Is it me or did Dennis Weaver have something a bit David Tennant about him? It caught my eye when watching his performance as Adam Grant and I couldn’t shake it. Anyway, Shadow Play, by Charles Beaumont, was one of those early favorites of mine; a real powerhouse episode. Adam Grant is convicted of murder and is to be put to death at midnight. The only thing is, he’s convinced it’s a dream and it happens to him every night. Surreal! It requires a bit of suspension of disbelief though because a good chunk of the episode takes place at the home of District Attorney Ritchie played by Harry Townes (you know him – he’s that ever present face from 60s TV, that I recall best from Star Trek: Return of the Archons.) This sequence is there to help with the audience identification; it’s where everything is spelled out for the audience in no uncertain terms: is there even the slightest chance Grant is right? Of course not! It’s ridiculous. Or is it??
In recent years, there’s been speculation that our real world is a hologram. I’m a gamer; this idea became more pronounced while I was played the game The Witcher III. The main character, Geralt, grows hair as you play. It dawned on me that as our technology improves, we can improve the effects of real life in games. So much so that I wondered if the character I was playing could possibly “think”. Sure, maybe not like us, but we move the characters with goals in mind and we play them like people; there’s backstory and character development and hair growth. Then it struck me that if we get so technologically advanced, could they actually, in some way, think they are living real lives? If so could we get to the point where the in-game character thinks and acts like real people, going to work and writing blogs? If so, could the player be playing the game for only a little while in “real time” but to the character, it’s the length of a life? You can see how this becomes very spiral but the idea could make a person loopy. This is purely philosophical for us but not for Adam Grant. He’s stuck in a day that repeats; a personal Groundhog Day where the cycle is the same, but the faces change. Like an actual play, “the role of the District Attorney will be played by the Press Agent in tonight’s performance.” (This serves to give the title deeper meaning!) But even that could play a role in the “hologram theory” (or what I call “The video game theory”). When a game developer creates his/her characters, wouldn’t it be logical to assume some of them are based on people he knows? I wrote a review of a game in story format one day and used real people from my life in the cast of characters. So the faces rotate because the parts just need filling. Grant pulls from school teachers and priests. Is this story years upon years ahead of its time?
The real question for me is the unspoken one: what did Grant do to deserve this eternal nightmare? What would happen if he gets pardoned? Might he get lucky and one night the DA gets through to the unseen governor who prevents Grant’s execution? What happens then? When I was a kid, I’d read the Sandman series by Neil Gailman – a superb series of graphic novels now being retold on Netflix and Audible. One character is cursed with eternal waking; every nightmare ends with him waking up only to find out he’s still in a nightmare. I get the impression Morpheus, lord of dreams, has a similar vendetta against Adam Grant and wonder if that was part of the inspiration for Gaiman’s seminal work.
Regardless, this remains one that I loved deeply; memorable, disturbing and utter mind-candy. Well, maybe it’s not mind candy for everyone, but like Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and a host of others, I like to shop for my mind candy in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
“Are we simply parts of someone’s feverish, complicated nightmare?”
There we go. That’s that question answered. To be fair, the idea is thought-provoking in its wider implications, and ontology is a fascinating branch of philosophy. Dreams do feel very real when we are dreaming them, don’t they. The real world ceases to exist when we are asleep, and we live in a constructed world that we believe is the real one. But here’s the key point: when we wake up and look back on the dream we can often see the inconsistencies, the silliness, the illogical behaviour which we would never engage in and nor would other people who featured in the dream. Things that we didn’t question while asleep are obviously nonsensical when we awake, but the non sequiturs were disguised under a veil of rich detail and complications. All that being said, could we question the validity of a dream as an alternative reality, and pose Rod Serling’s question? No, of course we couldn’t, because dreams too often make no sense at all and collapse like a soggy sponge when we poke the details with a stick. If they were television scripts, they would be really badly written ones.
It really doesn’t help that Shadow Play captures none of the weirdness of a dreamscape, and none of the lack of logic. In a dream we might, for example, walk straight from one location into another, without travelling between them, and I’ve seen that kind of thing done to represent dreaming in other dramas (e.g. Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but Adam Grant’s dream hangs together far too well with real-world logic. The other characters also have a life beyond their immediate role in his dream, and whilst I can see the question Charles Beaumont is trying to raise in the minds of the viewers by doing that, it’s actually a big fat cheat if you are representing a dream in dramatic form. The tension is supposed to be derived from the question of whether it’s a dream or not, but despite Beaumont’s little cheats there was never a question in my mind that Grant was telling the truth, so the twist wasn’t a twist. It was just an affirmation of the blindingly obvious. If you were in any doubt, Grant changing a steak to a roast settles the matter beyond any doubt, so the ending becomes a simple matter of seeing the inevitable play out. By the way, if Grant has some control over his dream, why not try to change something more useful than the District Attorney’s dinner? Maybe swap the electric chair for a comfortable sofa?
If you can manage to switch off the part of the brain that is waiting impatiently for the inevitable conclusion to the episode, the tension is built reasonably effectively with the question of whether Grant will get a stay of execution, with a dramatic race against the clock. Matters are also helped by a fine cast, particularly the ever-reliable Harry Townes as the District Attorney who has to face up to the possibility that he isn’t real, a frightening idea but one that is spoiled by being part of Beaumont’s big cheat of stepping outside the boundaries of what is possible in a dream, while eventually concluding that it was all a dream. This could perhaps have worked a bit better with a subtle tweak: instead of asking the question of whether it’s a dream or not (when it so obviously is), the choice could instead have been between a recurring dream or a purgatory. That would have given some validity to the ontological worries of the other participants in the dream as well. Lines such as, “why don’t you just sit back and enjoy it?”, which Grant greets with a hollow laugh, could have taken on an even greater ironic significance. We never see him wake up, after all, with the action transitioning directly from the execution to the trial scene again. It wouldn’t be the first time that the Twilight Zone was represented as an afterlife for sinners. But here we are, constructing our own alternative narrative. When we have to do that, we know that something is missing. Once again, TZ was frustratingly one good script edit away from greatness. The ideas are so often as half-cooked as the District Attorney’s disappearing steaks. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Mind and the Matter
With all the quite understandable points about dream sequences and twists becoming a stagnation for our fictional entertainment, it can help to nostalgically refresh ourselves with a most originally and basic tale for the genre like the TZ’s Shadow Play. What I remember being most impressed by when I first saw it was the departure Dennis Weaver was as Adam Grant from McCloud. The idea of the reality we thought we knew not being so real is identifiable enough in many aspects. But in the aspect of a recurring nightmare, we certainly feel for Adam and even hope for a sequel where he finally breaks the cycle somehow and ends the nightmare once and for all. It’s easy enough for anyone to question their reality when the reality becomes nightmarish. In that sense, Rod Serling may have been right in his closing narrative: We should at least think about it. And today with all that the quantum physics resolution has given us, the dreamed reality may be more popular with science theory than with science fiction. Thank you both for your reviews.
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At the time Dennis Weaver had been the limping deputy Chester on “Gunsmoke” for six years and this guest shot was clearly a way of helping him establish credentials to eventually break out of the typecasting rut which he was able to do.
It might have been nice if we’d gotten a hint more of Adam Grant’s actual life outside the dream to explain why he’s constantly having this recurring nightmare.
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