Monday, November 4, 2013

"Back There"

Time Traveler Pete Corrigan (Russell Johnson) has drinks
with John Wilkes Booth (John Lasell)
“Back There”
Season Two, Episode Forty-nine
Original airdate: January 13, 1961

Pete Corrigan: Russell Johnson
John Wellington/John Wilkes Booth: John Lasell
Policeman (William’s Grandfather): James Lydon
Police Sergeant: Paul Hartman
William: Bartlett Robinson
Patrolman: James Gavin
Mrs. Landers: Jean Inness
Lieutenant: Lew Brown
Lieutenant’s Girl: Carol Rossen
Chambermaid: Nora Marlowe
Butler: Pat O’Malley
Jackson: Raymond Greenleaf
Millard: Ray Bailey
Whittaker: John Eldredge

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: David Orrick McDearmon
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Production Manager: Sidney Van Keuran
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Philip Barber
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Ethel Winant
Editor: Leon Barsha
Sound: Franklin Milton and Charles Scheid
Music: Jerry Goldsmith

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“In this rather posh club, you’ll see a group of men argue a somewhat metaphysical subject like time travel.  One of them maintains it’s possible to go back in time, make a few changes in history, and as a result do quite a job on the present, in this case the assignation of one Abraham Lincoln.  Next week, a story called ‘Back There.’  I’d like you all to come with us, I think you’ll find it a most exciting journey.  Thank you and good night.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Witness a theoretical argument, Washington, D.C., the present.  Four intelligent men talking about an improbable thing like going back in time.  A friendly debate revolving around a simple issue: could a human being change what has happened before?  Interesting and theoretical because whoever heard of a man going back in time, before tonight that is.  Because this is…The Twilight Zone.”

Corrigan and William the Butler
April 14, 1961, Washington, D.C.  Four intellectuals are seated around a card table at the prestigious Potomac Club.  Two of the four men find themselves hung up on the subject of time travel.  One of the men argues that it is possible to change the events of the past if given the opportunity to travel back in time.  The other man, Pete Corrigan, says that history simply cannot be altered.  The argument continues late into the night when finally Corrigan says that he is tired and politely excuses himself from the table.  On his way out he accidentally runs into the house butler, William, who spills coffee all over him.  William apologizes but Corrigan brushes the incident off and assures William that no harm has been done.
                Upon stepping outside Corrigan experiences a dizzy spell.  Cut to a shot of a streetlight.  The light changes from an incandescent light bulb to flickering candlelight.  After recovering from his dizzy spell, Corrigan immediately notices that something is wrong.  He pounds on the door to the Potomac Club but no one answers.  He decides to go to his apartment.  When he knocks on his boardinghouse a woman answers.  She is immediately suspicious.  Corrigan enters and for a moment doesn’t recognize the place.  He asks the woman if she has a room and, after he tells her that he is a war veteran, she says that she does.  A young woman and a soldier dressed in uniform walk down the stairs.  They mention something to the woman about attending a play and shaking hands with the president.  Corrigan then realizes that this is April 14, 1865, the day that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and that these two are headed to the performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre where the president was gunned down by John Wilkes Booth.  Corrigan races to Ford’s Theatre and bangs on the stage entrance door, hoping he can somehow present the president’s assassination. 
Some time later, Corrigan is brought in before the local Police Sergeant.  The patrolman claims that Corrigan was making trouble at Ford’s Theatre so the theatre manager clubbed him over the head and called the police.  Corrigan pleads with the sergeant to have extra security placed around the president.  The sergeant throws Corrigan in the drunk tank to sleep it off.  Just then a man waltzes into the courtroom and makes his way over to the sergeant.  He claims his name is John Wellington and that he is here to look after the man who was just placed into custody.  He says that the man may possibly be a mentally unsound war veteran and may need someone to care for him.  The sergeant agrees and releases Corrigan into the custody of Wellington.  After they leave the courtroom the security guard asks the sergeant if maybe Corrigan wasn’t on to something when he claimed that Lincoln would be shot.  The sergeant dismisses this as drunken gibberish and tells the rookie policeman to stay in line.
                Back in Wellington’s room, Wellington pours Corrigan a drink.  He inquires as to why Corrigan thought the president would be murdered.  They discuss the subject for several minutes before Corrigan begins to feel lightheaded and realizes that he has been drugged.  He tries to stand but topples to the ground.  He awakes to knocking at the door.  Moments later the door opens and the housekeeper and rookie police officer rush in and pick Corrigan up off the ground.  The officer tells Corrigan that he has been all over town trying to convince officials to place more security around Lincoln, to no avail.  Corrigan tells the officer to go by himself.  Corrigan then discovers a handkerchief given to him by Wellington with the letters JWB.  He then realizes that the man who freed him from prison and drugged him was actually John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated President Lincoln.  Then he hears the news.  The president has been shot.  He is too late.  After the housekeeper and the policeman leave, Corrigan has an emotional breakdown and begins beating on the wall.  Moments later he realizes that he is no longer beating on the walls of Booth's apartment but on the front door of the Potomac Club.  The butler answers the door but Corrigan immediately notices that is isn’t William but a man he has never seen before.  He asks the man about William but the man says that there is no William on staff.
William, the Intellectual
Corrigan walks into the study and over to the card table.  The men have switched the subject from time travel to money.  That’s when Corrigan sees William.  But he is no longer dressed in a Butler suit.  Instead he is dressed as a sophisticate in a suit and tie.  He goes on to say that he inherited his fortune from his grandfather he was once a rookie police officer in the city.  On the night of Lincoln’s assassination his grandfather went around the city trying to warn officials that the president would be shot.  Though he didn’t succeed he was awarded and eventually became Chief of Police and, through real estate, managed to make a fortune and retire.  Corrigan is dumbfounded.  He asks William if he remembers spilling coffee on him earlier that evening.  William is insulted and brushes Corrigan off as a nuisance.   The other men also ridicule him to themselves.  Corrigan reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out the handkerchief with Booth’s initials on it.  He then realizes that he has changed history but he alone bears the burden and can never share it with anyone.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Mr. Peter Corrigan, lately returned from a place ‘back there,’ a journey into time with highly questionable results, proving on one hand that the treads of history are woven tightly and the skein of events cannot be undone, but on the other hand, there are small fragments of tapestry that can be altered.  Tonight’s thesis to be taken as you will, in the Twilight Zone.”

In “Back There” Russell Johnson makes his second appearance on The Twilight Zone.  In Season One’s “Execution” (also directed by McDearmon) Johnson plays a scientist who builds a time machine which pulls a man out of the nineteenth century American West into a twentieth century inner city.  Only later does Johnson find out that the man is a soulless murderer.  In “Back There” Johnson is the one who travels through time, only this time he travels from present day 1961 back to 1865 to stop a murderer, as if to make amends for his tragic mistake in the previous episode. 
                As is the case with most time travel stories on The Twilight Zone, “Back There” does not rely on machinery to get its protagonist from one age to another.  Corrigan simply steps out of the Potomac Club and, after a faint dizzy spell, finds himself in another century.  This follows in the footsteps of episodes like “Walking Distance,” “The Last Flight” and “The Trouble with Templeton” in which characters just sort of wander into another time.  Serling and producer Buck Houghton were wise to realize the show’s limited budget and chose not saturate episodes, especially ones with traditional science fiction themes such as time travel, with ornate special effects.  The only visual evidence of the time travel process that the audiences witnesses here is that of a single streetlamp dissolving slowly from a modern electric light bulb into a burning candle, thus transporting the audience and our protagonist from then present-day 1961 back to 1865.
Unfortunately, unlike the three aforementioned episodes, which use time travel as a device to explore the various psychological states of each of the main characters (nostalgia, cowardice, loneliness) “Back There” lacks the emotional wisdom found in these stories.  Its focus, instead, is on the time travel paradox, a theme that was already exhausted even in 1961.  It really isn’t much more than a thin story stretched around the idea stated at the beginning of the episode: can a person change history if they were able to travel back in time, intentionally or unintentionally.  And so Corrigan spends much of the episode running around Washington D.C. trying to stop the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, with the audience thinking that perhaps he will indeed prevent it and thus return to an alternate 1961, one that has no concept of Lincoln’s assassination because it never happened.  The twist is that he does not succeed in preventing the president’s assassination and he returns to a 1961 almost identical to the one he left.  The only difference is that William, the former houseman at the Potomac club, is now a prominent member of the club (and kind of a snooty one).  This isn’t a bad twist but not one that really stays with the viewer after the episode is over and, unfortunately, it is all the episode has to offer.
                This episode holds a resemblance to the Season Four episode “No Time like the Past.”  In this later episode the main character, played by Dana Andrews, uses a time machine to travel through the recent past attempting to prevent certain atrocities.  He first ventures to Hiroshima to warn people of the encroaching nuclear attack that will demolish their city but he fails to persuade them to leave.  He then travels to Germany circa 1939 and tries to assassinate Hitler but he is informed upon by a Nazi devotee.  Next he travels to 1915 and tries to prevent the bombing of the Lusitania.  Again he fails.  He finally decides to travel to a small town in Indiana at the end of the nineteenth century to seek out a simple existence.  He eventually learns from a history book he brought with him from the twentieth century that the local schoolhouse will burn down because of a kerosene spill.  He tries to prevent the catastrophe only to end up being the cause of it.  He then decides not to meddle with history any longer.  Overall, this episode isn’t much better than “Back There” but the hero comes off as far more compelling than Pete Corrigan, something Serling might have taken into consideration when he reused this same theme for this Season Four episode.
                While “Back There” fails to be a memorable episode it isn’t without its high points.  Of the performances most seem to be uninspired but Bartlett Robinson gives two brief but solid performances as William the butler at the beginning of the episode and as William the elitist once Corrigan has returned from 1865.  But ultimately, the only thing that really stands out in this episode is a haunting original score from Jerry Goldsmith.  This same score was later recycled for some of the show’s most memorable episodes. 

Grade: C

Illustration by Earl E. Mayan for "Back There,"
from Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone
by Walter B. Gibson
(Grosset & Dunlap, 1963)

--As mentioned, Russell Johnson also appears in the Season One episode “Execution.”
--Bartlett Robinson also appears in the Season Three episode “To Serve Man.”
--David Orrick McDearmon also directed Season One’s “Execution" and Season Two’s “A Thing About Machines.”
--John Lasell also appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "Little Girl Lost" (no relation to the third season Zone episode). 
--Lew Brown also appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "You Can Come Up Now, Mrs. Millikan." 
--“Back There” was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Jim Caviezel (Falcon Picture Group, 2002).  
-- "Back There" was adapted into a short story by Walter B. Gibson for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (Grosset and Dunlap, 1963).

--Brian Durant


  1. May I disagree most heartily? I give this episode an A. It's one of my favorites of the series. I love Johnson's performance, the music is great, and the photography haunting. I watch it every so often and always enjoy it. It's fascinating to read such a different opinion!

  2. Sorry, Jack, just didn't dig this one. Although I agree about the camera work. It just feels like a rushed episode to me. It might be one of the few episodes that would have worked better in the hour-long format. But thanks for the comment!

  3. It's not horrible in my book but not great, either. Back There feels more low budget than most Zones. The network may well have complained about how much each episode of the TZ cost when they compelled Serling & Company to slash their budget per episode and move over to videotape but most episodes look modest to me.

    This one looks more modestly budgeted than most. Not badly acted, its mostly no-name (at the time) cast handle their parts well, but the dialogue never catches fire; nor does the viewer,--this viewer--get emotionally involved in what's on screen. It's a drama based on a hypothetical, and it remains that way.

  4. Hi. I just want to ask if there is any available script for the play adaptation of this one? I've read a book featuring this episode a few years back, but now I'm having trouble finding the script for the play adaptation of this episode.

  5. Rod Serlin'g script for "Back There" can be found in the book As Timeless as Infinity: The Complete Twilight Scripts of Rod Serling, vol. 10 (ed. Tony Albarella; Gauntlet Press, 2013). It can be ordered direct from the publisher at or found on Amazon and similar online retailers.

    If you are looking for the adaptation of Rod Serling's teleplay, it can be found in the 1963 book Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (Grosset & Dunlap) by Walter B. Gibson, reprinted in 1965 as Chilling Stories from Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (Tempo Books). It can also be found in the 1990 omnibus volume Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (Wings Books; Random House Value Publishing), which also includes Walter B. Gibson's 1964 volume Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Revisited. Gibson was hired to continue writing the Twilight Zone books after Serling's final volume, New Stories from the Twilight Zone (1962). Though Serling's books consisted entirely of adaptations of his own teleplays for the series, Gibson's books consisted mainly of original stories, though it remains unclear whether these stories were Gibson's creations alone or if he worked with Serling in developing ideas.

    Gibson did adapt some episodes for his books and these are: "Judgment Night" and "Back There" in Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1963), and "The Purple Testament," "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" (as "Beyond the Rim"), "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" (as "The 16-Millimeter Shrine"), "The Man in the Bottle," and "Mirror Image" (as "The Mirror Image") for Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Revisited (1964).

  6. Did Corrigan give Booth the idea to assassinate the president?

    1. Hey, Gregory. Apologies for the delayed response. To answer your question I think Serling intended for the scene with Corrigan and Booth to emphasize how close Corrigan came to stopping Lincoln's assassination, not to suggest that he gave Booth the idea. By having Booth spike his drink Serling then provides us with an explanation as to why he was not able to accomplish the task. Thanks for the question!

  7. Of course this story raises the same "looping" problem that all time-travel stories do, whenever they focus on the possibility of changing major historical events. If Corrigan had succeeded in preventing Lincoln's assassination, time would have progressed onward, with its new, changed history. Corrigan would be born around 1930, and would learn in school that Lincoln served out his second term as President, retired to Springfield with Mary (poor bastard), and eventually died in his bed around 1890. Then Corrigan goes back in time. But this time he makes no effort to prevent the assassination, because, as far as he has any reason to know, it never happened in the first place. But WITHOUT his intervention, it WILL happen. And on and on it goes, back and forth, back and forth, through all eternity...

    Also: all any time traveler would have to do to prevent Lincoln's assassination would be to station himself in the corridor outside the Presidential box, wait until that idiot guard abandoned his post to go to the corner bar, wait for Booth to show up, and then shoot him on sight. Assuming that the time traveler couldn't escape by simply going back to his own time, he could have made up some story about overhearing Booth in a tavern discussing his plans and, as a patriot, felt that he needed to do what had to be done. This would have been a thoroughly credible defense because a. Booth's pro-Southern sympathies were well known, b. they would have found the loaded derringer on Booth's body, with no plausible reason as to what he was doing with it outside the President's box, and c. the botched attempt on the life of Edwin Stanton by another of the conspirators later that same night would have proven that there was organized mischief afoot.

    I have much, MUCH too much time on my hands...

  8. I agree with you Thomas (any distant relation to Joe the all time great?), that instead of running around like a deranged person and telling everyone there will be an assassination on the President's life and understandably being picked up by the town police and sent to jail, Corrigan should, as you stated, positioned himself outside of the President's box and when he saw Booth shoot him on sight and use the excuse he heard Booth bragging about would kill Lincoln in the Tavern that day and did his duty as a patriot and to save the Union). Of course, this is a TV show so there is poetic license involved. I tend to love time travel episodes especially on TZ like "No Time Like the Past" and "Walking Distance" to name a few. Who wouldn't want to go back to their childhood or in "No time Like the Past" spend the rest of one's life with the school teacher (Patricia Breslin's character), but as the threads of history are tightly woven as Rod's closing narration explains, no matter what we do, there are repercussions as you stated as well because even the remotest links to events starts a chain reaction even to us being born!. The troubling concept about time travel is that is virtually impossible other than Einstein's theories, how travel is even possible.
    Without any type of spacecraft with the speed to transverse the time warp in outer space, just walking through a door is not a logical concept nor is any type of time machine (a la No Time Like the Present) or like the "Time Machine" book by H.G Wells. I still love the episode and have watched it multiple times especially since I have recently visited Ford's Theater in D.C and went to the house Lincoln died in across the street on a tour. Great insight though in your post and enjoy the Zone on New Year's Eve! :OD

  9. Hello! Before Corrigan bumps into William in the lobby, he seems to recognize and be confused by the appearance of another man. Any theories about this? It drives me crazy each time I watch this episode!

    1. I believe he did a double-take at the bust of Lincoln on the shelf. Perhaps he was thinking about the theory of time-travel and thought of the idea of preventing Lincoln's assassination.

  10. In reference to the original post about the only twist being William's alternate appearance, what about Wellington turning out to be Booth? Is this not a twist in and of itself?