The Twilight Zone: “Mute”/“Death Ship”

The Twilight Zone: “Mute”/“Death Ship”

“Mute” (season 4, episode 5; originally aired 1/31/1963)

In which the child must not go against her nature

(Available on Hulu.)

Nearly every horror or science-fiction storyteller figures one axiomatic truth out at some point in their careers: If you want to expose the horrors of something, expose a child to it. Conversely, if you want to make something seem really horrific, have a child be at its center. Creepy kids have a long, storied history in horror and sci-fi, and that was true of The Twilight Zone, too, which used creepy kids to great effect a handful of times. (“It’s A Good Life” was the most notable example.) In “Mute,” writer Richard Matheson and director Stuart Rosenberg manage to split the difference on these two approaches, by taking a creepy kid (a young Ann Jillian), then gradually revealing all of the awful stuff that’s been done to her in an effort to pique our sympathies. Does it work? For the most part, despite some rough bits here and there.

“Mute” centers on a little girl named Ilse (Jillian), who finds herself an orphan after her parents die in a house fire. From the first, it’s obvious that Ilse has something strange and different about her. That would be easily communicated enough by Jillian’s dour expression and her refusal to talk to anybody, but Matheson also opens the episode with a scene where a bunch of people hanging out in Dusseldorf, Germany, in the ’50s agree to proceed with a project that Rod Serling helpfully tells us will have great bearing on the story to come. We don’t yet know the nature of that project, but once we get to Ilse refusing to communicate with people, even though she can very obviously hear what they’re saying, it becomes more and more obvious that her parents did something horrible to her, something that would isolate her from the world at large.

Whether you go with that notion or not is largely a side effect of whether you can handle these stretched-out Twilight Zone episodes. For my part, I think Matheson really earns the emotions he’s trying to sell in the Ilse storyline. Yes, they’re repeated over and over, and yes, we get what feels like three dozen different variations on a scene where someone tries to get Ilse to talk and she refuses, shaking her head with that sour frown on her face. But there’s a really strong core here, and by the time it’s revealed that Ilse’s parents were trying to make her a telepath and she’s reluctant to speak because it could destroy her carefully honed mental powers, things begin to snap into place. In the end, there’s a battle for the girl’s soul, and she chooses her new, adoptive family, who may want her to speak but also really does love her. There are unconvincing moments throughout this episode, the chief of which is an odd scene where Ilse’s teacher concludes that her parents must have tried to make Ilse a “medium” because that’s what the teacher’s parents did to her too, but for the most part, this is a story that takes its time getting going and unfolding its tale but one that becomes surprisingly powerful the longer it goes on—not exactly a frequent occurrence in this season.

Much of that power stems from the way that Matheson centers the story on two different ideas. On the one hand, this is a story about a girl who’s suffered untold abuse at the hands of her parents. On the other, this is a story about two people who lost their only child and see a chance to start anew with this little girl that’s unexpectedly turned up in their lives. Those are two incredibly powerful notions on an emotional level, and Matheson rarely underlines the subtext too much. For the most part, he lets this play out subtly, letting the really big emotional moments intrude on the action as a whole, where they will feel the most jarring and surprising. Think, for instance, of when Ilse enters the thoughts of the kind woman who’s taken her in and sees a grief-stricken scene of the woman cradling her daughter’s dead body. A wide gulf separates these two people, but in that moment, Ilse finds a way to begin bridging it. And, really, it’s not hard to think that she decides to stay with this couple then and there, even if she hasn’t yet admitted it to herself.

Ilse’s abuse is handled even more subtly, to the degree that I’m not sure how much of it is intentional on Matheson’s part and how much of it is me reading into something that aired in the ’60s with a modern perspective. One thing is clear: Matheson wants us to think it’s a very good thing that Ilse ends up with her new adoptive parents at the end, rather than with the Austrian couple that might have continued the experiment. He even has the Austrian woman declaim—somewhat unconvincingly, I might add—that Ilse is better off because now she might know love. (I highly doubt this woman would simply accept the end of an experiment that’s gone on for over a decade, but Matheson needs someone to deliver the moral, so I’ll go with it.) The few times we see Ilse in flashback with her parents, they’re not overtly cruel. They don’t beat her or admonish her or take too firm a hand with her. Yet they’ve also cut her off from children of her own age, hiding her away so that they might teach her themselves and make sure the outside world doesn’t corrupt her.

It’s entirely possible that “Mute” plays better in 2013 than it did 50 years ago for the simple fact that we now have more than enough people who long to lock the world out of their children’s lives, going so far as to keep them shut away in their houses. And one doesn’t even need to think of someone who goes that far to imagine a parent who is perhaps too protective of their child, lest he or she end up in a place where thoughts are corrupted and danger might enter the picture. Watch those scenes where Ilse is surrounded by the other children in her classroom, or where she simply refuses to talk, through this lens, and they become unexpectedly poignant. Here is a little girl who has no need to be shut away like this, yet she is because her parents want her to be a part of some grand statement of purpose. She finds another family at the end, and while they may not be perfect, they’ll at least let her be herself, let her experience the world out there, let her feel what it is to be loved. “Mute” is far from a perfect episode, but its climax is so moving in such unexpected ways, and that’s entirely due to how well Matheson and Rosenberg understand the emotional terrain it takes place on.

What a twist!: Ilse chooses to speak, so she can be with her adoptive parents, rather than to have her mental powers, which immediately begin to fade.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • I read the entry for each episode I review in Marc Scott Zicree’s Official Twilight Zone Companion when I write these pieces, and I usually agree with him for the most part. However, I find myself wildly at a divergence with Zicree on this one. In short, his argument is that Ilse finally talking is a triumph of conformity on a show that often celebrated the different and talented, that what Ilse’s new parents and teacher do to her is nothing less than forcing her to be like everyone else. (He points to a scene where her teacher tells her this is exactly what’s going to happen.) While I can see that reading, I’m simply too cognizant at all times of the way that Ilse’s treatment by her birth parents is so close to child abuse. I find it hard to see what happens to her after she’s taken in by the other family to be all that horrifying. (Also, I am adopted, so I am an easy mark for stories like this.)
  • I found the sound design when the voices of the other students were echoing in Ilse’s head to be quite eerie and effective.
  • Seriously, it seems like such a big leap for that teacher to make to just assume that Ilse was somehow being trained to read minds. Even if that happened to the teacher, it seems weird that she would assume it would ever happen to any other children.

“Death Ship” (season 4, episode 6; originally aired 2/7/1963)

In which they’re dead.

(Available on Hulu.)

Was Richard Matheson the most consistent Twilight Zone writer? Rod Serling probably wrote more of the series’ stone-cold classics than Matheson did, but he also wrote far more stinkers than Matheson. Charles Beaumont didn’t write as many outright terrible episodes, but he also wrote fewer big classics. When I look at Matheson’s output, I find very few episodes I’d rank below a B, and, indeed, I’m not sure I’d go below a B- at all. And he also was responsible for episodes like “The Invaders” and “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” which deserve to go in any Twilight Zone time capsule you can come up with. As an added bonus, in “Mute” and “Death Ship,” he proves that he was capable of expanding the show to an hour, perhaps better than either of the other two writers in the show’s core trio. Both “Mute” and “Death Ship” are based on short stories by Matheson himself, and he shows a smart sense of how to expand the smaller worlds he constructed on the page into larger ones on the screen.

“Death Ship” is the kind of episode that any dedicated viewer of The Twilight Zone will have figured out within its first five minutes. If it were the first episode of the show you ever saw, somehow, you might find yourself blown away by it, but since we’ve made our way through over 100 episodes of this show, by now, we’ll be well aware that the astronauts who make up this episode’s primary cast are almost certainly a.) time travelers or b.) ghosts. Once the captain starts talking about how they’ve almost certainly been caught in a time anomaly of some sort, then the rule of it almost always not being the theory that’s already been stated (which carries across all of television) kicks in, and we’re just waiting for everybody to realize that they’re dead.

Where Matheson excels is in the way he makes the last half of the episode so surprisingly emotional. He must know, on some level, that his audience is savvy enough to understand that these men are most likely dead. The way he gets around this is by exploring the emotional terrain of what it might be like to be a ghost—to have Heaven just around the corner but be unable to get there because of some sort of emotional violence that keeps you trapped on this plane of existence. In this case, the two men long to go to their dead friends and family, but they keep getting snapped back into their spaceship by a captain whose will is so indomitable that he’s able to keep both men in check. It’s a remarkable clash of these three men, with one man somehow managing to hold two other men in place through sheer force of personality, and it’s a good thing that Jack Klugman is playing the captain.

Klugman is most famous for his work on The Odd Couple, where he played the slobby Oscar Madison, the bane of fastidious Felix Unger’s existence. As with many actors who became best known for roles in TV comedies, Klugman was so funny as Oscar that it became easy to forget how powerful he could be in dramatic roles. Here, he’s a bull of a man, snarling and scowling and refusing to acknowledge what’s become so clear to both of his men. (Remember: They very early on wonder if they’re just ghosts, observing their own corpses, which somehow doesn’t violate the “first theory” rule, because the captain rejects it so violently—another clue to what’s happening here.) There’s a key to why he is the way he is in a tossed off line earlier in the episode. He has something to go home to. Mason lost his wife and daughter in a car accident, and when he sees them again in the land of the dead, it becomes much easier for him to accept his fate. Similarly, Carter finds himself greeted by old friends, and even if his wife is still alive and mourning her loss, he has people to usher him onto whatever’s next.

Captain Ross isn’t greeted by anyone like that. At first, I worried that the scenes of the men meeting their dead friends and family would turn repetitive. They gave us insight into the two men who have them, and they let us know why they would be more willing to accept their own deaths. But I worried that doing the same scene three different times would end up stretching the story so thin that it would break. Yet Matheson is canny here. He’s using our own desire to see this sort of thing repeat itself three times against us, so we feel the lack of closure that Captain Ross feels just as much as he does. He can’t accept what’s happened either because he doesn’t have anyone greeting him in the great beyond or because he simply refuses to see them.

In many stories, ghosts are just dead souls who haven’t yet realized they’re dead (or have something so important to finish on Earth that they continue wandering it for centuries). If the only character who had yet to realize he was dead was Captain Ross, then this would just be a gloss on countless other Twilight Zone episodes. But because he’s holding these two other men in the same desperate angst that he occupies, “Death Ship” becomes something else entirely. The sections where the men slowly come to terms with what’s happening do have that repetitive quality to them, and the first half of the episode is a little lumpy. But once the episode hits that scene with Mason meeting his wife and child again and slowly realizing what’s happening, it becomes something else altogether, a beautiful exploration of what it means to grow accustomed to the idea of one’s own death.

This is the sort of thing The Twilight Zone could explore that no other show on the air was looking at in that time period. For all I know, when we die, we simply fade out of existence, our experiences disappearing from the Earth as surely as we do. Yet there’s that part in every one of us that wonders what if that’s not the case, what if we continue on, even as our bodies pass on. It’s comforting to tell ourselves that we will become better than who we were and ascend to some other, more perfect plane. But the fact of the matter is that human beings are messy and complicated and easily swayed by stronger personalities, even in the face of what we know must be true. “Death Ship” isn’t the strongest Matheson script on The Twilight Zone, but the only reason it works, instead of seeming far too long, is because of the soul he brings to it, the sense of how awful it would be to end up trapped in an endless feedback loop, even though you must know on some level what the next step has to be.

What a twist!: Everybody’s dead! But they’ve been repeating this particular mission over and over and over and over, waiting for the Captain to realize what’s happening.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • There are some nicely eerie moments in the early going when the men happen upon the downed ship with their corpses inside of it. And I like the way that Matheson lays out the stakes of staying on this planet, which is too cold to support human life and will require them to expend their fuel reserves to stay on its surface.
  • This episode was directed by Don Medford, and he finds some terrific shots amid the low-budget aesthetic. In particular, he uses the interior and exterior of that spaceship—a Forbidden Planet prop—just about perfectly.
  • According to Zicree, Ross Martin, who plays Mason, was separated from his own former wife, and, thus, his daughter was living on a completely separate coast from him. It’s not hard to imagine that his emotion in the scene where he greets his fictional wife and daughter was driven by his own situation.

Next week: Zack meets “Jess-Belle,” then imagines a life lived in “Miniature,” in what might be this season’s finest episode (starring Robert Duvall!).

Filed Under: TV, The Twilight Zone

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