Friday, October 4, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "Steel" (10/04/1963)

Season 5, Episode 2 (122 overall)
Originally aired 10/04/1963
Cayuga Production # 2602

Ah, the old Man versus Machine bit.  We've seen it before (“A Thing about Machines”) and we’ll see it again (“The Brain Center at Whipple’s”) but, 50 years ago tonight, The Twilight Zone brought us a fresh take on the subject… with boxing gloves, no less.

Richard Matheson’s “Steel” (adapted from his own short story, as most of his TZ teleplays were) introduces us to Joe “Steel” Kelly, former heavyweight boxer (he earned the nickname by never getting knocked down) and his sidekick Pole, who have just rode into town for a three-round bout. But it’s not Steel who’s doing the fighting… it’s Battling Maxo, a model B2 automaton who’s seen better days (and several generations of newer models). This is 1974, you see, and human boxing has been outlawed.

As he is apparently prone to do, Maxo breaks a spring during his pre-fight check-over, rendering his arm useless.  The guys are broke, so they have no way to get the parts they need to fix him, so Steel comes up with a clever (albeit dangerous) plan… one that will place him in considerable jeopardy.

The robot boxers are an ingenious creation, and quite well realized. They look human enough at first glance, but their artificiality becomes quickly apparent upon closer examination: their expressionless faces look like sculpted rubber, and their eyes appear to be made of black glass. They look menacing and soulless, which is exactly what they should look like.


“Steel” features original music by Nathan Van Cleave, a welcome jazz score with a few avant-garde touches.  Of particular note is the “Test Run” cue, which plays during act one (when Steel and Pole are checking Maxo’s reflexes before the fight, time stamp 10:30).  Frenetic strings intertwine with warbling guitar notes for a minute-long aural smack upside the head. It’s a vivid and exciting piece, one that would've made a great Twilight Zone title theme (if that pesky Marius Constant theme wasn’t so deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness, that is). Have a listen:

As with all season five scores, Van Cleave’s “Steel” has never been released (no vinyl, no tape, no CD, no mp3, no nothin’), but it can be found, isolated for your listening pleasure, on both the Definitive DVD and blu-ray release of season five from Image Entertainment.  I wish the same could be said of Van Cleave’s other jazz score from season five (“Black Leather Jackets”), which is NOT isolated on the season five sets and continues to be maddeningly unattainable in any form.

Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots first appeared in 1964, the year after “Steel” first aired. I can’t help but wonder if the toy’s designer, Marvin Glass (no, it wasn’t Horace Ford, smart ass) saw this episode, came up with (or, y’now, outright stole) the idea and immediately starting producing them.

2011’s Real Steel, on the other hand, didn't rip off Matheson’s idea, as he actually has a writing credit in the film. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t really comment. It’s got big robots and Hugh Jackman, so how bad can it be?  


Lee Marvin, last seen in season three’s “The Grave,” is excellent as the mono-minded Steel Kelly (but really, he’s excellent in almost everything he ever did). For some reason I was thinking he also starred in the upcoming episode “The Old Man in the Cave,” but that’s actually James Coburn. Jesus, what the hell is wrong with me? Take this as an indicator that my season five memories are very fuzzy.

Ah ha!  I’m not the only one who’s made this mistake!

Joe Mantell stops by The Twilight Zone for another visit (he was marvelous in season two’s “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room”). Pole is pretty cardboard as written, but Mantell makes him breathe. Pole is generally argumentative and negative, but witness the fear in his eyes when he somberly predicts the outcome of the bout: “Steel, you’ll be killed.” He’s pre-grieving, and it’s very effective.

As The Maynard Flash, Chuck Hicks is convincingly soulless and mechanistic. We’ll see Hicks again in an uncredited role as an unnamed furniture mover later this season in “Ninety Years without Slumbering.” Apparently this particular B7 was able to find work when he was supplanted by later B models (I’m reminded of Mountain McClintock from Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight, in which an over-the-hill boxer seeks work through the Employment Office).

Two more TZ vets to mention:  Nolan is played by Merritt Bohn, who was also the truck driver in season one’s “One for the Angels” (you know, the one who runs over poor Dana Dillaway). Maxwell is played by Frank London, who was also the truck driver in season two’s “A Penny for Your Thoughts” (you know, the one who almost runs over Dick York).  I imagine these guys were good buddies with Dave Armstrong, who was equally dangerous behind the wheel on this show.

And speaking of familiar faces, what's the deal with the screaming guy in the crowd? He looks a lot like the star of next week's episode....

    Shatner.                        Not Shatner.

“Steel” is definitely upper-tier TZ which, as season five trudges forward, will become an increasingly rare thing to behold.  It’s tight and toned and sturdy on its feet… in other words, no oil paste or replacement springs needed here.

Next week: Captain Kirk sees a Mugato on the Enterprise’s port nacelle and totally loses his shit.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Great review of "Steel." You are right about the Van Cleve theme - it would make a great "Zone" signature tune, and also reminds me of Bernard Herrmann (what a coincidence, huh?) in his scores for "Psycho" and "Vertigo" (he *did* do Vertigo, right?)

I reviewed Matheson's original story and this episode when "Real Steel" was being released. If you're so inclined, you can check my post out at

For the record, I didn't think "Real Steel" was all that good - surprising, since, as you say, it had a lot going for it, going in. But it turned out pretty formulaic and lackluster.

Looking forward to your take on "Nightmare at 20K Feet"!

Mike Poteet (@Bibliomike)