Thursday, February 7, 2013

TZ Promo: "Death Ship" (2/07/1963)

Season 4, Episode 6 (#108 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4850
Originally aired February 7, 1963

“Since the beginning, man has looked into the awesome reaches of infinity and asked the eternal questions:  What is time?  What is space?  What is life?  What is death?”
--- Opening narration,
Portrait of Jennie (1948)

The above quote sounds like a Control Voice narration from The Outer Limits, but I’m using it here on my Twilight Zone blog because it fits perfectly:  in different ways, tonight’s episode asks all four of those questions.

Richard Matheson’s “Death Ship,” which turns 50 tonight, finds a crew of three astronauts on a deep space mission, cataloging planets for potential colonization sites. Waiting for them on the 13th planet of Star System 51 is perhaps the greatest mystery of all, wrapped in the trappings of the deepest horror known to man. “Something glittered down there,” says Lieutenant Mason as he scans the planet’s surface. Lieutenant Carter is excited at the possibilities that may await them, but Captain Ross is reluctant to bother. Protocol demands that they investigate, however, so they land.

Upon landing, the trio discovers a crashed ship that looks identical to their own.  They venture inside and discover a trio of corpses that match themselves in every detail, right down to their ID cards.

Mason and the third crewman, Lieutenant Carter, immediately assume that they are dead. In Matheson’s original short story, this was in fact the truth:  they were essentially ghosts discovering the nature of their own deaths.  In fleshing out the story for The Twilight Zone’s new hour format, Matheson takes things in a different, somewhat more ambiguous direction.

You'll find Matheson's original short story in this collection, circa 1961.

Unfortunately, I’m gonna have to spoil the ending in order for the rest of my comments to make sense.  Without giving too much detail, the reality is that, because of Captain Ross’ iron-willed refusal to accept death, and his intense determination to discover an alternate explanation, he (and his hapless crew along with him) is stuck in an endless loop in time, reliving these events over and over again throughout eternity.  It’s kinda like season one’s “Judgment Night,” but in space.  It’s not necessarily the most satisfying ending, but the real sparks come from the stellar performances by Jack Klugman and Ross Martin.

What can I say about Jack Klugman that I haven’t already said in this blog?  I love the man.  He’s one of my favorite actors of all time (TZ or otherwise), and he was excellent in everything he ever did, period (1957’s Twelve Angry Men, TV’s The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E., the list goes on and on and on).  He’s visited The Twilight Zone twice before (season one’s “A Passage forTrumpet” and season three’s “A Game of Pool”), and we’ll see him again in September for the season five opener (“In Praise of Pip”).  Captain Ross is a bit of a departure for him; his other three TZ roles find him inhabiting variations on the same type of character: down on his luck, rough around the edges but lovable; here, he’s all stone and steel, tough to love and impossible to defy.  Mason and Carter clearly fear and hate him, but they sure as hell do what he says. 

Klugman passed away very recently (Christmas Eve), and I’m still mourning.  For whatever self-delusional reason, I always thought I’d meet him one day.

Ross Martin visited The Twilight Zone previously in season one’s “The Four of Us Are Dying,” a relatively forgettable appearance, but here he shines in one of my favorite TZ performances.  Watch his face fill with teary-eyed joy as he comes face to face with his deceased wife and daughter, and later, mournful despondency as he realizes the truth behind the episode’s central mystery.  Mason played the creepy-as-hell “Red” Lynch in 1962’s Experiment in Terror, which was recently released on blu-ray from Twilight Time. 

I believe you're going... my way?

Fredrick Beir, playing the slightly-dopey Carter here, played another astronaut the same year on The Outer Limits (“The Man with the Power”).  He and Klugman would cross paths again eight years later on The Odd Couple (“Felix’s Wife’s Boyfriend”).

Martin (as Mason) has a wonderful moment outside the wrecked ship in act one:  after surveying the craft’s hull damage, he imagines the disaster.  Over a close shot of his face, we hear the deafening roar of the engines as the ship descends and crashes (as he imagines it).  It’s interesting to reflect on this after the episode ends.  Is it his imagination, or is it an actual memory echoing through their endless time loop?

This episode undoubtedly inspired "Cause and Effect," one of my all-time favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which finds our intrepid Enterprise 1701-D crew trapped in a “causality loop” in which they meet a catastrophic end over and over again (lucky for them, the android Data finds a way to eventually break them free; our E-89 boys unfortunately didn't bring an android with them).

Forbidden Planet alert!  The United Planets C-57D Space Cruiser makes yet another appearance on The Twilight Zone, this time standing in as the E-89 spaceship.  We get lots of it here, in both pristine and crashed form.  The takeoff and landing footage is very impressive (it kicks up dust and everything!) as is the miniature set representing the surface of the planet. The uniforms worn by the E-89 crew are also Forbidden Planet leftovers.  The E-89 interior, meanwhile, appears to be new (which means no Pac-Man lights, dammit).

There’s an (unfortunately) obvious cut in the shot in which Mason first reveals his duplicate’s corpse in the wrecked ship.  I tried to get a screen capture for illustration’s sake, but there’s too much motion to get a clear shot (it happens at time stamp 11:57; you really can’t miss it). There’s probably no way they could’ve pulled this off seamlessly in a single shot, but it’s a bit disappointing after the marvelous split screen work achieved on “In His Image” a few weeks back.  They could’ve simply blocked the shot differently and avoided the cut (interestingly, we get some great split screen shots mere seconds later).  It’s really the only blemish on an otherwise excellent episode, one that I count among my top 10 favorites.

Next:  The incomparable Anne Francis does some betwitchin.’


Joel Benedict Henderson said...

Definitely the best of the season and one I couldn't fathom seeing working as a half-hour nearly as well.

Craig Beam said...

Shortened to half an hour, "Death Ship" would still be great, but then you'd lose all the characterization (which to me elevates the material above a simple clever ghost story).

Joel Benedict Henderson said...

Yeah it probably wouldn't be much different from an episode like Elegy without all the character interaction, and its the character stuff that really makes Death Ship for me.

octobercountry said...

First-rate episode; it really is a quintessential Twilight Zone type of story.