THE FIFTH DIMENSION: "Walking Distance" & "Escape Clause"

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Two very different episodes. The first among the most poignant and profound episodes of all television, a revealing and emotional reverie from Serling's heart; the second a strange, better-left-forgotten bit of Faustian drama that only appears worse on the heels of Serling's magnum opus.

 

 

 

Season 1, Episode 5 - WALKING DISTANCE
Originally aired on October 30, 1959

105Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Robert Stevens

"Martin Sloan, age thirty-six, vice-president in charge of media. Successful in most things but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives—trying to go home again. And also like all men perhaps there'll be an occasion, maybe a summer night sometime, when he'll look up from what he's doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past. And perhaps across his mind there'll flit a little errant wish, that a man might not have to become old, never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he'll smile then too because he'll know it is just an errant wish, some wisp of memory not too important really, some laughing ghosts that cross a man's mind, that are a part of the Twilight Zone."

For a series defined by ironic twists, cruel fates and horrors lurking behind everyone and everything, there stands early in its run this peerless episode, melancholic and mournful. It is Serling's most profound and personal statement. Even his voice sounds less harsh, less mannered and more sorrowful as he describes the milieu of Martin Sloan, who has stumbled upon his hometown; not his hometown of the present but circa 20-some years earlier. He strolls about for a while, unaware of what has happened, thinking he is only visiting his town as it exists today. Eventually though, after seeing himself carving his name in a town gazebo, he makes the connection. The rest of the episode is Martin trying to make sense of it and convince his parents he is who he says he is. After that fails, he tries to plead with himself as a boy. The desperation is palpable in Gig Young's magnificently pitched performance. Martin scares his younger self into falling off the merry-go-round, in the process giving himself a now life-long knee injury. Eventually, his dad who has come to believe Martin's story, confronts him and gently tells him he doesn't belong here and can't stay. He must go back, and when he does, perhaps try and look forward instead of back. Martin eventually walks on and winds up in modern-day again, drives off to a hopefully more promising future.

From the beginning, the episode's director Robert Stevens (Hitchcock's director-of-choice) plays it as an Alice in Wonderland adventure, framing Martin's reflection in a mirror as he strolls towards Homewood and upon his arrival panning out to his reflection from another mirror. Stevens and his crew also do great work at the climactic carnival sequence, dizzying us with the merry-go-round and pitching the events with off-kilter camera angles. Equally fantastic is Bernard Herrmann's expressive score, written specifically for this episode. The music is over 19 minutes in length and underscores most of the entire episode, allowing the established fantasy motif to play to perfection.

Ultimately though, this is Serling's pulse coarsing through every shot and every line. A disillusioned military man who often sought for relief from the societal persecution, clutter and corruption he railed against with this very series, the catharsis is as much his as it is Martin Sloan's. Serling seriously injured his knee is WWII—and Martin is asked at the end if his injury is war related—as well as the setting here is based very much on Serling's childhood town. Throughout his life, Serling was conflicted with nightmares and flashbacks, and here he afflicts Martin with a real flashback to his youth, spawned by his own frustration and fatigue with the present. Serling is as much slapping himself for the notion that you can "go home again" and recapture the innocence of your youth. As Martin's own father tells him, there isn't enough room for both Martins and, referring to the boy, this is his time. The elder Martin's youth has come and gone, and as we see him stumbling towards his car with his "new" knee injury, you only hurt yourself with such pie-in-the-sky notions. Though there is also hope in the limp, for even if we can't go back, we can take what we learned then and use it going forward. As the final strains of the violins lift upward at the end of the episode, so too does the outlook for Martin Sloan.

 

Season 1, Episode 6 - ESCAPE CLAUSE
Originally aired on November 6, 1959

106 Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Mitchell Leisen

"There's a saying, 'Every man is put on Earth condemned to die, time and method of execution unknown.' Perhaps this is as it should be. Case in point: Walter Bedeker, lately deceased, a little man with such a yen to live. Beaten by the Devil, by his own boredom, and by the scheme of things in this, the Twilight Zone."

After the series’ apotheosis comes this deranged and silly episode which is a tonal nightmare. We are immediately introduced to a character who is a hypochondriac to the extreme, questioning his doctor’s every sentence and crying for his wife because he “feels an ice cold draft.” He whines over everything to his wife’s exasperation, and ours, until finally his cries are stopped by the sudden appearance of a man in his bedroom. The man, calling himself Cadwallader, is no less than the Devil himself, Mephistopheles to Bedecker’s Faust. Cadwallader promises Bedecker immortality in exchange for his soul (natch). Despite guessing the mysterious man is Satan himself, Bedecker still winds up agreeing to the wager. The episode then has Bedecker’s personality shift drastically as his newfound immortality causes him to dare his life and test himself in a variety of ways including being run over by both a bus and a train and drinking poison. Eventually one of his stunts has a tragic conclusion and for this, Bedecker turns himself into the police with the idea of being put into the electric chair. His plan is thwarted by the judge’s unforeseen ruling, and the eponymous contract provision must be utilized.

This is a thoroughly campy episode, from the overacting by both David Wayne as Bedecker and Thomas Gomez as the devil to the upbeat, almost comical musical cues. Serling seems to be initially mocking the psychosomatic symptoms of hypochondria, but eventually the style becomes gratingly coy. In particular is the moment where Bedecker’s actions cause the death of someone else and all he does in casually look on in jealousy over the person feeling death; an interesting idea but also bizarrely unfounded. The character transformation is simply too much to digest, the sudden disregard for the very meaning of any form of life or living after only a short time. Where did this obsession with death come from? It is a rather absurd premise by Serling to assert that merely because a man cannot die that immediately upon being granted immortality he would become fixated on feeling death. Testing the deal is one thing, but Bedecker’s callous and dangerous obsession is odd and unconvincing. The ironic twist at the end is similarly unsatisfying, Serling seemingly advocating that a swift death is just desserts for Bedecker’s poor judgment and remorseless accidental homicide as opposed to an immortal life spent wallowing in the errs of his way.

The Fifth Dimension is a weekly feature chronicling guest blogger Phil Ward\'s voyage in watching every episode of the original Twilight Zone series in chronological order, exclusively on JustPressPlay.

Feb
10
2010
Phil Ward • Contributor

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