Rod Serling must have been a genius or a tortured soul, I can’t tell. He writes some truly heartfelt stories and the amazing thing is, in just over 20 minutes, he gets us invested in the characters and their plights. Mostly! We’ve seen 5 episodes with a happy ending, one with a … well, frankly, only one with a “who cares” ending, and now this. But I can’t tell if The Lonely offers us a happy ending or not.
James A. Corry is a convicted felon. He murdered someone, though it appears to have been in self-defense. As a result, he is imprisoned on an asteroid millions of miles from Earth, all alone. He’s been there for 4 years of a 50 years sentence. Captain Allenby comes once every 3 months to bring supplies and periodically play chess with the prisoner. He’s a jailor with a conscience. It hurts him to see any man suffer like Corry suffers. So Allenby brings him a gift, a robot. (Or, as absolutely everyone in 1960’s television said, a “row-but”.) This robot is in the shape of a woman (and a very special woman at that: Jean Marsh, known through Doctor Who fandom as Sara Kingdom and perhaps more surprisingly, Jon Pertwee’s wife! What makes that even more special is that Sara Kingdom was on a mission during The Daleks’ Master Plan with a chap named Corey – different spelling, same name. Make of it what you will!)
I’m not imprisoned anywhere; I have the luxury of freedom. I come and go as I please and I see colleagues and friends Monday through Friday. Weekends, my wife and I travel to different places often with friends; sometimes just shops, sometimes boardwalks where we play minigolf and eat ice cream. But the idea of having a robot that I could treat as a friend would be heavenly to me. Friends here in the Junkyard might remember Pepper, a robot I met at work. I’d gleefully call Pepper my friend if she was capable of even a bit of memory, and acted like she’s able to identify with me. Sadly, Pepper is of a grade of robot that is still fully an automaton but I look forward to a day when she can be programmed to be more lifelike. I don’t care what skin a friend wears: it can be any color and any texture. Pepper is pure white and made of hard plastic, with wires and internal components unlike any human. But if she could talk to me, and we could engage in some form of dialogue, I’d move her to my office and have her with me for all my meetings. I’d talk to her any time I wasn’t on a call. I’d be so happy to have that friend, I wouldn’t think twice about whether she’s a robot or a human. When Corry first meets Alicia, he says “go on, get out of here”. I nearly vomited. This is a man who is alone and turns down a robot that looks like a woman because she’s a robot?? Xenophobic much, Corry? It takes her tears to turn him around and I was grateful that he did change but I lost my interest in Corry’s well-being by then. Maybe being marooned does things to you, but I just thought I’d take any lifeline I could if I were in his place.
For me, if an entity shows signs of intelligence and an interest in communicating with me to some extent, I want to get to know it. I often think of the night at the boardwalk when I saw that octopus; I felt like there was some basic communication between us as it came out of hiding and moved around the tank following my movements. I wanted so badly to open the tank and be closer to the creature. Oh, I know it’s completely fanciful stuff, but it felt like she was trying to communicate with me and I loved that. I can’t conceive of being mean to a creature the way Corry was. But just as Corry comes around, Allenby comes with good news: his sentence has been lifted. He can go home. Conveniently, the ship can only take 15lbs of additional material and Alicia weighs more than that. Corry won’t leave her, so Allenby, the jailor with a conscience… shoots her in the face! Corry is able to go home again….
Me? My first thought would be: go home and come back in 3 months when you have the ability to take us both. Simple. I’ve made it 4 years, what’s 3 months more? Alternatively, your fellow crewman, who seems to delight in other people’s misery can stay behind and someone can come back for him in 3 months. Yeah, I like that idea far more. But shoot my companion in the face? No. No, that just wasn’t going to fly for me. Allenby seemed like such a nice guy, but he applies his own beliefs to Corry’s world and fails to even give the man a choice. He destroys the robot because to him, it’s a tool and nothing more. But I bet Alicia was more real than many people Allenby knows. I mean, how many flesh and blood humans do we all work with or talk to that have zero connection to us. Maybe we see the same person every day on the Starbucks line, but they have no greater thought about us than handing us the things we ordered, operating robotically. I just had that very thing happen to me this weekend while getting bagels for my wife and I. The young lady never cracked a smile or showed any signs of human interaction. “Egg bagels”, she said, then handed them off to me and turned robotically and walked away. We all have real people in our lives who are less human than Alicia was; maybe not to their own circles, but that’s the problem: Allenby was willing to value his cruel copilot more than Alicia because he knew the man, but that man was not a good person. Alicia may not have been human, but she was a good person. Maybe the problem is that he was unwilling to extend the definition of a person to a being not born organically. But I’m not convinced that matters. I think we need to view what it is to be human as something more than just flesh and blood. Maybe when we do that, we can truly call ourselves enlightened.
The Lonely may have been a good episode and might even have had a happy ending since Corry gets off his rock, but I was disgusted by it. I’d sooner see Corry and Allenby trapped forever on that asteroid, floating unloved through the darkest voids of The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
James Corry has been a prisoner on an asteroid for over four years. He has tried to keep himself occupied, even spending a year building a car, which he can’t drive because there’s no handy petrol station just down the road. In fact, there’s no road. There’s just a little hut in the desert, and that’s all there is. No people, just rocks. So to get anything out of this episode you have to check your brains at the door, because Corry’s punishment is clearly absurd. It’s not just that it’s cruel. What society would spend a fortune on doing this? And it would have to cost a huge amount of money, because four times a year a rocket gets sent to bring supplies to him. All this for one person on each asteroid, and the implication is that there are very few of those. In fact, three people have to spend 8 months of the year away from Earth to do the four supply runs to Corry and a handful of other prisoners on different asteroids, so it’s arguably even more of a punishment for them than it is for him. At least he’s not confined to a small rocket for a third of the year, every year. Spare a thought for poor Allenby, who has to live most of his life in close quarters with an absolute jerk like Adams.
This is of course one of those Twilight Zone episodes that fall into a rather unpleasant category: life takes a dump on somebody. Corry says he has been wrongly convicted, and I think we are supposed to take him at face value. Allenby seems very sympathetic towards him, and he comes across as… well, not a monster, certainly. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s a nice person. When Allenby is frankly a saint, and brings him a robot woman, his response is one of anger, and he treats Alicia very cruelly to start with. It’s hard to watch him pushing her to the ground, and it’s hard to understand his reasoning. Until she starts crying, he can’t get past the fact that she’s a “machine”, but he has been desperate for anything to pass the time, even gradually building a car out of parts, for absolutely no reason at all other than to stop himself from going mad. His rejection of this amazing gift doesn’t exactly endear him to us.
“It’s a lie.”
Enjoy the lie then. Lie with the lie. “Is it man and woman or man and machine?” Does it matter, when a man is that lonely? Even if he just treats her just as an… ahem… particular variety of doll, it’s still the best present he’s ever going to get.
Jean Marsh, one of a small handful of actors to appear in both Doctor Who and The Twilight Zone, does a great job as Alicia, quietly spoken and appearing to be human enough that we can understand how Corry could eventually fall in love with her, while keeping her performance controlled enough that it’s never entirely human somehow.
I just don’t know what to think about the ending. I see a lot of praise for this episode, and maybe the intervening years have raised the bar of what we expect from television, but this just seems like nastiness for no good reason. It gets reasonably close to a parable about being careful what you wish for, but Corry’s reactions at the end don’t quite deliver that message. Rod Serling could have made something of the fact that the warder turns out to be more of a murderer than the convict, or perhaps about how Alicia achieved something close to humanity but was never accepted as fully human, but again those are hardly issues that are even bubbling under the surface. Life just punishes a man over and over again, deals a final horrible blow to his emotions, and then he gives up on his feelings and goes home. It’s all far too hollow for me, and I don’t see where the enjoyment lies for those who heap praise on it, apart from the excellent acting performances, of course.
Besides, there was an easy solution to the weight problem on the rocket. Leave Adams behind instead. This was “a fragment of a man’s life.” I’m not sure we needed to see such a miserable one. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Time Enough at Last