The Twilight Zone: “Back There”/“The Whole Truth”

The Twilight Zone: “Back There”/“The Whole Truth”

“Back There” (season 2, episode 13; originally aired 1/13/1961)
In which sic semper time traveller

I’m a sucker for time travel stories. My first favorite movie was Back To The Future, which was also the first movie I ever owned on VHS. (Remember VHS? Kids, ask your grandparents.) It’s a trope I keep coming back to as well, and while it can be handled badly, when it works, there’s a potential for cleverness and poignancy that few other genre concepts can match. Time travel captures a universal impulse, the same impulse that drives us to look up spoilers for movies on the ‘net, or skip to the back of the book, or look through old photographs and wonder how we might change them. As it exists, life is ordered but chaotic; events define their structure, and cause leads to effect, but nothing hardly ever seems to work out exactly as we’d like it to. I’m in my thirties now, and I find myself wondering how much better my life might be if I could walk through a door and be back in 1997. If I could get some kind of message to my past self, or if maybe I could just take over my old body, go back to college, actually pay attention to classes, maybe not eat quite so many bags of Oreos...

It’s a fool’s game, of course, because if I was to change the person I was then, who’s to say my life would be improved? Maybe I’d come back to the present to find myself stuck in a dead-end job, unable to write, married to someone who didn’t much like me. Or, and here’s where we get to this week’s first Twilight Zone episode, what if I couldn’t really change the past at all? No one really knows how all of this works, and it could be that a trip backwards would just result in a lot of nostalgic mooning, without an actual alteration. One of the biggest practical questions about time travel is how it could be possible to go back in time without creating a paradox, a sort of knot in reality that shouldn’t exist, but does anyway; the easiest way to solve this question is by suggesting that, no matter how hard you tried, you really wouldn’t be able to affect much of anything. You can’t go kill your grandfather. You could maybe give him a headache. This is a sensible solution, but in fiction, it has the unfortunate effect of reducing tension. If nothing the hero does matters, you can either play the story out as a sort tragic mystery (ala Twelve Monkeys), or... Hm. Actually, that’s the only option I can think of. The “Back There” approach certainly doesn’t work.

This is a weird episode, and because it’s not a very good one, the weirdness is just about the only thing to recommend it. Well, that and the appearance of Russell Johnson; if you’ve got a fetish for Gilligan’s Island cast-members in period clothing, this one’s for you. Johnson plays Peter Corrigan, a comfortable gentleman who spends his evenings playing cards and chatting with friends at the Potomac Club. At the start of “Back There,” we see Peter in an argument with another man about the possibilities of time travel, and it’s here where the weirdness starts. “Back There”’s biggest flaw is Rod Serling’s lazy script. It introduces the premise straight away, and it doesn’t waste much time in throwing its hero into the past, but we’re never given any good reason why Peter is the one chosen to go back to 1865. In the discussion which opens in the episode, the man lecturing Peter is the one who’s convinced that you can change the past. Peter is barely listening to him spout off. It’s like a prankster god was eavesdropping in on the conversation and decided to mete out some ironic punishment, but missed his target. If Corrigan gave a damn one way or the other--if he argued that you could change what had happened, or you couldn’t--then we’d have something to hang a hook on.

And this episode could really use a hook. Peter gets bored with cards and decides to leave, and after bumping into a nervous servant (who you realize immediately will reappear later on for some kind of twist), our hero steps outside, is overcome with some sort of dizzy spell/camera trick, and then finds himself nearly a century into the past, on April 14, 1865. There’s never any explanation as to how made the jump, or why he’s suddenly wearing period appropriate clothes. Normally, this sort of story works better without explicit justification. I’ve watched Groundhog Day a dozen times now, and I’ve never been disappointed that we don’t learn why Bill Murray keeps repeating the same day. That’s because specific reasons aren’t as important as character reasons. Whatever stuck Murray’s arrogant weatherman in a single day loop doesn’t matter as much as the fact that he has to find someway to deal with his predicament; and as the movie goes on, it finds ways to subtly suggest that the real point of all this is for Murray to find a way to be a better person. But this is never flat out stated. It happens organically, and that’s what makes the movie so terrific. It gives us just enough information to accept what’s going on, and no more.

Typically, The Twilight Zone doesn’t need explanations. We don’t need a shot of the factory where they build fortune-telling-devil-machines like the one in “Nick Of Time,” for example; these stories have their own internal logic, and that’s all that’s necessary. “Back There” tries to operate on this same principle, and it sort of works. I’m willing to accept that Peter could suddenly, and for no clear reason, be thrown back to the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. But the episode never gets enough connection with its character to make me give a damn. To his credit, Peter realizes what’s going on fairly quickly, and we don’t have to go through a lot of the usual TZ repetition of the premise--”But why isn’t there electricity? Why are you wearing a bustle? WHERE ARE THE TVS?”. As soon as he learns the date, Peter hurries to the police station to warn them of John Wilkes Booth’s impending attack, and his warnings fall on mostly deaf ears. The police put the crazy man in a holding cell, and a stranger arrives and offers to take care of Peter himself; he says he’s a medical doctor, and he has special expertise in dealing with cases like Peter’s. The cops shrug, hand over their temporary prisoner, and the doctor brings Peter back to his room, where he drugs him. Peter wakes up a few hours later when the one officer sympathetic to his warnings finds him and tries to question him. But it’s too late. The president has already been shot, and as crowds of mourners gather in the streets outside, Peter looks at the handkerchief the doctor used to drug him. On it are the monogrammed initials JWB.

This is silly. It’s silly, and it requires a lot of silliness for events to fall into place just so. Unless presidential security has changed drastically in the last century and a half, it makes no sense that the police would ignore Peter’s warning as completely as they do. He doesn’t scream, “I’m from the future and I know what’s going to happen!” He says, “Someone’s going to kill the president tonight,” and that’s the sort of statement people tend to pay attention to. In 1865, the Civil War had just ended, and there where hundreds of thousands of men and women with a very good reason to want Lincoln dead. At the very least, you’d think the lieutenant here would ask a few questions before smirking and dismissing Peter as a crazy person. And why the hell would John Wilkes Booth be hanging out a police station, anyway? I’ll admit, my history on the conspiracy surrounding the Lincoln assassination is a little fuzzy, but shouldn’t he be off getting himself prepared, instead of making a special effort to play Batman villain with a man whose already been dismissed and rendered harmless by his incarceration? It makes some sense that Booth might want to make absolutely sure Peter is out of the way before putting his plain into affect (although why not just kill him?), but the coincidence required for him to be close enough to just happen to hear Corrigan’s ravings is too large to swallow. It also betrays a certain level of backwards engineering; Serling knows that Booth is the man Peter would have to stop if he wanted to save Lincoln, and so, Serling makes Booth the main villain of the story, even though there’s no immediate reason he should be present. This also explains why Booth gives a fake name to the cops when taking Peter into custody. Maybe he does it to catch Peter off guard, because he doesn’t know how much information Peter really has; maybe he does it because, if possible, he doesn’t want the name Booth connected to a threat against the President. But he really does it so we can have a reveal near the end of the episode.

After Lincoln gets shot, and Peter learns that he can’t change the past, even though he never thought he could in the first place, our hero is returned to his own time. He goes back into his club to explain to the others that time travel is possible, and there he finds William, the servant we met earlier, is now one of the wealthy white dudes sitting at Peter’s table. He explains that his great-grandfather--the one officer Peter met in the past who was sympathetic to his warnings--exploited his premonition about the death of Lincoln to rise in power enough to make a lot of money, and that money was passed down through his sons, and so on. And so, we learn that you can change the past to a degree, you just can’t change the really important events. Except we don’t really learn that at all, since Peter’s efforts to stop Lincoln’s murder were haphazard at best. It’s not as if he had multiple opportunities to try different approaches to save the president. He had one shot, and he blew it as much out of his own clumsiness as out of fate. “Back There” has a certain eerie quality to it; there are memorable visuals (I especially liked the shot of the crowd that comes together after Lincoln is shot), and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is great, as Goldsmith’s scores nearly always are. But the story takes too many shortcuts, and never makes the extra step required to explain why we should care. Serling takes an iconic moment in America’s history, and then expects that’s enough to get us through the half-hour. It isn’t.

What a twist: Peter travels back in time, but can’t stop Abraham Lincoln from being assassinated. He can, however, make some random guy rich.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:

  • Serling gets some points for never showing Lincoln on screen. It would’ve been nice to get more of a sense of the time period, but keeping Lincoln as an idea, and not a presence, helps sustain the episode’s otherworldly vibe.
  • Something something coconut Delorean.
  • Come to think, a story about the factory where they make fortune-telling devil machines would be cool.
  • I must admit, the idea of pompous, well-off white guys sitting around in their men’s club, talkin’ ‘bout time travel, amuses me to no end.

“The Whole Truth” (season 2, episode 14; originally aired 1/20/1961)
In which a man suffers truth-in-mouth disease

Have you ever bought a car? Watching “The Whole Truth” got me thinking about it. I’ve owned two vehicles in my lifetime, the first a used Ford Contour I got off a college student who was looking to upgrade, the second, a 2005 Hyundai Accent I drive to this day. Both times, I had help: the first, my dad told me what to look for, and the second, my uncle got me the best deal, and, if I’m remembering right, even found me the car in the first place. Which makes me look more than a little pathetic, really, but it’s a process that still mystifies me to some extent. I don’t know much about cars, and I know even less about appropriate values and how to know you aren’t being cheated, and when it comes time for me to trade in my current vehicle, I won’t be much better prepared than I was at 23 when I did all of this for the first time. “The Whole Truth” is a “funny” Twilight Zone, and most of the jokes revolve around that old staple of American humor, the lying, cheating used car salesman. Along with the shyster lawyer, the sleazy salesman has been so thoroughly integrated into our comedic culture that it never even occurred to me to question how this came to be. Watching Harvey Hunnicut try and swindle a young married couple looking for a good deal made it obvious, though. I’m not the only one who doesn’t know much about cars, and whenever we don’t know much about a subject, we tend to distrust the people who do. Especially if those people are out to make a buck off our ignorance.

“The Whole Truth” is the first shot-on-video episode I’ve reviewed, and I’m not sure I have much to add about the technique beyond what Todd’s already said. It looks cheap, sure, but I don’t think that works entirely against the episode. The story plays out on a used car lot, and while I never believed that lot wasn’t on a studio soundstage, the theatrical air of the setting made it easier to put up with the thinness of the premise. We’ve had one-note stories on the show before, and this is a story with a one-note joke, full of over-the-top stock characters and music cues which serve as a substitute laugh track, rubbing in the bad jokes when we’re supposed to laugh. Harvey Hunnicut is a fast-talking sleaze who’ll do anything to make a buck. One day, he buys a car off an old man, and the car is haunted: it makes whoever owns it tell the truth. So as soon as he signs the papers and completes the deal, Harvey is stuck with honesty, and it ruins his life. He can’t sell cars anymore, because every vehicle on the lot is a lemon, and he can’t keep his marriage together, because he has to tell his wife when he’s going out for a poker game with the boys. He can’t even keep an employee, since he has to admit to anyone who works for him that he has no intention of ever giving them a raise.

This is a hook that’s spawned what seems like hundreds of family movies in the past thirty years: the “bastard who gets an ironic comeuppance that teaches him to be a better man.” The closest comparison to “The Whole Truth” is Jim Carrey’s 1997 hit, Liar Liar, in which Carrey’s son wishes his dad would be honest for a day. The movie, made when Carrey was at the height of his box office prowess (Liar Liar came out after Carrey’s first big bomb, The Cable Guy; it was a “I promise I'll never make you uncomfortable while you laugh ever again!” movie), was the mix of broad slapstick and saccharine sentiment which defines the genre; one second, it’s boob jokes, the next, Carrey gives a big speech about how awful a man he is, and how much he wants to change. “The Whole Truth” isn’t a great half hour of television, but it does benefit from not trying to force in any redemptive moments. Harvey doesn’t learn to be a better man, and he doesn’t reconnect with loved ones his behavior has alienated in the past. He just loses some business, gets punched, and, finally, figures out how to sell the car to someone else. Maybe next time a pair of newlyweds shows up on his lot, he won’t completely screw them over. But then again, maybe he will.

As Hunnicut, Jack Carson is the main reason to recommend this episode. One of the reasons this template gets reused so often is that it’s a great way to let comic actors show themselves off; they can be bastards for the first part of the story, then increasingly bewildered saints for the second half, with all the flailing and strained expressions such a situation would inspire. Carson, a talented character actor who died a couple years after this episode aired, raises to the challenge, and manages to handle both Serling’s ornate punchlines and the episode’s occasional lapses into broad (and unfunny) slapstick with aplomb. As is so often the case with intentionally funny Twilight Zone outings, there’s way too much gag telegraphing and sweaty, forced cheer, and nothing’s ever quite as funny as it so desperately wants to be. Still, it goes down easy enough, and some of Carson’s one-liners are clever, if never gut-bustingly hilarious. The episode only gets painful when a politician shows up on the lot and Harvey tries to sell him the haunted car. The politician (who, along with the lawyer and the car saleseman, completes the Unholy Triumvirate of American Dickishness) is a cartoon in a way that Carson, much to his credit, had largely avoided. The two men leer and throw shtick at each other, and it’s as tedious as you’d expect.

Given the directness of the story, it’s no surprise that “The Whole Truth” is a more solid episode than “Back There” for most of it’s running time. The rules are established early on (the nice old man says the curse will last for as long as Harvey owns the car, and that’s all we need to know), and while it’s never exactly gut-busting, it’s fun to watch the hero squirm at each fresh catastrophe. The episode never gets beyond the poetic-justice phase, and there’s never any complexity in its morals; Harvey lies for selfish reasons, and now he can’t, which sucks for him. That’s it, and, much as might have been nice to go deeper, “The Whole Truth” is what it is, an intermittently amusing twenty minutes that might inspire a chuck or two. It’s not memorable, it’s not all that imaginative (Harvey’s lies come back to bite him in exactly the ways you’d expect), but it’s passable.

The episode only really falls apart at the very end. For most of its running time, this is a small story; it’s confined to a single location, and Harvey’s problems never get beyond the “wah-wah-waaaaaah” stage of personal inconvenience. But when the politician shows up, and Harvey tells him about the car’s magical powers, the two men concoct a scheme that will solve Harvey’s problem for good. He’ll sell the car to Nikita Kruschev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Ha-ha, now that lying Russian bastard will have to tell the truth!

Until this twist, “The Whole Truth” had been Harvey’s story. The ending turns the whole thing into a joke, with “Kruschev” riding off into the sunset in the haunted car as the punchline. It doesn’t make a lot of sense--how did Hunnicut get ahold of such a prominent official? Why would the man want to own a car? Worse, it’s not funny. It might have played better when the episode first aired, but even then, it’s hard to imagine this being a satisfactory conclusion. A bunch of goofy stuff happens, then it gets really goofy, and then it stops happening. At its best, The Twilight Zone uses its fantastical elements to speak to truths we already know, or to force us to view our prejudices in a different light. This week’s double feature doesn’t accomplish either goal, and both episodes fail to tell stories that raise above the perfunctory. This is Serling running on auto-pilot; it’s not the worst, and given his output it’s no surprise that he has a few chestnuts in the bunch, but that doesn't make it any less disappointing.

What a twist: Harvey buys a car that makes its owner tell the truth. Then he sells it to Nikita Kruschev, and America wins the Cold War, I guess.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:

  • Serling's opening narration often introduces us to the concept that will drive the episode, but he's especially forthcoming here. It’s such an odd choice. It’s not as though “I can’t lie” is so complicated a premise it needs to be established multiple times. 

Next week: Todd looks at one of the show’s best-loved entries, “The Invaders,” and then offers a “Penny For Your Thoughts.”  

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