“The Fever” (season 1, episode 17; originally aired Jan. 29, 1960)
In which an old man gets it in his head to do a shot-for-shot remake of Katy Perry’s “Waking Up In Vegas” video
There are mediocre episodes of The Twilight Zone, and then there are baaaaaad episodes of The Twilight Zone. Fortunately, the latter are far fewer in number than the former. A mediocre episode is just one that has an interesting idea or two at its core but lacks a certain level of execution—think of “The Four Of Us Are Dying,” for instance, which has some great ideas but a script that lets them down. But a bad episode of this show is one where the idea at the center is pretty dumb, in addition to the execution being lacking. And while I can find reviewers online defending “The Fever,” I’m not entirely sure how anyone in good conscience could suggest this as anything other than one of the single worst episodes the show ever produced.
Basically, it has everything wrong with it that could drag down a good episode into a mediocre one. It has the problem of having exactly one dramatic beat, which Zack has discussed quite a bit. It has a weak idea at its core that exists more to let Rod Serling get a little moralizing in than to propel anything interesting in a dramatic sense. It doesn’t boast terribly great direction or acting or production values (though I kind of like the central performance). The characters exist solely to prove a point and to get Serling’s message across. And the “monster”? Oh, the monster is one of the worst things this show ever tried to put over on the audience. It’s a sentient slot machine that can walk and smile and talk, and when it talks, the sound designers try to make it sound like a slot machine, sort of like how the Smoke Monster on Lost sounded like a roller coaster. It’s goofy as hell, and it reduces any moments featuring it to sheer hilarity.
As mentioned, the story is basically non-existent. Franklin and Flora Gibbs have won a short trip to Las Vegas, thanks to the fact that Flora won a jingle contest (for work we never get to hear, as she’s not a character but, rather, a symbol of an eternally devoted wife). Franklin doesn’t think much of the world of Las Vegas, much less of gambling, and he’s not shy about letting Flora know exactly what he thinks of her desire to try one of the slot machines. When she puts a nickel into one of the machines, he grows irate with her, but finally allows her to pull the lever, resulting in no payout. He gives her a little lecture, then he’s on his way back to the room.
Naturally enough, because Serling has heard of dramatic irony, Franklin has a stranger press a silver dollar into his hand and tell him to hold onto the guy’s machine while he goes off to get another drink and rue his bad luck. Franklin puts the dollar into the machine, and he wins a few bucks. Not a lot, but he’s come out ahead—especially since the money he was given wasn’t his own. He takes the money and heads back to his hotel room, where the machine—with its $10,000 jackpot—begins to call out to him. Soon, he’s gibbering about how no good can come from money gotten through such ill-gotten means and how he needs to put the money back into the machine, just to be sure. Flora thinks this is all sort of goofy, but she’s apparently used to being married to a vaguely abusive nutbag, so she lets it slide. Franklin hits the machine again, but he loses the money he won. Then he starts writing out checks for substantial sums of money. And he loses all of that too.
The problem is that everything up until when Franklin starts to lose money takes a little under 10 minutes. It’s obvious from the start that Franklin will be the one to get addicted to the machines (since he acts about gambling like closeted politicians act about homosexuality), and it’s also obvious that this is going to be a simple little gambling morality tale. But no one ever accused Serling of being subtle, and he occasionally made his very obviousness into a virtue. There might be an interesting Twilight Zone twist on this subject to come. But the last 15 minutes of the episode never deliver on that. They’re filled with a ridiculously protracted segment where Franklin signs away everything he has to the machine, then a final moment where Serling has the machine—with its goofy giant light that looks like an eye and its weird little smile—come up to the Gibbs’ hotel room and back Franklin into a window, causing him to fall to his death. (People fall to their deaths a lot on this show.) It’s a bad villain, both because there’s no dimension to it other than, “Hey, sometimes people lose their shirt gambling” and because it’s so damn stupid.
Serling wrote this episode after a trip to Vegas saw him struggle and lose quite a bit of cash to a so-called “one-armed bandit” (though, presumably, he didn’t sign everything away like Franklin does). And there are moments when it almost attains the feverish haze of someone caught up in the rush of the moment, of someone who’s just gotta plunk one more coin into the machine because God only knows which pull will bring about the jackpot. But there’s not enough here for a story. There’s just a thoroughly unpleasant man who won’t let his wife have any fun, who then succumbs to his own demons. There’s probably a way to make this play from Flora’s point-of-view, but from Franklin’s point-of-view, the whole thing becomes a morality play where an awful guy behaves awfully, then dies. There’s one good idea here—the silver dollar he lost to the machine when it malfunctioned rolling up to his dead hand—but around that good idea is a whole lot of moralizing and a whole lot of overacting from Everett Sloane. (As Flora, Vivi Janiss is better, but she, again, doesn’t have anything to do but be vaguely supportive of everything Franklin does. You sense that if the story ended with him signing her away to casino management, she’d think it was just a great idea.)
On the other hand, this is one of the few episodes I saw as a small child, and I’ve had a lifelong aversion to gambling. I can’t possibly claim this episode influenced that—since my father is also quite against the notion of tossing money away on non-sure things—but it certainly couldn’t have helped. There’s a level on which this episode might work for a child or for someone who’s just realizing that, hey, you lose lots of money when you gamble, but there’s not really a way that it works for an adult. Outside of a couple of cool images, “The Fever” is proof positive that if you’re going to have a guy hallucinate a monster, it should probably be something better than a Brave Little Toaster Goes To Vegas reject.
What a twist!: The slot machine did it.
- Another problem with this episode is that The Twilight Zone would later revisit this topic with much stronger results, as season one’s “A Nice Place To Visit” and season two’s “The Prime Mover” make the same basic points about gambling in service to much better stories and far more subtly. In addition, Alfred Hitchcock Presents did a much better episode about what men will wager to win a giant prize—starring a young Steve McQueen!—with “Man From The South,” which also aired in 1960 and may be the best episode that show ever did.
- There’s not really a lot making this one a Twilight Zone episode, either. There are plenty of episodes of this show where somebody slowly goes nuts and the show puts us in their point-of-view, but the walking, talking slot machine isn’t a cool enough twist/foe. And Serling’s late-in-episode attempts to suggest the machine was actually ambulatory are too stupid for words.
- Comments challenge: Construct a fan fiction about Flora’s life after the events of this episode, after her husband leaves her penniless. I would suggest that the story both involve her realizing how much better she is without him and the slot machine heading to her home to finish the job.
“The Last Flight” (season 1, episode 18; originally aired Feb. 5, 1960)
In which what happened, happened
“The Last Flight” is rather unusual in this first batch of episodes in that its central strangeness is something that reaches out and affects everyone in the show. In most of these episodes, one character will run afoul of the gods and find themselves stuck in a world where nothing makes sense anymore. To look at the episode we just covered, no one sees the slot machine’s threats but Franklin, and if he tried to explain it to anyone, they’d lock him up. The mystery of the story happens to exactly one person, and it doesn’t really affect those around him. But even in stronger episodes—like, say, “The Hitch-Hiker”—the whole thing is happening to one woman, who refuses to admit what’s going on. These early episodes often hinge on the power of self-deception, and while that can be fun to play around with as the walls of the subconscious come tumbling down, it can also create a scenario where the audience gets out ahead of the protagonist and waits for the story to catch up.
“The Last Flight” is different. What happened to Terry Decker is as much a mystery to him as it is to the other men on the 1959 Air Force base where he lands. We know that he traveled from the past—Serling tells us as much, and even if he didn’t, we know what kind of program we’re watching—but we don’t really know how this is going to play out. At first, we fear that this will all turn into something where he has to convince the men from the future that he’s really from the past, and they won’t be convinced, and then he’ll suffer some horribly ironic fate or learn that he’s presumed dead in 1917 or go and find a wife who’s aged well beyond where he is as a young man. These are the usual twists for a time travel story like this, and it’s reasonable to assume the show will go there.
But just as we’re starting to get tired of Decker insisting he’s from the past, Richard Matheson’s genius script (from his short story “The Flight”) pivots, introducing another mystery that grows to attain more prominence than the one that asks how, precisely, Decker flew 42 years into the future. Now, the script asks, just how did Decker’s friend, Alexander Mackaye, return from the dead to be alive enough to be visiting the base in just a few hours? It’s a great twist when we learn that Decker believes Mackaye to be dead but the others can confirm that he’s very much alive, and it occurs only at the act break, meaning that this is an episode driven by a twist in the middle, rather than at the end.
The episode kind of cheats, if you think about it. Decker initially says Mackaye is dead, even though he only believes him to be dead, and the script makes sure that we don’t understand the precise chronology of how Decker came to 1959, so we get maximum excitement as he realizes with a kind of thrill and terror just what he has to do. If we knew from the very beginning that Decker had disappeared in the midst of a mission whereupon he and Mackaye came upon seven German fighter pilots, then when he began to tell his story of how Mackaye died after he was unable to escape the three planes he was fighting himself, we’d know him to be lying. The episode puts us in the hands of an unreliable narrator, but it doesn’t clue us into this until so late that we can’t really do anything with the information. By the time he’s telling the truth, the whole thing has pivoted yet again into an exploration of what it means to be courageous. Even if it’s a way to keep the story as suspenseful as possible, it’s still a slight cheat.
But that’s no matter, because once Decker realizes what he has to do, the episode is just terrific. Mackaye must have been helped if he escaped those fighter pilots, Decker realizes, but the only pilot who could help him within 50 miles was one who flew up into a cloud and 42 years into the future. And as Decker realizes that he’s got to find that cloud again and return to the moment where he left Mackaye to die—a death that would take the lives of many in the London Blitz of World War II as well (as Mackaye acquitted himself well in the skies during the Battle of Britain)—he also realizes that this is a way to make penance for all of his cowardly acts, for all of the times that he left Mackaye to become Old Leadbottom while he was shooting holes into the side of his plane himself, so the other men in his squadron would think him brave. He comes to the future a man scared of death; he returns to the past a man ready to embrace it because of what the future—or perhaps fate—had to show him. Without his help, Mackaye doesn’t live, and the future spins off on a whole different path.
I like the way that the Air Force officers slowly get roped into this madness as well. When one tries to stop Decker from flying off in his plane, gun in hand, there’s a temptation to wonder if he’ll shoot Decker and then we’ll start to see the future changing around him, “A Sound Of Thunder”-style. But even as we know it mustn’t happen, the episode keeps us thinking that Decker just might perish at the hands of the officer, until he’s safely in the air. Because the officer, we realize, has just gotten drawn into the Twilight Zone as well, much as he’s the sort of rational military man who might otherwise insist something like this would never happen. (It’s always a rational military man in a story like this, someone who would doubt it happened but for it happening to him.) And then Mackaye himself—now an old man—shows up, and we learn that Decker dies moments after he returns to the past, and we get the final, terrific moment where the early throwaway beats of Decker turning over his personal effects are reflected in Mackaye receiving them all these years later and where the officer proves to Mackaye that, yes, he was just talking to his old friend just now. (A part of me wonders if this episode wouldn’t be even more powerful if Mackaye and Decker had met and Decker learned of his fate, but that also could have been far too cloying.)
And ultimately, that’s what makes this episode so great: It’s not about one man who steps into the Twilight Zone; it’s about four men, separated by decades. This becomes a story they’ll never quite understand, an experience they’ll never be able to account for, and the bits where each of the four characters realizes just what happened are tremendous. (I like that they all four realize the answer to the question at separate moments and in different ways—and that the script doesn’t call attention to this either.) The best time-travel stories are often about feedback loops, about the ways that people can try to avoid something but often end up doomed to repeat themselves. On some level, they’re about how it can be hard to change and how sometimes, change just isn’t worth it. And for as mercilessly well-structured as “The Last Flight” is, it’s also a story of a man who realizes he’s about to die, runs away to a reprieve, then returns to face his fate. It’s science-fiction tale, mystery, character drama, and morality play all in one. It’s everything a good Twilight Zone should be.
What a twist!: Decker has abandoned his friend at a moment when he should die. But his friend somehow lives, leading Decker to realize that the man who bailed the friend out must have been Decker himself, sending him back into the past, to his own death.
- Nice touch: Decker is absolutely baffled at how advanced and prominent the Americans are, reflecting what would have been a justifiable anxiety in a Brit from the 1910s about an empire across the sea, seemingly poised to eclipse the empire that gave birth to it.
- The other pilot Decker mentions, Guy Niemayer, was a famous French flying ace in the First World War.
- I’m surprised at how cheeky the episode is allowed to get with the “Old Leadbottom” reference, particularly when the previous one was forced to show the Gibbses sleeping in separate beds.
Next week: Zack checks out how death comes to The Twilight Zone, in “The Purple Testament” and “Elegy.”