Back to The Twilight Zone for eleven selections from its final season. To start with, I picked “In Praise of Pip,” which was written by Rod Serling. It’s Bill Mumy’s third appearance in the program, but it’s really worth watching for Jack Klugman’s amazing performance. Life kind of got in the way tonight and so I don’t have much to share, but I did want to make sure I praised Klugman as Pip’s dad, because he was just so good in this. That and our son was very confused by the jump in time before the final scene. Several weeks pass, but, especially since the scene takes place in the same location as the one before it, it looked to him like it was the following morning.
Also, remember those cigarette companies that used to sponsor this show? Well, they must have found some other kind of sponsor in season five, because Klugman smokes Morley in this one!
Morley King Size! The 555 of Cigarettes!
And so back to The Twilight Zone for its peculiar fourth season. I’ve picked just five installments from this year, which was held back as a midseason replacement and given instructions to expand from thirty minutes to an hour. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any of the stories from this season. It may not have been in the syndicated package that we got in Atlanta in the early eighties, unless some wiseguy decided to break them into two-parters.
Richard Matheson’s “Death Ship” is really good, although amusingly dated in design. It’s set in the far-flung future of 1997, with humanity looking for colony planets. Oddly enough, I was thinking about how television in the sixties kept using the image of flying saucers as what Earth ships would look like, such as the Jupiter 2 in Lost in Space, which would begin production a couple of years after this story, and looked it up. Would you believe that show was also set in 1997? Did people then really think we’d be colonizing other worlds in flying saucers in just thirty years?
The crew, played by Jack Klugman, Ross Martin, and Fred Beir, find a crashed saucer on a distant planet, and learn to their horror that it is their own ship, and their dead bodies are in the control cabin. I think the hour-long format worked really well for this premise. I was thinking ahead of how they’d resolve this problem in time travel, fitting everything that I could into the expected Twilight Zone boxes, and was pleasantly surprised by new complications as they emerged, including a wild moment where Ross Martin’s character not only hallucinates that he’s back home with his wife, played by Mary Webster, but his body completely vanishes from the flying saucer.
We enjoyed talking with our son about the plot complications. He’s savvy enough with science fiction to have understood the problem probably better than some of the teevee audience in 1963, and we thought we had some good ideas for the characters to avoid their grisly fates. Then the script went and messed with our solutions, almost as though Richard Matheson wanted to make certain nobody was going to second-guess him!
Time once again to take a journey into The Twilight Zone. For season three, I’ve picked eleven episodes. These include my all-time favorite story from the series, a classic that I’ve never actually seen, and several, like this one, which have really great actors in them. George Clayton Johnson’s “A Game of Pool” may have been commissioned as a lower-priced entry to shore up the budget. It only has two sets, one fellow offscreen to make some of the trick pool shots, and two speaking parts.
The speaking parts, however, go to a pair of incredibly great actors: Jonathan Winters and Jack Klugman. Winters plays Fats Brown, who died fifteen years ago but has a legend that haunts Klugman’s Jesse Cardiff. The poor man is very good, but he’s chosen to live his life in Fats’s town, in Fats’s pool hall, where he can’t win anything without being compared to Fats. Because I’m stupid, I supposed he must really like the chili dogs in this pool hall, otherwise he could get out of Chicago and play someplace where they’ve never heard of Fats. It took me a second to realize that wouldn’t work. Somebody else’s legend would always precede him.
Our son probably started getting incredibly skeptical when he figured out that’s all this episode was going to be: one high-stakes game of pool between two tense men, one of them dead but with a long shadow. He was pretty restless, and he also didn’t understand the ending at all. I admired the end for its quite elegant simplicity; it didn’t need to hammer the point home, except perhaps to six year-olds, it was telegraphed ahead of time and the whole theme of living up to a legend made it an inevitable conclusion given the rules of this world and its depiction of an afterlife.
As for me, I was more satisfied by Winters’ excellent performance than by the script. I’m so used to seeing Winters in comic parts that the intelligent and nuanced character he played here was a real treat. A later production of The Twilight Zone remade this story in 1989, with Maury Chaykin (Nero Wolfe) as Fats. I wouldn’t mind seeing that.