Monday, November 19, 2018

"Death Ship"

Picture of the crew of E-89. From left: Jack Klugman, Ross Martin, Fredrick Beir

“Death Ship”
Season Four, Episode 108
Original Air Date: February 7, 1963

Cast:
Cpt. Ross: Jack Klugman
Lt. Mason: Ross Martin
Lt. Carter: Fredrick Beir
Ruth: Mary Webster
Kramer: Ross Elliott
Mrs. Nolan: Sara Taft
Jeannie: Tammy Marihugh

Crew:
Writer: Richard Matheson (based on his story)
Director: Don Medford
Producer: Herbert Hirschman
Director of Photography: Robert Pittack
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Assistant to the Producer: John Conwell
Art Direction: George W. Davis & Edward Carfagno
Film Editor: Richard W. Farrell
Set Decoration: Henry Grace & Edward M. Parker
Assistant Director: Ray De Camp
Sound: Franklin Milton & Joe Edmondson
Music: stock
Optical Effects: Pacific Title
Rod Serling’s Wardrobe provided by Eagle Clothes
Filmed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Mr. Richard Matheson lets his typewriter pay us a return visit next time out on Twilight Zone with a story called ‘Death Ship.’ Now, this one is for science fiction aficionados, ghost story buffs, and any and all who file away clues with an eye toward out-guessing the writer. Next on Twilight Zone Messrs. Jack Klugman, Ross Martin, and Fred Beir take an extended trip through space on ‘Death Ship.’"

 Rod Serling’s Opening Narration: 

“Picture of the spaceship E-89, cruising above the thirteenth planet of star system fifty-one, the year 1997. In a little while, supposedly, the ship will be landed and specimens taken: vegetable, mineral, and, if any, animal. These will be brought back to overpopulated Earth where technicians will evaluate them and, if everything is satisfactory, stamp their findings with the word ‘inhabitable,’ and open up yet another planet for colonization. These are the things that are supposed to happen.

“Picture of the crew of the spaceship E-89: Captain Ross, Lieutenant Mason, Lieutenant Carter. Three men who have just reached a place which is as far from home as they will ever be. Three men who in a matter of minutes will be plunged into the darkest nightmare reaches of The Twilight Zone.” 

Summary: 

            The Spaceship E-89 scans an unexplored planet while cruising high above the surface. Lt. Mason sees a blip on the view screen, a possible indication of life on the planet below. The crew, which also includes Capt. Ross and Lt. Carter, gathers around the view screen. Capt. Ross quickly assumes a stern command of the situation and tampers the excitement of the other two men. Though Capt. Ross is wary of landing on the planet, the other men convince him otherwise.
            E-89 makes a smooth landing but the crew is horrified to see a ship exactly like their own crashed nearby. After a show of tension with Lt. Mason, Capt. Ross reluctantly agrees to explore the crashed ship. Inside, the men are further horrified to discover what appears to be their own dead bodies. Capt. Ross dismisses the grisly discovery as deception and orders the men back to their ship.    
            Capt. Ross comes to the conclusion that what they have witnessed is only a possible future, perhaps one created by their passage through a time warp. It is an outcome which will only occur if they take off again. He decides they are to remain on the planet’s surface indefinitely. The other men staunchly oppose this drastic measure but are overruled by their captain.
            Lt. Carter closes his eyes in a moment of despair. When he opens them again he finds himself standing near the road which leads to his home on Earth. Confused, he slowly walks down the road until he is happily met by a man named Kramer, who appears to have been hunting in the nearby woods. The two men are soon met by Mrs. Nolan, a kindly old woman. At the mention of his wife Mary’s name, Lt. Carter runs down the road toward his home, leaving Kramer and Mrs. Nolan behind. Carter arrives at his home but cannot find his wife anywhere. In the bedroom he sees an ominous sign. Laid upon the bed are the black veil and gloves which a woman in mourning might wear. Worse still is a telegram laid beside the veil and gloves. It is from the Space Exploration Agency and states that Carter was killed in the line of duty. Suddenly, Carter is called back by the voice of Capt. Ross and inexplicably finds himself again on the spaceship.
            Cater realizes that the people he met on the road are dead and that he too must be dead. Capt. Ross refutes the idea. Their resultant argument is interrupted when they realize Lt. Mason has vanished.
            Mason awakens in a grove near a lake. He is astonished to see his young daughter Jeannie and gathers her in an emotional embrace. He then rushes to his wife, Ruth, who is setting up for a picnic in a nearby clearing. She asks if he is asleep. “Oh, if I am I hope I never wake up,” Mason replies. Suddenly, Capt. Ross pushes his way through the overgrowth and into the clearing. He’s come to take Mason back to the ship. A fight ensues and Ross manages to drag the other man back to the imprisoning spaceship.
            Capt. Ross removes a newspaper clipping from Mason’s shirt pocket. It tells of how Mason’s wife and daughter died in a car accident. “They’re dead, you’re alive,” Ross insists. Ross has a new theory about their predicament. He believes there are alien lifeforms on the planet and through some unknown method are causing the men to have hallucinations. He is determined that they must go up in order to escape.
            The ship takes off with the crew bracing for a crash. They celebrate once they are free of the atmosphere. Capt. Ross, though, decides that they will go back down now that they have broken free of their delusions. He ensures the other men that the crashed spaceship will no longer be there. Lt. Carter attempts to wrench control of the ship from Capt. Ross, nearly sending them crashing down onto the planet. At the last moment, the men manage to regain control of the ship and make a safe landing.
            To their horror, the cashed ship is still there. Lt. Mason and Lt. Carter have accepted their deaths but cannot convince Capt. Ross of their fates. Ross is determined to go over it again and again until he can reach a conclusion other than the one suggested by his crewmen.
            The Spaceship E-89 scans an unexplored planet while cruising high above the surface. Lt. Mason sees a blip on the view screen, a possible indication of life upon the planet below . . . 


Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Picture of a man who will not see anything he does not choose to see, including his own death. A man of such indomitable will that even the two men beneath his command are not allow to see the truth; which truth is that they are no longer among the living, that the movements they make and the words they speak have all been made and spoken countless times before, and will be made and spoken countless times again, perhaps even unto eternity. Picture of a latter-day Flying Dutchman, sailing into The Twilight Zone.” 

Commentary: 
Ross Elliott & Fredrick Beir

“There seemed nothing to be said. It was a speechless nightmare. The tilted cabin all bashed in and tangled. The three corpses all doubled over and tumbled into the corner, arms and legs flopped over each other. All they could do was stare.”

-Richard Matheson, “Death Ship”

            To this point writer Richard Matheson appeared reluctant to adapt his own short stories for the series. This reluctance abated by the fourth season as five of Matheson’s final six teleplays were adaptations of previously published stories, compared to only one (“Little Girl Lost”) among his first eight scripts. Matheson was a busy writer during 1963, scripting an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“The Thirty-First of February”), two films for American International Pictures (The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors), and four episodes of The Twilight Zone. Whether Matheson felt overworked during this period is difficult to say but it is not unreasonable to assume that Matheson decided to approach previously published material to facilitate quick work without sacrificing quality. Some of Matheson’s most powerful and fondly remembered episodes, “Death Ship,” “Steel,” “Night Call,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” were adaptations of his stories.
            There is also the likelihood that the series expansion to a one-hour format encouraged Matheson to look at expanding some of his stories. Matheson was vocal in his dislike of the hour-long change though he likely relished the opportunity to take another run at some of his older stories with the opportunity to rework the material for the dramatic medium. 
Ed Emshwiller magazine
illustration for "Death Ship"
            “Death Ship” was originally published in the March, 1953 issue of Fantastic Story Magazine. Matheson changed little about the story and the resultant episode functions primarily as an expansion of the material, particularly in relation to the two extended afterlife sequences for the characters of Carter and Mason (absent in the story). Although a decade separated the publication of the original story and Matheson’s adaptation for The Twilight Zone, little needed to be altered in the original narrative to suit the series. Matheson lifted Rod Serling’s opening narration nearly whole from his original story. It reads in the story thus: “In a little while they’d land and take specimens. Mineral, vegetable, animal – if there were any. Put them in the storage lockers and take them back to Earth. There the technicians would evaluate, appraise, judge. And, if everything was acceptable, stamp the big, black INHABITABLE on their brief and open another planet for colonization from overcrowded Earth.”

             Matheson made slight changes to the three principal characters in the tale. There is a clearer delineation between the men in the original story in terms of duty. Ross is the captain and pilot, Mason the navigator, and Carter the engineer. These lines of duty blur a bit in the adaptation, particularly in relation to Mason and Carter. Ross is the only of the three to significantly change in terms of character. In the original story Ross’s fatal flaw is not will but vanity; he is not a man who must be obeyed but a man who believes he is always right. Jack Klugman, when speaking with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation (1998), stated multiple times that he did not care for “Death Ship.” One assumes this is because of Ross’s unattractive characteristics. As dramatized, Ross is not simply an arrogant man burdened by duty and mission but a dominating, villainous force that refuses to let his crew pass into the afterlife, holding the men in a hellish, imprisoning limbo. It is no wonder Klugman would not look back upon this role with fondness, despite his excellent performance, as his sympathies were aligned more with the redemptive characters he portrayed in “A Passage for Trumpet” and “In Praise of Pip.” One ironic characteristic of Ross’s ascent to the role of villain is that, in both story and episode, he must be convinced by the other men to descend to the planet’s surface. Ross does not want to land, does not want to see what caused the blip on the view screen. There is no escape from the situation, of course, but it is interesting to consider that Ross became the monster at least in part because of the will of the Mason and Carter, who set in motion the series of events which forced Ross to see that which he was unwilling to acknowledge.
            Richard Matheson knew that the key to engaging the viewer in a story with little physical action was to lean on the dramatic tension inherent in the ever-widening rift between Ross and Mason, an aspect less fully formed in the story. “Death Ship” largely hinges on the tension between these two men, beautifully played out by Jack Klugman and Ross Martin. In point of fact, the original story displays the decision to remain indefinitely on the planet to avoid a possible crash as agreed upon by all three men in a democratic process. The alteration made for the episode, in which Ross demands they stay in the face of ardent opposition from Mason and Carter, deepens the tension and lends an aspect of non-physical combat to the episode which did not appear to interest the writer a decade earlier. This shift from a focus on the mystery of the narrative to the foibles of character was facilitated not only by the necessary expansion of the material but also by the enclosed nature of the stage upon which the drama played out. In this way, “Death Ship” bears similarities to such previous episodes as “The Shelter,” “The Mirror,” and “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” in which the players are placed in an enclosed environment and the drama is played out through the violence of human tension (which frequently devolves to actual physical violence).

            The director selected to bring out this violence of human tension was Don Medford (1917-2012), who previously appeared behind the camera for such claustrophobic and tension-heavy episodes as “The Mirror” and “Deaths-Head Revisited.” Buck Houghton, who produced four of Medford’s five Twilight Zone episodes, initially recognized the director’s ability to draw out engaging tension between characters when there was little physical action to otherwise engage the viewer. With The Twilight Zone’s limited production budget and economically enclosed settings, this was a skill highly prized by the production and fourth season producer Herbert Hirschman was wise to place Medford on such an episode as Houghton had before. Medford perfected his craft on Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953), a science fiction anthology series which was a significant precursor to The Twilight Zone. Medford directed 36 episodes of the series. Medford’s other genre work includes crime and suspense series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the original and revival series), Climax!, and Suspicion. Jack Klugman and Mary Webster previously worked with Medford on his first Twilight Zone episode, “A Passage for Trumpet.”

            Another interesting aspect of Matheson’s story is a veiled homage to Ray Bradbury’s 1948 story “Mars Is Heaven!” a tale later included by Bradbury as “The Third Expedition” in The Martian Chronicles (1950). This occurs when Capt. Ross suggests that there is alien life on the planet upon which they have landed, aliens who haven’t the physical strength to carry out an attack on the interlopers so instead resort to mental suggestion, causing the men to hallucinate and see things which are not really there. This innovative plot device was a key element of the Bradbury story. Bradbury was a mentor to Matheson and a particularly strong creative influence. Matheson later adapted Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles for a television miniseries in 1980. “Mars Is Heaven!” is one of Bradbury’s most frequently anthologized and adapted tales. It was adapted multiple times on radio, most memorably on Escape (1950), and into comic book form in the EC Comics title Weird Science #18 (April, 1953), illustrated by Wallace Wood. Bradbury adapted the story for television on his Ray Bradbury Theater, broadcast July 20, 1990. Another Twilight Zone writer, Charles Beaumont, produced his own homage to the Bradbury story with his 1953 tale “Elegy,” adapted by Beaumont for the first season of The Twilight Zone.

            The legend of the Flying Dutchman forms the broader thematic backbone of Matheson’s story. Matheson calls attention to this parallel in the final paragraphs of his story:

 “Then, in a split second, with the knowledge, he saw Ross and he saw Carter. As they were. And he took a short shuddering breath, a last breath until illusion would bring breath and flesh again.
            “ ‘Progress,’ he said bitterly and his voice was an aching whisper in the phantom ship. ‘The Flying Dutchman takes to the universe.’”

            The folk legend of the ghost ship which can never make port and serves as a portent of doom to other vessels has been around since the late 17th century and proven to be a pliable legend, able to be adapted across a wide range of themes, subjects, and settings. The Twilight Zone approached tales of this type in such episodes as “Judgment Night,” “King Nine Will Not Return,” and “The Arrival.”


            The production design of “Death Ship” will likely be a divisive aspect for the modern viewer. One will either enjoy the retro-future style (perhaps in an unintentionally humorous way) or abhor it as unconvincing and distracting. The uniforms and external ship were borrowed from the MGM production Forbidden Planet (1956), a film whose futuristic props and design permeate the series as Twilight Zone was filmed at MGM and thus had access to the sets, props, and costumes of the studio’s signature science fiction film. Although the series did occasionally use footage from the film to show travel in outer space, such footage in “Death Ship” was original to the production. Other aspects, including some impressive visual effects, stand out as innovative and unique, particularly the scanning effect of the view screen and the launch and landing of the spacecraft, complete with billowing dust and fiery exhaust, an expensive effect conceived by producer Herbert Hirschman and designed by the MGM FX Department using miniatures and painted backdrops.
            The most effective sequences of the episode occur outside the construct of the spacecraft during the afterlife experiences of Carter and Mason. Not only is the emotional impact of these sequences acutely felt but it allowed Don Medford to juxtapose the expansiveness of the open setting with the imprisoning nature of the ship. This juxtaposition is expertly displayed when Ross invades Mason’s passage to the afterlife and physically drags the man back to the ship. The cut from the wide open outdoors to a tight shot of the ship interior is highly effective. There follows a gut-wrenching moment when Mason circles the enclosure of the ship, devastated to have been taken from his wife and daughter.
            Other notable aspects of the production include the use of a varied selection of stock music for the episode. Particularly effective are selections from Jerry Goldsmith’s unnerving composition for Rod Serling’s first season time travel episode, “Back There,” and Bernard Herrmann’s melancholy score for Serling’s “Walking Distance,” utilized for Lt. Mason’s afterlife sequence. Also notable is the work of cinematographer Robert Pittack, an experience photographer who worked on an array of feature-length and short films for major studios before moving into television in 1952. Pittack was brought on board Twilight Zone to alternate the filming of episodes with the show’s principal photographer George T. Clemens due to an increase in the production schedule for each episode. Pittack more than upheld the show’s high standard for black-and-white photography and perhaps no episode better displays this than “Death Ship,” particularly the sequence inside the crashed ship and the discovery of the bodies. The episode offered a number of challenging aspects for the photographer, including a wide range of lighting effects and complex editing techniques such as quick transition cuts and split-screen photography.

            The final anchoring aspect of the episode is, of course, the performances. The performances were always a hugely important aspect on the series but this was especially true in “Death Ship,” which depended greatly upon the tension established between the three men.
Jack Klugman (1922-2012), despite his dislike of the episode, is suitably dominating in the role of Captain Ross, using both physical strength and impenetrable will to imprison his fellow crew members. Klugman is a familiar face to viewers of the series, joining Burgess Meredith as the only actors to be featured in a lead role in four episodes. Klugman previously appeared in Rod Serling’s first season episode, “A Passage for Trumpet,” and George Clayton Johnson’s excellent third season episode, “A Game of Pool.” Klugman saved perhaps his finest performance for last when he appeared as a father who trades his own life for that of his son in Rod Serling’s moving fifth season episode, “In Praise of Pip.” Best remembered for such films as 12 Angry Men (1957) and the television series The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E., Klugman was a staple of early television anthology series. He previously worked with Rod Serling in the Playhouse 90 production, “The Velvet Alley” (1959). Klugman’s genre work includes episodes of Suspense, Inner Sanctum, Climax!, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Kraft Suspense Theatre, and the revival The Outer Limits series. 

Mary Webster and Ross Martin
            Ross Martin (1920-1981), who gives a powerful performance as the tortured Lt. Mason (we rated it #19 on our list of the 20 greatest performances on the series), also previously appeared on the series as one of Arch Hammer’s “faces” in Rod Serling’s adaptation of George Clayton Johnson’s “The Four of Us Are Dying.” Here, Martin is given a much larger role and runs with it, eliciting an emotional response in the viewer perhaps unrivaled on the series. Martin was born in Poland and immigrated to the Unites States as a child, his family settling on the Lower East Side of New York. An incredibly learned man who spoke multiple languages, Ross followed his passion for acting into a prolific television and film career. Best known for the role of Artemus Gordon on The Wild, Wild West, Martin also appeared in episodes of Lights Out, Suspense, One Step Beyond, and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Martin provided the voice of the main character in the Academy Award-nominated short animated film Icarus Montgolfier Wright (1962), adapted from Ray Bradbury’s 1956 short story by Bradbury and George Clayton Johnson. Martin also featured in the 1973 television film Dying Room Only, adapted by Richard Matheson from his 1953 short story. 

            Although Fredrick Beir (1927-1980) only appeared in this one episode of the series, he is likely a familiar face to television viewers from his frequent guest appearances. Among those appearances was plenty of genre work as Beir featured in episodes of One Step Beyond, Men into Space, Thriller, The Outer Limits, The Munsters, The Time Tunnel, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Beir is given the difficult task of portraying the young, idealistic Lt. Carter in “Death Ship,” a man who suffers a clear mental break when confronted with the image of his own death. There is a disturbing and effective quality to Beir’s performance, particularly his physical mannerisms and his shocked, open-eyed expression.
            The three performances are highly symbolic of fundamental aspects of the human personality, the mental makeup of the rational and willful (Ross), the sensitive and melancholy (Mason), and the fearful and childlike (Carter). The performances are singularly impressive but are more effective when taken as a unit, with one meeting the other meeting the next in an emotionally resonate way.

            “Death Ship” is Twilight Zone at its most successful: an existential nightmare presented by an engaging script, performed by excellent actors, under strong direction, aided by innovative production design and special effects. The story is a perfect blend of horror and science fiction with an emotional resonance brought to its zenith by a devastating twist which keeps the viewer playing out mental scenarios long after the play is over. It remains an episode which lends itself to multiple viewings and a sterling example from the much-derided fourth season which can stand with the best of the series.

Grade: A

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following:

-Richard Matheson’s The Twilight Zone Scripts, Volume Two, edited by Stanely Wiater (Edge Books, 2002)

-The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR, 2008)

-The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (2nd edition, Silman-James, 1992)

-Interview with Jack Klugman conducted by Sunny Parich (5/1/1998) for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation.

-The Internet Movie Database (imdb.com)

-The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (isfdb.org)

Notes: 
Illustration by Karel Thole
for Urania #322, an Italian SF magazine
which included "Death Ship" as
"Il relitto," or "The Wreck"
--Richard Matheson’s original story appeared in the March, 1953 issue of Fantastic Story Magazine. The story was collected in Shock! (Dell, 1961). Most often anthologized as a time travel tale, it appeared in The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg (Del Rey, 2005) and The Time Traveler’s Almanac, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer  (Tor, 2014).
--Don Medford also directed “A Passage for Trumpet,” “The Man in the Bottle,” “The Mirror,” and “Deaths-Head Revisited.”
--Jack Klugman also appeared in “A Passage for Trumpet,” “A Game of Pool,” and “In Praise of Pip.” Klugman also appeared in Rod Serling’s Playhouse 90 episode, “The Velvet Alley” (1959).
--Ross Martin also appeared in “The Four of Us Are Dying” and the segments of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery titled “Camera Obscura” and “The Other Way Out.”
--Mary Webster also appeared in “A Passage for Trumpet.”
--Ross Elliott also appeared (uncredited) in “In Praise of Pip.”
--The road which leads to Carter’s home in his afterlife sequence is the same road used to stage Philip Redfield’s (Ed Nelson) crash into an invisible barrier in “Valley of the Shadow.”
--“Death Ship” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring John Schneider.

-JP

4 comments:

  1. Death Ship is in my humble opinion the piece de reistance of the entire anthology series! Classic sci-fi story involving outer space (circa Forbidden Planet as mentioned in this review since props were used from the movie on the MGM lot) and also combining suspense with existential themes. The 3 principal actors: Jack Klugman, Ross Martin, and Frederick Beir, deliver masterful performances displaying raw emotions which is believable to anyone whom has lost loved ones and sense their own death. The hour long episode needs the running time to lay out the exposition of the basic story and character development. I can sympathize with Mason and Carter in the dream sequences, but also, feeling sometimes I need to be in control and the need for a logical explanation as our Captain Ross. There is one theme I didn't understand in the episode. If Lt. Mason never left the ship and was there the whole time then why did the scene show Ross being dragged out of the clearing with Mason's wife saying Ross is not welcome here? Very sad ending though with the E-89 cast as the modern day Flying Dutchman doomed to eternity since all three men did really nothing to deserve their fate unlike Judgement Night's, Karl Lanzer.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This one has always affected me in the same way since I first viewed it many years ago. It is a fantastic piece of science fiction storytelling. It is very melancholy but intellectually stimulating and, as you say, the performances are really excellent.

      I believe Captain Ross was saying that Mason was there the entire time but he and Carter could not see him. It was an attempt by Ross to explain away the obvious fact that they died in the crash. Mason had slipped into his afterlife and was pulled back into their hellish limbo by Captain Ross.

      Thanks for reading and offering your insight into this episode!

      Delete
  2. A rare "A" grade! I'll have to watch this one again. Any show with Jack Klugman and Ross Martin can't be bad! Happy Thanksgiving, guys, and thanks for this blog!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You should definitely give this one another look. I think it, along with perhaps "Miniature," is the finest of the hour-long episodes. Thanks for always reading and commenting, Jack! Really appreciate that. Happy Thanksgiving!

      Delete