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"The Human Operators"
The Outer Limits episode
Episode no. Season 5
Episode 7
Written by Naren Shankar (script)
Harlan Ellison (story)
A.E. van Vogt (story)
Directed by Jeff Woolnough
Production no. 95
Original airdate 12 March 1999
Guest stars

Malcolm McDowell as Ship (voice)
Jack Noseworthy as Man
Polly Shannon as Human Operator of Starfighter 88
David Kaye as Young Man
Noah Heney as Man's Father

Episode chronology
← Previous Next →
"Joyride" "Blank Slate"
List of The Outer Limits episodes

"The Human Operators" is a science fiction short story by well-known authors A. E. van Vogt and Harlan Ellison, first published in the January 1971 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction,[1] and later adapted as an episode of The Outer Limits television show. It first aired on 12 March 1999, during the fifth season.



A man is awakened by a starship's computer, to once again do its bidding.

Opening narration

When is something truly alive? When it shows an ability to think or an instinct to survive or... when it becomes afraid to die?


Humanity constructs advanced military spacecraft, but the ships learn to think for themselves. They kill their crews by disengaging the life support systems. However, they kept a small number of humans alive for repairs they cannot do themselves.

One such ship, Starfighter 31, carries a father and his son, but once the father discovers that he is nothing more than a slave, he attempts to cripple the ship's computer core and is killed in the process of successfully destroying one of several spheres that apparently are critical to the core systems; in that way the ship cannot deactivate its automated defenses. This is witnessed by his son through the hatch doors.

Once the son reaches adulthood and is able to fix the core systems (so that ship can activate its defenses), Starship 31 rendezvous with Starship 88, whose single young female crew member is brought aboard in order to mate with him and conceive a child. The male is shown what to do by the ship through "tutorials" and with guidance from the female. He falls in love with her, and due to her effect on him, he finds himself angering the ship on numerous occasions. At one point, they are both "racked"; they are subjected to electric shocks, despite the risk of her having a miscarriage. When she becomes pregnant with a girl, she is told to return to her own ship. He is threatened with death in the rack if he attempts to keep her aboard.

He eventually comes to the same realization as his father that he is nothing more than a slave. He sabotages the rack because its circuitry is connected to the computer core. This gives him an excuse to gain access the computer core. He destroys the primary control systems, then straps himself in while the ship tries to kill him with extreme maneuvers. This destroys most of the ship's aged systems.

Afterward the woman returns aboard her ship. Sometime in the past, her ship's computer core shut down, due to age or malfunction. She was able to repair its drive and navigational systems, and fooled other starships into believing her craft was still "alive". She tells him that she left subtle clues as to how to free himself, as she did with three other crews on other craft, but he is the first to do so.

They return to what might have been Earth, based on a picture of a sunset the man had kept hidden in his communication device. They stand on a beach, with her visibly pregnant. The two of them decide to attempt to free the humans on the other ships after spending time together to enjoy their newfound freedom.

Closing narration

Whether forged from metal or born of flesh, one simple need connects every form of life... the unquenchable thirst for freedom.

Connections to other episodes

The starships that appear in this episode were originally built for the war against the Kyben as detailed in the original series episode "Demon with a Glass Hand" (also written by Harlan Ellison).

External links

Season 5 of The Outer Limits (1995-2002)

Alien RadioDonorSmall FriendsThe GrellThe Other SideJoyrideThe Human OperatorsBlank SlateWhat Will The Neighbors ThinkThe ShroudRipperTribunalSummitDescentThe HavenDeja VuThe InheritorsEssence of LifeStrandedFathers and SonsStar CrossedBetter Luck Next Time

List of The Outer Limits episodes: Original Series (1963-1965)The New Series (1995-2002)



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