Given it’s cult status today it’s easy to forget that Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone was quite a hard sell back in the day. There had been anthology shows before but they weren’t all that successful. Serling was confident of his talent however and penned a script for CBS in 1957 entitled The Time Element that would incorporate all the elements that would ultimately become synonomous with The Twilight Zone – opening and closing narration, a science fiction or fantasy setting, a tell-don’t-show approach to narration and of course those great twists at the end.
The Time Elelment is very much therefore the prototype for the classic show. So what is it about?
Even if you had no clue of Serling’s involvement in the production you can tell that this was something from The Twilight Zone just by reading the synopsis. I won’t be giving too much away because there is almost an unwritten law amongst fans of the show that says you can’t give away the ending but here goes;
It’s Saturday October 4th 1958 and a man named Peter Jenson (played brilliantly by William Bendix) finds himself in the office of psychoanalyst, Dr. Gillespie played by a cool and calculative Martin Balsam. Jenson has spent the last week suffering from a recurring dream in which he wakes up in a hotel in Honolulu on Saturday December 6th 1941 – the day before the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour.
Once he realises his situation he grasps the opportunity to make money by placing bets on boxing matches and horses that won’t take place for several years yet. However, when he meets a young newlywed couple in the hotel bar and realises the groom is an engineering officer aboard the USS Arizona which will be sunk in the attack the next day he desperately tries to warn people of the attack but no one listens. He wakes up from the dream shortly after seeing the Japanese planes fly over the hotel.
Dr. Gillespie insists that time travel is impossible but Jensen explains that after the first few nights he had the dream he looked up the newlywed couple he met in the bar and finds out that the groom was indeed killed aboard the Arizona and his wife was strafed by a Japanese plane. They were real people…
I am sure more than one person will read that synopsis and have flashbacks to the movie The Final Countdown (1980) – which is another movie I recommend – as it deals with a similar theme of travelling through time to the day before the Japanese strike Pearl Harbour. Whereas that movie’s main focus is on the build-up to the attack, The Time Element is a more human story with the attack serving merely as the backdrop.
In essence this is two stories intertwined through the experiences of one man who struggles to convince people in both the past and the present that he has travelled through time. As a viewer you are left wondering just what is really going on the whole time and the fact that Jensen is hardly a likeable character makes you want to not believe him. He is a heavy drinker and gambler whose first thoughts are to help himself rather than try to warn people of the impending attack. Also, in his sessions with Gillespie he is quite confrontational throughout giving the viewer a feeling that he is a bully of a man.
That being said, when it becomes clear that no-one in 1941 will believe him about the Japanese attack he becomes a rather pitiful character as he drowns himself in whiskey. You honestly can’t help but be consumed by his frustration yourself as you watch him pleading with people in the bar for them to believe him. Utterly helpless, he wakes up (in his dream) in his hotel room in Honolulu just as the Japanese planes go overhead screaming “I told you!” like a madman but that is where the dream ends although he admits that he feels like there is more that he hasn’t seen yet.
Without giving away too much about the ending I will say this; there is no one firm conclusion. That’s what is so brilliant about much of Serling’s work on such stories. Two people can watch The Time Element and have two different views on just what is happening. There is both a science-fiction answer – which is that he is indeed time-travelling – and the rational one – which I won’t go in to because it would give away too much. If you make an argument for one there is evidence to the contrary and vice-versa.
The Time Element was almost never made, it being bought off Serling by CBS and then shelved only to be dusted off for an instalment of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse which ran from 1958 to 1960. In fact, The Time Element actually ends with the narrator trying to sell you a Westinghouse refrigerator but don’t let that put you off. This is an excellent piece of film and could very easily be adapted in to a great stage production.
If you want to see it for yourself it is readily available online. My advice is close the curtains, dim the light and put on the headphones to get immersed in the story.