Season 4, Episode 2 (#104 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4857
Originally aired January 10, 1963
After last week’s engaging “In His Image,” The Twilight Zone brings us what might have been an intriguing ghost story, but instead emerged as a maritime exercise in seafaring tedium.
“The Thirty-Fathom Grave” concerns a naval destroyer whose sonar picks up a clanging sound thirty fathoms below. It turns out there’s an American submarine down there, half buried in the sand. A couple of dives later, it’s determined that the sub is one torpedoed by the Japanese during WWII. Coincidentally (or not), a crew member on the destroyer was also the sole surviving crew member on that ill-fated sub, and that incessant clanging is driving him six kinds of crazy.
This could’ve been a nice little paranormal excursion of the nautical variety, like season one’s “Judgment Night,” but it’s severely overlong at the show’s new hour length. It…. just…. drags. By the time we get to the denouement, when the source of the mysterious undersea clanging is revealed, it’s not enough to justify the hour we've just spent waiting for it. The episode does achieve quite a bit of production value by shooting on an actual US destroyer, not to mention the impressive miniature work employed for the exterior submarine scenes (the close-ups were shot in an actual underwater tank; equally impressive). And the core story is actually a pretty good ghost tale, but Serling’s supersized script kills it before it ever gets out of the dock. As presented, “The Thirty-Fathom Grave” is dead in the water.
A-ha! In his wonderfully detailed The Twilight Zone: Opening the Door to a Television Classic, author Martin Grams reveals that Serling originally wrote “The Thirty-Fathom Grave” as a half-hour script, then expanded it to suit the show’s new format. Well shit, this could’ve been a pretty great episode after all. Kinda makes me want to create a “lost” 25-minute version. I do have the necessary software at my disposal. I’m just sayin’.
Happily, the cast is pretty decent. Character actor Simon Oakland, last seen in season two’s “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” is his usual gruff-but-compassionate self as Captain Beecham. He’s probably best remembered as Captain Schrank in 1961’s West Side Story, not to mention 1960’s Psycho. In fact, it was his role in Psycho that subsequently led to his appearance as the Empyrian, a birdlike alien, on The Outer Limits’ “Second Chance” four years later. Oakland was also a regular on TV’s Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and he died after a long battle with cancer in 1983.
Crewman Bell, the ship’s resident guilt-ridden basket case, is effectively and twitchily played by Mike Kellin, another character actor who appeared in countless TV series throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies. Coincidentally, Kellin was a real-life Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy during WWII (typecasting, perhaps?). Like Oakland, he died of cancer in 1983.
We also see Bill Bixby in a minor role as the Officer of the Day. For me, Bixby will always be Dr. David Banner, the beleaguered Jekyll to Lou Ferrigno’s Hyde on TV’s The Incredible Hulk. I was a huge fan of the Marvel comic series, and became a devoted fan of the show when it premiered in 1977. Bixby also starred in the earlier TV series The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and My Favorite Martian. Bixby sadly died after a long battle with cancer in 1993.
Noticing a trend here? Is there some kind of curse associated with this episode? Was everybody exposed to something on that destroyer? On a serious note, it’s sobering to realize just how many Twilight Zone actors and crew members are now gone. I guess it’s to be expected, since the series is over 50 years old now, but… damn.
“The Thirty-Fathom Grave” is by no means a terrible episode. It looks great and it’s well acted, but ultimately it can’t overcome the ponderous script and bloated length. File it under W for “waterlogged” and set sail, Cap’n.
Next week: A machine that creates a ham sandwich out of thin air? I’m so there.
*There’s a reason I keep pointing out Outer Limits connections. ‘Nuff said for now.