“Valley Of The Shadow” (season 4, episode 3; originally aired 1/17/1963)
In which ooo Heaven is a place on Earth...
As personality tests go, the old “Is the glass half-empty or half-full?” works well enough. But for my money, a more interesting question is whether or not you believe that humanity’s problems can be solved. By “problems” I mean the big stuff: war, famine, greed, misery, the desire for ape to kill ape, anything unpleasant or vile about ourselves that we spend our lives trying to ignore, trying to fix, or trying to exploit. One train of thought has it that if you remove all want, all hunger and need from a person’s life, that person will have enough happiness not to go around murdering and cheating and swindling and what not. Another is that these flaws are bone deep, either a matter of original sin, or else something that, at heart, transcends all concepts of good and evil, being based instead on the complex genetic codes that allowed us homo sapiens to thrive where so many other species had failed. I’m not sure where I fall on the chart (which is unfortunate, considering I basically just made it up). Part of me wants to think that the utopia of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which humans have transcended capitalistic desires and work to better themselves and each other, is possible. Part of me thinks that the best we can hope for is patch holes on the Titanic until the ship finally goes down. Regardless, it’s a question that, if properly deployed, can make for fascinating art, and “Valley Of The Shadow” makes a fair stab at doing it justice.
Philip Redfield (Ed Nelson) is a city reporter who, due to some bad directions from a friend and a wrong turn at Albuquerque, winds up in the seemingly somnolent little town of Peaceful Valley. When his dog bolts after a little girl’s cat, Redfield watches the girl use a device to to make the dog disappear; the girl’s father (James Doohan, who shows up for one scene and never comes back, sad to say) tries to put him off with a story, but Redfield’s instincts are up. It’s a nice, subtle bit of characterization that before the dog vanishes (and then reappears), Redfield seems annoyed at the town’s lack of amenities, but more than willing to move on. Once the locals make a little too much effort to hide the truth from him, though, he starts poking around and asking questions, because that’s what reporters do. While it is probable that Redfield would’ve forced the issue as soon as the little girl took out her dissimilation device, it’s also worth noting that the citizens of Peaceful Valley are no damn good at dealing with outsiders, despite the fact that they’ve been hiding from the world for a very long time.
So yeah, something strange is going on here. After harassing a pretty hotel keeper (or at least, a pretty woman who comes out to talk to him when he rings the bell on the hotel’s front desk; it’s questionable if the place is even open for business anymore), Redfield eventually finds himself face to face with Peaceful Valley’s ruling body, led by the patient, soft-voiced Dorn. You might recognize Dorn from his role in the original Star Trek’s “A Taste Of Armageddon”; on that show, he played the ruler of a planet locked in a centuries long war run entirely by computer and disintegration chamber. (If you haven’t see the episode, the idea is that Anan 7 and his people, in order to avoid the incredible destruction wrought by an intergalactic conflict, made a deal with the enemy that all future battles would be run via simulation; a program would establish the number and location of the dead, and those citizens marked as casualties would be responsible for showing up to be killed by their own government.) Dorn is something of a similar role for the actor, in that he’s put in a position where it’s his responsibility to protect a secret from outsiders. And once again, he’s faced with a protagonist determined to thwart his efforts at concealment.
The big difference is that in the Star Trek episode, Kirk and Spock’s work to undo Anan 7’s efforts are viewed as fundamentally moral; in “Valley Of The Shadow,” it’s the other way around. Dorn is a figure of benevolent mercy, he is calm, reasonable, and determined to do what’s right by everyone to the best of his ability. The secret of the town is so vague as to be practically irrelevant: once upon a time, some scientist, who may have been an alien, showed up with some magical equations that made it possible for anyone with the knowledge and the right device to take apart and rearrange matter. In addition to the dissimilator Redfield saw the girl using earlier, they also have a machine that makes objects, provided you insert a card with those items’ molecular structure into the slot. (It’s like the Commodore 64 version of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s food replicators.) As Redfield quickly points out, all this technology could change the world: end hunger, poverty, make sure everybody can have a ham sandwich when they really want one. Dorn counters that from what they know of humanity, as much as they’d like to help, the likely outcome would be chaos and destruction—bigger bombs, more death, maybe even the end of the world. The job of the people of Peaceful Valley, then, is to make sure their knowledge is kept safe from prying eyes until such time as mankind is ready for it.
The myth of Shangri La is a potent one, and placing paradise in the middle of the country, and creating the possibility that this paradise could be expanded (if only we deserved it) isn’t a bad idea. The justification for Peaceful Valley’s wonders, and the actual evidence of the wonders themselves, are perfunctory at best; apart from the low-fi niftiness of the device design, there’s not a lot of specificity to the “science,” just good old-fashioned wish-fulfillment. (Some of the effects are cool. The best all revolve around the force fields Dorn is able to throw up around town, including a terrific looking car crash.) The real power of the story comes from the contrast between Dorn and the locals convictions, and Redfield’s determination to get the truth to the people.
It would’ve been easy to make the protagonist inherently cynical or overly ambitious. Redfield spends most of the hour trying to convince Dorn that he’s wrong, trying to seduce Ellen (Natalie Trundy), the “hotel keeper” who’s taken a shine to him, or simply trying to run and bring word of what he’s seen to the outside world. It would’ve been easy to have him driven by selfish desires. But he isn’t. You could argue that he’s maybe a little aggressive in his efforts, but for the most part, his behavior is unimpeachable, and his motivation pure. He really does think the world would be better off knowing what Dorn and the others know, no matter what Dorn says otherwise. Ellen is romantically interested in him, and Redfield does use that to his advantage, but it’s hard to really blame him for it. He seems to reciprocate her feelings, and even if he didn’t, he is, in his view of things, trying to save the whole damn world. A little hurt feelings are a reasonable price to pay.
Redfield only really steps over the line near the end, when he makes his final big push to escape: in his attempt to steal the equations Dorn keeps in a room in the town hall basement, Redfield ends up making a gun for himself with the machine, and shooting Dorn and his two associates before fleeing with Helen. His fundamental decency up until this moment—a little arrogant, sure, and a little pissed off, but it’s hard to blame him—should work to make this final moral compromise all the more affecting. The story is designed to have us identify with Redfield, and maybe even resent these “nice” people and their perfect lives, only to have that identification ultimately drive us to realize just how right Dorn really is. As decent a person as the reporter may seem, he still resorted to violence in response to the magic tech of Peaceful Valley. If he’s what humanity has to offer, then we’re just not ready for all that awesome.
Except this doesn’t hold water, in a way that fundamentally undercuts the impact of the episode. On a purely practical level, Redfield’s supposedly incriminating turn to gunplay isn’t anywhere near as damning as Dorn seems to believe. The fact that there’s even a “gun” card in the file cabinet where they keep all the blueprints smacks of entrapment, but more importantly, none of the people Redfield “kill” actually die. Earlier in the episode, we saw a farmer use one of the town’s devices to bring the reporter’s dog back to life after the animal was killed in a car crash. Now, sure, Redfield didn’t literally see the dog getting revived, although he was convinced his pet was dead before the farmer went to work; but Redfield did see Dorn stab one of his associates in the heart before using a machine to turn back time and undo the wound. Shooting them is less an act of murder, and more a minor inconvenience, and everyone in the damn town knows it. Strangely, Redfield doesn’t seem to make the connection, as his guilty conscience drives him to try and confess to Ellen at the last minute, before he realizes the whole situation is a set up. But it’s a stupid moral lesson, because there are no consequences. Instead of Redfield learning he’s just a dumb, venal little man like everyone else who isn’t blessed with the wonders of atom rearranging machines, it’s just Dorn and his friends coming off as smug, withholding bastards.
This tension, between the overt “moral” of the story and what we’re actually seeing on screen, drives most of the episode, intentional or not. For so long as we don’t really know what the author (Charles Beaumont) is going for, there’s an on-going possibility that maybe this whole situation won’t fit in with expectations. For once, the running time makes for interesting possibilities, where a shorter episode would’ve been substantially more didactic. By letting things take longer to play out, we’re able to get a clearer sense of who Redfield is and what motivates him, and the script can come closer to giving his relationship with Ellen the tragic heft it needs for the final scene to have any real impact at all. This doesn’t entirely work, despite the best efforts of both actors involved; Ellen has to keep so many secrets that it’s hard to get a sense of her personality, and the episode is so intent on avoiding any negative commentary on Peaceful Valley itself that it’s hard to know if her look of desperation is a complete put-on, or something deeper.
Really, that’s where the whole thing falls apart. Dorn and his committee are so confident of their abilities, so proud of their stewardship of the mysterious equations, that it’s hard to look past how dull the town looks, how underfed and sluggish. Without any desire to accomplish anything, it seems like these people are content to slouch in their chairs, fall back into shadows, frown at any passing “foreigners.” Maybe they all have rich inner lives, but we never get a glimpse of it, and Dorn’s comment on how Redfield is giving up “paradise” by his refusal to accept the status quo doesn’t ring true. As lovely as Ellen is, he’s only known her for a few days; and there’s a whole rest of the world to go explore. The twist is as lazy a reset button as they come: in addition to the fact that Redfield’s escape attempt did no damage whatsoever, Dorn has figured out a way to get rid of him without actually executing him. The idea that the kindly, peaceful people might have to kill to protect their secret is potentially fascinating, but it never really becomes an issue. Instead, Dorn just wipes Redfield’s memory, and he leaves town none the wiser. This is supposed to be, in some sense, a great loss. He missed out on spending his life with Ellen, and he missed out on all that crazy science. But it’s hard not to look at his car passing through the city limits and think he got the better half of the deal. At least outside the newspapers are up to date.
What a twist: The little town of Peaceful Valley is full of remarkable, world-changing technology. But Philip Redfield won’t remember any of it.
- You’d think, with all that tech, they’d find some way to stop people from driving through town.
- I was going to say James Doohan needs to teach his daughter a lesson in not making strangers’ dogs disappear, but given how clumsily the gas station attendant handles the situation, I don’t think anybody in Peaceful Valley really knows how to deal with outsiders.
- I do like Dorn’s frustration that they have a closed restaurant, but an open hotel. That is pretty stupid.
- “Isn’t it a fact that most reporters aspire to be novelists?” -Dorn, making with the sick burn.
- It’s funny: while I do think the hour length generally makes this a more interesting story than it might’ve been, I wonder if a half hour version would’ve avoided all the unintentionally subversive touches that make the final twist so frustrating. (It would’ve been a frustrating twist regardless of the subversion, admittedly, but the lack of authorial acknowledgement that Dorn and the others don’t come off so well makes it hard to ignore how fundamentally undramatic all of this is. After all, we have a conflict between two forces in which one force never once comes close to having any power whatsoever.)
“He’s Alive” (season 4, episode 4; originally aired 1/24/1963)
In which it’s Hitler...
In case you missed last week’s review (in which Todd eloquently and definitively established the problems with the Twilight Zone’s shift from a half hour to an hour long format), here’s a short summary: hour BAD. Half hour, GOOD. Well, it’s a little more complex than that, but it’s fascinating, and frustrating, to watch such a routinely strong anthology series struggling to expand in order to fill all that extra space. “Valley Of The Shadow” didn’t do too bad a job, and while that episode would’ve maybe benefited from a little trimming, for the most part, the script used the additional time to develop characters, and create a relationship that was intended give the conclusion emotional depth. (I don’t think Beaumont completely succeeded, but at least he was trying to put the expanded length to good use.) “He’s Alive” is a different story. A Serling attempt to probe the motivations of a young Neo-Nazi rising to power in an American city, it’s the sort of episode that’s interesting almost solely because you spend most of the time trying to figure out if the author is trying to build to some kind of point.
Surely it can’t be so simple as “Fascism is bad” or even “Fascism is the philosophy of wounded, needed children.” Either of those concepts isn’t a terrible place to start from, but the point is made within the episode’s opening scene. Peter Vollmer (a young Dennis Hopper) gives a speech on a street corner that covers all the basic bigotry talking points. While Peter is in full military uniform, and is flanked by two men also in uniform, the small crowd listening in doesn’t seem too impressed. After they insult him for a minute or two, somebody starts throwing rotten fruit. A fight breaks out, and our “hero,” and his associates, get their butts kicked. The cops show up, make fun of Peter and the others some more, and the trio runs off into the night, furious and despondent over what’s happened, and baffled that people don’t seem to want their hate-mongering.
So, okay, evil is being pushed out by the public, the tenets of National Socialism can’t find much of foothold in the Land of the Free, Home of the etc, and Peter has been exposed for the pathetic, powerless fool he really is. But this is the first five minutes. Something else has to happen to fill up the remaining fifty. Peter doesn’t learn any lesson about the fundamental hollowness of his ideas; he doesn’t discover empathy, or go on a difficult journey seeing what it might be like if Nazism really did spread worldwide. Instead, he starts getting visits from Hitler (who is in shadow the first couple of times, but you know it’s him), who gives him some practical advice on his to up his proselytizing: tips on how to give a good speech, advice on sacrificing an associate to create a martyr for your cause, the encouragement to go out there and kill your closest friend since childhood in order to become a man, that sort of thing. Typical life coach stuff. Peter follows the advice, freaking out only briefly when he realizes who he’s getting schooled by (his freak out is about the length of a commercial break), sacrificing what little soul he has left in his rise to power, only to be cut short when the police come to arrest him for that whole “forced martyrdom” thing.
So far as I can tell, the point here is that Hitlers are always trying to rise into power somewhere, regardless of the nation. While this fails to take into account the specific social and historical conditions that made the real Hitler’s ascension possible, it’s a reasonable thesis. After all, one of the most important lessons fiction can teach us about evil is that evil—or, more specifically, the kind of hate and fear that leads to violent action—isn’t something that only happens in other places. There’s always an audience for someone willing to put rage into rhetoric. And there is something chilling in the episode’s final shots. As Peter lays dying from police bullets, Hitler’s specter (maybe he's not supposed to be dead, I guess? I mean, I took the title as more symbolic, but it could be a literal thing) decides it’s time to move on, to find some different patsy to guide. All we see is a familiar shadow moving over the wall, moving steadily, confidently, with no doubt that someone, somewhere, will provide the tools he needs to succeed.
It’s a striking visual, and there are fleeting moments throughout the episode that have a similar impact. Dennis Hopper does the best he can with a character who never really makes sense; at first it seems like Serling is trying to generate some sympathy for Peter, by suggesting he had a terrible childhood, and making sure we see that his closest friend in the world is a concentration camp survivor. As conceits go, it’s a potentially fascinating relationship that doesn’t work at all, because Serling decides not to ease into Peter’s inherent prejudice. The guy doesn’t start the hour as a relatively nice, but deeply insecure young man who’s gradually led astray by the forces of darkness. He’s a creep from the get go, and his very first speech makes no bones whatsoever about blaming all of America’s problems on the Jews, the blacks, and so forth. Which means there’s no real dramatic arc for the character, apart from his brief dalliance with fame. Hopper does his best to give the guy some complexity, and there’s a terrified, nervous intensity that runs throughout his performance that almost, but not quite, makes him sympathetic. At it’s best, the episode gets power from forcing us to see things from Peter’s perspective, and even root for him (to an extent) to succeed. When Ernst (Ludwig Donath), Peter’s Jewish friend, slaps him on stage during one of his speeches to shame him, it’s possible, however briefly, to empathize with that sense of shame—to feel as though you’ve been tricked into rooting for such a loathsome, pathetic creature, and to realize how it might be possible for him to succeed.
Apart from ghost Hitler and Peter palling around with someone he spends every day claiming to despise, there’s nothing particularly implausible about “He’s Alive.” In choosing to focus on Peter more than any other character, Serling sacrifices the only people with arcs in the episode; the suckers who start to fall for Peter’s shtick. But they at least make sense, and there’s a sickening familiarity to watching rhetoric shift shape and gain adherent. Yet that works against the episode as well, because it’s hard to tell exactly who this is aimed at. We never get much sense of who’s in all those crowds, drawn to Peter’s hate like moths to a really racist candle, and when Ernst starts giving big, sorrowful speeches about the horrors of Nazism, and the need to stand up against evil, it’s a stagey moment that doesn’t really fit in with everything else we’ve seen. The hour plays too much like a collection of conflicting impulses, all of which are striving towards the same, undeniable conclusion, but rarely cohering into anything greater than themselves.
The hour long structure enhances this problem, which isn’t too surprising; the story is so straightforward and fundamentally simplistic (even if the angles it plays on are strangely complicated) that stretching it out to double the usual length just gives us that much more time to wonder what the hell the point is. Not that this premise would ever have really worked as conceived, even if it had been made during one of the show’s half-hour years. But at least a shorter version could’ve had some kind of direct, raging impact. You see Peter trying and failing to catch a crowd; ghost Hitler shows up, starts giving him tips; Peter starts to get more followers; then he fucks up, gets shot, and ghost Hitler moves on. Not genius, and trying to hold back ghost Hitler’s identity until the end is still going to make this all seem pretty silly, but at least it doesn’t have all the character inconsistencies and weight of a longer story. At least Peter would never have to get much beyond a simple caricature of yet another of Serling’s lean and hungry men. But as is, the writing needs to allow for something more complex, more layered than a simple parable, and Serling doesn’t seem to have figured out how to make that work. Hopper is credible, and at times fascinating, but he’s acting in a script that can’t support him. (And weirdly, given his sincere commitment to his cause, the whole thing plays out a bit like a young idealist whose true faith is corrupted by a cynical mentor. Like, he could’ve been a great Nazi, if only Hitler hadn’t ruined everything.) There’s no stakes to root for, no believable tension between the characters, and no real suspense. You keep watching because you assume there has to be more—but there isn’t.
What a twist: It was Hitler. Also, Peter is not made out of steel.
- It must be said: Hitler is a terrible mentor. Maybe that’s a commentary on how evil brings with it the seeds of it’s own destruction; or maybe this started off as a sold-my-soul-to-the-devil story, in which case the way the ghostly figure’s influence leads the protagonist to destruction would’ve made more sense.
- Ernst’s weary righteousness is supposed to make him a hero, but it’s hilarious how even a bullet in the chest can’t stop him spouting platitudes. At least, not right away.
- “This is your Fuhrer. I give him to you.” Such an odd scene. We already know that Peter is, at heart, a frightened, lonely little boy, so his reaction to the slap doesn’t tell us anything; it certainly doesn’t change the crowd’s mind about him. I guess it’s mostly to set up that Peter has to kill Ernst, but that’s another baffling scene, because it’s built on a supposed sense of betrayal the episode never earns.
Next week: Todd goes “Mute,” and then has the ride of his life on the “Death Ship.”