I’ve always thought I’d seen the bulk of the Twilight Zone episodes, barring a handful from season 5, but I have been truly surprised by the sheer number of episodes that I’d never seen before. Take The Chaser, for example; it didn’t ring any bells! Well, that’s not strictly true. The episode may not have been one I’d seen before but the story was one I knew all too well. It’s one of the oldest stories in the book; something most of our parents tell us as we’re growing up. Be careful what you wish for. If you needed to sum up the story in a few words, there it is. It would be remade as a far more exciting episode a few years later when Star Trek gave us Amok Time. If only Spock could go back in time and find Roger Shackelforth, he could tell him that “…you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” Sorry Roger, Spock does learn to travel back in time, but not until it’s too late to do you any good.
This is an episode about two people, neither of whom are a catch. Roger is in love with the most vile woman in history. She’s cold, inconsiderate, uncaring… to sum up: she’s a cow. She uses Roger for a quick champagne, but can’t even give him a kiss for his troubles. Not that he deserves it, necessarily, being totally into her even though she treats him so badly. This is clearly a man who accepts abuse and is in the relationship for her looks. He’s an inconsiderate wastrel too, taking up a phone booth to dial her over and over again, without any consideration for those around him. Go home and make the call, you jerk! Frankly the best part of the story was watching the negotiator get to the front of the queue to get the phone away from Roger. He hands Roger a card and says to go see this guy, who can help with anything. Off Roger goes to The Outer Limits where a house, occupied by Prof. A. Daemon has an interior that seems to be a good distance away from the exterior. Daemon offers him a glove cleaner, which he’ll learn about later, but all Roger wants is a love potion. (I was praying Spock would turn up!) As expected, Leila (the cow) falls madly in love with Roger, and Roger now wants to get away because, you know, having isn’t the same as wanting… I mean, you saw it coming from miles off, right? Eventually he goes back to Daemon for that glove cleaner, which will kill his wife and leave him spotless of the crime, but he learns that she’s pregnant. Game over… he accepts a life of misery. (Talk about two terrible people. To think they’ll have a kid!)
It was ridiculous. It’s not a bad moral, nor even poorly acted. It’s just so cliché. We knew what was going to happen from the moment Shackelforth doted over Leila. I think the title was moderately clever, comparing the chaser to an alcoholic beverage, but that was about it. Although that might have been the one clever thing about the episode: alcohol. If we look beneath the surface, Roger comes in with a bottle of champagne which then leads Leila to loving him. He then thinks better of it later, although by then he’s married. It’s almost an allegory for dating and drinking, if only barely. The chaser might be what makes it all a bit more palatable again, but since that wasn’t the real goal of the chaser, the allegory falls short. It never quite strikes the chord correctly to really matter.
Sometimes The Twilight Zone fires on all cylinders, giving us a great, memorable story. Sometimes, it feels like the tires are in the mud, spinning but never gaining traction. After 25 minutes, I finished this one feeling like I was stuck in a particularly wet, tired, and muddy patch of the Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Roger Shackleforth is unlucky in love, until he visits Professor A. Daemon. You would have thought the name would have tipped him off. Visiting somebody with a name like that might not be a very good idea, but Roger is an idiot. He is madly in love with a woman named Leila, who is not even remotely interested in him, so he jumps at the chance to purchase a love potion from the professor for only $1. When he goes to visit her, we can soon see why Leila isn’t keen on Roger. He is very creepy towards her, following her around so closely that it’s suffocating for her. For his $1, the potion reverses that state of affairs (note how cleverly Serling’s narration describes what happens as a “switch”). To be fair, he was warned, but being a blockhead he never took the hint.
What follows is uncomfortable viewing. We get a repeat of the problem that occurred in A Nice Place to Visit with the protagonist getting bored of his paradise far too quickly. For the story to make more sense and have more impact, he shouldn’t be bored; instead he should have a creeping realisation that the woman he loved has been destroyed and her entire personality replaced with something completely different, so he isn’t actually living with the Leila he fell in love with at all. Instead, he feels no remorse or empathy, just selfish frustration. He’s more of a demon than Daemon.
We also have a writer who expresses no interest in the fate of Leila, only focusing on the effects of her stifling attentions on Roger. Leila is little more than an object here. Did nobody consider how it must feel for her, to have her personality overwritten? Well, I think the actress did. Look carefully in the moment of transformation and you can see that Patricia Barry plays the scene very cleverly, showing a subtle fear when she asks “what’s happening?”. This is a woman who is no longer in control of herself, and somewhere trapped inside is the real Leila, probably in a constant state of terror and frustration. That never gets addressed. The status quo continues at the end, and that’s entirely Roger’s choice. Leila has become an object, and any will of her own has been buried deep inside her or destroyed.
The professor knows human nature very well, which is why he prices the love potion at $1 and the antidote/poison at $1000, a clever business strategy. I suppose he needs to fund that extraordinary room of books somehow – what a great set that is, with those very high bookcases, and bottles of magic potions hidden among the books. He seems like a perfectly reasonable chap, a clever subversion of the idea of a demon, giving Roger fair warning of what will happen, but perhaps where he earns his demonic nomenclature is his comparison of Leila to a cocker spaniel. He knows his potion will give an intelligent woman the mind of an animal, and he has no conscience about that – a reasonable representation of evil disguised behind a mask of affability (or at least sardonic wit). I wasn’t sure what to make of the “glove cleaner”, but I think most people interpret it as poison. I’m not sure that makes much sense, because Roger doesn’t need to spend his entire life savings to buy poison – he can get that elsewhere – and I really don’t think he’s even remotely intelligent enough to pick up on the finer details of the deal, i.e. the poison leaving no detectable trace in the body. So on balance I think it’s supposed to be an antidote to the original potion and the significance of the potion being undetectable is perhaps the action the victim is likely to take after she comes to her senses and realises what has been done to her. Yeah, I know. It’s grim either way. If it’s an antidote, or if Roger even just thinks it’s an antidote, it makes his decision to trap Leila forever even nastier. It’s more than a gut reaction to her pregnancy. He says he could never have gone through with it. He was never going to be able to bring himself to free her. He didn’t want her any more, but he couldn’t let her go. Some part of him had to retain that control.
“We’ll be like this for the rest of our lives, won’t we.”
Both interpretations of the “glove cleaner” work in terms of the twist ending. Roger can’t poison the woman who is carrying his child, but equally he would feel just as strongly about committing to retaining the status quo for the sake of being fully involved with the journey of fatherhood that lies ahead of him. A Leila who has come to her senses would realise her child is the product of rape, and Roger surely would have no involvement in the life of his wife or child in future. I realise that’s a nasty way of expressing what has happened, but it’s an uncomfortable truth. If you found this episode a bit troubling to watch, but couldn’t quite put your finger on why that is, it’s probably because you’ve just watched a rapist get away with his crimes and keep his victim imprisoned forever. The writer is only interested in his sufferings (he feels trapped – big deal) and has no interest in the sufferings of his victim. That’s what makes this one a problematic 25 minutes of television. The intended moral is “be careful what you wish for”. Instead it should be “never allow a creepy weirdo into your home”. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: A Passage for Trumpet