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The Twilight Zone (Episode #49): “Back There” (airdate 1/13/61)
The Plot: A man steps out of his fancy Washington, DC men’s club onto the streets of Washington, DC. So what’s the twist? It’s DC in 1865, and President Lincoln is about to be shot.
The Goods: It’s odd that a story featuring such a dramatic base idea would end up being little more than a fun thought experiment, but the only thing heavy about Back There is the acting. Russell Johnson (who everyone should remember from It Came From Outer Space) plays a not-yet-white-bearded man named Pete Corrigan with enough money and respect to belong to an exclusive club where men go to read in plush chairs, smoke cigars, and play Bridge like old maids.
The topic of conversation turns to the idea of changing history by means of time travel – a cockeyed concept that Corrigan dismisses outright as he gets up to head on home. He’s deep in thought when a steward accidentally spills coffee on him, but it’s a small matter, and Corrigan heads outside to find himself getting fuzzy and the lightbulbs inside the street lamps turning to flame.
He’s, somehow, stepped back in time to the balmy night in April when President Lincoln was assassinated.
Immediately throwing out his original conceit that man can’t change what’s happened, Corrigan attempts to save the President by running to Ford’s Theater and is promptly arrested for being a lunatic. Poorly done, old man.
The rest of the episode plays out in the sort of “How Will Our Hero Get Out of This One?” mode that matters very little (and gets a bit ridiculous when John Wilkes Booth shows up and drugs Corrigan). It’s all fairly silly, despite the severity of what’s at stake, and even though a policeman believes Corrigan’s insane ramblings, the original claim turns out to be true: you can’t change the past.
Or at least, Corrigan couldn’t change it in the way he wanted. As he returns to the present, he finds one intimate detail completely changed.
There’s very little of consequence to this episode – which makes sense considering it mostly deals with the frustration of trying your hardest to stop the inevitable. What it does best is act as a giant What If game surrounding the nature of time travel and the prospect of saving old Honest Abe. First of all, it seems obvious that you’d want to travel further back than the night it happened to prepare yourself. Second of all, you’d need to actively plot to put yourself into good enough standing to either be in the theater (by buying a ticket) or to be near the President (by joining up with law enforcement). Or, if you could find the home of Mary Surratt, you could wait for the conspirators and pick them off one by one with the sniper rifle you also brought with you from the future. Just make sure to bring plenty of ammo as well.
Johsnon cringes his way through a soap operatic performance, and the premise is a really interesting one, but the story doesn’t offer up much meat. Even if you get past the ridiculous nature of the one man with knowledge of the assassination being kidnapped and drugged by the assassin (who just happened to walk by the police station at the right time), it’s still a fairly neutered attempt at changing a major event of the past. On the other hand, it does give us a ton of information about the sort of person Corrigan is – a non-believer who is proven frighteningly correct.
How would you save Lincoln?
The Trivia: Director David Orrick McDearmon must have had a thing for time travel (and for working with Russell Johnson) because the two also worked on the episode Execution which features a scientist bringing back a deadly killer from the old West into the future.
On the Next Episode: A used car salesman comes under the spell of a car that makes him tell only the truth.
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.