The Twilight Zone: “And When The Sky Was Opened”/“What You Need”

The Twilight Zone: “And When The Sky Was Opened”/“What You Need”

"And When The Sky Was Opened" (Season 1, episode 11; first aired 12/11/1959)

In Which History Has A Way Of Erasing Itself

In 1959, the moon landing was still a decade away. The USSR had launched Sputnik in October, 1957; a month later, a dog named Laika became the first living being from Earth in orbit, aboard Sputnik 2. The first human beings in space (also Russian) didn't go up until two years after "When The Sky Was Opened." Exploring the heavens laid heavily on the minds of America of the late '50s, because we were supposed to be there first, and the Evil Ruskies were, quite frankly, kicking our asses. Besides, space was the new frontier, the next great adventure for a country built on exploration, conquering the unknown and reshaping it in our own image. But space was more than just unknown--it was Unknown, it was a vast uncharted nothingness whose immensity and mystery overwhelmed such usual comforts as science and common sense. It was an area of possibility, for good and for bad, and areas of possibility have a way of dominating our imaginations and allowing us to fill in the details with our own paranoid concerns. Oh sure, logically most everyone must've realized that the first men to reach escape velocity weren't going turn into monsters or meet God or run into a giant black curtain that's been pretending to be the night sky since the dawn of time. But realizing something isn't the same thing as being completely comfortable with it, and that mild discomfort, that excitement mixed with the potential for dread, is what The Twilight Zone is all about.

"Sky" is our second episode to focus on the space program, and the first one to feature characters who've actually been in space; and the episode's greatest strength is the way it transforms nervous uncertainty into full-blown superstitious panic. Bad thing happen to a trio of men who flew an experimental jet to the stars, and, beyond some basic theorizing about "Someone," there's no explicit explanation for why those bad things happen. It just is, and that straightforward horror works in some way to the story's advantage. If you were to try and come up with some sensible justification for why Clegg, Forbes and Harrington all vanish from existence a week after crash-landing in the Mojave Desert, it would undo the primal horror of "Sky"'s best moments, because facts make horror easier to process. Facts give us rules to operate within, a context that puts boundaries on the Unknown and provides scenic routes for tourists. Here, the only fact we have is that maybe these guys shouldn't have come back--maybe they weren't meant to go up so high in the first place. Maybe no one is, and for the rest of the history of humanity, we'll be flinging sacrificial lamb after sacrificial lamb into orbit without ever remembering the cost. 

Unfortunately, the lack of explanation is also "Sky"'s biggest weakness. This is something we're going to see with a fair amount of frequency on The Twilight Zone, and it's a problem that a lot of passable but unmemorable genre short fiction has: it never quite gets to the second beat. In some ways, TZ's half-hour format gives Serling and his writers (this episode is nominally based on a Richard Matheson story called "Disappearing Act," which has very little to do with the finished result; we'll be hearing from Matheson again, though) a freedom that the writers of longer shows don't really have. A half-hour isn't that much time, and we don't expect complicated systems to be revealed, or rich back-stories, or a mythology that justifies the seemingly unjustifiable. Instead, TZ goes for the effect of singular moments, where the best episodes are dominated by clear, direct ideas. That's not to say those ideas are shallow, or that the show itself lacks depth. It's just that, well, remember "Walking Distance"? "A guy walks into his past for a bit, then leaves" is easy to grasp. There's no effort expended on explaining how he was able to time travel, just like there's no real effort expended on, say, the nuclear war of "Time Enough At Last," or the socio-political and economic factors that led to James Corry being imprisoned on an asteroid in "The Lonely." We're free to fill in those blanks ourselves, if we want to, but those blanks aren't really what those episodes are about; they're dealing with fundamental concepts, and the rising and falling action conveys just the necessary information needed to let those concepts come through.

Some of the worst TZ episodes--well, maybe not worst, but at least mediocre--are the ones that miss this clarity of thought by trying to tell stories that require too much explanation to work. This is always a tricky part in plotting. You want strong, elegant construction, but the foundation isn't always there, and when it isn't, well, we'll get to those eventually. On the other side of the coin, you'll have episodes, like this one, which are too simple. Todd talked about this in his review of "Where Is Everybody?", but where that episode was eerie enough to overcome its essentially one-note nature, "Sky" doesn't quite make it. It has good moments, and the three lead actors--Charles Aidman, James Hutton and a pre-Time Machine Rod Taylor--do a fine job of selling the sheer mortal terror that would hit anyone caught in the trap they're caught in. But too much of the episode is just repeating one concept over and over and over again, like a jazz musician fixating on a single note. I'm not sure if Serling thought the premise was so bizarre that it needed excessive reinforcement, or if he just didn't have any other information he could think to convey, but it results in roughly fifteen minutes of increasingly diminished returns.

The episode tries to liven things up with a bit of in media res storytelling, opening with Col. Clegg Forbes (Taylor) visiting Maj. William Gart (Hutton) in the hospital. Forbes is in a state of near panic, and immediately begins questioning Gart about their mission, and the aftermath. Forbes shows him a newspaper which proudly proclaims two spacemen returned to Earth--only Forbes claimed that there were three men in that X-20 experimental interceptor, because the X-20 took three men to fly it. Gart doesn't remember any third man; what's worse is, neither does anyone else. And then we flash back to a day earlier, as Forbes and Col. Ed Harrington (Aidman) go out for a night on the town. Harrington is overcome by a wave of intense fear while the two men are sitting in a bar, and when he attempts to call home to talk to his parents, he finds that his mother and father no longer remember him, no longer remember having any son at all. Forbes, trying to reassure an understandably worried friend, turns to grab the newspaper with the (slightly revised) headline we saw earlier, and when he turns back, Harrington is gone. 

This is nicely done, as there's no telegraphing the moment Harrington actually disappears; one minute he's there, the next, not so much. (It's strange that Harrington's parents forget him before he disappears, though. Maybe he dialed the wrong number.) Forbes starts freaking out himself, and spends the next few scenes struggling to find any way to prove Harrington existed. He fails again and again and again, and it's at this point that "Sky" loses a lot of its momentum. While it's believable that Forbes would have a hard time accepting Harrington is gone, and that he'd keep trying to prove otherwise, it's a narrative dead-end because we already know that the disappearance is fact. We knew it the moment Forbes started bugging Gart at the start of the episode, the instant he pulled out that newspaper and Gart had no idea what Forbes was talking about. It's necessary to spend some time on Forbes' panicky attempts to prove he's not crazy, but what's disappointing is that we spend so much time on this, from him interrogating his fellow bar patrons to calling a female friend who should know Harrington to getting excited about a telegram that should have Harrington's name on it, that it soon becomes obvious that the episode has nowhere else to go. 

There's a lot of talk about "the twist" when it comes to The Twilight Zone, but while twist endings can be a lot of fun, the show doesn't necessarily need them. It does need enough information or character work to hold our attention for the half-hour, and "Sky" doesn't really manage that. The scene between Forbes and his lady friend could've worked if it had focused more on Forbes' growing concern that he himself might be the next to disappear, but it doesn't. The episode relies too much on the main character not grasping the obvious; yes, that obvious is both shocking and bizarre, but after a certain point, we needed to see him making some attempt to figure out why what happened happened, and not just reaffirming that it did, in fact, happen. What keeps this episode from being a wash are those moments when it effectively captures the utter horror of realizing that something awful is about to happen to you, something so awful that no one will ever even know you were alive, and there's nothing you can do about it. That's a great concept, and it plays off the fear of the unknown--an unknown that won't just kill you but utterly undo you--very well. It's a shame the rest of the episode can't live up to it.

What a twist!: Three men go up into space. Three men came back. Then it was just two. Then it was just one. Then... what were we talking about?

Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • As with Harrington, Forbes' disappearance is also very well done: he runs screaming down the hospital corridor, Gart gets up to follow him--and the hall is quiet and empty. 
  • Forbes' friend Amy was played by Maxine Cooper--who you might remember as Velma from Kiss Me Deadly.
  • Another problem (although slightly less pressing) is the scope of the disappearances. The men don't just vanish, they vanish from existence, and so does the plane they flew into space. Which undoes the theory that they "weren't meant to come back," because by the end of the episode, they never left at all. This makes sense if some force is trying to stop Earth from going into space, but it also has a slightly too-convenient feel, like Matheson and Serling just came up with "disappearing," but then never really bothered to fill in the blanks around the word. TZ's can be loose with explanations, but we need something to hold this together. The fear of space travel nearly makes it work--but not quite. 

"What You Need" (Season 1, episode 12; first aired: 12/25/1959)

The One Where Where A Man Is Unhappy With A Free Pair Of Shoes

Once upon a time, there was a bad man. He wasn't born bad, most likely, but over the course of his life, through fate and coincidence and his own poor choices, he'd become bad: angry, resentful, jealous of the success of others and desperate to get his own share of what he knew he deserved. One day, this bad man sees an old peddler in a bar. Normally he wouldn't give a peddler a second glance, but there's something strange about this one. He has a habit of selling people odd things--one woman gets a bottle of cleaning solution, one man gets a bus ticket to another state. The peddler says, "This is what you need," and the strangest thing is, he's right. The bus ticket will bring its owner a new job, and the bottle of cleaning solution leads the woman to new love. (And if you wanted a quick example of what the 1950s thought about gender roles, there you go.) So the bad man decides he wants a piece of this action. He threatens the peddler, and the peddler gives him a pair of scissors that saves his life. Convinced that the peddler's shtick is genuine, the bad man amps up his tactics, determined to get exactly what he needs, although it's pretty clear to everyone watching at this point that the bad man has no clue what he really needs, and wouldn't recognize it if he saw it. So the peddler gives him a pair of shoes, and the bad man slips and gets hit by a car, and we all learn a valuable lesson: do not screw with old people who can see the future.

"What You Need" is a pleasant, if unspectacular, entry, featuring some of TZ's most familiar elements. Do we have a mysterious salesman who can seemingly ride the rides of fate? Why yes, yes we do. (Mr. Pedott is just Henry J. Fate with out the obvious surname.) Do we have a sonofabitch who manages to get exactly what he deserves, even if it turns out what he deserves isn't at all what he wanted? Oh, certainly. We've already had a few bastards on the show even this early into the first season, and Fred Renard marks a midpoint between the anti-hero of "Escape Clause" and the villain of "Judgement Night." Renard is more overtly villainous than Walter Bedeker (who's a jerk, but didn't actually try to murder his wife), but he's not a Nazi. Just a low level creep at the end of his rope who thinks he's got a shot at the big time. And does Renard's attempt to take that shot lead to a suitably ironic twist ending? Oh, to be sure. "Need" is a fable, a fairy tale, and while Pedott's amazing ability to know just the right hammer for just the right nail is nominally the focus, the real story here is the way our desperation to find easy answers to complex problems can often take us dark places indeed.

But still, a word about Pedott. Characters like this always interest me because they're so rarely designed with consequences in mind. That's not to say that "Need" is full of plotholes or that I wanted to know more about the peddler before it ended--really, the episode does a fine job of making sure we understand exactly what's going on here and what the stakes are. If anything, it's a little too obvious; you have to wonder why it never occurs to Renard that a man who can see, and even to an extent manipulate, the future might not have resources of his own when confronted by someone who wishes him harm. (Besides, it's hard to believe that Pedott hasn't been facing down creeps like this his whole life. Sure, he looks nervous when he sees Renard watching him at the bar, but maybe he's just hoping he has the right kind of shoe in his case.) Be that as it may, Pedott's effect on the people he trades with--people who never pay him anything that I could see, which makes him not really a peddler--varies wildly from case to case. The ex-pitcher at the bar gets a pair of bus tickets, which will take him to a new job in coaching; admittedly, the new job offer would've come whether he got the tickets or not, but I suppose it's nice that he was saved the bus fare. The woman who gets the cleaning solution uses it to clean up a spill on the ex-pitcher's shirt, and that means they're instantly in love with each other--this explains the two bus tickets, although it's a little silly to think that someone would go off to Scranton with a stranger, no matter how attractive she may find that stranger. Still, these are both life changing shifts, and yet the last exchange we see, Pedott gives a guy a comb so he can look good on television. Now, maybe looking good on television may land him a better job, but combing his hair doesn't change him that much. 

It also makes you wonder how Pedott decides what to keep in his case; the episode focuses more on him than his material, but that case seems almost as magical as he does. Does he have to restock it? Nothing we see in the episode would be impossible to buy on its own, and some of the items could potentially be useful in a variety of circumstances. (Unless the scissors he sells Renard are special scarf cutting scissors.) But the bus tickets sure weren't. I'm wandering a little here, mostly because this isn't an episode I have all that much to say about, but also to show how the TZ works when the answers it fails to provide lead to fun contemplation, and not just confusion. As Perdott, Ernest Truex is shy, good-natured and determined, and he manages to suggest just enough history to make the character seem like an individual, and not just an archetype. He suggests he has a history behind him, and, you'll excuse the expression, that's what this show needs; given the efficiency and restrictions of the format, and the deadly nature of excessive exposition on audience attention spans, you want actors who can suggest a lot with a little. Truex makes what is in many ways a plot device on legs into someone whose a little sad and lonely himself. It's a nice bit of unshowy performance.

Steve Cochran is also strong as Renard, another in what will soon be a long line of sweaty bastards in cheap suits. A good portion of The Twilight Zone is noir with a fantasy or science fiction twist, and it's not at all difficult to imagine Renard plotting a big heist and getting screwed over on the details. And "Need" is a noir-ish story, focusing on a lead who's looking to get out of a crummy town and a crummy life, and thinks he's finally found his shot at the big time. Of course he hasn't. It's fun watching Renard put together the pieces of what Pedott is capable of, because he's working out in the bar just as we're working it out at home, and when he talks to Pedott on the street, he's doing what any of us would do, or at least think about. You see a man who can seeming predict and, in a small way, control the future, you want to see if he has anything in his case for you. Only Renard isn't polite about it, and when Pedott gives him a pair of scissors, he scoffs. Turns out those scissors save his life, so it's back to bother Pedott again; this time, he gets a leaky pen, which drips ink on the name of a horse in the paper, and leads to Renard making a big score at the race track. But that's still not enough, and when Renard confronts Pedott a third time, he gets the slippery shoes that lead him to his doom. There's a fairy tale called "The Fisherman and His Wife" that's similar to this, with a fisherman catching a wish-granting fish, and a wife who keeps insisting on expanding the scope of his wishes; while "Need" lacks a greedy wife to lead Renard to his doom, both the episode and the story are about people who, on some fundamental level, can never be satisfied.

A minor flaw or two keep this episode away from greatness for me. Renard's behavior has some of that frustrating "I refuse to come to the obvious conclusions" hang-up that we saw from Forbes in "Sky." While it's foolish of him to assume Pedott won't try and find some way to escape, that fits Renard's character well enough; he's arrogant in his contempt, and he clearly assumes Pedott is completely terrified and incapable of fighting back. What I object to is the way Renard scoffs at each and every item Pedott hands him. He was smart enough to understand what happened in the bar, when a pair of bus tickets and a bottle of cleaning solution leads to work and romance. Why does he suddenly get skeptical when Pedott hands him a pair of scissors? But okay, I can accept that--this is his first time dealing with the Impish Hand of Fate, and he's obviously a literal-minded dude, so I can see the scissors would be a hard sell. But then why does he freak out about the leaky pen? It's not even an impatient, "Okay, dammit, what does this one do?" He gets angry, like he's been cheated. And then, after the pen pays off, he has the same reaction when Pedott gives him the slippery shoes. He's like an asshole version of Dana Scully

Still, this was solid, and I think my only real concern is the familiarity of the subject material; you know that sooner or later Renard is going to get his, and there's a certain sense that much of this episode is just waiting for that to play out, to find out what that last bit of fatal irony will be. But hey, there are plenty of great stories we go into already having a good idea of the ending, and I don't take too many points away for this one not quite clicking for me. There's a terrific moment in "Need" when Pedott tells Renard that there's nothing in the peddler's case that will give Renard what he really needs--peace of mind. It's a nice way to acknowledge what's really going on here, and in its way, "Need" serves as a kind of companion piece to "Mr. Denton On Doomsday." If peddlers like Pedott and Mr. Fate exist in the world, sooner or later, they're going to attract folks who want to rig the system on their own terms. Thankfully, knowing what happens next makes it a simple matter of making sure your tormentor is standing in the right place when the right car comes along.

What a twist!: Renard threatens the peddler until Pedott gives him a pair of too-tight, slippery shoes. While trying to cross a street to assault Pedott, Renard slips and is hit by a car.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • I wonder if the bit at the end with the comb was just to make sure the episode was full-length. It's a cute scene, but it seems unnecessary. (Or maybe Serling was just trying to go out on a lighter note.) 
  • This aired on Christmas! That's so strange--although I guess there's a fair amount of gift-giving going on.
  • Stephen King wrote a short story about a creepy psychic stalker called "I Know What You Need." It's very, very difficult for me to see the title of this episode and not be a little creeped out by it.

Next week: The Twilight Zone dabbles in shape-shifting in "The Four Of Us Are Dying," and we get more space travel and another iconic twist ending in "Third From The Sun."

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