The Twilight Zone: The Silence

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959For the love of God, Serling is doing it again: he’s so fascinated with jerks that it seems like the only type of character he’s writing about this season.  Ok, I know he’s not solely doing that, but give me a break.  I need to credit A Hundred Yards over the Rim.  At least that had people I wanted to root for but after The Rip Van Winkle Caper, I was about ready to stop watching for a while.  How long can it go on with lousy examples of human beings?  The Silence is another of this veritable cornucopia of what can only be called “Jerk Tales”.  That might have been a more accurate name, anyway!  We are introduced to Jamie Tennyson who is immediately so dislikeable that I wanted something bad to happen to him within the first minute of the episode.  But then we meet Archie Taylor who is so much worse that I start having compassion for Tennyson.  Talk about a question of extremes!

So the story is that Tennyson is a talker.  He talks so much that Archie makes a bet: stop talking for a year and get $500,000!  (This was 1961; that’s a lot now and was worth even more back then!)  To accomplish this, Tennyson will be put in a specially constructed room for a year.  He leaves his wife and off he goes to the room.  The club where Archie and Tennyson made the bet must be a distant cousin of The Diogenes Club from Sherlock Holmes; a club for people who want to sit in silence.  They all accept this inhuman bet and off they go.  As Tennyson approaches the year, Archie tries to lure him out, saying his wife was seen with other men.  Archie is such a nice guy, huh?  But Tennyson stays the course, intent on claiming the money.  Archie has to pay up… but wait!  He was a fraud!  He’s broke and the whole year was a waste for Tennyson!   Just in the picosecond I really felt for Tennyson, he removes his cravat to show that he had his vocal chords severed, knowing he’d never be able to stay silent for a year.  He was a cheat too!  (Saw it coming, I have to be honest.   No one wears a cravat with a robe unless you’re hiding something or you’re the world’s most pretentious man!  Tennyson was a fool, but there are more pompous gits than him!)

So what’s to like here?  Both men are cheats, both are flawed.  One is cocky and hateful, the other is a loud mouth.  The one thing Tennyson has going for him is when he tells Jonathan Harris that he’s doing it for his wife.  He knows she’s bad for him and costs him more than he can afford, but he loves her anyway.  That simple admission gives him more humanity than Archie, but not enough to make him a great protagonist.  I felt this episode had much more in common with Alfred Hitchcock Presents than the standard Twilight Zone episode.  The Zone usually relies on some twist in the tale that’s outside of human control; as though an unseen power is behind all events, creating the misery or the horror the protagonists experience.  Hitchcock looked more at the darker side of mans own mind; the lengths they would go to for an ignoble cause.  Archie is just a hateful man but the fact that Tennyson resorted to cutting his vocal chords shows how much man values money.   We might be able to attribute it to love of his wife, but imagine how he feels when he can no longer talk to her once he wins the bet!  Then again, maybe this will make the wife happier!  Who can say?

Then there’s the little matter of the room.  I presume the bedroom and bathroom were microphoned too.  We see the bedroom in the background, and one has to assume he bathed; no shower songs for him though.  I can’t say I liked the characters here, but that’s becoming the overall experience with the latter part of season 2.  Still, the ordeal Tennyson goes through is one that I have sympathy for.  I can’t imagine not talking to people.  Hell, I talk to my cat when no one else is around.  I don’t talk incessantly like Tennyson and I think I have the wherewithal to read the room so hopefully no one wants to make me a bet like this (although, my wife might…) but feeling for a plight isn’t the same as liking the person experiencing it.  Tennyson is still a cheat in the end.  I am glad he beat Archie, but I think both men deserve whatever they get.  Archie lost his place in society.  Tennyson will never speak to anyone again.  Maybe they can keep each other company in their miserable little corner of The Twilight Zone.  ML

The view from across the pond:

What is The Twilight Zone? If I had to sum it up with a simple explanation, I would say it’s a series of supernatural or science-fiction stories, with twist endings. Those have been the defining characteristics so far: fantasy plus twist, or sci-fi plus twist. Often the ideas are very simple, with Rod Serling in particular struggling to stretch his stories even to 25 minutes, but there is always some kind of element that takes the narrative beyond what we consider to be possible in the real world. Never do we see an episode and end up thinking it’s something that we might see reported in a newspaper, in real life. This episode is a very odd blip, because it has the twist but no sci-fi or fantasy. Basically, this is something Rod Serling wrote that doesn’t fit properly within his own series, because it doesn’t fit the usual remit, and whilst I’m all for fun little departures from the norm in long-running series, that’s just not going to work for an anthology, because this is quite simply a script that should have been used elsewhere.

There is an even bigger problem than that, though, because every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s one of the most basic rules of writing, and it’s a rule that exists for a reason. The Silence has a beginning and an end, but where’s the middle? We could describe what happens at the beginning quite easily: Jamie Tennyson is a member of a club who is an absolute bore and won’t stop talking. Archie Taylor is another club member who offers him $500,000 if he will shut up for a whole year. Jamie takes the bet. We could also describe the end, and that would be our plot twist. But what would we say if somebody asked us to describe the plot developments that take place in the middle of this story? We couldn’t, because there’s nothing between those two points other than Archie visiting Jamie a couple of times to pad out the running time. This is a doughnut of a script, and that’s not a satisfying main meal.

The ending is a mess, too. We are supposed to believe that Archie isn’t in fact wealthy at all, and yet he has somehow funded the construction of a huge glass cage in the basement of the club, and presumably had to pay for Jamie’s food and any form of entertainment he wants for a whole year. The guy is hardly going to be able to earn a living himself while he’s stuck in there. The whole plan is hard to believe in the first place. The only way it’s remotely rational is if Archie believes it’s literally the only way to shut Jamie up, but for that to work we needed a scene where he simply tells him to quit his inane chatter and see what happens. There was plenty of spare running time for a scene like that, after all, instead of the pointless padding in the middle of the episode. Had that failed, then Archie’s plan would have made a bit more sense. But before Jamie accepts the bet, he clearly looks hurt and shamed by the words of his fellow club member. Archie’s words cut him deeply. It’s a great performance from Liam Sullivan, but it does leave us wondering if a few home truths would have actually been enough to make Jamie change his ways or even leave the club.

As for the action Jamie takes, revealed in the twist ending, I suppose that does make some sense, although it’s hard to imagine anyone going to those lengths, especially somebody who appears to be as confident and arrogant as Jamie. I think he would have enough self-belief to think that he could pull it off anyway, and enough of a motivation to teach his bully a lesson, even leaving aside the potential financial gain. That’s all debatable, so the twist just about works, but it’s certainly not pleasant viewing. This is surely one of the bleakest episodes so far, and it lacks any supernatural element as a hook to keep us interested. It’s just a miserable little morality tale about the dangers of gambling for such high stakes, with a cruel twist in the tale. Rooted in human failings, and devoid of excitement, wonder or hope, this is about as far away from the Twilight Zone as we could get.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Shadow Play

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, The Twilight Zone and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Twilight Zone: The Silence

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Any classic TZ episode that can settle for something simply dramatic, no sci-fi or supernatural stuff can in cases like this be the most profound. Yes you both some justifiable criticisms to make. I just admire the intense acting between Franchot Tone as Archie and Liam Sullivan (curiously the same actor who played Parmen in Star Trek: Plato’s Stepchildren) as Jamie, two men who must learn the inevitable truths about themselves and make us all question the true measure of a man. It may be hard for me to re-watch, knowing the quite haunting punchline. But even if Serling overloaded in his TZ episodes of unpleasant characters getting their comeuppance, he could at least find ways to make them interesting either with good casting or significant stories. Good to see Jonathan Harris again too of course. Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. epaddon says:

    The episode is more like a Hitchcock one given how there isn’t a single sci-fi or supernatural element. Entertaining but it begs the question of how was Jamie going to avoid NOT being exposed as a cheat afterwards? Only if he was planning and taking the money quickly and absconding with it before they could figure it out I suppose.

    The behind the scenes story reveals that after filming the opening and closing scenes in the club Franchot Tone got involved in some accident that left him with one side of his face scraped raw (some say it was because he got beat up). That’s the reason why in the middle part they shoot him only on one side of his face since it was too late to recast.

    Liked by 2 people

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      Fascinating tidbit!
      Yes, agreed about the whole after-effect but I’ve been finding that a lot with Serling’s work lately; something I never noticed before. He always seems to be one dot away from connecting a great picture. ML

      Liked by 1 person

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