Original Air Date: March 9, 1962
Writer: Charles Beaumont
Director: Richard L. Bare
“It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things. Science fiction: the improbable made possible. Fantasy: the impossible made probable. What would you have if you put these two different things together? Well, you’d have an old man named Ben who knows a lot of tricks most people don’t know, and a little girl named Jenny who loves him, and a journey into the heart of the Twilight Zone.”
A kindly old neighborhood man named “Old Ben” (James Patrick O’Malley) plays with a group of children in the park. First they play baseball and then a game of martians versus spacemen. Old Ben plays the role of the martian, in fact he can transform into a martian remarkably quickly, but it is all a whimsical game for children. Among the children Old Ben cares for a poor, ostracized tomboy named Jenny (Susan Gordon) who wears a knee brace. Her stern, alcoholic, and unforgiving mother, Mrs. Gann (Nancy Kulp of The Beverly Hillbillies fame), is harsh and cruel to Jenny.
Later that day, a pair of who seem to be government agents knock on the door of their tenant home where Jenny, Mrs. Gann, and Old Ben all live. The men are looking for Old Ben and they ask if Mrs. Gann has witnessed Ben performing any strange “magic,” while Jenny rushes upstairs to warn Old Ben. By the time the agents arrive in Old Ben’s room, Jenny is found holding a small mouse and she claims she hasn’t seen Old Ben. She goes back to her room where Old Ben then transforms from the mouse back into his human form. He explains that he actually hails from another planet and that he must go now. He heals Jenny’s leg with a strange device and then escapes out the window just as the agents chase after Jenny and mortally wound her. As Jenny lays dying, Old Ben returns to her bedside in the form of a bee and then heals her again with his alien device, but suddenly the two men appear in the room and greet Old Ben as “your majesty.” Old Ben sighs and explains that he is, in fact, royalty on a far away planet –these two men are merely his subjects tasked with bringing him back to rule as king. In the past, he had grown tired of all the pomp and circumstance of kingship and thus he fled to earth.
Neither Jenny nor Old Ben wish to part ways, even though it is forbidden to bring humans back to their world, however Old Ben requests a private moment with Jenny which the two men reluctantly grant. When the two men return, they find identical Jennys standing beside one another. Unable to tell the two apart, they are forced to bring both girls back to their far away planet. At the end, Rod Serling appears inside the room and holds up a photograph of Old Ben’s true image –that of a young and handsome man.
“Mrs. Gann will be in for a big surprise when she finds this [photo of young man] under Jenny’s pillow because Mrs. Gann has more temper than imagination. She’ll never dream that this is a picture of Old Ben as he really looks and it will never occur to her that eventually her niece will grow up to be an honest-to-goodness queen somewhere in the Twilight Zone.”
This is a fun, charming episode filled with child-like innocence and wonder while also exploring some heavy territory (namely the dark abyss of domestic child abuse). It showcases another side of science fiction, almost as if restructuring a science fiction story in the form of a fairy tale complete with a neglected princess and a reluctant king who wants to do the right thing. Even though this episode is not one of the brighter spots in The Twilight Zone series, I write this with the full acknowledgement that there is no such thing as a truly bad episode of The Twilight Zone, just some that are better than others.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- Jenny’s bedroom in this episode features posters of 1930s Chicago White Sox baseball players, one of whom was Monty Stratton who accidentally shot himself while hunting causing his leg to be amputated. However, despite the use of a prosthetic leg, he worked his way back into major league baseball. A biopic about his story starring Jimmy Stewart was released in 1949.
- This was an early example in television to portray a more honest representation of the horrors of child abuse. Writer Charles Beaumont was sympathetic to abused children, likely because he was once himself abused by his mentally unstable mother.
- Actor J. Patrick O’Malley, not to be confused with Pat O’Malley who also appeared in small roles in early Twilight Zone episodes, appeared in a total four episodes of The Twilight Zone: “The Chaser,” “The Self-Improvement of Salvador Ross,” “Mr. Garrity and the Grave” and “The Fugitive.” He appeared in a variety of children’s movies and even lent his voice to Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride. He continued to appear in Hitchcock and Serling television productions, as well.
- During the filming of this episode child actress Susan Gordon collapsed due to heat exhaustion and barely lasted until the conclusion of filming. Despite having a successful few years as a child actor, appearing in numerous television programs including Hitchcock Presents, Gordon abandoned acting as an adult.
- One of the other children is played by Stephen Talbot, a child actor who appeared in a couple episodes of The Twilight Zone as well as shows like Leave It To Beaver before decades later becoming a prominent PBS Frontline documentarian.