The Twilight Zone: A Penny for Your Thoughts

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959I’ll be the first to admit that I often root for the underdog; I’m an infracaninophile.  When Hector B. Poole gets the unexpected ability to hear people’s thoughts, he has a chance to improve his life a bit.  Considering he’s such a nice man, I should be overjoyed by this.  But I take issue with a few things in this episode and it spoiled my enjoyment of it.            

Firstly, let me say I’ve always liked Dick York but that’s because I remembered him as Darrin in Bewitched.  I used to like that show when I was a kid, though it was more of a background series than one I ever really watched.  Anyway, when A Penny for your Thoughts starts and he’s shown as the lead character, I thought: nice!  This should be a happy episode.  I wasn’t even put off by the fact that the title references a penny, but Poole tosses in a quarter to get his abilities.  Maybe it was just a penny for one person’s thoughts, but he got a whole day’s worth.  But then we start seeing just what kind of a man Poole is and it wasn’t one I really liked.  Look, I don’t need John Wayne to admire a guy, but I do like a man to have a backbone.  Poole is the epitome of a sycophant.  I’m not saying he shouldn’t be contrite when needed, nor do I think he should be looking for a fight, but he accepts things that are unacceptable.  After nearly being hit by a car, he endures the mental assault that comes at him from the driver.  Sure, at that point he doesn’t know how to respond because he’s hearing voices and doesn’t know from where, but he could show some sign of standing up for himself.  People walk into him and blame him for it, although one man does seem to be repentant and a little afraid.  Poole is totally clueless and has to stare at people to get even the inkling of a clue!  Then when Poole gets to work 10 minutes late, he runs to his boss to apologize.  Yeah about that… nearly being run over might justify being late anyway, especially if, as he says, he has a spotless track record.  But more than that, would it even be worth the boss’s time to interrupt him to say he was 10 minutes late?    Here’s a real life fact: the higher up the chain you go, the more you get paid.  That means for every minute one wastes of the bosses time, it’s equal to more of the underlings time.   Now bear in mind: you have to add those numbers together.  Simply put: if you go in to explain why you’re 10 minutes late, you’re wasting an extra few minutes of your own time time, plus that much of your boss’s.  Rather than the company losing 10 minutes of money to pay for a guy who was late, they’ve just lost 20 minutes because you’ve just spent 5 additional minutes of your time and 5 of your boss’s, who gets paid more on top of it.  Long story short: Poole has no sense.  In more ways than one too!  He lacks cents: he bought the paper in the morning only to stop on the way home to buy it again??  This man is an oaf!  Why should I root for him?

And that lead to another annoying thing.  The dude selling papers has a coin box that Poole tosses money into which causes the whole fiasco.  It’s pretty clear the paperboy is on a busy street corner.  Is Rod Serling really selling us a story that no other person bought a paper all day?  Or even if they did, no one threw in a coin that hit the standing one?  Serling himself ends the episode stating that a simple vibration should be able to knock the coin over.  Maybe the audience of the time weren’t that smart; it’s the only thing I can rationalize.  I mean, the bank patrons certainly weren’t!  They stand around the bank holding their money out while daydreaming as if this is a free-cash establishment and they’ve each been handed a king’s ransom!

Having ripped apart a lot of the episode, I will say there are some things I liked.  I was actually happy that Poole gets one over on the cheating bank manager.  (I was surprised by the bluntness of how the bank manager was describing his upcoming weekend, knowing he was married!)   I like that Poole stands up for Helen and even asks her out later.  I may not love the idea that he had no backbone without her, but I’ll admit that confidence can do a world of good for a person and she was giving him plenty of confidence.  And I like that Poole throws in one extra win for Smithers at the same time.  There’s even a great commentary on how we think things all the time that we never intend to do!  I think fantasizing is a natural part of life; it’s even considered healthy.  I was reading an article about it recently in fact where it’s totally natural to fantasize being the hero of our own story; it’s good for mental development.  The fact that Smithers fantasizes just makes his day a little bit more fun; he pretends so the tedium of a long job has a bit more enjoyment to it.

At the end of the episode I was just starting to like Poole when he loses the ability to hear thoughts and, taking just as long as it took him to understand that he had a power, he now spends minutes grabbing passersby and staring at them meaningfully to see if he can hear their thoughts.  I shook my head, resigned to the fact that Poole had managed to redeem himself only to fall back a peg or two.  Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back and in this case, that put me squarely in The Twilight Zone.   ML

The view from across the pond:

Listen up, you plonker. What’s this? A comedy episode of The Twilight Zone that is actually entertaining? Note that I don’t go so far as to use the word “funny”, although appreciation of humour is of course highly subjective, but nothing made me laugh during these 25 minutes apart from Hector trying to listen to a woman’s thoughts and discovering that her head is entirely empty, and I wasn’t even sure if I should have been laughing at that nowadays.

Numpty. The consequences of telepathy are rich pickings for sci-fi. A person’s thoughts are private, and if we could all hear them it would probably lead to the breakdown of society. At the very least it would end most friendships and relationships. If we are being honest with ourselves then we are really not very nice people in our heads. As Hector soon discovers, people will be outwardly polite, while calling you every name under the sun in their heads. Out on the street, the thoughts he hears are either aggressive or cowardly, showing how on a basic level we are still a fight-or-flight species.

Dipstick. That said, if we are not very nice people in our heads, then I think we need to give ourselves a break about that. All kinds of silliness goes on up there, and our actions should define us more than our thoughts. Hector learns an interesting lesson when he overhears old Mr Smithers, thinking about robbing the bank vault and heading off to Bermuda. Hector takes his words literally, but it turns out to just be a fantasy, a way to keep himself going through his dull existence, a bit like somebody going to work for a pittance today but lying to themselves that it’s all OK because they will win the lottery tomorrow. In other words, it’s a coping mechanism.

Prat. This has an important moral, despite the events of the episode being impossible (probably!), because it can be applied to eavesdropping or other forms of nosiness. Hector hears the words, but even with telepathy he cannot understand the emotions and motivations behind those words. Acting on his misunderstanding causes embarrassment for an old man and costs Hector his job. The way he regains his position at his workplace, getting a bonus holiday for Smithers into the bargain, is where the moral message collapses, because it’s the opposite example to the failure of eavesdropping. This is instead a successful bit of accidental espionage, and Hector takes advantage of the knowledge he shouldn’t have by blackmailing his boss.

Arsemongering wazzock. This same story could easily be rewritten without the fantasy element. Hector would be restyled as a nosey person, poking into his colleagues’ business. Smithers’ fantasy would be a diary entry, perhaps. Bagby’s telephone conversion with his mistress would be overheard, instead of his thoughts. You would have functionally the same story, but let’s consider for a moment what kind of story that would be, because it actually throws this episode into sharp focus. It would be a story of a man who spies on his boss, blackmails him, gets the girl by spying on her as well, and lives happily ever after. Not exactly a morality tale, is it. Of course, the fantasy element does make a difference, because Hector doesn’t actively spy on people; the private information is thrust upon him, but that doesn’t make it right because it’s the way he acts on the private information that matters. Blackmailing a boss who actually seems to be quite fair towards him and probably a lot more patient than I would have been with such a disruptive element in the workplace doesn’t feel like something that’s sufficiently justified by a private life that isn’t spotless. Perhaps styling Bagby as some kind of a Scrooge character might have made this work a bit better, but in the end it’s an odd tale of a successful blackmailer. Heads: the writer didn’t have a clue what he was trying to say with this script. Tails: this is a fascinating morality tale.

… I’ll call it. Side.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Twenty Two

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, The Twilight Zone and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Twilight Zone: A Penny for Your Thoughts

  1. scifimike70 says:

    From A Penny For Your Thoughts to What Women Want, the comedic potential of telepathy being a good or bad thing in our lives may be an easy attraction. Anthologies can therefore see fit to give it a fitting message. Certainly one about responsible behavior and proper use of such power. Adding the coin tossing element is interesting in retrospect, given its serious references with Two Face and in No Country For Old Men. So for a comedy it’s most refreshing. Thanks for your reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

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