Sunday, January 13, 2013

Twilight Zone Sundays: "Living Doll"

We live in what's possibly the most progressive and experimental time for television ever. Thanks to the rise of cable and premium networks like HBO, TV is able to experiment with the form. However, back in 1959, there was a show already making television like no other. The Twilight Zone is possibly one of the best TV shows of all time, and it's anthology style makes it unique (Besides Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, Night Gallery, Tales from the Crypt...okay maybe not that unique) in that every episode is it's own self contained story. Over 50 years after it's premiere, the show holds up incredibly well. So because this is my blog and I do what I want to I'm declaring Sunday to be the day I watch old Twilight Zone episodes on Netflix and do mini reviews. It'll be like my blog's Sabbath.

Why are dolls so scary to us? The creepy doll is a cliche at this point, with Child's Play, Poltergeist, Trilogy of Terror, Goosebumps, and many more all employing them at one point or another. The Simpsons even parodied it with it's amazing Treehouse of Horror segment "Clown Without Pity," which was directly inspired by The Twilight Zone episode we'll be talking about today, "Living Doll". Yet what is it about the idea of killer toys that's so frightening? Is it the fact they're so close to our children? That they usually are right smack dab in the uncanny valley? In "Living Doll," writer Jerry Stohl, who's ghostwriting here for Charles Beaumont, suggests an alternative explanation. We are afraid of dolls not because of what they are, but what they represent.

Of course it's worth noting that this is one of the earliest examples of the killer doll cliche I can think of, shot all the way back in 1963, and it's far less focused on the "murder everybody with a butcher's knife" plot most of these storylines tend to go with. Like most Twilight Zones it's very much rooted in allegory. The Twilight Zone as a whole is essentially a series of fables. The infamous ironic twists are almost always meant as a way of punishing people for their hubris/greed/shortsightedness. It's preachy, but in a good way. "Living Doll" is no exception, even though it's choice of focusing on a fatherless child and her jackass of a stepfather probably is a little too 1960s. In an age where 50% of first marriages end in divorce, we as an audience don't automatically assume that if somebody isn't their child's biological father they are so resentful of them.

But that's a small aspect of the story meant to illustrate a larger point. The episode follows a bitter man named Elrich. Married to a widower (or divorcee, the show never specifies) named Annabelle, his impotency causes him to frequently lash out at her as a way of overcompensating for his emasculation. One day his stepdaughter Christine brings home a doll named Talky Tina, voiced by June Foray, the incredible voice actress behind Rocky the Flying Squirrel. When she winds up Talky Tina, the doll says;

"My name is Talky Tina, and I love you very much!"

Angry that Annabelle bought her this toy ("She doesn't need another doll!), Christine runs out of the room in tears with her mother close behind. Elrich goes over to the doll. But when he winds the toys, she says;

"My name is Talky Tina, and I don't think I like you. My name is Talky Tina, and I think I could even hate you."

The rest of the episode plays out like this, with Tina only speaking to Elrich, who insists the doll can talk and it must be some prank his wife is playing on him. This is a classic horror film archetype, the seeming maniac ("You gotta believe me! That thing is real!") who's really right about everything but nobody believes them ("Woah, slow down Johnny! Looks like somebody had a bit too much to drink!"). Rosemary's Baby is a good example of this in film, along with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If you don't like it, you better get used to it because The Twilight Zone absolutely loves doing this.

As I said, the show loves it's allegory, and Tina is really an allegory for Christine's true feelings about her father. The theme of the episode isn't about the doll, but instead a warning that you reap what you sow. Right from the start we see that this is an unhappy family. The first line has Annabelle telling Christine not to tell Elrich about the toy in case he gets mad she bought it. If that doesn't clue you in on the inner workings of the family, then the rest of the episode makes sure you understand. Every scene between the family is wrought with tension, with Annabelle and Christine just waiting for the reason Elrich will blow up this time. Elrich is impotent, and is very sensitive about it. He assumes that the doll is just another reminder of the kid he'll never be able to have. You can go even further with this and say that Christine is the same reminder. As a result he lashes out against the doll and, by proxy, Christine. But Elrich is in the Twilight Zone, and such things arn't so easy there.

If we assume that everything Tina does is the natural extension of what Christine wishes she could do, the picture becomes pretty clear. All those bad things he did, all that yelling and resentment he put on her, comes back to bite him in the ass. The ending, with him falling down the stairs and killing himself by tripping over Tina, underlines this with a big red marker, with Tina saying the final line;

"My name is Talky Tina, and you had better be nice to me!"

Next week: "Terror at 20,000 Feet", featuring hot Shatner on Gremlin action.

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