The Twilight Zone: “Mr. Dingle, The Strong”/“Static”
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The Twilight Zone: “Mr. Dingle, The Strong”/“Static”

B

The Twilight Zone

“Mr. Dingle, The Strong”/“Static”

Season 2, Episode 19
B

The Twilight Zone

“Mr. Dingle, The Strong”/“Static”

Season 2, Episode 20

“Mr. Dingle, The Strong” (season 2, episode 19; originally aired 3/3/1961)

In which Martians like to dick with us

I’ve never been in a fight. I spent a fair amount of elementary school being bullied, but I never fought back. For one thing, I knew I would probably lose (I’m not exactly swift). For another thing, my bullies had me pretty cowed. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be bullies. I mostly just sat back and took what they dished out, then cried about it when I got home. Eventually, I started to get immune to the attacks, but there’s still that 8-year-old part of me that cringes every time somebody says something the slightest bit mean about me. When one of you inevitably says, “Hey, why did you start with something other than talking about the episode?” that old prickle of anxiety will come back, and I’ll eventually force myself to laugh it off, rather than be reduced again to a scared kid.

This isn’t an uncommon story, of course. Pretty much everybody’s had someone who loomed larger in their imagination than they actually did in real life, a giant whose feats were more mental than physical. And for any of us who’ve felt that way, the idea of super-strength feels incredibly appealing. We see someone like Superman and think, “Hey, if I had super-strength, I’m sure I’d get around to saving people from burning buildings, but mostly, nobody would ever pick on me again.” (This ignores, of course, that Superman’s alter ego is practically a bully magnet.) The only good thing about “Mr. Dingle, The Strong” is that it recognizes this fact. The several bad things about it include the fact that it simply has nowhere else to go once it establishes this. There have been a lot of episodes of this show that repeat the same dramatic beat over and over, but this is one of the worst offenders.

Okay, I guess I shouldn’t say “only” good thing. There are some nice bits and pieces scattered throughout this episode. I like the world of the bar, which feels nicely realized, particularly with Don Rickles popping up as the angry bettor who keeps our hero in a state of flummoxed terror. And I like the two Martians, joined at the chest and rolling around, dicking around with Earthlings, just because they can. There’s a fun sense of humor that goes along with having these two aliens messing around with this completely normal guy, and the actors playing them actually get some laughs out of some tired punchlines. (There’s a moment where one tells the other their next assignment will be on a planet populated entirely by women, and the two play their excitement so with so little outward expression that the gag becomes funny through sheer actor grit.) It’s also a delightfully weird episode, and by the time the Venusians—child actors voiced by grown men—wander through the bar, everything’s taken pleasant leave of its senses.

Sadly, the episode is also pretty dull. The storyline can be boiled down to all of two sentences: A wimp named Mr. Dingle gets super-strength thanks to two aliens. Then, once he’s shown that he’ll only use it for self-glorification, that super-strength is taken away. There’s probably something to say here about how the Martians function almost like God and the Devil in the book of Job or how Dingle represents the pettiness of modern man. And, yeah, that’s all there. But it’s all on the surface, and the best episodes of this show go quite a bit deeper than that. The focal point of the episode isn’t about these emotions or realizations. Instead, it’s about watching Burgess Meredith (who plays Dingle and is really quite good) do a bunch of stunts, as if somebody on the Twilight Zone crew really wanted to put together a visual effects demo reel and talked Rod Serling into letting them do so. Dingle breaks rocks in two with his bare hands. He lifts up statues and park benches (with women sitting on them). He rips up phone books. He tears barstools from the floor. It’s cute and all, but it’s basically the same thing over and over, goofy music whirling around on the soundtrack.

The characters’ behavior doesn’t really track with how humans might really behave in these situations either. Dingle’s super-strength is treated as a party trick by just about everybody, and he seems to feel little to no awe at what’s happened to him. Furthermore, when the strength is taken from him at the worst possible moment—just as he’s attempting to lift up an entire building from the inside (still not sure how that was supposed to work)—everybody immediately assumes he was just fucking around, even though they saw him do stuff that was clearly the work of someone with superpowers. The show may be trying to make some point about how relieved everybody is to be back to the status quo, but it doesn’t really work. One second he has superpowers; the next, he doesn’t, and everybody seems to forget about what just happened. The Venusians give him super-intelligence, then, and it’s treated as just another adventure in the life of wacky ol’ Mr. Dingle.

In a way, it’s sort of amazing that this series didn’t turn to the superhero well more often. The show was usually at its best when it was able to blend whatever tone it was going for—horror, melodrama, comedy, etc.—with sincere melancholy in the subtext. There’s nothing more melancholy than the idea of the kind of person who would really want it being given superpowers, then having them stripped away at the worst possible moment. We’ve all wanted to be Mr. Dingle in the moment when he stands up to his hecklers and lets them know who the new sheriff in town is. Wouldn’t it be all the worse to simply lose those powers and spend the rest of your life bluffing? Yet the episode plays all of this not for much in the way of pathos but, rather, as something to laugh at. On some level, we’re supposed to see Dingle as a doofus.

That, ultimately, is what dooms this episode even more than the nonsensical story that’s not even a story so much as an excuse for special effects moments. In some ways, it might speak to the general uneasiness surrounding comic book-style material at the time the show was produced. The Marvel movement that would slowly move superheroes from the grounds of "kid’s stuff” to something adults enjoyed and read was still a few years away. The idea of a wimp getting super-strength might have seemed like a laugh to Serling and his crew, but to many in his audience, it must have seemed like the greatest idea in the world. The show lost something by not pursuing that further.

What a twist!: Dingle’s super-strength is taken from him at the worst possible moment… only to have Venusians gift him with super-intelligence that mostly presents itself as rambling.

Grade: C

Stray observations:

  • I genuinely enjoy the moment when the Martians first roll into the bar. It’s such a nice bit of “what the fuck”-ery that it’s hard not to have fun with it. (The whole scene is blocked really nicely, too, to keep everybody in frame in a way that feels natural. See the screenshot that accompanies this article.)
  • I thought it was a flaw at first, but I did sort of come to enjoy that Dingle didn’t question anything that happened to him. Of course he was given super strength. Hadn’t he been wishing for it his whole life?
  • I wonder if any of the barflies were still pissed about the Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles from Brooklyn?

“Static” (season 2, episode 20; originally aired 3/10/1961)

In which the picture tube on the radio is right up here *points to head*

“Static” starts out as one thing—an anti-television polemic—but it becomes something altogether sweeter and more beautiful by the end. I was more than prepared to hate this one as it began, but it began to shift very quickly, once Ed Lindsey got out his old radio and started tuning into the past. It’s pretty obvious where this story is going once his old girlfriend starts talking about how they never got married because he just never made the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly touching when the two actually complete the—completely unexplained—leap back in time to a world where they were both still fresh-faced and youthful, where opportunity was just ahead of them, around every corner.

The onrush of technological advancement is something that hasn’t always been noticeable in a single human lifetime. For much of humanity’s history, paradigm shifts in how we perceived and interacted with the world only came along maybe once or twice a century. A wheel would be invented here, a printing press successfully implemented there. But for the most part, people died in a world roughly similar to the one they were born into. But then I think about the life of my grandmother, who was born in the 1910s and died in 2010. She lived to see the car replace the horse-drawn carriage, even in her small South Dakota town. She lived to see the airplane and man walk on the moon. She lived to see radio, then television, then the Internet, even if she couldn’t quite master the latter. She lived to see artificial hearts and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and Post-It notes and rock ‘n’ roll. Can you even imagine a life that filled with new things that shift the way you think about the world?

But the pace of technological innovation is such that every single one of us will experience more in our own lifetimes than my grandmother did. Yet we probably won’t think about this all that much, because human beings have a way of going with the flow when new things come along. When the Internet is inevitably ported directly into our brains or we have to upload our consciousnesses into computers to avoid the rising flood waters, it probably won’t seem as momentous as it should. But it should.

What I like about Ed Lindsey is that he’s the classic small-c conservative, a man standing athwart history and shouting “Stop!” What I like is that he doesn’t long for a return to a life in some agrarian American paradise that never was—as so many Zone heroes desire. What he wants is for the radio to come back. He finds the television anesthetizing. People watch it, and they seem to sink into a stupor, to the point where they don’t even realize that the ad they’re watching is for a cigarette where the smoke smells like grass (which, what?). Stories where all the television has on it is trash are a dime a dozen. What makes this one work is that all the television has on it is trash as far as Ed Lindsey’s concerned. We see the idiot box through his eyes, and we see just how much it would pain him to have these old friends—including a woman he almost married—sign their brains over to whatever’s on the tube. But in a key moment toward the end, we realize that what he loves about the radio isn’t what is actually was, but what it represents: his lost youth.

Yes, this episode is nostalgic for the time of mass-market radio (which was already very nearly at an end in the United States). It does a surprisingly good job of mourning an artform that wasn’t all that long dead when the episode was produced. Yet at the same time, Charles Beaumont’s script is careful to always let us know that what’s been lost isn’t necessarily a nation’s sanity but, rather, one man’s life. Ed Lindsey, see, let all of that time slip right by him, and he let the woman he loved slip through his fingers as well. There came a time when he realized it was simply too late to marry her, and she realized the same thing. And now they sit in the same room, the television blaring at them, and they don’t really pay attention to each other. If he can resurrect the days when the radio was tops, he just might be able to resurrect their love. It’s a beautiful notion, and it’s one the episode expresses in almost achingly sincere fashion, earning its happy ending.

This is yet another one of the episodes shot on video, and while that provides some clumsy moments—Serling’s opening narration feels particularly bizarre here, thanks to some odd blocking and framing choices—it also works for the episode somehow. The video presentation gives us the subconscious feel of something being presented live on stage in front of us. While that doesn’t work in some episodes, where it makes things that might have been eerie on film feel kind of flat and silly, it works for this one, because so many of the scenes are between two people who pour their hearts out to each other. The conceit of the episode itself is fairly stage-y, and the story only briefly leaves the boarding house where it’s set. The live stage can feel claustrophobic and confining, and video can feel even more so. “Static” turns both of these things into a virtue.

This is an episode where I can quibble quite a bit—the opening commercials are too dumb to be believable satire, and that ending, while gorgeous, feels rushed—but the overall feel of it means the whole thing works far better than it has any right to. Ed Lindsey is a man who hopes history will stop because he feels as if he’s been left behind, as if the world is rushing forward and nobody realizes just how much has changed but him. What he wants is not, necessarily, for everything to go back the way it was for the world as a whole, but for everything to go back the way it was for himself. He gets another shot at this, now, and it’s hard not to think that once he pops up in 1961 again—this time with his love at his side—he won’t be as antagonized by the box yapping away in the corner. Who will have time for that?

What a twist!: Ed Lindsey goes and gets his magic radio that plays broadcasts from the ‘40s back, and once he does, he and his former girlfriend end up back in the past, getting another shot at a life together.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • Okay, I probably could have done without that moment where Ed rhapsodized about the wonders of the imagination as well.
  • The old-time radio references fly a bit heavily even for me (a wannabe expert), but I do enjoy that the program Ed remembers most fondly—Major Bowes Amateur Hour—is one that wouldn’t be held up as any particular exemplar of the artistic powers of the medium. It was just a show he enjoyed listening to at one time.
  • Another thing adding to the melancholy here: All of the things that Ed clings to are gone. Tommy Dorsey is dead. The radio station he pulls in is defunct. FDR makes an appearance, and we all know what happened to him. The world’s passing him by, and that’s a terrifying thing.

Next week: Jed Clampett gets telekinetic powers, and Billy Mumy gets phone calls from the dead. However will Zack survive this one?

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