The Twilight Zone: The Rip Van Winkle Caper

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959I’m glad I’m nearly done with season 2; I need a break soon.  I’ve been watching in a way I never had before.  When I was a kid, I watched with my family – mostly my cousins and my dad – late at night.  We’d tune in, watch the 30 minutes and sorta Zone out.  We enjoyed what we saw and that was it.  We didn’t engage much and we didn’t have big discussions about it, probably because we’d go to bed right after watching it.  We enjoyed the show for the “oh wow” zinger moment that was almost always a part of the stories, but we never thought it through!  So watching for the posterity of The Junkyard has been a different experience.  I watch with more thought involved and think about things more.  The biggest thing I thought when watching The Rip Van Winkle Caper is that Rod Serling really liked to write about jerks.  Maybe he wanted jerks to have their just comeuppance but he sure does like to subject his audience to really loathsome people and, for the life of me, I can’t understand why.  Are we meant to care for these people?   I’m guessing we’re supposed to be ok with what befalls them because they are jerks, but that hardly seems to make sense.  Thankfully these are only 25 minutes long.

Four criminals rob gold and decide the best strategy for avoiding detection is to go to sleep in a cave for 100 years.  This automatically begs questions: do they have no family?  All four of these jerks have no spouse, brother, sister, mother, father, friend, lover, or even a pet???  They are willing to just leave everything behind for 100 years with no idea what they have in store for them just so they can become rich when they wake up?  Not me!  No sirree!  These people know that when they wake up, all that  they know will be gone.  What’s it all for?  Even if they succeed, they have no moral character so what were they planning with that gold?

It also begs another question: where did this technology come from?  Farwell is the leader of the gang; a real Mr. Know it and an expert on “noxious gases”.  So I’m guessing Farwell thought: I’ll build 4 coffins made of glass and give them the ability to suspend life for some time.  I’ll use “noxious gases” to knock us out.  No one will find the cave… we’ll be fine!  And so they go to sleep, at least having the wherewithal to stash a car with them for when they wake up.  As it happens, one dies, so that leaves three.  They wake 100 years in the future and don’t know if the world is utterly dead or not.  That’s the coolest concept in the story, but it amounts to nothing at all for the bulk of the story.  We have to wait for something to happen in a small screen version of “And Then There Were None”!

Remember I mentioned they are all jerks?  The second fella, De Cruz is a special kinda jerk.  He decides, after they wake up and know nothing about their whereabouts, that the best thing to do is run over one of his few allies and destroy their car in the process.  Ok, so Jerk Extraordinaire has now made it where the two remaining people have to carry the heavy gold bars  He then finds a way, probably by stealing Farwell’s water, to make Farwell pay for every sip with more gold.  Here’s the 2-pronged problem with it.  It implies that De Cruz never needs to drink or has a canteen made on Gallifrey; it’s bigger on the inside.  Assuming the latter is just plain ridiculous so we have to assume De Cruz never drinks, but since he’s making Farwell pay for his water with gold, De Cruz’s bag is getting heavier all the time while Farwell’s is lighter.  Since Farwell is supposedly the brain behind the operation, my gut said he was acting because at the end of the day, De Cruz would be wiped out from carrying the heavy bag and need a rest.  When De Cruz is bent over, Farwell kills him.  I fully expected Farwell to perk up: he’d won!  That would have been the zinger I wanted to see.  But no, he actually was exhausted and ends up dead with the gold in his hand when a car pulls up.  The “oh wow” moment is finding out that gold has no value in 2061.  Their entire miserable caper was for nothing.

I often ask myself a question, ironically not about this but Doctor Who.  Why would the powers-that-be think casting a grumpy Doctor would be a good idea?  Colin Baker suffered it in the 80’s and the first season of Peter Capaldi introduced us to a Doctor that was so out of touch, he needed a “carer so he wouldn’t have to”.  Seems crazy in retrospect.  Who wants to watch a character that no one likes?  Negan in The Walking Dead is a really bad guy but, man, is he charismatic.  You can write a bad guy that is really likable; why would anyone want to write a protagonist (or 4) that no one could like?  You don’t write characters that people will hate and ask them to care about them; it’s just not the thing to do!  Unless, that is, you’re Rod Serling who seems to do it weekly.  This was all new territory for me; I had never seen this one before.  But man did I want it to end.  I hated every character!  Even the couple who pull up at the end aren’t particularly good people in that they don’t even try to resuscitate Farwell.  I guess it was for the real punchline to be the unspoken: Farewell, Farwell!

There are times I really love this show.  There are other times I wonder how I ever considered it a classic.  Was my judgement really that far off, or was I just living in The Twilight ZoneML

The view from across the pond:

This is our second time travel episode in a row, and this time people are travelling from the present into the future rather than from the past into the present. Let’s not mention the fact that we are significantly closer to the future time of this episode than the present now, because we’ll all probably feel a bit depressed about that. The means of travelling through time is what Doctor Who would call the “slow route”, with the four main characters sleeping their way through 100 years, so this is more The Sleeper Awakes than The Time Machine, although the potential of the idea is largely squandered, with no interaction between the 1961 characters and the people of 2061 until the final few minutes of the episode, and only because Rod Serling needed somebody to provide the dialogue for his twist ending. All we actually see of the future, beyond an unchanging desert, is a rather silly looking car.

Serling’s focus is instead on a tale that could easily have been told without time travel, or any kind of sci-fi element for that matter: four criminals betraying each other until they are all dead, their greed very much the root cause of their demise. Firstly we have their rather odd choice to sleep for a hundred years, so that their heist becomes a cold case. All logic leaves the building (well, the cave) at this point, and never comes back. It’s hard to believe that anyone capable enough to successfully pull off a crime of that nature would not believe themselves capable of keeping the loot and evading capture without resorting to such drastic and dangerous measures. Once they had agreed to Farwell’s crackpot plan, it’s even harder to believe that each one of those men would not want to be the one who doesn’t press his button to release the gas that will send them to sleep, and yet nobody thinks of that, even DeCruz, who seems to be the one with a brain. He could have made off with all the loot while the others slept. We also have to ignore the fact that the technology that can achieve what happens here would surely be worth more than all the gold they stole.

Once they wake up, poor Erbie is already a skeleton, and it’s not long before DeCruz has bumped off his main rival Brooks. He seems to have some kind of a half-baked idea about making it look like Brooks has had a car accident, which makes a nonsense of waiting a century for their crime to go cold-case, only to create another hot one. His actions are absurd, destroying the car and stranding them in the middle of the desert, carrying heavy bars of gold (and only some of it), with no guarantee that they won’t just die out there. As Farwell says, they could be on a highway “stretching to nothing”.

This is a tough episode to watch, not just because of the lack of logic on the part of the characters, but also the lack of logic in the writing. Also, a large part of the episode showcases the sadism of DeCruz, trading water for gold bars. Again the writing is far too simplistic, failing to take into account that DeCruz is also transferring all the weight to himself, as well as the value of that weight, but Serling writes him as if he’s some kind of a super-being in comparison to Farwell. In any case, if he simply wants to take all the gold, it’s hard to understand why he doesn’t just kill Farwell in the first place, rather than baiting him to the point where Farwell snaps. Maybe he was just enjoying his sadism too much.

The twist ending is very nearly a work of genius, a parable about greed causing misery and death rather than happiness. It doesn’t quite succeed because Serling is once again too simplistic in his approach. The idea that gold would be valueless is just a bit of a step too far, wrapped up in Serling’s rather childish idea of manufacturing it. We have manufactured diamonds, after all. Instead, Serling came tantalisingly close to an accurate depiction of the future with brief mention of the broken link between gold and currency, which has happened and will continue to do so, but it’s a bit lost in a bets-hedging bigger idea that’s slightly too sci-fi. Coming at the conclusion to an episode that is not quite sci-fi enough, it’s an awkward fit.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Silence

About Roger Pocock

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1 Response to The Twilight Zone: The Rip Van Winkle Caper

  1. scifimike70 says:

    You both raise many noteworthy points about this episode. Certainly how Serling might have often just wrote about nasty characters getting their comeuppance, even if they might have some level of dimension to them and may earn sympathy on occasion like Carl Lancer or Joe Caswell. I was very impressed by Simon Oakland’s performance as De Cruz, nasty as it was. Because he was always an excellent actor who could substantiate any role effectively, certainly the psychiatrist role in Psycho or an alien-costumed role in The Outer Limits: Second Chance.

    Oscar Beregi makes the best impression as Farwell. Because he’s the criminal mastermind and yet he’s clearly more than that. He cares about the unknown future they’re all headed towards and in all likelihood sees that much as being more important than the gold. So why not just do this entire experiment by himself without the criminals or doing the gold heist? Seeing him finally bludgeon the torturously evil De Cruz to death was most rewarding and his own death was very sad. So the most significant message that I would take away from this episode is indeed one of comeuppance, certainly that such criminals would have no place in an advanced future and would somehow get wiped out by twists of fate. After all, a future advanced enough to find a cure for the lust for gold can say a lot. Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

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