Twilight Zone – Button, Button (03/07/86)

This segment begins by setting up a story that never arrives.  Norma Lewis (Mare Winningham) is such an insufferable shrew that you have to think that characteristic must be of some great importance to the plot.

Maybe something happened in her past that made her this way . . . not that we’re told.  Surely this will be the catalyst for a dose of 1960’s TZ style cosmic comeuppance . . . eh, not really.  Maybe it will be cathartic when this battle-ax is bumped off in a grizzly fashion . . . nope.  Maybe . . . maybe . . . I got nothing.  She is just a nasty woman for no good reason; so unlikable, that it really casts an unnecessary pall over the whole segment.

OK, money is tight.  The car is broken and she has stolen a shopping cart to get her groceries home.  Her husband Arthur (Brad Davis) is clearly far too good for her.  He is a handsome guy with a cheerful attitude.  All he wants is a kiss after working on the car, but she pushes him away.  She might have nabbed the cart expecting him to push her around town.

The doorbell rings.  This surprises them because WTF would drop in on this couple?  Arthur goes to the door, and finds a package has been left on their doorstep.  He hands it to Norma, I guess hoping it is a bomb.  Inside is a wooden box with a glass dome over a red button.  There is a note on the bottom telling them Mr. Stewart will be by the next day.

The next night, Mr. Stewart comes to the apartment and explains to Norma how the device works.  If the button is pushed, someone she does not know will die, and she will receive $200,000.  When Arthur gets home from work, she gives him the 4-1-1 through a constant sneer and cigarette smoke.

The premise is solid gold, but Mare Winningham sinks the episode.  OK, maybe there isn’t much time in a 20 minute segment to create a nuanced character.  However, there is no need for a character to be so pointlessly repulsive she is unwatchable.  In discussing their options, every sentence is a scream delivered like a zinger, everything is negativity and sarcasm, she is smoking like a chimney, and constantly scrunching her face into a sneer.  And how long is she going to wear that same t-shirt?

Brad Davis also plays it very over-the-top, but at least his character is a decent human being.  Because they are both playing it so broadly, clearly that was the intent of the director.  It just doesn’t suit this story, though.  I guess the writer had issues with it too because he had his name taken off the episode.

Of course Norma is going to push the button.  She is low-life trash and her husband is too whipped to stop her.  They take a long time to get there, but there is never any doubt. Imagine if this had been a classy couple; maybe moderately well off but just suffered some big financial loss.  Or a preacher who sees only the immediate good the money could do for people around him.  Or a parolee who is struggling to be a better person.  Or a dying man who wants to provide for his family.  There would have been some tension then.

She pushes the button, but there is a twist.  I peeked at the Wikipedia page for the short story, and I must admit the TV version has a better ending.  But, overall, what a squandered opportunity.

The most positive thing I can say is that it makes me really appreciate yesterday’s Profile in Silver.  In particular, Andrew Robinson’s performance just gets more amazing.


  • Classic TZ Legacy:  Written by TZ royalty Richard Matheson, but he used an alias in the credits.  I would love to hear that story.
  • The same short story was the basis for The Box starring Cameron Diaz.  I saw it on 03/23/10, but don’t remember a single frame.
  • Brad Davis was just in the execrable Why Are You Here?

Twilight Zone S4 – Death Ship (02/07/63)

tzdeathship4In the year 1997 . . .

We open with a shot of the least inspirationally named spacecraft in history.  Liberty . . . Intrepid . . . Eagle . . . Challenger . . . Enterprise . . . Discovery . . . I give you E-89. However, cruising above “the 13th planet of star system 51,” it seems appropriate.

They are seeking a planet suitable for colonization.  Lt. Mason sees a signal and is excited that they might finally be meeting another race, although another species seems more likely.  Capt. Ross reluctantly agrees to land the ship and check it out.  When they land, they are shocked to look out of the porthole and see a crashed E-89.

They do not need helmets to go investigate, although they do all put on the snazzy astronaut suits.  This is preferable to the aliens landing on earth who always seem to be naked.  They identify it as an Earth ship.

tzdeathship2The interior of the ship is identical to theirs.  So is the crew — 3 dead bodies who look exactly like Ross, Mason and Other Guy.  Mason reaches into the pocket of Dead-Mason and pulls out his ID — were these guys expecting to get carded in space?

They attempt to radio back to Earth Station 1217, and get nothing but static.  Ross proposes that the wrecked E-89 is from a probable future.  A good captain would have said it was a possible future.  He says if they never take off, it is impossible for them to crash.  Of course, the captain has no one waiting for him back on Earth (or Planet 3 as it is probably known then).

Other Guy is mulling their situation when he suddenly finds himself back on Earth.  At his house, he sees his wife’s black hat and black gloves laid out on the bed for her to wear to his funeral; or a bank heist.  He picks up a telegram which announced his death.  Zap — back to the ship.

tzdeathship5Ross and Other Guy then notice that Mason is missing.  As it is 13 below zero outside, he probably didn’t go for a walk.  We see Mason waking up on Earth.  He actually sees his daughter, and later his wife. Somehow Ross intrudes on Mason’s hallucination and orders him back to the ship; then we cut to them struggling on the ship.  If Mason physically disappeared, how did Ross yank him back to the ship?

Ross still denies the obvious.  His new theory is that aliens are controlling their minds. Scaring the crew into not taking off, they prevent Earth from knowing of their existence. Ross says they will go back to Earth.  They take off, making their best G-force faces. Once they are safe from the planet, Ross decides to go back and complete their mission.  Having beaten the aliens at their own game, he expects the wrecked ship to be gone.

In a struggle over the controls, the ship goes out of control.  Mason manages to stabilize it, and they are able to land safely.  Initially, they do not see the wrecked ship.  I was completely suckered in and thought this might be an interesting ending.  However, they look out the back window and see the other E-89.

tzdeathship3Mason tries to convince Ross they are dead, but the Captain just won’t accept their fates.  They are doomed to rinse and repeat this cycle forever.

Another good episode in the often maligned 4th season.  It really succeeds in spite of itself in some ways.  Once they see the wrecked E-89, it is pretty obvious what is going to happen.  The story unfolds along beats familiar to TZ viewers. The ending could have gone a couple of different ways, but I’m a sucker for trapped-in-purgatory stories where people suffer through the same bleak, hellish existence day after day. There is a certain familiarity to them.

While it might have been better at 30 minutes, it did not feel padded out.  The extra time allowed for more character development, and Ross Martin and Jack Klugman made the most of it.  Nice music and camerawork contribute to making this a pretty good episode.


  • Jack Klugman (Captain Ross) was in 4 Twilight Zones and later in the 2nd greatest sit-com ever.
  • Mary Webster, who played Mason’s wife, disappeared from TV for 30 years, then resurfaced on Senior Jeopardy.  I wonder if she mentioned TZ in the interview segment.

Twilight Zone S4 – Mute (01/31/63)

tzmute01At a meeting in 1953 Dusseldorf, a group agrees to dedicate their lives to developing telepathy in themselves and their children.  Eventually they will create a colony where all communication will be mental.

Ten years later in the freakishly appropriately-named German Corners PA, one of the couples from the meeting has their house burn down as thinking 9-1-1 did not bring the fire department in time.  They die, leaving their daughter Ilse an orphan.  The firemen find her safely outside the fire, but she does not respond to their questions.

The Sheriff Wheeler takes her back to his house.  She stays in the room of the Wheeler’s dead daughter Sally.  The sheriff doesn’t understand the girl’s silence — Ilse, I mean, not Sally.  He says, “I know she’s not deaf, dumb or retarded,” hitting the non-PC trifecta.  He says it is as if she doesn’t know how to talk.  Ilse awakens in Sally’s bed and telepathically calls to her parents.  Being a small rather than a medium, she gets nothing.


Sheriff Wheeler really doesn’t seem to get the concept of a mailbox.

Wheeler recalls how he had tried to get Ilse’s parents to enroll her in public school, but they wisely declined.  Naturally, Cora sees her as a surrogate for Sally.  Ilse reads Cora’s mind and sees what happened to Sally.  She seems happy to fill in, but really perks up when she hears that some letters from Europe have arrived at the Post Office.  Demonstrating that famous Aryan commitment to diversity, she really wants to be taken back to the other children who are exactly like her.

The Postmaster would not let Wheeler open the letters, so he writes letters back to addresses on the envelope.  Cora retrieves the letters and burns them.  She is witnessed by Ilse and damned lucky she doesn’t go all Carrie on her.

tzmute10Wheeler asks Miss Frank from the school to come by.  She communicates without words, too — she snaps her fingers summoning Ilse to her.  Ilse sends out a message to Cora, “Please, don’t let her touch me.”  Miss Frank is creepy enough to make me take that in the worst possible way.

The next day Cora takes her to Mrs. Frank’s class.  The kids seem to be about 5 years younger than Ilse.  Miss Frank stands Ilse up in front of the class and says, “We are going to work on her until she is exactly like everyone else.”  Guess that’s why they call it German Corners.

Eventually the Germans roll into the country, as Germans were wont to do [1].  They are upset that the Wheelers sent her to school.  Cutting to Miss Frank’s class again we see they are right to be concerned — Miss Franks is continuing to badger Ilse to say her name. When Ilse comes back to the house, the Germans try to communicate telepathically with her. Her mind has been so corrupted by public school that it just sounds like gibberish to her.

tzmute06Ilse finally manages to speak, “My name is Ilse.”  Then again.  Then again. Then again.  Then again. And she breaks down in tears.  The tightly wound Cora has been on the edge of hysteria the whole episode and this sets her off.  She shrieks that she will not let Ilse go, that the girl needs her.

Sheriff Wheeler drives the Germans back to the Greyhünd Bus [2] station. They have decided to leave the girl in America.  Mrs. German says she is better off with people who love her, and not just as an experiment.

An entry from Richard Matheson is always going to be welcome.  The production had a couple of problems, though.  The main issue is the craziness of the women in this town. Mrs. Wheeler seems perpetually on the edge of madness.  She has the Patsy Ramsey crazy-eyes and is not shy about shrieking.

Miss Frank is equally unbalanced but is, at least, more low key.  There is also an oddly unexplored plot point that Miss Frank’s father had attempted to develop psychic abilities in her as a child.  This undermines the main plot by 1) making Ilse not quite so special, and 2) introducing a blatantly supernatural element into a largely secular story.

These two performances and a lousy score bring this episode down a notch.  The performance by Ann Jillian, and the concept were very good, but didn’t quite win the day.


  • [1] Ironically, Germany is now famous for other countries’ citizens rolling in.
  • [2] I don’t think an umlaut was required here, but it just makes it look more German and less typo-y.
  • The episode is a more faithful adaptation than some film novelizations.  Except the kid was a boy.  Except for that.
  • Ann Jillian went on to be a cutie in the ’80s.

Outer Limits – First Anniversary (S2E7)

olfirstanniversary01aI was not looking forward to watching this one.  The short story was only 7 pages and kind of a one-joke piece.  Bulking it up to fill a one hour slot seemed a little 4th-Season Twilight Zoney to me.

Luckily, it was fleshed out with additional characters and featured some interesting performers.  I’m sure a lot of care was taken in the adaptation as it was co-written by Richard Matheson’s daughter.

Dorky accountant Matt Frewer is visited by a hot blonde client who is shown to his office.  Before he gets there, she notices his dead wife’s picture on the desk and morphs into a brunette (Michelle Johnson) more his type.  Although, her original incarnation seemed to be the universal every-guy’s type.  It clearly works, because about 100 frames later, they are a married couple.

olfirstanniversary17They are having dinner with another couple to celebrate the first anniversary of both marriages and it is immediately evident that something is amiss.  The other man is Clint Howard — it is not going too far out on a limb to say these two guys are . . . er, that is to say . . . uh, their faces have a lot of character.  It is clear that the couples were cast so that the women would appear to be out of the guys’ league.

That night at 3:04, Frewer awakens to find his wife typing away downstairs.  He sneaks up behind her and kisses her neck, but recoils saying she tastes like something dead.   She runs to the shower and begins roughly scrubbing down.  Frewer enters the bathroom and we sadly get just a backal view of Michelle.  When he looks at her reflection in the mirror, however, he sees a monster.

olfirstanniversary39Frewer goes to a doctor to check his sense of taste.  Now he can’t taste his wife at all. He swings by Howard’s house and learns that he has left his wife Barbara.  As Frewer drives off, Michelle strangely appears.  They are realizing that their marriages can only last about a year.

Howard calls Frewer and they meet in the park.  A disheveled Howard says that he began seeing and smelling strange things about Barbara.  Having morphed into a different body (for no good reason), Barbara confronts him, but he runs away and is hit by a car.

Soon, Johnson can’t keep up the illusion any more and Frewer begins to see her for the disgusting alien that she is.  Maintaining the illusion for more than one year is just not possible.  She confesses that she and Barbara crashed on earth.

Sure, now we get the frontal shot.olfirstanniversary51


  • The mystery here is why Michelle Johnson didn’t have a bigger career.  At least the Matheson family liked her — she is also in an upcoming Tales From the Crypt episode written by Richard Christian Matheson.
  • Cost of Canadian-release DVD: $20.  Not having to deal with Hulu: Priceless!
  • But Hulu, as I recall, still sucks.