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The Twilight Zone (Episode #10): “Judgment Night” (airdate 12/4/59)
The Plot: A sweaty man finds himself on a boat drifting through the seas of 1942 without knowing how he got there. Fortunately, the boat is about to be attacked by Nazis.
The Goods: There’s something to be said for the uncharacteristically slow burn that this episode offers in contrast to the rest of the series. Especially when seen as the original audience would have seen it – directly after a frenetic, ranting nightmare the week before – this take on the eternal loop of punishment watches turtles race by it. Yes, there’s something to be said for the pacing, but that’s almost all this lagging story has going for it.
Carl Lanser (Nehemiah Persoff) awakes from not sleeping, his arms resting on the railing of a boat that’s moving slowly through fog. He doesn’t know how he got there, but everything starts to feel familiar. He meets some of his fellow travelers – a charismatic sort named Potter (Hugh Sanders), a few military personnel, and most importantly, a little girl.
The rest of the episode is one long trek through characters engaging Lanser, Lanser reminding everyone that he doesn’t remember how he got on the ship, and it all leads to a conclusion that’s telegraphed from the title card.
It’s more character study than it is plot-driven, but there’s not enough meat on the bones of the idea to stretch more than 10 minutes let alone 24.
If the whole point of the story is to see Lanser punished for his wanton cruelty in life as a U-boat captain, the bulk of the episode does very little to force that issue psychologically. There’s something naturally horrifying about seeing a group of innocents killed in a hail of fire and lung-full of salt water, and that translates equally to Lanser’s fate in his special kind of Hell. Unfortunately, that base is never built upon. The build up to the climax is a jungle of empty encounters with the people he killed engaging in small talk and shared confusion. There’s never a sense of who they are or why conversations with them are necessary.
Meanwhile, Lanser continues going crazier and crazier, realizing that a U-boat is going to attack and having no recourse. Those he killed can die once, he can die one hundred million times.
It’s a fair story, but not a particularly good or memorable one. It neatly follows the footsteps on a well-worn metaphor for the hunter becoming the hunted at the hands of fate, but it fills its moments with over-the-top grimacing and characters as placeholders.
What do you think of the episode?
The Trivia: If you’re wondering why a bunch of British people are drinking coffee instead of tea, it’s because General Foods sponsored the episode.
On the Next Episode: Head over to Twitch Film on Monday for three astronauts that go off the radar.
Catch-Up: Episodes covered by Twitch / Episodes covered by FSR
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.