Night Gallery – The Little Black Bag (S1E2)

Great job, Rod.  You had 13 months after the pilot aired and you came up with bupkis (as Mr. Bauman would say) in the first episode; then adapted someone else’s story for your first contribution.  I’ll say this for Ray Bradbury Theater — it might not be very good, but Ray’s name was on the marquis, so he showed up to work.

On the plus side Serling chose good source material.  The Little Black Bag is a fun read and considered a classic in the genre.  I’m all about results, so I went in with high hopes.

Future techno-clerk Gillings reports that a medical bag has been accidentally sent from the current year of 2098 back to then-current 1971.  The episode actually aired in 1970, so they were covered through the rerun and maybe did not expect this series to last long enough for syndication.  Disgraced doctor turned Hobo-American Dr. Fall (Burgess Meredith) and his new pal Hepplewhite (Chill Wills) find the bag.

Dr. Fall’s immediate inclination is to hock this baby for a couple of bucks.   The pawn shop is not interested, but he does attract the attention of a woman who begs him to come look at her sister.  He goes with her and sees a young girl in pain.  Using the instruments in the bag, he realizes that they are not just objects, but are actually leading him through procedures and performing procedures miraculous in the current day.

ngblackbag07He heals the girl, and then a man at the flop-house where he lives.  Back in his room, he imagines giving a speech to the medical community.  His brilliant idea of a demonstration is slicing his neck open with a scalpel from the future.  The scalpel slips through the skin like water with the incision closing up behind it.  It also knows to avoid muscle and important organs.

Hepplewhite fears that the doc is going to cut him out of sharing the wealth from the bag.  He demands a 50% cut.  Dr. Fall, quite the potty mouth, calls him a garbage headed termite.  Chill Wills gives one of the most bizarre performances I’ve ever seen as he threatens Dr. Fall.  He stands almost exactly in this position for 4 minutes.  Early on, he let a few words slip between his lips.  Then for a while, he just stares at the ceiling with his mouth gaping wide for no reason . . . on and on and on.

ngblackbag06

Seriously, this goes on for almost 4 minutes.  Even more amazing, NBC LOVED this performance.

Dr. Fall is getting his medical jones back and is more altruistic, wanting to use the bag to better humanity.  Hepplewhite then kills Dr. Fall, although how he did it with the future scalpel is not shown.

In the next scene, Hepplewhite is clean-shaven, in a suit and introduced to a room of doctors as William Fall.  Darn the luck, the future techno-clerk gets a warning that the bag has been used for nefarious purposes.  He deactivates the bag and Hepplewhite slices his own throat.  Again, sadly off-camera.

The broad framework of the episode is true to the short story, but there is a major departure in the characters.  Doc Fall’s pal in the episode, Hepplewhite, is not in the short story.  However, his “partnership” with Fall, his greed, the falling out, and the denouement are all assumed by an 18 year old blonde who is the sick girl’s sister.  Gotta say, I would have preferred the blonde babe to the gaping maw of Hepplewhite.

Pointless changes: The clerk of the future is name Gillings on TV, but Gillis in the short story.  The doctor is named Fall on TV, but Full in the short story.  The bag is from 2098 on TV, but 2450 in the short story.  Actually, that last one might make sense.  In 1970, 20 years after the story was published, these instruments probably didn’t seem quite so crazy.

Also, in the story, the doctor takes a blue pill that “hits him like a thunderbolt.”  Combined with the 18 year old blonde sidekick, that could have been a verrrry different episode.

Overall, a good episode.  I don’t see that the changes helped, but it they didn’t wreck the story either.

Post-Post:

  • Twilight Zone Legacy: Burgess Meredith was one of the kings with 4 appearances in starring roles.  Jason Wingreen was in 3 episodes.  William Challee was in 2 episodes.  C. Lindsay Workman was in one episode.  Tragically, Brit Marling was in zero, having not been born.
  • A third story in this episode was a trifle called The Nature of the Enemy, Serling’s first original contribution since the Pilot.  It is just crap, and evidence that Rod Serling might have been a great writer, but picking up a paycheck was his priority.
  • From the short story:

Dogged biometricians had pointed out with irrefutable logic that mental sub-normals were outbreeding the mental normals and super-normals, and that the process was occurring on an exponential curve. 

Amen, brother.

Farewell to the Master – Harry Bates

ast_4010_200Working in reverse order, this is the credited basis for The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951 and indirectly 2008.  Saying either of these movies was based on this short story is a stretch, though.

The story didn’t seem to make much of a ripple when first published in the October 1940 issue of Astounding.  It was not even mentioned on the cover despite the author having been a previous editor of the magazine.  Ten years later, the rights were sold for $500.  But maybe that was a good deal for Bates — by changing literally one word in the story, 20th Century Fox could probably have had it for free, without attribution.  In fact, he is not credited on the 2008 version.

Unlike the movie versions, Farewell to the Master begins with the spaceship already on the ground, and having been built into a wing of the Smithsonian.  The robot Gnut, wisely renamed Gort for the films, has already emerged and has stood as a still sentry before the ship for 3 months.

Cliff Sutherland, a photo-journalist not in the films, has evidence that the motionless Gnut has actually minutely changed positions overnight.  Sutherland is hiding in the museum to see what Gnut is up to.  For any kids reading this — this is back when journalists actually asked questions and pursued stories rather than being fawning, lap-dog stenographers spoon-fed by politicians.  OK, in reality, it was probably no better back then, plus the journalists smelled like whiskey and cigarettes.

We learn that the ship in the story “just appeared”, and did not come in for a landing as it did in both films. After 2 days, a being emerged, “godlike in appearance, and human in form.” He introduces himself as Klaatu and his robot companion as Gnut.  I can maybe understand people wanting to use the alternate spelling of Nut, but who added the extra “a” in Klaatu?  He wasn’t handing out business cards.

Just as in the the films, he is taken down by a rogue shooter.  Unlike the films, this Klaatu displays a Kennedyesque vulnerability to bullets.  He is killed immediately, causing a huge departure from both films.  Gnut goes still at that moment, not even attending the burial in a mausoleum at the Tidal Basin.

The ship and Gnut both prove too unwieldy to move, so the government does its thing, claiming it for the Smithsonian, and no doubt finding a way to tax it.

Sutherland’s stakeout is rewarded as he sees Gnut not only move, but return inside the ship through the elusive doorway.  Sutherland witnesses a few scenes that are a mystery to him involving a mockingbird and a gorilla.  The next night, Sutherland returns and speaks to a man inside.

With Sutherland becoming Gnut’s BFF on earth, Gnut puts Sutherland on his shoulders and carries him toward Klaatu’s grave.  This was not so much horseplay as it was security against the army launching a howitzer at him.  Gnut uses a few items from Klaatu’s grave, not to resurrect him, but to create a doppelganger.

Klaatu is only revived for a short time, so I’m not sure what the point was.  As Gnut is leaving, Sutherland implores him to tell his world that the death of his master was an accident, and that we’re really swell guys.  Gnut responds with what is supposed to be a gut-punch, a real mind-bender.  Maybe in 1940, it was.

So, it is an OK little story, providing only a few bare basics for the films.  Although the alien is named Klaatu, the full iconic “Klaatu Barada Nikto” is never used in the story. The entire middle of both movies — the 1951 boarding house & 2008 roadtrip  — do not exist here, what with Klaatu being dead.  The ultimatum issued to earth, the demonstration of their power, the threat of destruction — all concocted for the movies. Basically what we have here is a spaceship, a guy named Klaatu and a robot almost named Gort.

But, given its progeny, it is worth a read.

I was also interested in some of the word usage of 75 years ago:

  • “Ladies and gentlemen,” began a clear and well-modulated voice – but Cliff was no longer attending.
  • Do you think Gnut was dereanged in any way by the acids, rays, heat, and so forth applied to him by the scientists.
  • A while ago you used the word purposive in connection with Gnut’s actions. Can you explain that a little?