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“The Brain Center At Whipple’s” (season 5, episode 33; originally aired 5/15/1964)

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In which he’s more machine now than man

This one is an obvious from the start; in the filmstrip that opens the episode, Wallace V. Whipple (Richard Deacon) details his plans to replace the human employees of the Whipple corporation with sophisticated machines, each one capable of doing its job far more efficiently and cheaply than someone made of flesh and blood. It’s not hard to guess where things will go next, and while stories don’t need to be unexpected to work, this one suffers considerably from too much preaching and not enough plot. Mr. Whipple’s obsessive compulsion to rid his company of other people is so single-minded that it would be clear he’s setting himself up for a fall even if his quest wasn’t repeatedly criticized by every other major character. It does not pay to go full Ahab in The Twilight Zone, no matter how much money you save.

The arc from Whipple’s intentions to his fate isn’t so much an arc as a straight line, one man marching inexorably towards the tepid irony he built for himself. Whipple didn’t need to die for his sins, but the fact that he ends up out of a job for the same reason as everyone else doesn’t have much sting, no matter how hard the final scene tries to sell it. With a plot as thin as this one, the pressure on the ending to deliver some unexpected shock or justification gets more and more intense with each passing minute, and this ending just can’t support that level of scrutiny. It’s internally consistent and appropriate on a karmic level, and it’s great fun to see Robby the Robot strutting around Whipple’s old office; but from a narrative standpoint, there’s not enough to make the lecture-heavy twenty minutes leading up to this moment worthwhile.

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And boy is this a lecture-heavy episode. One of Serling’s strengths as a writer is his willingness to take a stand on an issue; it grants force and power to his work, and it’s especially effective in a half hour show, where clarity and directness is necessary to convey information effectively in a short span of time. But that willingness can all too easily turn polemical, as we’ve seen time and again. When working with a strong concept and well-drawn characters, Serling generates fierce, thrilling material. Yet he wrote so damn much that sometimes, the premises can’t support his energy, and we’re left with a script like this one, full of characters teaching the same lesson over and over to a protagonist who won’t realize the error of his ways until it’s too late.

Whipple is determined to trade man for machine. This is a bad plan. Everyone who works for him thinks so, but Whipple goes ahead, gleeful at all the money he’ll save for his precious stockholders. It’s not as though defending the rights of the working man against disenfranchisement and obsolescence is a tough sell. There’s no novelty in the point the episode is trying to make, which would be less of a problem if that point wasn’t literally the only thing there is to talk about. Once Hanley (Paul Newlan) registers his disapproval of Whipple’s plan, the rhetoric is established, and that rhetoric never changes. Various men yell at and condemn Whipple for his awfulness, and few of these conversations rise above the level of position papers. The closest it comes to actual drama is when Dickerson (Ted de Corsia), one of the workmen, gets drunk and tries to sabotage the equipment. But his efforts are for naught, and all that really happens is him yelling at Whipple some more. There’s pathos, but not enough to make the story engaging.

At a certain point, given how thoroughly the philosophical deck is stacked against Whipple, it becomes possible to see things from his side, to a degree that actually starts to undermine the whole point of the episode. There’s no malice in his actions, after all, and he gives his workers four months notice before letting them go, which is pretty damn fair, all things considered. The entire capitalist system is designed to support his belief that the main goal of any company is greater efficiency and less expenditure; Whipple isn’t so much the cause of the problem as he is a symptom of it, and while he takes obvious glee in the machines themselves, it plays like the glee of a man who thinks he’s finally figured out the best way to do his job. Deacon is terrific in the role, too, to the point where Whipple’s speech at the end, post-firing, is so sad and desperate that it’s impossible to take any pleasure in the reversal.

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Maybe that’s on purpose; a deluded protagonist is often more interesting than a flat out villainous one. But the result is an episode that repeats itself too much, and offers too little. Richard Donner’s typically impressive direction maintains enough visual innovation to make it watchable, and, as mentioned, Deacon’s performance is strong. But the ideas are getting thin, and the result is a story that never changes gears.

What a twist: After downsizing ever human worker at his company, Whipple is fired himself and replaced by Robby the Robot.

Stray observations:

  • It would’ve helped if we saw at least one person who isn’t Whipple who thought this was a good idea. The closest we get are the technicians who install the machines, but they don’t actually say anything until one of them (Thalmus Rasulala, credited as Jack Crowder, and that name change alone is more interesting than anything that happens in this episode) quits. “I can’t work here anymore. It’s too darn lonely.”
  • The fact that the robot swings around a pocket watch just like Whipple did is a nice touch.

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“Come Wander With Me” (season 5, episode 34; originally aired 5/22/1964)

In which the singer matters, not the song…

The Twilight Zone has two settings left: tedious, single note plodders, or batshit crazy tales that hold the viewer’s attention for most of their running time, only to disappoint once it becomes it clear that there’s no possibility for a satisfying resolution. “Come Wander With Me” is of the latter variety, a trippy, frequently eerie and odd half hour that nonetheless fails to impress because screenwriter Anthony Wilson tries to accomplish too much at once. A ghost story that might be a time loop and might be poetic justice for an arrogant musician, this one has atmosphere to spare. But the plot never makes enough sense, not in a cool, dream logic kind of way; this is a script that desperately needed another few drafts to get right.

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The premise: chummy musician Floyd Burney (Gary Crosby, radiating likable smarm) is traveling through the back woods looking for new songs to add to his act. Forced to stop his car by a broken bridge, he stumbles across a store full of junk and a close-mouthed old man, before hearing a haunting tune that pulls him deeper into the forest. There he meets Mary Rachel (Bonnie Beecher), a beautiful, if somewhat distracted, young woman. Floyd sets to work trying to borrow/steal her song, but he soon finds himself trapped in a confusing tale of doomed romance, murder, and more murder. Also, did I mention that early in the episode, Floyd passes his own tombstone without realizing it? Yeah. That should give you a hint as to where this is going.

The idea of a slick out of towner getting sucked into the mysteries of the country is a potent one, and if “Come Wander With Me” had stuck to a more straightforward version of the story, it might have worked well. Crosby’s performance walks the right line between aggressive and not-quite-total bastard; the character as written comes off as a con-man, but not an actively evil one, and his fate plays out less like well-deserved punishment, and more like bad luck meeting oblivious self-regard. Which is all to the good. At its best, the episode has that nightmare feeling of falling into a situation and not knowing what’s going on until it’s too late to do anything about it. Floyd should’ve been more careful, sure, but most travel guides don’t have a section on How Not To Get Trapped In A Tale Of Tragedy And Revenge.

The atmosphere is pretty great too. There’s a great shot of Floyd standing close to the camera, looking straight ahead and searching for the source of the singing he’s been hearing as a woman dressed all in black (Mary Rachel herself, although this won’t become clear until later) stands a few yards behind him, arms outstretched, face contorted in an expression of desperate despair. Crosby’s fast-talking big city boy acting style contrasts nicely against the slow, dreamy work of the other actors in the episode, especially Beecher, whose initial apparent naivete helps make Floyd’s obliviousness more credible. A pretty, somewhat spacey girl makes a seemingly perfect target, and there needs to be at least some sense of Floyd bringing his doom down on his own head. Or at least a justification for why he doesn’t catch on to the weirdness sooner.

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There are other elements of interest here, some of them almost incidental. The idea of a folk singer trying to hunt down the most authentic music possible for his act is something that wouldn’t really play the same way today as it did when this episode first aired, during the height of the folk pop boom. (I kept wondering what Llewyn Davis would make of all of this.) And the fact that Floyd identifies himself as the “Rock-A-Billy Kid” suggests a certain depth of backstory which, while not really necessary to make the story work, makes him more than just a putz with a guitar. Maybe this is a guy who had one of kind of act and, sensing the winds of culture were starting to blow in a different direction, was trying to move with them. Floyd isn’t just trying to broaden his repertoire. He’s trying to stay relevant, and that makes him a little more desperate, and a lot more vulnerable.

All of that is really neither here nor there once the trap actually springs, which is unfortunately; Floyd sees to be a distinct character at a certain point, and just becomes a guy trying and failing to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late. Unfortunately, the audience is placed in roughly the same position, and not in a fun, mystery story kind of way. There’s just enough here to suggest a coherent narrative—Mary Rachel was engaged to man but fell for a traveler; Mary Rachel’s fiancee discovered them, and the traveler killed him in the struggle, but was eventually hunted down by the fiancee’s brothers and killed himself. That’s iconic enough to work as both a story and a prototypical folk song structure. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a version of it on the next Decembrist album.

But Wilson can’t leave well enough alone. Either there wasn’t enough to fill the running time, or he was trying for something more ambitious; because instead, we get that distracting shot of the gravestone early in the episode, which seems to suggest—well, what, exactly? That Floyd was the traveler all along? Did he somehow escape the ghost story long enough to build a successful music career and forget about his past? Or does the name on the gravestone change whenever some reckless idiot wanders through town? It doesn’t help that Floyd also manages to kill the old man shopkeeper he met at the start of the episode while he’s trying to escape capture. It’s just this weird random bit that doesn’t add anything to anything.

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“Come Wander With Me” has style and oddness to spare, but it never manages to come into focus, playing off our expectations without either subverting them or truly delivering on their promise. Floyd dies in the end, but his death is at once rote and haphazard, the end result of a tragedy we’re never allowed to get close to. The end result is more frustrating than memorable, a tune that that lingers in the mind without ever inspiring you to sing.

What a twist: In his attempt to find a great, authentic folk song, Floyd Burney becomes part of one, and is killed by… I wanna say ghosts? Sure. Ghosts.

Stray observations:

  • Apparently Liza Minnelli auditioned for the role of Mary Rachel, which would’ve made for a different episode.
  • This was the last episode of The Twilight Zone to be filmed. We’re almost at the end, folks!

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Next week: We finish our coverage with “The Fear” and “The Bewitchin’ Pool.”