Audiences could relate to The Twilight Zone because it was essentially about the search for happiness. Granted, these searches were highly unusual, and the results were mixed. TZ is a highly moral show, and those who achieve a happy ending are people who earn it, through their general decency and kindness. I argued last week that Mr. Bemis of “Time Enough at Last” felt like a cruel exception – but then war is cruel. For the most part, TZ operated on the lines of justice; people got what they deserved.
There were a wide-range of “types” who appeared over and over again in the series. Those who got their happy ending were often down on their luck, even at the fringes of society: the old, the poor, the different – but, since this was the 50’s, not too different. In our first class, a student asked Elliot how he chose which episodes we would watch together, and he admitted a prejudice: these “happy ending” episodes, often dripping with sentimentality, were not his favorites. I tend to agree, and I would add some of the “humorous” episodes, featuring great comics like Ed Wynn, Art Carney, and Carol Burnett. Serling was at his best when he was giving the “bad guys” – the greedy, the mean, the unloveable – their comeuppance.
One of the most common protagonists was the mid-level executive, the kind of guy that grew especially interesting fifty years later in Mad Men. In The Twilight Zone, these guys could go either way, and Rod Serling shone a spotlight on all types, from the ambitious up-and-comers and the executives mad with power, to those facing a mid-life crisis or moping toward, or past, retirement. The needy were offered magical short-cuts (which they should be wary of accepting), the smug were brought down hard . . . and the most sympathetic ones, the world-weary who felt robbed because the American Dream had turned out to be hollow, were put through the emotional wringer by fantastical events.
This week, we look at three such men and the divergent paths they take. As you may notice, we’re two weeks in and we’re still talking about men. We’ll get to the female protagonists at a later date. The Twilight Zone was a product of its time, and that brings problems along with it. For now, we’ve got a quiet mother, a bad wife, and a good wife for the men at the center of it all. (And for our bonus episode, we’ve got – a robot!) They matter. Let’s take what we can get for now.
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“Walking Distance” (written by Rod Serling; original broadcast 10/30/59)
“There won’t be any more merry-go-rounds, no more cotton candy, no more band concerts. I only wanted to tell you that this is a wonderful time for you. Now . . . here . . . That’s all, Martin, that’s all I wanted to tell you. God help me, that’s all I wanted to tell you.“
Martin Sloan (Gig Young) has fled his advertising job and empty life in New York and drives his convertible down the coast, looking for some meaning. When his car needs repairs, he finds a gas station a mere mile away from his hometown (naturally called) Homewood, and he decides to leave the car behind and take a walk to check out his past.
When he walks into the downtown soda shop, it really is like stepping into the past. The soda jerk looks familiar, and the chocolate sodas (with three scoops) still only costs a dime. When Martin strolls through town, everything looks like it did in his childhood: people strolling idyllically through the park, children playing on the beloved merry-go-round where Martin recalls he himself scratched his name. In fact, he sees a young man doing that very thing, but when he approaches the boy, he gets a shock – the kid is Martin Sloan!
Serling returns to the trope of an adult bemoaning the way life has ended up to him, but here, unlike in “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” or “A World of Difference,” which we discussed last week, Serling is mining richer material. Interestingly, producers initially scoffed at the use of magic to send Martin into his own past, arguing that the “fantasy” in the pilot episode could be explained away as a psychotic break, but here there was no getting around the impossibilities that lay behind Martin’s experience.
Fortunately, Serling and producer Buck Houghton worked hard to sell their point. And I have to say that the delicacy of the “magic” here is one of its strongest selling points. There’s no wishing machine, no Devil or Angel, just . . . Martin, fueled by his desire to understand and, perhaps, justify his existence.
In “Walking Distance,” the past is, indeed, the past, and by his presence Martin has created an anomaly that causes trouble. He visits his old home and spooks his astonished and frightened parents, and then he pursues young Martin to lay down some truths about his life. Their confrontation occurs on the merry-go-round, and Martin causes his younger self to flee and fall off the machine, breaking his leg.
The thing that makes this episode so special (and should award it more classic status than it seems to have achieved) is a beautifully written final act between Martin and his father, played by Frank Overton, a wonderful actor who you might recognize as Sheriff Heck Tate in To Kill a Mockingbird or Elias Sandoval in one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek, “This Side of Paradise” (the one with the happiness spores!) Mr. Sloan now believes that Martin is who he says he is and, despite whatever fear such a miracle might inspire, he becomes the father that both younger and older Martin need:
“Martin, you have to leave here. there’s no room, there’s no place. Do you understand that? I guess because we only get one chance . . . maybe there’s only one summer to every customer. that little boy, the one I know, the one who belongs here – this is his summer, just as it was yours once. Don’t make him share it.“
Chastened and wiser, Martin returns to the soda shop and finds that it has been modernized. (The soda now costs 35cents!!) He decides to heed his father’s advice to go back to New York and seek new paths to happiness in his real life. He returns to his car, saddled now with a limp because of the accident he himself had caused, and drives away.
It’s a beautiful episode, filmed by George T. Clemons, who won an Emmy for his work on the show. The town is composed of houses repurposed from the film Meet Me in St. Louis, and the score is by none other than Bernard Herrman, Hitchcock’s best collaborator. There’s also an adorable cameo by a very young Ron Howard, who began his successful acting career this very year. And Gig Young is really fine as Martin. What makes this one personally satisfying is that, unlike so many episodes where disillioned people are allowed to merge into their illusions, here is a man who is forced to face the life he has made and who then sets off to change it for the better. And Twilight Zone is never better than when it utilizes fantasy to clarify reality.
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“A Stop at Willoughby” (written by Rod Serling; original broadcast 5/6/60)
“Some people aren’t built for competition, Janey – or big pretentious houses they can’t afford, or rich communities they don’t feel comfortable in, or country clubs they wear around their neck like a badge of status . . . I would prefer, though I never asked before, a job, any job, any job at all where I can be myself.”
Another disquisition on the Rat Race, another world-weary advertising executive (see “Walking Distance”) saddled with a shrewish wife and horrid boss (see “Time Enough at Last”), another chance to escape into a golden representation of the halcyon past. “A Stop at Willoughby” has long been recognized as a Twilight Zone classic. On re-watching, however, it feels lighter than the more emotionally-packed “Walking Distance” and trapped in the “twenty-two minutes and a twist” pattern of more typical TZ episodes.
At the start, Gart Williams (James Daly) is having a very bad day. The huge account he promised his boss has been stolen by the rising star whom Williams himself had championed. This leads to a vicious dressing down by Mr. Misrell and Gart fleeing the meeting. On the train ride home, he falls asleep and is awakened when the conductor – a different man from the usual – calls out the next stop “Willoughby!” The train compartment seems to be that of an earlier age, and when Gart pulls up the window shade, the November snowstorm has been replaced by a bright sunny day, and the scene outside comes right out of The Music Man. The conductor tells him that Willoughby is the kind of small town “where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure.”
Gart snaps awake and finds himself back in his regular train. When he gets home, his wife lays into him for walking out of the meeting. I have to say that I myself was shocked when Gart calls his boss “fatso!” And the weight references keep coming as he explains the situation to his wife. The rest of the episode plays like this, with home and work life getting worse and worse for Gart (you can tell this by the fact that every few minutes he grabs his chest or stomach and winces) until finally he finds himself in that old train at the stop for Willoughby. This time, though, he decides to get off the train and stay in this town where everyone knows his name and the lakes are full of fish.
The episode ends, for good or ill, with a par-for-the-course twist: we return to the snow and the commuter train, which has come to a halt because one of its passengers cried out, “Willoughby” and hurled himself off the train to his death. As the kindly modern conductor talks the situation over with another man, folks from the local funeral home come to fetch Gart’s body and take it into town for an autopsy. When they close their doors, we see the funeral home is named – gasp!!!! – “Willoughby and Sons.”
Okay, so . . . Gart is dead, and the town of Willoughby is . . . paradise. I would guess this is Gart’s paradise, considering he hated his New York job and his tony home life in the Connecticut suburbs. I have to wonder where my own train would stop if I were in this situation. I would hope there’s some theatre, and I don’t like fishing . . . The point here is, if Gart shares with men like Martin Sloan and Henry Bemis the feeling of being trapped in a life or world he despises, only in “Walking Distance” does The Twilight Zone create a situation where Martin must reflect and adjust and learn and grow. Gart Williams chooses death, although here death is a beautiful endless dream. And poor Henry fares worst of all: a living death where he is left alone and blind, his beloved books piled around him in useless stacks.
We won’t come to a female protagonist for another two weeks, so I’ll just say this about the role of women in The Twilight Zone. There are some great ones, but the show is very much a product of its time. For me, a lot of what’s going on with female characters reflects what we see in film noir, which by 1960 was accelerating into a conclusion. The women of noir all seem to exist as adjuncts to the men. Even the few heroines are usually about the task of proving their husband or boyfriend innocent of a crime. The good girls help their men, while the dames and floozies and cold-hearted wives – the femmes fatales – use men for their own needs (and destroy and/or desert them after they have served their purpose.)
“A Stop at Willoughby” gives us a longer glimpse into the whys and wherefores of its protagonist’s life than the other two episodes mentioned here. In “Walking Distance” we only know what Martin tells us, and while the scene between the Bemises in “Time Enough at Last” is horrifying, it seems to be a part of a bigger picture, of a world where nobody values art or literature or poetry anymore. (Why are all those books still in the library???) The significant conversation between Gart Williams and his wife paints a picture of a type of woman, common in the show and in noir, who chose a man to pin her hopes of a perfect, conventionally successful life on. Jane Williams wants the expensive suburban home and the country club membership; for her, that is a life lived “full measure.”
For all his sensitivity and prescience concerning the problems of a live well-lived during his time, Rod Serling never, to my knowledge, created a sympathetic portrait of women like Jane, trapped in the conventions of their time. These women were more likely a part of the problem or, in the case of a “good wife,” powerless to prevent their husband from escaping the machinations of the Zone. I know we’re supposed to think that Gart Williams gets a happy ending, despite his death. What makes this episode less satisfying on re-watching it this time is that Gart is handed Paradise simply by thinking the “right” way, the unconventional way, while Martin Sloan does the work (albeit with some magical assistance) and heads back to real life a wiser man with a better shot at a more realistic semblance of happiness. As for Jane . . . well, after settling down in Willoughby, we don’t even give her another thought.
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“Nick of Time” (written by Richard Matheson; original broadcast 11/18/60)
Before William Shatner became a household name with a little show called Star Trek, he earned the status of the most hysterical man of all time in one of the most iconic episodes of The Twilight Zone.
This . . . is not that episode.
“Nick of Time” is our first foray into the second season, and it was broadcast nearly three years before the other William Shatner episode (which you know we’re going to talk about eventually!) Both of these were written by Richard Matheson, and it’s hard not to compare them but we must try or we will never get through this one.
If there is a supernatural element to this story, it is tangential at best. What this amounts to is a study in human weakness and the pivotal moment that comes to all of us when we have to – for want of a better term – man up or give up! The story concerns a young honeymooning couple, Don and Pat Carter (Shatner and Patricia Breslin) whose car breaks down (as they always seem to do on the outskirts of the Twilight Zone) in a small town. They decide to wait out the repairs in a local café, and at their table they find a penny fortune machine with a bobblehead devil on the top. (The design of the figure is the best thing about this episode: those fangs are nasty, but the worst part is how worn down it is from all those desperate people touching and using it. Check out the eyes!)
Through quick exposition, we have learned that Don is very ambitious and very superstitious. He got married just as he was coming up for a possible promotion to office manager in his accounting firm. As for the superstitions, he carries a rabbit’s foot and a four leaf clover around with him. As they eat their lunch, Don decides to throw a penny into the machine and ask if he’s going to get the job. The answer is something that you see in every eight ball toy or fortune cookie: “The odds are in your favor.” And so, on a lark – except you can see how excited the fortune makes Don feel – he calls his office and learns that he has, indeed, received the promotion.
From that point on, the pennies fly, and Don starts to ask the machine everything. When he interprets the answers as suggesting that he and Pat would be safer hanging out in town till after three, his wife finally puts her foot down at his increasingly obsessive behavior and insists they leave. Don agrees, but you can see the dread on his face and in his walk as they exit the café – and promptly almost get run down by a truck. The clock in the park reads three!!!!!!
This is the Twilight Zone, and so that is all it takes for Don to believe fervently in the magical powers of the fortune machine. He begins to ask it a series of questions about their car, their trip, their destination, their future. And the answers are just vague enough that he feels their proof that the machine is wisdom itself. Finally, Pat jumps up and asks her husband incredulously if he is allowing this ridiculous machine to control his life, to which Don replies forlornly, “I don’t know.”
We’ve talked above about the types of women in the Zone. Fortunately for Don, Pat is a good catch, and while she spends most of this episode fretting over what sort of man she’s stuck with, she now gets to prove her mettle and give a speech that is just the glass of cold water in the face that Don needs:
“Isn’t that exactly what you’re letting it do? Don, it made you call the office before. It made you stay here instead of leave. It made you afraid to walk down the street. And now it’s telling you where you’re going to live. Why, it’s as if every superstitious feeling you’ve ever had is wrapped up in that one machine. It doesn’t matter whether it can for tell the future. What matters is whether you believe more in luck and in fortune then you do in yourself. Oh, you can decide your own life. You have a mind, a wonderful mind. Don’t destroy it trying to justify that cheap penny fortune machine to yourself. We can have a wonderful life together if we make it wonderful ourselves.”
That’s all it takes to bring her man back to his senses. They leave the café and drive away, escaping the trap of the machine and any last-minute twist the Twilight Zone wants to throw at them. No, the twist here is that another couple, a much older one, enters the cafe, rushes to the machine, and begins depositing pennies. By the shape of their questions, we understand that they, too, met the machine at a pivotal moment in their lives. Unlike the Carters, however, they are held in its thrall so firmly that they have never left the town. They are frozen by fear and superstition into immobility.
It’s an ironic sort of lesson for a show that asks you most weeks to believe in something that is incomprehensible within the natural world in order to get its message across. Here, we have almost an “anti-episode” where no real magic exists but people ruin their lives hoping to find the “magic” to get them through all those difficult crossroads life throws at them. For me, this is one of those overly didactic episodes that hammers its lessons home with a mallet. Fortunately, the show usually handled this with a lot more panache than we find in “Nick of Time.”
But I’m telling you, the devil looks real cool. And I think it’s a great title: Nick is a common name for Satan, and Pat does rescue Don in the . . . well, you get it.
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We’re not leaving the first season behind entirely. Elliot has selected a few more for the coming weeks; interestingly, these include three of the best female-centered episodes of the series. The first season also had a lot of stories about space, which is natural since the race to circle the earth, send up satellites, and journey to other planets was starting to heat up. And the 50’s had also been a great time for science fiction at the movies, with aliens and radioactive creatures, both good and evil, standing side by side with the more traditional monsters of the 30’s and 40’s.
A lot of these space episodes are patterned similarly: astronauts confront the unknown and then – twist, twist, twist, they come to regret their snoopiness on other planets. One of the first of the bunch, however, approached the limits of space in a more meaningful way. It could be seen as something of a companion piece, or even sequel, to the pilot, “Where Is Everybody?” And since my pal Sergio mentioned it as one of his favorites, this week’s bonus episode is “The Lonely.”
This was actually the first episode to be filmed after the show was accepted by the networks. In his Twilight Zone Companion, Marc Zicree offers a detailed description of the decision to film in Death Valley under the excruciating heat, and how horrific that experience was for cast and crew. But then, some place had to be found that would resemble our image of what constitutes a hostile planet.
James A. Corry (Jack Warden) has been convicted of murder, and despite his protestations that he killed a man in self-defense, he has been sentenced to the punishment that befits murderers in this future time: he must spend fifty years in solitary confinement, not in a cell, but alone on a 6,000 square mile asteroid. He lives in a shack, and the only human company he sees are the spacemen who arrive every three months with supplies.
Only Captain Allenby (John Dehner) is friendly to James, bringing him paperback books and even the parts of an old car that Corry spends a year putting together. But after four years, Corry is going crazy from the loneliness. When the crew lands and has to limit their visit to fifteen minutes (or risk being out of orbit and not getting back to Earth), Corry tells the Captain that he doesn’t think he can survive the rest of his sentence. That’s when Allenby secretly gives the prisoner a gift: a robot that looks like a woman (Jean Marsh). Her name is Alicia, and to all intents and purposes she is human, with a human life span, feelings and capacity to learn.
Left alone with her, Corry rejects the gift. Even as Alicia pleads with him to be kind to her, he refuses to give in to an illusion:
“Why didn’t they build you to look like a machine? Why didn’t they build you out of metal, with bolts and wires and electrodes and things like that? Why did they turn you into a lie, cover you with something that looks like flesh, give you a face – a face that, if I look at it long enough, makes me think, makes me believe that . . . oh, it’s a lie!”
Time passes, and things change. If Corry had fallen in love with Alicia and lived with her as his “wife,” I would stop here and say yeah, this is a creepy story. But Serling plays it smarter by making Corry smarter. As he plays checkers with Alicia, he realizes that she has become a reflection of the best in him: she likes the things he likes and she returns the warmth that he gives her. It’s like having Alicia there has helped Corry learn to like himself more. And he doesn’t feel lonely.
Still, when the spaceship lands, and Captain Allenby informs Corry that he has been pardoned and that he has twenty minutes to get himself together and leave this godforsaken asteroid – and that there’s not enough fuel for them to bring Alicia with them – Corry snaps. Whatever insights he has built into his relationship with her give way to a fierce declaration that he won’t abandon her, that he needs her. And so, to save Corry from himself (and to get them all home), Allenby shoots Alicia in the face, exposing the wires and electrodes. He tells Corry that all he’s leaving behind him now is the loneliness. Corry says, “I’ll have to keep that in mind” as he follows the men back to the ship, back to Earth.
Serling’s final narration here is especially beautiful:
“On a microscopic piece of sand that floats through space is a fragment of a man’s life. Left to rust is the place he lived in and the machines he used. Without use, they will disintegrate from the wind and the sand and the years that act upon them; all of Mr. Corry’s machines – including the one made in his image, kept alive by love, but now obsolete . . . in The Twilight Zone.”
I think most of us over the past three years can empathize with Corry, and with Serling’s message, here and in most of the other episodes we’ve covered, about the perils of isolation. This episode is particularly resonant for modern day viewers, considering how much we have come to depend on technology to not feel alone. Listen, I’m grateful for my Zoom book club and for the jigsaw puzzles and the kindly folks on Twitter. But Facetime has nothing on real face time, where you used to get hugs. I do worry about our over-dependence on all these machines, especially in these nascent A.I.-centered days. All the pretty pictures you can make. All the fantasies of every kind that you can enter on your screen.
What would Rod Serling have to say about it all?