Thursday, May 15, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Brain Center at Whipple's" (5/15/1964)

Season 5, Episode 33 (153 overall)
Originally aired 5/15/1964
Cayuga Production # 2632

Wallace V. Whipple is gleefully automating his factory, boosting profits but forcing scores of loyal employees into unemployment. Chief engineer Hanley is righteously horrified, but it ends up being plant manager Dickerson who steps up and takes action: he gets himself plastered late one night and attacks one of the computer banks in the soulless factory. Whipple grabs the night watchman’s pistol and puts a nonfatal bullet into him to protect his investment.

Hanley is let go shortly thereafter, followed by a programmer who complains that the factory is too quiet. Alone, Whipple goes stir crazy in short order and, when one of the machines malfunctions, he loses his cool altogether.

Whipple finds Hanley in a nearby tavern some weeks later, and informs him that he too has been phased out… and replaced by a machine. He laments about man’s obsolescence in the face of technology, finally experiencing first hand the misery that his greed has created. We close on Whipple’s replacement, a rather familiar automaton…

Rod Serling’s “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” (which turns fifty years old tonight) reaches for meaning in its exploration of man’s dependence on --- and possible subjugation by --- the machines he builds for his own convenience. It’s certainly a potent concept, one we’ve seen pop up multiple times this season, but here Serling renders it all but mute beneath the overblown, at times near-histrionic, speechifying the characters engage in. After a while it’s all just noise. We want to sympathize with Joe Six-pack (er, Dickerson), but by the time he’s done with his drunken rant, I kinda wanted to shoot him too. Hanley comes out the hero of the piece, but he doesn’t actually do anything but occupy the moral heart of the piece; nothing he says makes a damn bit of difference.  The worst offender is Dickerson, whose drunken rampage is made all the creepier by the fact that he stares directly into the camera for a really long time.

The direction by Richard Donner is serviceable, actually decent in spots (I do enjoy the montages, but I guess that’s more editing than direction). And it’s a pretty small detail, but I love the fact that the neon Whipple sign is visible through the window of the nearby bar (this may be more set-decoration than direction). And Hanley’s surprise slapping of Whipple is quite convincingly staged (there; that’s gotta be thanks to Donner, unless there was a stunt coordinator on the set). Donner will be back next week for “Come Wander with Me,” which is much more stylish.

The final scene in Whipple’s office, in which things have clearly began to unravel, contains what I can only assume is an intentional sight gag. The walls are covered with hand-written equations and formulas; presumably Whipple has been feverishly trying to figure out even more ways to maximize efficiency around the plant. Given the episode’s obvious cautionary-tale angle, we’re seeing the literal “handwriting on the wall.” But y'now... if I zoom in on the picture, the writing looks more like scratches. So hell, what do I know?

If the super computers around Whipple’s plant look familiar, it’s because we’ve seen variations on them twice this season (“The Old Man in the Cave” and, more recently, “From Agnes – With Love”). They have less personality here, which I suppose is appropriate (Agnes, by contrast, was positively alive); I suppose they’ll be more interesting to look at when they eventually attain sentience, maybe after Whipple’s factory is taken over by Cyberdyne Systems.


“The Brain Center at Whipple’s” is stock-scored almost exclusively with cues by Marius Constant, who of course is responsible for the famous Twilight Zone theme used for four of the show’s five seasons. The cue titles (“F Story,” “A Story,” “D Story,” etc.) suggest that they all come from the same work, but I couldn’t tell you what it is. I’m guessing it was composed specifically for the CBS Music Library to be used for a variety of purposes (remember, Constant’s TZ theme is actually two pieces of stock music spliced together). I should also note that Constant composed two original scores for the 2003 UPN Twilight Zone series (for the episodes “Burned” and “Rewind”); I must admit this is a cool historical note, even though I pretty much despise the UPN series.


Richard Deacon stars as Wallace V. Whipple in his only TZ appearance; he’d cross paths with Rod Serling again in 1973 on Serling’s Night Gallery (“How to Cure the Common Vampire”). Genre fans may also recall his role as Dr. Bassett in 1955’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which starred TZ alum Kevin McCarthy); eagle-eyed viewers might also have glimpsed him in This Island Earth that same year (he had an uncredited bit part as a pilot). Most TV viewers probably remember Deacon best as Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66).

Mr. Hanley is played by Paul Newlan in his only TZ appearance. Newlan has a secondary Rod Serling connection: he appeared in 1956’s The Rack, the big-screen adaptation of Serling’s 1955 teleplay for The United States Steel Hour, in which he shared the screen with several future TZ alums, including Anne Francis, Lee Marvin, and Cloris Leachman. Newland doesn’t have much else in the way of genre credits, but he did appear on Boris Karloff’s Thriller an impressive four times (“The Big Blackout,” “The Cheaters,” “The Grim Reaper,” and “The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk”).

That drunken lout Dickerson is played by Ted de Corsia, who played Marty Sall way back in season one’s “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.” De Corsia also did two tours on The Outer Limits (“It Crawled Out of the Woodwork” and the two-part “The Inheritors”). His other genre appearances include The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“The Magic Shop”) and the aforementioned Thriller (“The Fingers of Fear”).

Robby the Robot (Dion Hansen) makes his second TZ appearance (he had a much more prominent role in “Uncle Simon” earlier this season) and, in doing so, gives us one more Forbidden Planet alert! before the series ends in a few short weeks. Bittersweet? Definitely.

Robby with TZ alum Earl Holliman.

In perusing the cast list for this episode, I was momentarily excited to see that the part of “Night Watchman” was played by none other than suave 70’s game show host Bert Convy… until I read it again. It’s Burt Conroy, playing the night watchman at Whipple’s factory. I’m not gonna lie… I’m a bit disappointed.

L.A. artist (and super nice guy) Woody Welch has shared several TZ sketches and paintings via his Facebook page in recent months, including a great sketch of Mr. Whipple himself, Richard Deacon. Woody has an uncanny knack for capturing facial likenesses, and this is no exception. Oh, and here’s a Welchified Robby the Robot too!


“The Brain Center at Whipple’s” is generally maligned by reviewers, but I don’t dislike it. Its main fault is the usual over-written Serling dialogue which, despite its inflated nature, still manages to crackle here and there. The performances are fine, it looks nice… and hell, we get another Robby the Robot cameo. I just can’t hate it.

Couldn’t happen, you say? Look at that smartphone or tablet in your hand, and reflect on much you rely on it. Maybe it’s not banks of computers or bulky robots that have subjected us, but we’re very clearly ruled by the technology we’ve created.

Next week:
A conniving rockabilly singer runs afoul of some scary mountain folk. Probably not a comedy.


Bill Huelbig said...

One more credit for Richard Deacon: "The Birds", as Mitch Brenner's neighbor across the hall in San Francisco who knows exactly how to get to Bodega Bay. Two different ways, too. Whenever I've seen it in a theater, he always gets a laugh just from his facial expression.

Craig Beam said...

His facial expressions make up half of his thespian arsenal.