Features and Columns · TV

Exploring The Twilight Zone #78: Once Upon a Time

By  · Published on September 21st, 2011

With the entire original run of The Twilight Zone available to watch instantly, we’re partnering with Twitch Film to cover all of the show’s 156 episodes. Are you brave enough to watch them all with us?

The Twilight Zone (Episode #78): “Once Upon a Time” (airdate 12/15/61)

The Plot: A cranky man of 1890 uses a time machine to head for 1962 to find out that things got a lot louder, faster, and more dangerous.

The Goods: The absolute guts of this show continue to astound. Imagine if a modern seriesdecided to do half of an episode as a silent film. Black and white they already have, but it’s still a bold step. Rod Serling beamed an antique directly into the living rooms of his fans.

That’s right. Not only is this a story where a man from the late 19th century hops into the middle of the 20th, it’s a time travel story for its audience by using modern television filming techniques alongside the earliest methods.

And who do you get to guest star when half your episode is done as a silent film? Buster Keaton. Not a bad choice.

Keaton is such a force that even at the ripe old age of 66, he’s still the brightest part of this completely silly story. Sadly, there’s not much meat. Either that, or they took the silent film as a starting point and decided to make the entire tale evoke the cheesiest of the cliches. In a sense, it’s great to have Keaton around for this, but in another, he’s wasted because he’s physically a bit past his prime (and the writing gives him table scraps that he spins into gold (how’s that for mixing metaphors?)).

He plays Woodrow Mulligan, a man who complains about other people, the cost of things, the speed limit for bicycles in the street, the police hassling him, and his inability to walk without slamming into walls. He’s a janitor for two scientists, and after a big-wheel bicycle run-in, he decides to dry his suit, pants and harmonica.

While sweeping, he overhears (in a silent film way) his boss boasting about a new helmet that will allow the wearer to travel in time. It’s obviously the tonic Mulligan needs, so he decides to head 70 years into the future without his pants.

The rest is writer Richard Matheson trying to mimic the style of the silent comedy in a 60s setting. Cars move fast! Kids steal helmets and roller skate away! The cops don’t take kindly to the pantsless! Everything is wacky, but there just aren’t enough gags to fill in the space. A chase goes on too long, and a verbal sparring between a modern scientist (who somehow believes that Mulligan is a time traveler instead of, say, an addle-minded old man in his underwear) and a fix-it man isn’t nearly as clever as it should be.

It’s a fun one, but it’s middling and awkward without any of the skill or nuance that Keaton’s films demanded.

The ultimate lesson is a bit too obvious and simplistic. As it turns out, the grass isn’t greener on the other side, but it’s still in black and white.

What do you think?

The Trivia: When Buster Keaton was three years old, he got his finger caught in a clothes wringer, and he had to have it amputated. In this episode, he gets the same finger stuck in a clothes wringer as a gag.

On the Next Episode: A military man wakes up in a mysterious room with four strangers, and all of them have to find a way out.

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.

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