Now that is interesting: I know I never saw all of The Twilight Zone episodes, but I certainly thought I’d seen the bulk of them, so to encounter one so refreshingly creative as this and have absolutely no memory of it was delightful. And for the second time in as many weeks, I’m impressed by the acting and filming of this series.
Ok Elegy is one episode that might have featured in Star Trek. A starship lands on a mysterious planet with people all immobile. There are signs of life, but no actual movement, right down to the dog in front of the recently landed spaceship. It’s all a bit like the Doctor Who episode The Space Museum. There’s a mystery here and we’re in for the ride. But I think the idea was even more impressive here than it was in Doctor Who. There are a lot more people who have to remain stock still. I mean, you can see the movement in some cases – the man with the fishing rod was most notable, and the odd heartbeat is visible in the neck of another. Yet the acting sells it marvelously. I am convinced some of those people had to be actual waxworks.
The infamous zinger ending comes as it often does with a moral: there can be no peace while there are men. (Sort of makes me wonder why so much has gone wrong in the FX series Y: The Last Man. There are no men left there but also no peace!) It’s all a bit bleak really. This little asteroid is a cemetary: a place where the dead can be posed to exist forever in their happiest place. And I was left feeling like I had a way better idea. When that happens, I get so bummed, especially considering the respect I have for Rod Serling.
How would you have made it better, you ask? I don’t know if you ever go into those shops around Christmas or Halloween and you see those towns you can buy. Do you know the ones? The craft store Michaels does that, but there’s a nursery around my home that has an entire room of buildings you could buy. You can build a 1950s town in your own basement. Or, similarly, around Christmas, my dad used to put up a train set with a town, and I used to imagine what was going on in each house, with all the people. We had people we could pose around the town, with old cars and the works. I loved it. Wouldn’t it have been better that, rather than a place to basically put the dead on display for absolutely no one at all, that this would have been an alien collection of Earth life? The curator, rather than being a tool to curate a waxwork of the dead, he should have been a collector of all things that resembled the planet he loved. Maybe he set it up for his kid to play with and imagine. I think that would have been far nicer.
Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoyed the episode and found the story clever but I knew what was coming the moment the man brought out the drinks. And if this were a Trek episode, there would have been hope, which I really didn’t find here. I do think I was reminded of Star Trek because I am 100% certain I heard the sounds of the Enterprise bridge, but if I am right, this was the origin of those sounds which is actually pretty cool. I never knew…!
Well I often joke that when I die, I hope my wife sends me out into space. This place shouldn’t be too costly. At 655 million miles from earth, that puts this closer than Saturn (which for whatever reason, I remember as being 900M miles away). But I hope, rather than being a waxwork, some alien wants me for a collection. I just find that would be more to my liking; to know I was giving some alien child joy as he imagines what I’d be getting up to in my town. Maybe he’d envision me writing a blog for all time about aliens, tv shows and The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Don’t blink! Don’t blink! Oh, he blinked. Many times. I’m not sure how many of the problems with this episode would have been visible in 1960 with one of the small television sets they had back then, but whenever I see a sci-fi show that requires people to act as if they are frozen in time I let out a groan, because it never goes well. This is a remarkably ambitious attempt, and to give everyone their due who made this the number of extras used is very impressive and most of them do a better job than would normally be expected, but inevitably there are wobbles and blinks. The most amusing is a guy wearing glasses in the mayor’s speech scene who is unfortunately positioned right behind the actors and feels the need to blink many times. In runner up position are the very wobbly group of beauty pageant women. Actually the biggest offender is unavoidable if you’re going to do location filming: the plants and trees. If everything is supposed to be frozen in time, how are they moving in the breeze?
It might seem churlish to complain about the failure to pull this off successfully, but as soon as you start noticing people moving it does make the whole thing collapse. The proof of that is the astronauts’ first arrival on the asteroid, where some kind of effect is actually used to keep the dog in the shot completely static (or is it just a stuffed dog?!) That scene has real impact, and is quite unsettling if you look at it from the point of view of the astronauts, but as soon as human actors appear and start wobbling a bit all that tension and wrongness is undermined and we are taken right out of the narrative. That’s a shame, because the story idea is an interesting one.
Note that I used the word “interesting”, not “good”, because I don’t think this one makes a huge amount of sense, and not only because the “far corner of the universe” would have to be somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn but there are somehow two suns. I couldn’t quite figure out why we sometimes hear music playing when the musicians aren’t moving, or why the clock didn’t have any hands, but these moments do add up to a general sense of unease. There are some great moments. Everyone’s favourite will probably be the midpoint of the episode where some random bloke just turns around and smiles, which is quite a twist, but my absolute favourite is one that only made sense in hindsight: the beauty contest.
“I don’t blame the judges, you’re the prettiest of them all.”
With all respect to the actress, that had me wondering if tastes in beauty had really changed that much since the 60s, but later we find out the reason: she’s a plain woman whose dream is to win a beauty contest, and this afterlife makes her dream come true. Considering the nature of the way this “cemetery” works, basically imprisoning people in a single moment in time, with fake participants in their fantasy, one wonders if the place functions as a punishment for shallow ambition. Receiving adulation as a mayor or being acknowledged as the prettiest girl certainly both seem to be on the verge of selfishness if you don’t possess the qualities necessary to achieve those ambitions, and are arguably rather small-minded ways to want to spend eternity. So in the end I felt that writer Charles Beaumont never quite joined the dots of his idea. If he had explicitly stated that this was a purgatory for the selfish, everything might have come together. Instead we have a caretaker trying to maintain the status quo of a clearly ludicrous vision of heaven, and committing murder to achieve that, although that does at least provide a very effective final twist.
Charles Beaumont’s writing here seems to be imbued with anger. He is raging at man’s instinct to fight each other, predicting a future where “peace on Earth became impossible”, and “while there are men, there can be no peace”. I hope that’s not too prescient. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Mirror Image
Just so you both know, “Elegy” was scripted by Charles Beaumont, based on his own short story. Please don’t fall for the common mistake of assuming that Rod Serling wrote every episode. Other than that, good reviews!
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Thanks for pointing that out! I always check the writer in advance so I don’t know where my brain was with this one! Hopefully a one-off lapse 🙂 I have made the necessary corrections to mine, and will let Mike edit his if he wants to.
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Elegy easily reminded me of a science fiction story I heard in school on audiotape, also about three astronauts landing on another world and finding that they’ve become part of an advanced species’ exhibit. Elegy was more profound for the obvious issues it was addressing about how humans can be viewed by some power in the universe as too dangerous to let roam free. It can indeed make us think about how the universe might deal with us in the state we’re in now. It was clearly a popular subject for sci-fi in the 50s and 60s starting with The Day The Earth Stood Still. The acting by Kevin Hagen, Jeff Morrow (This Island Earth’s Exeter) and Don Dubbins is another good reminder of how refreshingly nostalgic the acting and dramas were for astronaut roles back then. And of course we have one of the TZ’s most memorable roles, Mr. Jeremy Wickwire, played by the very distinguished Cecil Kellaway, who reminds us how even an adorably nice character in an anthology episode must sometimes mark very serious decisions.
As for how this episode might parallel something seen in Star Trek or Dr. Who, I never gave it much thought before. But if it helped to inspire the sci-fi dramas and moral tales for The Outer Limits, it’s certainly all the more appreciable, as many TZ classics that have inspired sci-fi ever since. It will be all the more significant now as one of sci-fi’s most cautionary messages about consequences for our human failings. Thanks very much for your reviews.
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