The Twilight Zone: Elegy

Next up:
"Elegy," Season 1, Episode 30.

"The time is the day after tomorrow. The place: a far off corner of the universe. The cast of characters: three men lost among the stars, three men sharing the common urgency of all men lost…they’re looking for home. And in a moment they’ll find home, not a home that is a place to be seen but a strange, unexplainable experience to be felt."

Running out of fuel, three astronauts ("Leader Guy, Angry Guy, and Naive Guy," per the AV Club's review of this episode) land their spaceship on a remote asteroid in the year 2186. 

Another appearance of those Pac-Man things from Forbidden Planet above the console: (below left)
They leave the ship to investigate.

The first sign that things are amiss comes from the Earth-like atmosphere, or maybe that this asteroid has an atmosphere to begin with. The second is that their new surroundings - with the exception of two suns in the sky - uncannily resembles Earth of the past. Either Leader or Naive Guy points out a tractor at the first place they come across - "They were in use in the twentieth century before the Total War.

They enter the town to find their third troubling sign, or rather a succession of them. The place is filled with what appear to be people, but they are all frozen, as if someone threw a switch and killed the power in the middle of whatever activity they were doing. They come across one motionless person after another: first a farmer and a fisherman, then a group of gamblers sitting around a poker table. They follow the sounds of a marching band only to discover the musicians standing immobilized in the lobby of the town hall, as prerecorded melodies blare out of a speaker.  

Entering the town hall they discover the frozen victory part of some newly elected mayor.

"I suppose it could be some sort of illusion. (Maybe) we're being made to see and hear what we hope to find: the sights and sounds of home."
"No, no, that's all wrong - this is more than 200 years before our time."
"Or it could be that time itself is suspended here, or that time may have in a sense speeded up for us but slowed down for them."
"You mean, they might actually be moving? Then why can't we see it?"
"Well, you don't see the movements of a clock's hands. Nevertheless they do move."

"Wait - this clock has no hands!"    

Most of the reviews out there deduct points for the imperfect stillness of all the extras and day actors. It's true that you can see some blinking or slight movement. As with bad-looking stunt doubles on Star Trek or fake-backdrops on Gunsmoke, these things weren't made with pause buttons and high-definition in mind. Therefore, it seems the wrong approach to view the episode through such a lens. 

I'm not saying I want the image to be grainy and the episode un-pause-able, mind you.   
Anyway, they split up to cover more ground, and Angry Guy stumbles onto a beauty pageant.

Whereupon, after some ogling the ladies on stage, he lives up to his sobriquet by screaming sentiments of a "What the hell is wrong with you people?" nature at everyone.
Of course, no one stirs, much less responds, so he leaves in a huff.
Almost no one, that is.
Mr. Wickwire!

Although the place creeps them out, Leader Guy says they may as well get used to it, because their ship isn't going anywhere soon. They start looking for a place to hunker down and just so happen to pick the place where the only other ambulatory person is on the porch.

He introduces himself as Jeremy Wickwire, and he teases out both who he is and what this asteroid is all about as he serves them refreshments. (The discerning viewer will notice Mr. Wickwire does not actually drink from his own glass.) He explains that the asteroid upon which they have landed is actually a cemetery, built by Happy Glades, the World's Greatest Mortuary back on Earth. He himself is only a "scientific device" that turns on and off, as needed to see that the asteroid-interred remain undisturbed. 

"You see, the management hit upon this scheme as a service to those who could afford it (...) This little asteroid where we would recreate the exact conditions under which the dear departed could be most happy. For example, if the deceased always wanted to be elected mayor, he would achieve his ambition here, for all eternity."

He further explains that Happy Glades produces many other sections, offering Roman triumphs, Egyptian pharaohs, the wild west, etc., but the particular slice of Americana they see around them is their most popular, "because it represents a period in American culture when creature comforts were most abundant and before peace on Earth became impossible." 

The men inform Mr. Wickwire that said threats to peace escalated to a nuclear war that destroyed much of the Earth in 1985, and that it took over two hundred years for humanity to get back on its spacefaring feet. Wickwire asks them what their greatest wish is. They each reply that they wish they were on their ship heading for home. Suddenly, they realize that their drinks have been poisoned with what Wickwire refers to as "eternifying fluid." 

As the men are dying, Wickwire apologizes to them and explains that it's his job to keep the peace for all the cemetery's honored "guests." So, he had to kill them. They are, after all, men, and "where there are men there can be no peace."
Later, we see him dusting the embalmed astronauts, who are posed in their ship, headed for home, just as they wished. Then, he settles into a chair, presumably to take another two-centuries nap. The End.

"Three men lost (who) shared a common wish, a simple one: they wanted to be aboard their ship and headed for home. And fate, a laughing fate, a practical jokester with a smile that stretched across the stars, saw to it that they got their wish, with just one reservation: the wish came true, but only... in the Twilight Zone."

So what's this one all about, then? Just from a sci-fi-fan standpoint, I rather like the idea of humanity bouncing back Starfleet-style from nuclear calamity and charging off into the stars just to find some Space Seed/ Changeling-like technological ghost from the past that threatens them. Or as is the case in "Elegy," outright deceives and kills them.

But mainly, it's an examination of the way the human mind deals with death, exaggerated for effect. As mentioned at the trusty ol' Twilight Zone Vortex:

"The entire premise of this episode, the idea that people would build a sprawling customized cemetery on a drifting asteroid in the middle of outer space, is absurd, as one of the astronauts points out. But the absurdity exists (to) draw the viewer’s attention to the fact that most people value their own self-image enough that even after they die they want to be put on display for others to see, like a piece of art in a museum."

I don't know how harshly satirized this human tendency to memorialize one's self is in "Elegy." I think it's done more with an emphasis on irony (i.e. we can meet our doom in the most ironic ways.) The selection of after-death displays is suggestive - certainly, a man winning the mayorship or a woman winning a beauty contest, forever, implies that the dead wish to be preserved in a moment of triumph, perhaps even an imagined one, but what of the man on the farm or the guy fishing or the guys sitting around gambling? Doesn't seem to be a very ego-driven enterprise. Are they all just props? The afore-linked AV Club review sees something much darker going on: "Even in death, men will find ways to kill strangers."

That review also brings up how Bradbury seems to be just round the corner of every scene, something I thought as well, to the extent that I was genuinely surprised to discover this was not actually an adaptation of an actual Ray Bradbury story. (His only explicit connection to the TZ is Season 3's "I Sing the Body Electric."):  

"It’s nearly impossible to watch the story of three astronauts stumbling across a bizarre but familiar landscape, and paying the ultimate price for their intrusion, without being reminded of Bradbury’s work. The plot plays out like a deleted entry from The Martian Chronicles, and while it’s certainly not close enough to that collection to warrant charges of plagiarism, Beaumont did an excellent job of capturing the signature tone of Bradbury’s creepiest stories. (...) Everything seems homey and a little odd but not, y'know, threatening or anything, right up until the moment you choke and die." 


Veteran of countless TV Westerns, perhaps best known as Dr. Baker from Little House on the Prairie.
Morrow played Dr. Barton in Creature from the Black Lagoon, as well as "H.G. Orson" in the 80s TZ episode "A Day in Beaumont." And

Cecil Kellaway's godfather was Cecil Rhodes. How bout them apples. He had quite a long career, including a turn on another TZ episode, "Passage on the Lady Anne." Wickwire is a great character, of a type familiar to many a sci-fi imagining, such as Box from Logan's Run. is he (from the Vortex again) "a refined, morally conscious, two hundred year-old android faithfully trying to protect this very sacred place or (is he) an utterly insane kind of unregulated taxidermist, running wild through his own personal museum of collectable human beings?

Just throwing this out there - "Wickwire: Unregulated Space Taxidermist" is something that needs to happen. (Or perhaps Haunted Taj Mahal in Space.) 



  1. If only one contestant can win a beauty contest, are we to believe that the others who entered had as their final wish to be a runner-up? They, not the men fishing, seem to the ego-less.

    1. The beauty contest is especially interesting because it seems that the one winning is the least attractive. How does one quantify such a thing, I know, but that says to me that she is the one memorialized - i.e. the contest is her living statue or headstone, so to speak - while everyone else is just a robot, there to bear eternal witness. Ditto for the mayor.

      So, perhaps some people on the Happy Glades asteroids have more ostentatious displays, just as in a real cemetery.

    2. Having caught up to this point in the first season, I've got a few things to chip in on this.

      First: weird episode. I'm not entirely sure I'd say I liked it, and yet I'm already finding that it's taken root in my brain in some way. Fascinating!

      Second: the beauty-pageant thing is very, very strange. I always think of how awkward it must be to cast something like "the ugly one." She's not actually ugly, but by conventional standards of virtually any point -- to date -- in American history, she'd be the ugly one out of that group. And yet, the astronaut who encounters her tells her that she's the prettiest. Does he mean it? Is he mocking her? I honestly can't tell. If he IS mocking her, he's doing a shit job of it. But if he's not . . . well . . . like, what's his damage?

      I thought of Bradbury, but I also thought of "Planet of the Apes" (written by Serling, of course, and not Beaumont), in which astronauts go out into space and into the future hoping to find something better than man. Ask and ye shall receive; roll credits. It's not a perfect parallel here, or even a close one, or perhaps even a parallel at all. But still, the point ends up being that yeah, sure, we might go into the stars, but some part of us is always going to be kinda fucked-up, and it might STILL manage to find us even hundreds of millions of miles away from Earth.

    3. I had exactly the same reaction with the pageant scene. I think we're meant to see the beauty pageant as "the ugly one" winning, forever and ever, her personal eternal fantasy or what not. But the Angry Guy says the line wrong. Or is directed to say it wrong. It's what's-my-motivation-here confusion, for sure.

      I agree on "Purple Testament." And any reference to "Planet of the Apes," which as I get older I realize more and more is probably the Greatest Film Ever Made In This Or Any Dimension, gets a dozen "Maverick Approves!" thumbs-up Top Gun gifs.

  2. Dramatic Chipmunk, boy...that is something.

    It certainly does sound as if there might some holes in the plot's logic in this episode, but I don't know that that is the way to watch "The Twilight Zone." My take on the series is that it exists -- that the titular zone IS -- in some sort of near-perpetual nightmare space, where the odds are always strong that something awful is going to happen. Not every episode bears that out, I'm sure; but most do among the ones I've seen.

    So in an episode like this, if you land someplace, you're bound to find something terrible that has something to say about your character, or about the character of your people. Would anybody go to the trouble to actually create a place like this? Well, maybe not. But they might in Hell, just to fuck with you.

    Of course, I might just have that theme on my mind thanks to having watched "Judgement Night" yesterday. That one certainly has a connotation of Hell. Pretty good episode; not a favorite, but good.

    1. Good take on the whole TZ experience, for sure.

      "Judgement Night" is a good one for sure.

    2. I forgot to weigh in on the being-able-to-see-"frozen"-actors-moving issue. It's the sort of thing you see from time to time in sci-fi television. It's never bothered me. My theory on that is that it's much more interesting to watch the reactions of the un-frozen people than it is to watch the frozen people, so if you get overly bothered by a bit of shaky acting, you're probably focused on the wrong thing.

      I mean the hypothetical "you," of course, not the actual you. The actual you is clearly watching the correct way.

    3. That said . . . boy, there is some hardcore blinking happening in one scene.

    4. I watched "Judgment Night" again last night. I liked it a lot more the second time; a proper enjoyment of this one seems to hinge on knowing the plot twist. (If you call it a twist; I'm not sure it actually qualifies.) That shot of the "people" staring at Lanser from the end of the hallway is creepy as hell.

    5. Absolutely creepy. The Twilight Zone went to some dark places, for its era and any. I agree, too, this one is less a twist and more just a gradual, almost logical, descent into Hell.

  3. I watched "And When the Sky Was Opened" tonight. I think that might be my favorite episode so far; I'd love to read the Matheson story it's based on.

    1. That's a great one for sure.

    2. Another recent conquest: "The Purple Testament." That one is about as heavy-handed as it gets. Not a great episode, but I still felt a bit moved by it. I love subtlety, but I'm not averse to taking a bat across the back of the skull once in a while. Especially if a name like "Serling" is stamped on it. See also "Roddenberry."