“The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms” (season 5, episode 11; originally aired 12/9/1963)
In which the past isn’t dead, but you might be…
Hey, it’s another nifty title! And another not so nifty episode. Worse, “The 7th Is Made Up Of Phantoms” is the best of the bunch this week; it has just enough mystery and eeriness to make it watchable, if one can overlook some of its more uncomfortable assumptions and the fundamental laziness of the script.
The premise has seemingly boundless potential. The beginning is striking enough. A small group of cavalrymen and a tracker come across a tent and the remains of a campfire. Everything has the makings of a story set in the Old West, right down to the uniforms the cavalrymen are wearing. And when someone mentions a “General Custer” in the present tense, and then gets taken out with an arrow to the back from an unseen enemy, it seems pretty clear where things are headed.
Then the camera cuts away, and we find a trio of National Guardsmen from present day (at least, the present of the ‘60s), sitting on a tank, taking a lunch break. They clearly hear the gunfire from the cavalrymen’s rifles, which suggests they’re in the same area together, even though that makes no sense. (But it makes the right kind of “no sense,” if you follow me; the sort of “no sense” you can build a half hour of fantastical genre television out of.) It’s well shot, too; you can see the sweat on the men’s faces, and the of grimy immediacy makes the disorienting cut over to the Guardsmen all the more striking. The whole segment feels off kilter and sudden—time travel and crossed experiences are staples of the series, but this offers a take distinct enough to feel like it might be something new.
There are set-pieces this striking scattered throughout the episode. Whether it’s a function of budget, or an artistic choice (I’ll assume the latter, although it’s not really relevant), the events of the past are never clearer than they are in that brief opening scene. For the rest of the story, our protagonists are chasing the phantoms of the title, and for the longest time, all they get for their efforts are echoes and fragmentary images. Sometimes they see more than we do, and one of the script’s lesser flaws is that the ambiguity of what exactly Sgt. William Connors (Ron Foster) and his men are watching often plays less as intentional spookiness, and more as a writer not being able to decide what the hell is going on.
Still, this can lead to strikingly memorable images, like when Connors, McCluskey (Randy Boone), and Langsford (Warren Oates) come across what they describe as an “Indian village.” It’s not much of a village; just a cluster of maybe a dozen teepees, with no living being in sight. McCluskey (the young one of the three) takes it at face value and offers to go scout the area. Now, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense: it’s broad daylight, there’s no cover, and the three men are already standing no more than a couple hundred yards from the “village.” By this point, Connors and the rest believe that they’re on the trail of General Custer on his last doomed assault against the Sioux, and they’ve decided they’re going to join up with Custer and the others and fight alongside them. So if they believe enough to consider that the Native Americans are real, and that they’re dangerous, why would McCluskey go wandering over without any real reason or protection?
He gets an arrow in the back for his troubles (although for once, this isn’t immediately fatal), and it’s ridiculous, but it’s also deeply creepy in a way that a more conventionally structured sequence would not have been. We never see a single Native American throughout the episode, just the effects of their passing, and as unfortunate as the story’s politics are (it’s weird to see something these days that treats “fighting alongside Custer” as a worthwhile and heroic goal), that lends the whole half hour a general air of creepiness that makes it compelling even when the writing fumbles.
And the writing fumbles a lot. There’s no real story here. There are ideas that are clearly intended to constitute a story, and when you summarize it, it sounds like something that should make sense: three soldiers stumble across some kind of time travel while in the middle of a routine training machine (war games), are seduced by the possibility of entering the past and changing it, and ultimately fall victim to the very massacre they were trying to prevent. That’s not a great plot, and it suffers immediately from being something the show has done many times before (it’s hard to imagine anyone watching The Twilight Zone at this point and honestly thinking, “Oh, I’m sure they’ll manage to save Custer and his men!”), but at least it’s a coherent narrative.
Yet while that’s technically what happens here, all the scenes needed to get us to the inevitable twist ending are clumsy, ill-fitted, and fail to ever make a case for themselves. Character motivation is baffling, and the brunt of the confusion falls on the supposed hero, Sgt. Connors. He goes from seeming fairly level-headed to deciding he needs to report to his officer that they can travel back in time to being determined to fight the Sioux in the space of maybe five minutes; and while characters need to make decisions relatively quickly in a thirty minute episode of television, we’re given no convincing reason as to why he’s this quick to accept the possibility of temporal dislocation, or why he’s willing to risk a court martial to maybe help General Custer out. This isn’t a matter of someone assuming a situation is harmless until it’s too late to back out of it. He, and to a lesser extent McCluskey (Langsford, the dumber, angrier one, is mostly just along for the ride), jumps at the chance to rewrite history, and that decision never makes enough sense to justify our caring about what happens to him, or any of them.
That’s a problem, because what this episode is lacking most of all is a reason for any of it. There’s nothing cruelly ironic in the protagonists’ fate; saying “We should do this dangerous, crazy thing,” and doing it, and dying while you do it, doesn’t allow for a lot of surprise. The characters are too thinly drawn for what happens to them to have any greater resonance, and the plotting is so indifferent that it’s hard to take much pleasure in the narrative itself. And Serling makes no effort at all to tie this together thematically.
Maybe there’s something buried deep about how eager Connors is to try and “fix” the past; something about how in his quest to rejoin Custer and his men, he and the others lose sight of basic historical inevitabilities, and the fact that the cause they’d be trying to resurrect is an ignoble, even evil, one. But if that’s the idea, it’s shortchanged. Connors and McCluskey are bafflingly well-informed about the historical details of Custer’s final days, but neither men seems at all interested in thinking about the ethical implications of the situation. Which, again, could’ve been Serling’s point—but the whole thing’s so half-assed that the message doesn’t come across at all. Which suggest it was probably never there in the first place, because Serling, god bless him, is not a man known for subtlety.
The result, then, is a half-formed piece of work which is ultimately just as much a phantom as the 7th cavalry of the title; it conjures up a few compelling visuals, and occasionally threatens to become something more, but in the end is just a wind blowing down an empty prairie. Hell of a last line, though.
What a twist: Connors, McCluskey, and Langsford end up fighting alongside Custer and his men; their commanding officer in the present finds their names listed on a memorial from the battle. Realizing what had happened, he remakes that it might have gone better if they could’ve brought the tank back with them.
- I honestly don’t know how Custer was viewed by the culture at large when this episode came out; a quick scan of the movies about the man that were released in the mid-sixties show Hollywood struggling to present him as someone trying to save the Sioux, which is a new one on me. (To speculate further, that smacks of writers trying to hold onto the image of the man as a tragic hero, while adapting their interpretation of events to allow for the possibility that the war against Native Americans wasn’t the noblest chapter in this country’s history.) But then, Little Big Man (the novel) was published in ‘64, and that definitely isn’t a pro-Custer book. Comments?
- I’m not sure if it’s the dumbest character moment in the episode, but McCluskey’s decision to fire into a phantom war party just because he knew that one of Custer’s men had done so doesn’t strike me as the smartest tactical choice.
“A Short Drink From A Certain Fountain” (season 5, episode 12; originally aired 12/13/1963)
In which shut up, you’re old, get used to it…
For legal reasons, “A Short Drink From A Certain Fountain” was kept out of Twilight Zone syndication packages until the mid-eighties. That is pretty much the most interesting thing you can say about this episode. I suppose there’s an added dollop of irony here, since the “legal reason” is that someone sued the show because they claimed they’d had the idea for this episode first; and the idea of anyone thinking such a generic concept is something you could lay legal claim to is hilarious.
For this story to work, you need to accept that it’s possible for a magical (ahem, scientific, purely scientific I assure you) drug to de-age someone. Once you accept that, everything that happens in the story is predictable to the point of tedium. Oh, it also helps if you are suspicious of women; maybe if you blame them for the fact that you’re attracted to them; and if you assume that if you marry a woman who is decades younger than you, she’s a monster, and you’re a helpless, hopeless sap. Lock that perspective in place, and you shouldn’t have any trouble with this one whatsoever, at least in terms of grasping the concept. Taking actual pleasure from that concept is another matter. (I mean, maybe you can get some misogynistic thrill from seeing a supposed gold-digger get punished, but even that seems pretty thin.)
Harmon Gordon (Patrick O’Neal) is an old man. He moves slow, he’s tired almost all the time, and he looks like someone spackled his face. Harmon is married to Flora (Ruta Lee), a gorgeous blonde who we first see dancing all sexy-like to some music in their apartment. Flora is mad at Harmon for being old, and Harmon really, really wishes he was younger. (Flora makes a reference to Reno; presumably she wouldn’t mind getting a divorce at this point, given that she is an Evil Sex Goddess Who Wants The Poor Old Man’s Money, but Harmon won’t give her one.) It just so happens that Harmon’s brother Raymond (Walter Brooke) is a research scientist who just so happens to be working on an experimental youth drug. Harmon threatens to kill himself if Raymond won’t let him use the drug. The drug works! But alas, too well, and Harmon ends up a little boy. But Raymond doesn’t seem too worried, because now Flora will have to be a mom to the little boy if she wants to keep all of Harmon’s money.
Wow, what a shocking twist, what a perfect example of poetic justice, etc, etc. Really it’s just dumb. Trapping Flora as an unwilling mother doesn’t seem like the nicest thing to do to poor Harmon (although we have no idea how much brainpower Harmon has left after the de-aging), and it’s not nearly as satisfying a conclusion as Raymond (and, by extension, Serling) seem to think it is. Painting Flora as the villain in this piece was never a good fit to begin with, since Harmon is as much to blame for the failed state of their marriage as she is. When you marry someone who is decades younger than you, being surprised that they have more energy than you do is an act of supremely self-delusional idiocy. Perhaps Flora seduced him with her womanly wiles, but the toxic nature of their relationship seems to suggest that, in some parallel universe, they might at one point have been happy.
Take the way Flora reacts when the youth serum initially starts to do its magic. She’s amazed, and clearly happy at the development; and it speaks to moments earlier when her frustration with her husband seemed less a matter of icy rage and more frustration that he’s basically given up on life. The exchanges which make it possible to believe that there’s some feeling between the two—that their relationship might be more than just an attractive woman manipulating an elderly man for cash—are the closest the episode comes to being actually engaging. Twilight Zone twists tend to work best when there’s a legitimate element of tragedy to them; when the people who end up suffer largely deserve their fates, but have, buried somewhere inside them, something better that might have been able to save them, had circumstances been different.
There’s little of that here, though. Flora is pretty much just the male fear of female sexuality made flesh, and Raymond’s gloating, smug monologue to her at the end tells us all you need to know about how we’re supposed to feel. In the world of this story, Flora has all the power because she’s young and attractive—which seems to forget the fact that she needed Harmon for his money, and her sexiness (at least in this context) is only valuable if someone else wants her for it. She was a doll kept in an expensive penthouse suite beforehand, and now she’s a doll with a captive child. She can still leave if she wants to, although her terror seems to suggest this isn’t an option she’s all that keen on; still, the only person who’s really trapped by what happens is Harmon himself, and while it would be appropriate for him to suffer for his desperation (and for the fact that he threatens suicide when his brother won’t give him what he wants; I know I already mentioned this, but wow), the brunt of the ending lands at Flora’s feet. After all, Harmon is still rich, and now he gets a do-over on life.
Regardless of who gets it worst, “A Short Drink From A Certain Fountain” is Serling writing on autopilot. If “The 7th Is Made Up Of Phantoms” plays like a first draft (a handful of decent ideas, none of them well-realized; characters who make choices more because the writer need them to than any internal motivation), this plays like something scribbled down on a napkin after a bad date. It’s almost a parody of of itself in its overwrought simplicity, and the end result is neither upsetting nor moving, but something all too easily forgotten.
What a twist: The youth serum de-ages Harmon until he’s a small boy; Flora is tasked with raising him if she wants to keep his money, even as she herself gets older.
- Harmon and Flora’s marriage is so weird. It’s almost like Serling couldn’t bear to commit to the idea of her being a gold-digging monster, so he keeps offering hints that they might have been happy at some point, and that Flora does care about her husband—the level of bitterness she shows indicates some actual feeling. But the author also makes sure that Raymond, who’s pretty close to a moral mouthpiece here, can’t stand Flora, and isn’t shy about saying it. In a better script, there could’ve been some interesting subtext in all this, but not so much here.
- In the first draft of the script, Raymond was a physician, not a research scientist; CBS asked that Serling change this to “research scientist” because of the character’s eventual willingness to experiment on his brother. CBS does not think much of research scientists.
Next week: We long for a nap after “Ninety Years Without Slumbering,” and take a trip to see the “Ring-A-Ding Girl.”