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.

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