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*


Bill Huelbig said...

My brother and I used to crack up laughing every time we watched "Uncle Simon". Those unforgettable insults were probably my favorite examples of Rod Serling's writing for the entire 5th season.

Joe84 said...

Barbara has a line, to the effect that why do "good men die", rather ironic considering that exactly one week later JFK would be assassinated.

Joe84 said...

Barbara has a line, to the effect that why do "good men die", rather ironic considering that exactly one week later JFK would be assassinated.