Original Air Date: January 13, 1961
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: David Orrick McDearmon
“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 who ever heard of a man going back in time? Before tonight, that is, because this is—The Twilight Zone.”
The date is April 14, 1961 as we enter the prestigious Potomac Club, a hazy, smoke-filled gentleman’s club in Washington DC. Four men sit around a card table discussing whether or not the ability to travel into the past would grant the opportunity to change the future. One man, Pete Corrigan (played by Russell Johnson), says changing the past is impossible.
When he leaves the club he experiences a significant dizzy spell. Suddenly, he is transported back in time. All the lights on the street were once incandescent light bulbs, but now they are candle lit. He walks home to his boarding house and knocks on the door. A strange woman answers and offers Corrigan a room because he is a former soldier. She asks if he fought for the union or the rebels. He is confused until he discovers that the year in April 14, 1865 and people are headed to Ford’s Theater to see the play “Our American Cousin.”
Corrigan rushes over to Ford’s Theater to stop the assassination of President Lincoln but he is picked up by the police. They enter a line of questioning about his foreknowledge of the President’s death until he is rescued by a strange man in a cape who takes an assumed name (“John Wellington”). The man takes Corrigan back to his home and asks him how he came to know the President would be murdered. Corrigan tries to explain but he is drugged just as he realizes the man is actually John Wilkes Booth. Booth flees and when Corrigan comes to from his drug inducement, another man from the police department tells Corrigan he believes his story and is trying to raise awareness of the need to protect the President but no one is listening to him. Shortly thereafter Corrigan hears the news that President Lincoln has been shot -Corrigan was too late. He experiences a breakdown and another dizzy spell while banging on the wall only to realize he is now banging on the door of the Potomac Club back in his own time (1961).
An unfamiliar butler answers the door. Corrigan enters to find his old friends seated around the card table, but this time there is a fourth man, William, who was the original butler at the Potomac Club prior to Corrigan traveling back in time. William explains that his grandfather was once Washington DC policeman who tried to warn everyone that President Lincoln was about to be shot but no one listened. Afterward he was appointed to the Chief of Police and able to build a vast fortune by invested smartly in real estate. William has now inherited his grandfather’s fortune. Meanwhile Corrigan digs into his pocket to find a handkerchief with the emblem of John Wilkes Booth (“JWB”) embroidered into it. Mr. Corrigan realizes that he has, in fact, altered the past.
“Mr. Peter Corrigan, lately returned from a place ‘back there’, a journey into time with highly questionable results, proving on one hand that the threads 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.”
For a mere half hour installment, this was a sufficiently complex episode. Remarkably, “Back There” answers its own question –the past can indeed be altered.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- This was Russell Johnson’s second appearance on The Twilight Zone after the first season’s “Execution.” Both episodes deal with themes of time travel.
- Pieces of Jerry Goldsmith’s atmospheric score appear in later episodes including “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet.”
Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.