The Twilight Zone: Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959I remember reading that Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up? was one of the top 10 episodes of The Twilight Zone and unfortunately, there was a picture of the Martian with his 3rd eye next to the review, so I’d known what was coming all along.  What I didn’t expect was a real zinger to still catch me off guard and let me say: I can see why this episode was considered to be one of the best.  It introduces us to a group of people, stranded in a diner due to a snowstorm, with the threat that one of them was an alien.  This episode is head and shoulders above nearly everything else this season, and that’s no metaphor!  There are two aliens, one with an extra arm and the other with an extra eye.  As I said… head and shoulders above!

It was odd but my first thought when introduced to all of these people is that if Rod Serling, the writer of this fantastic half hour of television, put less time into thinking up names, he might actually write some really great stuff!   Now, there are a few names we catch during the episode but it took Wikipedia and IMDb to give them names.  (That, or I was so engrossed in the tale that I only caught a few!)  But that just makes my point: there are no Archibald Beechnuts and Reginald Kenneth McLongnames here.  Ross, Ethel, Troopers Bill and Dan… So, we put the names behind us and get on with the excellent story: a group of people stuck in a diner while weird things happen.  Who is the alien?  This is the plot of many party games these days!

I was thinking of when this was broadcast: 1961.  That’s not long after the McCarthy era and the House of Unamerican Activities and I think this episode probably echoed strongly with the fear people had of the invaders; not otherworldly ones but those from another country.  Clearly the occupants of the diner think there’s something subversive about this alien.  I grew up in another time and all I could think is: goodness, I wish I were there to meet them!  The story builds on the tension in the claustrophobic setting where no one could leave due to a bridge being out.  When a call comes through that the bridge is fixed, everyone leaves except the diner owner.  That means the threat of a potential alien is ignored.  One might take issue with that, but there’s nothing the troopers can do.  They’ve done all they can with questions and short of becoming hostile and holding people against their will and even doing as the crazy man suggests, looking under jackets for “wings”, there was little else available to them at that point.  I think their actions are in keeping with good taste.  What personally bothered my was a totally different aspect of the episode.  This is on me, I fully admit, and should not detract from the overall episode, but how hard would it be to recognize 6 people on a bus?  It’s not even that the bus driver has to recognize all of them, it’s that they’d have to recognize one another.  The driver might only recall one or two, but they all boarded at the same point so surely they took some time to look at their fellow riders!  So the concept hinges on a dubious point to me.  Now, my suspicion is that many of my friends and family would disagree as they are not keen on making eye contact with people so they probably prove Serling’s point more than mine, which is why I say we can’t let my gripe influence the story.

Still, the plot reminded me of the card game One Night Werewolf where you have to deduce who in the room is the werewolf.  This game, and countless others like it, are immensely fun as you have to figure out who is the villain.  Your friends play to deceive one another while one of them is actually the killer.  Of course, this alien does nothing dangerous short of blowing up sugar bowls or whatever that was on the table.  Yet, what makes this special is that even when we learn who the alien is, we’re given that aforementioned zinger when we discover that there are 2 aliens in the room.  Couple that with the crazy antics of Jack Elam as “Avery, the crazy man”, which were utterly wonderful to watch, and you’ve got a solid 25 minutes of TV which was both enjoyable and thought provoking.  Where Serling fails utterly is that, as a man who could come up with names like a pro, he only has aliens coming from Mars and Venus.  This is the second time this season we’ve seen aliens from those two worlds, but they look utterly different to their predecessors (Mr. Dingle, The Strong).  He couldn’t have made up a name?  The Zebulons and the Andromedans?  I mean it doesn’t take much!

“A regular Ray Bradbury!”  This was a classic and one I would happily watch again.  I think it probably doesn’t get much screentime these days due to one or two archaic items left over from a less enlightened era: John Hoyt comments on how wonderful cigarettes taste, and as Ethel boards the bus, two men lean over to check out her bottom in no uncertain terms.  I think we just need to remember this was a different era and move on; let this episode get more air time.  It’s too good to miss.  It has definitely become one of my favorite episodes of The Twilight ZoneML

The view from across the pond:

We start this week with a snowy landscape, which is quite atmospheric despite the fake snow. It helps to set the scene of isolation for the key players in this episode. It’s cold outside, their bus has broken down, the road is blocked, they don’t really have anywhere else to go and they are waiting in a diner with a potentially dangerous imposter. This being the Twilight Zone, that imposter happens to be an alien.

This is a bit of an odd one, because the set-up is much like one of those crime dramas where all the suspects are assembled in the same room. Playing the role of the detectives are two troopers, but they fail to fulfil their role, and the whole episode is a whole lot of talking that leads to nothing. The passengers get back on their bus, and we wait for the big twist at the end.

Unusually, Rod Serling does quite a good job with this one of echoing the concerns of the viewers. Our immediate thought must surely be that the alien can’t be either of the married couples, and then we get this line of dialogue: “I know how you begin. You pair off the couples.” Serling then makes some attempt to cast doubt upon that, suggesting the younger husband has lost a mole on his chin, but that’s all a bit silly because a substitution wouldn’t make sense of the additional passenger.

Then we have, “the driver’s mistaken”, which is probably our second thought, and that is answered reasonably well with his assertion that there were definitely only six passengers originally. But Serling fails to address the biggest problem with this: there’s really no way six people could sit together on a bus, a seventh could be added to their group, and nobody would have been observant enough to know who wasn’t there originally. If it were a much bigger group of people, say 20 or 30, then you’ve got an idea that makes some sense. Even if we can overlook that huge problem, the identity of the alien is fairly obvious. Lets face it, it’s never going to be the crazy dude. Speaking of which, he’s a great character, and I loved his baiting of the stuffy businessman, firing insults at him like “lemon sucker”. He is fabulously witty, and if I were stuck in a diner I would want to be with him.

“I’m a professional dancer.”
“How many legs?”

He’s also a very effective representation of how the most unlikely people can turn out to be the most perceptive. After all, he does jokingly suggest checking under people’s coats to see if they have wings. He’s very close to the truth.

Serling tries to build up the tension and paranoia with the jukebox turning itself on, indicating that the alien has special powers, but not enough of that kind of thing happens to really ramp up the fear factor much, which is diminished anyway by the wacky cast of characters. Instead there’s altogether too much talking that leads to nothing. As is often the case with a Serling script, he establishes the concept and then we are marking out time until the big twist, which is a fun idea but doomed to silliness by what was achievable in terms of 1960s special effects. A non-moving eye and somebody crouched down under a coat pretending to be an extra pair of arms feel like things that belong in a Saturday morning children’s entertainment show, designed to get a few laughs out of an audience of pre-teens. Then again, I wouldn’t want a child anywhere near this bit of product placement:

“These cigarettes, do you call them? They taste wonderful.”

You’ve just crossed over into The 1960s Zone.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Obsolete Man

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.

2 Responses to The Twilight Zone: Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?

  1. scifimike70 says:

    For one of the most original SF stories for its time on the notions of ETs walking among us, this was most effective and still is, despite how blatantly made-up the ETs are when finally revealed. To see the most distinguished characters in this ensemble of suspects, even the over-the-top Avery (played by Jack Elam), enriches the suspense and helps us to still see the ETs when revealed as people. This encourages any suspension of disbelief that we might have and enables us to grasp this TZ message more clearly. We may frequently ask ourselves who the people we cross paths with truly are and it has been explored before in the TZ with The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street. So if fans have the tolerance for such a paranoia-themed SF story, then Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up? will be among my recommendations too. Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. epaddon says:

    The episode title is a play on the phrase “Will the real Mr. so-and so please stand up?” from the game show “To Tell The Truth” which ran on CBS primetime from 1956 to 1967 (in fact during the Season 5 episode “Black Leather Jackets” the alien signal disrupts a TV set that is tuned in to that show!) in which a panel would question three people claiming to be the same person and after casting their votes the big reveal would come in the question. Serling knew he’d be guaranteeing a chuckle from 1961 audiences well-familiar with that show with the title, and I think keeping it simple with Martian and not some made-up alien race preserved the grabber nature of the title in a way that “Will the real Talosian please stand up?” I don’t think would have with a 1961 audience.

    Liked by 2 people

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