The Twilight Zone: “Person or Persons Unknown”/“The Little People”

The Twilight Zone: “Person or Persons Unknown”/“The Little People”

“Person Or Persons Unknown” (season 3, episode 27; originally aired 3/23/1962)

In which there is no David Gurney

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

“Person Or Persons Unknown” has the feel of a really good Phillip K. Dick short story buried deep within it. (In fact, the premise here is very close to the 1975 novel, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, though that story is far more elaborate.) Its hero, David Gurney, acts like kind of an asshole throughout—even before he knows what’s happened to him—but he still functions as the hero because what’s happening to him is so horrifying. To wake up one morning, certain of who you are, and realize the universe fundamentally disagrees with you on that point, well, that’s pure nightmare fuel. Quite sensibly, The Twilight Zone doesn’t try to make anything more of it than that. There’s no attempt to explain that this is a conspiracy afoot, or space aliens doing this to him, or anything of the sort. You might expect that in a movie or novel, but here, in the confines of this short tale, all is weird terror. Gurney falls into a nightmare—literally—but when he wakes, it’s to another one.

This is, I think, generally a strength of The Twilight Zone. It doesn’t push too hard for an explanation, for a conclusion about why these things are happening. In most episodes, these things simply are happening. It increases the oddness, and it also makes it easier to imagine that they’re happening to you, not just somebody on screen. When Gurney wakes up in bed with his wife and she doesn’t recognize him, that’s the sort of terror that’s all too recognizable, with or without anything “behind” it. So much of “Person Or Persons Unknown” stems from how we’re all perched on the edge of being completely and utterly forgotten. All of us rely on other people to back up who we know we are, and if everybody else suddenly decided they had no idea who we were, well, that would be terrifying. Everything in society is perched on this long line of things we all agree to be true. Stop agreeing that they are, and you can break a great many things.

If there’s a flaw in this episode, it’s likely in that ending, in which Gurney wakes up from the nightmare and sees that he was simply having a bad dream. Now, there’s another layer to the twist here—the wife that he recognizes is no longer his wife—but the wife is such a non-entity of a character here that it doesn’t land as well as it might. (The original Wilma is asked to speak very little, that when we meet Wilma #2, it will be that much more of a shock. This has the unintentional effect of making everything feel that much more nightmarish, as she’s only communicating in nods and shrugs when she’s sending the police after the man who believes himself to be her husband.) This isn’t the worst ending in the world—and I like the idea of Wilma #2, even if the execution’s a bit too obvious—but it’s definitely a comedown from the hazy surreality of the rest of the episode. It’s a bit too easy for Gurney to just wake up, even if there’s something surprising awaiting him in the land of the living.

But the rest of this episode is vintage Zone, disturbing all the way through and full of great moments. When the psychiatrist tries to gently guide Gurney to the notion that David Gurney doesn’t exist, that he’s had some sort of psychotic break, well, it all sounds surprisingly reasonable. Of course, we soon realize that it would be insane for Gurney to suggest that he’s someone who doesn’t exist when he’s able to remember all of this information about his old life—the phone numbers of his mother and best friend and the bar he used to drink at nightly—but it’s just strange enough that you’d think it would give him more pause. Yet it doesn’t. David Gurney presses ever onward, in a way that might initially seem oblivious to the audience, which has long ago guessed what he’s up against. But there’s something admirable about his bluster, about the way that he insists things are a certain way and refuses to let the universe tell him otherwise.

It’s worth pointing out that Gurney’s a bit of a dick, both when he has reason to be, like somebody working at his desk at the bank and acting as if that’s where he belongs, and when he doesn’t, really, like when he rages against his sleeping wife for not undressing him when he crashed drunkenly into bed the night before. (Also: Is this the first instance of two married people sleeping in the same bed, even if they’re not both under the sheets? All of the other incidents I know about post-date this one, and this even offers mild sexual innuendo when Gurney realizes that he’s back with a woman who recognizes him at the end of the episode.) One of the strengths of the episode is that his belligerent attitude is what makes him such a relatable hero when the episode’s central conceit kicks in. It’s easy enough to ask if you would be this angry, push this hard back against what you knew to be untrue, or if you would simply go with the flow and let yourself be convinced you were someone else entirely.

In some ways, this works as a weird adjunct to a movie like It’s A Wonderful Life. The thread tying us to existence in a tale like this is so tenuous. All it takes is for a few documents to disappear, our names to appear fewer times than they already do. Driven by the increased corporatization of the world, with all the dehumanization that implied, many sci-fi writers of the ‘60s—with Dick leading the charge—took on these themes, these ideas of the individual trying to make sense of life in a world where it was far too easy for the state or someone to strip the individual of all that he held dear. Charles Beaumont’s script here isn’t trying to score any political points, but it does score points when it comes to its depiction of a man who gets through something horrifying by holding onto his rage. The proper response to having your sense of self stripped from you isn’t meekly putting your head down and going with the flow; it’s outright rage and bluster, all the better to make it through this farce. And, come to think of it, with the many Communist states at the height of their power in the early ‘60s, maybe this is a political work, an existential howl from a man who dares suggest he still matters when everybody else says otherwise.

What a twist!: When Gurney wakes up from his bad dream, he arises to realize that his wife is no longer who he thought she was but someone else altogether.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • Director John Brahm makes great use of close-ups and silences in this episode, particularly in the scene where Gurney is using the phone to call everybody he knows. Richard Long’s performance also reaches its desperate height here, his eyes increasingly reflecting a cornered animal.
  • Speaking of It’s A Wonderful Life, that scene at the bank plays almost as a ghoulish echo of that film. Surely all of these people remember their trusted coworker!
  • I like how the scene where Gurney confronts the guy sitting at his desk at work is shot almost so it could seem like Gurney is looking down into a mirror. And the shot stays just long enough for you to start thinking, hey, maybe this guy looks just like Gurney, until Brahm cuts back to a close-up, and you see that, no, he does not.

“The Little People” (season 3, episode 28; originally aired 3/30/1962)

In which we are as gods

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

A man having the power of a god is a potent theme throughout literature, even in a scientific age, when we need gods less and less to explain the natural phenomena all around us. To have a whole race of people be forced to obey our every whim is an intoxicating notion for some of us, and I’d imagine just about everyone can think of a day when it might have been nicer to be waited on hand and foot by people cowering in terror at the thought of what you might do next than to have to make it through another day of kowtowing to other people. There’s something enthralling about the idea of being able to make someone pay simply from thinking about it, about having them in your thrall, even if they don’t feel particularly excited about that.

“The Little People” is another quietly famous episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s not to the level of a “It’s A Good Life” or a “To Serve Man,” but nods and homages to it pop up throughout pop culture. (Both The Simpsons and Futurama have done extended riffs on it, making it one of the few episodes to turn up on both of Matt Groening’s TV shows, which is saying something.) There are a lot of reasons for that—the awesomeness of the central idea, the potency of the twist, the way that the show plays around with scale in dizzying ways—but first and foremost is the way that the episode all but invites us to identify with Craig, the man who makes himself a god to the race of tiny people he finds, though it’s also condemning him for doing this at all times. His lust for power is something that should not be indulged, the episode says, even as it invites us to find in us the place that would be only too happy to have that much power, to have a whole race ready at our beck and call.

Much of The Twilight Zone is in response to the politics of the Cold War era, both at home in the U.S. and abroad, where the fight against communism raged on beneath the surface. There’s a strong streak of suspicion of dictatorial setups running throughout the Zone, and while much of that is spurred by the fact that Rod Serling’s generation was the one to fight World War II (as we’ve discussed), just as much was spurred by the news coming out of Eastern Europe, where the sorts of freedoms Serling and company took for granted were being trampled upon. Now, plenty of episodes of Twilight Zone are about how the United States rarely—if ever—lives up to its stated ideals, particularly when it comes to the sorts of people who exist outside of its central core of power. But just as many, if not more, are about the dangers of unchecked power, of people who are handed everything and then just abuse it. “The Little People” is one of those episodes.

Scripted by Serling himself, “The Little People” breaks down as essentially a two-character play. Craig and his fellow astronaut Fletcher land on a strange, hot planet, presided over by two suns. Craig becomes convinced that he can hear the voices of people, while Fletcher focuses on making the necessary repairs to their rocket, that they might return to Earth. The two squabble a bit, but Fletcher mostly focuses on the work at hand while Craig goes out exploring. Fletcher quickly grows suspicious when he notes that he hasn’t noticed Craig drinking water or anything similar, wondering how he’s staying alive with the suns’ heat pouring down. And that’s when things get weird. Craig’s found a tiny civilization that appears to occupy one small patch of land just off in the distance. There, through a telescope, the doings of a race of tiny, tiny people—too small to really be seen with the naked eye—can be discerned. Craig has begun communicating with them, and he’s managed to establish a kind of contact.

It’s here that one thing should be noted. Earlier in the episode, in an aside that feels vaguely forced once you think about it for more than a second, Craig admits that he wants to have a whole bunch of people at his elbow, people who have to do what he says. He doesn’t just want a bunch of friends. He wants real power, so he’s naturally gravitated toward space exploration. (It doesn’t make much sense initially, but then you figure he’s probably in the military—where he could have risen to a rank where underlings would have to listen to him—and that he’s likely been waiting for a situation just like this, and it all clicks into place.) Now, the way this is all dropped into the story is a bit odd, as mentioned. Serling tries to make it conversational, but this isn’t exactly the sort of thing one works into small talk. But once he finds that race of little people, we know exactly what’s about to happen: He’s going to go mad with power.

When The Simpsons and Futurama did their riffs on this basic concept, both shows made the whole thing vaguely poignant, the new “god” realizing the limits of his or her ability to protect these fledgling societies. But Craig is the kind of dictator Serling would have recognized, someone who takes his power and does only horrific things with it. The scenes where Craig stomps upon the little people are genuinely terrifying, even though we never see him doing anything more than crushing a small cabin beneath his shoe. These are sentient beings that he’s wiping off the face of the planet. He’s very much an Old Testament god, meting out his wrath that those beneath his feet might fear and serve him.

Fletcher leaves Craig, finally, after the megalomaniac tells his former friend that there’s not room for two gods on the planet. It’s a monotheistic society, and now that Craig has had his subjects build him a statue (which he’s accidentally destroyed with an errant laser blast), there’s no telling what he’ll do. Fletcher, clearly disturbed by the turn of events, doesn’t really have any recourse, so he leaves Craig behind, predicting that he’ll be bored with absolute power within 48 hours and might get even worse. (It’s hard to imagine what might happen, but reality gives us more than enough good examples.) Craig settles in for the long haul, ready for the little people to build him another statue overnight. (It’s in the revelation that these little people can apparently construct a statue overnight that one reaches the conclusion that maybe they’re not as helpless as they seem, though justice comes from elsewhere.)

Yet this is The Twilight Zone, and evil men—for that is what Craig has become—must be punished. And so two giant spacemen arrive on the planet, towering over the mountains. They hear Craig’s cries to go away, but all they do is pick up the little man, accidentally crushing him as a human might crush a bug he didn’t even realize was there. This final toying around with scale is a lot of fun—and the image of Craig’s broken body lying on one of the giant’s palms is surprisingly graphic for this show—but what it hammers home is the idea that no one is all powerful, that everybody, sooner or later, meets their reckoning, and if there’s nobody on your side when that comes, well, you’ll die, battered and alone, your subjects pulling down a statue they never wanted in the first place to crumble atop your broken body.

What a twist!: Craig, finally alone and ready to be God, finds himself confronted with two giant spacemen who casually crush him.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • The image of the head from Craig’s statue lying in the dust is fairly eerie. It encapsulates so many of the episode’s themes in just the one shot. Props to director William Claxton.
  • I have to admit that when Craig is talking about how he’s hearing a sound, like voices, and the camera pans over to Rod Serling, I laughed a bit. Maybe you’re just hearing Rod Serling, Craig!
  • I like how happy the giant spacemen seem about everything. Maybe the Jolly Green Giant was on to something.

Next week: Zack wonders what will happen at “Four O’Clock,” then hangs out with “Hocus Pocus And Frisby.”

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