7.25.2014

The Ray Bradbury Theater: The Town Where No One Got Off

Superman has his Fortress of Solitude; I have the TV Tomb of Mystery. Speak, friend, and enter. You are not imagining this.

Today's excursion:

The fourth episode of the first season of:

These days naming an episode "The Town Where No One Got Off" might give rise to a few snickers from the audience. It did at the time, too, at least for me. I first saw this some Saturday afternoon in the late 80s and though it cast a long shadow in my imagination, at the time and for years afterward I had no idea what show it was. (Insert long digression on no cable guide at the time and no TV Guide handy.)

Incidentally, one of the first things I ever looked up at imdb, within days of first getting an AOL account, was Jeff Goldblum, just to finally put a name to the "That one story with the train where he's walking around that small town."
The 80s were the last great age of anthology shows. The Ray Bradbury Theater, which ran on HBO for two seasons and on the USA Network for four additional seasons, premiered in an era that had revivals of both The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and original content anthologies like Freddy's Nightmares and Amazing Stories.

What separated TRBT from all of them - and any other show that has ever been produced, to my knowledge - was that not only was every episode based on the work of a single author but also that the author himself wrote every episode. (And like all anthology shows, you need a distinctive opening.)

Bradbury was reluctant to return to television when Larry Wilcox (yes of CHiPS fame) approached him with the idea of the show: "I had been spoiled by my experiences with Hitchcock and after he left TV more than twenty years ago, I did very little... [Wilcox] assured me he would be very protective. I would be in on casting, editing, and could write whatever I wanted to write."


In addition to his many years as a playwright and theater director, Bradbury had a considerable background in television and film, having written Moby Dick for John Huston, so he brought a lot of experience to the table both with adapting an author's work and working with actors. Which worked pretty well for the show in my opinion. More often than not, an author's involvement in the realization of his or her work in another medium works against it. Not so here. The Bradbury of the page is transferred pretty faithfully to the screen.

Your own take on things will likely depend on one of two things: your opinion of Bradbury's work itself and your tolerance for deteriorated film stock. A proper transfer - if still actually possible; who knows the state of the original film - would probably enhance the show's reputation. Production value decreased from season to season, sometimes from episode to episode. This sometimes helps more than hurts as it focuses attention on the prose or the theme, but to be sure, sometimes it's distracting.


The opening credits were trimmed over the years until they just basically just flashed the title onscreen with barely any of the original narration. And while the old intro definitely went on too long, it was not without its charms.

The different mementos of Bradbury's office are of if nothing else anthropological interest.
And they made a big deal of Bradbury looking around the room "Now-let-me-see-here"-ing things, before the camera settled on an object, which would fade into the opening of the episode itself.
Or in the case of "The Town Where No One Got Off" into a whole 'nother preamble.
This one with a cameo from Disney legend Ward Kimball.
He and Bradbury were friends of longstanding.
Onto the episode itself. I've read a fair bit of Bradbury but never this particular short story, so I can't weigh in on whether or not it's a successful transition from page to screen. I love what we see, though. The atmosphere of this one - from the synth scoring to the wind blowing the autumn leaves down unfriendly, empty small town streets - is top notch.

The plot is simple enough. Cogswell, an unpublished writer, looks dreamily out the train window at the small town beyond.


Sounding a little like the protagonist of the Twilight Zone episode "A Stop at Willoughby," he sees the town as a representation of a less hurried, less manic way of life. The passenger sitting across from him teases him for being overly idealistic. ("Bleeding hearts and their heads buried in the past...") He dares Cogswell to get off at the town and see for himself whether or not his romantic ideas live up to reality.

Which he does, rather impulsively.
Old Man played by Ed McNamara.
From the station, he walks around town, looking for a room and finding only unfriendly locals and deserted streets.

The location scout deserves a shout-out; the town is perfect. (And perfectly photographed.)
He suddenly realizes the Old Man from the station is tailing him.

The heart of the episode is the ensuing conversation between the Old Man and Cogswell. It slowly dawns on Cogswell, as the Old Man talks about having murder in his heart and how he's been waiting for an opportunity to kill someone - a drifter, say, whom no one knows, who just happened to get off the train - that he might be in physical danger.


This does not stop him - somewhat improbably - from following the Old Man into his murderin' lair some kind of abandoned structure. 

"I've got a bottle in there," he provides as explanation.
Uhhh...

Just as the Old Man seems to be working to the climax of his "And now I will murder you, random stranger" speech, Cogswell turns the tables by declaring how remarkable it is to meet someone with whom he has so much in common. He, too, has dreamed of murdering someone and thought perhaps if he could only get off in a town where no one knows him, he might happen upon a stranger, himself, and get him alone so he could shoot him with "this revolver in my pocket."

The Old Man - showing the same sort of gullibility as Cogswell did, following him into the shack - accepts his assurance that he has a revolver and they leave in an uneasy stalemate.
The episode ends with each of them back where they started:
Cogswell looking out the window  -
- and the Old Man waiting - probably in vain - outside of it.
At least one viewer decried the difference in tone between the original prose and this adaptation. As discussed here:

"Bradbury's original ending makes it clear that the town represents a state of mind for our hero: Now the darkness that had brought us together stood between. The old man, the station, the town, the forest, were lost in the night. For an hour I stood in the roaring blast staring back at all that darkness."

"Although this is an effective little shocker, and appealing for its almost reverential attempt to dramatize the central dialogue between Cogswell and the old man, it disappointingly takes away any role for the imagination, or for psychological explanations of the hero's behavior."

Reverential is a good word for the overall Bradbury approach. It's probably more interesting to wonder at story's end whether or not Cogswell is or is not a killer himself, but I also like the disillusioned but quick-thinking Cogswell of the episode.

I don't love every episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater - which makes sense as I don't love every story I've read by him, either - but the ones I do, like this one, are a successful blend of dreamscape and verisimilitude. No one quite sounds like anyone you've ever met yet they're all familiar; no one's actions or motivations are traditionally explainable yet their inner worlds are easy to see and well-described.

Bradbury once wrote that "you have to stay drunk on writing so reality won't destroy you." This explains to my satisfaction why I often find his stories to be somewhat disorienting. But usually worth it and always unique. Alternately nostalgic and eccentric, with unexpected darkness, it's tempting to see his work as an intoxicating hedge against reality's war of attrition against your childhood sense of wonder.

"The Town Where No One Got Off" was directed by Don McBrearty and adapted by Ray Bradbury from his original short story.

The Closet of Mystery is an ongoing catalog of one man's attempt to stave off the acquisition of any more impulse-buy DVDs until he can take better inventory of the ones already in his possession.

14 comments:

  1. Apparently this is my day for getting the nostalgia bomb dropped on me.

    I remember seeing bits and pieces of Bradbury Theater when I was just a kid (this would be early 90s). My clearest memory is one that seems to be shared among fans:

    Capt. Kirk looks on ruefully as a yound child is pulled to the ground by a herd of feral children (no other word for it) with sharp pointed teeth and is them pretty much torn apart. Instead of doing the valiant, Starfleet thing, Capt. Kirk just smiles, again ruefully, and walks off like a bastard. End of episode! What the hell was that!!!!

    It's moments like that that either get someone hooked or turned off. Luckily, I was hooked, and found out the episode is called The Playground. As an 80s kid, shows like these were the background of my life, and it's been great picking them up again. I've even seen shows such as the 80s Twilight Zone (the premiere episode was written by Harlan "Like-Hate-Relationship" Ellison, and featured Bruce Willis).

    I really hope you do more from all these series!

    To give an idea of the past shaping the future, here's an episode from the 80s version of the Zone called The Last Defender of Camelot. It's notable for being scripted by Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin. It is therefore interesting on the possible light it sheds on the current series:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JyIAu5JsT8c

    ChrisC

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    1. The only criteria for something getting in on this Closet of Mystery fun is that it had to be in my closet before July 2014. Which, alas, the 80s Twilight Zone is not. I may make an exception, tho, for that show, as a few episodes really stuck out and would be fun to do here in this fashion, absolutely.

      The Playground is a weird one, absolutely. Shatner's character is so bizarre in that one. I may not do that one for this series, but I just may. It's definitely worth discussing and screencapping and what not.

      "As an 80s kid, shows like these were the background of my life, and it's been great picking them up again."

      Amen, brother!

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    2. I also somehow think it makes sense to see Jeff Goldblum's character as more actually crazy rather than just a normal person who wanders into dangerous circumstances. Just seems to give the story a twisted kind of sense, mainly because it turns the story from a story idealism into something else entirely, and the audience realizes it's been watching something else all along.

      My favorite Bradbury Theater episodes (in no particular order) are:

      The Wind
      The Long Rain
      The Happiness Machine
      The Black Ferris
      The Anthem Sprinters
      Zero Hour
      Death of Dudley Stone
      Gotcha! (creepiest ending EVER)
      Downwind from Gettysburg
      A Miracle of Rare Device
      The Screaming Woman (with Drew Barrymore)
      Grow Giant Mushroom's in your Basement
      Usher 2
      The Crowd (Bradbury in Richard Bachman mode)
      The Banshee

      My favorite episode of the entire series, however, is The Toynbee Convector, featuring James Whitmore from Shawshank Redemption, for some reason it just seems to sum up everything about Bradbury.

      ChrisC


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    3. I really like your description of "The Crowd" - that makes total sense.

      I like these episodes you mention, definitely, though a few I don't recognize just from the title. I can say with confidence, tho, from the ones I DO recognize: excellent list!

      No "The Veldt" or "The Man Upstairs," though? What's the one about the 100th anniversary of the man who flew into the future?

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    4. hahaha - I guess it's The Toynbee Convector, the very one you mention at the end of your comment. Nice - I looked it up and started laughing as soon as I read the description. Probably should've googled it before I replied, eh? I agree - great episode and 1000% emblematic of Bradbury.

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    5. The Man Upstairs I wavered on because the only thing that bothers me about the adaptation is the change of setting. I'm not talking about the visuals, but the setting in terms of country.

      The original story (at least it's implied) takes place in fictional small town that keeps cropping up in most of Bradbury's stories, Green Town Illinois (it's also implied that the main character MAY be the protagonist of Dandelion Wine). I just worry whether or not the story loses it's impact from being taken out of it's small town suburb setting, as technically the original is one of those small town under siege stories. I'm still wavering, really.

      The Veldt I thought was okay, but for my money, the definitive dramatization for this story was given on an old 1951 radio broadcast. Yeah I know it's old, but Bradbury himself listed it as one of his favorite adaptations.

      http://vimeo.com/66766189

      ChrisC

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    6. I got one of those Old Time Radio CD-roms that has (supposedly) all of Bradbury's stories ever produced for radio (Dimension X, etc.) It's at my desk at work so I can't check to make sure, but I'm sure that's on there. You've just given me something to hunt for and listen to tomorrow morning and for that I thank you.

      Yeah they shipped production for that stretch of TRBT eps overseas, which, as you say, definitely alters things. I didn't know that the protagonist of Dandelion Wine might be the same kid as in "The Man Upstairs," but I can easily see that. That kid's attitude (in the episode, so I guess I mean the performance of the youngster) always makes me smile.

      I love The Veldt story more than the TRBT episode - it's so eerie.

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    7. Bradbury once observed of the Veldt that it was written before the advent of either virtual reality, or the net this message is written on. Which may explain why he liked the X Minus version. Looked at as a parable of how a lot of people will use media or technology as the kind of escape hatch that makes it difficult to tell fact from fiction sure makes a story written in the 40s seem very prophetic.

      I'll swear I've watched internet reviewers (and here I am thinking of that Nostalgia Critic guy) who seem to suffer a form of that malady. Like you say, eerie.

      ChrisC

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  2. I held off on reading this one until I could make time to watch the episode, which I did tonight.

    I loved it! I thought pretty much everything in it was great, from Jeff Goldblum to the vaguely Halloween-esque music to the culmination of the plot.

    I feel a bit ashamed that this is the first episode of the series I've seen; clearly, it's right up my alley.

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    1. It varies in quality, but it's definitely a fun series and if I can venture a guess, yeah, I'd say it seems to be right up your alley.

      Thanks for watching it and doubling back - happy to hear you enjoyed. Complete coincidence - Dawn and I were watching Law and Order: Criminal Intent at the hospital earlier and Jeff Goldblum's character made some snide comment about sleepy smalltowns as a breeding ground for murder and I laughed. He would know!

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    2. Also: glad someone else gets a kick out of the music for this one. 80s synth-scoring is to its era what guitar-solo-less metal is to later eras, i.e. it seems to be trying so hard to be "of its time" (or ahead of its time/ futurist) that it more or less instantly dates itself, but it's pretty damn fun, for me. (Very much more so than guitar-solo-less metal, for my own tastes.)

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    3. That's an amusing coincidence about Goldblum on Law & Order. I wonder if, when actors have something like that happen, they find themselves thinking, "hey, cool! This is like that Bradbury episode I did!"

      As for the score, yep, I thought it was a very solid example of its type. IMDb indicates that it was written by John Massari, who is probably best known for "Killer Klowns From Outer Space." It certainly does sound of its era, but I don't mind that. There's something to be said for timelessness, but there's just as equally something to be said for being tied to a specific era. I find value in both as long as the music is good, and I'd say this is pretty good.

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  3. You may notice that Cec Linder plays the businessman on the train. He has an uncanny resemblance to John Daly who was in "A Stop at Willoughby".

    Cec Linder was Felix Leiter in Goldfinger and Dr. Roney in Quatermass and the Pitt. He, along with Shane Rimmer, often played Americans (because of their accent) in British productions. I believe both are/were Canadians.

    This was a good episode and very timely for me, as a new writer and looking around at short stories online and also going down memory lane and remembering seeing this show years ago.

    Cheers from Tokyo.

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    1. Cheers from Chicago! Thanks for checking in and the additional info, I didn't realize that was Felix from Goldfinger - I must be slipping.

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