Monday, March 07, 2011

Back to Dealey Plaza

I've been visiting for several years.

One of the things I always enjoy doing at that site is checking to see how the viewers rate their favorite episodes of their favorite series. I often agree with the visitors' assessments, too.

But I cannot figure out why the Twilight Zone episode that aired 25 years ago tonight, "Profile in Silver," isn't more popular than it is.

Oh, it's on the list of the most popular episodes, all right, with a rating of 8.2 out of 10 (the last time I checked) — which is not bad. I just think it should be higher.

It was a story that combined some of the things that I always loved about the Twilight Zone — real history and the concept of time travel.

"Back to the Future" was a big hit around that time, and audiences were sensitive to the idea that past and present should never collide — because, if they did, it could lead to dire consequences — like a rip in the fabric of time.

But, of course, they did collide, creating the tension that made the original series, its successor, the episode — and the Michael J. Fox movie, for that matter — great in my eyes.

"Profile in Silver" was about a history professor from the 22nd century who has been doing field research in 1963. He is actually a descendant of John F. Kennedy, and he is preparing to go to Dallas and witness JFK's assassination as part of his research.

He has no intention of interfering in the event — but, at the moment of truth, he cannot stand by and allow his ancestor to be murdered. Thus, he foils the assassination attempt.

In gratitude, President Kennedy invites him to come back to the White House for dinner, and the professor happily accepts.

At first, he is blissfully unaware that his act has done anything other than prevent his ancestor from being killed — but then it becomes clear to him that, because Kennedy did not die in Dallas as he was supposed to, compensatory events are happening elsewhere.

And he makes the mistake of taking a coin with JFK's image on it — a family keepsake — from his pocket and idly tossing it. He drops it, and it rolls next to the feet of a Secret Service agent, who picks it up, looks at it and recognizes the image.

He also knows that it is against policy to put the image of any living American on currency, and he quickly concludes the truth.

Meanwhile, the professor, after consulting his wrist computer (a Dick Tracyesque touch, to be sure) and going over the possible outcomes of the new reality, learns that the only way to restore equilibrium is for the Kennedy presidency to end the way history intended.

You probably wouldn't recognize most of the folks in the cast, but you might recognize Lane Smith. He played the history professor. A few years later, he received a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Richard Nixon in the TV production of "The Final Days."

A few years after that, he had what I think may have been his most memorable movie role — as the prosecutor in "My Cousin Vinny."

Well, actually, you might also recognize the actor who played President Kennedy — Andrew Robinson. He was in his mid–40s when the episode first aired. He had been involved in several film and TV projects in the years prior to the Twilight Zone episode, and he's probably best known for other things, but he did appear in another episode of the series in the following season.

There is some additional trivia about this episode that most people don't know.
  • Barbara Baxley, who played Smith's colleague from the future, had an unusual role in the history of the series. She actually appeared in an episode in the original series in the early 1960s — "Mute," in which she played a woman who, along with her husband, took in a young mute girl who had lost her parents in a fire.

    That episode aired nearly 10 months before the Kennedy assassination.

  • In the context of the assassination itself, there's a nice little touch in this episode that contributes to the alternate reality.

    If you watch closely, you may hear the Twilight Zone theme from 1963 coming from a television in the White House, followed by dialogue from a Twilight Zone episode.

    As I understand it, that episode was the one that was originally scheduled to be shown the night of Kennedy's assassination, but it was delayed until the following February.

    That, of course, would not be necessary ... if the assassination plot did not succeed.
But it did succeed, of course, as Smith's character realized — and that was the point, I guess, that the stories of this nation and this planet are already written, and they cannot be altered. Those who try are likely to be slapped down by far greater forces.

I'm not sure if I believe that — but this is all fantasy, anyway, right? I mean, time travel doesn't exist. It may never exist. Therefore, such issues are irrelevant to the way things are now and may be irrelevant to the way things will be in the foreseeable future.

But it sure is an intriguing notion, isn't it? Kind of a cosmic do–over. Go back in time, change one thing you did many years ago, perhaps even change one thing you did when you were a child — and the future will be changed in ways you cannot imagine.

The original Twilight Zone always was good at making viewers think about alternatives, and its reincarnation was, too.