Friday, December 6, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms" (12/06/1963)

Season 5, Episode 10 (130 overall)
Originally aired 12/06/1963
Cayuga Production # 2606

50 years ago tonight (or was it 137?), a twist in time offered some eager National Guardsmen the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to journey into the past and… um… accomplish nothing of any consequence whatsoever.

Connors, McCluskey and Langsford are the aforementioned National Guardsmen, engaged in war games in eastern Montana. They see things (tee-pee, canteen, recent campfire, smoke signals), hear things (war cries) and smell things (okay, maybe not), and eventually conclude that, through some wrinkle in time (apologies to Madeleine L’Engle), they are somehow following Major Reno’s path to Custer’s Last Stand. They ignore their actual orders, join the historical battle, and are summarily killed. Yeah, that’s the whole thing.  Why, you ask? Why indeed.

Lock, load, and.... smile?

I think the episode would have been much more successful if there had some reason for all this to be happening. I’m reminded of season one’s “The Last Flight,” which concerned a RAF pilot inexplicably flying forward in time as he flees an aerial battle, and his urgent need to fly back where he came from to save the life of a fellow soldier (who would go on to be a decorated military hero). That’s a concrete reason, a good reason for the time traveling.  But there’s no evident purpose in this case. We’re enjoying the ride, and that’s nice, but ultimately, what’s the point?  Is it really just to tip the scales a bit more in Custer’s favor (which, from a modern perspective, is hardly desirable)? As we come to find out, our heroes’ contribution did virtually nothing to change the outcome, and they lost their lives in the process.  So… why, exactly?

From the aforementioned modern perspective, the episode can be uncomfortable to watch, and not just because Connors seems awfully eager (and happy) to kill him some Injuns. This was Serling’s opportunity to make a statement about white America’s appalling treatment of its native population but, instead, he seems to suggest that, given help, Custer could’ve been (and perhaps should’ve been) victorious, which doesn’t jibe at all with his otherwise liberal, humanist ethic. Serling created The Twilight Zone as a platform for denouncing societal evils like racism and discrimination, and the resultant horrors that man bestows on his fellow man perpetually throughout history, so if anything, he should be squarely on the side of the Native Americans. 

Perhaps we should blame the time period, in which Native Americans were still called “Indians” and were usually depicted as primitive bad guys in TV’s many shallow Western shows, but “The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms” is too much of a deviation from Serling’s usual moral viewpoint to dismiss that easily. Perhaps this apparent disconnect is an indicator of his general malaise at this late point in the series’ run; maybe TV’s “angry young man” was hitting middle age and no longer felt compelled to tackle tough issues. Or perhaps he had a good idea (and really, this is a pretty vivid one), but didn't bother developing it before banging out a quick script. Could it be something as simple as laziness? I’d prefer that to an actual prejudice but, no matter the reason, it’s disappointing. 

Okay, what the hell is the deal with that loud, persistent wind? Are we hearing the Winds of Time, literally blowing our heroes back and forth between the past and the present? Asked another way, do warps in the space-time continuum make a sound? Theoretical astrophysicists or Time Lords, feel free to chime in here.

If you can look past the episode’s highly questionable politics (and the copious amounts of overacting), “The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms” is actually pretty entertaining. An array of cool military equipment (including an outdoor communications station and the aforementioned tank) definitely adds production value to the proceedings. Additionally, the location shooting really opens things up, creating an authentic sense of space (despite the fact that it was shot in California instead of Montana). All things considered, the episode is definitely successful on a visual level.

The reproduction of the Custer Battlefield National Monument is pretty impressive, and the addition of our three intrepid Guardsmen’s names on its roster is a clever idea… unfortunately, the decision to put the three names together violates the otherwise alphabetic order of the roster (despite making a modicum of sense from a dramatic standpoint). Oops.

The acting in “The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms” ranges from barely adequate to downright awful. As Captain Dennet, Robert Bray has two manners of speaking: loud and louder. His sole inclination is to bark at everyone around him, whether or not the situation merits it. He chews on Connors at every turn and, while Connors might deserve some of it, his conduct seems a bit unbefitting of an officer (he’d make a better drill sergeant). On the other end of things, Warren Oates is deeply annoying as Langsford, the sole skeptic in the trio, gesticulating wildly and employing too much slang at too high a volume. There’s too damned much yelling in this episode, period. The only one who doesn’t yell is McCluskey, who instead employs a slow, dimwitted drawl most of the time.


The intense (albeit misguided, right?) Sergeant Connors is played by Ron Foster in his only TZ appearance. 1963 also marked his sole journey into The Outer Limits, as Dr. Robert Richardson in “The Mice.”

Private First Class/Dopey Country Boy McCluskey is played by Randy Boone in his only TZ appearance. Is it just me, or does he look (and act) a lot like Jack McBrayer, who plays Dopey Country Boy Kenneth Parcell on NBC’s 30 Rock?


Warren Oates (Corporal Langsford) previously visited The Twilight Zone in season one’s “The Purple Testament” (he’s the ill-fated jeep driver who drives over a landmine, killing himself and William Reynolds). He also turned in a memorable performance as the tortured and demented Reese Fowler in “The Mutant” on The Outer Limits.

Lew Brown plays an unnamed sergeant in his fourth and final TZ appearance (he popped up previously in “A Thing About Machines,” “Back There,” and “Long Distance Call,” all of which aired during season two).

Sometimes an interesting idea can lead to something radiant and brilliant. This is unfortunately not one of those times. The execution is more or less fine, but when your script is thematically (or, more to the point, morally) out of whack and your actors kinda suck, the best you can hope for is mindless entertainment (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay). On that level (and only that level), “The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms” succeeds.

Next week:
Ruta Lee sizzles. That’s all you need to know.


mjhbuckeye said...

Boy, you blew it on this one. Morally out of whack, sure by 2013standards, but certainly not in 1963. Here is a comment I made some eight years ago in the Twilight Zone Cafe concerning T7IMUOP:

"A nine for me because of an interesting concept, fine acting and a great kicker at the end. This is an episode that I believe got a very bad rap from Zicree in the TZ Companion and continues to suffer from 21st century judgement of 1960's perceptions re: Custer and the American Indians. With all due respect to James BW. B, Rod's view of the Battle of Little Big Horn was mainstream 1964. As per the times, Custer and his men were US soldiers, the Sioux/Cheyenne peoples were at war against the United States and it would have been reasonable for US soldiers of ANY time to join other US soldiers in battle against the "enemy". Kirk Douglas as captain of the Nimitz (an aircraft carrier, not a battleship) says much the same thing in "The Final Countdown", a well done movie that owes much to this Twilight Zone episode. Also remember that "The 7th.." was made pre-Viet Nam, pre-"Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee", pre-Crazy Horse Monument, pre-Sasheen Little Feather not accepting Brando's Oscar, pre-"Dances With Wolves" and pre-political correctness, in other words a simpler, if less enlightened time. Besides, this episode is not about who was right and who was wrong in the Frontier Wars, it is about duty, duty felt very keenly by Rod as a former paratrooper wounded in action against the Japanese in the WW2 Pacific. It's a great concept: given the choice would a contemporary soldier aid his peers, even if of another generation, to discharge his duty and garner personal honor in the face of certain death, or would he walk away? I suppose if the Guardsmen had been outside San Antonio and happened upon the Mexicans storming the Alamo in 1835 no one would have a problem with this episode today, but Rod has no way of knowing that the intervention of his characters at Little Big Horn on Custer's side would look like a bad choice forty years later."

I'll stand by that commnet now. And the acting doesn't suck either.

Craig Beam said...

So I "blew it" because my views don't align with yours? Whatever.