I’m engaged in a noble project with my twelve-year old daughter: watching every single Twilight Zone episode and ranking them. We watch and run them through a rubric to give them a score from 0 to 7. The episodes are graded in three categories: Concept/Plot/Characters (4 points), Tone (1 point), and The Twist (2 points).
The episodes this time were from Volumes 15 and 28 of the DVD collection.
Mute (Season Four, 1963)
One of the little-seen, hour-long fourth season episodes. These have the reputation of feeling like plodding, padded, stretched-out versions of the normal half-hour format, but both the fourth season episodes I’ve seen have been pretty decent. (The other one was On Thursday We Leave For Home.) Richard Matheson turns in a typically sharp script.
Mute is about a young girl, Ilse, who’s grown up in a rural home where her family communicates telepathically, so she never learned to speak verbally. When the house burns down and her parents die in a fire, Ilse goes to live with a family in the nearest town until her relatives back in Europe can be contacted. Her temporary foster parents, Harry and Cora Wheeler, aren’t sure whether she’s mute due to the trauma of losing her parents, or, as they gradually come to suspect, because her parents never taught her how to talk. Actually, Ilse is struggling to communicate with them using her mind–she can even read their thoughts–but she just can’t make them hear her speaking the natural, telepathic way.
Weeks go by and the letters to Europe have never been answered, so the Wheelers enroll Ilse in school, where a sympathetic teacher works with her to learn to speak. It turns out the teacher had an unusual childhood, for her father trained her to be a medium, channeling the spirits of dead people. Due to her background, she has an inkling of what Ilse’s problem is, and is able to show her how to put her thoughts in voiced words.
After months, “relatives” from Europe (actually family friends from a remote telepathic community) arrive to pick Ilse up and take her to a home she has never seen. But she’s grown attached to her foster parents, and they to her, especially Cora Wheeler, who lost her own daughter to illness years before. Will Ilse choose to go with her relatives and live with people who, like her, can communicate mentally, or stay with the Wheelers.
Concept/Plot/Characters—This is a great concept, and the hour length of the episode allow for the natural development of multiple related themes–not just Ilse’s problem of how to communicate, but also the sadness of Mrs. Wheeler from her daughter’s death and how Ilse sparks new life in her, and the teacher’s unusual insight into Ilse’s situation. The characters are fully and beautifully realized. (3.5 points)
Tone–Definitely not an action-packed episode, but the quiet tone and unhurried pacing are wholly appropriate to the subject matter. (1 point)
The Twist-–Not really an unexpected twist, but it certainly fits with what came before. (1.5 points)
Total=6 points (Pretty Good)
A slower-paced episode, but sensitive and beautifully done.
Midnight Sun (Season Three, 1961)
Just a warning–I found the twist in this episode really lacking, but couldn’t really address it without describing the twist. Thus, in the twist section (below), there will be spoilers!
Norma paints in her New York City apartment, where it’s extremely hot. More than that, it’s almost midnight and the sun is still out. A scientist on a television program informs us Earth has moved out of its orbit and is headed towards the sun, and it will continue to grow hotter until eventually the Earth burns up as it nears its star.
Most people have left New York in search of cooler climes, but Norma and her landlady, Mrs. Bronson, have stayed. Why bother going anywhere, when they’ll just meet the same fate? The streets are littered with abandoned cars and there are riots at the grocery stores, but at least the power is still on for a few hours a day, allowing Norma to cool pitchers of water and fruit juice in the refrigerator. When Mrs. Bronson is over visiting, a man breaks into Norma’s apartment and threatens her and Mrs. Bronson with a knife, seeking water. Should she give it to him in hopes he’ll go away, or risk going for her hidden gun?
This episode had several striking images–the abandoned cars on a New York street, Norma’s paint dripping down the canvas from the heat. Unfortunately, a strong start did not result in a good finish.
Concept/Plot/Characters—The concept is fine (how did Rod Serling foresee global warming?) and the script is well done. But by the end of the episode, Mrs. Bronson and the male intruder are guilty of some severe overacting. I understand they’re showing how crazy the heat is making them, but they really need to dial it back a notch. (2.5 points)
Tone–Maintains an atmosphere of over-heated discomfort that’s quite believable. (1 point)
The Twist– SPOILER WARNING! This twist is dumb. Norma wakes up and it turns out she’s been suffering from a fever and only dreamed it was hot, but it’s really cold because the Earth is moving away from the sun. That’s right, the twist has no deeper meaning or clever irony, it’s simply that the premise is actually the opposite: it’s really cold, not really hot. (0 points)
Total=3.5 points (Okay)
Started off well but ended in overacting and a silly twist.