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“The Fear” (season 5, episode 35; originally aired 5/29/1964)

In which you should walk softly and shoot a big thing…

“The Fear” is the second to last episode of the original Twilight Zone. It’s also the last episode Serling wrote himself, and while this isn’t one of his best scripts, the subject matter is a fitting note for him to end on. As the title suggests, the story focuses on people whose terror of the unknown (or the unknown-that’s-actually-pretty-well-defined) might drive them to rash behavior. “Might” being the operative word here; for once, our heroes are able to get the upper hand on their emotions, and, in doing so, find their way to a surprisingly cheerful conclusion.

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Peter Mark Richman and Hazel Court star as Trooper Robert Franklin and Charlotte Scott, respectively; the former is a cop who comes by to visit Miss Scott after he hears she’s been complaining in town about seeing “strange lights” around her isolated cabin. As introductions go, this one doesn’t make a lot of sense (it’s not like Charlotte filed a formal report), but the two make up for the awkwardness by being immediately suspicious and hostile to one another. They soon bond, however, when Charlotte’s stories about “strange lights” turn out to be more than just a lonely, scared woman’s night-time fantasies. As more things get increasingly stranger, the two characters have to learn to deal with both their misgivings with one another, and their growing terror at the lurking unknown, if you they plan to survive the night.

Actually, that makes the situation sound a lot more dire than it is. What’s odd about “The Fear” is that it has the makings of a classic Twilight Zone morality tale; two characters, one nervous, the other a bit condescending, both of them trapped in a situation that seems way over their heads. But Charlotte’s nervousness is never as big a factor as you might think, not even after she delivers a monologue about how she had to leave the city to come out to the country because she was so scared all the time. Robert’s initial condescension to her is quite probably meant as the calming voice of reason and sanity (I like Richman as an actor, but “reassuring sincerity” is not one of his strong suits), which means there’s no real place for the episode to go, character-wise. Court (an accomplished character actress) has the intensity needed for a serious onscreen panic attack, but with Trooper Franklin there to talk her down, her fears never seem out of proportion to the events she’s reacting to.

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That’s the really weird bit. With something like “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” Serling used a few comparatively ambiguous triggers to show how easy it is to drum up a mob mentality in ordinary citizens. Here, the “triggers” are increasingly outlandish and impossible to deny. First there are the very definite lights in the sky. Then Franklin’s car rolls down the drive and flips itself over, which is where I think I would start to get seriously concerned. And our heroes are concerned, but that concern doesn’t drive them to irrational behavior. Charlotte hears something on the roof, Robert investigates, doesn’t find much. But then he discovers his car has been set back on its wheels again, and there are giant fingerprints along its side.

It’s a neat visual, and one of the major pleasures of the episode is how odd the imagery gets; the giant fingerprints, the big bootprint they discover next morning, and the huge figure with the single glaring eye who menaces the two leads at the story’s climax, are all terrific. But the downside is that in order for things to proceed to the ending Serling is pushing for, Charlotte and Robert have to behave with almost inhuman calm. Neither of them ever become hysterical at the increasingly bizarre set-pieces they stumble across, and while they’re clearly afraid (Robert gets more frightened as things get weirder), that fear never threatens to dominate their behavior. When confronted by the giant, glaring spaceman, Robert raises his gun and fires. The creature hasn’t done anything overtly threatening to them, so it briefly seems like the policeman’s decision to pull the trigger was rash—except the giant immediately deflates, allowing Robert and Charlotte to discover the tiny aliens who were responsible for all the confusion, cowering in their spaceship and frantically signaling back home.

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See, the twist is that while Robert and Charlotte were frightened, their apparent aggressors end up being the truly terrified ones. Which is cute, and the shot near the end of the giant humans looking in on two panicking astronauts is funny. But dramatically, it’s all a little too muddled. What are we supposed to take from all this? That the sane response to any potential threat is to shoot it? That we don’t have to worry about aliens because they’re too small to be a threat? On the surface, the moral seems to be that what looks like a big danger might not turn out to be so bad if we face it head on, but that lesson is undermined by the lack of real tension coming from the two leads. Nobody gets scared enough to be stupid, so there’s no suspense in seeing them try to overcome their dread; if anything, they’re almost improbably brave. (You could argue that the aliens are the ones really in the grip of the “fear,” which is makes sense, but given that we don’t meet them until the very end, they’re more a punchline than characters.) Maybe Serling, on his way out of the show, wanted to send us home with a positive note. (The next episode certainly fits this thesis.) But if so, it would’ve been nice if that positivity felt earned instead of inevitable.

What a twist: There really are aliens outside, but they are very small, so that’s okay.

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Stray observations:

  • That giant inflatable alien is awesome. Absolutely ridiculous monsters always get to me; something about seeing a creature, knowing it’s absurd, but knowing that absurdity doesn’t make it less (seemingly, in this case) dangerous is really unsettling.
  • Robert wishes the departing aliens luck, which is awful swell of him.

“The Bewitchin’ Pool” (season 5, episode 36; originally aired 6/19/1964)

In which escape is too easy…

And here we come to the end of it; the final episode. I wish I had nice things to say about this one. It’s not terrible? Sure, it’s not terrible. But it’s also not great or even good, and the smug easiness of it, the way it presents a fantasy without question and only the slightest hint of regret, is, at times, actively unpleasant to watch. Earl Hamner Jr.’s script deals with divorce and unhappy children at a time when the topic wasn’t a common one on television, and that’s commendable. But the presentation is so one note, and the outcome such a simplified example of pure wish fulfillment, that it loses what little edge of realism it might have had. This is a story about two kids whose parents are jerks, so the kids go live in a fantasy world that’s been designed to make them happy. That’s it. There are no twists, no darker undercurrents, no real surprises.

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That last bit especially stings, because unlike pretty much every other episode of the show, this one starts with an in media res teaser. Little Sport (Mary Badham, dubbed in the outdoor scenes by June Foray, and yes it’s noticeable) and little Jeb (Jeffrey Byron) are sad. Their parents are getting a divorce, and Mom (Gloria, played by Dee Hartford) and Dad (Gil, played by Tod Andrews) want their kids to pick which parent they’re going to live with. That’s an awful thing to do to anyone, so the two kids bolt; Sport shouts something like “We have to get back,” they dive into the swimming pool, and disappear. There’s no suspense about them drowning. Gloria worries when the kids are under for too long (also, it’s a perfectly clear swimming pool, so wouldn’t she be able to see they’d vanished?), Dad gets ready to dive in, but Sport and Jeb are gone.

As teasers go, it at least manages the trick of making us want to see what happens next. The problem is that this introductory scene shows events that happen near the very end of the half hour. Hamner’s script didn’t have this opening scene, and in retrospect, it’s easy to see why. Teasing future events in this story kills what little suspense there might have been by reassuring us from the very beginning that everything is going to work out just fine for the kids. One of the major problems with in media res openings is that, when the timeline jumps back a few hours or days, it leaves the audience waiting for the narrative to play catch up to the bit we’ve already seen. This is the worst example of that I can remember in a long time. I’m not sure “The Bewitching Pool” would’ve ever been great, but as filmed, it’s hopelessly broken right from the start.

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The episode proper begins earlier in the day, with Sport and Jeb first discovering that their pool can be a portal to a magical land that looks vaguely like something from a Mark Twain novel. There they find the warm, endlessly loving Aunt T (Georgia Simmons), a kind soul who takes in children from unhappy homes and gives them a place where they can do chores and hang out on riverbanks and whatever else it was kids did before God gave us Nintendo. Jeb is immediately happy and wants to stay there forever, but Sport, who is a bit older, feels the tug of home and responsibility. See, her mother told her that when Father got home, the whole family was going to sit down together and talk, and things were going to change. Sport takes this to meant that Mom and Dad are going to magically transform into non-shitty parents, so she convinces Jeb to come back home with her not once, but twice.

The problem is, we already know that what Mom and Dad really want to talk about is their divorce. That does generate some sad irony, as Sport keeps misreading the situation, and it would even create some suspense, given how many times Aunt T reminds the kids that once they leave, it’ll be awful hard for them to find their way back. (Her protestations are hard to take seriously, given that the children leave and return multiple times without any trouble, but hey, there’s always the possibility that this time will be the last.) Except it can’t create suspense, because we already know from the opening scene that Sport and Jeb, once they learn of their parents plans, will jump back in and the pool and disappear. Sure, we don’t see them back in Aunt T’s clutches until the very end of the episode, but it’s not as though kids routinely disappear in swimming pools for non-magical reasons.

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Really, then, all there is to do is to wait around until it’s over, and hope against hope that one of the story’s potentially darker undercurrents makes itself known. If Aunt T had had even slightly more sinister motives—if, say, she was a Fagin type who kept children around her so she could exploit them for, I dunno, raft-building purposes—then this could’ve been interesting. It’s not that I enjoy seeing children punished, but a fantasy this perfect isn’t dramatically compelling unless it has some sort of cost. Harry Potter getting to go to Hogwarts after years of verbal abuse from his adoptive family wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if Voldermort and a hundred other horrors weren’t lurking around the edges. We may want to have everything be perfectly happy and conflict free in our own lives, but that’s death to narrative. It feels like a cheat, and worse, an uninteresting one.

The closest “The Bewitchin’ Pool” comes to showing a downside to all this is at the end, after Sport and Jeb are firmly (and presumably permanently) ensconced in Aunt T’s entirely benevolent clutches. Sitting in Aunt T’s kitchen, Sport hears her mother calling for her, and there’s real fear and sadness in Gloria’s voice; and for a moment, just a moment, you realize that no matter how unpleasant the parents were, maybe they really do love their kids; and they’ll suffer the rest of their lives for losing them. But Sport shrugs off the sound, and the moment passes. Gloria and Gil are deeply unpleasant for most of their time on-screen, so the thought of them suffering doesn’t have much lingering impact. For its final episode, The Twilight Zone gives us something it spent most of its time railing against: a happy ending of perfect, selfish bliss. This is easier to take because it happens to kids instead of grown ups, but still, the grown ups who made it should’ve known better.

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What a twist: Sport and Jeb end up with Aunt T, and their parents are left with an empty pool.

Stray observations:

  • According to Aunt T, chores are important because they teach you the value of labor. So she’s still a slave to the system, even in fantasy land. (Seriously, what happens to those kids? Do they stay young forever? Do they grow up and Aunt T kicks them back into the real world? Is there a different location they go to after hitting puberty? I realize these questions are largely irrelevant to the episode itself, but poorly considered fantasy constructs always irk me.)
  • And that’s a wrap, folks. Thanks to everyone who stayed with this series from the beginning, so many years ago; thanks to Todd VanDerWerff for being my co-reviewer for the majority of the run—I tried to live up to his high standards in his absence, and failed miserably, so let’s just pretend there’s a lesson in that.

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