The Twilight Zone: Still Valley

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959I remember hating history class as a kid in grade school.  “Mom, why do we have to learn history?  It’s already happened!”  I was a futurist.  There was an announcement when I was a young man, maybe around 18, that said the next big thing was here.  It was going to change the world.  My first, albeit incredibly optimistic-if-immature thought was transporter tech.  We would basically be able to beam around the planet.  I don’t recall what it was and I’m sure it was a big deal (probably that little thing called The Internet) but to me, nothing was going to be as good as transporter technology right out of Star Trek.  So I was always looking to the future, always wanting Science Fiction to become real.  “But Mike, you have to understand (trademark mom statement, by the way), people who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it!”  Oh, that makes sense mom.  Now I understand.  No politician has ever opened a history book.  Got it.  

Sadly, Rod Serling did and he had this genius idea to tell science fiction stories in the middle of history class.  Still Valley is one such story.  Sgt Joseph Paradine goes to spy on the “Yankee” camp having heard a number of them in the valley below.  He and his confederate soldiers are planning their attack.  But when he gets down there, the whole lot of them are standing still as mannequins.  What the devil is going on?

And that’s the actual punchline.  I did it in a few lines, but Serling has to do it in 25 minutes so there’s a lot of padding about cowardice first, followed by Paradine yelling at actors who are stunningly good at not moving a muscle before going into the really interesting bit.  This old man called Teague has a book titled “Witchcraft”.  Simple, does what it says on the cover, perhaps a bit too generic a title to be found in Barnes and Noble.  He used witchcraft to freeze the soldiers in place.  He then wastes more of the 25 minutes by freezing Paradine just to show him it’s all real.  So here’s the thing: this was way more interesting to me than I could have expected but not for the storyline itself but the time the episode aired.  This was November of 1961 and they were saying things like “in the name of the Prince of Darkness…” and “revoke the name of God”, giving that special callout to Satan himself.  I guess, in my dreams of tomorrow, I didn’t realize how mature some things were back in “yesterday”.  So when the Confederates are considering siding with Satan to win the war, I was actually applauding the excellent writing that had them turn down using the powers of darkness.  They all realize that losing means they stay true to their beliefs and they’d at least be buried in hallowed ground.  That was a heck of a zinger.  They toss the book on the fire and watch it burn.  Or did they?

I have to say, there was a major problem that almost escaped detection but Serling couldn’t resist rubbing my nose in it.   The closing narration says: “On the following morning, Sergeant Paradine and the rest of these men were moved up north to a little town in Pennsylvania, an obscure little place where a battle was brewing, a town called Gettysburg – and this one was fought without the help of the Devil.”  Half a second lads and ladies: this episode took place in Virginia.  To get from Virginia to Gettysburg is a 4 hour drive or a 70 hour walk of 210 miles.  Ain’t no way those men walked to Virginia overnight… unless they did use the Devil’s book for one more special request: a transporter to beam all the way up to the location of the battle.  I’m onto you Rod!  And who knows, maybe the real punchline was that there were some futurists in that troop too.  ML

The view from across the pond:

Seeing slightly wobbly people pretending to be frozen in time brings back bad memories of Elegy. It might seem puzzling why the same bad idea would be tried twice, but maybe the story was prioritised over the end results, and that’s fine. It’s also important to keep in mind that television was viewed much more as filmed theatre in the 60s, by which I mean the viewers weren’t necessarily looking for realism, immersive viewing or suspension of disbelief in quite the same way a modern audience might expect. So a failed effect undermining an episode isn’t quite the stick to beat it with that it would be for a more modern production. Let’s face it, each episode starts with Rod Serling talking directly to the viewers, so we are already in the realms of somebody presenting their filmed story right from the start of each episode. We don’t have to pretend we aren’t looking at actors doing their best.

Despite being a repeat of the unmoving people thing from Elegy, the reason for their motionlessness is completely different, and the scenes of Sergeant Paradine exploring the town of creepy statue people is actually the best part of the episode, despite its inevitable flaws. Even better is the moment the plant pot smashes, which indicates that Paradine is probably not alone and is potentially in danger from whoever is responsible for the situation in the town. That person has to be very powerful.

It turns out that he is, because the old man Paradine meets is a wizard… although it’s all a bit odd. He makes a big thing about being the seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son, but everything that follows that point seems to indicate that the book not the person holds the power, and anyone can make use of it, if they are willing to pay the price.

In order a freeze a few people, that price is superficially quite cheap, but this is entirely understandable as something akin to a dealer offering a free sample. If Paradine wants to take the next step and freeze the entire army, he’s going to have to pay for that with his soul. I don’t think Serling thought through the conclusion beyond a simple acknowledgement from the Confederate soldiers that the price was too high, and it was better to lose and die. He was one step away from having something to actually say beyond “nothing is worth turning to evil for”, and that something can be read into the narrative if you wish to: maybe they are losing because they are fighting for something that goes against God’s will. They are therefore left with two options: turn to evil, or lose. Considering they were fighting for the right to keep slaves, that makes a lot of sense, but I don’t think that commentary is quite there in the episode, without straining to make something more of it than the simple morality tale about avoiding a bad choice that it appears to be.

“It’s that book or it’s the end.”
“Then let it be the end.”

And that’s about it. There are slim pickings here in terms of anything to engage the brain, but the episode still manages to achieve watchable status due to the excellent acting (which really does save this), and a couple of moments that are scary enough to stick in the mind: the aforementioned statue people, but also the way Paradine gets frozen and then Teague says, “I know you can still hear me, because I only used half the power.” The idea of being frozen but still conscious and completely powerless doesn’t bear thinking about, and it puts into perspective the horrifying power being messed with here. But in the end, this is just a couple of ideas from previous episodes cobbled together, and they don’t really combine to make something particularly interesting.   RP

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.

1 Response to The Twilight Zone: Still Valley

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Although I didn’t think much of this episode when I first saw it, I liked its optimism on how people can find the common sense to see the downsides of such great power before it’s too late. When its ability to win a war is understandably tempting enough, just because the ‘winning’ side gets ahold of it first just like America achieved the first A bomb, then the notion of might-makes-right instead of vice versa can overwhelm our judgment. So in that sense this TZ episode has a great deal to say and the fact that it was set during a historical war may be even more relevant, with a most serious quote like “Then let it be the end.” being a profound statement on our human morality. Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

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