Friday, November 1, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "Living Doll" (11/01/1963)

Season 5, Episode 6 (126 overall)
Originally aired 11/01/2013
Cayuga Production # 2621

Fifty years ago tonight, a mean ol’ sumbitch matched wits with a doll… and lost miserably. Jeez, wotta wuss.

Erich Streator is your average everyday wicked stepfather. Overbearing and cruel, he makes life miserable for his wife Annabelle and stepdaughter Christie on a daily basis. When Annabelle buys Christie a new Talky Tina doll, Erich is clearly perturbed because, well, nobody in his house should ever enjoy anything. Kinda reminds me of my stepdad when I was a kid.

Hi Daddy! Meet your adorable new nemesis!

“My name is Talky Tina, and I love you very much,” coos Tina whenever her string is pulled. But whenever she’s alone with Erich, she says other, more interesting phrases: they start with “I don’t think I like you” and quickly escalate to “I’m going to kill you.” The aforementioned battle of wits escalates from there and, to borrow a catchphrase from Highlander: there can be only one.


I was pretty new to the series when I first read Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion in 1982, and there were many episodes that I hadn't seen yet, one of which was “Living Doll.” Zicree’s comments on the episodes are as follows:

“Erich Streator is trying desperately not to alienate his wife and her young daughter. When the child brings home a doll that makes clear its murderous intentions --- but only when it's alone with him --- Erich is in one hell of a bind. If he tries to tell his wife of it, he sounds like a lunatic, and if he tries to protect himself by attempting (unsuccessfully) to destroy the doll, his actions seem those of a twisted mind striking out resentfully to hurt a helpless little girl. Poor Erich; it is clear early on that he hasn't much of a chance against this ruthless doll.” 

Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Zicree?

This was all I knew about “Living Doll” until I finally saw it a few years later. I was expecting to see a basically decent guy get decimated unfairly by an evil doll; imagine my surprise to discover that said “decent guy” was actually the villain of the piece! Did Zicree even watch the episode before writing about it? He couldn't have possibly sympathized with Erich Streator AT ALL if he had; however, the excessive praise he heaps on it would seem to imply that not only had he seen it, but had deemed it absolute top tier Zone: “Masterfully written and superbly directed, acted, photographed and scored, it is an episode that can stand with the best of any season.”  It was at this point, at the tender of age of 13, that I had the sobering realization that Zicree was perhaps not the be-all-end-all Twilight Zone expert that I’d assumed he was. I mean, he’d written a goddamned book about it; how the hell could he have been so incredibly wrong?

I think, in describing this dark event in my TZ-formative years, I've figured out why I’m so hostile toward Zicree. Serling was my new idol (after outgrowing such childhood heroes as Spiderman and Luke Skywalker), but he died before I ever heard his name, so Zicree, having chronicled Serling’s wonderful TV series, was the closest I could get to him. And the son of a bitch let me down by being so blatantly wrong about something so obvious. Erich Streator was a bad guy; he deserved what he got. This was the cosmic justice that lay at the very heart of The Twilight Zone, which even I understood at that early age. If Zicree didn't understand that, then who was he to write the book in the first place?

Ahem. I think I might just have exorcised a serious demon here. Maybe now I can move on with my life. Maybe I can even forgive Mr. Zicree his egregious trespasses against my inner child. Maybe.

Okay, therapy session over. Let’s move on.

“Living Doll” has a great concept (which is unfortunately pretty clich√©d nowadays; I’m looking at you, Child’s Play franchise) which, coupled with Telly Savalas’s fantastic bad-guy-you-love-to-hate performance, makes for a highly entertaining half-hour (except for the last thirty seconds; see below). Unfortunately, it’s pretty flat on a visual level, the exception being when the action moves to Erich’s garage, where he attempts to dispose of Tina in a number of ways (she’s definitely more menacing in semi-darkness). Still, these scenes offer nothing on the level of, say, season three’s “The Dummy” (which features a menacing ventriloquist’s dummy framed by complex camera work with marvelous lighting).  And the final shot of the episode, in which slow-motion is abruptly employed for no apparent reason, does nothing to advance the mood (and was likely done to stretch out the ending to accommodate Serling’s closing narration, which suggests poor planning during filming).  

In fact, the ending is disappointing in general, since having Tina murder Erich is the easiest possible conclusion. Why not have Erich scared straight, so to speak, and forced to treat his family better under Tina’s ongoing supervision? Further, why the hell does Tina threaten Annabelle (Christie’s one and only champion) after Erich is dispatched? Up until this point, the episode was operating under the cosmic justice approach (discussed in detail last week) but, in the final moment, gears are abruptly switched over to something more akin to chaos theory. It seems Tina is just an all-around evil doll (yawn) instead of a protective shield for a mistreated child (infinitely more satisfying) after all.

One minor bid of weirdness. Annabelle says to Erich that “I know you got more than you bargained for when you married me; two for the price of one, wasn’t it?” Um… surely he was aware that she had a kid, right…? If he wasn’t, then I’m almost willing to cut him some slack for being such an asshole. On that note, surely she was aware that he was a profoundly mean bastard, so why the hell did she marry him in the first place? 

Jerry Sohl and Charles Beaumont

“Living Doll” is the first of three episodes credited to writer Charles Beaumont this season. Unfortunately, he didn't actually write any of them, as by this time his health was rapidly deteriorating (he passed away in 1967). In this particular case, Beaumont mapped out the plot with Jerry Sohl, who ghostwrote the script.


“Living Doll” features another great score from Bernard Herrmann. As a fan(atic) of his work, I find it fascinating to compare his Twilight Zone work with the film scores he composed around the same time (for example, his score for 1959’s Journey to the Center of the Earth shares similar instrumentation with TZ’s “The Lonely” from that same year). His sole film score in 1963 was Jason and the Argonauts which, now that I think about it, doesn’t really sound like “Living Doll” at all.  Here, Herrmann employs a very small ensemble (two harps, celesta and bass clarinet) to create moody, suspenseful cues that perfectly underline the escalating psychological warfare between Erich and Talky Tina. The original Herrmann recordings have never been properly released; however, they can be obtained via the isolated music tracks present on both the DVD and blu-ray sets of season five (from Image Entertainment).  

Additionally, Joel McNeely recorded all seven of Herrmann’s Twilight Zone scores in 1999 for a 2-CD set released by Varese Sarabande Records (which was the only game in town for 4/7ths of Herrmann’s TZ output before Image came along). I do have some issues with some of McNeely’s interpretations (some cues are too fast while others are too slow; further, much of “Where Is Everybody?” just sounds off to my ears); however, his take on “Living Doll” is quite good (though it’s no match for the original recording).


Telly Savalas, who has a long history of imposing and often malevolent characters on his resume, is perfect as Erich Streator.  This is his only TZ appearance, but he does have another connection to the series: he appeared in 1962’s Cape Fear, which was scored by Bernard Herrmann (and co-starred TZ vets Martin Balsam, Edward Platt and Paul Comi). Savalas also played super villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, one of my favorite James Bond films.

Mary La Roche (Annabelle Streator) previously entered The Twilight Zone as Mary, Gregory West’s mistress, in season one’s “A World of His Own.” Here she plays an unhappy wife, so I guess she got to play both sides of the extramarital fence (though I guess Erich isn't depicted as an adulterer; but honestly, would we be surprised?).

Tracy Stratford is convincingly sad and under-loved as Christie (she was also Tina in season three’s “Little Girl Lost,” which was also scored by Bernard Herrmann. Wait, so first she played Tina, then she had a doll named Tina… is it possible that Talky Tina came from the fourth dimension?). Additionally, Stratford provided the voice of Lucy Van Pelt in the 1960s Charlie Brown TV specials. So when Annabelle tells Erich to see a psychiatrist, I wonder if she meant….

Good grief! Uh, I mean... who loves ya, baby???

And hey, Telly Savalas and Charlie Brown are both bald. Coincidence?  I dunno… maybe Charles Schulz was a Twilight Zone fan…?

June Foray, probably the hardest working voice actor in Hollywood, provides the unforgettable voice of Talky Tina. She’ll also do some (slightly controversial) dubbing later this season in “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” but she has another less-obvious TZ connection as well.  80’s kids like me will have no trouble remembering the 1985 film Weird Science, but do you remember the TV spin-off, which lasted five seasons (1994-1998) on the USA Network? In the episode “Sci-Fi Zoned,” the main characters are trapped inside black and white episodes of their favorite TV show (a thinly-veiled TZ knockoff called The Sci-Fi Zone), one of which involves a murderous doll named “Talking Tammy,” who is voiced by…. yup, you guessed it, June Foray (she also voices a sentient candy bar named “Baby Ruth” in the same episode).

An iconic episode like this is almost guaranteed to spawn a parody somewhere along the line. Like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” a few weeks back, “Living Doll” got the Simpsons treatment in 1992’s “Treehouse of Horror III,” in which a Krusty the Klown doll menaces Homer Simpson (“Clown without Pity”). Also of interest to genre fans is the framing device employed in this episode, which is patterned after TV’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents and features the rotund Homer standing in for Hitch.

Good morn--- D'oh!

Bif Bang Pow! has immortalized Talky Tina in every conceivable form (a talking bobblehead, action figure, and a fully-functioning life-sized replica). The bobblehead seems to be sold out but, as of this writing, the action figure and life-size replica are still available through Entertainment Earth (but, as with any collectible, they won’t be around forever). I can’t comment on the life-sized replica since I don't own it (c'mon, how could I possibly justify buying a fucking doll? For over a hundred bucks, no less!), but I've reviewed the other two (see here and here).

Questionable ending aside, “Living Doll” is great fun and a definite highlight of The Twilight Zone’s fifth and final season. Other than the misfire “A Kind of a Stopwatch” two weeks ago, season five’s offerings have ranged from good to excellent… unfortunately, the quality is about to start dipping in a big way.  Stay tuned, but temper your expectations from here on out.

Next week: Hoo boy. Where’s Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery when you need ‘em? 


Anonymous said...

Daaaaaaamnnnn you Zicreeeee!! The TZC, for being such an omnipresent text in TZ fandom, is such a weird book - some flubbed facts, and tons of editorializing, some of it downright weird (he loved "the bard"). Still, I try to cut him some slack, because I think prior to the TZC, the idea of publishing a read-along guidebook to a television series was kind of a novelty...I don't think there was a clear template for what kinds of content SHOULD go in something like that. Still, I agree, that doesn't excuse whiffing on Living Doll...especially with such an obvious element like the crumminess of the stepdad...maybe Zicree is like...a sociopath who can't identify cruelty? You heard it here first folks. - Fred from the Twilight Pwn

Anonymous said...

Zicree doesn't do anything except to publicize himself and his brand. I'm not really sure how much he loves the Twilight Zone or Science Fiction in general, everything he does is only to exalt himself. He will freely tell you the quickest way to become famous is to associate yourself with famous people. So when I would see photos of him and Ray Bradbury I would always think back to what he said. Was he there because he really loved Bradbury and his genius work, or was he practicing what he preached? So I'm not surprised he got The Living Doll episode wrong. HIs main focus is not his love of the Twilight Zone, it's just to get his name in the lime light and for people to think of him as an "expert." Just my humble opinion.