“People Are Alike All Over” (season 1, episode 24; originally aired 3/25/1960)
In which people are alike all over
Here we have two Twilight Zone episodes that are both pretty good, without ever making the leap up to great. Fortunately, neither is really all that bad either. In both cases, the dramatic beats are extended a little too long, and in both cases, everything’s leading up to a final twist, though the ultimate strength of that twist is different in both. Both, incidentally, are based on short stories as well, and both were scripted by Rod Serling from those short stories. TV production methods have changed enough from the 1960s to today that I don’t feel comfortable saying that the show was settling into a late season doldrums—where everything hits around the same level of quality, but nothing really excellent is being produced—but it sure seems that way. As such, there’s not much to say about either of these (though you can bet I’ll strain to do so).
Let’s start with what works about “People,” which is the ending. I’ve read the short story this was based on, but the only thing I remember about it is the ending, when the astronaut realizes he’s ended up in an alien zoo. It’s a great twist, and even when you can see it coming from a mile away, I like the way the episode reveals it. That moment when Sam the astronaut pulls down the curtains and realizes there are no windows—to go along with the point where he realized all of the doors on the house the Martians built for him were locked—is one of those great moments of sheer terror that this show did so well. Not everything was as you assumed it was, and now, you’re doomed.
But even better is the way the wall opens up to reveal the crowd of people watching him through the bars, oohing and ahhing at the things he does. Serling and episode director Mitchell Leisen let the audience do a lot of the work here, not calling attention to the fact that Sam’s in a zoo right away but letting us piece it together. We’ve been waiting for the moment when Sam will say that, yes, people really are alike all over, and the full ironic meaning of that phrase will become clear, but it’s still a great moment. People will always take the strange and the exotic and the beautiful and attempt to lock it up, and that’s as true on Mars as it is on Earth.
Plus, there’s a fun undercurrent of social satire at play in this scene, too. Sam has been placed into a controlled habitat where he’ll, ostensibly, be quite happy. But he’s also trapped by that habitat, unable to escape and do what he might really want to do. Granted, the larger message here is meant to be the one about how we capture that which we find intriguing and try to pin it down, but I also like the sense this episode gives that Sam is just like any other schmo, trapped by his nice house and his stereotypically perfect life, watched by the neighbors who wait to see when he might slip up and reveal just who he really is. Sam’s watched like an animal in both interpretations of this ending, but I like the idea that the vaguely suburban trappings of his home are presented—satirically—as just as much of a trap as a zoo exhibit would be. It’s a fun, fun scene, even if you know what’s coming and even if you’ve read the story this is based on.
The bigger problem with “People Are Alike” is that it doesn’t really have plot momentum. Scratch that. It doesn’t have any plot momentum. It exists solely as a twist delivery vehicle, as too many weaker Twilight Zone outings do. The second Marcusson says to Sam that “people are alike everywhere,” we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the part where Sam realizes that, yes, people are alike all over, but that also means that they have the same weaknesses and flaws as the people we have here on Earth. This is basically one long journey to an end we already know is coming, at least from a thematic point of view.
Plus, the scenes before Sam reaches the Martians are deathly dull. The bit where he doesn’t want to leave the crashed spacecraft, even though Marcusson wants to see the Martian landscape he traveled so far to look upon, feels poorly motivated. I suspect Serling’s going for some sort of, “Oh, he has a premonition about what will happen to him here” twist, but it feels poorly motivated, particularly insofar as Sam was established in that opening scene where he and Marcusson look up at the rocket that will bear them to Mars. The scene with Sam rattling around the crashed spaceship and trying to figure out how to help Marcusson just stretches on forever, and even Roddy McDowell, an actor I quite like who does his best with what he’s handed here, can’t make this play. We know the two are going to leave the spaceship—The Twilight Zone could be a stagey show, but it wouldn’t be that stagey—and we know that Marcusson will die either shortly before or after that happens. So much of this is a waiting game.
The scenes with the Martians are slightly better, but only just. It’s fun to watch Sam be entranced by the beautiful Teenya, and I didn’t mind the stultified way the Martians talked. But, again, we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop throughout this sequence. It’s pretty clear that this isn’t going to be a show about a guy crash-landing among people from another planet and getting along just fine, and it certainly seems odd that they’ve built him this perfect home (from his mind!). The best Twilight Zone episodes also had this quality where you kept waiting for the full picture to be revealed, but they were filled with compelling characters and interesting plotting. “People Are Like” doesn’t have a plot, its central character is a flake, and it features some seriously boring Martians. That leaves it at a severe disadvantage.
So why recommend this episode, then, as I’m doing (albeit only slightly)? Well, it’s one that really benefits from that final twist, as pointed out. It’s just such a magnificent idea and image that I’m not sure the show could have screwed it up, particularly when it threw its all into revealing that twist as creatively as possible. The moments where Sam finds he’s in a zoo only take up about three minutes of the episode, but they’re a terrific three minutes indeed, and they almost justify the fact that the whole thing is simply a way to get Sam to this point. It almost makes you want to see an episode from the point of view of his alien zookeeper.
What a twist!: The home that the Martians have built for wayward astronaut Sam is actually his exhibit at an alien zoo, where he’s gawked at by a crowd of onlookers.
- I quite like the way that it seems as if Teenya isn’t wholly on board with the “let’s imprison the Earthling in a zoo” plan. She’s at least conflicted about it. (In general, this episode suffers from very little attempt to flesh out the Martian society, something that may have occurred due to budget concerns.)
- I enjoyed Paul Comi’s work as Marcusson, too. He somehow makes optimism about the human condition seem super-masculine.
- I feel as if I’ve seen that shot of the spacecraft approaching Mars somewhere else but can’t place it. Any thoughts?
“Execution” (season 1, episode 26; originally aired 4/1/1960)
In which the primitive is unleashed on the modern
And here’s an episode where the final twist is ultimately weaker than what’s come before, particularly the section immediately preceding it. The strange little tale of a scientist who brings an Old West outlaw forward in time with a rather non-specified time machine (it snatches people out of the past, like the cupboard in the Indian In The Cupboard books, though it doesn’t turn them into miniature toys), “Execution” gains a lot of strength from the performance at its center, although it ends with a series of events that aren’t incredibly interesting, since they hinge on a brand-new character—whose fate we don’t terribly care about—entering the story. There’s a lot of good in “Execution,” but what happens in the end spoils the overall picture.
Our “hero” is Joe Caswell, a man who is being hanged for murder by a small lynching party in the year 1880. As they string him up, he remains oddly defiant to the last, but once he drops from the tree, he doesn’t die. Instead, he disappears. We stay with him and not the shocked lynching party—perhaps the first surprise here, as we wouldn’t expect to stay with the “bad guy—and he wakes up in 1960 in the lab of a scientist who realizes fairly swiftly that he’s made a huge mistake. If the rope burns around Caswell’s neck weren’t indication enough, he also makes notes to himself about how the man’s eyes carry something of the “primitive,” and he fears he’s unleashed this person into a modern world he can’t possibly understand.
It’s the business with Caswell trying to comprehend a world full of sights and sounds that are incredibly alien to him that works best here. From the time when the scientist first shows Caswell the world outside the lab until roughly the point when he returns having destroyed a bunch of public property and shot out the windshield of a taxi (somehow, he’s not arrested), there’s a lot of good stuff here. The theme is a classic one in fiction: Civilization is a thin veneer of creature comforts, and if you put a man unaccustomed to them in the midst of it, he’ll still behave like an animal, lashing out and trying to defend himself. (It’s interesting that there are two episodes with the “man as animal” theme in a row here.) Caswell makes this point himself as he engages in the struggle that results in the death of the scientist. The scientist may think that he can talk Caswell through this whole experience, but he’s a hardened outlaw who’s lived out on the prairies of the Wild West, 80 years earlier. The scientist may think he understands Caswell, but on some level, he just doesn’t, as surely as you wouldn’t understand someone from the year 1931 or 2091, at least not completely.
The best part of the episode comes after Caswell kills the scientist. He escapes the lab and attempts to make his way through 1960 New York City, though he finds himself horrified by the lights, the noise, the blur. The “horseless carriages” confuse him. He shoots out a television—showing a Western, of course—and throws a chair through a jukebox. He staggers down the sidewalk in evident distress, and no one stops to help him. Serling (who scripted from a short story by George Clayton Johnson) and director David Orrick McDearmon really throw everything they have into showing how alienating the world of 80 years into the future—the world their viewers would think of as commonplace—would be to someone from the past. Similarly, actor Albert Salmi does a great job of portraying Caswell’s desperation and horror at what’s happened to him. It’s a performance that could be wildly over the top, but Salmi has a strong sense of when to rein it in and when to go a little nuts, and that benefits the story nicely.
It’s the final act here that just doesn’t work. Having retreated to the safety of the lab after his night on the town, Caswell is attempting to revive the scientist, only to learn he’s died. At this point, a thief breaks into the lab, thinking it will be empty for the night. He and Caswell struggle, and he strangles Caswell to death with a curtain cord (a nice touch of irony). As he looks around the lab, however, he accidentally trips the time machine—somehow—and ends up transported into the past, where he reappears in the noose meant for Caswell. He dies, the lynching party hopes they haven’t lynched an innocent man and comments on his odd style of dress, and the episode ends. It’s a typical twist for the show, one heavy with irony, but since it rests so thoroughly on a thief who appeared only a few minutes earlier, it feels fairly weak.
There are some nice things about this episode. I like the way that all three of the main characters end up dead, often through their own hubris. I like the way that Caswell’s introduction to New York City goes. I like the solemn, stern performance by Russell Johnson as the scientist. But it’s just hard to go with that ending, with the fact that the wrong guy breaks into the wrong place at the wrong time. I like the last scene with the cowboys hoping that they haven’t done the wrong thing, and I guess I can get behind the idea of the thief getting his just desserts in a manner he couldn’t have anticipated. But it’s all too easy in the way that the best twist endings shouldn’t be, and the whole thing makes a jump in character loyalty—shifting from Caswell to the thief—that it’s not really prepared to pay off. There’s a version of this story that makes this shift feel earned and organic. This isn’t it, really.
Still, the episode is worth seeing for that long, central scene on the New York City street and especially for Salmi’s performance. Salmi, who appeared in a handful of other Twilight Zone episodes, was a frequent guest on shows in this era of television, turning up on Westerns and in a few episodes of Lost In Space. He had an appealing, live-wire way about him that made him best for antiheroes and villains, though he never quite broke through as he might have seemed to be poised to do. Salmi’s life ended in 1990, after he apparently shot his wife and then himself, which casts a pall over a villainous role like this, but his work as Caswell livens up what might have been a dull episode without him.
What a twist: Caswell is killed by a thief, who finds himself transported back in time—to be lynched in Caswell’s place.
- The scientist’s time travel plan seems sort of weak, like a really weird Quantum Leap in reverse. (Hmmm… maybe Zack and I should tackle that one next in our “classic TV sci-fi theatre” escapades…)
- I quite like the bartender here, who at first seems a little irked by Caswell, then goes to both pissed off and confused, and finally hits just pissed off after Caswell shoots out his TV.
- Caswell could run around on a New York city street, waving his gun around. 1960 was just the best place to live, evidently.
Next week: Zack takes us into the boxing ring and to a place that sure seems like Heaven. We’ll go on hiatus for the holidays for a couple of weeks after that.