“The Mind And The Matter” (season 2, episode 27; originally aired 5/12/1961)
In which all it takes is a little concentration
The reason “The Mind And The Matter” ultimately disappoints is that essentially everything about it, save for one gloriously bizarre sequence, is easily telegraphed from the first act. We meet a crotchety guy who doesn’t like having people around. We hear this other guy tell him about how if he just reads this book, he’ll be able to remake the world in his own image. We say, “Oh,” take a (correct) guess at what the moral will be, then watch it all play out. It’s disappointing, because there’s room for something really interesting here, as “It’s A Good Life” would show in the very next season.
If you’ve read any of my criticism, you’ll know that I don’t think a story the viewer can predict is a deal-breaker. Knowing where a story is going can sometimes be wonderfully entertaining, because it can be just as fun to watch a story hit all of the beats you know it will hit as it can be to be surprised. (It’s the reason formulaic movie genres—like romantic comedies or slasher films—continue to be successful.) We like ritual, and this can often be a kind of fictionalized ritual, a way to watch things progress through the steps we know they must progress through and be satisfied as every beat is hit. But there has to be craft in place. The dialogue and structure have to be perfect. The actors have to be game. The direction has to be impeccable.
I’m not sure that “Mind” ever hits those goals. I don’t think it’s a bad episode, but it’s basically one of the show’s “be careful what you wish for” episodes, and those episodes are so dependent on some sort of ironic twist at the end that I don’t think one where the twist is so obvious ever could have worked entirely. As soon as Archibald Beechcroft wishes away every other human being in existence, it becomes all too obvious that the man is eventually going to realize just how much he needs other people around—probably because he misses them or he gets bored (it’s the latter). Rod Serling was a lot of things, but he didn’t really believe in directly presenting such antisocial messages in his work. And, honestly, this episode might have been better with a darker ending, where the world ended because one man was an asshole, or where Archibald realized what he had lost but could never bring it back. The “I’ve learned my lesson now!” ending is such a predictable place to end that it needs something more to it to give it bite, and “Mind” never finds that something else.
I wasn’t sure about Shelley Berman’s performance at first. I think he eventually turns the corner, but for much of the first act, I wasn’t entirely sure he was up to the task. Part of the problem here may be that the episode tries to undercut Beechcroft’s nastiness with humor. This is effectively a comedic episode about a man who wills the apocalypse into being, and that’s a hard tone to get just right. Beechcroft stomps around and snarls and rolls his eyes, but there’s never any threat to it. He’s just this guy who could do some real damage to someone but probably won’t do it. The episode doesn’t want us to have to identify with a real antisocial case, so it gives us someone who plays to those days we’ve all had when we wish everybody else would just go away, then leavens it with attempts at humor. If the jokes were better or if Berman played them straight, it might have worked, but the goofiness of the first act doesn’t get the episode off on the right foot.
Plus, the premise is very, very silly. I’m not saying I can’t accept a dumb premise on this show—it has a million of them. But the idea that someone—anyone—could remake the world however they wanted if they just concentrated hard enough doesn’t work because it’s something all of us have tried as little kids. You want something. You think about it really hard. It never arrives at that very moment. I know there’s an attempt to suggest that the only reason Beechcroft can do this is because he’s read that book (and there’s supposedly only one in existence, so the practice isn’t widely spread), but all he does is think really hard. Plus, when the end of the episode rolls around and he still has his power, so little has been done with the premise that it seems disappointing to just have him, in effect, say, “I’ll never do that again!”
All that said, I really do think everything between the beginning and end of this episode is solid Twilight Zone. In particular, the sequence where Beechcroft decides he does need people around, but he’s going to make them all just like him is predictable, but also very funny. Berman really relishes playing all of the other people in this world, and director Buzz Kulik has a lot of fun with whip-panning from Berman’s shocked face (as Beechcroft) to some other Berman in a wig or a ridiculous costume. These are all cheap gags, but they’re all gags that work, and Berman seems more at ease with the jokier portions of the episode.
But I also like the portions of the episode where nobody else exists. Beechcroft’s insistence that he just hates all other people always seemed like the comical rambling of an antisocial character who’s been defanged by convention. Yet once he wishes away everybody else, the episode does a good job of showing you just why that might be preferable, how the first couple of hours waking up as the last man on Earth could be kind of fun. Beechcroft gets all his work done without interruptions. (It’s not clear why he’d do his work with no one around to do it for, but it’s perfectly in character.) He rambles around the office and talks to himself. He starts seeing his reflection talk back. He creates an earthquake to amuse himself. He’s a man who’s effectively become God, and he makes the most appealing aspect of being God seem like it would be the loneliness.
What’s more, Berman’s performance settles in a bit here as well. He’s better at playing the “redemption” section of this arc (if it can even be called redemption) than he is at playing the setup. When the script really wants him to be the mean old Ebenezer Scrooge type, he just can’t do it, but when it’s asking him to be the Scrooge who’s grudgingly realized that he needs other people to be whole—even if they irritate the hell out of him—he’s good at building that realization. When the end rolls around, you already know what’s going to happen, but Berman puts just enough of a spin on it to make it fun. This isn’t a very good episode of the show, but with Berman’s help, it just scrapes by to slightly satisfying.
What a twist!: Turns out that being the only man on Earth is punishingly lonely, so Beechcroft brings everybody back, no matter how much they annoy him.
- The universe sure does seem to make people like Beechcroft a magnet for spilled drinks, huh?
- Speaking of that, Jack Grimmage was fun in the largely thankless role of Henry. Here’s there to express puppy dog enthusiasm and get shot down by Beechcroft, and he does both with aplomb.
- My favorite alt-Beechcroft is definitely the woman in the elevator.
“Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (season 2, episode 28; originally aired 5/26/1961)
In which they sometimes are actually out to destroy you
“Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?” just might be a perfect Twilight Zone episode. There are things I can quibble with here—some overly broad, hammy acting, for one—but the setup is perfect, the story is solid, and just when you think you’ve figured out this show’s patterns, it comes up with an ending you weren’t expecting. In some ways, it’s the flipside of “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” which took as its premise that there really were Martians out to get us, but they would probably just let us destroy each other first. “Martian” steps right up to that point, but the Martian in the travelers’ midst does a lot more pushing to get the travelers squabbling, and it’s obvious he’s the one pushing. (Those exploding sugar bowls are a neat trick.) But when the travelers back off with news that the bridge is open up ahead, the Martian isn’t afraid to take matters into his own hand.
In short, “Martian” doesn’t really have a message or moral. It has some interesting thematic underpinnings, to be sure, but there’s nothing here that’s meant to make us think any one thing in particular. This is just a tight, scary story about aliens who want to kill us all and are only too happy to do that by living in our midst and tweaking us in just the right ways to get at each other’s throats. Zone thrived in stories filled with paranoia, and this has the most basic paranoia of them all. If “Monsters” was a cautionary tale about jumping to suspicion, this wraps that into a story about how sometimes the threat really is among you, then tosses a good, old-fashioned mystery on top of that. It’s pretty great.
When the episode begins, paranoia is already in the air. Two police officers are investigating an odd crash site, and they’ve been told it was probably a flying saucer. They agree with their tipster and follow footprints leading from the crash site back toward a local diner. The problem is that when they get there, the diner has not only the usual personnel working at it but also a bunch of bus travelers. There were only six people on the bus. There are seven patrons in the diner, and they all came in together, says the fry cook. One of them is a Martian, but nobody on the bus was paying enough attention to the other passengers to know which one wasn’t riding. Not even the bus driver has a firm memory.
This slightly beggars belief, I guess, but I think it works because there is that tendency when you’re in a public space—even one that’s sparsely populated—to avert your eyes. The same thing that leads us to being suspicious of strangers leads to us trying not to make them notice us, that they might become suspicious of us. The episode pivots on this point, and it’s wonderful to watch as the officers’ suggestion becomes this slow-building paranoia, a paranoia that’s helped along at every step of the way by the Martian making things go wrong in the diner to just subtly enhance the sense of terror that’s building. He messes with the jukebox. He explodes those sugar bowls. He plays with the lights.
I say “he” because it’s always been pretty obvious it would be the straitlaced businessman who is the evil Martian. I don’t really know if this was a cliché of the genre at this time or not (I suspect not), but it’s become one since: It’s always the most normal, all-American seeming character who’s the one bent on destroying the nation from within. (For a great take on this notion, the recent drama Homeland has a lot of fun trying to get us to guess whether its central Marine really has been turned by terrorists or if he’s just on the edge psychologically.) Yet there’s still a visceral satisfaction to having the door of the diner open after the bridge collapse that takes out that bus of travelers as well as the police officers and having the businessman step in, then light up a cigarette with his third arm. That he seems so normal makes the terror that much more pressing.
What I like about this episode is both how stage-bound it is—you could produce this as a play in a community theatre very easily—but also how deftly it uses that bottle episode nature to enhance paranoia. Writers of TV have always understood that the easiest way to make an episode with limited locations work is to cram a bunch of people into one of those locations, then have them all begin to suspect each other of awful things. It’s the premise of many a bottle episode, and it’s the premise used here, to great effect.
The episode wouldn’t work, however, without all of the great characters that are established here. The Martian businessman is cool and calculating beneath his exterior but unflappable on the surface. The two couples begin to wonder if they really know each other as well as they think they do. The episode doesn’t explicitly spell out just how they think their long-time spouse was replaced by an alien, but it doesn’t have to. We’ll do all that work for it. Shapeshifters? Brainwashing? And then there’s Jack Elam’s work as the old man seated at the counter, the old man who takes such great glee in watching everything fall apart around him. It’s a tough part to play, and most of the over-the-top acting in the episode comes from Elam. But he also nails the role of the perfectly human member of this cast who nonetheless creates the most paranoia, just by the way he speaks and the things he says. He’s not helping, and on some level, he’s okay with that. Finally, we have the authority characters, the bus driver, cook, and cops. They’re all playing variations on the same idea, but they’re also playing variations on the same paranoia, and once you realize the long game the cook is playing, it’s fun to go back and watch him in the earlier scenes. It shouldn’t work to have this many “questioners” in the group, yet somehow it does. Serling’s script efficiently sets them up, then gives them reason to doubt.
The Twilight Zone likes to reassure us. It likes to let us think that we wouldn’t be as bad as the characters that live within its midst, particularly now that we’ve heard the moral of the story. Once we’ve seen “Monsters,” we’re made to feel like now we’re smart enough to avoid such suspicion of our own neighbors, even though we know on some level that that’s not the case. What’s great about “Martian” is that it never leaves us that reassurance. There are people out there who want nothing more than to kill us, and once they figure out how, they’ll do so. The whole world is at threat from these men, but you can never stop them because they look just like you. And when you look in the mirror, do you really see an enemy?
What a twist!: Turns out the businessman was a Martian, and he arrives back at the diner to gloat about having killed all of those people. Well, it also turns out the cook was a Venusian. And they’re both intent on colonizing Earth. The cycle goes on.
- Somehow, the Venusian’s giant, unblinking third eye in his forehead makes him even more creepy. It could just look like a bad makeup effect; instead, it enhances the episode and adds to its paranoia.
- The only character I’m not totally sold on is the nice woman sitting in the corner. She’s not bad, but she’s not as vivid as the other types, and any attempts to make us suspect she’s the Martian fall flat.
- Most alien invasion tales open with the big shock-and-awe campaign that drives us underground. I like that this one begins with the little communities that seek to eat away our larger one from within. Nicely done stuff.
Next week: Zack confronts the season finale, and sees how far we’ve come.
After that: We’re moving back to The X-Files for the summer. Set your TiVos!