Season 3, Episode 13 (#78 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4820)
A warning, before we proceed: I’m gonna phone this one in. Christmas is next week, I’ve got a million things to do, and frankly…. I just don’t give a damn about this particular episode.
“Once Upon a Time” is writer Richard Matheson’s love letter to silent film comedian Buster Keaton, whom he presumably grew up watching (and who stars in the episode). It’s a slapstick comedy involving a disgruntled janitor in 1890 who travels to 1960 and finds that the world sucks even worse in the future. 50 years ago, this was offered up as a nostalgia piece, and since I wasn’t around 50 years ago, I have no idea whether or not it was successful in that context. I can report that now, today, it’s unfunny and tedious. It doesn’t speak to me on any level. The Twilight Zone can be whimsical, even comedic, and still work, but slapstick has no business rearing its goofy, obnoxious head on this show.
Is it a total loss? I dunno. The segments that take place in 1890 are altered to mimic a silent film, with jerky motion and text cards to convey dialogue, and it’s a pretty clever approach.
And the time travel helmet looks sufficiently like something you’d see in very early science fiction (in other words, it looks ridiculous, but in an oddly charming way; kinda like Georges Méliès’ rocket crashing into the moon’s eye).
But…. well, that’s pretty much all this episode has to offer. Since I’m not a fan of early silent films (well, outside of Fritz Lang’s German output), I don't get a warm fuzzy feeling seeing Buster Keaton coming out of retirement for something this lame. All I see is a confused guy standing in the middle of a busy street in his underwear, holding a chicken. Yawn.
I should note that is the 78th episode of The Twilight Zone to air, which means we’re exactly halfway through the series. The remaining half does hold many treasures (some of the series’ finest offerings are still to be seen), but the overall quality of the series is gonna decline from here on in. In that respect, "Once Upon a Time" is most certainly a harbinger of things to come.
Next week: Five strangers wake up in a strange place with no memory of how they got there. And no, it’s not The Hangover 3-D: Christmas Vacation.