Season 4, Episode 10 (#112 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4853
Originally aired March 7, 1963
50 years ago tonight, a discontented scientist bounced back and forth through time, desperate to alter history for the better. No, this isn't an episode of Quantum Leap. And no, he’s not a Time Lord either.
Rod Serling’s “No Time like the Past” introduces us to Paul Driscoll, a scientist of unspecified specialty (say that fast three times!) who’s had his fill of modern life, particularly the looming threat of nuclear annihilation. He’s constructed one of the strangest, coolest time machines ever presented on The Twilight Zone, and with it he plans to change key moments in the past, creating a ripple effect that will hopefully result in a more agreeable present.
I love this time machine so much; I’ll forgive the blatant use of a goddamned tape recorder as the control panel.
Throughout act one, Driscoll hits three different time periods, attempting to change important world events (the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1939, and the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945). All three attempts fail. Realizing that the flow of time is immune to such tampering, Driscoll decides instead to escape the present and live --- sans meddling --- in a simpler time and place: Homeville, Indiana circa 1881, before world wars, atomic catastrophe and reality TV (okay, I added that last one). He finds, however, that simply observing is more difficult than he anticipated. Time, it seems, is going to teach him a lesson one way or another.
Homeville vs. Willoughby. Or maybe it's vice versa. I can't tell.
It’s hard not to compare “No Time like the Past” to Serling’s earlier “A Stop at Willoughby,” and not just because Homeville strongly resembles Willoughby. Paul Driscoll is something of a variation on Gart Williams, only he has the means to actually visit the past (versus Williams, who seemingly has to die to get to a celestial version of it). I guess we can throw Martin Sloan in the mix too (“Walking Distance”), who apparently can travel in time AND make changes without a time machine or a magical train.
Gart Williams, meet Martin Sloan.
In his increasingly-irrelevant Twilight Zone Companion, Marc Scott Zicree incorrectly states that Driscoll’s attempt on Hitler’s life is foiled by his wasting time on a “test run” instead of immediately firing when he gets the chance. In Zicree’s words, “no assassin in his right mind would get his intended victim centered in the cross hairs of his rife without intending to fire. He would know that he might not get a second chance --- as indeed Driscoll does not.” Gee, MSZ, I’m pretty damned sure Driscoll isn’t a practiced assassin, so we can probably cut him some slack for not strictly adhering to the sniper manual.
When Driscoll does finally attempt to shoot Hitler, his rifle inexplicably jams. This is a pointed example of time allowing visitors to travel against its natural flow, but not permitting changes (as Driscoll’s assistant Harvey later observes, “the past is inviolate”).
There’s a flat-out brilliant sequence that closes Driscoll’s failed attempt to evacuate Hiroshima (time stamp 9:20). We hear the distant sound of a single B-29 overhead as the Japanese Police Captain studies a framed photograph of his wife and daughter. The initial atomic blast levels his office, and we see the photograph lying in rubble. Then the secondary shock wave hits, leaving only a charred frame. It’s a seriously haunting 25 seconds.
Note that Driscoll’s clothing changes with each, um, time leap. When he leaves the present, he’s wearing a modern suit and tie. Each time he arrives in the past, however, he’s wearing a completely different suit that is appropriate to the period. It’s a clever wardrobe detail, but I can’t help but wonder how the hell he managed this. The editing suggests that he hits three time periods in one shot, then briefly returns to the present before his final trip to 1881. And since he’s always wearing his modern suit when he departs, the wardrobe changes are happening while he’s moving through time. That’s some time machine, man.
Dana Andrews is quite good as the stoic and morose Paul Driscoll in his only TZ outing (he particularly shines during his anti-war rant at the dinner table in act three). Andrews appeared in a number of classic film noirs, including Fallen Angel (1945), Boomerang! (1947), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). In noir circles, he’s best known as the obsessive Detective Mark McPherson in 1944’s Laura (now on blu-ray from Fox).
As Harvey, Driscoll’s disapproving assistant, Robert F. Simon imbibes his character with sufficient compassion to suggest that he truly cares about Driscoll’s well-being successfully fleshing out what would have otherwise been a cardboard role. Simon would inject a great deal more compassion into his role as the peace-loving General Hart in “The Zanti Misfits” on The Outer Limits later the same year.
School teacher Abigail Sloan, the object of Driscoll’s affections, is played by Patricia Breslin in her second Twilight Zone appearance (she previously appeared alongside William Shatner in season two’s “Nick of Time”).
Don’t typecast me, bro.
Malcolm Atterbury plays Professor Eliot, the traveling medicine peddler. If he looks familiar, it’s because he also played Henry J. Fate, a different traveling medicine peddler, in season one’s “Mr. Denton on Doomsday.” In the so-coincidental-it-must-be-more-than-a-coincidence department, Atterbury also played a traveling medicine peddler, also named Professor Eliot (!), in a 1962 episode of Gunsmoke (“The Boys,” 5/26/1962).
“No Time like the Past” isn't generally favored by TZ fans and historians (Zicree included), but I've always had a soft spot for it. Yes, some of Serling’s dialogue is pretty heavy and unrealistic (but isn't it always?), and yes, the denouement is a bit obvious (the past is dead; the future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades!), but despite Driscoll’s melancholic demeanor and the frequent depiction of tragedy (Hiroshima bombing, Lusitania sinking, school fire, etc.), the episode somehow manages to be… well, fun somehow. And that time machine? Freakin’ awesome.
Next week: The Astronaut’s Wife, Serling-style and Depp-free.