Thursday, March 7, 2013

TZ Promo: "No Time Like the Past" (3/07/1963)

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.


ColScott said...

while I love your site I must ask- "Zicree increasingly irrelevant?" It remains the first and best book on the subject. Why do you say that?

Craig Beam said...

With the endless amounts of information to be found elsewhere (the Grams book, the TZ Cafe website, DVD and blu-ray supplemental features, etc), Zicree's book starts to look more and more cursory. Read Schow's The Outer Limits Companion if you want to see what the TZ Companion could have (and should have) been. For its time, though, the Zicree book was essential, since there was nothing else like it. So yes, while it was first, the ensuing 30 years has scraped most of its luster off.

octobercountry said...

This episode has a good premise, but is sadly let down by mediocre execution.

While it’s obvious who wrote the script---Driscoll’s ranting about the cesspool of modern civilization is pure Sterling---the story itself has a definite Jack Finney vibe. A man hating the present, longing to escape into the past, and hoping to change past events? That’s all straight out of the Jack Finney time-travel playbook. Some of the specific plot elements of this episode particularly put me in mind of a pair of Finney Novels, Time and Again and From Time to Time, though neither had yet been written when this episode was filmed. The primary difference is in the ending---no Jack Finney character would return to the present unless he absolutely had to do so.

What was so frustrating about this episode was Driscoll’s staggering incompetence in his attempts to change the past. Let’s even call it downright stupidity; from beginning to end, he screws it up every single time. I’m not at all certain that his experiences prove that the past cannot be altered, because his inept bungling is so ridiculous the ineffectiveness of his efforts doesn’t prove a thing.

Man, where to start. Okay, if you’re going to try to prevent a ship from being sunk, or want to evacuate a city before bombing, you don’t just show up a few hours before these events happen to try and make your case. Any fool could see that with no proof no-one would believe your story.

And as for killing Hitler, um, maybe Driscoll shouldn’t have been causally chatting with the maid right when he was intending to take his shot. Sheesh. All he had to do was shout through the door that he was indecent at the moment, and could she come back in ten minutes. Idiot.

Though for goodness sake, why on earth would he go to 1939 to shoot Hitler anyway? The mechanism of war was already firmly in place by that point in time, Nazism was well established and on the rise. If you want to stop Hitler, you would naturally travel to the time BEFORE he began his political career. Go back to 1920 and take care of him then, and see if Germany would have developed differently without his influence.

Heck, while you’re at it…. If you REALLY want to change the 20th century in a big way, why not try to prevent the outbreak of the First World War? Nazi Germany eventually arose from the ruins of the defeated Germany of 1918. Stop the war that killed so many millions in Europe in the teens, and see how the world develops from there.

Finally---that darn lantern, that caught the school building on fire. Okay, that was ridiculous from the start. There is no reason at all that the travelling salesman would light a lantern to hang on the side of his wagon (illuminating nothing) in the middle of the day, in bright sunlight. But if the lantern was lit… well, why didn’t Driscoll just causally stroll up to the lantern and blow it out, while chatting to the salesman? An odd act, to be sure, but it would seem unlikely that the salesman would have re-lit the lantern at that point. Instead, Driscoll does the one thing almost guaranteed to make the horses bolt. Moron.

The almost-but-not-quite budding romance between Driscoll and Abigail fell flat, too. I thought their shared scenes could have been better written.

So, yeah, I thought the premise of this episode had a lot of potential, but overall I found it quite disappointing.