I get the impression that for season 2, Rod Serling decided to introduce us to people who deserve what they get in The Twilight Zone. It’s funny because last season I had said how odd it was that my memory of this series was that the people who found themselves here were often given a bum deal. I liked a lot of the people in season 1 and felt bad for their respective plights. But so far in season 2, we really are introduced to some weak characters. How are we expected to care about what happens to these people? Here we meet Mr. Bartlett Finchley who is 48 years of age and has more of a fear of machines than my own mom. Listen, I love my mom, but the light switch is high tech for her. As a result, she opts not to use much in the line of technology. But she’d never be rude to someone who comes to her house to work on a broken bit of tech. And for that matter, she would never kick something she owns. I was brought up to take care of my stuff, resulting in me still having most of my childhood toys. Good parenting, I tell you.
When we are introduced to Mr. Finchley, we learn that he kicked his foot through his TV and, somewhere in the recent past, threw the radio down the stairs. He’s a man with a hair trigger and basically as rude a man as one hopes never to meet. His assistant, Ms. Rogers, attributes his rage to lack of sleep, which might be the key to what’s really going on. I think everything we see is what his deluded brain is seeing, not actually strange happenings from some alternate world. But if we take the story at face value, all of the machines in his home hate him. They keep telling him to “get out of here Finchley”. Interestingly, I was saying the same thing, wondering why Serling insists on introducing me to so many despicable people. I also noticed a possible subtext that combines with his lack of sleep: he’s an alcoholic. He takes a bottle of what I will assume was amaretto (because it’s my own personal favorite, though the reality is that it was probably whiskey or some other crass drink) and he proceeds to polish off a bottle in one sitting before waking up to the final attack where his car attacks him. Mind you, this dude gets tortured (at least in his mind) by a clock, telephone, typewriter (that seems to reload its own paper), TV, radio, electric razor and most deadly of all, his car.
I’m no teetotaler; I don’t mind a drink now and then, so I’m not saying Serling had an agenda, but I do think there’s something to the idea that Finchley’s problems come from too much drink. It’s not helped that he’s a misanthrope. I got the impression that he was so pent up because he wasn’t comfortable in his own skin; he lashed out to everyone who was around him including is assistant, who is smart enough to leave his employ. But was human frailty something Serling liked to examine? I think of last season’s (ultra-tedious) The Fever which took a harsh look at gambling. Is there a subtext here? I don’t know, but I tend to think there was. It didn’t stop the attacking razor from being both disconcerting and a bit funny, but one wonders if Serling was making a point about alcoholism in this one. And that’s fine; it’s his right as the writer. But I’m a little tired of these characters that are such cows that it’s not fun to watch them; I don’t care about what happens to them! I’m want to pay attention to the next non-Serling episode to see if we get some likable characters for a change; maybe it’s just something Rod was doing to say the people in the Twilight Zone deserve to be there. Maybe, but I can’t help but think there are still some likable people somewhere in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Technology gets on my nerves sometimes. My “smart” television doesn’t seem to be very smart, for a start. The DVD player thinks it is more important than anything else I might be watching, randomly turning itself on when I don’t want it. My weather station insists on displaying the time as one hour into the future, no matter how often I correct it, while the clock in my car chooses to be one hour into the past instead, just to confuse me as much as possible. My washing machine occasionally decides to shake so violently that it starts walking across the floor. And don’t get me started on my computer and its “don’t turn off” demands when it wants to update at the most inconvenient times. I might be forgiven for thinking that all this technology has some kind of a grudge against me, but that would be ridiculous… right?
That’s the actual premise of A Thing About Machines, an episode which shares a couple of problems with last week’s effort. Firstly, the main protagonist is completely unlikeable, so it’s hard to care much about what happens to him. When his shaver is chasing him down the stairs, I’m not sure I was supposed to be cheering it on. He’s mean to everyone, and he is also the instigator of his own problems. He clearly hates technology and has had a long-standing problem with it, so why does he surround himself with it, and pay a lot of money to keep having it repaired? The other problem is a lack of a twist ending. Like the previous episode, this one ends with a logical progression of the story we have been watching. The technology is out to get Finchley, and the inevitable happens in the end. For a series like TZ, which so often has one very simple idea and does little but hammer that home for 25 minutes, the twist in the tale is the one thing an episode often has going for it.
Fortunately this one compensates for the lack of a twist in the tale by being very entertaining. It walks the line between scary and silly, but is a lot of fun to watch whichever side of that line it’s on. The shaver in particular is unintentionally comical (how stupid is Finchley to try to use that when every bit of technology in the house is attacking him), but there are also some very creepy moments: the typewriter bashing out the words “GET OUT OF HERE FINCHLEY”, the clock chiming when it’s not even there any more, the dancer on the television breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to Finchley. On a basic level this functions like a ghost story, with an entity possessing technology in order to drive Finchley from the house, and when he proves to be defiant then it kills him instead.
“There’s a conspiracy in this house.”
That’s probably the only logical explanation that works, considering the “machines” (you’ve got to love how Finchley spits out that word) are such varying forms of technology. A manual typewriter, a clock and a car all have little in common. By the way, I know this is the last thing we are supposed to take from this episode, but wasn’t technology gorgeous in those days. What a beautiful object that huge television was, in its own decorative wooden cabinet. And that leads me to ponder on the moral of this tale. There’s no obvious attempt at providing us with any food for thought this week. Serling offers us nothing more than 25 minutes of entertaining pulp television. But that beautiful old television set and elegant killer car inspire me to come up with my own moral: we are often attracted to things that aren’t very good for us. Finchley pays a lot of money to fix his television, which causes him nothing but grief. Technology can be hugely exciting and attractive, but too much of it can turn out to be a bad thing. Maybe sometimes we need a little less of it in our lives. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Howling Man
Behaving appropriately towards machinery, speaking as someone who currently has to deal with a garage door that has to be readjusted, would be a strong point for this TZ episode. Bartlett Finchley could be most sympathetic in the sense that he might actually be hallucinating all these events with the machines, which could raise issues with mental illness. As ambiguous as it may be, we can give our easiest attention to Richard Haydn’s superb performance as a man whose life is unraveling as a result of what he clearly can’t control. This may of course be metaphorical for a lot of technological issues in our world. Knowing how easily agitated I can get when my TV or computer has glitches, it may be some kind of a message to either give the machine a rest or to just get out more in nature. I may therefore agree that finding it in our hearts to be kinder to our machines can be a testament to the best of humanity. A very good message from Rod Serling. Thank you both for your reviews.
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