Monday 22 September 2014

Rod Serling’s The Time Element

The Time Element is a 1958 television play written by Rod Serling and presented as part of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse series, hosted by Desi Arnaz. The Time Element was intended to serve as a pilot for the series Serling was planning, the series which would become The Twilight Zone. When CBS saw the script they were underwhelmed and lost interest in the projected series. The producer of Desilu Playhouse, Bert Granet, was on the other hand highly impressed and anxious to make do the story as part of that series. The audience response was so positive that CBS’s interest was rekindled and Serling was given the opportunity to do another pilot. The rest, as they say, is history.

As the title suggests this is a time-travel story. Peter Jenson (William Bendix) goes to see a psychiatrist (played by Martin Balsam) because he’s troubled by a recurring dream. Only he insists that it isn’t a dream. He insists that it’s real and that he really does travel through time. So far he has always awakened at the same point so he doesn’t know how the dream is supposed to end.

One of Serling’s chief weaknesses as a writer was a tendency to deliver the moral of his stories in a very obvious and laboured manner. In this story however he keeps that propensity in check. He is also prepared, in this story, to be quite open-ended. This tale can be interpreted in a number of ways and Serling is content to allow the viewer to make up his own mind.

His other major weakness as a writer was that he had a political axe to grind and he was prepared to do so in a remarkably heavy-handed way. Serling was one of those people who firmly believe that it’s not enough to have strong opinions - you have to inflict those opinions on others. If other people resent having your opinions foisted on them you just have to try even harder to bludgeon them into submission. Mercifully this story does not suffer from that flaw.

I have to be up-front and say that I am not at all a fan of Serling’s writing. Considering his vast reputation he can be astonishingly clumsy. The Time Element is one of his better efforts.

Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were very major players in American television in the 50s and had founded their own TV studio, Desilu, following the immense success of I Love Lucy. The Desilu Playhouse was something of a prestige production with a correspondingly generous (by television standards) budget. This works very much in The Time Element’s favour and the high production values found in this TV play were of course something that Serling was keen to see incorporated in his new series, The Twilight Zone.

Another major asset of The Time Element is director of photography Nick Musuraca, not only one of the great cinematographers but one with a superb track record in film noir (movies like Out of the Past) and horror (Cat People). 

At the end of the show host Desi Arnaz offers his own interpretation of the story, and it has to be said that it’s a perfectly valid if conventional interpretation (although other quite different interpretations are equally valid).

William Bendix and Martin Balsam were very fine and very experienced character actors and they help a good deal in creating the necessary suspension of disbelief by making their characters seem like real people. Darryl Hickman is equally good as the young naval officer whose fate becomes so important to Pete Jenson.

The Time Element is included as a bonus feature on the Blu-Ray release of season 1 of The Twilight Zone. It’s in remarkably good condition and on Blu-Ray it looks exceptionally good. This bonus feature comes with its own bonus features including an audio commentary by Mark Scott Zicree. 

The Time Element includes a lot of the best elements that would later feature in The Twilight Zone. It doesn’t quite have that Twilight Zone atmosphere in a fully developed fashion but it certainly points the way forward. The Time Element is important historically and it’s entertaining as well. Recommended.

It's interesting to compare this one with Nightmare at Ground Zero, a very Twilight Zone-ish episode he wrote in 1953 for the Suspense anthology series.

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