The Twilight Zone: “The Old Man In The Cave”/“Uncle Simon”
“The Old Man In The Cave”
“The Old Man In The Cave”

The Twilight Zone: “The Old Man In The Cave”/“Uncle Simon”

Gods and ghosts in machines

“The Old Man In The Cave” (season 5, episode 7; originally aired 11/8/1963)

In which faith—or the lack thereof—can be in anything

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

“The Old Man In The Cave” is interesting because it’s primarily a story about how humanity needs to implicitly trust in a god if our species is going to survive, only its very much science fiction, not religious fiction or fantasy. The god that lives in the cave of the title turns out to be a ‘60s supercomputer, a giant glittering box of blinking lights. It’s been hidden away from everybody because the only man it communicates with—perhaps its creator, though we never hear one way or the other—knows it would be all too easy for people to turn on it, something that they do not understand. And yet it’s kept the people of this little town safe and alive for 10 years after a nuclear apocalypse. Don’t they owe it some form of respect?

I’m not precisely sure that everything about this episode works, but it, nevertheless, belongs to my favorite class of Zone episodes: ones where the story has so many things going on and so many themes running through its head that there are several it barely stops to consider. On the surface, this is a rather leisurely story of a man, his mysterious benefactor, the townspeople who’ve listened to them this long, and the new man who comes to town and sets about blowing up the old system to benefit himself. But look at it from the perspective of French—the leader of some army regiment or self-styled militia—and assume that, for whatever reason, his plan had worked. This story would have had a very different moral: Blind faith is bad. Trust your own eyes. There’s this very complicated, very human need for proof at the heart of “Old Man,” and that gives the episode its very elemental power and provides for the horror that animates the climax, where our hero walks through the valley of the shadow of death, not even his god to comfort him.

As written by Rod Serling from a short story by Henry Slesar, “Old Man” opens in a very familiar way for this show: A fellow named Goldsmith (frequent Zone actor John Anderson, in his last role on the show) comes down to the people of a little town to tell them the Old Man has told him the canned food they long to eat is no good. It’s still plagued by radiation poisoning from the nuclear war that destroyed everything a decade ago. The people of this town have lived in fear and hunger and uncertainty for all these years, but the important thing is that they’ve lived. They haven’t died like so many other towns, and when these new-fangled representatives purporting to be from some new government come through town and inevitably disappear, the town stays standing. And it’s all thanks to the Old Man and Goldsmith.

Because this is The Twilight Zone, the show does a good job of making you ponder that question of just who the Old Man might be—and just why Goldsmith might not let anybody see him. But it’s also subtly pushing you to think that, hey, he might just be making this all up, so even you are ready to see it Major French’s way when he rolls into town. The thing about “Old Man” is that if you’ve watched this series in sequential order (instead of just happening upon this episode at some random time), then you will almost certainly be able to predict every beat of it—right down to the reveal of the Old Man’s true identity—but Serling’s script is so good at getting you to question your allegiance not just to Goldsmith (who’s ultimately a very cold character who doesn’t understand why he needs to give people more than “But the Old Man has kept us safe!”) but to what you think you know about the show. This gives everything that follows a real, tragic weight. Goldsmith knew this was coming, but he was not heeded. But, then, so did we, but maybe we were tempted by the siren song of Major French.

It would be with good reason. French is played by James Coburn, who was very early in his career when he appeared on this show. His work here displays neatly just why the actor would become so beloved and an eventual Academy Award winner. If Goldsmith is cold and removed, French is fiery and present. You get the sense in every one of his scenes that he and his men have rolled through every single town on their map and won the townspeople over one way or another. In fact, you get the sense that he views this little town as one of the easier conquests he’ll have to deal with. All he has to do is remind the townspeople that what they really need to be doing is living their lives to the fullest. A decade of worry is over; Major French is here to bring the good times back. Plus, because he’s played by Coburn, the moments when he threatens Goldsmith don’t feel empty. We know French won’t kill his nemesis, because the episode hinges on their ideological conflict, but we feel the very real possibility that French’s far more visceral approach to leadership will destroy Goldsmith in some other fashion (as it ultimately does). That’s all Coburn.

There are echoes of all sorts of other stories in here, but almost all of them come back to some central religious ideal, the thought that if you let go and let God (or, in this case, the Old Man), you will be richly rewarded. What complicates the scenario here is that nobody really is rewarded, and you could argue that the fate French leads the people to—which amounts to mass suicide—is more humane than the grim, struggling existence Goldsmith forces them all to eke out, day after day, year after year. I think the episode perhaps repeats this point one or two times more than necessary, but that also gives it even more of a Biblical feel, like Jesus asking Peter to feed his sheep three times after the resurrection. And the final twist here is that the Old Man isn’t really God. It’s just a machine, sitting in a cave, ready to be discovered and struck down. Goldsmith might keep the machine a secret because he has (not unreasonable) security concerns, but he also does it because it allows him to elevate himself in not incidental ways. In this way, “The Old Man In The Cave” functions both as a way to seemingly prop up organized religion and a way to point out all of the ways in which it ultimately fails and hurts humanity. It sneaks in subversion by pretending to be exactly what it’s subverting.

What’s exciting about this episode is what’s exciting about so many Twilight Zone episodes, what keeps it perhaps my favorite TV drama ever made: This is a story about how terrible we human beings are at dealing with uncertainty, with the thought that we might not know everything (even though we know we don’t). Any belief system we come up with might aim to suggest it has all of the answers, but nobody will ever have all of the answers, because the system’s not rigged that way in our favor. (And one suspects if there’s anyone rigging the system, then the system guiding them is rigged against them, too. And on and on.) One reason I think The Twilight Zone endures, and one reason I’m still glad to see parents share it with their children, is because it trains us to deal with those uncertainties. Sometimes, we need to listen to the Old Man, and sometimes, we need to listen to Major French. But most of the time, we need to accept that we may never know and simply find our best path forward.

What a twist!: The Old Man is just a computer, but after the people destroy it, its prediction is borne out: They all die from eating the poisoned food and drinking the poisoned booze, leaving only Goldsmith to wander the Earth, shouting lamentations.

Stray observations:

  • That final shot of Goldsmith walking through the town full of corpses is stunning and eerie. It caps an episode full of excellent direction from Alan Crosland, Jr.
  • Seeing the townspeople riding around in cars pulled by horses may not make a lot of sense—you’d figure they’d have rebuilt a few buggies or something with 10 years to spare—but it’s an eerie, efficient way to clue us in that this is a world where something has gone horribly wrong.
  • In the final moments of this episode, I can’t help but draw a line between Goldsmith and the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, another man who found himself in deep sorrow when others refused to listen.

“Uncle Simon” (season 5, episode 8; originally aired 11/15/1963)

In which everyone is punished—and punishing

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

“Uncle Simon” is a spectacularly strange, spectacularly unpleasant episode of television. It features two of the nastiest pieces of work you’ll ever see, then invites you to sympathize with one of them, just because she’s not as bad as her asshole of an elderly uncle. And then she kills him, and the episode pivots to a place where you’re meant to want the uncle to get his revenge from beyond the grave (as you know must happen on this show), except you don’t particularly want to spend too much more time with either of these people. I actually found myself looking forward to the very brief appearances by the lawyer Schwimmer, who at least seemed to find something like joy in life. He even seemed appropriately entertained by the vision of a robot walking around with a cane in the end.

This is the last episode of television I’ll ever write an episodic review of for The A.V. Club, and it’s an incredibly bizarre one to go out on. I remember liking this one as a kid, because I liked the robot, but watching it as an adult is just a reminder of all of those old couples you see, locked in loveless combat, each waiting for the other to die. Yeah, the story is different here. Barbara is Simon’s niece, not his wife, and she’s his official caretaker. But there’s still the same effect. He lays into her with the crisp, stentorian air of a British school headmaster, and she simply sits there and takes it. The few times that she opens her mouth to speak back, she seems almost too meek to even begin to do so, and when she finally kills him (by yanking away his cane as he berates her on the basement stairs), it’s shot by episode director Don Siegel almost to suggest she was powerless to avoid committing murder. Yet then, once she’s killed him, she turns into a perfectly conniving schemer, carefully plotting her way toward riches untold and calling out from windows. There’s a core of something in Barbara, but the episode never finds a way to make all of these sides of her work together.

Really, the whole reason “Uncle Simon” fails is thanks to the character of Barbara, and it’s hard to know how much of that is thanks to actress Constance Ford and how much of it is thanks to Rod Serling’s script. As Uncle Simon explains it to us, her motivation is greed. She’s hanging around his house and his life so she can eventually collect on his massive fortune, accumulated through a life of doing science things. But Ford doesn’t play Barbara in such a way as to suggest that this is what she’s truly after. In those early scenes, she plays Barbara as a woman who’s been defeated and destroyed by having to spend so much of her life with an abusive asshole who tears her down at every opportunity. She’s meek and cowed, and she’s been overrun. Does she want the money? Maybe. But it’s hard to square that with the woman of the episode’s first half. It’s almost completely the motivation of the woman from the episode’s second half, after Uncle Simon has died, and Ford doesn’t really offer a common thread between these two sides of the character. But here, it’s likely more Serling’s fault, as he’s simply trying to squeeze so much story—including two complete character reversals—into a half-hour. This is the rare story that might have worked better in the fourth season at an hour’s length.

Another problem with the episode is that Uncle Simon’s ultimate plot is simply too easy to guess throughout. From the moment that we receive word of some strange experiment in his lab and he all but dares Barbara to kill him, it seems more likely than not that the two things are connected. And once the robot shows up and starts awkwardly declaiming about how more and more of its functions will turn on and it will start to receive more and more human attributes, it becomes ever more obvious that it’s going to become Barbara’s tormenter, particularly once Schwimmer lays out all of the things Barbara has to do to keep the money. For a bit, it seems as if the story might be that Barbara—having unleashed her true, inner cruelty—has either become the tormenter to the robot or will somehow manage to make the robot (who’s bigger and stronger than her) into the same abusive asshole her uncle was through mistreatment. But because the script simply doesn’t have time for that kind of nuance, it turns into Uncle Simon’s version of a parlor trick meant to suggest a ghost. Here he is, haunting his niece. And nobody seems to notice. The robot using the cane might have worked as a grace note in another version of this story; here, it’s just a too-obvious clunker of a conclusion.

Maybe some of this would work if the robot were invested with any personality whatsoever, but he’s just not. He moves with little grace, and in the scenes where he’s meant to be at the level of a human infant, he rather ruins the effect by informing Barbara that he’s, well, at the level of a human infant. “Uncle Simon” wants us to keep shifting our sympathies by playing with our base assumptions. The doddering old man is actually an emotional tyrant. The cowed niece is actually a greedy opportunist. The hulking metal man is actually a tiny child is actually the emotional tyrant from before. But it never gets us properly invested in the “before” version of any of these characters enough to make the post-reversal versions of them properly devastating.

If there’s one element that unquestionably works here, it’s Cedric Hardwicke as Uncle Simon himself. Yeah, I could quibble with his voiceover when he’s finally voicing the robot, but in the early scenes, he seems to understand that this script calls not for subtlety but for camp, and he properly invests Uncle Simon with all the relish of a villain from the ‘60s Batman show. Hardwicke was a British stage actor, which immediately suggests he knew from over-the-top, and he has a lot of fun digging into Serling’s overwrought dialogue, finding the humor both in some of the lines and in the fact that they’re so absurdly overwritten. It helps that his voice has an uncanny likeness to that of Alfred Hitchcock, which can make you briefly think you’re watching another anthology show entirely (one that Hardwicke also appeared on). But even his fun performance isn’t enough to salvage the episode, particularly since he dies before it’s even half over.

Looking at these two episodes in tandem reveals some fascinating things about how Rod Serling viewed using The Twilight Zone at this stage of the program. If “Old Man” is basically a story about people turning away from their god and paying the price, then “Uncle Simon” is essentially a ghost story, where a household object comes to stand in for the wishes of the emotionally vicious departed. In both stories, the wonders of technology stand in for the wonders of the supernatural, but the effects are largely the same as they would be in the supernatural versions of the stories. The Macguffins we choose get different names and have more justification for their existence in our minds, because we think we can explain them, but they continue to mesmerize and haunt us for the same reasons they always have: They unlock pieces of ourselves we cannot put names to, things we forgot we locked away long ago in the dark. Serling uses technology not as an excuse or even just as an explanation. He uses it as a way to get us to take the key and unlock those dark places again. And even if the script doesn’t work (as it doesn’t here), he’s always reminding us just what we’re capable of.

What a twist!: Barbara pushes the robot down the stairs, finally murderous again, but you can’t kill a robot. So instead, it starts using a cane, because its leg has been hurt.

Stray observations:

  • You’ll notice in Zack’s review next week that we’ve skipped a week of 1963. That’s because the very next episode would have aired on Nov. 22, 1963, a day that became famous for very different reasons. It’s fascinating to me to contemplate that basically all of The Twilight Zone predates JFK’s assassination, as only a few episodes were produced afterward. It’s fun to wonder what Serling might have come up with to obliquely address the event in this space. (The episode bumped? “Night Call,” which finally debuted in February of 1964, though both Amazon and Netflix have it next in the running order. Hulu has it in its “correct” position. We’ll cover it next week, because we are slaves to Netflix.)
  • Ian Wolfe invests Schwimmer with a real sense of pride when he reads the name of that long law firm with so many Schwimmers in it. And he seems to know exactly which Schwimmer is him.
  • Some of the problems with the Barbara arc also stem from Siegel’s direction, which frames her as the meek victim of an emotionally abusive man, before abruptly shifting into a series of shots that almost make her look like the mustache-twirling villain in a movie serial after Uncle Simon has died.

A brief, personal note: This is my last episodic review for The A.V. Club (as mentioned above), and while I wouldn’t have chosen to go out on “Uncle Simon,” I did get to review “22 Short Films About Springfield” last week, so… call it even. I have loved writing here and reading your comments, and I hope we’ll all meet again, over at my new digs. This job has been, hands down, one of the two or three best experiences of my life, even when I hated it, and I am thankful every day that I got a chance to do this and keep doing this. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you soon.

Next week: Zack takes a “Night Call,” then follows “Probe 7, Over And Out.” 

Filed Under: TV, The Twilight Zone

More TV Club