading the passages aloud, Eddie has a flash of inspiration–the tumbleweeds, frogs and rocks were not actually sentient themselves, as Lamont had thought, but rather were possessed of an alien intelligence trying to make itself evident. When that tumbleweed attacked Eddie Albert it was not trying to devour his face but to communicate. Same with the frogs. Even the rocks. Alas neither tumbleweed, frog or rock are a method of communication humans understand. Therefore the alien intelligence (brought to this lonely canyon by a recent meteorite) next used the corpse of Lamont (that is, Arthur Hunnicutt) as its chosen vessel/medium. Lamont comes in the front door, a zombie. Eddie and wife were momentarily weirded out till Eddie, in a flash of insight, realized what was going on. (Hunnicutt, meanwhile, showed how you can completely steal a scene doing absolutely nothing, just sitting there, dead.) Eddie gets Lamont the zombie to write out what the alien intelligence is trying to say. Alas, Lamont writes a series of ideograms that Eddie can make neither head nor tail of:

These are just symbols. l can’t read these. This is not Lamont’s writing. He’s transcribing it into the alien’s language. l was hoping he’d translate the thoughts into his own terms. Write enough symbols so we can establish a pattern. There’ll always be somebody to decode. Now it’s just some meaningless symbols. About four lines of them. There’s not enough of them. There’s no way to learn the key.

Then rigor mortis sets in and Lamont’s dead arm is too stiff to do anything but leave a squiggly line. Eddie laments:

The muscles move and the joints function, but that’s all. Otherwise, he’s just a zombie. What good can a dead body be to that alien intelligence? Not very much. l don’t think that it really understands. Maybe it can’t conceive of death. What a tragedy. Finally, it gets a human carrier (after tumbleweeds, frogs and rocks) and still it can’t communicate.

Eddie, frustrated, thinks out the situation and goes deep. How does an alien intelligence get its thoughts understood by a human mind? His wife points out that even if it could transfer those thoughts into a human brain–say, Eddie’s–the brain still couldn’t understand the thoughts because they’d be in an incomprehensible language. Eddie straightens her out:

Thought has no language. We think in pictures and sensations. Then we translate these ideas into our own words and sentences. Now, suppose this thing has a concept and it wants to put it into a living brain….

And that’s what they do. Eddie, much like Mr. Spock would do a few years later with a Horta (ask your nearby Trekkie), mind melded with the alien intelligence, via Lamont’s notepad, though it looked a little more like some kind of Harry Houdini channeling the dead through writing thing. Sure enough, he was right, it was an alien intelligence, trying to make their presence known and ensure their legacy by adding either DNA or RNA (I can’t remember which) to some meteors. It seemed to be only marginally effective. Eddie had figured it out, though, in one of the great scientific discoveries of all time. We really can communicate with vastly different exocivilizations than our own. Sure, the tumbleweed idea was a no go, but that ill defined mind meld thing had worked. Eddie wanted to tell the world the exciting news.

But then who would ever believe him? His wife pointed out that they have Lamont’s notebook. That was proof. Surely the world would believe that. No they wouldn’t. The ramblings of a deranged mind, Eddie could hear them them saying, meaningless symbols nobody can decipher. Best to keep this our little secret. They leave the canyon with a sigh and drive back to the city. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

OK, it’s not the best episode of Outer Limits. It might even be the worst. They can’t all be Demon With A Glass Hand, and not every teleplay can be written by a Harlan Ellison. But still, I have to admit I was knocked out when Eddie Albert’s character said

thought has no language. We think in pictures and sensations. Then we translate these ideas into our own words and sentences.

Because I’ve been writing with that idea in mind for years now. Not that there is no language in thought–there obviously is in much of it, if only because we can hear the inner voice in our skull all the time–but that not all thought is language. Tremendous amounts of human observations and perceptions exist without language at all, and that is what I try to tap into when I write. Not my own, obviously, as I am the one writing, but into the reader’s. It’s this idea of writing to connect with the brain beneath language, directly into sensation, reaction, observation. To describe a room and make the reader feel like they are actually there, and it is not me narrating but them experiencing. Using language to go beyond language. My words as pictures and sensations, as if the writing wasn’t even there.

I just never expected to hear the idea uttered by a man who’d just fought off a maniacal tumbleweed.

Outer Limits

The Outer Limits


(Incidentally, I copped some of the pictures linked here from the Outer Limits fan site We Are Controlling Transmission, definitely worth a look if you’re a fan of the series. And I found the script here.)

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