Monday, June 4, 2018

"The Thirty Fathom Grave"

Simon Oakland and Mike Kellin
“The Thirty Fathom Grave”
Season Four, Episode 104
Original Air Date: January 10, 1963

Chief Bell: Mike Kellin
Captain Beecham: Simon Oakland
Doc: David Sheiner
McClure: John Considine
OOD: Bill Bixby
Ensign Marmer: Conlan Carter
ASW Officer: Forrest Compton
Jr. OOD: Henry Scott
Lee Helmsman: Tony Call
Sonar Operator: Charles Kuenstle
Helmsman: Derrik Lewis
Sailor #1: Vince Bagetta
Sailor #2: Louie Elias

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Perry Lafferty
Producer: Herbert Hirschman
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Associate Producer: Murray Golden
Assistant to the Producer: John Conwell
Art Direction: George W. Davis & John J. Thompson
Film Editor: Richard W. Farrell
Set Decoration: Henry Grace & Don Greenwood, Jr.
Assistant Director: John Bloss
Sound: Franklin Milton & Joe Edmondson
Music: stock
Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes
Filmed at MGM Studios

And Now, Mr. Serling:

“The ingredients: an American destroyer, the Pacific Ocean, and the ghostly sound of hammering from thirty fathoms below. They add up to a strange tale of the bizarre and nightmarish. Mike Kellin and Simon Oakland star in a very different kind of Twilight Zone which we call ‘The Thirty Fathom Grave.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Incident one hundred miles off the coast of Guadalcanal. Time: the present. The United States naval destroyer on what has been a most uneventful cruise. In a moment they’re going to send a man down thirty fathoms to check on a noise maker – someone or something tapping on metal. You may or may not read the results in a naval report, because Captain Beecham and his crew have just set a course that will lead this ship and everyone on it into The Twilight Zone.”


            A United States naval destroyer on a routine trip in the Pacific Ocean stops to investigate a blip on sonar and a strange noise emanating from below the ocean surface. The noise sounds like steady hammering upon metal. Captain Beecham sends a diver, McClure, down to investigate and the crew discovers a ruined submarine dating from the Second World War.
            These events come at the same time Beecham is dealing with the sudden strange behavior of Chief Bell, a veteran sailor whose unexplained behavior is as perplexing as the mystery of the submarine.
            McClure goes down twice more in an effort to determine the origin of the submarine and the cause of the hammering sound. It is determined that it is a U.S. submarine but there is no accounting for the hammering noise. McClure get no response when he hammers upon the outer hull. Out of options, Beecham decides to call in help to get the submarine open.
            Meanwhile, Chief Bell’s mental health deteriorates to the point where he is admitted to sick bay and placed under observation. Bell is convinced that someone inside the submarine is calling out to him. Soon he is visited by ghostly visions of drowned sailors beckoning to him.
            On his final trip below McClure discovers a pair of dog tags caught in an opening to the submarine. He wrenches them free and gives them to Captain Beecham. Beecham reads Chief Bell’s name on the tags. When confronted, Bell relates a tale of being the only man to make it out of a Japanese attack on a submarine during the Second World War, the same submarine they have been investigating. Bell feels guilty about the deaths of the other men since he inadvertently drew the attention of the Japanese destroyer and was the only man to make it out alive when he was cast over the side.
            Convinced he should have died with the other soldiers Bell jumps over the side of the ship. Despite hours of searching, the crew is unable to recover his body. Help arrives and the submarine is opened. The report back to the captain is that all were dead inside but, strangely, one soldier in the control room was holding a hammer.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Small naval engagement, the month of April, 1963. Not to be found in any historical annals. Look for this one filed under ‘H’ for Haunting – in The Twilight Zone.”


            Despite Rod Serling’s preview narration characterizing “The Thirty Fathom Grave” as “bizarre and nightmarish” and “a very different kind of Twilight Zone,” the episode fails to deliver on either of those promising descriptions. What remains is a largely ineffective and predictable ghost story which, at its hour length, feels overly padded and familiar.
            “The Thirty Fathom Grave” is partially redeemed by its engaging cast, the novelty of its setting, and the technical aspects of its script and production. Rod Serling was determined to get the technical aspects of the script correct and engaged feedback from the U.S. Navy to ensure the terminology used in the episode was realistic. Production Manager Ralph W. Nelson secured the use of actual naval destroyers to further ensure verisimilitude in the production. The exterior shots are of the USS Mullinnix with interior shots filmed aboard the USS Edson. Other interior shots, such as the Captain’s quarters, were filmed at MGM. The underwater shots were filmed on a tight schedule at the studio facilities of Republic Pictures.* This close attention to detail brings a spark of interest to otherwise laborious proceedings and recalls the technical attention paid to episodes such as “King Nine Will Not Return” and, especially, “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” an episode in which Serling engaged his brother Robert, a prolific writer covering the aviation industry and author of the national bestseller The President’s Plane is Missing (1967), as Technical Advisor.
             "The Thirty Fathom Grave" also reflects Serling's experience in the Pacific Ocean theater of the Second World War where he served three years with the 11th Airborne Division of the U.S. Army as a paratrooper. This war experience had a profound impact on Serling and he utilized his harrowing experiences to produce some truly moving and exceptional Twilight Zone episodes such as "The Purple Testament" and "A Quality of Mercy." As in those episodes, "The Thirty Fathom Grave" approaches issues of responsibility in the face of adversity as well as the emotional and psychological toll inflicted by combat. 
            The ghost story in all of its variegated applications was frequently explored on the series, with every major writer attempting the form at least once, the result of which was some of the more interesting episodes of the series, “Long Distance Call,” “A Game of Pool,” “The Changing of the Guard,” as well as less-successful efforts such as “Young Man’s Fancy” and “He’s Alive.” Rod Serling was naturally drawn to the conceits of the ghost story as the form is intrinsically concerned with the past and the way in which the past continues to affect the present. An overriding concern of Serling’s writing can neatly be described by William Faulkner’s familiar quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (Requiem for a Nun (1951)). The past intruding upon the present to disrupt a character or a place is at the core of many Serling-penned episodes, including those which do not feature ghosts.
            The difficulty in using the familiar form of the ghost story is that it demands an intriguing variation upon the theme while also working within the parameters of an established form. This variation is typically achieved through setting, characterization, or a more refined quality such as unreliable narration or a disparity in narrative structure.
In many ways, Serling hearkens back to his earlier, far more successful, nautical ghost story “Judgment Night” in constructing “The Thirty Fathom Grave.” The episodes find common ground in concerns with the Second World War and concerns of a past naval engagement which must be repaid in the present by a ghostly revenge. There are several reasons why “Judgement Night” is more successful than “The Thirty Fathom Grave." The primary reason is the difference between a half-hour and hour-long format. This will likely be a repeated observation as we cover the fourth season but the less successful fourth season episodes feel impossibly padded. The hour-long format required a narrative structure which called for the incremental unfolding of the mystery in order to engage the viewer. In this regard, “The Thirty Fathom Grave” tips its hand too early. The short prologue conveys nearly the entirety of the plot which is then laboriously laid out over the following forty minutes. As a result, the viewer is left with a less-than-engaging cycle of repetitive events which holds no revealing mystery, unless one is unobservant to the point of missing the telegraphed story of Chief Bell’s conundrum.
Another qualitative difference between the episodes is that of atmosphere. “Judgment Night” had the luxury of director John Brahm, one of the supreme masters of shade and shadow, but also wisely set the proceedings at night in a fog-engulfed sector of the ocean, an atmosphere which immediately sets a proper tone for the ghostly tale. “The Thirty Fathom Grave” takes the opposite approach. In its quest for unwavering verisimilitude the production sacrificed the atmosphere necessary to effectively present a ghost story. The episode is filmed entirely in the clear, bright daylight. The orderly atmosphere of a military procedural, while in some ways an interesting attempt at variation, does little more than dispel any real atmospheric tension. 
      The underwater scenes, perhaps an area to engage a suitable atmosphere, are pedestrian at best and plodding and dull at worst. These scenes were filmed on a very tight schedule at Republic Studios and it shows in the finished product as each underwater scene bears little difference from that which came before, despite the narrative progression of each underwater descent. This sort of filmmaking gives the episode a sense of static repetition. Furthermore, the appearance of the silent, unmoving ghosts in “Judgment Night” is more effective than that of the beckoning ghosts of “The Thirty Fathom Grave,” although there is an unnerving quality to their water-logged appearance and blank-faced gesticulations.
Serling produced a similar nautical ghost story with “Lone Survivor” (published in book form as “The Sole Survivor”), a first season Night Gallery episode which concerns a coward (John Colicos) who escapes the sinking of the RMS Titanic by dressing in female clothing to secure a place on a lifeboat. Serling manages a neat, if predictable, twist on the tale when it is revealed that the lone survivor was picked up by the RMS Lusitania a short time before it is torpedoed by a German U-boat. The cowardly survivor acts as a ghostly portent of doom, cursed to be repeatedly rescued only to bring destruction upon his rescuers. In each of these episodes Serling is broadly playing upon the legend of The Flying Dutchman, a ship which can never make land and serves as a portent of doom if seen by members of another vessel. Serling played upon this legend in other, non-nautical, episodes such as "King Nine Will Not Return" (based in part on the 1959 discovery of the previously lost B-24 bomber Lady Be Good) and "The Odyssey of Flight 33," in which a commercial airliner is substituted for the doomed ship. 
The cast of “The Thirty Fathom Grave” is a small saving grace to the production as it is filled with talented, familiar-faced character actors. Simon Oakland (1915-1983) gives a strong, authoritative performance, despite the often ludicrous nature of the lines he delivers. Oakland made a career out of playing gruff, if not outright villainous, characters and previously gave a memorable turn as the antagonist DeCruz in Rod Serling’s second season episode “The Rip Van Winkle Caper.” Oakland appeared in dozens of television series but is perhaps best remembered for portraying the psychologist who attempts to explain Norman Bates's condition in the closing minutes of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Mike Kellin (1922-1983) plays the doomed Chief Bell, bringing a high degree of believable anxiety to the tortured character. Kellin is remembered for portraying tough guys and for his role as Billy Hayes's father in Midnight Express (1978). Kellin's relatively infrequent appearances on genre programs include turns on Suspense, Inner Sanctum, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Lost in Space. Also among the cast of sailors is Bill Bixby, who soon achieved recognition on the CBS sitcom My Favorite Martian and later played Dr. David Banner in the CBS action drama The Incredible Hulk. Bixby also appeared in two episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. John Considine portrays the unfortunate sailor who must descend underwater repeatedly. Considine was also a prolific television actor who is likely familiar to genre fans for his appearance in the excellent The Outer Limits episode, "The Man Who Was Never Born." Anthony D. Call (here billed as Tony Call) also had a memorable genre television appearance in the first season Star Trek episode "The Corbomite Maneuver," written by Twilight Zone writer Jerry Sohl. 
Although there are interesting aspects to the production, “The Thirty Fathom Grave" is far too slowly paced and predictable to be objectively recommended. It is not the worst episode presented on the series but there is little of interest beyond the novelty of its production and, perhaps, the collective cast. It simply plays too long and offers no real variation on a well-worn theme. In many ways, "The Thirty Fathom Grave" is everything viewers find unsatisfactory about the fourth season. This one is for completists.

Grade: D

*Those who desire a more detailed examination of the production and the way in which input from the Navy reflected in Rod Serling’s final script are advised to seek out Martin Grams, Jr.’s book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR, 2008).

-Perry Lafferty also directed the prior and subsequent episodes of the series, “In His Image” and “Valley of the Shadow.”
-Simon Oakland also appeared in the second season episode, “The Rip Van Winkle Caper.”
-Bill Bixby appeared in two episodes of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: “Last Rites for a Dead Druid” from the second season and “The Return of the Sorcerer” from the third season.
-Henry Scott also appeared in the first season episode “The Big Tall Wish.”
-“The Thirty Fathom Grave” was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Blair Underwood.
-An interesting aspect of the episode is that Rod Serling's closing narration reports that the events took place in April, 1963, roughly fourth months after the broadcast date of the episode. 



  1. Good article on a bad episode! I had a dream recently that I met Bill Bixby. I woke up and checked IMDb and saw he was long dead. When you wrote about Simon Oakland, I thought sure you'd say he was best known for The Night Stalker! He will always be Tony Vincenzo to me. I recently picked up the complete TZ series on Amazon, so now I can watch these 4th season episodes all over again. Oh, and isn't it "Corbomite"?

    1. Thanks, Jack. Interesting about Bixby. I watched his Night Gallery episodes but he was rarely in the type of shows I enjoy, though he's a legend, for sure. Oakland was all over the place in the 60s and 70s but you're right I should have mentioned Night Stalker. I have to admit I have seen only a few episodes of the show though I have seen both films. Personally, I'll always remember him for that controversial Psycho scene, which I actually enjoy. And of course it's Corbomite. Thanks, I fixed that. Sometimes you can reread something a dozen times and your brain will still pass over the error.