The Twilight Zone: “In Praise Of Pip”/“Steel”
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Lee Marvin (left), Joe Mantell
Lee Marvin (left), Joe Mantell

The Twilight Zone: “In Praise Of Pip”/“Steel”

The fifth season begins

“In Praise Of Pip” (Season 5, episode 1; originally aired 9/27/1963)

In which a father gives his life for his son, but it’s okay, because he wasn’t really using it

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

Well, here were are back in the Twilight Zone, for the show’s fifth and final season; a season that found the series switching back to the half-hour format, even as the creative spirit which had dominated the first three years started to drain away. “In Praise Of Pip,” which features Jack Klugman as a self-loathing bookie desperate for one last chance to spend time with his beloved son, is pretty good. It falls apart in the emotional back half, but Klugman is great, and Joseph M. Newman’s direction is sharp and evocative throughout. But it’s also missing a certain something; the story starts strong, but ends with a shrug that’s supposed to be wistful, but mostly just sits there.

This isn’t a new flaw in Serling’s work. The man was a fantastic writer, but given the volume of his output, it’s not surprising that there are some duds. And I wouldn’t even call “In Praise Of Pip” a dud, exactly (in The Twilight Zone Companion, Mark Scott Zicree labels it an unqualified success). It just feels unfinished. Serling writes great, gorgeously baroque dialogue even at the worst of times, and he’s fantastic at sketching in character and place (especially when character and place involve sordid men leading sordid lives, as in this episode). But when it comes to the story premise, if he doesn’t have a good one, more often than not he’ll try and fake his way through, leaning on sentiment and purple poetry to sell an undercooked idea.

That’s what happens in this episode, although Klugman is just so damn good that Serling mostly gets away with it. After a brief prologue about a soldier named Pip Phillips (Bob Diamond) suffering severe injuries in South Vietnam, we cut to his dad, Max (Klugman), waking up in bed after a bad dream. Max and Pip’s relationship isn’t immediately stated, but a close up of a pair of framed photos featuring a young soldier tells the story efficiently and quickly.

Max is not a happy man, and what makes the episode work for as long as it does is how thoroughly Klugman sells the character’s depression and despair. He’s another in a long line of small men in dirty rooms, and yet for once, Max is more than self-aware enough to realize what a mess he’s made of his life; and instead of using that understanding as an excuse to turn his anger on the world, he fully acknowledges how his own bad behavior has brought him low. There’s something compellingly conscious about the man. Typically, a striver like Max gets thrown into the Zone to be punished for his short-sighted greed and hubris. He might realize bad news is coming, but that realization never evolves into anything approaching real understanding.

Here, though, we have a protagonist who already seems to have been through the metaphysical wringer, as though this episode begins just where another left off. Max is clearly unhappy with his place in life, but there’s no sense that he feels his life can get any better. All he has to look forward to are letters from his son. Otherwise, he’s empty.

He has a conscience, though, and whatever kind of man he’d been before the story starts, something’s changed him. When one of his clients, a nebbish named George (Russell Horton), embezzles three hundred dollars from work to cover a bet, and then loses the bet, Max gives him the money back. It’s an act of almost shocking decency, and it confirms what the earlier scene between Max and his landlady had already suggested: he’s a fundamentally good egg, having at some point decided to put his lousy self behind him.

Which is lovely and uplifting and all, but robs us of a certain dramatic arc. The best scene in the episode is a long sequence inside Max’s boss’s apartment. After Max tried to let George go, the boss (John Launer) sends a thug to go retrieve the kid and his money. It’s all very grim and despairing, with Max’s act of kindness apparently changing nothing, apart from giving George a chance to get beat up pretty good. But midway through the scene (most of which Klugman spends on the couch, his self-hatred grown so intense that he can’t even really participate in what’s happening around him), Max gets a call from his landlady, and he finds out what happened to Pip.

The effect is electric, although the charge builds slowly. Max finally gets up off the couch, and stares out the window at the arcade stretching out down the street below. And it’s fascinating, because the boss, who up until this point had been genial but menacing, becomes sincerely sympathetic to Max’s troubles. It’s like suddenly all the sordid meanness of the scene is briefly set aside; debts and thuggery matter, sure, but a dying son? That shit is serious. But even the boss’s sympathy doesn’t stop Max from taking a stand and helping George to escape. Max is furious, and the cause of his anger—Pip’s injury—is something he can’t do anything about. So he snaps and charges the gunmen, and gets a bullet in the gut for his troubles.

What makes this sequence so exciting is that up until Max finally cracks, he’s been a fundamentally passive character; even the decision to let George get away with the money happens off-screen. Scenes like this have played out in hundreds of crime movies and shows over the years, and most of them always tend to go the most depressing way possible. A putz gets in too deep, loses his money, gets roughed up, and there’s nothing he can do about it. Here, the unexpected happens: George escapes. Sure, Max gets shot, and he does eventually die, but he still manages to change something at least temporarily for the better.

I’m not articulating this well, because honestly, the crux of the episode has Max offering up his life in exchange for Pip’s—a decision which is pretty much the definition of “changing something for the better.” Yet that sacrifice isn’t as compelling to me, although Klugman certainly sells the hell out of it. The whole sequence of him running around the amusement park with young Pip (Billy Mumy) is supposed to be be endearing as all hell. It’s even set up decently (if heavy-handedly) in the plot: adult Pip just got out of surgery, and his doctor says that if he survives the hour, he’ll live. So with father and son both close to death, they get one last chance to reconnect.

I can roll with that. And hell, I can accept that maybe Max’s efforts to save George from himself are decent enough to earn him this shot at redemption. It’s just the sequence with Max and Pip goes on so long, and it’s more cloying than heartwarming; there’s a marvelous scene of Max chasing Pip through a mirror maze, but even relies too much on mood to carry it over. Everything that happens once Pip and Max get back together again isn’t just inevitable, it’s obvious, and father and son relationship is so free from conflict or strife that it fails to register. It’s sappiness, and while it’s not so sappy that it’s unwatchable, it does squander the tension and electricity of the first half. When Max offers himself in exchange for his son, the decision feels weirdly pointless. Yes, it’s noble, but he got shot in the stomach, and it’s doubtful he’s doing too well at this point. Unlike his earlier effort to save George, there’s no serious risk involved, and so there’s no surprise, no relief, no satisfaction. And we don’t know a damn thing about Pip either. It’s just a man dying to save a symbol of a better life, and that’s too vague an idea to carry the whole episode.

What a twist: Max asks God to take him instead of his son. God is a-okay with this.

Stray observations:

  • It’s bad enough that the kid is named Pip. What really stings is the sheer number of times Max says “Pip” over the course of the 25 minute long episode. And once you start noticing it, you can’t stop; it becomes more absurd with each fresh “Pip! Pip!”

  • “Pip is dying. My kid is dying in a place called South Vietnam,” is a heartbreaker, though. (Zicree suggests that it’s possible this is the first time a TV show mentions a soldier getting injured in Vietnam.)

  • There are some really terrific visuals throughout the episode; I love near the end, after Max loses Pip in the mirror maze. One of the mirrors breaks, and Max holds a piece of it in his hand, talking to his son through it. And there’s also the very last shot, as the camera pans out over the amusement park, where you see a rotating sign for a popcorn stand that just reads “Pop” over and over. Dunno if it’s intentional or not, but it’s neat.

“Steel” (season 5, episode 2; originally aired 10/4/1963)

In which there are some fights you can’t win

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

Have I mentioned how glad I am to have the show back to a half-hour? Because I am glad. I am so very glad. “Pip” would’ve been interminable as an hour long episode; maybe Serling would’ve tried some new tricks, but it’s far too easy to imagine more bookie sequences, more appearances by a young and ghostly Pip, and more characters saying the name “Pip” over and over again.

“Steel” also benefits from shorter running time, although the premise and lead performance are so great that there’s every chance it could’ve done just as well with more minutes in it. (Having Richard Matheson on-hand to write the screenplay based on one of his short stories certainly doesn’t hurt.) In much the same way as “Pip,” “Steel” is a character study: there’s a story, but the effect of it isn’t predicated on shocking us or impressing us with clever ideas. Once you get the set up in the opening scene, the rest is easy enough to chart, but that doesn’t make it boring. In this case, the stakes are so high, and so perpetually locked against each other, that there’s no real need for major change. That’s the gift of the half-hour episodes; they can do portraits instead of murals, capturing a simple, fascinating (and in this case very sad) idea and not needing to provide comment or serious conclusion before moving on.

The set-up: Lee Marvin stars as Steel Kelly, a former boxer turned manager of a prize-fighting, past-its-prime robot. The story is set in the future, when all boxing between humans has been outlawed, and Kelly travels around the country with his partner, Pole (Joe Mantell), and their beat-up star, the magnificent Maxo. When the episode begins, Kelly, Pole, and Maxo have arrived in a new town for another fight; they desperately need the money, but when it comes time to run Maxo through his paces before the fight, the robot cracks up. So Kelly decides to stand in for the machine, so they can get paid and get Maxo the repairs it needs.

Apart from Kelly choosing to go into the ring in Maxo’s place, there are not a lot of surprises here; the narrative arc of the episode is less an arc than a line slowly but steadily slanting downwards. That’s what makes “Steel” so terrific. There are no forced resolutions, no unexpected happiness, no last minute surprises. A man fights a robot, and his biggest accomplishment is not dying. The fight even runs short, which means they don’t get all their money from the promoter. At the end, Kelly is determined to use the cash he earned to get Maxo all the parts he needs, but it’s clear that even if he does this, the whole thing’s a losing game. Maxo is old; repairs aren’t going to make him new again. Just like there’s nothing in the world that can put Kelly back on top the way he wants to be.

So yeah, it’s another story about a loser struggling to survive, but while Kelly is often forceful and not exactly likable, he’s an immensely sympathetic figure, and a compelling one to watch. Marvin is just fantastic; there’s something about his size, and his incredible energy, forced into such a claustrophobic and doomed scenario, that makes for intensely compelling television. It’s clear enough from the start that Kelly’s not going to come out a winner, because he wants something so bad that he’s nearly crazy from it. Wanting anything that badly in the Twilight Zone is rarely a good sign. Sometimes it works out okay, but mostly, you just get sweaty desperate men scratching and beating their fists against whatever traps they’ve set for themselves, without the wit or vision to get free. Kelly isn’t a stupid man, but he’s a tunnel-visioned one, and the future he wants isn’t a possible one. But he struggles, and because Marvin is so good, and because Matheson’s script keeps finding ways to challenge him, that struggle is as fascinating as it is miserable.

It also helps that the main idea that drives all this—robot fighters—is such a fun one. If this was just an over-the-hill fighter looking for one last chance to prove himself, it could still have been good, but the science-fiction element is like the spoonful of sugar that helps the character work go down. Everything’s handled so well, too, like the first scene with Kelly, Joe, and Maxo at a restaurant. Maxo is all covered up in a cape and a face mask, but it looms over the other two men; there’s not much doubt what the covered figure is, but by keeping it hidden, the episode creates immediate suspense, and also makes it clear how much this machine looms over these men’s lives. It’s a silent presence that nonetheless speaks volumes—a piece of ungainly equipment which inconveniences and holds back the protagonist, but which is nonetheless essential for what he wants to accomplish.

There’s an actor underneath all the swaddling (Tipp McClure), and the make-up work does a fine job of mimicking the uncanny valley in actual physical form. His body looks normal enough, but the face is just a little odd, black eyes staring out of a slack face. It’s menacing, but in a fundamentally passive way, which, again, offers a visual image of Kelly’s struggles. Maxo isn’t a personality or a villain. Neither is the robot Kelly fights in the ring. They’re an emptiness, a nothing shaped like men, and they represent a future of automation that makes Kelly’s own fighting prowess and guts obsolete. The robots are unsettling because they look just human enough to take a man’s job, but not human enough to be men themselves.

It’s a very well-designed world, and the little we get to know about the, well, I guess you could call it the mythology, holds together well. The fact that boxing was outlawed to try and make people safer makes sense (I’m not saying it’s likely, but it’s possible enough to work.), and it adds another kicker, in that Kelly isn’t fighting an unjust system: he’s struggling to stay alive in a system that wants to protect men like him from themselves, even if in doing so those men lose the great love of their lives. The various jargon Kelly and Joe throw out about Maxo’s innerworkings (I love the phrase “oil-paste,” and I love how Lee Marvin says it) is just fun to listen to; as a Star Trek fan, I’m a sucker for well-used techno-babble, and while this is pretty low-tech, that fits the situation. There’s an authenticity to the whole episode that makes its emotional weight all the more powerful. This could’ve been played for laughs (har har, fightin’ robots!), but they go for drama, and everything we see supports that choice.

The most crucial element in all of this is Marvin. He gives a raw, angry performance of strangled masculinity, and while Kelly never explicitly states his real motives for getting back in the ring, the answers are there if you look for them. He used to fight, and that was taken away from him; now he puts everything he has in this damn robot, and not just any robot—an old robot, a past-its-prime robot, a robot that has no damn business being in the ring anymore. Only that’s the problem with a fighting robot. All it can do is fight. So you fix it and lie to yourself that everything’s fine and you keep pushing it back in that ring, even though deep down you know that you’re on the losing side of a never-ending war. Some men can live with that. For some men, it’s the only kind of living they know. “Steel” presents this without judgment or mercy, but with enough compassion for its doomed hero to let you feel for him as you understand he could never be anything else.

What a twist: Kelly fights in Maxo’s place and loses.

Stray observations:

  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Real Steel, the 2011 Hugh Jackman movie that was also inspired by Matheson’s story. It’s pretty good; Jackman is charming, and while the “underdog makes good” plot doesn’t get any points for originality, it doesn’t really need to. I prefer the TZ episode, because Marvin is ferocious in it, and because I like the honesty of the downer ending. But the movie is worth seeing, if you’re in the mood for some well-made, smile-inducing corn.

  • I love the way Rod Serling says “robot.” It’s wonderful.

  • Apparently the newer fighting robots are designed to bleed and show injury, which is how Kelly is able to get away with the ruse. You could quibble and say that an actual fighting robot would have enough strength to pulverize a human fighter in seconds, but then, why quibble? There’s never any sense that Kelly has the upper-hand in the fight, and he does take some pretty serious punishment by the end. The direct, unblinking realism of that is part of what makes this story work. We want to believe that sheer guts and willpower can conquer anything, but there are times when it just can’t, and the most you can hope for is to not die.

  • The boxing match that serves as the episode’s climax is really well done; the whole thing has a smoky, sweaty, nightmare vibe, right down to the rage-filled audience screaming for murder.

Next week: Todd takes to the skies with William Shatner and “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” then finally finds a way to get caught up on work with “A Kind Of Stopwatch.” 

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