Friday, November 29, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "Probe 7, Over and Out" (11/29/1963)

Season 5, Episode 9 (129 overall)
Originally aired 11/29/1963
Cayuga Production # 2622

Fifty years ago tonight, viewers received a measured dose of interplanetary déjà vu, courtesy of The Twilight Zone.

Rod Serling’s “Probe 7, Over and Out” introduces us to Colonel Adam Cook, whose spacecraft has crashed into an unknown planet. He manages to establish visual contact with his superiors back home, who give him the unfortunate news that all-out war is imminent, and that their world is doomed. Stranded with no hope of rescue, he ventures outside into the lush, unspoiled garden-like forest…. and discovers that he’s not alone. 

Another stranded space traveler, Eve, greets him with a rock to the head and a scratch across the face. After these initial hostilities (foreplay?), she warms up to him and they head off into the sunset together. Sound familiar? Have we perhaps seen this story played out before? You could cite the Book of Genesis, but you’d only be half right. 

“Probe 7, Over and Out” is a shameless copy of season three’s “Two,” right down to the verbose male lead and the black around the female’s eyes. The only significant difference is that this swipe at the laughable Adam and Eve cliché is that here, in this second pass, there’s virtually no attempt at subtlety (she even offers him an apple, fer chrissakes!). “Two” was wise enough not to go there; but then, that (superior) episode wasn’t written by Serling.  

We can also thank Serling for Cook’s endless philosophical musings on the nature of man, which I’d be a bit more accepting of if at least some of them were done in voiceover; as it stands, Cook’s constant talking to himself just feels clumsy and awkward (season two’s “King Nine Will Not Return,” also written by Serling, is helped immeasurably by the voiceover approach).

“Probe 7, Over and Out” is fine enough on a visual/technical level, thanks largely to the impressive life-sized spacecraft. The wrecked ship was purchased from Daystar Productions, which had built it for the Outer Limits episode “Specimen: Unknown.” Its image was also was inexplicably used by Bif Bang Pow! on the card backs of their 2012 TZ action figures, even though they've never produced any collectibles based on this episode (and they sure as hell haven’t produced any Outer Limits stuff, despite my incessant begging).


Most of the underscore in “Probe 7, Over and Out” is culled from Jerry Goldsmith’s “Back There” score from season two. These cues were used to great effect in season three’s “To Serve Man”; here, however, they sound a bit out of place (“Uncle Simon” suffered a similar problem). “The Outer Space Suite,” or maybe “Where is Everybody?” (both by Bernard Herrmann) would've probably worked better. I guess I should be grateful they didn't use Nathan Van Cleave’s “Two” score…!


Richard Basehart (Adam Cook) is probably best remembered for his role as Admiral Harriman Nelson on TV’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68). IMDB lists an uncredited role as “Shakespeare-Reading Tape Recorder Voice” on an episode of Lost in Space (“The Derelict”); I’m only mentioning it because of the many connections shared by TZ and Lost in Space (Robby the Robot's fraternal twin the B-9 Robot, Billy Mumy, Jonathon Harris, etc).

Antoinette Bower (Eve Norda) is probably most recognizable to genre fans as Sylvia in the “Catspaw” episode of the original Star Trek; however, Bower appeared on many genre TV series throughout the 60’s and 70’s (including Mission: Impossible, The Invaders, and The Six Million Dollar Man).

My overall analysis of “Probe 7, Over and Out” can be boiled down to six words: been there, done that, over, out.

Next week:
War games are afoot, but Matthew Broderick is nowhere to be found.

Monday, November 25, 2013

SyFy's Thanksgiving Marathon 2013

It's Thanksgiving, that glorious time of year when we bask in the warm glow of friends and family... the smell of turkey and dressing in the air... 

And then there's the warm glow of the television, displaying another Twilight Zone marathon courtesy of the SyFy Channel. Here's the schedule (PST; add 3 hours if you're on the east coast):

9:00 am A Stop at Willoughby
9:30 am Ring-a-ding Girl
10:00 am The Howling Man
10:30 am A Hundred Yards Over the Rim
11:00 am The Masks
11:30 am A World of His Own
12:00 pm Five Characters in Search of an Exit
12:30 pm The Midnight Sun
1:00 pm Third From the Sun
1:30 pm Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?
2:00 pm Number Twelve Looks Just Like You
2:30 pm It's a Good Life
3:00 pm Living Doll
3:30 pm The After Hours
4:00 pm The Hitchhiker
4:30 pm To Serve Man
5:00 pm Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
5:30 pm Eye of the Beholder

I have to admit, that's a really solid list of episodes. Well, except "Ring-a-Ding Girl," which is mediocre at best. Still, that's ONE mediocre episode and seventeen good-to-excellent ones. Not a bad way to spend nine hours...

Happy Thanksgiving y'all!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "Uncle Simon" (11/15/1963)

Season 5, episode 8 (128 overall)
Originally aired 11/15/1963
Cayuga Production # 2604

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to tonight’s heavyweight bout. In this corner, hobbling with a cane and demanding hot chocolate, is Simon Polk, retired university professor and inventor of mechanical gizmos and gadgets. And in this corner: frumpy, bitter and beaten down after years of verbal abuse, let’s hear it for Barbara Polk, Simon’s niece, caregiver and sole heir to his estate. It’s a grudge match for the ages, folks. And now. without further ado… let’s get ready to rumble!

Rod Serling’s “Uncle Simon,” turning 50 years old tonight, finds the titular Simon and his niece Barbara locked in mortal emotional warfare.  They bicker, needle, sneer and shout their way through the first half of the episode. Seriously, nothing actually happens until Simon takes a fatal plunge down the stairs during an altercation with Barbara. 

Simon’s will dictates that, as his only living relative, Barbara is to inherit the entirety of his estate, on the singular condition that she provides ongoing care for his latest experiment, which just happens to be awaiting activation downstairs in his lab.  Kids, meet the third corner of this odd, uncomfortable triangle…


Simon has created an automaton which, after a few days, begins to take on his mannerisms (not to mention his penchant for hot chocolate; odd that a mechanical being could ingest liquids, but whatever). Before you know it, its voice synthesizer starts to sound like Simon’s voice, at which point the vicious insults resume. When the robot demands that Barbara address him as “Uncle Simon,” well… it appears she’s stuck for good, unless she wants to be broke and homeless. So I guess that means that Simon, by far the more offensive and cruel of the two, wins….? Is this fitting? Is this justice? No, it’s another example of the show’s moral compass drifting out of whack, a disappointing hallmark of season five.

When I first discovered The Twilight Zone when I was in middle school, I used to tape record episodes and listen to them over and over again (this was a couple of years before we got our first VCR). I recall listening to my recording of “Uncle Simon” frequently (probably because my sarcastic nature was beginning to bloom at that age, so I would've found the over-the-top verbal abuse entertaining… I still kinda do, in all honesty). Naturally I've become a bit more discerning over the ensuing three decades, so the episodes flaws are much more apparent. The characters are drawn so thin that it’s impossible to really care about either one of them (though it seems Barbara may have been at least somewhat human in her youth, before Simon berated her into the “bovine crab” she’s become).

At the helm is Don Siegel, who also directed 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which starred TZ alum Kevin McCarthy), one of my Top 20 favorite films of all time. Seeing as how “Uncle Simon” is bereft of any perceptible style aesthetic (excepting the inclusion of Robby the Robot, which adds significant production value), I think it’s safe to assume Siegel phoned this one in. Hell, I probably would've done the same.

Not to say “Uncle Simon” is a total loss. I do like the decision to have the robot develop and mature over time, à la Adam Link (from the “I, Robot” series of short stories by Earl and Otto Binder). And of course we have the always-welcome Forbidden Planet alert in the form of Robby the Robot, who can always be counted on to brighten things up, here playing Simon’s mechanized surrogate. And despite the drab, uninteresting direction, there’s a cool dissolve between a Barbara’s face and a clock face, which I guess is more an editing choice than anything else. It’s a nice visual, in any case.

Robby the Robot was given a custom head for this episode (a clever way to differentiate this from his other TV and film appearances), which looks convincingly homemade with its visible rivets and whatnot (the eyebrows are an odd choice, however). The man inside the costume is Dion Hansen, who will also inhabit the role (har har) in “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” later this season. Of special interest (to me, at least) is the fact that the robot is voiced by none other than Vic Perrin, whose day job at the time was narrating The Outer Limits as the Control Voice.

“Uncle Simon” is scored with stock music from the CBS Music Library. I've commented in past entries that the stock selections are generally made with commendable deftness; unfortunately, something went wrong here. Jerry Goldsmith’s “The Big Tall Wish,” with its wistful harmonica, is used in several key scenes (including the closing scene), and it sounds awkwardly out of place. Further, a couple of shock “stings” by D.B. Ray are employed in moments that really don’t call for them (Simon sneaking up on Barbara in the opening scene and, later, the robot uttering Barbara’s name for the first time; neither are anywhere near as earth-shatteringly urgent as the music would suggest).


Sir Cedric Hardwicke is nasty, brutal and thoroughly detestable in his only TZ appearance, but he turned in a memorable performance as the blind servant Colas in The Outer Limits’ “The Form of Things Unknown.” He also appeared in several of Universal’s classic horror films, including 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein.

Constance Ford (Barbara Polk) is sufficiently unpleasant in her only TZ appearance. She never showed up on The Outer Limits, but she managed to appear on almost every other genre TV show in the 50’s and 60’s, including Inner Sanctum, Lights Out, Climax!, Suspense, and ‘Way Out. 

Ian Wolfe (Simon’s estate attorney Schwimmer) only graced the TZ set this one time, but he crossed paths with Rod Serling again in 1972 on Night Gallery (“Deliveries in the Rear”); however, genre fans will likely best remember him as the cosmic librarian Mr. Atoz in the Star Trek episode “All Our Yesterdays” (which also featured Mariette Hartley, who we’ll see later this season in “The Long Morrow”).

Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion (and the IMDB) lists John McLiam in the cast as a police officer but, unfortunately, you won’t see him anywhere because his scene was cut (thanks to Martin Grams’ exhaustive The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic for this bit of trivia). McLiam appeared in three other TZ episodes (“The Shelter,” “The Midnight Sun” and as the sympathetic museum guard in “Miniature”), so I’m mentioning him despite his scene here getting the ax.

I can’t dismiss “Uncle Simon” outright, as much as I’d like to. Hardwicke and Ford are both fine in their underwritten and one-dimensional roles, and some of their combative dialogue is admittedly fun (albeit bizarre; try dropping “garbage head” or “bovine crab” into a conversation and see what happens). And of course there’s the wonderful Robby the Robot, who I fetishize almost as much as The Invader. File this one under “N” for Not Entirely Bad and scram, you angular turnips.

Next week (intended):
TZ alum Gladys Cooper is getting obscene phone calls. Okay, maybe they aren't exactly obscene,
but they’re definitely creepy.*

* The episode “Night Call” was scheduled to air on 11/22/1963.  On that date, at 12:30 in the afternoon in Dallas, Texas, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In light of the massive nationwide turmoil and grieving that ensued, most television programming was preempted, Twilight Zone included. To keep the series’ weekly schedule intact going forward, “Night Call” was moved to the next available slot (2/07/1964). Serling’s “next week” promos have been conveniently rearranged on Image Entertainment’s blu-ray release of Season Five to reflect this change.

In two weeks (actual):
Mars Meets Venus.  Again. *sigh*

Friday, November 8, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "The Old Man In the Cave" (11/08/1963)

Season 5, Episode 7 (127 overall)
Originally aired 11/08/1963
Cayuga Production # 2603

Throughout The Twilight Zone’s run, Rod Serling has regaled us with many a cautionary tale of the dangers of the atom bomb. He’s depicted the threat of nuclear warfare (“The Shelter”), the imminence of nuclear warfare (“Third from the Sun”) and the actuality of nuclear warfare and its immediate aftermath (“Time Enough at Last”).  50 years ago tonight, however, Serling gave us a glimpse of yet another facet of this rich mine of story possibilities: the state of (what’s left of) mankind ten years later. Sound like a potent topic for exploration? Sure it does… but don’t get your hopes up.

The Earth of 1974 (well, the US anyway) is an irradiated patchwork of isolated tribes of survivors. “The Old Man in the Cave” introduces us one of these groups, led by the enigmatic Mr. Goldsmith, who takes his orders from the titular Old Man, whom no one (save Goldsmith) has ever seen. The group is disheartened to learn that the Old Man has deemed their stash of pre-war canned food to be contaminated. A quartet of quasi-military types, led by the arrogant Major French, rolls up in a jeep with a grand plan to consolidate the disparate colonies and reestablish order under martial rule. Goldsmith calmly indicates that his group doesn’t recognize French’s authority; that they've done just fine under the guidance of their Old Man. After establishing his dominance with a judo chop to Goldsmith’s face and a boot atop his prostrate chest, French mounts an expedition to “visit” the Old Man.

Up ‘til this point, things are looking pretty promising. The friction between Goldsmith and French is immediate and potent (think Benteen and Colonel Sloane in last season’s “On Thursday We Leave for Home”), and it’s certainly fun imagining the different directions that the story might take. Perhaps we’ll discover that Goldsmith and the Old Man are one and the same (think about it; you don’t have to proclaim yourself leader if you can successfully float the illusion of some wise old sage administering from a distance; another name for this is the “Man Behind the Curtain” method). Or perhaps “Old Man” is a code name for a consortium of surviving government officials, and the cave is actually a bunker inside of a mountain. Or hey, maybe the Old Man is some of super-intelligent mutant, á la Kuato from 1990’s Total Recall.

It’s none of the above, unfortunately. Turns out the Old Man is a super-computer (well, “super” as far as 1963 TV was concerned; that thing could probably fit in a USB thumb drive today), apparently still operating a decade after electricity disappeared (and since it’s housed in a cave, solar power is out too).  So what the hell is keeping this thing going? Why isn’t it being used for something more productive than weather prediction and food analysis? How did Goldsmith come to be its sole conduit for communication with the outside world? Did he build it? Where did it come from? Are there others like it, shepherding other small groups of survivors across the country?


We don’t know. Serling doesn’t tell us. The whole thing remains an enigma, and not the good kind that The Twilight Zone drops on us from time to time. This, dear readers, is just lackadaisical bullshit. The real story is what ultimately becomes of French, his men and the survivors after the Old Man is revealed, but even this raises questions that Serling doesn’t feel like answering. The survivors’ attack on the Old Man could have been presented as man rising up against the technology that destroyed the world, signifying a post-apocalyptic rebirth of the species but, as you’ll see, a very different direction is taken. The ultimate moral seems to imply that man should follow blindly or suffer terrible consequences, which is far removed from the series’ typical cosmic justice ethic.

Maybe I’m being too hard on ol’ Rod, since his teleplay is merely an adaptation of an existing short story by Henry Slesar (the first of two Slesar stories Serling will adapt this season; the other is “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” which suffer similar plot contrivances). But hey, Serling chose the story despite its flaws and didn't really fix them, so I’m still holding him accountable.

Aside from the clever opening shot, in which an otherwise-inert convertible is being pulled by a horse, the episode doesn’t do nearly enough to depict life in this post-nuclear world. All we see is a shabby group of adults moping about in the middle of the street. Everything is quickly and clumsily sketched; there’s no real detail or nuance to speak of (think of the elaborate and intricate production design for season three’s “Two,” which very effectively depicted a post-war town). I would've liked to have seen a bit more of the survivors’ day-to-day lives. We’re told that they've cultivated crops, but we never see a single indication that they've done so. Where do they sleep? Do they have individual dwellings, or do they sleep in a huddle like a pack of wild dogs? And if contamination is such a big issue, where the hell is their water coming from?


Mr. Goldsmith is played by TZ regular John Anderson (“A Passage for Trumpet,” “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville”). Genre fans will also recall his marvelous turn as the Ebonite Interrogator in the “Nightmare” episode of The Outer Limits (which turns 50 next month on 12/02, on which date I’ll be spotlighting it over at my Outer Limits blog…. How’s that for cross-promotion?).

James Coburn is excellent as Major French (and really, he’s the only excellent thing about this episode). We've seen Coburn previously in season three’s “The Grave” and, more recently, “Steel” (Ha! Not really! I’m just using Coburn’s appearance as an excuse to trot out the Lee Marvin/James Coburn lookalike bit again).

This is actually Coburn’s only TZ appearance, but he does have another less obvious connection to the show: he played a Union Sergeant in an adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1959.  We’ll see a very different adaptation of that same story right here later this season (more when we get to it in February).

John Marley is sufficiently brooding as Jason, one of the survivors under Goldsmith (we last saw him in season three’s “Kick the Can”). He too appeared on The Outer Limits (in “The Man with the Power,” which starred TZ alum Donald Pleasance). Marley is probably best remembered for finding a severed horse’s head in his bed in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

Eh. I guess “The Old Man in the Cave” isn’t exactly terrible, but it’s nothing particularly special. It feels rushed and indistinct, and it reeks of squandered potential, which means it’s right at home in the series’ fifth and final season.

Next week:
After four years of Forbidden Planet prop sightings, Robby the Robot himself finally stops by
The Twilight Zone. Turns out he’s... well, kind of a dick.