I’ll dive right in here to say I’ve always liked Roddy McDowell. It was because of his portrayal of Cornelius in Planet of the Apes that made me like him so much. I’d seen that ages before I knew about his other roles, and Cornelius was a favorite of mine. God knows if he was always as nice as he appeared in movies, but I automatically take to his character in People Are Alike All Over even if he’s a bit of a coward. I could accept that considering the exceptional circumstances. But it’s really Susan Oliver I want to talk about here. Even in black and white, she’s beautiful. Her blonde hair and blue eyes are a combination that is just so lovely on her. But how can I say that when this is in black and white? Because I’d already seen her in this same role in color… or just about any way!
What I want to know really is if Gene Roddenberry saw this before writing The Cage. This aired 6 years before Star Trek so it seems likely that he would have encountered it. And he thinks, “gee, if Jeffrey Hunter were on a planet he’d probably find her lovely too! Hey, here’s an idea…!” Do you think Roddenberry then called her and said, “remember that role where you stand around with a bunch of guys in togas on a planet with a crash survivor? Let’s make it where you do the same exact thing but you and the toga wearers are the survivors and you’re going to seduce the handsome Captain. (Since you were basically trying that on McDowell anyway!) Heck, we’ll even give you a similar name!” She thinks, “sure, easy paycheck. I’ve already mastered the part.” And Star Trek’s The Cage was born. I was so caught up in this line of thinking that it invaded my enjoyment of an otherwise fantastic episode. And it is a solid, enjoyable episode.
The story is basically a look at humanity from the point of view that we do bad things to creatures we see as inferior just as the Martians do to us. Yeah, yeah, love a good commentary, me, but it fails a bit, doesn’t it? I don’t think the allegory works entirely because I’m willing to bet that if a zebra turned around and said, “I say, old man, this is no way to treat me! I have a wife and child back in the burrow,” we might not be so quick to incarcerate the poor fellow. It’s clear these being communicate with us and not even their ruling elite seem entirely pleased with the idea of locking Sam in the zoo! I like Marcusson’s belief that people have souls and care about other people. He’s clearly not living in the real world, but it’s a nice thought. McDowell’s Sam is a bit more skeptical but comes around in the end, accepting that Marcusson was right: people are alike all over, but not quite the way Marcusson had in mind. Shame because he basically has a house without a mortgage and free food and drink. If they could just give him a video game machine and maybe Skype, he’d be a happy person for the rest of his days. He was a coward anyway, so he would never have to be afraid of venturing out again.
This is a good episode and fast paced. It’s the second episode in a row that made me laugh unintentionally though. Sam doesn’t think it’s odd that there are no windows in his new home right from the start? He doesn’t notice the odd, knowing looks between his soon-to-be jailors and fails completely to notice the handshake of doom between two people who have tricked the zebra into the cage. (See what I did there?) And probably the most unintentionally funny thing to me was the chairs in the spacecraft – they have no neck support because g-forces don’t count, but they have a seatbelt. Whiplash much? And unfortunately, they are not well bolted down very well or Marcusson would still be alive. Like a said, a good episode but a bit offbeat, even by comparison to what I normally find in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Sam Conrad seems like a strange choice to send on a mission to Mars. He is apparently being sent because of his knowledge and expertise, but surely they could have found somebody who possessed those qualities and wasn’t also frightened as a church mouse? The man doesn’t even look sane, let alone capable of being an astronaut.
Luckily his colleague Warren Marcusson is much more the adventurous type, and when they crash land and he is fatally injured, his dying wish is for Sam to open the door so he can see what he is dying for. He never gets his wish.
“I don’t want to know.”
This makes Sam not only an odd choice of astronaut, but surely a really odd scientist as well. Let’s face it, none of this is going to make much sense anyway. It’s very much a product of the time it was made, with conditions on Mars apparently almost identical to Earth (no need for a spacesuit, then?) and an alien population living there who look exactly like us. When Sam does finally venture outside his ship, he finds that he hesitated and denied Marcusson his final wish for no reason at all, apparently, because Mars is very much like Earth. This is a pretty standard 60s iteration of the idea of aliens. Put some men in dresses and that’ll do.
Now, you might at this point be shouting at your computer screen: yes, but they have to look like us to make the twist work at the end. No, but they don’t. They really don’t. In fact, that’s the opposite to the approach needed to make this story work. It’s like Rod Serling got hung up on the delicious irony of Marcusson’s suggestion that “wherever they’re able to exist, they’d be the same” which of course means aliens are the same as humans in both negative and positive characteristics. But that would have still worked just as well with aliens who looked at least in some way different to us. It’s the behavioural similarity that makes the irony work, not the physical. These are people who are behaving selfishly and cruelly by putting a fellow sentient being in a cage and offering him up as an exhibit, and it’s a great twist ending, but it’s undermined by their identical appearance. They are gawping at somebody who looks exactly like them. There’s not even a language barrier, thanks to their telepathic form of communication. What’s to look at? The way he stirs drinks with his finger? Come to think of it, that does look like quite an alien thing to do, but would it sell tickets?
Actually, there’s a bigger irony to the twist that makes it work even better. Sam didn’t want to explore, preferring the safety of an ordinary life on Earth. After the crash landing, he didn’t want to go outside, preferring the safety of the ship to the possibilities and dangers that existed outside. In the end, he gets his wish, the safety and normality of a human home, and that becomes his prison. I wonder if Serling intended this as a wry comment on the way somebody could feel trapped by a normal life that might appear to an outsider to be comfortable and happy, but has become devoid of adventure. Without risk, can there be any reward?
It’s a fabulous twist ending, and it took me by surprise. I was expecting the aliens to turn out not to be friendly after all – that much was obvious – but the nature of the danger they posed was unclear until the final couple of minutes. Adding to the impact, and perhaps allowing us to retain some faith in human nature (by reflection) is the reaction of Teenya on seeing what has happened to Sam. She is clearly troubled deeply by what she is witnessing, suggesting that the Martians are capable of change, just like humans. Maybe we really are “alike all over”. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Execution