I grew up loving The Twilight Zone and thinking Rod Serling was a genius. I don’t deny his brilliance in his outlook and his ability to come up with good ideas most of the time, but I’m not sure he was the genius I have often given him credit for being. Maybe part of my love of the show comes from the way I used to watch these: The Honeymooners, Star Trek, and then The Twilight Zone. That was the order of late night TV of the summers of my youth. Or maybe my admiration comes from a good story but not all of Serling’s works fit that description and I’m tired of all the grumpy people he introduced us to. And it’s never a good thing when thinking about the bigger picture breaks the story down. I still do think he was a solid storyteller but that’s hard to reconcile if you think about what’s happening and fails to deliver!!
Let’s take The Lateness of the Hour with Inger Stevens and John Hoyt. Stevens you may remember as Nan, from the classic episode The Hitchhiker; another episode that falls apart under the pressure of scrutiny. She’s still lovely to look at but unlike her previous role, this one isn’t particularly sympathetic. Hoyt is Dr. Boyce from the unaired Star Trek pilot, The Cage. Here’s how the episode starts: Jana (Stevens) is looking at a photo album and comments that the maid looks the same as she did many years ago. The maid thanks her for the compliment. Not 10 minutes later, it is revealed that the household staff are automatons invented by Dr. Loren (Hoyt). Now, that’s a great realization, which comes when Jana throws another maid down the stairs, but here’s the problem: Jana knows her father made them. This is only a revelation for the audience, not the character. So why is she confused about the age of the maid?? I’m not surprised that Alexa still looks as good as when I bought her! Later, she’s also aware that there are no pictures of her as a child in the family photo album. That didn’t dawn on her for the first 20+ years of her life??
So the episode spends 20 minutes on Jana ranting about how they are all slaves to the technology and she wants her dad to deactivate the automatons and open a window and go out to eat. Again, big picture: she’s not a child. Did it take those same 20+ years for her to finally make that request? Is that the lateness of the hour to which the title refers? What was she doing for the remainder of her life? Then daddy says he gave all the robots (sorry, robuts, according to the way Serling says it in his narration) a memory track and the punchline was broadcast a mile off. Jana is one of Loren’s creations. Shock! Horror!! He deactivates the others, then has her replace the maid. The final image is of her massaging her former mother’s shoulders now wearing the maid’s outfit. Because you know, her mom would be ok with that adjustment too.
If you want to take this as a cautionary tale about the advances of technology, go for it. It doesn’t work if you ask me, but hey, some people are luddites and want to point the finger at the damage technology is doing. I’m not saying that isn’t a good story, it just doesn’t work here. This shows technology working quite well. The only danger is in the heartlessness of people who lose touch with humanity but that’s not the fault of the machines Dr. Loren creates. It’s that he and his wife are hermits. Sure they have a beautiful home – one I actually adored – but would they really be ok in that environment long term? They have no interest in social interactions. He could have let Jana out for a night if he really loved her or he could have reprogrammed her to still be his daughter but without the interest in going outside. Instead, we have a weak episode that never really does anything new. Even for the time it was made, I’d be surprised if this is really that groundbreaking. Serling may have relied too heavily on taking things at face value. Maybe that was a product of a time when repeats were not common. Whatever the case, this episode belongs shelved in a dusty and disused corner of The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Dr Loren and his wife never set foot outside their house. Everything has been “designed for a perfect life”, including the “robut” servants created by Dr Loren. Their world might be perfect for them but it is imperfect for us, because this is the first of six episodes shot on videotape to save a bit of money. In the 60s it was a technology in its infancy, and looked terrible. Coincidentally it works quite well as a metaphor for the story this week: perfection is easily tainted.
The episode opens with Mrs Loren’s grunts of pleasure, which are disturbing and almost sexual. She is being massaged by her maid, and I don’t think it’s unintentional that Irene Tedrow’s performance is over-the-top. We are supposed to be troubled by this seemingly perfect life, as if it’s all a little bit sick.
The revelation that the servants are robotic comes early in the episode, when the Lorens’ daughter Jana pushes the maid down the stairs, and she gets back up with a sinister smile on her face. This is the standout moment of the episode, and we could have done with some more of this kind of thing, because the rest of the episode is far too talky. Once again, Rod Serling struggles to stretch his ideas to even a modest running time.
There is a mid-episode twist that livens things up: the Lorens’ beloved daughter is a robot as well. This is a great idea, but handled very badly by Serling. Her ability to rebel is hand-waved with a comment from Dr Loren that the robots have “minds and wills”, and yet Jana has a meltdown because she is a thing that will never be able to feel love. That would have worked if she was emotionless, but then the twist would have been ruined. Serling tries to have his cake and eat it, which was never going to work. Jana is showing emotions: a lot of them. She is angry, rebellious, upset, grieving for the loss of a past that never happened, lonely, bored, frustrated, and clearly has a desire to find a husband and have children.
“I can’t even feel love.”
Of course she can, even more so than her parents, who basically lobotomise her because they always put their own needs first. That’s the conclusion Serling should have offered us this week: in the end the robot was more human than the humans.
Like most Twilight Zone episodes, this one leaves us with loads to think about. It’s what makes TZ such a great show. What makes a person human? Did the Lorens really love their daughter, or were they just using her to dull their grief at being childless? How about the rest of the servants? They clearly had minds of their own and tried to argue vehemently against their deactivation. We never see them again, so were they permanently destroyed? What kind of a man does that make Dr Loren? How about Dr Loren’s actions at the end? Those disturbing moans of pleasure from his wife return, and they seem to be happy again in their twisted little world, but the cost of their contentment is the self-awareness of a sentient being. The episode raises issues of agoraphobia, the power of money, the rights of a creation and its creator, and most importantly the nature of personal identity. We are the sum of our memories, and the trigger for Jana’s meltdown is the realisation that her childhood memories are a lie, placed in her head. But our own memories are unreliable, overwritten and tweaked with each recollection. At least Jana’s are stable. We are no less beings built on lies and confusion than Jana. If a human is the sum of their memories, what does that really make us? RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Trouble with Templeton