The Twilight Zone: “The Purple Testament”/“Elegy”

The Twilight Zone: “The Purple Testament”/“Elegy”

“Purple Testament” (Season 1, episode 19; originally aired: 2/12/1960)
In Which Having Your Face Glow Is Somehow A Bad Thing

There are a few different approaches a writer can take when approaching a story hook. He can make it as outrageous as possible, using the first clever idea as a stepping stone to expand into a whole universe of crazy. Or, the writer could stick to just one hook, but follow certain expected genre lines in seeing how that hook plays out. Between these two options, the former has its problems, but the latter nearly always leads to bad storytelling, because it’s inherently non-specific. When you try and move a plot forward based more on assumption than on any connection to what people might do, you get lazy, and you get plot-holes. The Sci-Fi channel is full of movies like this, where idiot scientists battle slightly largely than average CGI fish, because dammit, someone has to.

While it’s become something of a cliche itself in the past few years, I think my favorite approach is a third one: taking something impossible, and trying to figure out how it would play out in the real world. This sounds obvious, but it always feels so vital and effective when a writer pulls it off. I think it speaks to the heart of the “long con” nature of fiction. We realize all of this is make believe, but we really, really want to believe it isn’t, and by treating a irrational event as rationally as possible, the writer effectively weakens the barriers between us and the narrative. The usual cues we use to distance ourselves, the silly props, the improbably reactions, the hammy dialog, are stripped away, and the part of us that, deep down, kind of wishes that we were watching or reading about actual, no joke events embraces the authenticity. 

That’s why “Purple Testament” mostly worked for me, even if it does suffer from at least one problem I’ve criticized other episodes for in the past. This is a simple enough plot. An American soldier in the Philippines in 1945 suddenly develops the ability to see death in other men’s faces. Just by looking at the men around him, he knows who won’t make it through the day, and this new ability isn’t doing much to ease his mind. Not that he was in a calm state beforehand, given the struggles and misery of combat. He tells a friend, another soldier, and his friend doesn’t believe him, and then our hero sees death in his friend’s face, and the friend dies on their next mission together. The other soldiers in his platoon start whispering and begging the protagonist to revel their fates, and he gets wound up tighter and tighter, until his commanding officers decide he’s been out in the jungle too long, and they call him back for medical leave. Only, when he’s packing his things, the soldier gets a glimpse of himself in the mirror--and he sees death on his own face. Looks like he won’t be making it to that hospital. At least, not in one piece.

So yeah, there isn’t much of an arc here. As soon as Fitz, the hero, tells his friend Phil (a shtick-free Dick York) what’s been happening to him, it’s not that hard to track the beats of the rest of the story. Fitz is going to see more people who are about to die, and inevitably one of them will be someone he’s close to; given that Phil is the only person in the episode Fitz gets close to, well, goodbye Phil. And while Fitz seeing his reflection in the mirror is nominally a twist, I can’t imagine it being a twist that really takes anyone by surprise. It certainly doesn’t change the nature of anything else we’ve seen in the episode, which, to me, is what a good twist is all about. Fitz can see death coming, and so it’s inevitable to think that, sooner or later, his own death will wave hello. He’s in a war zone, after all. To steal a bit from Fight Club, stretch the time line out long enough, you see death on everyone’s face.

I think that’s the point, though. Where other episodes suffer from repeating the same information in slightly different ways until the inevitable concluding zinger, “Testament,” intentionally or not, uses this repetition to enforce the numbing horror of war. Rod Serling served in the second World War--was, in fact, stationed in the Philippines at the time this episode is set--and there’s a basic air of authenticity to the episode that gives it an additional emotional heft. We never see actual combat. We just see a lot of tired, worn out men, hoping they won’t get shot, certain they will anyway. Whatever happened to Fitz, be it miracle or curse or just plain bad luck, it doesn’t change anything. He isn’t turned into some kind of super soldier, able to save his friends from the danger he sees lurking in the wings. Once the word gets out about his ability, there’s a scene where other soldiers ask if he sees their deaths, but he doesn’t, and even if he did, we’re given no indication in the episode that it would do them any good to know what’s coming, at least not in a practical sense. In the machinery of war, Fitz’s “gift” is essentially irrelevant, more a reminder of the price of doing battle than information that can be exploited to effect change.

As mentioned above, there are other ways this could have been played. The vision Fitz gets could’ve been the start of something grander; maybe over time, he’d start to see more and more death, the future outcomes of actual battles, until we learn that, I dunno, aliens are playing games with him. (Aliens do that a lot in the Zone.) Or else he could’ve used his ability to affect the outcome of the war somehow, and we learn this is actually a government run experiment to see how future soldiers test the rigors of combat in the past. If “Testament” had gone in a more traditional direction, we would’ve seen Fitz making more of an effort to save someone, anyone’s life. We do get a few scenes here of him trying to explain his situation to others who have no real reason to believe him, but he never takes the extra step of protecting one of the future victims from their fate. He’s even given a good reason to make that effort, when he sees the death mask on Phil, the closest thing he has to a friend in the camp. But each time Fitz has his vision, he shudders and accepts what’s coming next. He’s a passive protagonist throughout; frustrated, driven to near madness, but still seemingly incapable of taking any steps to save himself or anyone else.

It’s probably the most realistic approach to this premise, although I think the episode might have been improved if we’d gotten the sense that Fitz tried even once to stop his visions from coming true. He’s nearly out of his mind from the very beginning, telling Phil about the list of names he wrote down, four men who just happened to be the only four men to die on his last mission, but it sounds like this knack for prophecy is a new thing in his life. In a way, he’s a little too worked up about it. It would be terrifying and unsettling to learn you were seeing a small part of the future, but to really twist the knife in, Fitz should have confirmed his impotency. As is, “Testament” seems to take it is as given that its hero can’t save anyone’s life, and while I have no problem accepting that as the end point of the story, skipping that step robs the episode of some dramatic power.

Still, there’s a fair amount to like here. I especially enjoyed Phil’s last scene. He realizes Fitz has seen his death in the battle to come, and while he doesn’t really believe Fitz--of course he doesn’t, it’s totally absurd, things like this don’t actually happen--he still takes time to leave behind his wedding ring and a small stack of baby pictures. There’s always a scene like this in old war movies, where the soon to die talk about the loved ones waiting for them back home, but the moment has a quiet dignity to it that helps underline the episode’s main theme. Fitz’s ability isn’t really an anomaly. Everyone in that camp sees death around them every day. Just because one soldier is briefly allowed some focus--Ted will die today instead of tomorrow, Tom will get shot on Thursday, not Friday--doesn’t alter the essential arc of combat. To a degree, “Testament” is a lesser episode because it fails to explore its premise or its characters beyond the most immediately obvious, but this commitment not to romanticize battle for dramatic thrill also gives the proceedings a certain amount of power. Because really, when it comes to war, every story is the same story: men came to a place, and the fought, and then they died.

What a twist: A soldier can see death in the faces of those about to die. One day, he sees death in his own face.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • Fitz gives a great speech midway through the episode about how survivors in battle are more “odd” than the dead.
  • Less impressive: “Man, war stinks!” I’m not denying the truth of the statement, but this form of expressing it seems a little sanitized.

“Elegy” (Season 1, episode 20; originally aired: 2/19/1960)
In Which We Should Beware Nice Old Men Who Offer Us Drinks

Ray Bradbury’s first and only Twilight Zone credit is the third season episode, “I Sing The Body Electric.” He has no official connection to “Elegy,” Charles Beaumont’s second scripted episode of TZ, but it’s nearly impossible to watch the story of three astronauts stumbling across a bizarre but familiar landscape, and paying the ultimate price for their intrusion, without being reminded of Bradbury’s work. The plot plays out like a deleted entry from The Martian Chronicles, and while it’s certainly not close enough to that collection to warrant charges of plagiarism, Beaumont did an excellent job of capturing the signature tone of Bradbry’s creepiest stories. Intentionally or not, “Elegy” has a “Mars Is Heaven” feel to it, in which everything seems homey and a little odd but not, y’know, threatening or anything, right up until the moment you choke and die. This is arguably the more unsettling episode we’ve had yet on the show, not because it has the highest body count or the most horrible fate for its protagonists, but because it grins from start to finish, and that grin gets progressively more insane as events spin out of control. “Ha ha, here’s an asteroid where everyone’s frozen in charming tableau! Ha ha, here’s a charming old man to explain the situation! Ha ha, those are frozen corpses. Ha ha, now you’re one too.”

Three astronauts, coming home from a routine geological survey mission, get waylaid in space, thrown off course from Earth, and six months later, crash land on an asteroid 655 million miles from home. (Once again, the show’s tenuous grasp of inter-stellar geography reveals itself.) Despite its two suns, the asteroid actually has the same atmosphere and climate as Earth, a bit odd when you consider that asteroids, as a rule, don’t actually have atmosphere’s. Even odder, as the astronauts poke around, they find a world teeming with sights and sounds from Earth’s past--and since these astronauts are actually from 200 hundred years into our future, the “past” looks fairly close to our present. May off by sixty, seventy years. Anyway, it’s a lot of home town, Andy Griffith type corn pone sweetness. A farmer standing by his tractor. A mayor basking in the adulation of his supporters. A plain faced woman, enjoying her victory in a beauty pageant. All of which has a certain Norman Rockwell charm, except these scenes are a little too much like a painting, in that nobody is moving in them. No matter how desperately the astronauts try and get their attention, none of the locals so much as blink an eye.

Except, well, some of them do. Let’s get this out of the way right now: “Elegy” is a very ambitious episode effects-wise, with a number of sequences requiring groups of ten or more people to stay absolutely still on camera, and it doesn’t always work. I don’t usually notice this sort of flub, and even I caught sight of a few blinks, a few wobbling hands. It hurts the episode to an extent. I don’t think it’s fair, normally, to hold effects work against a piece of genre television or film, especially one that’s as old as “Elegy” is, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that this episode requires absolute stillness of the majority of its participants. The whole story, worse, the whole effect of the story, needs these people to be frozen. Some of them are dead, many of them are dummies, and neither group is supposed to be capable of movement, or else we’d have an entirely different tale on our hands. Just as importantly, the robot caretaker, Wickwire, murders the three astronauts to stop the disruption they’ve caused in his perfectly still cemetery. The stillness should start as mysterious, become kind of spooky, and, in the end, be horrifying for what it cost our protagonists. Instead, we get unnecessary reminders of just how fake all of this is, and that lessens the impact.

“Elegy” suffers from minor flaws throughout, problems which, must like those occasional blinks, aren’t episode-killing, but do prevent this from being the classic it might have been. The script feels slightly under-done. We have our standard trio of TZ heroes: they aren’t exactly top notch characterizations, because who they are is essentially meaningless to what happens to him, but you can describe the group easily enough as Leader, Angry Guy, and Naive Guy. The Leader calmly guides the way forward, the Angry Guy gets angry, and the Naive Guy gets scared and then shouts a lot. We get enough of a sense of where they’ve come from and who they are to make their part of the story work, and to make their deaths creepy, if not exactly shattering. What we don’t get is a clear idea of how their world relates to the world Wickwire describes when he explains to them how things work on the asteroid. The episode makes a big deal out of pointing out how the asteroid has the same environment as Earth (why? It doesn’t seem like the clientele would much care one way or the other), and the settings are clearly Americana-based, but the astronauts have never heard of the mortuary Wickwire describes, the one that provides the corpses for him to arrange and tend to in the course of his duties. Apparently, that place has been in business for a very long time, so presumably, it’s not connected to Earth, otherwise the protags would know what’s going on. But if this is an alien cemetery, why does it look so much like home? TZ often has aliens that look like human beings, but the connections here are too intimate to be dismissed as coincident, and the big reveal moment, in which Wickwire explains it all, doesn’t have the coherence it needs to be as effective as it should be. The idea he describes makes sense, sure, and it’s a great idea, but the details don’t quite mesh.

There’s also a problem with tone, although that’s a more elusive one to grasp. Throughout, “Elegy” tries for whimsy, and while I think that could’ve worked--it’s the Bradbury thing again--the episode overplays its hand more than once, mostly in some really irritating “this is wacky!” music cues. There’s something strange about following something like “Purple Testament,” in which death has a mythic, haunting terror to it, with “Elegy,” in which a triple poisoning of three basically innocent guys is played almost for laughs. I’m not complaining, really, but it’s a tricky balance to hit, and “Elegy” doesn’t always make it work. That the episode is still as much of a success as it is, is due largely to Cecil Kellaway. As Wickwire, Kellaway is charming, good-natured, and funny, in the sort of way that can become utterly sinister at a moment’s notice. He’s not monstrous, exactly, but there’s enough ambiguity in his “kindly old man” routine that it’s easy to wonder what’s running beneath the surface. The three astronauts are competent enough, but Wickwire is the heart of the episode, which is one of the reasons why the ending isn’t quite as disturbing as it might of been; it’s easy to walk away from this with the idea that the caretaker was the actual hero of the story, and that, through resourcefulness and good sense, he was able to solve a rather tricky problem without causing too much fuss.

With a “twist” as loopy as “Elegy”’s, it’s fun to try and figure out exactly how all of this is supposed to work. Why is it so important that the asteroid have Earth-like conditions? The only inhabitant on it in a position to notice is Wickwire, a robot who could easily be constructed not to care. And who is all of this for? The people are dead, and, judging by the caretaker’s reaction to outsiders, it’s doubtful they get any visitors here. But then, that actually works to the episode’s advantage, because in way, this is a parody of the way human beings approach death. There’s no reason for any of this, not the buildings or the props or the magic fluid that freezes corpses in perpetuity. Certainly not the dummies who stand around idolizing the dead bodies. But we’re so arrogant and desperate to pretend some control in the face our own mortality that of course we’d try and construct elaborate monuments to ourselves if the opportunity presented itself. And of course that monument would have to be designed to have all the comforts of home, even if no living thing could ever really make a home here. Wickwire tells the astronauts they have to die, because there can be no peace when man is present, and the very environment he was created to serve is proof of this: even in death, the egoism and need lives on. Even in death, men will find ways to kill strangers.

Which is a little on the heavy side for an episode that mostly strives for lightness, I’ll admit. But I’ve seen a fair number of TZ episodes, and I can’t think of another with an ending quite so viscerally unpleasant as that final shot of Wickwire dusting the corpses of the three astronauts. They look happy enough, and why shouldn’t they? They’re on their way home, and even if they’ll never get there, even if home has been placed permanently beyond their reach, well, maybe that’s for the best. It’s better to want something you know you can have, then to have something and want more. Maybe the astronauts wouldn’t agree, but hey, that’s one of the nice things about poisoning someone. You don’t have to deal with a lot of rebuttals. (And I should leave it at that, because a review that ends with a paranthetical is a blight on the world, but even though nothing essentially worse happens in this episode than a triple homicide, the sight of the astronauts posed in the rocket makes it seem worse than just a murder to me. I think it’s the idea of people being turned into objects. All of a sudden, the death is more upsetting because it’s been reduced to a gag. I can’t think of a worse fate, and I really hope no potential serial killers are reading this and/or know my address.)

What a twist: A trio of astronauts crash land on a world full of frozen people. Turns out it’s a cemetery, and the cemetery caretaker poisons the astronauts so they won’t disrupt the place’s feng shui.

Grade: B+
Stray observations:

  • After maybe twenty minutes, the astronauts decide to split up. In the middle of a creepy frozen world, for no apparent reason. Smart move, guys!
  • Line from my notes: “Okay music, I get it, there’s whimsy, chill the fuck out.”

Next week: Todd takes some time to reflect with “Mirror Image,” and then checks his watch for a classic, as “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.”

Filed Under: TV, The Twilight Zone

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