Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Twilight Zone 01x26: Execution

Hey, you! Yes you!

Did you know that February 11 is National Inventors’ Day in honour of Thomas Edison’s birthday? Oh, you did? Well, did you know that I don’t like Thomas Edison because I’m Canadian, and we always take Alexander Graham Bell’s side? It’s true!

In fact, if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that the admiring of inventors can get to be a pretty contentious business, right fans of Lewis H. Latimer? Right Da Vinci Society? Right Team Tesla? It’s pretty ugly in the science wars. I considered doing a thing about Spencer Tracy in Edison, The Man, but then I realized I didn’t want to watch that.

So in honour of this proud day, we’re recapping an episode of The Twilight Zone all about how inventions are actually terrible. It’s called “Execution,” and from the title, I think we can all be confident that things go well.

We begin with the shadows of cowboys on horseback riding across a bleak black and white landscape. Surprisingly, lots of Twilight Zone’s take place in the Old West. This one, however, only partly takes place there. Rod Serling helps set the scene:

“A common place, if somewhat grim. An unsocial event known as a necktie party. The guest of dishonour? A cowboy named Joe Caswell. Just a moment away from a rope, a short dance several feet off the ground. And then the dark eternity of all evil men. Mr. Joe Caswell, who when the good lord passed out a conscience, a heart of feeling for fellow men, must have been out for a beer and missed out. Mr. Joe Caswell, in the last quiet moment of a violent life.”

Thanks, Rod!

Joe – a cold, slithering creature with eyes like a hungry crocodile’s – seems strangely uninterested in his own hanging. The local preacher comes to offer him prayers and comfort, but Joe declines. He says he has no interest in saving his mortal soul, just his mortal neck. The judge asks Joe if he has any last words, and Joe says that the man he shot was dumb and lippy and deserved to get killed. Friendly little fellow, ain’t he?

Just to make things extra uncomfortable for everyone, the father of the victim is present as well, and lets us know that Joe didn’t challenge his son to a showdown or anything remotely approaching an honourable course of action. Joe shot his victim in the back. The old man hopes the hanging takes a while, a mean and choking hang, because that’s all Joe deserves.

“The more you kick, the more justice I figure there is in the world.”


“Well, I’ll do a jig for you, Pappy! Just like a puppet!” Joe sneers.

Double yikes.

The judge declares that the hanging of Joe Caswell is a service to all mankind, and sets the horse running. We watch Joe’s shadow drop, kick a little, and then… vanish. The onlookers are stunned. Joe’s body has completely disappeared, and the only thing left of him is an empty noose.

Joe is next seen lying on a cot, alive, but in pretty rough shape. He’s all sweaty and nauseated and almost-hanged looking.

A much more handsome face comes into view: The Professor from Gilligan’s Island.

(The Professor was the best looking guy on the island, and there simply is no argument against that. I mean, it’s not a hard contest to win, but still. And besides, his handsomeness is currently in comparison to that of an about-to-throw-up dying man, so I’m standing by my statement.)

The Professor tells Joe to stay calm, and that he’ll explain what happened. And what happened was time travel! The most ethically dubious form of travel! You see, in this episode, The Professor plays a different professor, one who has finally done something constructive; he has built a functional time machine.

Joe is now eighty years into what he thinks of as the future, and in New York City. He’s travelled through space and time, which just goes to show how much a man can get done when he’s working with actual equipment instead of coconuts. The time machine, The Professor shows us, is a diamond shaped chamber, full of buttons and levers and science. He tells Joe that time travel is too complicated to explain to a man from the 1880’s, but I bet Paladin would understand it, and also probably freak out. (The greatest episode that never was…)

“I don’t know what your past was,” The Professor says, “but you are going to have a most distinguished future.”
That might have been a possibility, were these two not on The Twilight Zone, the show where man’s folly meets the wrong side of Fate’s humour.

“You’re the first time traveller in the history of man, and I’m going to introduce you to a whole new world. And you’re going to tell me about an old one.”

Ominous music plays, because wanting to learn stuff is terrible, Professor, you suck.

Joe chokes on his spit a little and falls back unconscious while reaching for his own neck, where the skin is raw and red. The Professor sees the rope burn and treats us to the thousand yard stare of a man who knows that his quest for knowledge is about to kick him in the ass. Should’ve stuck to your sweet tropical prison, Prof.

The laboratory set is awesome, by the way. This is a season one episode, back when Rod Serling was content to spend literally all the money at CBS. They made him stop doing that later on, and it really shows. Anyway, we get some beautifully shadowed shots of the lab at night, while The Professor records notes on his experiment.
He tells us that Joe became absurdly exhausted, so he put him to bed. In the two hours since Joe has been in the future, he has told the professor his name, and that he was “a trail boss for a cattle ranch in the Territory of Montana.” Joe is very lucky the professor doesn’t know much about the past yet, because there are several problems with his lie right off. But whatever, this isn’t Historical Cattle Ranchers’ Day, it’s Inventors’ Day. Let’s focus on why the science is wrong, not why the history is. Joe claims that his last moment of recollection was Nov 14, 1880; he was riding herd when he suddenly blacked out.

That massive rope burn on his neck is probably some sort of time travel related side effect.

The Professor wraps up his recording by noting that time travel seems to produce no feelings of physical sensation, and mentions that Je has provided no explanation for his rope burn. He adds a final observation, “hardly scientific” he notes, that he doesn’t like Joe’s looks. He doesn’t like his eyes, or face, or anything about the person his awesome scientific triumph has brought to his doorstep.

“I get a feeling of disquiet,” The Professor tells his only friend, the tape machine, “I get a feeling that I’ve taken a 19th century primitive and placed him in a 20th century jungle. And heaven help whoever gets in his way.”

Oh, Professor.

Poor Professor.

Foreshadowing yourself into an early grave.

Joe wakes up, and lets himself into the lab. He looks at all the test tubes and Bunsen burners like glass jars and fire didn’t exist in his time (they did) and hovers menacingly at the edge of light. The Professor is pretty obviously scared of him, but offers him a cigarette.

At first, Joe looks at it, like: “What the hell is that?! A pre-rolled cigarette?!” But those were available in the 1880’s, they just weren’tmachine rolled yet. In fact, the Bonsack machine was invented in 1880, and was a source of a major labor dispute in North Carolina in 1884. By 1888, it had completely replaced professional cigarette rollers and changed once again the industry that had built America. The filter maybe would freak someone out, those weren’t introduced until the mid-50’s.

Anyway, the Professor lights his lighter, and Joe seriously says:

“That’s fire right out of the air!”

I’m confident that once you’ve seen a match and flint, as any “trail boss” would have, a lighter is not so dramatic a thing. Also, he’s in a room lit by lightbulbs, and he hasn’t hovered around them like a moth, all: “God Almighty, what makes ‘em glow?! What makes ‘em glow?!

The Professor says he thought Joe was tired, and Joe says he is, but there’s plenty of time for sleeping, right now he wants to see the future. Are there hover horses and vending machines full of chewing tobacco? What sorts of crazy hats do the ladies wear?

Naturally, instead of easing the clearly violent man into the shock of the modern world, The Professor opens the blinds and the window, and shows Joe a busy New York street at night. Joe looks like he’s going to throw up, and covers his ears at the traffic noise.

Fun to note that cities in the 1880’s – large cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco – were noisy as all get-out. And smelled terrible. There’s a myth about modern noise levels, but actually what changes are the things that make the noise. Instead of dozens upon dozens of horse hooves clacking loudly against cobblestones on your street and the streets beyond, it’s the sound of cars. Instead of chains of bells being rung to let you know the fire truck is coming, it’s a siren.

But back to The Professor, who tries to tell Joe that some things never change, things like the fundamental difference between right and wrong. Joe asserts that he knows all about right and wrong, but it’s pretty obvious he only understands them as abstract concepts that concern other people. Or maybe he just decided to be on the side of wrongness, and that’s that.

“What about justice?” The Professor asks.

“Am I supposed to know about justice?” Joe replies, all but daring the man who saved his life to ask him about the hanging.

You’d think he’d be a little bit grateful, just because he would have died if the fickle hand of science hadn’t come a-calling. But not Joe. He just hates people. Cowboys, professors, people who leave the pickles on their burgers, nuns, it doesn’t matter to Joe Caswell.

The Professor decides that instead of quietly killing Caswell and pretending he’d never come to the future (what I would’ve done), he’s going to orate. Because this is the Twilight Zone, and having an episode where someone doesn’t give a moralizing speech would be scandalous.

After a brief bit about justice, The Professor reveals that he’s figured out exactly what happened. He’s right, of course, we all know that. Joe was in the process of being hanged when he was pulled into the future. The Professor asks if Joe killed someone.

Joe tells him he stopped counting his victims after he reached twenty.

Oh, Professor.

Why couldn’t you do my plan? Nobody needs to know that the “first time traveller” was actually the second. And if they pull Joe Caswell out of the river? He died in 1880 at the end of a rope. How could anybody murder a man who was executed eighty years before?

But no. The Professor, like a giant idiot, tells Joe that he’s going to send him back in time. Not only that, but to the very moment – Joe’s execution – that he pulled him from. Now, honestly, Professor, how the hell do you think somebody’s going to react to that? “Oh good, that sounds like a reasonable carriage of justice, and I certainly was deserving of that hanging, it probably won’t be at all painful!” You should lie, and tell Joe that he’s not welcome in the future, but you’ll send him back to wherever and whenever he wants. To Rome, where he can make himself Emperor; to the court of Queen Elizabeth where he can become William Shakespeare; to five days before his capture by the law back in 1880, so he can escape to Argentina. Then, just send him back to his hanging anyway. Boom. Done.

Honesty is not always the best policy, Professor.

Joe, predictably, does not like this idea of going back to be executed. He argues that right and wrong are easy to talk about in the warm, safe world of the mid-twentieth century, but it was different in his day. Except that, you know, murder has been illegal for thousands of years for a reason. But whatever. Joe makes his point about survival of the most violent, and calls The Professor a “clean-faced, Johnny-come-lately dandy, coming out in a warm train to roll over the graves of men like me.”

Seems like Joe is taking out some prior aggression on The Professor.

“I hate men like you!”

Yeah, this is about something other than time travel now.

There’s a fistfight. Joe, obviously more experienced in these matters, knocks The Professor backwards over his desk in a terrible tumble. The Professor desperately tries to reach for something in his desk drawer, but before he can get his hand around it, Joe hits him in the head with a lamp.

The Professor lies motionless on the floor.

But maybe he’s just unconscious! Maybe he’ll be fine!

Joe, meantime, has discovered that what The Professor had been reaching for is a gun.

Damn it, Professor! Why didn’t you have that in your lab coat pocket once you knew this man was dangerous?! You could’ve defended yourself! You could have made him choose between hanging in the past and being shot in the future! You could still be alive not unconscious!

Joe knocks the tape recorder off the desk, and it squeaks in chipmunk voice, until playing normally and reminding us that The Professor didn’t like Joe’s face.

Joe looks freaked out that he can hear The Professor’s voice this way. Maybe it’s because he’s not used to gramophones or player pianos, both available in his time. Or maybe it was just freaky to hear the voice of his latest victim predicting calamity like Nostradamus.

Either way, Joe runs into the night. Armed.

We’re left watching the tape run out next to the Professor’s motionless hand. It’s super moody, and a very nice shot.

The streets of New York at night: people scurry to and fro, cars honk at one another and drive kind of poorly, and the night is lit not with stars, but with the city’s wakefulness – patches of apartment windows, neon signs, headlights. And through it all runs Joe, disoriented and afraid.

Now he’s freaking out about electricity, even though he just brained a man with a lit lamp.

Nobody in this episode is very good at thinking of the consequences of their decisions. Just say, for a minute, that you’re a criminal in our time who suddenly wakes up in the future. For whatever reason, the scientist who brought you forward needs to be killed, so you kill him. Then… you run blindly into a world full of technology you’re guaranteed not to understand? Full of slang that you don’t know? No, no. You hide The Professor’s body, and read all of his books. Try to use the lab to prepare you for leaving. Watch the street from the window. Adjust. Even if only for a few hours. You’ve got the gun, you can shoot anybody that might come knocking. Why run?

Nobody ever listens to me.

Anyway, looking all disoriented and kind of high, Joe tears through the streets, splashing in puddles, looking up aghast at the skyscrapers. People keep staring, like nobody in 60’s New York has ever seen some strung out dude terrorizing a sidewalk. Show, please, everybody would just ignore him and avert their gaze like on a real city street.
Where does a man of the past find refuge? Where can you hide in a concrete hell? A telephone booth, naturally. (For younger whippersnappers, a telephone booth was a thing we had before cellphones. They were kind of great. I miss them a lot. They went extinct in my early teens.)

The phone rings. Joe paws at it, confusedly, until the receiver falls off and the operator’s voice asks him to deposit twenty-five cents. This causes Joe to panic for some reason? I like to think that the actual act of travelling through time heightened his senses, and that’s why sound keeps winding him up. Hilariously, he finds himself trapped in a glass case of emotion, and when he can’t figure out how to escape the phone booth, he just explodes his body through the glass, like a cannonball of frustration.

Is it supposed to be funny? Hard to say. Everything on TZ has that sly wink of a genie who loves misinterpreting a wish, but the music is very serious, and the whole thing is shot like science fiction noir. I think it’s meant to be a serious scene, which makes it even funnier.

Next stop, the modern saloon.

Joe stumbles backwards into a bar, through a nice touch of swinging doors. A bartender, looking like all bartenders in all times, asks: “What’ll it be?” Even though he would probably be getting his: “Buddy, I think you’ve had enough tonight, let me call you a cab” speech ready under these circumstances.

The jukebox is blaring jazz, and I guess our villain is not too keen on that type of music, because Joe freaks out on it. He starts trying to punch it to death, and when it’s obvious that he’s not going to be able to do that, he smashes it up with a chair.

The bartender looks unhappy.

“Expensive evening for you, pal. That’s gonna cost.”

Joe covers his ears, like even the voices of the twentieth century are poison.

“There’s so much noise!” He whines, while the bartender prattles on about the cost of the jukebox.

Joe slams his gun down on the bar, and demands a bottle of something alcoholic. I hope he winds up with crème de menthe. He just points at the bottles behind the bar, and the bartender nervously hands him one. Joe swigs straight from it.

“You been on a star, buddy?” The bartender asks, noticing how out-of-step his armed patron is.

“It’s just that I need some sleep,” Joe mutters, “and those… things that are running around…”


“Those carriages without horses, and the lights going on and off, and the noise!”

He’s really starting to sound like the Grinch. Next thing you know, this crazy bastard’ll be stealing Christmas.

Also, fun fact, cars look less like “horseless carriages” and more like train cars by this era. The carriage trappings pretty much disappeared post-war, because nobody needed to be eased in to non-carriage transportation anymore. So “trackless mini-trains” is probably closer to how Joe would perceive them. And, as anyone who’s blown out a candle or turned down a gas lamp can tell you, our light sources have always been able to go on and off. Ships at sea have been creating blinking lights since well before electricity. All you have to do is put a candle behind a shutter. Done. Magic blinking light.

But Joe is kind of stupid, and his body is drunk and woozy from time travel, and maybe being hanged gave him some kind of brain injury, who knows. All that is certain is that he’s overwhelmed by the future, because it is flashy and noisy.

The bartender tries to encourage Joe to GTFO, even giving him some free bottles of crème de menthe.

Unfortunately, Joe is mesmerized by the blank TV screen over the bartender’s head.

“Don’t you know what that is?” The bartender asks, because of some reason.

“It’s a window!” Joe scoffs defensively.

“Here, I’ll give you a free demonstration.”

Why?! WHY?! This man smashed up your jukebox and stole booze at gunpoint! Why would you want to show him your TV?!

Regardless of common sense, the bartender switches on the TV and lucky us, it’s a Western. The cowboy menacingly comes forward on the screen, freaking Joe out as he prepares to draw his gun. But Joe is faster than tiny TV cowboy, and picks his gun up from the bar, and shoots the screen.

Finally, the bartender starts to holler for the police.

A much funnier version of this sequence plays out in a season three episode called “Once Upon a Time,” with Buster Keaton as the time traveller. He is, in general, more amiable than Joe here. And also played by Buster Keaton, which gives him an upper hand in the comedy department.

A lot of people cite this bar scene as the whole reason they watch this episode, but for me it’s the excitement of seeing The Professor successfully do super-science. Unshackled by the limitations of a primeval island, the only thing that stands in his way is the one thing he could never understand: human nature. (That's why he kept giving Gilligan important jobs, you see.)

Well, it’s time again for Joe to go careening into the city night. He whirls about angrily, stopping poignantly in front of a flashing neon sign that says Paradise. Okay, it’s not poignant, it’s heavy-handed, but that’s the balancing act with this show, isn’t it? And it tends to vary from viewer to viewer. Some people hate certain episodes, and some people love them, and it’s because of the exact same reasons.

But back to Joe, who runs into traffic, almost gets hit by a car, shoots at the driver of that car (whether he hits, misses, or wounds is uncertain), then throws himself onto the ground as whistles blow and sirens blare.


Somehow, our next scene is not Joe in jail, or Joe running from the cops, it is Joe calmly and quietly returning to the lab. To look upon a shattered lamp and a dead Professor. How the hell did he get away, you ask? I do not know, and have no crazy theory.

“Mister, you…” Joe croaks desperately at the dead body. “Man, you… Help me, please. Help me!”

First of all, he was probably a doctor of something, Joe, not a mister. Second, this is why you shouldn’t just kill people. I mean, really.

The lights switch on, and suddenly the lab is bright as day.

A hoodlum has arrived!

He’s small and rat-faced, but carries that same selfish scrabble as Joe, and he’s pointing at gun at the room at large. Joe stands slowly, caught by surprise, and puts his hands up.

“I thought the place was empty,” Rat-face says to himself more than Joe.

Apparently, this local criminal has been planning to rob The Professor for some time. He’s been casing the joint and noticing what time the lights went off, and I don’t know, assessing the black market value of gently used beakers? He’s says he figured there were valuables, but if there’s anything I know about scientists, it’s that all of their money goes into science. They don’t have a lot of free-floating cash. Microscopes are expensive, though. You could probably resell a microscope. Still, not very lucrative for Rat-Face, considering the amount of time he’s put in.

Joe watches as the future version of what he was rifles through the desk drawers and finds a key to a wall safe. He takes Rat-Face’s distraction as an opportunity to try and go for his gun. A couple of stunt doubles have one hell of a fight, but man alive are they obvious stunt doubles. It’s basically like two strangers to the audience randomly appear and whale on each other.

And when it’s done, and the actors are back, Joe has narrowly avoided being defenestrated, but it’s clear that the modern killer has triumphed over the historical one. Maybe Joe is too overwhelmed by the noise from the street below to keep fighting, maybe there are some things a man can’t outrun, even if he jumps through time and space. Rat-Face wraps Joe’s neck with the cord from the blinds and strangles him.

Justice, after a fashion, is finally served.

Joe Caswell: hanged by the neck until dead.

But what of Rat-Face? Does he simply loot the office and run away?

Of course not.

Rat-Face is trying that key he found in everything with a lock, to no avail. He starts fiddling with knobs, looking for triggers for a secret wall safe, and we hear the distinctive sounds of space age technology warming up. Very casually, Rat-Face strolls around the room, stepping over the dead Professor, and decides to take a look inside that diamond shaped chamber. Maybe it’s hiding some awesome treasure, like all those gold bars scientists are always transmuting lead into!

The chamber closes around him, and it’s Joe in the phone booth all over again. Only this time, there will be no cannonball through the glass. Rat-Face screams as his body fades into the time stream.

Back in the old west, the shadow of a body fills that of the empty noose and falls limp.

“Cut him down!” The judge demands in a panic.

The men are stunned.

“That ain’t Joe Caswell! That ain’t the man we hanged!”

They all gather around. None of them know Rat-Face, and his futuristic clothes freak them out, even if he’s just wearing a tan suit. (Suits don’t really change that much over eighty years, or even a hundred and fifty years.) The judge wants to know what kind of devil’s work is going on, and the preacher says he’s not sure if it is devil’s work, but come on. What else are you thinking it is, Padre? I mean, I’m not the kind of person who guesses the devil all the time, but if I saw one hanging man’s body exchanged for another’s, I’d probably be like: “My first guess is the devil. My second guess is a cursed ring. Check his fingers!”

Everybody is confused, and all they can do is hope they haven’t hanged an innocent man. We know, of course, that justice has been metered out perfectly. Joe Caswell was executed as he was meant to be, Rat-face was hanged for the murder of Joe Caswell, and The Professor died because he dared to challenge the laws of nature. Seems fair.
The cowboys start to flop Rat-face’s body onto a horse, so that they can bury him on Boot Hill.

Better let Rod finish things off. It’s tradition.

“This is November, 1880. The aftermath of a necktie party. The victim’s name? Paul Johnson, a minor league criminal and the taker of another human life. No comment on his death, save this: justice can span years. Retribution is not subject to a calendar. Tonight’s case in point in the Twilight Zone.”

Happy Inventors’ Day, everybody! Don’t give up on your time machines!


  1. SO funny! I LOVED all of the professor jokes! I don't think I'll be able to watch Gilligan's Island the same again!

    1. I'm thrilled that you enjoyed it! Thanks!