Could I have stopped John Wilkes Booth from shooting Abraham Lincoln if I could have been there? Could I have sneaked up behind him in the theater and whacked him over the head with a shovel? Could I have screamed at the top of my lungs until the police came and arrested Booth? And if I was able to stop the assassination of Lincoln, how would it have changed history?
All those questions (and more) are the many reasons that my favorite Twilight Zone episode is “Back There,” from season 2. This will probably be a shock to most people. From what I’ve read online and in books, this isn’t a highly regarded episode. But that’s the beauty of Twilight Zone; the same episode can be a favorite or a least liked depending on who you’re talking to.
I’ve read that many people think that “It’s a Good Life” (season 3) is a great episode, even ranked as a top 10 in the entire series. From where I’m sitting, I would never watch that episode ever again. Ever. I really hate it that they remade that episode in “Twilight Zone The Movie” when it came out. I think it has to do with my upbringing and opinions on how children should behave. I was raised in a military home and my mother’s family were straightlaced Methodists, when that actually meant something. It was the “children should be seen and not heard” thing for sure, and I was rarely heard.
I’ve never been a fan of Billy Mumy, either. My brother and I liked to watch “Lost in Space” when we were kids, but I still never really liked Billy Mumy. The fact that this snotty little brat was ruining everyone’s lives was just too much for me to take.
But back to my favorite episode, “Back There.” I love this episode for so many reasons:
- Time travel is the central theme. I love time travel! Of course, it has no place in reality, but we aren’t talking about reality. This is fantasy, the Twilight Zone. Time to let your imagination run wild.
- It ends with a couple of twists. I love twists!
- I love history, and historical fiction is a fun way to learn about it.
- I like the actors in this episode, especially Russell Johnson, and that several went on to be in other TV shows. I’ve never been a super fan of any actor. They’re just people doing a job like everybody else, but it’s interesting to learn about the various parts they have played. I don’t care if they’ve never won an Oscar or an Emmy. If I enjoy what they do, that’s all that matters to me.
In true Twilight Zone style, the story in “Back There” is succinct and tightly written. When I think about it in my mind, I always see much more than is actually in the show. There are just a few sets. My mind fills in the missing details. It does help that we all know what actually happened on that fateful day in 1865, though.
To summarize, the story starts out at the Potomac Club, an upscale men’s club in Washington, D.C., where a group is sitting at a table playing cards and discussing time travel. Pete Corrigan (Russell Johnson) departs and on his way out, bumps into a waiter who spills coffee on him. As Pete walks outside, he feels slightly dizzy and sees everything changing around him from the modern time (1961) to what it was like in 1865. He tries to return to his home, but finds it is now a boarding house. Listening to people talking there, he realizes that President Lincoln is going to be assassinated later that night. He works feverishly to try to stop this, but fails.
As crowds are mourning the loss of President Lincoln, Pete is suddenly returned to the modern time, where at first it doesn’t seem like anything has changed. Then he sees the waiter who spilled coffee on him earlier sitting at the table with his friends, carrying on a conversation. His great-grandfather had heard Pete warning of the impending assassination of the President and tried to stop it. Even though he was unsuccessful at stopping the assassination, he became well known and eventually wealthy. His great-grandson inherited all that wealth. Stunned, Pete turns to walk away, taking out a handkerchief to wipe his forehead. Looking at it, he sees the initials “JWB,” for “John Wilkes Booth.” It’s the handkerchief he grabbed when he was trying to stop Booth from his assassination attempt.
The way this story handles time travel is interesting. Pete didn’t need a time machine or a DeLorean to travel back to April 14, 1865; it just happened all of a sudden. Why? Well, Pete Corrigan stepped into the Twilight Zone, of course! There doesn’t need to be any other reason than that. Budgetary constrictions were a major factor. Twilight Zone episodes were produced with a barebones budget. When their costs reached $65,000 per episode, CBS nearly cancelled the series. You could barely buy a DeLorean for $65,000! It definitely makes it more ethereal to just step into another time than to have to set the dials and switches of a machine.
Interestingly, Russell Johnson had previously starred in another episode of Twilight Zone, “Execution,” in season 1. This episode also dealt with time travel, although this time Johnson was a scientist who had created a time machine that accidentally brought a criminal who was being executed into the future. That time machine looked fairly low budget; basically it was a glass box with some flashing lights and dials.
The men at the club had been discussing whether history could be changed. Pete discovered that in his experience, it couldn’t. Lincoln was destined to be murdered by John Wilkes Booth and he couldn’t prevent it. No one would believe his warnings; they thought he was crazy. However, his actions did change smaller events, as demonstrated by William, the very lucky waiter.
The “Back to the Future” trilogy used the same theories to show how changes in history could influence what would happen in the future. Is that silly and just plain ridiculous? Well, sure. Time travel is all that. But it’s also fun and thought provoking.
I love the twists in this episode, first with William the waiter, then with the handkerchief.
I also like seeing actors who would go on to other TV series. Russell Johnson would go on to be the professor on “Gilligan’s Island.” It’s nice to see him in something else. Before breaking into acting, Johnson had been a fighter pilot in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
One of the men sitting at the table playing cards and theorizing on time travel, Raymond Bailey, went on to a long-running role in “The Beverly Hillbillies,” as the greedy banker, Milburn Drysdale. While this was hardly his big break, he was 57 years old at the time and he’d had a long character in TV, Broadway and film, it was fun to see him in another role besides the “Hillbillies” part. Interestingly, Bailey, born in 1904, was in the Merchant Marines in both World War I and World War II.
Bartlett Robinson, who played William, had a role in one of the most popular Twilight Zone episodes, “To Serve Man.”
John Lasell, who played John Wilkes Booth, was a busy actor in soap operas and primetime dramas, and had a long-running role in “Dark Shadows” in the mid 1960s.
I like the music in this episode, too, especially the harpsichord tremolos when something creepy has happened.
All in all, this is classic Twilight Zone for me.