We open in the titular playground which looks like it was shot in a sandstorm on Mars with a sepia filter during magic hour. This dissolves to a strangely constructed shot of a kid in a cage, or in some sort of playground equipment. There are sticks striking the bars and hands trying to grab him, but no other kids are actually shown.
Charles Underhill (William Shatner) is at home playing with his young son Steve when his wife interrupts them to tell Charles he doesn’t spend enough time with his young son Steve. I don’t have any idea what this director was thinking, but he sure loves his earth-tones. Charles goes into the dining room for breakfast. The table is brown, the bureau is brown, the door is brown, we see through to the brown kitchen, there is brown paneling on the wall, and his tie and pants are brown. The 54 year old Shatner’s toupee is a rich mahogany. Even the toast is burnt.
Oops, not his wife, but his sister Carol. She has a career and is getting married, so she won’t have time to take Steve places anymore. She chides Charles for not even taking him to the local playground so he can meet some other kids. She is worried he will never learn to fit in; a misfit who lives with his sister — just like Charles, or countless men on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
That night after work, Charles walks by the playground to see if it is safe for his son. He sees a lot of kids having fun on swings, on a corkscrew slide, running around, riding a lazy susan, roller-skating, see-sawing. Things gradually darken so the kids are getting hurt, some are crying, bullies begin hassling one boy. Charles calls them out and they stream by him like a flock of assholes.
That night, at his sister’s insistence, he takes Steve to the park. At night, I say. To the park. Who goes to the park at night? A lot of kids apparently, as it as filled with kids when they get there. When they arrive, the kids stop and stare at them.
One of the kids calls to him, “Come out and play, Charlie!” He sees them as monsters as they approach him. To be fair, this is one homely bunch of kids. He panics and runs home like a little girl. Well, not like the ones he is running from.
The next day on the train, he is gazing despondently out the window. He has this exchange with his twitchy, gum-chewing co-worker:
Charles: How do you raise a boy?
Twitchy: I don’t know. You find a cement mixer, you throw him in, you let it run for five minutes, you take him out.
What? That’s not how you make anything. That’s not even how you make cement. And he didn’t say make, he said raise. Bradbury was a great prose stylist, but some of his dialogue is just painful.
As Charles passes the playground that night. he sees Steve running around having fun with the other kids. He chews Carol out for bringing him and picks him up in his arms. Again a kid calls his name. Charles recognizes it as Ralph who bullied him as a kid.
That night after PTSDing over his childhood, Charles goes back to the playground. He sees 12 year old Ralph and runs home.
The next night — or maybe it’s the same night; who the hell knows? This playground only seems to be open sunset to sunrise — when they get to the playground, all the kids stop and stare at them. And I can’t stress enough how hideous these kids are. If there were a juvie version of Escape From New York, this would be it.
What happened next actually shocked me. I expected a long-winded soliloquy from Bradbury on the innocence of children. Actually, I got some interesting imagery and a body swap between Charles and Steve. Charles, now in Steve’s body, is once again chased up the monkey bars and the kids are poking at him.
I was surprised again. I expected Steve, now in Charles’s body, to rescue li’l Charles. But no. He mills around, does a little swinging on the swing set. Makes his way toward the gate, and leaves. What do you expect, he’s just a dopey little kid.
This was peak-Shatner, filmed between Star Trek III and IV. Yeah, you get the breathy pauses and the permed brown toupee, but people forget how good an actor he was. The image of him, with Steve’s katra in him is tough to shake. The easiest thing would have been for Bradbury to have him go save Steve, they switch back, and have a good cry. However, with the mind and soul of a six year old, the Charles-body doesn’t know what to do. He stays away from the crowd. Maybe he doesn’t fully understand what is happening. He plays a little by himself, then gets bored and leaves.
Maybe a little too melodramatic, but one of RBT’s better episodes. It certainly would have made a better debut than Marionettes, Inc.