“The Fugitive” (season 3, episode 25; originally aired 3/9/1962)
In which Old Ben has a wonderful, sexy secret…
Sometimes I over think fiction because I enjoy parsing out the possibilities; sometimes I do it because that’s just the way my brain works and I can’t help myself; and sometimes, the work makes it impossible not to over think it. For most of its running time, “The Fugitive” is a charming, good-natured story about a little girl and her magical friend, who turns out to be an alien, but come on it’s not like you didn’t see that one coming. The little girl’s aunt is a bit of a drag, but the script does attempt to give her some depth by the end, and it’s necessary to have some kind of a scold character in order to generate the story’s bare minimum of suspense. Then you get the final twist, and it’s clever enough, but it’s a little weird, offering up a completely idyllic conclusion without any real attention to the consequences. Ah, but the real kicker is when Rod Serling delivers his customary closing monologue. Turns out there are “consequences,” but not in the way the audience was expecting. It’s supposed to be a happy ending, but it’s hard to ignore the creepy undercurrents. And what’s worse is, there’s no reason for that kicker. It’s a bad joke that almost ruins everything.
I say “almost,” because this really is pretty damn adorable, and I’m going to try to pretend that last thirty seconds never happened. The episode’s biggest strength is in its two lead actors, J. Pat O’Malley (Old Ben) and Susan Gordon (Jenny). O’Malley, a stage and TV vet, has a low-key, comfortable warmth about him that helps ground some of the episode’s strangest moments. Gordon, who made her debut in the Bert I. Gordon film Attack Of The Puppet People, lacks her older co-star’s authority, but she’s solid, walking the borderline between enthusiastic and shrill with only the occasional misstep. The cast is also notable for presence of Nancy Kulp, whose greatest claim to fame (she played Jane Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies) premiere later that same year. Kulp is given a harder job than the others; she plays Aunt Agnes, Jenny’s shrewish, dour guardian. The character gets one of those impossible-to-shake first impressions, entering the episode only to immediately bark invective at the nice old man who’s been so kind to Jenny, before ranting at the little girl for her sins. The script tries to pull this back in a later scene, when Agnes is visibly concerned over her charge’s health, and it almost works, but the whole thing just seems too much a part of the script’s efforts at wish fulfillment. Since Jenny is going to run away with Old Ben in the end, it’s important that the family she leaves behind is unsympathetic. (And even with that attempt, it’s hard to shake the weirdness of an story in which a little girl running away from home forever with a bunch of space aliens is an unequivocally happy ending.)
Still, whatever faults it has, the script gets the basic job done. Charles Beaumont makes the most of the limited time he has, starting the story at what would be the second or third act of a longer show, and making sure things move along at a good clip. The opening scene is especially strong, showing Old Ben playing baseball with a group of kids, and casually introducing the fact that a.) Old Ben has special powers and b.) the kids are all fully aware of those powers. (When Ben hits a home run into the stratosphere, one kid complains that he wasn’t supposed to use magic. Given that Ben’s tomfoolery just cost them all a baseball, it’s hard to blame him.) There’s a fun bit where Ben turns into a Martian to scare everyone, and the disparity between the children’s reactions and our understanding of what this actually means, is pretty nifty.
The script also does a good job of giving us a clear sense of who Jenny is, and why she and Old Ben have bonded so quickly. Between her relentlessly humorless aunt and her leg brace (from an unspecified ailment, although I’m assuming polio), Jenny needs friends; and while she gets along with the other kids in the opening scene, it’s telling that she’s the only girl in the group. (She also gets quickly shot down when she wants to play captain of a rocket ship.) In a way, Old Ben is like an imaginary friend who just happens to be real: loving, patient, endlessly supportive, and always available to spend time with her. Plus, there’s the whole magic thing, which kids tend to dig. Beaumont even comes up with a reasonable excuse as to why Ben hasn’t done anything for Jenny’s leg—while he can get away with games and pranks with the kids, healing a significant debilitation would get noticed, and he’s desperate to stay on the downlow.
We don’t find out exactly why he’s desperate till close to the end of the half hour, but until then, “The Fugitive” makes good use of its limited space, having Jenny bounce between apartments (I felt more sympathy for Aunt Agnes when I realized how little Jenny pays attention to anything she says), first to warn Ben, then to hide him in her pocket, and so forth. By playing the secret close to the vest, the two men pursuing Ben come off as politely sinister, especially when they zap the girl with one of their magic zapping thingies. The shot knocks Jenny out and nearly kills her, but the whole thing was just a trap to lure Ben out of hiding; when he visits Jenny one last time to save her life, the hunters reveal themselves, and then things get even more lighthearted.
I don’t begrudge Beaumont for wanting a happy ending, and there’s a pleasant buzz that comes from having expectations reversed. The two “cops” pursuing Ben are actually subjects of his; back on his planet, he’s a king, and supposedly a very good king, so good that when he ran away from his job, these guys were sent to hunt him down and bring him back. Which, okay, that’s almost too lighthearted for its own good, but Ben does have a kind of kingly air about him, so I can roll with it. Jenny decides she wants to go with him, but the “laws” or whatever say she can’t, so she works up a scheme where Ben changes his shape to match hers, which forces the cops to take both of them back to the alien world, because apparently they have no way to tell the difference between the two. Fine. Fine. It’s cute. Even if poor Aunt Agnes is going to be destroyed about this, especially after we saw how worried she was when Jenny was sick.
It’s the last bit that I can’t take. Rod Serling closes out the episode, and in his usual sardonic fashion, he explains that Jenny left a picture behind of what Old Ben really looks like. Serling shows us the picture—it’s a handsome man in his early twenties—and he explains that Jenny is going to grow up to be his queen. That’s… that’s just not cool. The girl is, what, eight years old? Ten? And this dude is going to watch her grow up and then marry her despite the age/species difference? That’s not funny, that’s Space Lolita. Without those final seconds, the episode is enjoyable and sweet. With them, it’s a window into a time when people saw things a lot different than they do now.
What a twist: Jenny’s elderly friend Ben is actually an alien king who can manipulate matter with this mind, and Jenny leaves Earth to live with him, and, when she grows up, marry him.
- Another sign of the times: “Did you rob a bank?” “No.” “Did you kill somebody?” “No.” “Then you must be a communist.”
- I should stress, I’m not trying to imply that the sixties were some kind of pedophiliac playground. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s more to due with a different approach to genre material; like so many Twilight Zone episodes, this one works better if you just don’t think about it. Only in this case, I find the conclusions unavoidable. (There’s also some of that “Daddy knows best” paternalism built into the idea. The whole story has a skewed take on gender roles: the only two women are Jenny, who aggressively rejects girlishness, and Aunt Agnes, who is horrible.)
- “Am I gonna die, Ben?” “Yes, eventually.”
“Little Girl Lost” (season 3, episode 26; originally aired 3/16/1962)
In which falling out of bed can lead to strange places…
I heard a story on a podcast once—I can’t remember if it was Radiolab or This American Life, so I think I’ve just market niched myself—about a guy who thought he’d disproven Einstein’s theory of relativity. This wasn’t some big time physicist or super genius; just a determined man who had some time on his hands, and saw something he thought didn’t make sense. In a nice twist on the usual underdog arc, that man was completely wrong, but what really made the story fascinating was his refusal to accept his wrongness. Listening to him try and justify himself in the face of an actual scientist is squirm-inducing, and his train of thought, and the way he refuses to let that train get derailed by actual logic, is like listening to a conspiracy theorist come up with endless justifications to ignore the common sense truth. Only, the reason this guy is so convinced he was right is because he thought he was operating on common sense; Einstein’s theory wasn’t something he could grasp, and he believed that meant there was something fundamentally wrong about it. Watching “Little Girl Lost,” a fine episode about finding out something you don’t understand could be lurking just down the hall, got me to thinking about how much our ability to grasp the world has change in the last century or two. There once was a time when, theoretically, an average person could conceivably tell him or herself they knew what was going on, that the physical principles underlying reality were accessible to all. But now, you need special training, and exceptional intelligence, to understand pretty much anything. It’s a scary thought. Who knows what walls are solid anymore?
The premise should be familiar to parents, and anyone who’s seen Poltergeist or that “Treehouse Of Terror” when Homer gets sucked into a different dimension: one night, Chris (Robert Sampson) and Ruth (Sarah Marshall) Miller are awakened by the sobs of their daughter, Tina. Chris gets up to check on her, but when he looks into her room, his daughter isn’t sleeping in her bed. Nor is she anywhere else in the room, or apparently the house. He can still hear her crying, and those cries sound like they’re coming from close by. Ruth gets into the search, and both the Millers grow increasingly desperate until they finally realize that Tina has vanished, but not in a way either of them understand. So Chris does what everybody does in a crisis: he calls his friend Bill (Charles Aidman), the physicist.
That’s a bit of a jump, and “Little Girl Lost” takes a small leap of faith to accept. In order for everything else to follow, we need to accept some narrative shorthand. It’s not that Tina’s parents wouldn’t have figured out something strange was going on eventually, but the speed with which they come to that conclusion—in about the space of the cold open—is too fast for strict plausibility. Even stranger is the fact that Chris decides to ring up Bill and ask for help. Normally, when your kid goes missing, “physicist” isn’t the first word that springs to mind (unless there’s a child-stealing physicist around; those bastards are everywhere). In a more straightforward take on the material, you’d expect Chris and Ruth to tear apart the house for twenty minutes or so, becoming increasingly panicky until finally they’d break down and call the police. Maybe before the police, they’d call the neighbors and start searching outside, but I don’t think Bill would get called in for a least a few days. Tina’s cries make this an unusual situation, but with only a thirty minute running time, Matheson has to cheat to get everything into place.
Which is totally cool, especially given how great “Little Girl Lost” is. Sometimes shortcuts are necessary, and by moving things faster than they might normally go, Matheon manages to get that first moment of shocked surprise as Mom and Dad realize they’re having a wide-awake nightmare, as well as all the nifty stuff with figuring out just what’s happened, and then stumbling over a way to deal with it. This is a story that really works best if it all happens in as close to real time as possible, capturing one horrible evening in the lives of a family which, though they live to tell the tale, won’t ever look at the world the same way again. There’s something almost archetypal in that initial hook, something so simple and yet intensely terrifying: not only are Chris and Ruth frightened for their daughter, they can hear her calling for them right there, but they can’t find her. No matter where they look, there’s nothing to find. Suddenly, their perfectly normal, perfectly safe suburban house turns out to have mysteries, and those mysteries have teeth. It’s a wonderful, pulpy symbol for the growing paranoia of the times: reality is shifting in ways the older generation can’t grasp.
Still, all of this could’ve become too silly, or too vague, to work over the entire half hour. That’s why Bill is such a useful device. As Mark Zicree points out in his Twilight Zone Companion, nearly all of Charles Aidman’s dialogue is expository; he spends most of his screentime trying to explain the inexplicable with a lot of talk about dimensions and spatial relationships and what not. The important part isn’t what he says, though. It’s the way he says it. This is a story that needs just enough rational justification to give us the sense of the stakes, and we get that soon enough. Tina (and eventually the family dog, Mac) has fallen through a hole in the wall to the fourth dimension, and now exists in a plane of reality that only tangentially intersects with ours. Time and space work differently there, making it that much easier to get lost, and making it especially difficult for anyone to find anything on the other side. As Bill carefully walks Chris and Ruth through the situation, taking the time to draw a chalk outline on the crack Tina slipped through, the crisis comes into focus. But there’s little comfort in that. Aidman is calm, sensible, and above all practical in his approach, but his explanations do actually answer any of the important questions, like, why did this happen now? Is Tina in any danger? And how on Earth will they get her back? Suddenly, the world doesn’t make sense the way it used to, and the entire Miller family is lost in some way or another.
One of the advantages of the anthology format is the lack of security for the protagonists of each new story. There was no guarantee that Tina would be found by the end of the episode, and while the odds were probably against the show leaving a kid in the void to slowly starve to death (or worse), there was still a possibility that something bad might happen in the final minutes, enough to keep the tension wound very tight. Things get even more uncomfortable when Chris falls through the crack while trying to reach for his daughter; the climax is Chris shouting into a tilting void while Tina wanders around clutching at the family dog, her only chance of making it back home. Outside the story, the biggest question of “Little Girl Lost” is whether or not the show would reveal what the “fourth dimension” looked like; the result is a little on the goofy side, but effective, and probably about as good as you could expect on a TV budget. What really makes it work is the editing, and the strange perspectives. It’s a little like visiting the inside of a Salvador Dali painting, and makes what’s essentially just the same beat repeated over and over (“Tina come here!” “Daddy? Where are you?” “Tina, come here!” “Daddy? Where are you?”) work just fine.
That fourth dimension is an unsettling place, and what’s most unsettling about it is how empty it is. There’s fog and strange shapes in the distance, but nothing alive that the eye can see. But as the seconds wind down, and Bill keeps shouting at Chris to hurry, it’s easy to wonder what might be hiding in some impossible, Lovecraftian angle—some twisted figure, loping sideways into view. This is all speculation; there’s no suggestion of any monster whatsoever in the episode, and the reason Bill is so eager for Chris, Tina, and Mac to get home is that the crack they slipped through is starting to close. But what makes a story like this so effective is that it suggests the deep down, at a level we can barely begin to suspect, let alone grasp, the whole world is haunted. There are spaces we can’t approach, and concepts we can only trust that our betters understand. And we’re left to muddle on in the wake of genius, enjoying the fruits of their labors, and hoping the shadows they left behind won’t somehow follow us home.
What a twist: No twist, really—Tina falls through a hole into the fourth dimension, and her dad pulls her out just before the hole closes, hopefully for good.
- Didn’t want to get into Poltergeist or that Simpson’s episode, but I appreciate both a little more having seen this. Poltergeist especially; the movie manages to expand on the original premise without ever exhausting it, trading Matheson’s fast pace approach for a more leisurely, measured integration of the mundane and the bizarre. And then there’s trading in science fiction talk for the purely supernatural. The film isn’t a literal adaptation of Matheson’s original story, but you could probably find something in that change.
- The acting is fine in this, with Aidman being the main standout; Sarah Marshall spends most of the episode near or in hysterics, but since that’s how the part was written, it’s hard to blame her. The worst performance comes from someone we never even see. Rhoda Williams, an adult, does nearly all of Tina’s dialogue, and she never sounds like a convincing child.
- One more nitpick: I realize “fourth dimensional portal” isn’t exactly an inviting phrase, but it’s odd how neither Chris nor Ruth make much effort to follow after their daughter until the end. And even then, Chris doesn’t make a conscious choice to go inside, but rather falls through and makes the best of a bad situation. Maybe this is a sign of the era’s respect for authority—once Bill tells them to stay back, they listen.
Next week: Todd goes looking for “Person Or Persons Unknown,” and then the power goes to his head in “The Little People.”