Oh good… a baseball episode. I get more excited about going to work! But within no time at all, Serling has me seeing this as a comedy and it’s down to the audio effects. One thing The Twilight Zone did very well was that they knew how to embrace limitations. Granted, at the time, these were not limitations, but the expectations of the medium, but life was not in black and white and sometimes fiction could not be caught on camera, so The Twilight Zone used what it could. In the previous episode, The After Hours, we see one of the shop workers hidden in shadow until she steps out to reveal a totally normal looking woman, despite what we expected. The producers knew how to use light and shadow to great effect. Equally, in this episode, we need to capture speeds that would be nearly impossible to convey on camera without better technology. So the producers used sound to get the points across and on more than one occasion I was laughing out loud. The introduction to Casey sees him beaned by a baseball with a sound that makes me laugh even as I’m writing this. To depict a fast ball, we hear a sped-up sound and see a smoking glove while for a slowball we hear an elongated sound, a slow “woooooooooooooooooopp!” For the curve ball, there’s an oscillating tone as the onlookers move their heads up and down as if following a ball that can defy the laws of gravity. It is yet another way in which shows that predate our modern viewing experience exhibit their skills. It’s a shame so few children are exposed to these shows today.
The episode itself is about a baseball pitcher who comes to the Hoboken Zephyrs and will change their failing reputation by blowing away the competition with some truly otherworldly pitching. Now I expected Casey to be a robot the moment he shook hands with his coach, but didn’t expect that to be announced within the first few minutes of the episode. Serling usually uses a thing like that to be the punchline of the episode, not a lead in. So with the big reveal out of the way, one has to wonder what the reveal will be. Surely it wasn’t just another comedy episode so soon after Mr. Bevis? To my surprise, it’s The Measure of a Man or I, Robot done years earlier than the other two. It’s not that Casey is a robot that matters, but what constitutes being human that we get as the … heart.. of the episode. Couched within a shorter, more comical package than both Star Trek and The Outer Limits offered us, it might provide a more easily digested analysis. Not, perhaps, as meaty and interesting, but certainly understandable. Casey is deemed inhuman by his lack of a heart which can be corrected. This gives us a chance to speculate on what makes a person human and for the purposes of this story, he needs a heart to be able to continue to play because then he can be considered a human being. Not a rational explanation really, but let’s not think too deeply about it. Once he has a ticker (literally: a ticking comes from his chest) he can play again, but he feels badly striking his opponents out and lets them win. Of course, that has nothing to do with the ability to pump blood and the episode takes a slightly juvenile approach to the idea in the end. What could have been a great morality debate is instead wiped away with the idea that having a heart makes you in incorrigible nice guy. (He didn’t feel bad about watching his team suffer or cost his coach a job, huh? Go figure!) It would have been more interesting if they took the baseball-to-the-head as the catalyst for his change of programming to prove that the heart had nothing to do with his ability, but then that might have sent a different message.
I think the episode was acceptable as a means of entertaining a concept, but it certainly wasn’t the deep, thinking episode I crave. Even the way Casey has to go into the hospital seemed absurd because we are introduced to Casey with that baseball bopping him off the head. Why was the latter one a bigger deal? Since his coach knows he’s a robot, there was no reason to have anyone examine him. Even if they pulled him off the field, his own creator was on hand and should have been able to play the part of his personal physician; the secret would have been kept! There were far better ways to explore the idea of what it means to be human. Still, I have to credit Serling because he actually made a baseball production that I could enjoy. Probably the 25 minute format with a robot thrown in for good measure is all it really takes for me to enjoy a sport. I suppose I can get behind a baseball story after all, especially when it takes place in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
The idea of a robot who can convincingly pass as human seems far beyond the reach of our abilities, more than two decades into the 21st Century. Watching a human-robot story that was made and broadcast in 1960 requires a Herculean effort to suspend disbelief. It’s all so childishly naïve, right down to the blueprints on one piece of paper that allow coach McGarry to build his own team of robots, when Casey is accidentally rendered useless to him by the presence of a heart, of which more later.
I’m probably the wrong person to be writing about this episode, because I have no interest in these kinds of team sports whatsoever, so any thrill a fan feels from watching some actors pretending to train or recognising a particular pitch, or whatever the case may be, is always going to be lost on me. All I see is the cartoonish absurdity of an impossibly fast ball leaving a burnt glove, or a curve ball breaking the laws of physics to the teeth-clinchingly awful sound of a slide whistle, as if this were a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but lacking all the humour.
And, bless him, Rod Serling did try his best to write comedy. He shouldn’t have been trying at all, when it comes to The Twilight Zone, because it’s a horrendously awkward fit for a series that specialises in cruel twists of fate. I suppose you could just about justify it as light and shade within a series, if it weren’t for the problem of the comedy failing to work at all, beyond one solitary clever line about not renewing the coach’s contract. Serling tries for a funny episode, and instead ends up with something flippant, silly, unfunny and entirely disposable. There’s nobody to care about here, and nobody worth watching apart from Abraham Sofaer as Dr. Stillman, who somehow manages a likeable performance despite having to contend with lines like, “I’m what you might call his, kind of, er, creator.”
The loss of the original lead actor in the McGarry role cast a shadow over proceedings. He was literally dying while he filmed this, necessitating a reshoot with a different actor. Watching this today, an even longer shadow is cast by the fact that the gentle robot with a heart was played by a man who ended his days in prison for murder. It goes without saying that none of this was Serling’s fault, but it’s as if the gods of television drama were conspiring against the enforced jolliness. It’s hard to raise a smile when watching this, unless that smile is a grimace. The only jolly thing about the episode is how jolly annoying it is.
So is there anything whatsoever of interest in this lame effort? I think there is, and that’s the idea that Casey is a great player until he gets a heart. This is clearly not meant literally. It’s a “heart” as in a conscience, or even a soul. Leaving aside how silly it was to be talking about adding that to a robot in 1960, Casey can’t “strike those poor men out” because he has empathy for the players on the other team (and therefore presumably none for his own team). Is this an attempt to demonise sports players, somehow demonstrating that they are not quite fully evolved? I don’t think so, and the fact that it comes across almost as if a man with a heart can’t be good at sports is probably nothing more than an indication of the clumsiness of this truly dismal script.
Strrrrrriiiiiiikkkkkkkeeeeeee! You’re out! RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: A World of His Own