Tales of Yore is a series of articles about fairy tale adaptations. Adaptations can be direct or loose, and these reviews attempt to consider the films in the context of the stories upon which they are based.
This week, in my series on fairy tale adaptations, I am moving on to the second part of my summer research: The Twilight Zone, from which this column takes its namesake. I’m currently writing about the show in the context of fairy tales and Cold War America, and so this week I have decided to look at one of the series’ greatest episodes, and one that has great kinship with the tales of yore.
Plot: Martin Sloan, an overworked ad agency VP, stops at a mechanic to have his car fixed up. He realizes it is within walking distance (that’s the name of the episode!) of his hometown, so he decides to visit. He soon finds that he has gone back not just to the place he grew up, but also the time, and he tries to find his younger self and tell him to cherish his childhood.
Now, a quick background on The Twilight Zone. It is a sorta sci-fi show that ran from 1959 to 1964 for over a hundred and fifty episodes, and each episode is a standalone story. The titular place is not a specific place, per se, but rather a metaphorical place where anything and everything can happen. This distancing of the stories in each episode from our world allowed Rod Serling, the series creator and writer of ninety two of the episodes, to comment on the real world in ways comfortable for the audience. For instance, he would make episodes about the fear of nuclear war and the breakdown of communities, but add some references to aliens so that everyone could swallow this pill a bit easier and still come out the other side with a lesson learned and fears confronted.
“Walking Distance” isn’t quite about major issues of the time, and it might not sound upfront like the fairy tales you all grew up with, like “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Beauty and the Beast,” etc, but there are some immediate similarities in the episode. First was something interesting I read in the occasionally insightful book, The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Zicree: as Martin walks away from the gas station, we see him and his reflection in a mirror. As he walks away, we see only his reflection, and then the scene cuts to him in an ice cream parlor that we learn is in the past. This is a clever reference to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, both of which are definitely influenced by the famous fairy tales.
But more important in trip through time is how the dynamics of Martin’s time travel aren’t emphasized. Fairy tales have magical elements, but the stories never ask us to question why they are there. That is, in part, what sets them in the realm of fantasy and not science fiction. We don’t care about how these magical elements could exist because we know that the “why” isn’t important. In “Walking Distance,” the way Martin goes back in time doesn’t matter: it’s all about what he does with this opportunity.
His actions are, in a way, also reminiscent of fairy tales. Time travel isn’t exactly a common plot device in the Grimms and Perrault stories, but a lot of them were in essence about handling the fears we will have in life. The magic stuff helps that (I should note that this idea is influenced by Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, which has some good points, despite how much Bettelheim tries to drown them in psychoanalytic hogwash). Here, the issue at heart is how we all want to go back to our childhoods, to relive that innocent time and tell ourselves to appreciate it while we have it. Martin is now overworked and unsatisfied, but he can’t go back. That time, and even the places, have passed.
More important than this, though, is the solution that Serling proposes. Recognizing that Martin can’t go back is presenting the problem and fear we all have, and fairy tales do that, too, but that can’t be all. That provides no closure, no sense of fulfillment. There needs to be a suggestion of how to solve the problem. This comes from Martin’s father, who after a while believes that this is indeed his son from the future. He says, “Maybe when you go back, Martin, you’ll find that there are merry-go-rounds and band concerts where you are. Maybe you haven’t been looking in the right place. You’ve been looking behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead.” Serling recognizes our worries about the future and nostalgia, and then provides the comfort of finding what we loved about the past in the present.
“Walking Distance” bears a lot of kinship to fairy tales, as do many episodes in the series, but really the main tie is how effectively this episode speaks across generations. J.J. Abrams, director of the small indie hits Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, and the upcoming sequel to the little known-series Star Wars, called this episode effective and beautiful, even saying that “The Twilight Zone at its best is better than anything else I’ve ever seen on television.” This is because the stories are engaging; the themes, timeless; and, of course, the production, writing, and directing, incredible.