Column: Summer Screams: The Twilight Zone

By Maria Mitchell

“The Thirty Fathom Grave” (2002). Adapted for radio by Dennis Etchison, with Blair Underwood.

“The Thirty Fathom Grave” represents one strong hour-long episode from The Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone was originally a half-hour-long series and the change in the fourth season to an hour-long format produced mixed results with the creepiness of the stories. Some of them just didn’t hold suspense for an hour. “The Thirty Fathom Grave”, however, is one story that met the challenge of holding suspense for an hour beautifully. The radio adaptation was an ingenious way to introduce new consumers to this classic story from the old series. The story brings a navy destroyer to the sunken remains of a World War II submarine that may, or may not have someone alive inside. An eerie clanging from the remains of the sub demands to be answered, one way or another. The radio adaptation of this episode is included with the DVD box set of the complete Twilight Zone series. I was a big fan of The Twilight Zone as a kid. I waved it farewell when KOFY-TV 20, the only network I remember the show being broadcast on when I was little, went off the air back in 1994 to make room for the WB. It’s great for me to have the show again in its entirety on DVD with the Definitive Edition.

The performance of Rod Serling’s script gives Captain Beecham a menacing tone when he asks Chief Boatswain’s mate Bell about Bell’s questionable competence. His Captain Beecham sounds more menacing than how Simon Oakland spoke in the episode. I found this more funny than scary. Captain Beecham is not an unsympathetic character and making him sound menacing doesn’t gel with his characterisation for me. However, it may lead listeners who are unfamiliar with the original episode to think twice about how much Captain Beecham knows about the clanging they’ve encountered.

Brief pauses of speech in this radio adaptation are augmented with snatches of music from the original TV series. I was surprised to hear a female performer, Linda Rider, speaking the role of the navy psychiatrist treating Bell for his nerves. There were no female actors in the original episode.

Diver McClure’s voice is dorky. There’s no sensitive way for me to re-word that. That supplies another unexpected flash of humour in this adaptation of the story. There are different effects used to make the sound of the metallic tapping on the sunken sub that indicates to the navy crew that someone is alive inside. Some taps are hollow and some are crisp. In the episode, the same effect was used to create the tapping noise.

There are other changes made to Serling’s script. Some of these changes deaden the story’s impact. In the episode, after Beecham’s crew discovers that the sunken sub is 20 years old, one of his crewmembers asks, “Captain Beecham, who’s down there? Who’s inside that sub?” To which Beecham replies, “Somebody who dies damn hard.” This line is sanitised in the radio adaptation to “Somebody who dies awfully hard.” Listening to this change, I recalled Bart Simpson’s dismay in the episode of The Simpsons, “The Old Man and the ‘C’ Student”, which showcased a version of Gone with the Wind that was edited for seniors in Springfield’s Retirement Castle. It alters Rhett Butler’s final line from “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” to “Frankly, my dear, I love you; let’s re-marry.” Bart complains, “They cut out the best word!” I won’t say the radio adaptation cut of the best word from “The Thirty Fathom Grave”, but I do think the change cost Captain Beecham some of his shock and surprise at finding out someone might still be alive inside a sub that sank in World War II. Plus, this line’s delivery marked one of the most intense moments of actor Simon Oakland’s performance in the episode.

More disappointing is how the performer in Bell’s role speaks hysterically through most of the drama. One of the things that made actor Mike Kellin’s performance effective in the episode was that he did not play Bell as an hysterical person until key moments in the story that call for him to break down, emotionally. He played him very blandly in the beginning. Kellin played Bell as lethargic and unemotional during his initial stay in the navy sickbay. It isn’t until he first sees the spectres of his dead crewmates in the mirror that Kellin plays Bell hysterically. After this visitation, Bell is a man who starts to crack up horribly. I think the voice actor jumped to hysteria too quickly. Since it is radio, we don’t get to see the spectres, but we get to hear them. Something that wasn’t done in the episode. The episode relied solely on the metallic tapping to manifest the sound of the sunken spectres.

Kellin’s portrayal of Chief Bell is riveting because of Kellin’s accurate interpretation of a man weighed down by a massive case of survivor guilt. I can only think of one other actor who portrayed this awful psychological condition as convincingly and that was Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People. I think much of the survivor guilt and subsequent post traumatic stress of Chief Bell are lost in the radio adaptation. While this is disappointing to me, this change may be a good thing for listeners who would rather not be bogged down too much by psychological subtext and just prefer to hear a good, creepy ghost story.

While I prefer the original episode over the radio adaptation, it is neat to hear how Blair Underwood and his fellow performers interpret the story with mainly the inflections of their voices to supply the listener with creeping thrills.

“Living Doll” and “The Dummy” (2002). Adapted for Radio by Dennis Etchison. Starring Tim Kazurinsky and Bruno Kirby.

Rod Serling stated in archival footage to his sponsors that The Twilight Zone was very much a storyteller’s show, in that an audience would watch it because an audience would watch a well-told story. “Living Doll”‘s performance gives more exposition about the purchasing of Talky Teena because it takes place in the mall. Most of this dialogue was not included in the episode. I was disappointed with the voice actor speaking for Talky Teena. She sounded too enthusiastic and nice to be this wicked little doll. On the other hand, Tim Kazurinsky did a fantastic job of sounding like a self-righteous, arrogant patriarch. The wife sounded more commandeering than Annabel did in the episode. The girl playing Christy sounded older than Tracy Stratford from the original episode. Maybe too old for dolls.

Some of the sound effects are hilarious, such as when Eric Straighter throws the doll into a vase and quips, “Are you all broken up about it?” The doll now has to laugh instead of wink. It’s also funny. There is no question in my mind that this adaptation’s team decided to play it more for tongue-in-cheek yucks than for shivers of terror. The episode is disturbing in a way that is impossible to top, so the best a reinterpretation can do is try to reinvent the original feel of the story. The radio team made a good decision to oust Bernard Herrmann’s demonic score because the score to “Living Doll” leaves no leeway for humour. It is beautifully demented and sounds every bit like a haunted music box. This score’s evil-sounding clarinets were an interesting polar opposite to the sleepy, relaxing, lethargic clarinets in Herrmann’s score to the Twilight Zone episode, “Ninety Years Without Slumbering”. It’s kind of awkward to hear Kazurinsky speaking of a broken neck after his final confrontation with Teena, since, if he had a broken neck, he wouldn’t be able to speak, most likely. This plays the story as more skewed, sick humour than horror.

The original episode touches many unpleasant topics in regards to family life. The radio adaptation is wise to avoid most of these familial issues in order to keep the interpretation simple. While this robs the story of some of its multi-layered meaning, the radio adaptation also is perfect for listeners who don’t want to look too deeply into any unpleasant familial subtext. I’ll go as far as to say that this radio drama is the “shallow” version of the story.

These dramatic reinterpretations prove something very concrete about the original Twilight Zone: There was only one. There’s no retelling that can capture the creepy feeling of the original series. It was just purely its own dimension. I’m not familiar with much of Telly Savalas’ career, but I gather that this episode represents one of the most memorable times he played a character with a genuinely rotten streak. This man, ostensibly a model citizen, harbors a deep, secret hatred for the very family he supports. This hatred is exposed by virtue of the very grisly ways he tries to dispose of Talky Teena in his workshop.

The radio adaptation of “The Dummy” follows the same format as “Living Doll”, in that it expands the intro, includes more dialogue between Willie, Jerry and Jerry’s agent, Frank, than was present in the original episode, and shies away from much of the edge of horror that made the episode such a memorable one. Evil toys are plot devices that are hard to portray realistically in a horror story, and The Twilight Zone had the distinction of being a series that showcased two very memorable demonic dolls in Talky Teena and Willy the Dummy. Both these episodes also made extensive use of psychiatric subtext. The adaptation of “The Dummy” keeps most of this subtext intact.

I am very used to the creepiness of both the original Talky Teena and Willy; ergo, Willy’s voice in the radio adaptation doesn’t work for me, either. It sounds corny and antithetical to the fear of the episode. However, for people unfamiliar with the original episode, it might be interesting. Some additional jokes in this adaptation are funny, though I miss a sarcastic formaldehyde remark from the episode.

“The Long Morrow” (2002). Adapted for radio by Dennis Etchison.

Irony was one of the cornerstones of what made The Twilight Zone a memorable show. This radio adaptation of the show expands on the original script of the episode written by Rod Serling. This story explores what Serling termed “the ferocious travesty of fate,” concerning Douglas Stansfield, an astronaut put into cryogenic suspension to explore a solar system in search of life among the stars. The episode is concerned with time as a force that shifts and changes in proportion to the importance placed upon it by the people it holds in its grasp.

Time is very much a palpable influence in this episode. Many stories deal with time as an important influence, but this story makes time an entity in the story, as tangible as, if not more than, the people. While Rod Serling and some of the writers he routinely worked with didn’t tackle H.P. Lovecraft’s actual stories until the inception of Night Gallery, which included an adaptation of “Pickman’s Model”, there are many episodes of The Twilight Zone that have a Lovecraftian feel to them. They have this feel because of their exploration of human helplessness against cosmic forces. “The Long Morrow” dramatises the separation of Stansfield from Sandra Horn, a scientist with whom he falls in love shortly before his departure into space. This episode, while containing a romantic angle that Lovecraft would probably not have found interesting, still manages to effectively explore the eerie sanity of Stansfield as he sleeps in deep space and his strange sensations of time. Stretched sanity and unusual perceptions of time are both very Lovecraftian topics.

The radio adaptation of the story is effective in its expansion of the script, allowing more dialogue to transpire between Stansfield and Horn during their brief courtship. Stock dance music used in the series, but not in this particular episode, provides a convincing backdrop to the dance sequence that is alluded to in the episode but not seen. I was fond of the intro to this interpretation because it begins as though quoting Genesis: “In the beginning, there was the word. And darkness. And light.” Stansfield goes on to comment that he has difficulty remembering light, but that he knows it’s there. Light pinpoints the fabric of space. This brought back fun memories to me of visiting planetariums.

The script for Bixler, the scientist sending Stansfield into space, goes into more detail about the mission and Stansfield’s personal background. I like how he makes it clear this mission is bypassing Congressional approval. This, as far as I’m concerned, is an expression of frustration at the frequent spars and scuffles between government officials and space exploration programs in any decade. There is always strain between the two entities in the United States. Funding, building of spacecrafts and probes, and training of space explorers are just a few of the problems that flare up between space exploration programs and the governments that finance them. It’s all prohibitively expensive and there’s always stress about how the money is going to be used when it is gleaned from taxpayers. Interest in space travel for many taxpayers is like interest in celebrities: consistent and also fleeting. When space travel does not touch people’s lives in a personal way, it can be hard for them to remember that this undertaking is for the good of everyone.

The character of Stansfield is not the character of a person who loses interest in undertakings easily. He recognises the importance of the assignment. “And so it began. Very brief. Matter-of-fact. Unemotional,” he muses. “And that’s the way it should have been.”

But for the entrance of Sandra Horn, it would have remained unemotional. But as soon as Stansfield meets her for the first time, they both share an uncanny sensation that they have known each other for a long time. During their dance, Horn comments, “I’ve known you for three and a half hours. And already, I feel a sense of loss.” She feels this sense of loss because her life has already become indelibly linked with Stansfield.

“Everything that has meaning for him will be a memory,” muses the mission controller as Stansfield prepares to go into space. This addition to the script fleshes out the sacrifice that Stansfield is making. Meanwhile, Stansfield meditates on his relationship with Sandra Horn fading from his grasp: “We let ourselves reach into that sea within us that is love and watched the ripples grow.”

While this is a sad story, it isn’t without its weird shocks and creeping dread. The radio adaptation adds a computer monitor with a female voice that routinely scans Stansfield during his hibernation.This change adds a mechanical flair to the story that makes it uneasy. The only voice Stansfield will hear for 40 years is that of the machine that routinely scans and scours his body, and will, presumably, wake him when he reaches his destination. To a man pining away for a lost human woman, it’s plausible that the dialogue between him and a mechanised female voice is a frustrating one.

I like how, in the radio version, the script paints Stansfield’s return as a surprise: The present-day space engineers didn’t expect him to come back. His ship was presumed lost. When he returns, it is revealed that he removed himself from hibernation. The present-day mission controller states the line that was one of the most powerful from the original episode: “His kind of loneliness must have been something brand-new in human experience.” Loneliness frightens most humans. Stansfield is a strong man who was not afraid to face, not only the depths of space, but 40 years of emptiness in his heart without Sandra Horn.

Overall, the radio adaptation of this story is a good one. It expands on the story, goes deeper into Stansfield’s social background, and is a well-acted interpretation. All of these radio adaptations are included on the definitive edition of The Twilight Zone DVD box set, which is available at Amazon.com.