Two men stand on one side of a fence, looking up at the rocket that will soon take them to Mars. When one of them (Sam) expresses some trepidation, wishing they could just send the only part of his body valuable to the mission - his brain - into space and leave his body on Earth, the other (Marcusson) tells him not to worry. He's got a philosophy about people: God made human beings, whatever planet they live on, according to a fixed formula:
|Sam's not so sure he buys it.|
"You're looking at a species of flimsy little two-legged animal with extremely small heads, whose name is Man. Warren Marcusson, age thirty-five. Samuel A. Conrad, age thirty-one. They're taking a highway into space, Man unshackling himself and sending his tiny, groping fingers up into the unknown. Their destination is Mars, and in just a moment we'll land there with them."
Todd VanDerWerff describes this episode as "one long journey to an end we already know is coming, at least from a thematic point of view (...) pretty good, without ever making the leap up to great." Yet he nonetheless recommends it. I'm in the same boat. I recognize its limitations, yet I've seen the damn thing a dozen times now, at least, and I still enjoy watching it. Either the twist is damn great (and it's pretty good, but, again from that review the "second Marcusson says to Sam that 'people are alike everywhere,' we’re just waiting for (Sam to realize) that, yes, people are alike all over, but that also means that they have the same weaknesses and flaws as the people we have here on Earth") or some greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts mojo is at work.
Back to the story: after a mechanical malfunction, Conrad and Marcusson crash-land on the surface of Mars. Sam is fine, but Marcusson is critically injured. Almost immediately, Sam hears a rhythmic sound reverberating upon the ship's hull. Someone - or something - is outside, knocking, trying to find a way in.
Sam is afraid to open the door of their ship, but Marcusson - badly injured - repeats his mantra. "As long as they've got minds and hearts, that means they've got souls. That makes them people, and people are alike. They're bound to be alike."
|Marcusson dies, and Conrad cautiously advances outside.|
Quick interjection - see those Pac-Man-looking light panels in the top left screencap? You might recognize them from a couple of other TZ episodes or where they first appeared: Forbidden Planet. (They were the power level indicators in the Krell laboratory.) Several Forbidden Planet props (including the iconic UFO) and sets were re-gifted for use on the Twilight Zone. This is the sort of thing you read at each and every Twilight Zone review site, but hey-while-we're-here.
For the rest of the plot summary, let me utilize the one the Twilight Zone Vortex put together:
|"To his amazement he sees a crowd of people, human beings, gathered around the ship."|
"What amazes him even more is that they speak his language and invite him to their city. He follows them into their city where they have constructed an exact replica of what a home on Earth would look like."
|They plucked the images - right down to the drapes - from his mind.|
|"You think very clearly, Mr. Conrad."|
|"Conrad decides that he likes the Martians, especially a female named Teenya (Susan Oliver) who has been particularly kind to him.|
|"The Martians tell him to make himself at home and they will be back soon to check on him."|
"A few hours later Conrad is mixing himself a drink when he notices that there are no windows anywhere in the house. He tries all of the doors but discovers, to his horror, that they are locked. He is trapped."
|"He begins pounding on the walls with his fists, demanding to know why he has been locked in."|
|"Suddenly, one of the walls begins to lift slowly, revealing a row of steel bars on the other side. There is a crowd of people gathered around his house, staring at him."|
|Then, he notices the sign on the other side of the bars:|
"Marcusson! Marcusson, you were right.
People are alike...
People are alike everywhere."
Serling's script is based on "Beast of the Void" by Paul W. Fairman, which I haven't read but understand has the same twist at the end. Serling's teleplay emphasizes two things worth mentioning. Consider the word choice of these closing remarks:
"Species of animal brought back alive. Interesting similarity in physical characteristics to human beings in head, trunk, arms, legs, hands, feet. Very tiny undeveloped brain. Comes from primitive planet named Earth. Calls himself Samuel Conrad. And he will remain here in his cage with the running water and the electricity and the central heat as long as he lives. Samuel Conrad has found... The Twilight Zone."
First there's the recall to his opening narration, re: "species of animal." Foreshadowing the zoo, certainly, but it also positions all we've seen as a fable, albeit a fable where the human is the talking animal character. (And, I suppose, a rather pessimistic one.)
Next is the "running water and the electricity and the central heat" aspect, going on forever. Here I thought of Sam's comments to Marcusson at the beginning, about wishing his mind could go to Mars while his body stayed behind. When the Martians pluck the images from his mind of what would be the perfect captivity ("we matched it to your brainwaves"), he "feels quite at home" and happily starts knocking back the scotch. Remember his pre-flight statement about wishing it was only his brain heading out into space instead of his body? He ends up imprisoned in something his mind brought with him.
|Reinforced by the visual bookends of the story.|
How easily he walks into this trap of a swanky place with free booze and television. As easily as he was led to Mars on a vague assurance that "God created humans to be the same everywhere."
As mentioned before, the ep doesn't seem to make many people's favorites lists. For me, its cynicism and downbeat ending and the clinical tone of Serling's intro and outro all combine for a pre-American-New-Wave experience. I don't always like a downbeat ending, but when I do it's usually in ... the well-you-know.
The cast is pretty rock-solid. Roddy McDowell does his usual good work - not to short-change him but what can you say? Roddy McDowell. His buddy Marcusson is played by Peter Comi, last seen round these parts in "The Odyssey of Flight 33. (AV Club again: "He somehow makes optimism about the human condition seem super-masculine.")
|The episode's theme brings to mind the pilot episode of Star Trek TOS ("The Cage") all on its own, but the presence of Susan Oliver especially drives it home.|
|Alone among the Martians, she feels a touch of sadness for deceiving and imprisoning Sam.|
And speaking of Star Trek, Admiral Komack from "Amok Time" and the leader of the Halkan Council appear as a couple other Martians.
|Season 1, Episode 25.|