“The Jeopardy Room” (season 5, episode 29; originally aired 4/17/1964)

What is “A deadly trap that might be too easy to escape?”

If nothing else, “The Jeopardy Room” has a hell of a premise. A former political prisoner is tracked down by his captors, and forced to undergo a hellish “test:” the prisoner, Major Ivan Kuchenko (Martin Landau) is trapped in his hotel room, and informed that a single item in that room has been booby-trapped. If Kuchenko can find the trap and disarm it before morning, he gets to live. If he tries to leave the room with the trap still active, or fails to uncover the trap, he’ll be shot. And the trap itself is a deadly explosive, so if he trips over it while searching, or fails to disarm it properly—ka-boom.

There’s nothing supernatural about any of this, and while it’s not a kitchen-sink realism kind of scenario (depending on your brand of sink), it’s a plot that could’ve easily showed up on an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or have served as a set-piece on any of a dozen action adventure shows. That’s not a criticism. There is an appealing clarity to the dilemma Kuchenko finds himself in, a crisis with clear rules and deadly stakes. It’s the sort of hook where you want to find out what happens next before you know anything about the actual details; the characters are important, but the plot itself is what grabs you. Puzzle premises, when done badly, can be reductive and airless, a series of mechanical events that exploit the audience’s curiosity without offering anything to justify it. But when done well, a good hook can serve as an entry point to a richer world. The main danger is that the puzzles tend to require simple, satisfying answers—but when you’re working in the anthology format, that’s less of an issue.

For most of its running time “The Jeopardy Room” does a very good job of pulling us in and keeping us watching. Landau is excellent in a comparatively thankless role; Rod Serling’s script splits the focus between Kuchenko, suffering in his hotel room, and his tormentors observing him from afar. Kuchenko is clearly the hero of the piece, and the suspense of the episode rests on first trying to figure out what the bad guys are going to do to him, and then hoping he escapes. And yet the character also remains somewhat opaque. His suffering is evident, as is his exhaustion and fear, but he’s not as talkative as Commissar Vassiloff (John van Dreelen). There are multiple scenes of us watching Kuchenko as Vassiloff watches him and comments on the action, and it creates a distance between us and the protagonist which, while not exactly Rear Window levels of meta, still adds a pleasing level of uncertainty to the scenario.

It doesn’t hurt that van Dreelen is a terrific villain, an urbane, eloquent monster whose infatuation with his own cleverness provides the episode with the fulcrum it needs to justify its plot. In lesser hands, the story would read like a subpar James Bond outing, with the sort of goofy deathtrap whose only real reason for existing is to keep us from realizing that a quick shot to the head would’ve ended the whole problem ages ago. And, to be fair, the “jeopardy room” is exactly that sort of death trap. It has several moving parts—first Vassiloff and his henchman, Boris (Robert Kelljan) have to track Kuchenko down; then Vassiloff calls him to say hello; then Vassiloff comes by to chat him up, and offer him a drink of wine that’s been drugged with a sedative (Vassiloff is immune to the sedative, having given himself moderate doses for years—shades of The Princess Bride); then Vassiloff has to plant the explosive device and get back to the apartment across the street he and Boris are sharing; then Vassiloff and Boris have to watch Kuchenko, make sure he doesn’t escape, and trust that the bomb goes off.

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Even if one assumes that Vassiloff is planning to kill Kuchenko whether or not he figures out the game (and that’s far from certain; Vassiloff gives off the sort of evil smugness that Batman villains only dream of, and with guys like that, you never know how seriously they’re going to take their own rules), that’s a really inefficient way to go about being the agent of a totalitarian super-power. Yet it’s plausible enough, because van Dreelen does a great job of portraying the Commissar as a man so certain of his cleverness, and so sadistic in his appetites, that he can’t resist the chance to play games. It’s possible to see a personal angle to this as well. Serling’s script keeps the backstory to a minimum, but we do learn that Vassiloff was one of the men who tortured Kuchenko while he was in captivity. Kuchenko then escaped, so it’s possible that, for Vassiloff, this mission is a little more personal than he lets on. Maybe he doesn’t just want to beat his prey; maybe he also wants to destroy a man who dared to defy him.

But that’s subtext you can take or leave. For the most part “The Jeopardy Room” doesn’t require such close readings. Given the limited setting and cast (we only see three people, and there are only two sets), director Richard Donner does an impressive job telling the story in visually interesting ways. The shots of Kuchenko from Vassiloff and Boris’s perspective help keep things from being too static, and stress the concept of Kuchenko being trapped in a cage, observed and prodded by his tormentors. There’s also some nifty, subjective camera work later in the episode, as Kuchenko goes out of his mind trying to find the bomb. In terms of running time, we only spend a few minutes watching Kuchenko search his hotel room—most of the episode is taken up establishing the situation, so Landau’s performance and the direction need to convince us that Kuchenko is close to breaking very quickly. Which they do.

Frustratingly, “The Jeopardy Room” falls apart in its final moments, with a one-two punch that undermines the sense of hopelessness that had worked to make the rest of the half hour so effective. Vassiloff calls Kuchenko, and Kuchenko nearly picks up the phone before figuring out the secret: that the trap is in the phone, and it will explode when he answers it. While this requires an impressive intuitive leap on Kuchenko’s park, Landau’s dawning astonishment makes the moment work. The problem is that once he realizes the trick, he doesn’t try to defuse the bomb. He just dives for the door, and there’s no real justification as to why he’s suddenly able to escape now. Boris shoots at him, but he misses, and there’s no real reason why he misses; it implies that Kuchenko probably could’ve gotten out at any point, and that makes the trap Vassiloff set a lot less scary in retrospect. Worse, Vassiloff and Boris return to search the room after Kuchenko leaves, and Kuchenko is able to kill them with the bomb that was suppose to kill him. That’s just dumb. Boris knows the bomb is in the phone, and he knows how it works. And while it’s possible he could’ve forgotten, it makes Vassiloff look like an idiot for not simply taking apart the device as soon as he entered the room. (Why would they need to go into the room anyway? They had plenty of time to search it earlier while Kuchenko was unconscious.)

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That’s the problem with great story hooks: it can be very hard to find a good ending. The set-up is so deviously cruel that the only proper conclusion would be something at once unexpected and utterly fitting. We don’t get that, but at least Kuchenko gets away in the end, and the Commissar gets his just deserts. I’m not sure if I’d call this a classic, but it’s a stronger episode than we’ve had in a while, and that counts as a win.

What a twist: Kuchenko manages to escape Vassiloff’s trap; he flees to a nearby airport, then calls his hotel room, killing both of the men hunting him.

Stray observations:

  • Come to think of it, how did Kuchenko know when Vassiloff and Boris would be in his room? Has he been calling at regular intervals? He could’ve gotten the maid service.
  • That is a very small bottle of wine.

“Stopover In A Quiet Town” (series 5, episode 30; originally 4/24/1964)

In which yes, you aren’t in Kansas anymore…

Any long-running show faces problems. Creative turnover, changing cultural tastes, ossification of ideas, rising production costs, and dwindling ratings are just a few of the dangers waiting for you if you’re lucky enough to have a hit. There’s another problem as well, and one that gets worse the better you are at doing your job. Part of the process of selling a new series to an audience is teaching them how to watch that series. This isn’t a conscious process on either side, just the way we naturally learn and invest in new fiction. There are certain universal signifiers (generally you have people talking in places, and you should listen to them and pay moderate attention to where they are), but each show has its own specific language and rhythms. The more distinct and idiosyncratic those rhythms are, the more memorable a show can be; but the more memorable a show is, the quicker its innovations can grow stale.

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I’m not sure “Stopover In A Quiet Town” would’ve been great even if it had aired early in The Twilight Zone’s first season. It’s another story with very little story in it, just a central idea that gets repeated over and over until the final reveal, and even though that reveal is fun, it’s hard to shake the impression that too much of the episode is given over to stalling. But at the very least, if this episode had arrived when the show’s approach to twist endings was still fresh, the various scenes of Bob (Barry Nelson) and Millie Frazier (Nancy Malone) stumbling around a small town would’ve held more novelty. (Admittedly, the very first episode of the show, “Where Is Everybody?” had a similar premise, so maybe this one was screwed from the start.) By now, we’ve seen the show and we know the drill. Something strange is going on, and it’s not just a simple prank or a case of drunken confusion.

What’s especially odd is that Earl Hamner, Jr.’s script makes little attempt to withhold its secrets. We don’t find out that the Fraziers have been abducted by an alien to serve as miniscule playthings for the alien’s daughter until the final scene; but in their first conversation together upon waking up in a strange bedroom, Millie tells Bob how she remembers driving home and some great shape passing over the top of the car. It’s hard to imagine that being throwaway dialogue in any situation, but here in the Zone, that’s about as bright as red flag’s get. Add that to the fact that neither of the Fraziers has any idea where they are, but they keep hearing a little girl’s laughter off in the distance and, well, this isn’t designed to be a slow escalation of terror. It’s more like a single, never-ending scream.

Some scenes work better than others. At times the episode threatens to become about how the Fraziers (whose marriage seems a bit shaky, if not actively dysfunctional) turn on each other in a crisis. But that tension never rises above a simmer, and while Bob’s chummy condescension borders on abuse, there’s never a clear sense of these two behaving excessively irrationally or cruelly. They’re upset, sure, and they probably won’t make the long list of most loving couples ever, but it’s not George and Martha, and this never devolves into Night Of The Living Dead-style social commentary. Serling tries to tack a moral on at the end with some narration about drunk driving. That’s an important issue, but stressing it in this case doesn’t add much dramatic impact or catharsis or anything. The Fraziers’ actions are so far removed from what happens to them as to be actively ludicrous. It’s not like they could’ve avoided alien abduction if they’d been sober.

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That said, the two leads’ prickliness helps to give a little edge to the type of scene that dominates the episode: either Bob or Millie will get an idea—call a friend, touch a squirrel, find help in a church. They’ll follow through on that idea, and it will turn out that the phone isn’t plugged in, the squirrel is stuffed, and the church is empty. It’s not just that every plan goes awry; it’s that every plan goes awry in roughly the same way. The town is fake, everything in it is fake (if impressively detailed), and no matter what Bob and Millie do, they can’t get away from that fact.

We’ve seen episodes with protagonists repeatedly dealing with the same information before. The only real advantage here is that the Fraziers’ inability to accept what’s happening is plausible; they’re not refusing to learn the obvious, they’re just trying every possible avenue of escape. But that doesn’t make it any more compelling to watch. Once it becomes clear that the town isn’t a town and the heroes aren’t going to find help, the whole thing becomes a long wait to get to the punchline of the joke. There’s an undeniable eeriness to all that silence, and the scene where Bob and Millie think they’ve finally escaped on a train, only to find themselves right back where they started, at least skirts the edges of suspenseful. The episode never becomes truly tedious. But there’s a definite “been there, done that” vibe to the whole thing that never really goes away.

As for the punchline, the sight of a giant little girl lording it over her new pets makes for a simultaneously hilarious and unsettling visual, and the resolution is so absurd that it almost makes the twenty minutes it took to get there worthwhile. A great ending can’t save a so-so episode, and I’m not sure I’d call this one “great.” (It feels too much like a riff on earlier ideas; a little bit of “Five Characters In Search Of An Exit,” a dash of “People Are Alike All Over.”) But it’s not a cheat, and it’s certainly memorable, so that’s something.

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What a twist: The Fraziers are actually trapped inside a giant model of a small town, complete with a running train; they were kidnapped by an alien, who gave them to his daughter as pets.

Stray observations:

  • Barry Nelson is the first actor to play James (ahem, Jimmy) Bond, in a 1954 TV adaptation of Casino Royale; he’s probably most famous to modern audiences for his role as Stuart Ullman in The Shining. Nancy Malone (who had an accomplished career on TV, before becoming the first female vice president of television at 20th Century Fox), only passed away a few months ago this year, in May.

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Next week: I spend some time with George Takei again in “The Encounter,” and then go back to the old west for “Mr. Garrity And The Graves.”