The Twilight Zone: “Printer’s Devil”/“No Time Like The Past”
B-

The Twilight Zone: “Printer’s Devil”/“No Time Like The Past”

“Printer’s Devil” (season 4, episode 9; originally aired 2/28/1963)

In which the Devil is in the fine print

(Available on Hulu.)

“Printer’s Devil” is what one might call a “minor” episode of The Twilight Zone. I would be shocked to find this on too many people’s top 10 lists or even their top 30 lists. When it comes right down to it, Charles Beaumont’s script telegraphs nearly every single plot point. The whole thing has the same loginess that’s cursed many of the other episodes this season, and once it becomes obvious that Mr. Smith is the Devil, there’s not really anywhere else for it to go. But “Printer’s Devil” is a lot of fun in spite of itself, particularly when it gets out of its own way and has some fun with the idea of Satan working in a newspaper office in the early ‘60s. Having had my first job at a small-town newspaper office, I’m a sucker for this sort of thing, and the scenes where Smith is working the linotype machine were almost enough to push this one into good grade territory for me.

What cements its stay in that territory is the work of one Burgess Meredith as Mr. Smith. This was Meredith’s fourth and final appearance in the Zone, and if his work here isn’t quite to the level of his definitive performance in “Time Enough At Last,” his turn as the villain is quite a bit above both “Mr. Dingle The Strong” and “The Obsolete Man” in terms of bringing a twist of something new to this show. Robert Sterling and Pat Crowley are both good as the newspaper owner and his girl Friday, to be sure, but this is Meredith’s show. Casting the man as the Devil turns out to be a masterstroke, and watching him cackle his way through the part is about three-quarters of the fun in this episode. The scenes where he sits at the linotype machine, chomping on a cigar and working away at the keyboard like the Phantom of the Opera over his organ are great fun.

The story is really quite simple, and Beaumont doesn’t play cute with who Mr. Smith actually is. Indeed, it’s right there in the punning title, which takes the name for a newspaper office lackey and turns it into something quite literal. This is another episode of this hour-long season that takes perhaps a bit too much time with each of its scenes, but the setup gives us a bit more emotional heft than some of the other episodes this season have. Douglas Winter’s newspaper, The Courier, is getting badly beaten by The Gazette. That paper has more subscriptions, it has more circulation, it has more scoops, and it has more employees, having hired away many of Mr. Winter’s most loyal and treasured workers. When this episode starts and Winter goes to kill himself, Beaumont’s script has done a solid job of making you sympathize with him and understand why he might take that step. And when Smith shows up—and Meredith is winking away in his performance—it also lets you know as quickly as possible just what’s up.

The greatest invention of this episode is the machine that prints news that subsequently comes true. The idea of a writer who writes things that become reality isn’t exactly a new notion and wasn’t even when this episode first aired. It’s the sort of thing that every writer of fiction has briefly pondered at least once. Where Beaumont’s short story that first gave this concept life featured the Devil making up stories that were clearly preposterous—a woman giving birth to a hippopotamus, say—“Printer’s Devil” features stories that any small-town newspaper might have plastered on the front page. It’s the sheer volume of them that starts to be suspicious, the way they pile on top of each other until every other day is a catastrophe or an unexpected cloudburst of good fortune. When Winter catches Smith in the act—with a story of a surprise windfall that hasn’t yet come true—the story begins to turn. And it’s in this last half that it has its finest material.

In particular, I love the scene where Smith talks Winter into selling Smith his soul. This is a staple of the “deal with the Devil” genre, but in the hands of Meredith and Sterling, working from a scene that subverts cliché at every turn, at least as scripted, it becomes something more unexpected and fun to dissect. Winter, on some level, knows he’s dealing with the Devil, but the Devil is also very good at picking out exactly which piece of his character to appeal to to get him to sign that contract. See, Winter, like any good journalist, is a bit of a skeptic, so of course he doesn’t believe in the Devil. And if he doesn’t believe in the Devil, then why wouldn’t he sign his soul away? Because surely such a thing doesn’t exist as well, right? It’s a scene filled with weird, circuitous dream logic, but it all works because of the commitment of the performers and Beaumont’s carefully tuned dialogue.

The ending here is a bit of a disappointment. As soon as Smith says he’s shifted the linotype machine so that whatever it prints becomes real, the instrument of the Devil’s undoing becomes incredibly obvious. And, indeed, it seems a little strange that this Devil, so crafty and smart, didn’t have a back-up plan in place for just such an occasion. (This is to say nothing of how the Devil says he can’t erase Ms. Benson’s upcoming death because whatever the machine prints is real—and then Winter does just that with his last-ditch article.) There’s a bit of a tone of “I’ve learned my lesson” to the final scenes, when Winter sends the infernal machine out of his office and back from whence it came, and the whole enterprise sags a bit without Meredith around to spice things up.

So long as Meredith is around, though, this is an episode that’s far more fun than I would have expected it to be, given its obviousness. There’s a rich tradition in American folklore—and on this show, actually—of Satan as a kind of trickster god, a figure who stands between humanity and its promised reward with prizes that look all the more tempting in the moment. Of all of Twilight Zone’s many spins on this figure, however, I’d put Meredith right there at the top, fighting it out with a few others for the best particular take on the character in this show. His Devil feels all too human, a chuckling old man who just wants what’s best for you until he so obviously doesn’t, and that gives him a core of real horror, amid the winks and grins.

What a twist!: Winter uses the Devil’s linotype machine against him, preventing Ms. Benson’s death and removing himself from the contract that signs over his soul to Satan.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • A nice touch is that every time we see one of The Courier’s newspapermen selling an issue with the latest big scoop, The Gazette has some prosaic headline about a women’s group having a meeting or something.
  • I doubt anyone on The Twilight Zone knew they would be capturing a process that would seem strange and alien to future generations when they killed time by showing how a linotype machine works, but, man, I had fun watching that paper come together.
  • Meredith is mostly fun and games in this episode, but he also gets a chance to be legitimately terrifying when he’s making a pass at Ms. Benson and she rejects him. This is a guy who gets what he wants, and Meredith channels that perfectly.

“No Time Like The Past” (season 4, episode 10; originally aired 3/7/1963)

In which Rod Serling mashes several of his previous scripts together into one

(Available on Hulu.)

Though it has good individual scenes, as a whole, “No Time Like The Past” is horribly unfocused. It starts out as one thing, becomes yet another, then becomes something else entirely, and there’s very little knitting all of these different episodes together outside of the concept of time travel. It is, in some ways, a trip through Rod Serling’s greatest hits, with a dash of many, many episodes he wrote over the show’s first three seasons mixed in with a heavy dose of “Walking Distance.” According to Marc Scott Zicree’s Official Twilight Zone Companion, Serling later wrote this one off as one of his weaker installments, saying that the series had done time travel to death. I wouldn’t go so far as Serling—there are far worse episodes of the show than this one—but “No Time Like The Past” is definitely one I would skip past if I came upon it in the late-night rerun slot.

“No Time Like The Past” starts out as an episode about a man trying to remake the 20th century into something he will find more palatable. Paul Driscoll has somehow gotten his hands on a time machine, the design of which—a long series of glowing orbs strung like the non-parallel sides of a trapezoid down to a small platform below a taller one containing the machine’s operating apparatus—is probably the highlight of the episode. With the help of his friend Harvey, Paul is going to travel into the recent past and attempt to avert the early ‘60s world he lives in, a world where the atomic bomb could destroy humanity in an instant. First, he tries to save the lives of the citizens of Hiroshima. Then, he attempts to assassinate Hitler, perhaps figuring that world peace sometimes requires a little judiciously placed gunfire. Finally, he attempts to divert the Lusitania from its course, that America might not be drawn into World War I.

The foremost problem with all of this is that we in the audience know how these sorts of stories work. Hell, the people watching this in 1963 would have been thoroughly knowledgeable about the conventions of this particular sub-genre. This just makes Paul seem hopelessly naïve to think he can change the past and alter his present in ways that don’t do terrible harm to the world around him. And he’s not just trying to change small things. He’s trying to do the big, big things all time travelers in stories like this, written in the immediate wake of World War II and trying to atone for the world’s sins, try to do. Killing Hitler? I’m reminded of that old gag about all of the time travelers popping up, one by one, trying to put a bullet in the Fuhrer’s brain.

Plus, this section of the episode is filled with bizarre character actions and somewhat inscrutable decisions. Paul doesn’t just keep the maid out of his room when she brings him fresh towels? Doesn’t he know he’s got limited time to kill Hitler? Then he lines Adolf up in his sights but is only testing his aim, with the real bullet to come later? Does he think he’s going to have all day to do this? The other two sections aren’t quite as bad, but both rely on Paul trying to convince people that he knows something bad is coming and being unable to because no one would believe he was from the future, a time travel trope that’s been well and truly worn out for ages—and was when this episode was produced. Hell, the show’s unofficial pilot, “The Time Element,” did much the same thing with Pearl Harbor, but in a way that actually conveyed the urgency a time traveler might feel in such a situation. Paul seems to be sleepwalking through these various scenarios, trying to convince people of what’s coming with all the authority of a community college professor.

Now, in my head, I had separated “No Time Like The Past” into two separate episodes. There’s a fairly good reason for this. The two halves of the episode have very little to do with each other. Even though Serling likely could have gotten a full episode out of the conceit of Paul trying to change history and finding his efforts progressively foiled by circumstance, to his frustration, he instead crams all three trips into the past into one act, then has Paul return to the present to admit to Harvey that the past can’t be changed, so he may as well go find a place before the bomb where all will be to his liking, then set up housekeeping there. This actually turns out to be plan B, with Paul having already picked out just the place and time: a little town named Homeville, Indiana, in the 1880s.

The material in Homeville is better than the time traveling stuff by a fair margin, but it still feels like a weak retread of several other Serling episodes. For whatever reason, Serling was obsessed with escaping into the turn of the century American past, a time he envisioned as bright and happy and without malice. Yet even as he emotionally wanted to return to that place, he was smart enough to know that it wasn’t everything his head wanted it to be, which provides a nice, queasy tension to most of the episodes revolving around that theme. And there’s some of that present here, particularly in the episode’s best scene, where Paul gets into a fight with a fellow dinner guest about the need for America to “plant its flag” all over the world and the tendency of older men to get their jollies by painting foreign shores with young, American blood.

The problem is that this tension isn’t what’s driving the episode, unlike in most of the other Serling riffs on this basic storyline. Instead, the tension driving the episode is the exact opposite of the tension from the first half of the episode. Where Paul was trying to change the past in those early segments, he’s now steadfastly trying not to change the past in Homeville, to simply blend in and let it be as if he were always here. This is complicated when he—somewhat unbelievably—remembers that the Homeville school is going to burn, injuring 12 children, all out of nowhere. (I can’t help but think the episode’s tension would have been improved by having him know this was coming from the moment he arrives and having his desire to stop it be compounded by getting to know Abigail, the school teacher.) He’s able to resist preventing the assassination of President Garfield, but when push comes to shove, he just can’t let those kids be hurt, and he, in the manner of ironic time travelers throughout history, ends up causing the very event he means to prevent, his actions causing the carriage that tosses the kerosene lantern (in broad daylight, no less) to go wild.

Serling’s a good enough writer that he almost gets away with all of this, even though the more I write about it, the more ludicrous it all seems. These events simply don’t track with the earlier events of the episode. Didn’t Paul just spend a lot of time learning that he couldn’t change history? Why, then, does he become so worked up about it all over again? The whole Homeville segment falls apart the more you poke at it, but Serling’s strength with this sort of plot carries large bunches of it. This has, in every way, the feeling of a star pupil who’s dashing off a paper the night before it’s due, knowing he’ll get a passing grade simply because he’s that good. It might sort of work, but the more one examines its underpinnings, the less is left to chew on.

What a twist!: Paul, in attempting to avert the school disaster, actually ends up causing it.

Grade: C

Stray observations:

  • Even though many of its individual elements are preposterous, I’ll admit to finding director Justus Addiss’ use of tension—and those kids singing “Columbia, Gem Of The Ocean”—in the sequence with the medicine peddler to be quite nicely done.
  • While watching this episode, I found myself imagining a parallel episode where Homeville wasn’t an actual town but, rather, a place that time travelers had set up to live in an imagined American past in the manner they saw fit. Everybody in Homeville seemed there just to ironically comment on Paul’s present, and they more or less accepted his mutterings about the president being shot without much question. I get that most of this is just Abigail being smart enough to put two and two together, but there are plenty of scenes where the Homeville natives simply smile indulgently as Paul rants about whatever.
  • My wife, watching this episode with me, wondered aloud whether Paul’s final stop to try to alter the past would be to try to save JFK, and I had to point out that this episode actually aired a few months before Kennedy was assassinated. (“This show is old,” she said.) When we discovered he was actually going to try to avert U.S. entry into World War I—complete with shock music cue over the plaque reading “Lusitania”—we both laughed. When this episode aired, that war was closer to the airdate than World War II is to us now, and it was already fading in the popular imagination, where World War II seems to have only grown in stature. Who would remake this episode now and send Paul back to prevent the sinking of the Lusitania? Who even thinks about the Lusitania anymore?

Next week: Zack heads out along “The Parallel,” then, regrettably, doesn’t get to hang out with Barbara Eden in “I Dream Of Genie.”

More TV Club