Really though, what’s the likelihood that The Professor from Gilligan’s Island (Russell Johnson) would be in another time travel episode of The Twilight Zone? Well, clearly the likelihood was quite high because he’s back for that very thing. Last time, we saw Russell Johnson, he had pulled a guy from the past to the present then sent him back again. This time as Peter Corrigan, he starts in the present, travels back there and ends by returning to the present. Poetic justice, I say! In Execution, he’s responsible for saving a murderer from the gallows (at least temporarily). In Back There, he tries desperately to prevent a catastrophic event from happening, namely, the assassination of President Lincoln.
I love the premise of this episode. It starts off with some friends hanging out and playing cards while talking about hypothetical ideas about time travel. I just did the same exact thing with some of my friends recently; no joke! We played Lovecraft Letter and talked about time travel and mistakes we would like to have corrected. It was a good night. We never completed a full round of the game because the conversation became too engrossing, but such is life. Alas… although perhaps I shouldn’t be morose about this… I didn’t find myself traveling to the past that night. Maybe that’s because we were at my house and it was my friends who left; I haven’t asked them if they had any encounters with previous presidential figures after they walked out the door. In the episode, the friends seem to be hanging out at the Diogenes Club or some such place, but wherever they are, they mirror the sort of friendships I have and that was nice to see onscreen. They speculate on whether or not history could be changed. Then, to my surprise, I found where Russell T. Davies may have gotten his idea for Doctor Who: they talk about “fixed points” in history. Some events can be changed, and some can’t. So, right away, this episode sparked my imagination. How was Rod Serling going to address that pesky idea of “fixed points”?
So let’s recap: Corrigan walks out of that Diogenes Club and finds himself back on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. He wants to prevent it from happening so he becomes town crier and tries to warn people. No one listens except one man: John Wilkes Booth. Booth first gets him out of jail (for disorderly conduct – apparently saying someone is going to kill the president raises some hackles), then he drugs him, leave him alone and the next thing we know, Lincoln is dead. However one cop believed Corrigan and he goes on the search for Booth which ultimately leads him to a different life as a result. His future has changed from the original timeline. Lincoln is a fixed point, but the cop’s life isn’t. When Corrigan returns to his time, it is slightly altered where the former servant at the club is now a friend he doesn’t recognize. Great stuff but it begs a question. By telling people what was going to happen, did Corrigan create the monster? It’s a chicken and egg story and Serling never quite brings that idea home. I mean, take the evidence: Booth doesn’t appear to be dangerous. We’re never really sure why he takes Corrigan from prison after he’s arrested but he doesn’t seem to be doing it because he’s going to assassinate a president. Think about it: the one man who could possible identify him is safely in jail. If he abducted him with the plan of killing him first, he fails to do even that. This man doesn’t fit the mold of a villain no matter how bizarre the character was. In fact, he seems to be a well-to-do man with some credibility, being able to have a prisoner remanded to his custody. In fact, he claims to study psychology (which was a nice touch when Corrigan mentions the word and Booth says it’s not a word he’s familiar with. Well done, Mr. Serling. Well done, indeed!)
This is an excellent episode on its own, but opens up so many doors if we take it that next logical step forward: to the possibility that Corrigan created the problem in the first place. What would have happened had he never said a word? Would Booth have attended the play and shot Lincoln? It makes my brain spin with possibilities! What if any one event in history was actually caused by a time traveler going back trying to prevent the very thing and causing it to happen?? When the day comes that time travel is an actual possibility – and never say never – does the very ability impact the past? It may all be speculation, and that’s what I really love about science fiction; get my brain spinning with an idea and that’s perfect mind-candy. I just wish Serling drove that final point home a little better. Maybe he didn’t want to turn Corrigan into an unwitting villain, but there was more we could have gotten out of this one. For me, the jury is still out on Corrigan. I’m half convinced that the assassination might never have happened, had Corrigan just kept his mouth shut. I guess it’s just what we should expect in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Rod Serling explores one of the most basic sci-fi ideas here: what happens when somebody goes back in time? The time travel is prefaced by a debate in a gentleman’s club about whether it is possible to change the past or not. By the end of the episode, we will have our answer.
Of course, we already know the answer to a certain extent. There is an unwritten rule of sci-fi that does get broken occasionally nowadays, but Serling wasn’t quite enough of a mould-breaker to circumvent it in 1961: you can’t do anything to alter the reality of the viewer. The story simply can’t end with history changed. I mean, it can, but viewers would have just mocked that kind of a conclusion to a sci-fi episode at the time. So there’s a problem for Serling straight away. If you’re going to try to build an episode about a man’s attempt to stop Lincoln being assassinated, you don’t actually have any tension apart from the fate of the man who is attempting the change. We know the assassination is always going to have to play out as history dictates.
Serling therefore has to rely on some entertaining little twists in the tale. I guessed within seconds who Jonathan Wellington was going to turn out to be, but it was nonetheless an exciting development. Then we have the change in William that is really the whole point of the episode. A question hangs over the episode: William looked nervous as he walked into Corrigan, so was he anything to do with the time travel? It’s fun to speculate if there was another interesting Twilight Zone episode playing out before this episode began, with William being granted a wish to change his lot in life. If so, it’s a cautionary tale, because his personality changes from a nice chap to an insufferable, entitled snob. Whether intentional or not, Serling criticises inherited wealth here, and praises humility.
The philosophical question posed by the episode is whether history can be changed. Corrigan says no. One of his friends says yes. It turns out that they were both right, in some kind of a precursor to Doctor Who’s fixed points in time, but Serling’s metaphor in his closing narration is superb:
“… on one hand that the threads of history are woven tightly, and the skein of events cannot be undone, but on the other hand, there are small fragments of tapestry that can be altered.”
So I can’t quite conclude that this episode is a triumph of style over substance, as per an episode such as Time Enough at Last, because there is far more logic to the substance here, but Serling’s story is definitely elevated by the direction, acting and music in particular. The moment when Corrigan travels into the past is just a lens blur, which could easily have been underwhelming, but the director focuses on a lamp changing to a flame, and then the camera pans back to reveal a confused Corrigan stumbling along while a horse and cart go by. It’s simple but hugely effective, and is helped also by Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score, which is like something from a horror movie at that point. Russell Johnson is great as Corrigan, performing the role with a single-minded intensity, which helps to paper over the cracks in his character’s rather odd motivation; never for one second does he stop to question what he is doing and why. He just persistently tries to change a key moment in history without a thought as to the consequences of his actions, should he succeed, or the impossibility of success anyway. For a man that was just arguing about history being fixed in place, that seems an odd flaw in his characterisation. But once again, The Twilight Zone does what it does best: it makes us think. What threads would you try to pull on, in the tapestry of your past? RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Whole Truth