- Question: How is this episode of Tales of Tomorrow like Mother!?
- Answer: I liked it, but will never watch it again and will never recommend it to anyone.
I applaud Tales of Tomorrow for some major fourth wall breakage. It might be giving them too much credit to point out the irony of breaking the fourth wall with a window, but I was just so happy to genuinely enjoy an episode that I’m feeling generous.
Something seemed immediately amiss when the announcer said, “Starring William Coburn and Merle Albertson.” IMDb also lists Rod Steiger and Frank Maxwell — two much bigger names at the time — for the episode. Kudos to the producers for completely subverting the form. The episode, unbeknownst to the audience, began before it began.
Otherwise, the episode begins pretty typically with a white man working at a desk in an office and an overwrought score. He brings Martha in and tells her, “At this time tomorrow, the earth will be one flaming white inferno.” So maybe the score was appropriately wrought. I would like to think this was a meta-gag based on how often the series destroyed the world.
That’s not the shocker, though. Our picture goes all staticky, then shows a window in an apartment building. We overhear the director say, “What happened? That’s not our show. Where’s the picture coming from?”
Two men (Steiger and Maxwell) and a woman are sitting in a Kramdenesque apartment swilling beer. Al is warning Hank not to get married because all dames are like his wife. Dude, she’s sitting right there! I can certainly understand why she’s drinking. He is upset because he just got out of the hospital and she wasn’t there to pick him up. I must agree, that is pretty lousy.
Our screen goes hinky again and resolves to a PLEASE STAND BY title card. We hear a crew-member say, “We were cut off. That picture in the window is going out in place of our show.”
The cameras then show what is happening behind the scenes in the TV studio. The actual Tales of Tomorrow director tells the actual stage manager — among the many people credited as “himself” on IMDb — he needs to make an announcement to the audience. Fearing the Announcers Local 306 more than the possible alien invasion, he stalls until he sees the program’s actual announcer. All he gets out is the standard “Due to circumstances beyond our control” before the screen goes crazy again.
The POV switch between the TV studio and the apartment happens several times, but it would be tedious to document each instance. The fascinating thing is how much is going on in this hitherto dimwitted series. The breaking of the fourth wall had to be almost unknown to a 1952 audience. Sure, Orson Welles did something similar with War of the Worlds, but that was just on radio and I’ve always suspected the effect was vastly overblown. Comedians like George Burns might address the camera, but TV was still basically vaudeville at that point.
This could easily have been a mere stunt but for the story-telling. The brief scenes in the apartment are often individually innocuous, but build to an inevitable conclusion that the observers race to prevent. In the studio scenes, there is believable chaos in trying to figure out how this is happening. At the same time, they logically work on a way to locate the apartment and prevent the crime. We see everyone getting involved: the actors, the sponsor, the network, the crew.
- The engineer gives his scientific theory on the air. When someone brings two chairs out for him and the announcer, the engineer puts his foot up on one. The announcer looks at the chair like “what the hell, dude?” Very minor, but it adds to a great sense of unscripted chaos.
- The actors walk in front of the camera and are hustled away before they can say how much they don’t Like Ike (elected 3 days before this aired).
- During one interval when the studio is being received, they do a live commercial. Priorities, ya know. Kudos to them for suddenly cutting it off a few seconds early to have the apartment take over the transmission again.
The ending is a little anti-climactic, but I’m not going to let that ruin a great experience. In truth, there wasn’t anything Tomorrowy about the Tale. It would have made a kick-ass Twilight Zone in a few years, though. Maybe I was too harsh in the first two lines of this post. I’m sure part of my appreciation of this episode is due to low expectations, but there is no denying this is something special for 1952 TV.
Great credit goes to writer Frank De Felitta, but greater credit goes to whoever approved this crazy script to air in 1952. Easily the best of the series (sadly, I doubt I need to add “so far”).
Available on You Tube.
- Both IMDb and the DVD case mention an alternate title of The Lost Planet. I have no idea how that could possibly fit this episode.