Wednesday, December 02, 2015

The Interchangeability of Perfection

I don't remember how old I was when I first saw the Twilight Zone episode — "The Lateness of the Hour" — that made its debut on this day in 1960. I do remember that I didn't care for it.

It really had nothing to do with the story — I rather liked it when I watched it the second time — or the people in it. As a matter of fact, I recall having a brief crush on Inger Stevens, who played the daughter.

You see, "The Lateness of the Hour" was one of about half a dozen Twilight Zone episodes that were shot on videotape instead of film, then transferred to film (a process called "kinescoping"). My understanding is that it was a cost–cutting tactic; trouble was that the quality suffered. As a child, I didn't know what it was, but when I got older I learned it was a loss of depth perception that made the episodes look like live on–stage performances. All I knew at the time was that it looked different — so different that it distracted me from the story. I probably couldn't have told you much about the episode right after I saw it for the first time.

In the end, the savings amounted to an average of $5,000 per episode, which really wasn't worth all the trouble, and the rest of the Twilight Zone episodes were filmed, not videotaped.

The story was about a small family, the family of a scientific genius. The genius had designed everything in the house to fulfill its function with perfect efficiency, and the family's every need was tended to by five servants who were robots designed by the genius to perform specific roles. One of the robots gave expert massages.

The daughter (Inger Stevens) was concerned that her parents had grown so dependent on the servants — as well as the perfect environment — and she advocated shaking things up. She looked upon her isolation in her parents' perfect home as a sort of imprisonment.

"I've kept you from harm," her father replied. "I've protected you against disease, and insulation in this 20th century is no crime. It's a service. You've never had to look into the face of war or the face of poverty or prejudice. You've been isolated, yes, but what you think of as imprisonment just happens to be asylum and security, yes, and survival."

The daughter was undeterred. She insisted that her father dismantle the robots. She went from request to ultimatum in a bit of a hurry, insisting that she would leave if her father didn't dismantle the robots, and her father yielded to her.

The daughter was overjoyed and started gushing about having parties and making friends and going on trips. And then she started talking about meeting a nice young man and producing grandchildren — which forced her parents to make a rather awkward confession.

They didn't do so right away, though — but the expressions on their faces told the daughter that something wasn't right. Then she recalled that, in all the photos in the family photo albums she had been looking at, there were no pictures of her as a child. When she pursued the point, her father made the confession that she was already realizing as she connected all the dots. She, too, was a robot. More highly developed than the servants, but a robot nonetheless.

They had been childless, her father told her, and desperately wanted someone to love. The daughter was so distraught by the revelation that her father decided he had to remove her from the family. But he couldn't bear the thought of not having her around anymore.

So he transformed her into a maid — apparently she became the maid who was so good at giving massages.

The audience never saw who the new daughter was. I guess I always assumed it was the robot who had been the previous massage–giving maid.

I didn't really think about that. There was something else I noticed when I watched the episode a second time. OK, all the servants — and the daughter — were robots. And Inger Stevens' character aptly demonstrated that robots couldn't feel physical pain when she repeatedly slammed her forearm on the banister of the stairs and lamented, "No pain! No pain! No pain!" Then she collapsed in a heap, sobbing. It was very dramatic — and very contradictory. Robots couldn't feel physical pain, but they — or, at least, Inger Stevens' character — clearly could feel emotional pain.

By the way, if the father looks familiar to you, there is a reason for that. About six months later, the actor who played the father, John Hoyt, was a Martian in "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" which was filmed in the normal way.