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The Twilight Zone (Episode #26): “Execution” (airdate 4/1/60)
The Plot: An outlaw from the Old West is saved from the noose by a scientist who gets in way over his head.
The Goods: The funny thing about time travel is that if you invent it, you want to use it yourself. On the other hand, if it’s untested, you might want to see if you can grab an unwilling volunteer (which is an oxymoron, I know) to make sure people come out the other side with all their parts in the right places. In this episode, Professor Manion (Russell Johnson) uses his time-bending invention to pull a man from the 19th century, and it just so happens that Joe Caswell (Albert Salmi), the unwitting traveler, was a nanosecond away from shuffling off his mortal coil at the end of a rope.
Manion attempts to explain what’s happened to Caswell, but the new world is a frightening place, and Caswell is reduced to lab rat status. He may as well have been a caveman, for while there’s a common language, the world is completely alien to him. And when the only solution you know if your fists, every problem looks like face to punch. That goes double for when the scientist who pulls you into the future prejudges you based on your noose burn.
Even though the story itself is fairly lacking, there are a lot of great ideas being toyed with. For one, Caswell escapes his fate, but it’s unlikely that his luck will continue for long. He’s a violent man who won’t change his ways even when placed in a different environment. While he survives the episode (by sending a thief who attacks him into the past and into the noose meant for him), he only knows crime as a means of self-preservation. On the other hand, he does have the benefit of being completely off the grid. Back to the original hand, he’ll probably rob a bank and be caught immediately, stunned by technology.
This might also be seen as a warning against invention for invention’s sake. As a winking condemnation of the blind love of one of the most common science fiction tropes, proving that time travel can ultimately be dangerous (or fatal), it takes a fantastical, common storytelling element and thinks through its use logically. Still daydreaming about what you’d do with a time machine? Think twice.
For just as it was unsafe to bring Caswell to this world, it’s theoretically just as hazardous to travel back in time or into a future where we’d find ourselves the primitive ones. Caswell is confused and terrified by the blinking lights, but if we went into the future, what would scare and startle us?
On a simpler level, The Twilight Zone is most faithful to rocket ships and revolvers. This is one of the few instances where the Western and the Science Fiction worlds get to collide, which is timely considering the burgeoning resurgence of both genres on film (with Cowboys & Aliens holding a special place). In a way, Serling gets to play around in both sandboxes in a single episode, but the ultimate conclusion seems to be that they’re incompatible. That we have alien worlds here on Earth; they just happen to have different dates.
What do you think of the episode?
The Trivia: Russell Johnson had previous science fiction experience, including a co-starring role in It Came From Outer Space.
On the Next Episode: A boxer loses his last shot until he wins it because of a child’s wish.
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.