Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale; the tale of a fateful trip, that started on this tawny horse ‘longside this hangman’s noose… (Well, nothing’s perfect…)
When The Professor (Russell Johnson) from Gilligan’s Island plays with a time machine, he accidentally snags a convict freshly hanged from a rope for crimes he committed against humanity. Talk about an unlucky break. The Professor, not the sharpest tool in the shed, even if he did build a time machine, realizes what Joe Caswell is all about and outright tells him that he has to be sent back to the hangman’s noose. Needless to say, Caswell doesn’t just say “Ok, George, let’s do this!” and instead beats the life out of the Professor, literally. Then he goes out on the town and it’s not quite what he expected. Returning, he gets into a fight with a local criminal, ends up where he began, at the end of a rope, while the local criminal steps into the time machine and ends up back at the moment Caswell left, now the proud owner of a thick and uncomfortable necktie.
Again, another lightning fast episode and one that kept me from blinking from start to finish. For me personally, it’s a really great episode because I’ve often speculated about what happens when you take a caveman into the modern era. Not like this is something I could do if I wanted to, but I often think he’d see our world as if it were magic. I never thought that it would be just as easy to take someone from just over 100 years ago to get the same effect. Imagine computers and VR to this poor guy, huh? So while the story is good, it’s the idea that really revs my engine. But I have to go a step further than the idea because there’s something else that steals the show: the acting. There are so many subtle touches that really ignite the screen that it actually trumps both the story and the idea, and believe me, that’s saying something. That’s the sort of craftsmanship you have to respect. Notice all the subtle things that go on, specifically where Albert Salmi (Caswell) is concerned. He does a lot of little things that might go unnoticed, but watch his reaction when the cigarette lighter is lit. He flinches backward ever so imperceptibly because the idea of it is “fire from the air”. When he steps into the phonebooth the door closes behind him and due to the odd way those doors close, to push on it just makes it harder to get out, so he reacts with very palpable fear, the fear of a criminal in captivity. Or notice how he stands in the street as the cars go by: he’s trying to grab them the way he would a horse, but these are no horses; he has nothing to grip to tame the beast. Even his reaction to the (unintentionally funny) TV is calculated to show how afraid he is seeing a cowboy on screen prepared to shoot him. Then, even if it’s a stunt man doing some of the work, the physicality in this episode is incredible. The aforementioned phonebooth takes a nasty crash but watch the fight sequences, especially that with The Professor. There is a ton of choreography going on here and people are hurled around like rag dolls. For a half-hour story, it was a sight to behold. I don’t know about you, but I often forget just how impressive the older movies could be, so conditioned to the special effects of today that I forget the skill of yesterday!
Another brief mention is that this episode put my thoughts to rest from last week on whether or not Roddenberry had ever seen this show before Star Trek was born. Those computer sounds were used on the bridge of NCC-1701 throughout my childhood. That couldn’t be coincidence! And personally, I watched this episode at the perfect time. I’ve been engaged in a discussion about watching TV while multitasking. I’m not a fan, because I prefer to commit to the things I’m doing fully, but I understand why some people have to do that. Still, in these short 25 minutes there is so much subtlety that a multitasker would be bound to miss something! So much so that it would be heartbreaking! I found this episode to be mind candy on many levels but the best was the idea of how far we’ve come in just over 100 years. I wonder what a man from the 1880s would make of our time now, 50 years on from the time this story was written. I wonder what we would make of the world 100 years from now. I just wish I’d be around to see that myself. Maybe when I shuffle off this mortal coil, I’ll find that there’s a big viewing area in heaven, but I wonder if I’d recognize the world of tomorrow… or would it be as foreign to me as The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Professor Manion has invented a very odd time travel machine. Instead of sending himself into the past or future, his machine snatches somebody from 80 years ago. The selection seems to be completely random, because the Prof has no idea who he has stolen from history, and is surprised to see the mark of a noose around Joe Caswell’s neck. This suggests there is something more to the machine than Manion understands. Could it be alien or stolen tech? Snatching somebody from the point of death seems to be beyond coincidence, so the machine either has some life-saving instinct or a very cruel sense of humour, considering the eventual outcome.
The aspect of Execution that most people seem to praise is the sequence where Caswell encounters the modern world and is overwhelmed. I found it all a bit irritating to watch, and it shares a problem that many Twilight Zone episodes have: it keeps making the same point over and over again. Caswell is overwhelmed by all the people. Caswell is overwhelmed by the noise. Caswell is overwhelmed by the cars. Caswell destroys a jukebox. Caswell pulls a gun on a barman (actually, he leaves it on the bar closer to the barman than himself, and turns the other way, but never mind). Caswell shoots a television. Caswell shoots a car. Everything in this chain of events is simply showing us that he is behaving like a confused, dangerous animal in unfamiliar surroundings.
The bit that doesn’t get enough praise is the bit that should make us think. Before Caswell’s rampage he kills Manion, after the Professor very foolishly threatens to return his neck to the noose, horrified by Caswell’s crimes. But before Caswell kills him he gives a speech about being the victim of the world he inhabits. How can Manion stand in judgement, without being able to walk a mile in Caswell’s shoes? Caswell points out that Manion’s ethics are fine when you’ve got enough food and a comfortable bed, but how about if your stomach is empty and your enemy stands in the way of your next meal? It’s a sobering thought. It may, of course, all be a load of lies (especially as he seems entirely unrepentant on the day of his execution), but it’s such an impassioned speech that Caswell clearly believes he is a victim of circumstance. Where Rod Serling fails to follow through with this idea, perhaps because of the 25 minute format, is by never showing us if Caswell could have been a peaceful man or not, given food, comfort and safety. Instead, he kills again to save his neck (literally), and for the rest of the story he is acting out of panic.
So we get an interesting question in the middle of the episode, which is never answered, abandoned in favour of irony. Serling loved irony, and had to give us that twist ending, and this is one instance where that’s to the detriment of the story. A new character comes into the mix, late in the episode, and turns out to be another ruthless criminal, this time from 1960. He kills Caswell with a curtain chord, and ends up back in the past himself, swinging from Caswell’s noose. It’s all deliciously ironic, but it’s a prime example of Serling throwing away an interesting ethical question he raised, in favour of making an impact at the end.
I tend to have a problem with dramas that don’t give us any characters to root for. If we don’t like anyone, why would we care about their fate? For that reason, it’s hard to get emotionally invested in Execution, and that problem is exacerbated by the victim of the twist ending being a character who we have just met (although to be fair he is brought to life very quickly and efficiently by the script and the acting). There are also huge logical leaps to be made. It’s not just the way the machine works that is unfathomable, it’s the way the criminal just happens to press the right buttons, and then walk into the machine. This is all well beyond coincidence, and only really works if you assume the machine has some kind of conscious thought of it’s own. If so, it’s one twisted machine.
A sobering thought: we are now relatively close to being the same distance in time from this episode as Caswell’s time is from Manion’s. I wonder how somebody from the 1940s would react to our world, if they hadn’t lived through the intervening 80 years. Perhaps with a mixture of wonder and horror, but hopefully not as violently as Manion’s reaction. And how would we react to the year 2102? Let’s hope that the world we would find there would be a better one. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Big Tall Wish
If you want an anthology episode about a totally nasty character who in the end gets an inevitable comeuppance, you probably can’t do better than Execution with Albert Salmi’s profound acting as Joe Caswell. The episode’s ability to make us care enough about Caswell as he is mentally tortured by the overwhelming effects of the contemporary world, even if it aggravates his toxic masculinity to the point of shooting someone in a car, seemingly for the hell of it, might work when he’s finally begging the dead Prof. Manion for help and is then murdered by the thief (Than Wyenn also being memorable for what he was able to do with that role). Clearly the premise for how a man from an openly primitive past would be dangerously affected by suddenly being thrust into a larger reality plays a most crucial role.
But unlike Khan in Space Seed or Jack the Ripper in Time After Time, Caswell doesn’t have what it takes to adapt in any villainous way to the modern world, which is a good realism for this episode and a good message about all the securities needed in building a time machine. Even if we would still like Russell Johnson’s performance as Manion and be saddened by Manion’s death, his severe mistake would make him more of a most cautionary note for time travel sci-fi. Execution is quite down to basics in that respect, in all respects, and still holds up as a good Twilight Zone story can. Thank you both for your very helpful reviews.
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