We all know that The Twilight Zone debuted in 1959 with “Where Is Everybody?” However, if Rod Serling had had his way, the series would have premiered two years earlier as an hour show with an entirely different pilot. In 1957, he submitted a teleplay entitled “The Time Element” to CBS, hoping to launch the series. CBS didn't bite on the series idea, but they did buy the script… but didn't produce it. It was finally produced by Westinghouse’s Desilu Playhouse and was broadcast on 11/24/1958 to surprise acclaim, leading CBS to realize that hey, maybe Serling’s kooky series idea might have legs after all. A little less than a year later, The Twilight Zone as we know it premiered.
“The Time Element” was something of a collector’s Holy Grail until 1996, when it was aired as part of the launch of Nickelodeon’s TV Land network. I eagerly videotaped it, but somehow misplaced it (or, more likely, unwittingly taped over it). Several years later (let’s say 2007 or so), I obtained a DVD-R copy of that same TV Land broadcast in a trade. Bootlegs and home-taped copies were finally rendered ob-so-lete when Image Entertainment included “The Time Element” in their Twilight Zone: Season 1 blu-ray set in 2010 (in glorious high definition, no less!), finally making it easy to acquire for TZ-obsessives like yours truly.
SPOILER ALERT! Yeah, I’m gonna give the whole thing away. “The Time Element” concerns one Peter Jenson, who is visiting the office of psychiatrist Gillespie with an odd problem: he’s been having the same recurring dream every night for the past week. In his dream (which are conveyed to us via flashback scenes), he wakes up with a hangover in a Honolulu hotel room on December 6, 1941. At first he assumes that some elaborate gag is being played on him (don’t they always?), but gradually comes to accept that he is indeed back in time… the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, of all days. He hits the bar for a drink (he does a lot of drinking throughout, actually) and makes the acquaintance of the Janoskis, a young naval ensign and his new bride.
What does he do next? In his own words: “I spent the next two-and-a-half hours in a kind of paradise, making bets on sure things. Every race, every prize fight, every football game I could remember happening after December of 1941. I got it figured it out that if this crazy stuff goes on at least six more months, I’m a shoo-in to collect about $464,000.00 from half a dozen soon-to-be impoverished bookies. I don’t have one idea what I’m doing back here, but as long as I’m back I figure I’ll put it all to good use.” Yup, that’s what he does first. It won’t occur to him until later that maybe he should alert somebody to tomorrow’s attack. It’s about here that I went from finding Jenson merely annoying to actively hating him.
When Jenson finally decides to make a concerted effort to warn somebody, he chooses the editor of the local newspaper, which is just plain moronic. What newspaper editor is going to splash such a crazy story across the evening edition with virtually nothing to go on but the ravings of a boorish lout? Jenson’s idiocy doesn't stop there. He’s now accepted that he really is back in time (dream or not), yet he can’t fathom why the people around him don’t know that Harry S. Truman will assume the presidency when FDR dies… in their future, which of course they wouldn't have knowledge of. He then launches into the following: “You guys know what a Sputnik is? Rock and roll? A jet stream? Rocky Marciano? Atomic subs? The Los Angeles Dodgers?” Newspaper reporter Hannify observes moments later that “there’s nothing insane about that man.” Maybe not, but he’s certainly a stone cold moron.
Speaking of Hannify, there’s a bizarre bit of business in the very next scene: a doctor (who evidently makes house calls to newspaper offices) discovers a drawing that Hannify has made (while listening to Jenson’s story) of a Japanese plane dropping a bomb on an aircraft carrier. “They’re just doodles,” says Hannify nervously. “You’d better watch yourself or I’ll be putting you under a light,” smiles the doctor ominously. Hannify smiles queasily and leaves the room, leaving the doctor to crumple the drawing and drop it into a wastebasket with a hostile look on his face. It’s an enigmatic moment implying conspiracy and intrigue (which frankly might’ve led to something interesting), but it never goes anywhere.
The third act opens with more narration from Jenson: “The best laid plans of mice and men, and Peter Jenson (a line Serling would reuse, substituting Henry Bemis’ name, in TZ’s “Time Enough at Last”). I just struck a blow for law and order and missed. So what’s left to do? Simple: nothin’. Just sit in a bar feeling that kind of sweet, sad glow that comes with realizing that most people aren't as bright as you are” (so he IS delusional after all, it seems). He rants and raves at length (he even sings songs about Pearl Harbor that haven’t been written yet!), at which point the hotel patrons finally get fed up with his antics (he ends up getting decked by both Janoski and the bartender in the same scene!). He slumps unconscious against the bar’s jukebox, and wakes up the next morning back in his hotel room. He hears the sound of approaching planes and looks fearfully out the window. Several Japanese aircraft are closing in, and it is here that the dream abruptly ends.
Dr. Gillespie tries to explain the nature of dreams to Jenson, and to assure him that he wasn’t really back in time. Jenson tells him that he managed to track down Janoski’s mother, who told him that her son and his new bride were killed at Pearl Harbor, proving that they aren't just imagined dream figures, and that he really is traveling backward in time every night.
Jenson then falls asleep on the couch, at which point we are treated to a montage of scenes that we've already seen (representing that he is having the usual dream, which is just blatant padding; admittedly, the visual device used is kinda cool, but still). However, this time the dream has a bit more at the end: Jenson is riddled with bullets from the attacking planes, and he falls dead to the floor.
Gillespie finds himself sitting alone in his office. He is disturbed by something, but isn't sure what it is. He flips open his secretary’s appointment book, which pointedly indicates that he has no patients today. He goes to a local bar and sees a photograph of Jenson. The bartender tells him that Jenson used to tend bar there, but he was killed… yup, you guessed it, at Pearl Fucking Harbor.
Okay, seriously, what the hell? What was the point of all this? So we have a guy who travels back in time every night for an entire week (how this is accomplished is never explained), for the express purpose of…. well, dying earlier than he otherwise would have, an alteration of history hat apparently results in no perceptible effect on said history (no ripple effect here to be found here, folks). Now, I’m fine with time paradoxes, and I don’t always need things to make perfect sense (I really enjoyed last year’s Looper, for example), but this is just bullshit. We've just spent an hour watching what amounts to absolutely nothing, which I could at least accept if the hour had been enjoyable. No such luck.
Ugh. Anyway, after the shocking ending (“shocking” in this case being a synonym for “stupid and insulting”), we’re treated to a few minutes of host Desi Arnaz Jr. offering his own “rational” explanation for the incongruous events we've just witnessed, after which he proceeds to hawk a new Westinghouse refrigerator and banter briefly with wife Lucille Ball. Easily the hour’s most entertaining five minutes.
While “The Time Element” doesn't really feel like a Twilight Zone episode, it does contain a number of, er, elements that would pop up on the series: we have a man traveling through time with warnings of imminent disaster (“No Time like the Past”), flashbacks framed within a psychiatric evaluation (“Perchance to Dream”), the use of supernatural gifts for financial gain through gambling (“A Most Unusual Camera,” “The Prime Mover”), and of course unnatural character dialogue (as is the case in most of Serling’s 91 TZ scripts). Unfortunately, familiarity doesn't equate to quality: it’s as if all the pieces are there but the center is missing, which unfortunately wrecks the whole thing (I’m reminded of a Hostess cupcake I had many years ago which inexplicably had no cream filling). Further, “The Time Element” is stagey, visually unimaginative, and way too long (interestingly, Serling’s original script was 30 minutes long, but he expanded it to an hour before submitting it to CBS; sound familiar, season 4?). It’s laboriously slow, almost to the point of bludgeoning its audience every time a new piece of information surfaces.
But the single worst part of “The Time Element” has got to be William Bendix, in the lead as Peter Jenson. I’ve never been a fan, but I've never found him quite as offensive as he is here (which is due, in part I suppose, to Serling’s script). Jenson is an obnoxious bully (he threatens three different people with violence with little to no provocation, and is constantly berating and belittling everyone he speaks to). Why he’s experiencing his apparent time-traveling is anybody’s guess but, no matter what the reason is, it’s impossible to sympathize with his plight or care about his fate.
Dr. Gillespie is played by Martin Balsam, a warm and beloved TZ face (“The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine,” “The New Exhibit”) who may be best remembered as Norman/Norma Bates’ second victim (well, second onscreen victim anyway) in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1962 chiller Psycho.
Hannify, the newspaper reporter, is essayed by Don Keefer, whom we all know and love from his role as Dan Hollis in season three’s “It’s A Good Life.” We also saw him recently in “Passage on the Lady Anne,” and we’ll see him again in season five’s “From Agnes, With Love.”
Carolyn Kearney is fresh and sparkly as new bride Mrs. Janoski, and if this were a true Twilight Zone episode, she’d be an automatic TZ Babe. We’ll see her again in season five’s “Ninety Years without Slumbering” (which I guess qualifies her after all!). Her husband, the J. Crew catalog-ready Ensign Janoski, is played by Darryl Hickman, who never appeared on The Twilight Zone but did pop up on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Heart of Gold”).
The newspaper editor, Mr. Gibbons, is played by Bartlett Robinson (“Back There,” “To Serve Man”). Alan Baxter, who plays the inappropriately conspiratorial doctor, never appeared on The Twilight Zone, but he did pop up on The Outer Limits (in the appropriately conspiratorial “O.B.I.T.”).
I wrote a teleplay my freshman year of high school called “Circa 1975,” concerning a lowly drunk who inexplicably wakes up eleven years in his own past and seizes the opportunity to stop his (then) fiance from dying in a car accident, thereby changing the downward course of his life. It was my first attempt (of many, actually) to write a TZ-type script (I’d just discovered the series a couple of years earlier). I wouldn't see “The Time Element” for over a decade; however, both the core story and the lead character (who is quite similar to the boorish Jenson) are quite similar. And hey, not to toot my own horn or anything, but my story had the courtesy to provide a reason for the time travel, and featured a happy ending to boot. Interestingly, my story also included lots of uncomfortably awkward dialogue, so maybe I was more like Serling than I thought.
Somewhere deep in the recesses of my storage unit are three 27 year-old Super 8 film cartridges, exposed but never developed, mummified in their original boxes with masking tape. On these cartridges is silent footage from 1986 (shot by me) of my friends (Donovan Littlejohn and David Beeson; ‘sup fellas?) acting out scenes from “Circa 1975” as a test for an ambitious student film project called The Kaleidoscope (a TZ knockoff which never materialized). Apparently the chemicals needed to process Kodachrome film are no longer made (the format was pronounced dead in 2010), so I guess the footage will never be seen.
In the final analysis (well, mine anyway), “The Time Element” is little more than a historical curiosity. I can appreciate its existence, since my favorite TV series of all time probably wouldn't have existed without it, but I sure as hell don’t like it. It’s uninvolving, abrasive and ultimately pointless. Had Jenson somehow saved the young Janoski couple through his time traveling (and subsequent death), there would have been a cosmic reason behind the proceedings, and his character could have been at least partially redeemed in the process. As written and presented, however, “The Time Element” lacks a corresponding human element that just might have saved it.