Not all the best Twilight Zone episodes were written by the most common great contributors. Yet I'd feel odd indeed if I didn't tap one of those "core" writers' works. I have chosen the seventh installment from the very first season, The Lonely; a product of Rod Slerling, the series' creator, narrator and face to the public.
The Lonely presents us with a classic test to John Donne's oft quoted contention that, "No man is an island." The convict placed beyond the pale of humanity for years has built up a structured existence devoid of relationships, interaction and true hope that any of this will change. He has made a grudging peace with his situation.
Suddenly one day, the scheduled supply spaceship arrives, bringing him the necessities of life and the usual small tokens of pleasure allowed him and an update on the state of his court appeals. Yet this delivery is like no other. In an attempt to offer him a concession to alleviate his loneliness he is given a robot fashioned in the image of woman.
His reaction is not as some would expect. He is resentful of this intrusion on his deeply developed and nurtured acceptance of life without companions or hope. He sees the automated woman as a mere machine, inherently mocking his lack of humanity by mimicking the behavior of a caring innocent living person. His feelings evolve gradually through phases, from stifled acceptance to friendship and love. He gets to the point he cannot imagine himself living without her, sensing her as real and as inherently important as any sentient being.
There are so many levels of interest in this case study in minimalist casting, scenery and effects. The barren landscape forbids any opportunity to alter the environment beyond the immediate confines of the convicts shack. He tinkers with the scraps of a automotive heap with no dream of ever actually driving it anywhere, because there is nowhere else to go. So the question arises, what constitutes inhumane punishment? Does a convicted murderer deserve any penalty he may possibly receive for his crime, or should there be a limit. What qualifies as justice, as wrongful persecution? Should a man, for any reason, be stripped of his dreams?
Then there is the issue of humanity. From Prospero's fanciful imaginary companions to Star Trek: Next Generation's Data, this conundrum has been posited. Does existence and/or the value thereof become like beauty, relative to the individual? Where does something become "real" enough to be considered a someone? Are these definitions malleable or is there a solid guideline which when ignored or disagreed with decides that a person is delusional? Does Descartes axiom, "I think therefore I am" carry its validity beyond existence - declaring that life is life whether or not it is organic?
In typical Twilight Zone fashion we are left to ponder these ideas. Many people come to the pat conclusion that life fits narrow parameters. Gene Roddenberry took the opposite stand, Data was a sentient being, deserving the right to cling to life despite the fact that he was was man-made. Shakespeare fills the void between the two polar stances. He chooses not. Not only does he avoid declaring what constitutes being a living thing, he asks what is the very nature of life. Deeply existential, he ponders if it be a dream.
The acting here is superb. Warden embodies the true essence of a great character actor. His appearance in any given role role does not illicit an instant expectation by the viewer. His casting solidifies Serling's attempt to leave the shows stand on the stated debates neutral. Warden is no glamorous star nor automatically considered villain material. His guilt or innocence is never argued, so we accept he is guilty of his crime. Therefore we must judge the situation from our own perspective on the issues. Warden's approach to the role doesn't weigh in as picking sides. Still, he is far from emotionless. His actions feel authentic and we lose the sense that he is acting. Jean Marsh has just as full a challenge. She successfully walks the fine line twixt being a submissive caring individual and being merely a doting machine programmed to approximate human behavior. Her ethereal appearance, without typical Hollywood starlet trappings nor exaggerated mechanical notion or communication, leaves us in a nether-land. She's not quite human, or just barely - depending on how you see her. Marsh's performance doesn't make the choice easy. Like Warden, at most she leaves us with clues to her nature. In T-Zone fashion you decide what those clues are and what they signify.
There are some side comments to touch on. John Dehner plays the seemingly sympathetic officer who is in charge of the delivery ship. A familiar face on both the big screen and the small, Dehner never fails to fit his roles - usually semi-important characters, seldom pivotal but not totally forgotten and never throwaway bits. Thus though his face and acting might have been recognized, his name never climbed to the point of common knowledge beyond movie buffs.
Ted Knight has a small part as one of Dehner's crewmen. His character is not so forgiving as his leader, not understand how anyone could offer a murderer any comforts or consideration.
Though the standard of quality was set high early for the series, it never deteriorated as so many other shows do. Not every outing was a masterpiece. Still there were plenty of great ones and they were peppered throughout the series' run.
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Jack Smight
Convicted of murder and sent to a deserted asteroid for 40 years, a man is given a robot woman for company. CAST: Jack Warden, John Dehner, Jim Turley, Jean Marsh, Ted Knight.