Friday, October 18, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "A Kind of a Stopwatch" (10/18/1963)

Season 5, episode 5 (124 overall)
Originally aired 10/18/1963
Cayuga Production # 2609

50 years ago tonight, a Chatty Charlie talked his way straight into The Twilight Zone. Yeah, I know, that’s a pretty lame opening line, but frankly, this episode doesn’t merit me bringing my A game.

Patrick Thomas McNulty, in the words of writer Rod Serling, is “the biggest bore on Earth, (who) holds a ten-year record for the most meaningless words spewed out during a coffee break.” His mouth clearly lacks a pause button, which means he registers pretty high on the ObnoxioMeter™ (I’m gonna squeeze him in between Henry Bemis and James B.W. Bevis).

"A Kind of a Stopwatch" features one of the simplest, most basic plots ever presented on the series. Guy is given a stopwatch by a stranger. The stopwatch stops time. Guy uses stopwatch to attempt a bank robbery. Guy accidentally breaks stopwatch, freezing time forever.

“A Kind of a Stopwatch” is limp and uninvolving; further, it’s difficult to ascertain what Serling’s intent was here (it plays like a light comedy up until the “surprise” tragic ending). I can’t begin to imagine why Serling would waste such an intriguing concept on such a lifeless story, but it’s not the first time he’s done this (“Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” I’m looking at you). The various questions raised by the script are not so much unanswered as outright ignored. Why does the magic stopwatch exist? What’s the point of freezing time? What application would such a thing be useful for (other than self-amusement or petty crime)? Since the stranger (Potts) is apparently ignorant of the watch’s magical properties, we can presume that he had no hand in creating it (and extrapolate from there that he in fact isn't a supernatural being with godlike powers), but this presumption leads to more questions: where the hell did the thing come from? And how did Potts end up with it? 

And if you start dwelling on the science of the whole thing, well…. it just leads to more frustration. It appears only people and animals (goldfish and, in a ridiculously stupid montage of stock footage, race horses) are affected by the stopwatch, since McNulty is able to eat a doughnut and steal money from the local bank, so inanimate objects are apparently immune. But wait, we also witness automobiles and other vehicles being affected (including a helicopter, which freezes in mid-air, which opens up even more questions), so apparently only some inanimate objects are affected.  I’m clearly overthinking this, but in the absence of anything interesting to lock onto, the mind can’t help but start digging. I’m totally cool with suspending my disbelief if I’m being entertained. If I’m not being entertained… well goddammit, things better at least make some kind of sense.

I've mentioned before that, as the series sputters toward its inevitable demise, we find copious examples of Serling borrowing from earlier, superior episodes.  Here, the ending is uncomfortably reminiscent of season one’s “Time Enough at Last” (the teleplay for which Serling also wrote). Instead of breaking his glasses, as the ill-fated Henry Bemis did, McNulty breaks the magic stopwatch; in both cases, the respective protagonists are cursed with a lifetime of solitude (but hey, at least the world isn't a decimated wasteland here).  The first scene in Joe’s Bar recalls “Mr. Dingle, the Strong” with its baseball conversations (Abner Doubleday’s name even gets dropped again!). There’s also a bit of “The Mind and the Matter” here too, I guess (but Archibald Beechcroft was able to will the human race back from wherever he’d sent them… the cornfield? I dunno). And McNulty is certainly reminiscent of the talkative Jamie Tennyson from “The Silence.”  Jesus, it’s like Serling just threw several pre-existing scripts into a blender and came up with this.

After freezing and unfreezing his goldfish, McNulty attributes his newfound ability to stop time to an alcohol-induced hallucination and turns in for the night.  We see a “clock wipe” transitional effect which advances the action to the next morning, which is the only time in the entire series that we see this particular visual clichĂ©. I’d like to think this was intentional, since the episode deals with the concept of time, but I doubt there was that much thought behind it.

“A Kind of a Stopwatch” was semi-remade as “A Little Peace and Quiet” on the CBS revival series in 1985. The enchanted device wasn’t a watch; rather, a mysterious amulet did the time-stopping. The only thing interesting about it is the ending, in which the protagonist (A Christmas Story’s Melinda Dillon) freezes time mere seconds before a devastating attack on the US (presumably by Russia). The episode closes on a motionless tableau of panicked citizens and a nuclear missile hanging still in the sky overhead which, while effective, is blatantly ripped off from a 1952 short story by Arthur C. Clarke entitled “All the Time in the World,” which ends more or less the same way.


“A Kind of a Stopwatch” features an original music score by Nathan Van Cleave, who contributed a number of memorable scores to the series (among them “Perchance to Dream” and “The Midnight Sun”), but this isn't one of them. The only bright spot in this collection of comedic cues (Fred Steiner’s score for last season’s “The Bard” comes to mind) is a recurring melody loop evoking the passage of time, which appears several times throughout the episode. Here's the cue written for the first time-stopping event, appropriately titled "The First Time":

Van Cleave’s score for “A Kind of a Stopwatch” has never been released, but you’ll find it available as an isolated music track on the Definitive DVD and blu-ray sets for season five.


While I find Richard Erdman annoying here as the loquacious McNulty, I absolutely love him in the 1951 film noir Cry Danger, in which he co-stars with Dick Powell.  More recently (that’s right, the 88 year-old guy is still kicking as of this writing), he’s enjoying a recurring role on NBC’s Community as Leonard, Greendale Community College’s oldest student. I’m a big fan of the series (it’s my second favorite comedy currently in production, right after Modern Family).

Joe the Bartender is played by Herbie Faye, who also played Charlie the Bartender in the 1962 big-screen adaptation of Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight. He also appeared in episodes of both The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E., both of which starred our beloved TZ alum Jack Klugman (I know, it’s a pretty tenuous connection, but I’ll take any opportunity to mention Klugman’s name).

The announcer heard giving the play-by-play during the televised baseball game in Joe’s bar is Sam Balter, who played sportscasters in several other TV shows (including The Adventures of Superman and Climax!) and feature films (including 1951’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man and 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, another favorite noir of mine).  His work here, according to the Internet Movie Database, is his final credited role.

Ken Drake, here appearing as an unnamed customer in Joe’s bar, was also seen in season two’s “A Hundred Yards over the Rim.” He’ll also provide the spectral voice on the other end of Gladys Cooper’s telephone line in “Night Call” later this season. Oh, and he played the judge who pronounces the android Adam Link guilty of murder in the “I, Robot” episode of The Outer Limits.

And last but not least, Doris Singleton plays McNulty's boss's secretary. We never hear her name, but McNulty calls her "Doll," "Honey Doll," and "Honey Baby" at various points in the episode. Sexual harassment? Perhaps. TZ babe?  Definitely.

“A Kind of a Stopwatch” isn't exactly awful on the level of “Mr. Bevis,” but it’s pretty bad all the same. It feels much longer than 25 minutes which, given the time-freezing gag, is probably appropriate (oh, the irony!). It’s season five’s first true dud and, sadly, it won’t be the last.

Next week:
Mi Taylor, fifteen years after National Velvet:  older, certainly not wiser, and a whole lot sweatier.

1 comment:

ishkanei said...

hello craig

in the spirit of conversation, i'd wanted to post a sort of point-by-point rebuttal to this review / post, but i haven't really got the juice for fine-grained argument, so i'll just spill my thoughts as they come in the hopes they are at least worth the time to read.

"stopwatch" is, i think, well enough made if you think of it as a sort of live-action cartoon, which i think is the intention. McNulty is certainly an annoying character, but in the same deliberate sort of way that wile e. coyote was made out to be haughty and smug; we aren't meant to feel sorry for McNulty when his plan backfires any more than we are to feel horrified to see wile e step off the cliff, chased by an anvil.

thus, the music, which is not the usual sort of TZ underscore, granted, but again, a deliberate signal that this is just a light what-if sort of episode, like a bedtime story or a fable. cartoon music for a live-action cartoon. so, in that light anyway, there isn't a disconnect between the end and the rest of the story, in the music or the episode itself; it's all a gag.

it seems to me the same goes for several other episodes: "A Most Unusual Camera", "The Chaser", "A Nice Place To Visit" among them.

in fact, i'd had more or less the opinion about "Camera" for a long time that it was more cheesy and low budget than it should have been (for a Twilight Zone story, dammit!), until it dawned on me that it was supposed to be that way, as might be expected of an episode featuring veteran comic character actors like Fred Clark and Jean Carson (and a tip of the hat to Adam Williams, a terribly undersung, versatile character actor himself).

(not for nothing, but i was almost 40 before it occurred to me why anyone would like dumb, head-boppin', fun rockabilly music like "Hound Dog" or "Chantilly Lace":'s fun, dumb, head-boppin' rockabilly music! that was the whole point! D'OH! once i got that, it was like a 2nd childhood with a lot of (old) "new" music to catch up on.)

and a quick word in defense of Larry Blyden in "A Nice Place...": another deliberate choice, i wouldn't say of overacting so much as of...i can't think of the precise word just now (i could think of it before i decided to write all this down), but it's another example of setting us up to not be overly invested in the character, so that when his world comes a-cropper, we remain more entertained by his predicament than concerned for his mortal soul or whatever.

(if anything, i've always thought the end of "Escape Clause" to be a little off-message, as that episode is clearly more light comedy than not, but ends on the tone of a straight drama, including the Herrmann underscore at that point. i still wonder if the network suits didn't require that approach to appease the bible belt.)

well, anyway, there it is. again, all in the spirit of conversation rather than a line in the sand, for what it's worth. in any case, good job with the site. nothing like a one-stop shop to whet and sate the appetite in one go.