Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Woes of Suspended Animation

The April 21, 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone was “The Rip Van Winkle Caper.” Written by Rod Serling, it’s a very good entry in the series. Not one of the classics, but still a solid story.

Actually, if you get to know Serling’s style as a writer, you can start to identify the Zone episodes he wrote by listening to the rhythms and word choices in the dialogue.  Dialogue was one of his real strengths as a writer, maybe coming from the fact that he starting his career doing radio scripts, having been influenced by skilled writers such as Arch Oboler and Norman Corwin.  Serling developed a knack for using just the right word choices and sentence structures needed to advance both characterizations and stories.

On The Twilight Zone, his sharp dialogue was helped along by the many excellent character actors who appeared on the show. In “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” Simon Oakland and Oscar Beregi, Jr. bring solid credibility to the lead roles.

Anyway, the point of this post is to point out an instance where Serling may have re-used an incident from this episode in a later screenplay.  “The Rip Van Winkle Caper” is about four guys who rob a gold shipment. One of them is a scientist. They hide out in a cave in the desert, where the scientist will put them all into suspended animation for 100 years. When they wake up, the heat will be off and they can freely spend their ill-gotten gains.

Well, when only three of them wake up. A falling rock cracked open the suspension chamber of the fourth guy—all that’s left of him is a decayed skeleton.

It’s an effective scene visually and also helps advance the plot by confirming to the other characters (and to us) that they actually have been asleep for a century.

Now let’s jump ahead about seven years. Serling is co-writer of the screenplay for the original Planet of the Apes, staring Charlton Heston. 

As this movie begins, four astronauts are in suspended animation during a long space voyage. When they crash land on a planet, three of them wake up. The fourth, though, is a mummified corpse. Her suspension chamber cracked open during the flight. 

That makes me think that maybe Serling consciously re-used the same idea to convey the same information to us—that the characters had been in suspended animation for a very long time. 

I’m not familiar enough with the production history of Apes to know this for sure. I know other writers worked on the script after Serling did a first draft, so I don’t even know for sure if he put that incident into the story.

But if he did, and if it was deliberately lifted from his previous script, then it’s to his credit as a writer.  Serling was a great writer—he understood story construction and good characterizations. Recognizing that he could re-use a small detail that helped one story along for the same purpose in another story (but still keep both stories original) is something I could see him doing. He was talented enough to know when he could "steal" from himself without hurting the quality of his work.

I wish Serling had stuck around longer—he died in 1975 at the age of 50. There have been few television shows that have matched the best Twlight Zone episodes in terms of great stories and sharp dialogue. The Vast Wasteland that is network TV has always needed more of that quality.

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