Despite not being very good at it, or perhaps using the wrong forum for it, Rod Serling insists on writing comedy for The Twilight Zone. Yet again we’re left with that sense that, had we had a few more minutes, or perhaps a better writer, we might have had a point to it all. Alas, even Burgess Meredeth and Don Rickles couldn’t save this from being a foul ball.
Mr. Dingle is an idiot, or as Serling puts it, he’s a “valet at a hobo convention”. He’s a vacuum cleaner salesman who gets beaten up regularly at a bar that he continues to frequent even knowing he’s likely to get a beating. When a two-headed, no-legged Martian shows up and secretly gives him superior strength, Dingle uses it on petty showmanship. We get somewhere around 20 minutes of that showmanship before the episode draws to a close. The point seems to be that given great ability, man will still squander it on silly things. But this is again a failing of the format. Let’s think about it – if even the best of us suddenly found ourselves with superior abilities, we might need a little time to acclimate to the new life before going out to save the world. Who wouldn’t want the time to adjust, maybe make a few dollars to stash away for a rainy day? Maybe even to confirm that it will last for more than a day or so – which is exactly where things go wrong for him anyway, so he’s not actually making a mistake in not running out to save the world, is he? It is on day 2 of having this unique ability, that the Martians take the power away. As they do so, a couple of smaller Venusians come in and give him superior intellect. He then uses his power to predict the next move of a baseball game and the same events are bound to repeat with him being the center of attention for all of 24 hours. I would argue that being 500x more intelligent than the average person might have led him to the immediate realization of what to do next, to use that intellect for good – certainly a more likely start than sudden strength, but almost immediately this vast intellect lights a cigar, so he’s obviously not that intelligent after all.
Maybe Serling’s real point was that 500x more intelligent than the average man was still pretty dimwitted? No, I don’t think that was what he was going for! I think Rod just had a need to write funny stories sometimes and there are some good lines. “Have we found anyone weaker?” Calling Dingle “submental” was funny too. “Take back that innuendo!” I love when a stupid character tries to look smart – he might want to look up that an innuendo is not the same as a direct jibe!
I can’t deny that I did laugh a few times in the episode, but it wasn’t the laughter of good comedy so much as good cinematics. The scene that comes to mind is the painter on the ladder when Dingle throws a football, along with the trajectory of said football. But besides that, this is another foray into comedy best saved for some other show. I think there is a place for comedy but I don’t expect to find it in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Burgess Meredith is back to play another nervous man being bossed around and failing to even attempt to stand up for himself. Like Time Enough at Last, this is another deeply flawed episode, but at least in his previous appearance he played a character that was well fleshed out and made sense. I mean, Bemis was a pathetic wimp being bullied by an abhorrent wife, but at least he was understandable as a person; an idiot, but an idiot we could understand. Luther Dingle is instead a total failure of characterisation on the part of Rod Serling.
What makes him tick? He gets beaten up all the time by the revolting Bettor (Don Rickles), and yet he can’t help provoking the punches. He could have been written as a man who is pure of heart and believes deeply in always telling the truth, even to the cost of his own welfare, but Serling never joins those dots so we are left to guess as to why he keeps inviting the anger of the “animated citizen”, which seems to lack any motivation on the part of Dingle other than stupidity.
When he gets his super-strength, Dingle turns into a right fool, showing off and using his powers to break things. A lot of things. Again, Serling could have used this to say something about the character, who is perhaps working out his frustrations after a lifetime of insignificance and victimhood, but once again we are left to guess, perhaps because Serling didn’t think he needed to show us a believable person when he is engaged in his latest disastrous attempt to write comedy.
The majority of the episode is the same gag over and over again. Dingle is strong; we get it. That’s established for us after a couple of examples, but do we really need to have the point rammed down our throats for most of the running time, seeing Dingle rip a door off its hinges, throw a ball impossibly high, rip a handle off a taxi, lift up a woman on a bench, break a rock in half, break a rock in half again, lift up a statue, crush an alarm clock, rip up a phone book, punch a hole in a wall, break a table, rip a bar stool out of the floor, and lift the bully up in the air. Isn’t that a bit of a long list in order to make one simple point for the viewers? No comment is ever made about how destructive he is with his powers. Even the bar owner stands back happily while his entire building is almost destroyed. He can’t possibly be making enough money on drinks to cover that.
At least all those things are achieved with some impressive effects shots. Visual tricks are often the best when they are so well-integrated we don’t even realise they are tricks. In contrast, the design of the aliens is truly abysmal. One of them (or should I say half of the alien?) literally has a little satellite dish spinning around on the top of his head, and those children with adult voices dubbed over them are just freaky (not in a good way).
Serling comes dangerously close to a highly questionable moral of the story. Bettor is momentarily defeated, but then gets his revenge, so the bully wins. Dingle, given the chance to be better than he is, becomes an insufferable idiot. This seems to suggest the dodgy idea that a loser should stay a loser because he’s a loser for a reason, which is all pretty revolting. Matters are helped by the ending, with Dingle being gifted super-intelligence instead of super-strength, but the scene is too short for us to really figure out if that’s going to solve his victimhood and loserdom in the long term and Serling’s narration suggests that it probably won’t. Again, we have to join the dots ourselves, and perhaps conclude that intelligence is more important than physical strength, and certainly more useful to a man such as Dingle. But we are really having to make up a moral message ourselves, because Serling didn’t bother. He seems to have been a writer who often came up with an idea, stretched it out to 25 minutes, and never stopped to think what the point of his idea was in the first place. An episode like this lays bare that hollow approach to constructing a narrative. The writer has nothing to say, and his work is therefore meaningless and soulless, a misguided attempt to make us laugh, without ever bothering to make us think. If the writer isn’t thinking about things, how will the viewer?
The silly aliens are off to visit a planet of “only females”. I wanted to see that story instead. It couldn’t possibly be worse than Mr Dingle, the Loser. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Static
Not a Twilight Zone episode I care for at all, but I think I can fairly understand its message. The need to improve ourselves via strength or great intelligence can bring out the worst in us rather than the best. As a comedy, it’s agreeably not in the best taste and certainly not the right way of course to make us feel our truest empathy for a soul like Mr. Dingle. But it may earn our better appreciation for our more humbled natures.
Thank you both for your reviews.
LikeLiked by 2 people