Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Twilight Zone Take-Over #1 - Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?

"Can't hold somebody on suspicion of being a monster."
Director: Montgomery Pittman
Writer: Rod Serling
Composer: uncredited

Since The Twilight Zone isn't like so many other shows we have nowadays, what with an episodic formula and all that, people will often wonder where the best place to start is. Do they just jump in with "Where is Everybody?" or can they hit up any random episode and just skip around a lot? Personally, the first episode that anyone curious about watching The Twilight Zone should watch is the one we have on deck today, "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?"

With one of the largest casts of the series, this episode starts with a flying saucer crashing in a lake somewhere in the Northeast. Two officers (John Archer and Morgan Jones) find tracks near the ship that leads to a small diner off the side of the road. They inquire the server, Haley (Barney Phillips) and the driver of a bus parked outside (William Kendis) and discover that while there were six passengers on the bus, there are actually seven in the diner. Someone is not of this world, and it's up to everyone to come together to figure out just who it is. Meanwhile, the driver and officers debate whether or not to pass over a dangerous bridge nearby to get the passengers along their way.

Let's get the performances out of the way first. The only ones that really stand out are that of the young couple, played by Jill Ellis and Ron Kipling. They do not make a case for sounding like two people in love and the young man is just all over this poor young woman. That stereotype of men controlling women from the old days is very relevant here. He tells her what to do, condescends her, and doesn't really do much in the way of consoling her, and his performance doesn't help that at all. And this poor young woman seems like she's acting in a middle school play than national television.

Thankfully the other performances take a major step up. The older couple, Gertrude Flynn and Bill Erwin, are still a bit over-the-top but bring it back just enough to be convincingly wary of one another. Erwin plays a grumpy old man who just wants everyone to calm down and think rationally, and Flynn plays his wife who grows more suspicious of him and the situation by the minute. Flynn does most of her acting with her eyes while Erwin makes a lot of exaggerated hand gestures to emphasize just how much he means what he says.

The only other lull character of the episode is Ethelle, played by Jean Willes. She plays a professional dancer who is very unassuming and kind, except when she decides to stick up for herself and for others, but it's also clear that none of the characters take her seriously beyond her seriously good looks. She's mostly there for the men to ogle at and it's her beauty that makes her a clear choice for not being an alien. It's a shame that she gets reduced to that, but she does get a few good quips in, and Willes plays her like a strong-willed woman, too.

Thus we get to our stars: Ross (John Hoyt), Haley, the driver, the two officers, and the crazy old man, Avery (Jack Elam). These characters drive both the plot and the characters along. They're the ones everyone remembers, and really the only ones worth remembering.

Hoyt plays Ross like a grumpy old man, but unlike the older husband, this one doesn't have a care in the world for the thoughts of others and only wants to get to Boston. He remains calm through a ton of the abnormalities that go along and doesn't believe a thing about aliens or beings from outer space. It's not implied that he is a man of logical reasoning, just a man that has a meeting in Boston he simply has to attend. He isn't totally antisocial, though, as he willingly butts into other conversations and interjects his own thoughts.

Jack Elam plays Avery to a masterful amount of fluff and fun. While at times he can be a bit annoying, the point of his character is to be extra, to be out there and weird, to make other characters unsettled. He doesn't propose the idea of there being an alien in the diner but instead goes along with it, playing along perhaps to lighten the mood or to expose the real alien. Elam makes Avery out to be little more than the class clown, someone who pokes fun and makes jokes, though only at the expense of others. There isn't a beat dropped from this performance and he holds it all the way through to the last time he is seen. Along with the bus driver, this is probably the most consistent performance of the episode.

Speaking of which, an unsung hero of the episode is the bus driver, played by William Kendis. He's a man of logic and reason, though is open to other ideas being tossed around. However, Kendis plays him as a man that stands his ground. He knows what he knows, and nobody is going to tell him otherwise. He says there were six people on the bus, and Kendis gives him such vitality in his performance that you too believe there is absolutely no way there were more or less than six people on the bus. Kendis also plays the bus driver as a little sleazy, someone who swings around a lot. He's willing to laugh at Avery's jokes and more than willing to hit on Ethelle (though he has a great one-liner directed at her, it's pretty solid), but can get serious when the officers need something. He seems apathetic but clearly does this job because he wants to, not because he has to. Kendis's performance is the reason that it would be nice to have learned more about this guy, or at least have him on camera more.

Barney Phillips, who appears in several Twilight Zone episodes, plays the perfect background character in Haley, the shopkeep. He's just always in the background, listening in, asking questions, keeping everyone on the level. He's almost like a reality check of sorts, to make sure things aren't getting too out of hand. His performance as Haley doesn't really come to shine until later on, but the stuff before that is just fine. Phillips plays Haley with a warm, comforting presence, something that eases the officers and viewers into this mess of a diner.

And that just leaves the officers. While they seem rather plain at the start, and don't have much in the way of character development, their characters and performances are perfect for what the episode requires. They are men who don't know what's going on, don't have any clues, but know that there is definitely something wrong. They are the perfect window for the audience into this mystery. However, that doesn't entirely make them blank slates. Archer's character is nice and friendly until something goes wrong and he switches straight into officer mode; he's that perfect balance of empathy and experience. Jones plays the younger officer, but one that can be a little intimidating, someone who is more than willing to ask around, get a little clarification on things. The two together make a great duo for the episode, and have some good banter at the beginning when they get called in to investigate.

This episode is little more than a simple mystery: who is the alien among a group of normal looking characters? How are these two officers, with no information to go off of, going to catch someone they can't rightfully accuse? And that simplicity is what makes this episode not just great, but almost perfect. It's tightly written, keeps everything in one location, and builds a feeling of being boxed in with these ten people so perfectly that you begin looking at every single character and wondering why they could be the alien.

And it never settles on just one person being the alien. It never quite makes things so obvious right from the get-go. There are some obvious things that fly in your face to distract you, but that underlying mystery is always there. When the mysterious things begin happening, like the flickering lights and jukebox suddenly coming to life, the mystery really does thicken. Is there just one alien, are there two?

"Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" keeps the audience constantly on their toes, and leaves a perfect amount of room at the end for everything to be paid off. It's one of the longer endings to an episode and is worth every second of it. But even before that, a moment is never wasted.

Not a single shot, word, or movement is wasted. Each one adds to the mystery or to the atmosphere. When Avery gets up and pretends that the jukebox is the alien overlord, only for the officers to walk in and for him to sheepishly walk away, is the ultimate sign of that. It shows the truth of Avery's character as a class clown, it adds to the atmosphere that nobody is finding things like this funny and are therefore either tired of him or very worried about what's going on, and shows how serious the officers are for him to not even bother making a joke to them.

And that running subplot with the bridge is simply perfectly woven in. It's brought up maybe four or five times throughout the episode, and each time it's done to perfection. The first time it's little more than a throwaway, then it's confirmation that it's bad, then it's a slight discussion, and then it's a real concern but also probably just a risk. The danger of the bridge doesn't tie directly into the mystery, but having that in the back pocket as a reminder why these people don't just leave is brilliant. Even the driver points out that the snow has stopped halfway through the episode but downright refuses to cross the bridge, thus locking the audience and these characters in for a little longer.

This has one of the most famous endings to a Twilight Zone episode and the ending is what brings everything together, again, in almost a perfect way. "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" includes everything one needs out of a Twilight Zone episode, from memorable performances to creepy music to creepy atmosphere to good mystery to an amazing ending. It's not the scariest or most thought-provoking but the premise alone will sit you down and make you want to stay the whole way, and by the end, you won't believe what's just happened.


Oh my word this ending is PERFECTION. I've heard a lot of people say that they saw the twist coming of who the Martian was the entire time and I don't see that as a bad thing; if anything, it makes it all the more interesting to watch the other characters around him react to what he's doing, and ropes you into just how he will reveal himself by the end. 

But come on. COME. ON. That double twist is such a gut-punch that it leaves a smile on my face every time. Barney Phillips absolutely knocks it out of the park with Haley's reveal of being from Venus. It's menacing. It's cold. And it's downright creepy, but it is so hard to not get absorbed by it. His evil laugh at the end is also some quality stuff, one of the best there is. 

Just how well he upstages Ross and totally owns him in his moment of triumph if worthy enough of praise. It's not even a quick reveal; in fact, the episode seems to settle for just a moment on Ross's victory before Haley leans forward and says that simple little line, "Oh, I don't mind. Have to do a little waiting myself, actually." And right there, right there, jaws are dropping because there were TWO aliens all along! 

But what does this mean for the rest of the episode? Why does this matter in terms outside of it just being a cool twist? Well, for one, on rewatch, you get to see just how confident Ross is throughout the entire episode, while Haley plays it straight. Haley is doing what Ross should be doing, reflecting the coming turnaround of hubris that will be revealed at episode's end. 

One of the most memorable things, for me, about the episode is the music at the end. The music that starts right from when Ross walks back to the diner to the very end, when the actual Twilight Zone OST music plays, is bone chilling. It's stuck with me, man, like everytime I hear it playing in my head I just get unsettled because that music, to me, is associated with the unknown, with not knowing everything around me. 

"Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" does not let up for a single second. It is a thrilling mystery for all of it's twenty-five or so minutes and is so well-written and executed that it deserves to be watched by everyone who has the chance. Even people who don't enjoy a good mystery will be enthralled by just who the Martian is, and if they figure out, what will they do? The only "bad" things about the episode are some of the actors and even then they get like a minute of screentime tops and EVEN THEN their paranoia adds to how other characters perceive the situation. It's succinct, it's's The Twilight Zone

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