Monday, July 3, 2017

"The Little People"

Joe Maross as self-made god Peter Craig
“The Little People”
Season Three, Episode 93
Original Air Date: March 30, 1962

Cast:
Navigator Peter Craig: Joe Maross
Commander William Fletcher: Claude Akins
Spaceman 1: Michael Ford
Spaceman 2: Robert Eaton

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: William Claxton
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis & Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Editor: Jason H. Bernie, A.C.E.
Sound: Franklin Milton & Bill Edmondson
Music: stock
Optical Effects: Pacific Title
Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes
Filmed at M.G.M. Studios

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week we take a trip through a galaxy to a few million lightyears away from your collective television screens. We’ll land on an uncharted asteroid and then undergo an experience designed for goosebumps and palpitations. Because on The Twilight Zone next time out you’ll see that monsters come in all assorted sizes and shapes. I hope we’ve whetted your appetite and, if so, we’ll see you next week. Our show is called ‘The Little People.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“The time is the Space Age. The place is a barren landscape of a rock-walled canyon that lies millions of miles from the planet Earth. The cast of characters? You’ve met them. William Fletcher, commander of the spaceship; his co-pilot, Peter Craig. The other characters who inhabit this place you may never see, but they’re there, as these two gentlemen will soon find out. Because they’re about to partake in a little exploration into that grey, shaded area in space and time that’s known as The Twilight Zone.” 

Summary:

            Commander William Fletcher and Navigator Peter Craig make an emergency landing on an uncharted asteroid after their spacecraft sustains damage in a meteor storm. Craig, a sullen and sulky man, refuses to help Fletcher with repairs to the ship, choosing instead to spend his time exploring the nearby landscape.
            When Fletcher discovers that Craig has been withholding knowledge of a water source, he demands that Craig lead him to the resource. There, Fletcher discovers that Craig has stumbled upon a civilization of intelligent lifeforms no larger than the ants of Earth. Fletcher’s fascination turns to horror when he realizes that Craig has gone mad with the power he wields over the tiny lifeforms. Craig destroys their small cities at will and fashions himself a god.
            Fletcher finishes with repairs to the ship but Craig does not want to leave the asteroid and give up his new-found power. Pulling a weapon, he demands that Fletcher leave him to rule his tiny kingdom. After a final attempt at reason, Fletcher departs.
Soon after, another spaceship makes an emergency landing on the asteroid. The inhabitants of this craft tower over the landscape. Craig, fearful of losing his power over the little people, screams at the giants to go away. Hearing a small voice, one of the giants reaches down and grabs Craig, accidentally crushing him to death in the process.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“The case of navigator Peter Craig, a victim of a delusion. In this case, the dream dies a little harder than the man. A small exercise in space psychology that you can try on for size in The Twilight Zone.” 

Commentary:

“You’re no god, Craig. That’s not what you are at all. The only trouble is, by now you’ve probably gotten them to believe in the Devil.”

I.

            Despite the fact that “The Little People” is not one of the stronger offerings from the series, the episode manages to provide a neat bridge between elements of the space exploration episodes and Rod Serling’s socially conscious character dramas, reminding us again that humankind is little prepared to face the challenges of interior conflict and outward diversity offered not only in the potential of deep space exploration but here on our own planet as well. The general fault with “The Little People” is that it is far too compressed for the time needed to satisfactorily explore the concept. When given the due amount of time, Serling created his masterwork along the same thematic grounds with the hour-long fourth season episode, “On Thursday We Leave for Home.”

Although The Twilight Zone preferred to explore tales of terrestrial fantasy, and was arguably at its best in this mode, the series occasionally dramatized tales of intergalactic travel. Of the episodes in which intergalactic travel was utilized, the story in question typically concerned a small group of astronauts who land on an unknown planet only to discover too late some initially unperceived danger. Notable examples include Charles Beaumont’s “Elegy,” Richard Matheson’s “Death Ship,” and a couple of Rod Serling’s adaptations, “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air” and “People Are Alike All Over.” Other related episodes, such as Richard Matheson’s “Third from the Sun” (by way of a Rod Serling adaptation) and “The Invaders,” and Earl Hamner’s “Stopover in a Quiet Town” (the latter of which neatly lifted the ending of “The Little People”), appear at first to be terrestrial fantasies only to be revealed as something else in a twist ending.   

            The common inspiration for this type of story on The Twilight Zone was the style of character-based space fantasy popularized by Ray Bradbury, and in particular Bradbury’s 1950 collection of interconnected stories, The Martian Chronicles. In fact, one could view certain episodes of the series as reimagining particular Bradbury stories. Charles Beaumont’s “Elegy” is clearly inspired by Bradbury’s 1948 story “Mars is Heaven,” which was included in The Martian Chronicles as “The Third Expedition.” Rod Serling acknowledged his debt to Bradbury in personal correspondence when he wrote the pilot episode “Where is Everybody?” due to that episode’s likeness to Bradbury’s 1949 story “The Silent Towns.”

            If “The Little People” is one part Bradburyesque space fantasy, it is equally met with distinctive Rod Serling characterizations and moral messaging, aligning the episode with such Serling-penned episodes such as “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” “The Shelter,” “One More Pallbearer,” and “Four O’Clock,” the latter of which was adapted from the story by Price Day. In these episodes, Serling utilizes recognizable aspects of fantasy or mystery fiction to say something more about the human condition and explore the heights and depths to which humankind may rise or fall when faced with an extraordinary situation. Again, Serling fully mastered this blending of conceptual influences in his fourth season episode, “On Thursday We Leave for Home.” 

            An additional possible influence upon Serling’s construction of “The Little People” is Sidney Carroll’s short story, “None Before Me,” the title of which would have served the episode better than its rather plain heading. “None Before Me” was first published in the July, 1949 issue of Cosmopolitan but if Serling encountered the tale it was likely in the 1952 volume Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow, a frequently reprinted collection of fantasy tales selected and introduced by Ray Bradbury for Bantam Books. That book was one of two Bradbury compiled for Bantam in the 1950’s, the other being The Circus of Dr. Lao and Other Improbable Stories in 1956. A short aside, The Circus of Dr. Lao was a 1935 novel by Charles G. Finney. It was later adapted into a film by producer/director George Pal in 1964 as The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. Twilight Zone veterans Charles Beaumont and William Tuttle provided the script and makeup effects, respectively. Tuttle won the first ever Academy Award given for achievement in makeup for his contributions to the film.

            “None Before Me” concerns Mr. Gresham, a miser with the taste of a connoisseur. He takes pleasure in having only the finest things but he is covetous to the point of ruination. Gresham is contacted by one of the dealers he associates with and is enticed to purchase an exquisite doll’s house. What so captivates Gresham about the house are the miniature figures of life-like people that reside within. Gresham becomes enamored with forcing the small figures to do his bidding and his obsessive nature soon blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Selected quotations from the story illustrate the story’s thematic relationship with “The Little People”:

            “Here it was – a real home, and family, and children to do his bidding.”
            “Gresham began to figure that he was God.”
            “The change from benevolent to vindictive god grew with his growing realization of the absolute power he possessed.”

            The ending to the story is starkly similar to the episode. Gresham grows enraged at the occupants of his doll’s house and destroys the home. Soon after, while looking out the window of his study, he sees “from the immense void, covering half the shoulder of the sky, the back of an enormous Hand was coming down at him – swiftly, powerfully, vengefully.”

            Whether or not Serling was inspired by “None Before Me” when composing “The Little People” is of little consequence to the interesting correlation between the stories. You can go here  to listen to an excellent reading of “None Before Me” by Michael Hanson from the Mindwebs radio series. It is episode number 54 on the list.

II. 

            Fantasy fiction has been filled with tales of travelers happening upon strange unknown vistas of existence since its earliest days. Within the episode there is mention of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels, which likely contains the most well-known example of “little people” in literature during the episode in which Gulliver is shipwrecked on the isle of Lilliput, where he is imprisoned by the diminutive natives, the less than six-inch tall Lilliputians. Gulliver also meets a race of giants on his fantastic journey. Traditional folk tales are filled with tales of diminutive peoples, the most common of which are tales concerned with faery, a land often portrayed as undiscovered country with magical properties and populated by mischievous or outright malevolent races of small peoples.

Tales of fairyland have since been largely sanitized in terms of the nature of the inhabitants of the realm but, concerning early fantasy fiction, the myths of the little people were frequently used to evoke awe and fear of illimitable nature and of passages beyond the veil of reality. Notable examples of such fiction include “The Child That Went With the Fairies” (1870) by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, the works of Arthur Machen, particularly “The Red Hand” (1895), “The Shining Pyramid” (1895), and “Novel of the Black Seal” (1895), and a story by E.F. Benson, author of the story which inspired the second season Twilight Zone episode “Twenty-Two,” who approached the subject of the little people with “Between the Lights” (1912). Benson was an author who, like Charles Beaumont, frequently utilized dreams and dream imagery to accomplish his effects and his supernatural fiction will appeal to fans of the series. In many such stories, a diminutive race of Neolithic, malevolent humanoids are purported to still exist in secluded, forgotten places, ready to attack the unwary traveler who strays beyond the edges of civilization.

The theme continued to be explored with the rise and proliferation of horror, fantasy, and science fiction pulp magazines in America (see Theodore Sturgeon's "Cargo," from Unknown, November, 1940, Robert E. Howard's "The Little People," a posthumously published story inspired by Machen's "The Shining Pyramid," and the illustration on the sidebar as representative of the theme in fantasy, horror, and science fiction as it evolved during this period). Of course, we continue to see tales of fairyland in literature, films, and television of today, yet only occasionally offered in the same tone of awe and terror of the classic treatment.

An amusing and informative volume on the subject of the little people in myth and folklore is A Field Guide to the Little People by Nancy Arrowsmith with George Moorse (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977). 

III.

“The Little People” is interesting in terms of the technical aspects of production. Once again, the production team utilized costumes and props from the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, with some slight alterations. Though the spacecraft was a mock-up and the desert landscape of the asteroid was filmed on the MGM backlot (apparent in the clearly compressed space of the setting), stock footage was used in a couple of instances. The first is the footage of the spacecraft departing the asteroid, a clear use of a lower grade stock film footage. The second is the sequence in which the giants arrive on the asteroid and interact with the setting. Footage from an earlier episode, “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air,” was reused and combined with a matte painted background to achieve the effect. Producer Buck Houghton recalled the footage having been taken from “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air,” a first season episode filmed on location in Death Valley, in eastern California. The use of on-location filming was infrequent but memorable on the series, and also included such episodes as “King Nine Will Not Return,” “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” and “The Rip Van Winkle Caper.”

            The adaptation of “The Little People” for The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas relieved some of the time compression that plagued the original episode in that the radio drama utilized a forty-five minute format. In order to increase direct character interaction, the spaceship’s computer software is given human characteristics with a flirty, Marilyn Monroe-esque voice and attitude. It is a unique and interesting addition to the original story, which is otherwise faithfully adapted to the radio drama medium.
           
Receiving top billing is prolific character actor Joe Maross (1923-2009) as co-pilot Peter Craig. Maross was last seen in a supporting role in the first season episode “Third From the Sun.” Maross’s performance is perhaps the one element which makes the problem of time compression clearly evident. Instead of the carefully modulated character development seen in the best Serling-scripted episodes, Craig’s megalomania is apparent from the moment he first speaks a line, pushing him toward the type of one-dimensional villain which appeared in Serling’s writing from time to time (think of Bartlett Finchley from “A Think About Machines” or Fred Renard from “What You Need”). It feels like a rushed performance and comes across as over-the-top, though Maross manages to achieve the desire effect well enough. Maross was born in Pennsylvania and learned the dramatic craft at Yale University. He was on Broadway by 1950 and moved into the burgeoning television medium soon after, amassing over one hundred television credits. The versatile Maross appeared on numerous dramatic anthology series in the early days of the medium. His genre credits include appearances on The Web, Danger, Inner Sanctum, Thriller (in an adaptation of Fredric Brown’s Knock Three-One-Two), Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits (in Jerry Sohl’s “The Invisible Enemy”), The Time Tunnel, and The Invaders. Maross made infrequent appearances in film and is most well-known for supporting roles in Run Silent, Run Deep and Elmer Gantry. His last credit was for an episode of Murder, She Wrote in 1986.
          
  Claude Akins (1926-1994) returns to The Twilight Zone, portraying nearly the exact same character he brought to life for the first season episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” In both instances, Akins is perfectly believable as the reassuringly sensible character, a thinly veiled stand-in for writer Rod Serling. He excelled in this type of role as the voice of reason and good sense, despite the fact that Akins was frequently cast as villains or untrustworthy characters in his numerous roles in western film and television. Akins was also a versatile character actor whose commanding presence was a staple of television for forty years, from the early 1950’s to the early 1990’s. Although Akins made his name primarily through appearances on western and comedy programs, his genre credits include appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Climax!, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Kraft Suspense Theatre.

            “The Little People” is a breezy, well produced bit of space fantasy despite its inability to overcome shortcomings in originality and pacing. The production value under Buck Houghton was generally so high that even the average episodes look great and have nice performances. In some instances, the lack of scientific accuracy in the episode has been pointed out but it should be perfectly clear at this point in the series that The Twilight Zone had little interest in scientific extrapolation and used the recognizable aspects of the science fiction genre to frame realistic human drama. In this respect, “The Little People” works fine as a diverting half-hour of suspenseful drama.

Grade: C

Grateful acknowledgment:
-“None Before Me” by Sidney Carroll, from Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow, edited by Ray Bradbury (Bantam Books, 1952).
-Marc Scott Zicree interview of Buck Houghton, from the Definitive DVD edition of The Twilight Zone, season three.
-The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR, 2008).
-The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (isfdb.org).
-The Internet Movie Database (imdb.com).

Notes:
-Joe Maross also appears in the first season episode “Third from the Sun.”
-Claude Akins also appears in the first season episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”
-William Claxton directed three additional episodes of the series, “The Last Flight,” “The Jungle,” and “I Sing the Body Electric” (with James Sheldon). 
-“The Little People” was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Daniel J. Travanti.

-JP

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for such a thorough discussion of this episode. It's one of those that I barely remember.

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    1. Yeah, it's not an episode that adheres to one's memory, mostly because it's a fairly derivative story which was done better in other episodes. Claude Akins is always good, though.

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  2. Whenever asked what my all time favorite TV show is, after 50+ years of watching TV, "The Twilight Zone" is my automatic response.aYes, I'm aware that during it's run there were plenty of dogs and weak episodes but when the show was great, there's nothing better. But beside grading the show on good or bad, as I get older I've discovered another way of grading TZ and this episode clearly falls in this way of rating. The multi layered, deeper stories often slipped pass us when we were kids watching TZ, but episodes like "The Little People" have that obvious, fantastic lo and story that fascinate us as a kid. I'm sure if asked what our favorite TZ episode was when we were 5, 6 years old, it would be "cool" ones like this, or "Stopover In A Quiet Town", while "deeper" ones like "Maple Street" or "The Obsolete Man" would finish on our fav list as we got older. It's this layered aspect of TZ that makes it my favorite show of all time. (well, that & the B&W. Loves me some B&W!)

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  3. Very well said and I agree with you. Though we try and grade the episodes on an objective basis, viewing the series is of course a subjective experience and different episodes affect different viewers in different ways. My personal list of favorite episodes varies almost from day to day. Like you say about the layered aspect, the show was always trying to say something more than its surface story and has endured because of it. Thanks for reading and for the excellent input.

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