“The Trade-Ins” (season 3, episode 31; originally aired 4/20/1962)
In which it is possible to be young again
One of my favorite things to read about is future tech, the idea that we are living on the cusp of some sort of singularity that will result in all of us on this planet under a certain age living for an eternity, thanks to the ability to upload our consciousness into a machine or download it into new bodies or use nanotechnology to beat back the ravages of cancer and age. I was discussing these possibilities with my wife one night during one of our extremely late-night food runs, and she said the idea of living forever was a horror to her, even if we were together. Where I looked forward to an endless ocean to explore, she found a kind of comfort in the idea of life being finite. She’s not ready to die or anything, but she can easily imagine a time when she will be. The idea of extending that endlessly, of getting lost in a hedge maze of fear and regrets cultivated over a life everlasting, scares her. And I wonder… if that day comes, if I can extend my life as long as I want, will we make that choice? Or will we be cut apart by the gulf of time, I heading backward and she embracing whatever comes next, as we all must.
Perhaps that’s why I found “The Trade-Ins” so deeply moving. On its surface, it has some problems, but at its core, it’s a beautiful and heartfelt episode of television, anchored by two terrific performances. The episode focuses on two people who are very old but also very much in love, but since they live in the Twilight Zone, there’s a new technology that will allow them to be downloaded into newer, younger bodies. This couple—their names are John and Marie Holt—is enthralled at the prospect until they realize they’ve only saved enough money for one of them to be made young again. John takes the money to a poker game to hopefully double it, but after nearly losing all of it, he’s content to take what he started with back. The Holts decide that he will become young, while she will remain old, because he is in pain. He is sick. He is dying. Yet once he walks out in his strong, new form and sees her older one, he cannot bear to be parted from her like this. He goes back to his original body, and the two walk out together to face death as a unit.
Rod Serling, who scripted this episode, had his sentimental streak, but what made that sentimental streak as effective as it was had to do with the way he deployed it only a handful of times per season. Sentimentality loses its luster if an artist keeps going to that well, and you need only look at the constant digs against Steven Spielberg (a filmmaker I really like) to understand why sentimentality can corrode everything it touches. Think about the ending of A.I., a really tremendous and cold film that ends with a scene that’s deeply sad. But it has been misread by a great many people as something warm and sentimental and hokey, precisely because we understand Spielberg most consistently through that context. In short, sentimentality robs us of nuanced approaches to emotion. It’s a flavor that can and should be used, but it’s also one that carries a certain danger to it, thus requiring a deft touch. (I’d say the same is true of cynicism, but nobody else seems to agree with me on that.)
So Serling rarely pushed to go too sentimental too often. This made it all the more effective when he could deploy sentimentality in as moving a fashion as he does here. Now, to a degree, he gets some points simply from the premise of the story. Old people are inherently sympathetic to most of us, because we understand that they are where we inevitably will end up. Watching as they struggle with things we consider more or less easy to do—like walking across a room—carries with it both a kind of pity and a recognition of our own mortality. So Serling has that going for him.
But he’s also got two of the finest actors who’d pop up on the show, including a genuine Oscar winner. That Oscar winner is Joseph Schildkraut, who popped up earlier this season in “Deaths-Head Revisited” and won his Oscar for his work in The Life Of Emile Zola (which is really not all that great). As you’d expect from an Oscar winner, Schildkraut turns in an absolutely riveting performance, grounding all of this in alternating moments of joy—when he sees the chance for him and his wife to escape death—and sorrow—when the plan falls through and he’s reduced to begging for table scraps from gamblers who take pity on him. (As gambler Farraday, Theodore Marcuse is similarly good, turning a one-scene character into a bit of an unpredictable nut, humming offhandedly and folding his superior hand because he takes sympathy on an old man.) Matching Schildkraut is Alma Platt as Marie, who turns the moment when Marie sends John forward to be made younger into something resonant and haunting, her chant of “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” feeling less like encouragement and more like her saying farewell.
The episode also gains considerable power from its direction by Elliot Silverstein, who turns a handful of sets into an exercise in using shadow to suggest a kind of heedless longing. Take, for instance, the shot I’ve screencapped above, which shows John looking back at his wife while the shadow of his future (in the form of the man who will transplant him into his new form) lurks in the background. It’s a simple image, and it’s a simple sequence, accomplished entirely via a door that slides open and sheds light on the proceedings, but it creates an eerie effect and increases the sense of permanent leavetaking between the Holts. The whole design of the episode, which is minimalist to a fault but nicely done all the same, contributes to this as well. In particular, notice how the extras playing the spare models that John and Marie could become struggle to hold perfectly still while the other actors work around them. They’re so obviously human, but they’re also not. It adds just the right element of unreality to everything that happens.
It’s here I should point out the ultimate sadness of this episode. While filming it, Schildkraut’s wife died, with some time left in the program’s shooting schedule. Rather than leave to mourn, Schildkraut insisted that he complete the shoot, then take time to mourn, which is how his indelible performance, one that so often seems on the edge of tears, exists for us to see today. (Schildkraut himself would die two years later.) “The Trade-Ins” is ultimately about the possibility that exists that if we cannot be eternal, we will have to let the things we love be eternal instead, that you carry the kernel of years of human relationships in you to this day, expressed in their own unique way in yourself. John and Marie cannot bear to be parted, so he chooses death to be with her. We all hope, in our own ways, that we would make the same choice if the time came, and in the midst of filming this, those thoughts must have tickled at the back of Joseph Schildkraut’s brain, too. But, you see, even though I have no idea who his wife is and even though I likely never will, I’ve felt her presence from seeing his acting here. It’s a lovely tribute, even if it doesn’t intend to be, an echo of a woman I will never meet but can feel all around me when her husband stares into the camera and shakes with emotion.
What a twist!: John chooses not to stay young when he sees the look on his still-elderly wife’s face.
- Another great moment from Silverstein: Cutting between rapidly tightening close-ups on young John and Marie’s faces, showing how the two communicate without words as to what must happen, yet still indicating that the two are saying very different things. John is going to go back to his old life to be with his wife, while Marie is begging her husband to take this second lease on life and live again.
- It does seem a little silly that “government regulations” would keep the Holts from financing the other body on credit, but maybe I’m missing some necessary historical context.
- I love that Serling’s closing narration turns things over to a quote from Kahil Gibran. Sometimes, being a great writer means knowing exactly which quote to take from somebody else.
“The Gift” (season 3, episode 32; originally aired 4/27/1962)
In which an alien heads south of the border
Now we go from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous. Also written by Serling—and adapted from a failed hourlong pilot script he had written about a young boy who befriends an alien, then meets that alien years later when he becomes an astronaut (what’s the show here, Rod?)—“The Gift” combines a lot of bad acting, unfortunate Mexican stereotypes, and the very worst, most hectoring kind of Serling script into an episode that stays on the “completely boring” side of mediocre. It’s likely the weakest episode of the season so far, and season three has been far more hit-and-miss than the first two seasons. There are ideas here that could work, but this is missing some of the appealing nastiness of, say, “To Serve Man” or any number of other takes the Zone had on alien visitors. This is the most classic of Twilight Zone scenarios. Is it any wonder an episode like this one feels like reheated leftovers? The music is nice, but that’s about all there is to recommend this one.
The center of the episode revolves around a little boy named Pedro (Edmund Vargas) and an alien who calls himself Mr. Williams (Geoffrey Horne). The scene where the two of them talk in the small room that Williams has been confined to isn’t bad—except for the part where Pedro out of nowhere says that he relates to the alien because he, too, feels like a stranger—but it’s also not enough to hang an entire episode upon. There’s a weird tradition of Twilight Zone episodes featuring all of the characters abruptly deciding that some visitor from another planet or another dimension is completely evil, but the show usually does a better job of depicting why the characters decide this to be the case. Here, it’s just a thing that happens, creating the unfortunate impression that the episode’s Mexicans are superstitious and easily spooked. We’re supposed to have Pedro around to combat that, but his relationship with Williams is similarly abrupt.
This might have worked but for one problem: Pretty much everybody in this episode is a bad actor. There are sparks of personality here and there, but for the most part, this is the kind of broad, over-the-top acting that The Twilight Zone’s casting department usually avoided bringing onto the show. The worst of all of them is Vargas. It feels churlish to pick on a child actor who’s just trying to bring a sense of earnestness to a production that desperately needs one, but Vargas’ line readings are leaden, and his sense of pace is similarly lacking. The episode grinds to a halt whenever things are turned over to him, and that’s a problem. He’s meant to be the emotional core of the episode—the little orphan who can see the true nature of the alien visitor—but that’s hard to see when all one wants is to usher him off the screen as quickly as possible whenever he’s there.
This brings us to another major problem with the episode: Every single character in this, save for the benevolent white man alien dude, is a Mexican stereotype, like the series has wandered into the town from the Speedy Gonzalez cartoons. Again, there would be ways around the unfortunately broad accents or the various Latino stereotypes that pop up here and there, even for modern eyes, which are more accustomed to picking out this sort of thing. But the episode makes two crucial missteps. The first is the aforementioned fact that Williams is depicted almost as a normal American guy, the foreigners suspecting his good intentions when he accidentally crash lands in their backyard. (It’d be tempting to read this as an early Vietnam War allegory if, y’know, it weren’t coming several years too early.) The second is that the townspeople descend into unmotivated hysteria, making them seem like lesser beings than the endlessly rational and logical alien creature.
Of course, some of this is the point. Serling intends for all of this to depict humanity as a whole coming in contact with a superior intellect and destroying that intellect because of its own insecurities or fears. This is all well and good, and it’s the basis of many a great Twilight Zone episode. But by introducing the uneasy racial politics—and, it has to be said, so many bad actors—“The Gift” takes on a different meaning entirely, far from the one Serling obviously intended. Some of this is just approaching this material with modern eyes and seeing things in there that would have been commonplace in the ‘60s. (In general, I don’t believe in letting works of art from the past off for depicting opinions common to the time, even if they are masterpieces on every other level, and I hope future critics hold the works of this generation to the same standard.) But one imagines that Serling, a writer and producer who always seemed conscientious of all possible interpretations of his work, should have at least realized that crafting this particular scenario in this particular way would have led to a host of unfortunate other interpretations, yet it seems he just didn’t.
There are some good moments here. The scene where the doctor discusses how Williams shouldn’t have survived those two bullet wounds is a good one, and I like the idea of that scene between Pedro and Williams in theory if not in execution. As mentioned, the score, by Laurindo Almeida, is haunting and bittersweet in equal measure, giving the episode a soulful quality it doesn’t really deserve. Director Allen H. Miner makes good use of what’s almost certainly a studio backlot, to give the little Mexican town a twilight feeling that suggests a night that will tear the town’s history in two. Cinematographer George T. Clemens makes good use of shadow to do the same. Really, there are enough good elements here that it’s possible to imagine a version of this episode that unquestionably works, if Serling’s script were more interesting and if the casting department had found better actors. It’s possible the unfortunate subtext would have always sunk this episode for modern audiences, but at least a version playing more to those strengths would have been more dramatically interesting and less inert.
The truth is, though, that Serling’s script just feels like a million other scripts for this show, right down to the ending. Williams, it turns out, has brought humanity a gift he’s refused to show anybody until his life is in danger. He asks Pedro to display said gift, but it, instead, turns into everyone in town insisting that Williams is going for the boy, then acting to save Pedro by knocking the gift into the dirt and setting it on fire (like you do). Williams is shot enough times to finally die, and the gift burns to a crisp. The doctor picks up the note and discovers it was a cure for cancer. It’s the kind of bitterly ironic twist—humanity’s suspicious ways get the best of it—that the show has done dozens of times before and will do dozens of times again, and it feels almost obligatory. Again, at least in “To Serve Man,” the aliens really were intent on eating all humans. Here, everything collapses into a clumsy Christ story, and the whole thing feels like Twilight Zone by the numbers. Here’s hoping there are no lights lower than this as we round out this season.
What a twist!: The gift that Williams had turns out to be a cure for cancer—which the villagers have just burned up.
- Early ‘60s religiosity at its finest: Williams tells Pedro that the God on his planet is the same God we have here. I’m so glad that the arrival of an alien didn’t carry with it any uncomfortable theological questions!
- It strikes me that so much of the necessary mood in an episode of this show is handled by the early scenes where the premise is set up. Here, the actors are unable to convey the menace they feel about the downed spacecraft outside of town.
- Much as I suspect it’s not very good, I’d love to read Serling’s pilot script he condensed into this. It was called “I Shot An Arrow Into The Sky” but had nothing to do with the rather good Twilight Zone episode of the same name.
Next week: Zack goes on the run from “The Dummy,” then finds what happens when he indulges in a “Young Man’s Fancy.”