Season 4, Episode 11 (#113 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4859
Originally aired March 14, 1963
“Something happened. I know you’re not going to believe this. I’m not absolutely certain that I believe it myself. There’s another dimension. I don’t know how it exists or where it exists, but there’s another world parallel to ours. The same people, the same places, most of the same chronology of events, except now and then there’s something a little bit different…. I was there, General. I was there for almost a week… looking at our counterparts, looking at us. Us, as we exist in a parallel world, one that exists alongside but which we can’t see, the world I stumbled into. I don’t know how; some kind of space time continuum, some… warpage. There’s a doorway up there somewhere into it. It exists. Every now and then I think it’s possible for somebody to fall through it, and I did.”
That’s Major Robert Gaines, relaying his fantastic experience during an apparent blackout during a space flight. It sounds like something from the mind of Jack Finney, whose short stories often featured time travel and parallel realities (his “The Coin Collector” would've made a great TZ episode), but unfortunately Finney didn't write this… Rod Serling did. And he kinda fucked it up.
Fifty years ago tonight, “The Parallel” found Major Robert Gaines leaving the earth, blacking out, then waking up in a military hospital with no memory of the rest of the mission, including his return trip. After his debriefing, he begins to notice subtle details in his world have changed: his house now has a white picket fence that he doesn't remember being there, his wife and daughter seem to think he’s “different somehow,” and oh! He’s magically been promoted to full Colonel. We suspect that maybe he’s some sort of brainwashed alien plant until it’s revealed that the man Gaines claims to be President is someone his superiors have never heard of, some guy by the name of John F. Kennedy.
Serling puts forth what could have been an interesting mystery (a kind of companion piece to “And When the Sky Was Opened”), but “The Parallel” is hampered by both its overlong length and several plotting problems that can’t be ignored. The bit at the end, in which it’s revealed that Capcom established momentary telemetry with Gaines’ duplicate from Dupe Earth, does seem to validate Gaines’ theory, so I guess he wasn’t just dreaming during his six-hour blackout; however, it does nothing to assuage the lingering questions. How exactly did he land his capsule on Dupe Earth if the craft had no landing capabilities? Since he swaps places with his parallel self while in space, we can reasonably assume that the fissure between the parallel universes lies in earth’s orbit; how then does he manage to swap back without going back up into space? Gaines spent several days on Dupe Earth, yet was only out of radar contact for six hours, which is impossible: for both earths to exist side by side, wouldn't they move at the same rate of time?
The only solution which ties up all the loose ends? After Gaines crossed over to the Dupe Earth universe, God himself plucked the capsule out of the sky and set it gently down on dry land (suggest by Gaines’ initial explanation: “I blacked out, I simply blacked out. There was some factor up there, something which I had no control over, something which must have taken over for me.”). The Big Guy subsequently snapped His almighty fingers to undo the whole thing, which explains why Gaines snaps back into his own universe without even returning to space first. This theory also serves to obliterate most of the other plot holes, since the whole affair ultimately never happened (except that Gaines remembers it, which is an odd choice; but hey, He moves in mysterious ways). Serling of course doesn't suggest this (admittedly bogus) possibility; he just slaps together a half-assed denouement and moves on to his next script (gee, thanks Rod). Interestingly, season one’s “And When the Sky Was Opened’ (also scripted by Serling) provided even less insight into the astronauts’ inexplicable plight, but somehow it worked there. Maybe because the hour format intrinsically demands more explanation, I dunno.
One more irreconcilable thing: after Gaines is back in his own capsule in his own universe late in act four, the “wavy line” dissolve effect is used to skip forward to his examination in the military hospital. Up to this point, this transition signified the crossovers between the two earths. Are we to assume, then, that Gaines has splashed down on a third earth? Of course not, it’s just an overused time passage visual (usually framing a flashback)…. but it’s completely inappropriate here.
I usually love these kinds of stories: parallel earths, alternate realities, evil twins, multiverse doppelgängers, etc; “The Parallel,” however, has gotta be the single most boring exploration of such concepts ever committed to film. Any given episode of TV’s Sliders beats this vanilla affair hands down (and that series had more than its share of duds, despite a great concept).
At the very least, “The Parallel” does offer some nice atmospheric visuals. When Gaines blacks out at the moment he crosses over into the Dupe Earth universe, we fade in to a dark hospital room. A single light hangs over his unconscious body as we drunkenly pan in towards him, conveying his disorientation as he wakes up. Later, the scenes with the capsule in the hanger offer some excellent contrast between the inky blackness and the large overhead lights (many of the shots are filmed low, looking up at the actors, adding a nice paranoid tension; however, I’m not sure why the hell they keep the hanger so goddamned dark). Oh, and speaking of nice visuals….
Another Outer Limits connection! The skeptical General Eaton is played by Phillip Abbott, who stopped by in season two for "Long Distance Call." He also appeared in two TOL episodes (“The Borderland” and the delightfully wacky “ZZZZZ”).
Speaking of The Outer Limits, its “Cold Hands, Warm Heart” is reminiscent of “The Parallel” in the sense that we have an astronaut returning to earth who’s just not quite himself. However, The Outer Limits wins for two reasons: first, theirs has William Shatner; second, theirs features this hilarious alien:
If you need another TOL connection, look no further than the 31:09 mark: Gaines is asked how he’s doing. His reply: “Me? Well, that depends. Depends on just what are the current standards for sanity, the acceptable outer limits.”
Colonel (er, Major) Robert Gaines is played by Steve Forrest, who’s a bit stiff and bland, but I guess he gets the job done (I can’t help but imagine what other TZ actors like Charles Aidman or Cliff Robertson might’ve done with the role). This is Forrest’s only TZ appearance. I should mention that Forrest is Dana Andrews’ younger brother (whom we enjoyed last week in “No Time Like the Past.”
Other familiar faces in “The Parallel” include Paul Comi as the psychiatrist (previously seen in season one’s “People Are Alike All Over” and season two’s “The Odyssey of Flight 33”) and William Sargent as The Project Manager (he’ll come back for season five’s “Ninety Years Without Slumbering”). And OMG, there’s David Armstrong again (uncredited as usual), this time manning one of the tracking consoles at Capcom. And he has a line (“We don’t have contact here either. No contact at all!”)!
Like many Twilight Zone episodes, “The Parallel” uses preexisting music from the CBS Music Library in lieu of an original score. The serene pastoral music heard as Gaines arrives at home back on Earth Prime (oops, spoiler!) is “Quiet Western Scene” by Nathan Van Cleave. Here we only hear part of it (like we did in season three’s “The Changing of the Guard”); we’ll hear the whole lovely thing in “On Thursday We Leave For Home” in May. I should also mention that a single cue from Leonard Rosenman’s score from the aforementioned “And When the Sky Was Opened” is used here. It’s title? “Missing Colonel,” of all things!
1999’s The Astronaut’s Wife seems to have been inspired by “The Parallel,” but there the astronaut (Johnny Depp) turns out to be an alien replacement instead of a friendly duplicate from another earth. Jeez, if you’re gonna steal ideas from The Twilight Zone, there are so many better episodes to crib from.
One more thing that bugs me: Gaines’s capsule is called “Phoebus 10” on Earth Prime, but on Dupe Earth it’s called “Astro 7.” Wouldn't you think that this discrepancy would've come up during Gaines’ debriefing on Dupe Earth? Screw all the vague “something feels different” shit; that right there is an immediate and obvious disparity between the two earths. Sigh. File “The Parallel” under “D” for Dumb and hope next week’s episode is better. Um, sorry to say… it’s kinda not.
Next week: It’s a total fake-out. Barbara Eden is nowhere to be found, dammit.