“The Time Element” (pilot presentation; originally aired 11/24/1958)
In which one man goes back to make it all better
Imagine, for a second, that you’ve never heard of The Twilight Zone. That’s really the only way to properly appreciate “The Time Element,” a somewhat lugubrious hour of television that’s mostly notable when you imagine the viewers of 1958 stumbling upon it and being fascinated by something that wasn’t quite like anything else on the dial at the time. Originally aired as part of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s attempt to crack the “serious” drama market after I Love Lucy went off the air, the episode was a curiosity, even for that program. It’s a time travel story, and it’s one that takes its best stab at revisiting a national wound that had mostly healed by the time of its broadcast. There’s little here to distinguish the show from a typical episode of The Twilight Zone, outside of Arnaz’s introduction (and closing commercial for refrigerators) and a longer running time, which contributes to the laggy feel of the episode.
Most people haven’t seen “The Time Element,” as it’s been part of very few Twilight Zone syndication packages, and it’s not available in the Netflix streaming package for the show, either. (If you want to see it, the best way is to rent or purchase the season one Blu-Ray of the program, which features it as a special feature.) The story is fairly simple. Peter, played by William Bendix, goes to see a psychiatrist (played by Oscar winner Martin Balsam!) to tell him about a strange, recurring dream he’s been having. In the dream, he wakes up in Hawaii on December 6. It’s here that regular viewers of The Twilight Zone will get far, far ahead of where the story is going, but it’s easy to imagine that the viewers of the anthology drama this was a part of would have attached significance to the date and location but not necessarily have jumped to the conclusion that Peter is time traveling.
Spoilers follow. If you’re ever going to watch this one, skip past the next paragraph. If you want to watch it, it's available on YouTube here.
Peter, of course, has landed in 1941, which means the Japanese are coming to attack the very next day. To the credit of Rod Serling’s script, this is the revelation at the end of act one, and since he has more time to play with here than in a typical Zone episode, he makes the most of it. We get to know some of the people around the hotel and learn more about them, so we’ll feel worse that they’re about to die. We get to see Peter placing bets on every sporting event he can remember from that period in time. We get to watch Peter try to convince a newspaper editor he’s not insane, with a fun scene where he’s forced to remember who FDR’s vice president was. (He guesses the wrong one before getting Truman right.) It’s a pretty standard time travel narrative about preventing a catastrophe, but it hits most of the beats well enough. In the end, Peter falls asleep again in the psychiatrist’s office, and the dream reaches its conclusion, finally, which has Peter getting gunned down by the Japanese planes. The psychiatrist abruptly finds himself in an empty room, with no evidence that Peter was ever there. He goes to the bar and sees a photo of Peter hanging there, only to learn he died at Pearl Harbor. Like in so many Twilight Zone episodes, the rational man has been drawn into the other man’s insanity.
This is a pretty basic plot, honestly. Serling did variations on it throughout the run of Twilight Zone. By and large, it’s hurt by having to run for too long, which means that the midsection devolves into lots of scenes of Peter trying to convince everybody that he’s right, that Pearl Harbor is really about to be bombed by Japanese planes. There’s nothing wrong with any of them, and Bendix is chilling in most of them—particularly one where he confronts the hotel bar full of people sure he’s nuts by singing “Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition” and “Remember Pearl Harbor”—but it does have a bit of a feeling of the same thing happening over and over, particularly one you realize Serling’s not going to do anything so daring as have Peter change the course of history.
At the same time, there’s something irresistible about the notion of going back in time and being able to stop a major catastrophe. If you popped up in New York City on Sept. 10, 2001, wouldn’t you try to stop what was about to happen? And how on Earth would you get anyone to believe you? (The best course of action, I would think, would be to figure out something that was going to happen on that day, to convince everyone you were really from the future, which, theoretically, is an option Peter has available to him, since he keeps traveling back to Dec. 6. But most time travelers in these stories don’t have a lot of forewarning.) There’s something magnificently unhinged in Bendix’s performance, as everybody around him seems to be having such a good time, and he knows the end of the world is right around the corner.
One of the things that’s been fascinating about watching this show again is realizing just how much World War II informed both it and the time period. It was recent, bleeding history. (If you were going to make something like this today, it would involve someone going back to 1995 to stop the Oklahoma City bombing, just to give you an idea of the time scale here.) We have a tendency nowadays to think of World War II as a “good” war because the cause the United States and its allies fought for was just and because what got us into the war is as brazen a declaration of aggression as has ever existed. But that has a tendency to gloss over the millions who died and the immense scars it left on those who fought. (My grandfather was always reticent about talking about his days in the war.) Serling’s scripts that return to World War II rarely delve into the glory of battle. They, instead, have a vaguely apocalyptic feel, a sense that to go back to that time would be the worst possible thing that could happen. It’s an interesting look back at roughly contemporary attitudes, particularly in a time when World War II is often glamorized.
Serling only managed to get The Twilight Zone on the air because of “The Time Element,” which was well-received as an episode of Desilu. (He had written it as a pilot for CBS, but the network didn’t think a sci-fi anthology series would work and, thus, shelved it. It was produced as a part of Desilu because the producer was looking for some classy material to slide in between the Lucy and Desi comedy hours.) Watching “The Time Element” now, it’s hard not to think of how much better Serling would get at telling these kinds of tales (particularly when he only had a half hour to tell them in), but it’s still fascinating to see the roots of one of the most influential television series ever made. The template was there. He just had to figure out how to tweak it.
- The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse also aired the pilot for The Untouchables, which makes it one of the more influential two-season shows of the period. It ended because of bad ratings and because the Arnaz-Ball marriage broke up.
- If you do get the Blu-Ray version of this show, definitely stick with it through the refrigerator ad at the end, featuring Betty Ramsey. I’m always incredibly amused by these old, on-air pitches, even as I’m aware that we’ll probably move back to something like that as network television circles the drain.
- Balsam would go on to win the Oscar for A Thousand Clowns. He’s probably best known as Detective Arbogast from Psycho.
- William Bendix would have been fairly well known to 1958 audiences. He was an Oscar nominee in the ‘40s for Wake Island, and he’d played the title role in The Life Of Riley.
- I love the drunk guy in the bar who keeps telling Peter about how he'll pass out in one city and wake up in another.
- It's so weird having Desi Arnaz introduce this show.
- When I was a kid, I read a story in one of those disreputable big coffee table books of “facts” that were put out by Readers Digest and filled with all the weird little stories the publication could find. The one I’m referring to involved people in a small town in the Midwest somewhere—I want to say Indiana—waking up on the morning of Dec. 7, 1939, and finding spray-painted on the local school “REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR!” I’ve never been able to find another printing of this story anywhere, which makes me think the book plucked it from some weird newsletter at some point. But you can see why “The Time Element” made me think of it.
Next week: We begin season two, and Zack watches “King Nine Will Not Return” and “The Man In The Bottle.” Don't worry, X-Files fans. We'll get back to that soon enough.