My existential meal for my weekend would consist of Pacific Smoked Salmon and Béchamel Dill Sauce with Capers, Potato Latkes with Sour Cream and Caviar and Cucumber Radish Salad. For dessert, Blackberries and Strawberries on White Coconut Cake and Wedgewood Hot Tea with Lemon.
Since it will more likely be a bowl of Wheat Chex, followed by a cigar and house cleaning I decided to take an evening off from cat sitting and write a retrospective of one of my favorite episodes of “The Twilight Zone.”
Spoiler Alert: my commentary reveals the story; watch episode first
In the fifties, television was still young and programming was original and unlike today not twenty four hours of drek. Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-64) was one of the finest examples of black and white half hour stories of fantasy, science fiction, existentialism, horror and drama all mixed into 156 episodes. Like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, TZ episodes ended with twists that were often macabre, profoundly sad or purposeful comeuppances.
Among the classic episodes are: the pilot, Where Is Everybody? that answers the question of deprivation; Eye of the Beholder where beauty and ugliness are inverted; The After Hours, or what do mannequins do on their day off; The Masks (the only episode directed by a woman, Ida Lupino), where a greedy family await the death of the patriarch who has the final declaration thanks to New Orleans voodoo and makeup artist William Tuttle’s amazing ‘masks’ and which reveal the proper repulsiveness of his family’s avarice when their faces are distorted to the shape of the Mardi Gras masks they were forced to wear in his final hours and then there was And When the Sky Was Opened.
The Sky Opens in the most disconcerting method in this 1959 storyline was my introduction, at age six, of the concept of non existence and the never-ending questions that finally led to my accepting of existential nilhism due to the a profound realization that any number of variables could have led to me never being born. Dad could have died in WW II and never returned to date my mother as he had before the war. He could have married another woman he dated before eventually marrying the woman who would give birth to me. Mine was a complicated childbirth, as I was later told, with my mother almost bleeding to death.
Besides never being born was the reoccurring nightmarish conception of being erased from the memory of everyone who ever knew me, which was the theme of this story. I am perpetually appreciative of Serling’s complicated ascertain that a solitary imperceptible event could lead to extinction of existence.
Serling’s opening narration:
Her name: X-20. Her type: an experimental interceptor. Recent history: A crash landing in the Mojave Desert after a thirty-one hour flight nine hundred miles into space. Incidental data: The ship, with the men who flew her, disappeared from the radar screen for twenty-four hours.
As in The Quatermass Xperiment, the missing time element plays intensely into the intrigue of emptiness that will haunt the trio of astronauts. In Xperiment, the spacecraft vanishes from earthly contact long enough for an invisible entity to enter the ship transform Victor Caroon into a rapidly mutating alien while the other two men are converted into “jelly” and apparently consumed by their former companion. Once back on earth, the survivor begins a excruciating conversion into a new and deadly life form, escapes from a hospital, thanks to his wife’s intervention, kills two men and a number of zoo animals before finally being revealed to the audience as a gelatinous creature intent on spawning a race of other aliens before being electrocuted at Westminster Abbey.
Opened, while not revealing any monstrous personage responsible for the ultimate evaporation of the characters, insinuates an unknown entity is to blame. While far from perfect storytelling (there are some gaffs – a character who doesn’t see his mirror image is still visible to us, at least his arm) the overall impression of erasure from the memories of too many people (parents, wives, other military officers) may be difficult to accept in retrospect; however, the straightforwardness of this disquieting story is equally frightening and mesmerizing on equal levels.
Col. Clegg Forbes (Rod Taylor) and Col. Ed Harrington (Charles Aidman) visit Maj. William Gart (Jim Hutton), who has sustained a broken leg in the crash and is confined to a military hospital. While Gart recuperates the other two head to a local bar for a drink. The bartender is delighted to have celebrities in his establishment and a solitary woman on a nearby barstool is provided for epigrammatic pulchritude.
When Harrington experiences the sensation that “I don’t belong,” he drops his glass of beer on the floor and will afterwards go into the bar telephone booth to call his parents only to learn they have no son. There is the cryptic explanation that “someone or something” let them return to earth when they were not meant too and when Forbes goes to get his buddy’s beer there is no evidence of broken glass and the bartender informs that he came in alone.
Upon returning to the phone booth Gart is gone.
The story is framed around Forbes trying to convince Gart that three of them went into space but Gart insists only two were aboard the X-20 and he never knew anyone named Harrington!
An eerie reoccurring motif uses a newspaper with an above-the-fold story and picture of the three astronauts that changes each time it is viewed.
There are top-notch performances from the lead actors. The scene where Taylor gazes upwards while enlightening Gart on how he doesn’t belong, seconds before vanishing, is surreal in its character’s succinct acceptance of his fate, even if he is terrified.
The dénouement always delivers shivers as Hutton realizes too late that Forbes was correct; Gart, too, will disappear along with the spacecraft.
What captivated me as a youngster was the true horror of being whisked away from my family as if I had never been born. How could they miss me if I never existed? Incongruously with such an effect I would not have nightmares, but whenever I would drift into that final millisecond before hypnagogiue I would pray to awaken with my existence intact! It performed another vital function; I knew I wanted to be a writer and my mindset was changed forever. Unquestionably, the impact of considering non existence as a six year old was comparative to the implications that the universe itself could have never existed or that in an alternate reality I could have “existed” as another version of myself.
Whether one accepts the idea that some force could erase from memory their very existence is open to debate and the intentional withholding of information as to who or what removed them may leave some viewers dissatisfied but it is still a compelling piece that is better left with unanswered questions.
Serling was wise with his format; he knew that in thirty minutes, less a few for commercials, audiences did not always need an airtight explanation. In fact, the most memorable endings generally left much to the imagination as to what happens next: the broken glasses “it’s not fair” climax of Time Enough at Last, the three-armed, three-eyed payoff of Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? and Shadow Play‘s dream-within-dream nightmare logic of Hell as reliving your execution for eternity.
A Nice Place to Visit offered one of the best Hell endings when the loser character, who thinks he is in heaven because he wins at everything, says he doesn’t belong and wants to be sent to “the other place” only to learn, “This is the other place!”