“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.”
So, continuing my journey through the Twilight Zone, we have arrived at Season Four. This season was the only one that experimented with a longer format than the traditional half hour, but to many viewers contained less episodes of note. That being said, I did find a few I thought were worthy of mentioning.
“Death Ship” starts with a spaceship orbiting a planet. The three men inside are from Earth, and their instructions are to investigate planets for signs of potential for colonisation. They spot a metallic object on the surface, and decide to land next to it, only to find out it is a crashed spaceship that looks exactly like theirs. When they enter they find it is more like theirs than they would like, as there are three dead bodies inside that look like them. The remainder of the episode deals with their attempts to find out what is going on, and the eventual conclusion that two of them will come to accept, and one, the captain, will not. His will prevails, and the men under him follow his instructions, to the detriment of them all.
Jack Klugman appeared in this episode as the captain, one of four appearances he would make on “The Twilight Zone”. I won’t give the conclusion away, but it’s an interesting episode and a look at how a strong personality can override others, even when he is wrong. It’s also a lesson about our tendency to follow an authoritative figure, and that the one in charge isn’t always right. This episode is one of those written by Richard Matheson, based on his own short story. He is a wonderful writer and his ability to develop fear and tension, and create unexpectedly spooky situations, is one of the reasons I appreciate his work.
Speaking of frequent appearances, Burgess Meredith, who also made four appearances on the show, starred in “Printer’s Devil” and he’s wonderful! The story concerns a newspaper owner/editor who is going bankrupt. In despair, he travels to a bridge where he intends to commit suicide, only to be stopped by an elderly man who seems a little strange. The man calls himself Mr Smith, and states that he has come to the town to work for the protagonist’s paper. He states he is a skilled linotype operator and demonstrates this on the paper’s machine. He even produces $5000 in cash to pay off a loan to the bank so the paper can resume operations. (Linotype is described in the dictionary as ‘a composing machine producing lines of words as single strips of metal, used chiefly for newspapers. It is now rarely used.’) Mr Smith scoops a story on a bank robbery, putting the small paper in front of it’s big competitor, whose owner comes to buy out the paper. The hero refuses, believing the whole thing to be a run of luck that will end. But after the competitor’s building burns down the hero starts to wonder about Mr Smith. Mr Smith eventually says he is the devil and will continue to work at the paper in return for the hero’s soul. He adds he is obviously mad and the hero can do himself no harm by humouring an old man. So the idiot, I mean hero, signs. While the hero eventually extricates himself and his girlfriend by using the devil’s tricks against him, Rod Serling’s final voiceover tells us ‘he is gone, but not for good.’
The real joy of this episode is watching Burgess Meredith chew the scenery in a gleefully evil portrayal. He positively oozes malice and sleaze. Was this the same actor who portrayed the saintly librarian in ‘The Obsolete Man’? Oh yes, and that is the mark of excellent acting. So I can thoroughly recommend this episode, it’s an absolute hoot.
“On Thursday we leave for home” depicts a human colony on a very barren and harsh alien planet. The colonists struggle with the necessities of survival, and many have died. Their leader, Captain Benteen, seems like a brilliant leader, able to be kind, firm, decisive, hard when he has to be. There is a great deal of excitement when a rescue ship comes from Earth to take them home. However Captain Benteen, used to being everything to his people, quickly realises they won’t need him anymore, and he cannot cope with this idea, becoming desperate as he sees his life’s meaning slipping out of his grasp. He finds out that the colonists are not interested in staying together, and plan to go their separate ways once they return home. As a result, he becomes hostile to the ship’s captain, accuses him of lying to the colonists, and even tries to sabotage the ship. Eventually he tries to persuade the colonists to stay, and when they refuse, says he will stay alone if need be. He only comes to his senses when it is too late and the ship has gone without him.
This is a fascinating look at human interaction on several levels. Interactions between the colonists and their leader are almost cult-like. He leads them in recitations in order to calm them, and dictates and controls every activity and when it should be conducted. In the harsh environment they inhabit these stringent controls are necessary for survival. When they realise they can return to a more hospitable environment they understand they do not have to follow the same rules. This is a realisation many of them come to by degrees, and this knowledge is a liberation. The problem with Captain Benteen, of course, is that he does not know any other way to be. He has no purpose without his leadership, and cannot conceive of a life where he is only one of many, rather than being the man in charge. He is accused by the ship’s captain of playing God, and certainly employs some very manipulative tactics. However I don’t see this character as a bad man. He is desperately trying to hang on to the only life he knows by trying to control everyone around him. He simply cannot let go. I love the psychological truth of this story. Benteen may be addicted to power, but only because he knows no other way. He is genuinely concerned for his people, and cannot grasp that he no longer has to make all the decisions. I think this story teaches us a lot about what people will give up for safety, and how power can corrupt those in charge. The most encouraging aspect of the story is that the colonists do walk away when they are offered a better choice. This often does not happen under similar circumstances, and human beings will remain in a self-imposed prison even when someone opens the door. It has some timely lessons for today.
“The Parallel” is not the first story in “The Twilight Zone” to deal with a parallel universe. An astronaut goes on a mission, blacks out while in space, then wakes up on Earth with no memory of how he returned. He begins to notice small changes, such as being a Colonel instead of a Major, his daughter insisting she doesn’t know him, and the fence outside his house that was not there when he left. He eventually concludes he has slipped into a parallel dimension, and initially those around him find this ludicrous, suspecting that he has lost his mind. It is only when they notice his space capsule is slightly different that they start to suspect the truth. The astronaut eventually returns home, where his own superiors wonder about his sanity, until their telemetry spots an identical capsule in orbit for a few moments, transmitting from a Colonel, before disappearing.
Parallel universe stories are fairly common in science fiction, but I often find the most interesting stories of this type are the most subtle. Yes there are fun stories with massive changes to a society and to people (the Star Trek Mirror universe being a good example of this), but ultimately these are not really plausible because if a society was so different it is unlikely that it would contain the same people. It is more plausible and more interesting when differences are small. The man’s rank is slightly different, his house is slightly different, his daughter can sense a difference in him but doesn’t know what or why. This is a fun story because it is likely that the character himself will question his own memory of events, his own sanity. Is this reality really wrong, or has he really lost it? While this story did conclude happily, had he stayed where he was he, and everyone else, would never know which it was. This character bravely insists on the rightness of his version of events, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. It is a brave act, because it could end his career, even land him in a mental institution. I guess if there’s a lesson in this story it is that one must trust one’s own instincts, and that accepting the majority verdict isn’t necessarily the correct course of action. Majority does not always rule.
So, these are my four favourite episodes from Season 4 of “The Twilight Zone”. AS always, I would love to hear of your picks from the show, so feel free to comment.