“The Changing Of The Guard” (season 3, episode 37; originally aired 6/1/1962)
In which it’s not always as bad as you think…
There are plenty of terrible moments in store for all of us—pain, loss, humiliation, finding out your favorite Chinese restaurant is closed for two weeks because who does that, seriously—but the ones that linger are the ones that make us question our place in the universe. Sudden shocks and miseries will fade over time, but the 3 a.m. doubts, the growing suspicion that we serve no real purpose, the realization that we’ll never be the heroes we set out to be; these are the miseries that stay with us. They lurk. And sooner or later, some cold evening when you look back over your life and see all the wasted opportunities, the mistakes, the lost love, the emptiness, your ego won’t be able to fight back the same old lies. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to reckon with the gap between the person you are, and the person you dreamed you’d be. And the snap that reckoning brings—well, who knows how loud it will be. Who knows what will break.
But that’s not exactly right, is it? It suggests a surrender to devastating objectivity, as though life was mostly a matter of shying away from the truth until it leaps out of an alley and steals all our dreams. There’s some truth in that; most of us lie to ourselves regularly, because life is, not to put too fine a point on it, hard as fuck. But subjectivity cuts both ways, and it’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to know the impact we have on the lives of the people around us. “The Changing Of The Guard” is a simple story, and simple stories tend to lend themselves to multiple thematic interpretations, especially when they’re as well-written as this one. You could say it’s about the value of stability, the quiet heroism of selflessness, the importance of committed teachers who shape the minds of young men. And yeah, it’s definitely about all of that. But what hit me the hardest is that question of perspective. Professor Ellis Fowler (Donald Pleasance) contemplates suicide when he’s forced to retire from teaching, convinced that he’s given nothing to the thousands of boys he’s instructed. Turns out, he’s looking at things from the wrong side.
Donald Pleasance is an odd choice for the lead role. A British actor who’d yet to appear in an American show or film, he was far from a household name; what’s more, at 43, he’s too young for the part, and it’s not like The Twilight Zone didn’t have a deep bench of older actors eager for the work. But he’s perfect, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else delivering a performance this effective. That’s crucial, because this wouldn’t work without the right center. If Fowler’s gentleness isn’t obvious, and if his shift into depression wasn’t sincere and heartbreaking, then everything else falls apart into sentimental treacle. The only real tension in the story comes from the uncertainty surrounding the professor’s fate; and since he makes no real effort to fight for his job (and doesn’t seem to be in a position where such a fight would do him any good at all), all the drama comes from his sudden decision to kill himself. Serling’s script is efficient, and doesn’t waste considerable time in getting Fowler to his lowest point. It’s excellent writing (as ever, I’m impressed at how much feeling Serling is able to jam into his dialogue; at his best, he pushes past “overripe” and into something profound), but it needs an actor who can live up to it.
More, it needs an actor with a very specific kind of presence. There’s a fundamental fragility to all of Donald Pleasance’s work, a kind of raw, gentle vulnerability. This gentleness can be deeply creepy in the right role (he’s always been my favorite Blofeld), but here, it helps to give a sense of a shy, lonely little man who has created a perfect academic nest for himself. Fowler doesn’t come across as foolish or addled or even naive, exactly. He’s just a nice guy who loves poetry and teaching, and has spent most of his life with his eyes focused on this term and the next. I’ve worked at a college for most of my adult life, and its easy to fall into the rhythm of the place; every fall brings in new students, every spring sends some of them out into the world, and you lose track of time. Then one day you look up, and your whole life is gone, and all you have to show for it is a few pins and a library shelf full of school yearbooks. Pleasance manages to convey all of this in his early scenes, and the shock, when it hits, is effectively heartbreaking.
It’s easy to believe this man could take his own life—hell, as nice as his housekeeper is, it looks like teaching is the only real life he had in the first place. (I like how the headmaster isn’t a complete dick about it; at worst, he’s impersonal, which helps to isolate Fowler more without making anyone into an easy villain.)(this strikes me as a much more effective version of “The Obsolete Man,” come to think) And while the moment requires a more mercurial shift in mood, Pleasance and Serling manage to effectively convince us of Fowler’s sudden veer into self-loathing. It makes a certain sense, in that the shock of realizing that the school he invested so much of his time in could so easily put him aside would make anyone rethink their life choices. The speech Fowler gives to his terrified housekeeper, about how pointless he is, and how he gave all the young men he instructed absolutely nothing that would help them in their adult lives, is a good one. For the first time in the whole episode, Pleasance’s genial surface gives way to real bitterness; not rage at being let go, but contempt for his ego, and a despair so thick it drives him to consider the unthinkable.
This is the Twilight Zone, though, and sometimes, good things happen to good people. Convinced he’s given nothing to humanity, Fowler is called back to his classroom by the ghosts of the boys he once taught to learn his own lesson: that simple ideas like commitment and honor and basic decency do have value, and do leave a mark. The “teacher who changes the lives of his students” is an idea that gets used regularly in pop culture—I doubt “The Changing Of The Guard” was much influenced by Mr. Holland’s Opus, but there’s a definite Goodbye, Mr. Chips vibe to all of this. (At least, I assume there is.) But the episode is so direct that its message is still powerful. Over the course of Fowler’s career, many of the boys who sat in his classroom grew up to be men. The professor only sees the ones who died, transformed back into their younger selves. This story is set just before Christmas break, and this feels a little like a Christmas ghost story, albeit one in which the spectres only want what’s best for the living. The simple testimonial each boy provides are maybe a little corny, but that gives them their power. There’s something immensely affecting about clear, unadorned devotion; and one by one, each of the students shows Fowler what he gave them, and how it made them better.
Like I said: a matter of perspective. At his darkest moment, Professor Fowler decided that he was worthless, because all he could see was all that he hadn’t done. Then he learns otherwise. It would be nice to think we all might have such a chance for salvation, when we are at our worst, although I can’t imagine what ghosts might appear to cheer me up. (“Mr. Handlen, your pan of Neverland gave me the courage to cancel my cable subscription…”) Instead, I find myself remembering the teachers I had that helped to shape my life. Like Mr. Morrow, my music teacher in high school who created a safe place for all the spazes and weirdoes to hide. Or Ms. Dammer, who way back in grade school gave me a copy of Harriet The Spy that I still have today. “The Changing Of The Guard” works because it is well-written and beautifully acted, because it earns its emotion and its triumph, and also, because it reminds us of the people who helped us on our way. And it makes us wonder if they knew how much that meant.
What a twist: No twist; Fowler contemplates suicide, then learns his life wasn’t wasted, and decides to embrace retirement.
- The poem Fowler reads from in the first classroom scene is “A Shropshire Lad,” by A.E. Housman. While the professor has his book open to read from, he does the recitation by heart.
- That scene does a great job of showing both how Fowler’s classes have most likely looked for the majority of his career, and also suggests how he’d be so easily convinced that he’d wasted his life. He’s not an obviously inspiring academic, and most of the boys look bored or sleepy. Yet there’s such obvious affection in the lesson, and in the professor’s treatment of his pupils, that it’s clear he’s really good at what he does.
- Pleasance’s old age make-up is great; subtle, and completely convincing.
- The Horace Mann quote that bothers Fowler so much at first, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some measure of victory for humanity,” was the motto of Antioch, Rod Serling’s alma mater.
- Most of the boys who come to see Fowler died in combat, although one died from radiation poisoning while research cancer treatments. If this was made today, I wonder where the casualties would come from. (At least one of the kids would’ve been killed on 9/11, or some sort of terrorist attack, I’m sure.)
Next week: Todd stares down the start of the fourth season with “In His Image” and “The Thirty-Fathom Grave.”