Friday, January 10, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Long Morrow" (1/10/1964)




Season 5, Episode 15 (135 overall)
Originally aired 1/10/1964
Cayuga Production # 2624


Fifty years ago tonight, a May-May romance threatened to become a December-May romance, but instead ended up a May-December romance. Everybody with me?

“The Long Morrow,” written by Rod Serling (apparently channeling O. Henry), introduces us to Commander Douglas Stansfield, an astronaut who has just been handed a life-changing mission: he’s to make a solo trip to a neighboring galaxy, from which he won’t return for forty years. He’ll be frozen in suspended animation for the bulk of the trip, so he’ll hardly age while he’s away. He has a meet-cute with Sandra Horn, a Space Agency employee, and the two immediately fall in love. He can’t back out of the mission, so it’s doomed to be a brief affair.

After Doug blasts off, Sandra submits to the same suspended animation process. 40 years elapse and, when Doug’s ship returns, she emerges fresh and (still) young and ready to start her life with him. However, communication with Doug was lost six months after his departure and, grieving his lost love in the void of space, he forewent the freezing process for the duration of the trip. He’s now an old man and, despite Sandra’s pleas, he bitterly sends her away.


Okay, this is just horrifically cruel. This is an example of a writer that, for some unknown reason, hates his characters and designs the worst possible outcome for them. Honestly Rod, what did Doug Stansfield ever do to you? On the surface, the story appears to be a mutual tragedy, but Sandra actually gets off pretty damned easy, comparatively speaking. She’s still young and vibrant; she can pick up the pieces and move on with her life. Doug, meanwhile, is just plain fucked. He just spent most of his life alone in a space capsule, undoubtedly hanging onto his sanity by the thinnest of threads, and the girl he did it for is now half his age. I imagine he’ll be hanging himself or slitting his wrists after the credits roll. 

But hey, why couldn't Doug have himself frozen for the next forty years, to be revived when Sandra grew older? It wouldn't even have to be forty years; it could just be enough to make it not so creepy (say, twenty-five years). I’ll tell you why: because Serling would've had her marry somebody else, and Doug’s heart would get broken all over again.


Dr. Bixler indicates that suspended animation is a new technique, but evidently it’s available on demand for any employee of the project. Taking that into consideration, don’tcha think it would've occurred to Sandra to freeze herself BEFORE Doug left? In fact, the story might’ve played better if they’d talked about it, but Doug forbade her from doing it in the interest of allowing her to “live her life.” Then she’d stubbornly do it anyway after he lifted off with the intention of surprising him. I guess the end result would've been the same, but it would be a little less arbitrary.

Here’s how I would've written it: I would've had Sandra come to meet Doug upon his return, a sad and lonely old maid who couldn't bear to marry anyone else. The surprise is the same: Doug arrives as an old man, having eschewed the suspended animation. Now it’s a seemingly tragic love story with an unexpected sweet ending, a powerful statement on the lengths man will go to attain true love.


So what else is wrong with this episode? Serling’s dialogue is terrible, just god-awful. In fact, this may be the single worst collection of awkward Serlingisms in the entire series run. Wait, “The Fear” might be worse (we’ll see when we get to it later this season). Seriously, nobody talks like this, and if they do… well, these two might be perfect for one another after all.  

And dammit, we get lots of shots of Doug in his tiny li’l Speedo while he’s on ice, but we get nothing in the way of female eye candy. I would've LOVED to see Mariette Hartley in a similar state of undress...at least Star Trek was kind enough to pick up the slack a few years later.


What’s right about the episode? The prologue is wonderfully eerie, ripe with promise. We open with Doug aboard the space capsule; lying prone in suspended animation in a frosty glass box (we last saw this prop in season two’s “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” only there it was covered with dust and there were four of ‘em). Doug’s narration (that’s right, Serling shares voiceover duties with the main character; this has only happened a couple of other times in the series) fills us in on a few details, and we then get a very effective flashback scene in which he receives the deep space assignment. Act one closes with more narration from Doug, in which he rhapsodizes about Sandra while in hibernation, accompanied by an interesting shot in which her face is overlaid onto his.


There's a marvelous moody atmosphere throughout the episode, most potent in the scenes in the shadowy hallway (sci-fi noir?). And, despite the unfortunate dialogue foisted on them, both leads are quite good, particularly Mariette Hartley. I do wish Sandra would've put up more of a fight when Doug sends her away at the end, but that’s a script issue.





THE MUSIC

“The Long Morrow” is stock-scored. The “Morning” cue from Fred Steiner’s beautiful score for season three’s “The Passersby” appears three different times, and its elegiac ambiguity underscores Doug and Sandra’s doomed romance quite nicely.


FAMILIAR FACES

Commander Douglas Stansfield (young and old) is brought to life by Robert Lansing in his only TZ gig. He does have another Rod Serling connection on his resume, however:  he appeared on Serling’s short-lived Western series The Loner in 1966 (“The Trial in Paradise”). Genre fans know him best as Gary Seven from Star Trek’s “Assignment Earth” episode in 1968, but he had roles on other sci-fi/fantasy/horror series, including ThrillerOne Step Beyond, and the 1988 revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.


The lovely Mariette Hartley is radiant as Sandra Horn in her only TZ appearance. She had a notable role as Zarabeth, the painfully lonely sole inhabitant of a planet’s ice age (pictured earlier in this entry), in Star Trek’s “All Our Yesterdays” in 1969 (so hey, I guess she kinda sorta got a dose of her own medicine). I first took notice of Hartley when she appeared in the “Married” episode of TV’s The Incredible Hulk in 1978, in which her character dies a dramatic death in The Hulk’s arms. I was 8 years old when it first aired, and I remember tearing up (this might’ve been the first time a TV show ever made me cry). Hartley is still quite lovely at 74.


Dr. Bixler is played by George MacReady in his only TZ appearance; he’d cross paths with Rod Serling again, however, in the Night Gallery pilot movie in 1969 (he appeared in the opening segment “The Cemetery”). He also did two tours on The Outer Limits (“The Invisibles” and “Production and Decay of Strange Particles”). 


General Walters is played by Edward Binns, whom we enjoyed previously as Colonel Donlin in season one’s “I Shot An Arrow Into the Air.”


“The Long Morrow” certainly provides the surprising twist that the show is so famous for, but the problem here is that it’s crushingly, painfully meaningless. I’m reminded of O. Henry’s iconic (and ironic) “The Gift of the Magi,” in which an impoverished couple gives up their most beloved possessions for one another (he sells his watch to buy her an expensive comb for her hair, while she sells her hair to buy him a chain for his watch, leaving them both with nothing but one another), but in that mutual sacrifice there was a point, that possessions do not equate wealth. What’s the lesson here? Why are these characters made to suffer so profoundly? Serling’s closing narration blames “the ferocious travesty of fate,” which is an absolute cop out. Sadly, the show will continue losing its moral compass as it fades into oblivion.




Next week: Salvadore Ross's future's so bright, he's gotta wear shades.



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