Original Air Date: March 7, 1963
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Justus Addiss
“We live in a cesspool, a septic tank, a gigantic sewage complex in which runs the dregs, the filth, the misery-laden slop of the race of men: his hatred, prejudices, passions, and violence. And the keeper of this sewer: man. He is a scientifically advanced monkey who walks upright, with eyes wide open into an abyss of his own making. His bombs, fallout, poisons, radioactivity everything he designs as an art for dying is his excuse for living. We live in an exquisite bedlam an insanity. Maybe all the more grotesque by the fact that we don’t recognize it as insanity.”
Paul Driscoll (Dana Andrews) is a physicist who has grown disillusioned with 20th century life. After the detonation of an atom bomb, he no longer wishes to continue living in the present-day with the survival of the human species in question. He hopes to travel backwards in time using a new time machine he created with his assistant Harvey (Robert F. Simon) to rectify the wrongs that have led to the present state of affairs.
“Exit one Paul Driscoll, a creature of the twentieth century. He puts to a test a complicated theorem of space-time continuum, but he goes a step further, or tries to. Shortly, he will seek out three moments of the past in a desperate attempt to alter the present, one of the odd and fanciful functions in a shadowland known as the Twilight Zone.”
First, Mr. Driscoll travels back to Hiroshima in August 1945 in order to warn the Japanese of an impending nuclear attack. However, they merely laugh and lock him up. Acknowledging his failure, Mr. Driscoll travels to Berlin in August 1939 where he plans to assassinate Hitler –but here again he fails. Lastly, he travels back to 1915 in an effort to prevent the torpedoing of the Lusitania, but alas this too fails.
When Paul returns to the present-day, he believes it is not possible to alter the past. Yet he still longs to escape the age of advanced nuclear weaponry. He decides his best hope is to escape to a fabled idyllic time period which he imagines to be a place of pure bliss and simplicity –using a picture on a postcard as his guide he decides to travel back to Homeville, Indiana in 1881 (Homeville is likely a nod to Homeville from Rod Serling’s earlier Twilight Zone classic “Walking Distance”).
Once he arrives in 1881, Paul seems odd and out of place. For example, he knows intimate details about the forthcoming assassination of President Garfield. Much to his chagrin he begins to witness the same hate and violence in Homeville as in the 20th century. Paul gets into a heated debate regarding war and nationalism –he accuses a local man of being a mere “armchair warrior.” He also strikes up a brief romance with a young schoolteacher named Abigail “Abby” Sloan (Patricia Breslin), and when he remembers a great fire that is set to strike her schoolhouse, Paul tries to prevent the fire but in doing so he winds up causing the fire anyway. Devastated, Paul tells Abby that he can no longer stay in Homeville because he knows about too many tomorrows and this knowledge of tomorrow is harmful to his peace of mind. In a touching goodbye Paul says the following (ellipses are my own):
“I shouldn’t have come here, I know that now. It won’t work. I know that, too. It can’t work because I know too many things. I know… I know about too many tomorrows… You, this town, and the people in it –everything about it, your history and I can’t change you. I can’t even touch you… Because the past is inviolate, the past is sacred. It belongs to those of you who live in it. It’s not for interlopers, for people who are just passing by, looking in and wish they were a part of it… I am going back, back to where I came from. Back where I belong. I couldn’t live in a world menaced by a bomb, and I find out now that it doesn’t make any difference if it’s a world or twelve children burned in a fire. Even so, I’ve found more than I expected because you were here. I’ve overstayed my welcome. Goodbye, Abby. Stay well.”
In a sorrowful moment of departure, Paul returns to the present-day determined to help improve the future. “That’s what I’ve learned, Harvey,” Paul says. “Leave the yesterdays alone. Do something about the tomorrows.”
“Incident on a July afternoon, 1881. A man named Driscoll who came and went and, in the process, learned a simple lesson, perhaps best said by a poet named Lathbury, who wrote, ‘Children of yesterday, heirs of tomorrow, what are you weaving? Labor and sorrow? Look to your looms again, faster and faster fly the great shuttles prepared by the master. Life’s in the loom, room for it. Room.’ Tonight’s tale of clocks and calendars in the Twilight Zone.”
As a devotee of Rod Serling’s sentimental nostalgia scripts, I thought this was a wonderful episode in the series. While not as powerful as “Walking Distance” or “A Stop At Willoughby” the message of “No Time Like The Past” nevertheless remains potent. Even though the desire to return to an imagined time of idyllic simplicity is easy and alluring, instead of turning to escapist thoughts of yesterday, our energy would be better spent looking forward to tomorrow, since tomorrow is all we truly have.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- The title for this episode is a play on the common expression: “no time like the present.”
- The theme of time travel and nostalgia recurs frequently in Rod Serling’s scripts, not least of which in “Walking Distance,” “A Stop at Willoughby” and “Back There,” though a few months after this episode’s release Rod Serling mentioned in an interview that The Twilight Zone had now worn out its time travel schtick.
- The rifle that Mr. Driscoll leaves behind in 1939 to assassinate Hitler is the TERA Type 2, a Japanese paratrooper rifle actually not launched until 1942.
- The small town set is the same one used in “A Stop At Willoughby.”
- Dana Andrews’ brother also plays the lead in the subsequent Twilight Zone episode in the series “The Parallel.”
- A fact about the real Abigail Sloan: her father and two brothers were killed on the same day in the Civil War.
- There is no producer credit inn the opening of this episode. At the time, the series was undergoing a soft transition from producer Herbert Hirschman to producer Bert Granet, the third producer in the series. Granet would see the series through the remainder of the fourth season and into the fifth, before The Twilight Zone found its final producer on the series, William Froug.
- The poet quoted by Rod Serling in his closing narration is the American poet Mary Artemisia Lathbury (1841-1913). Serling quotes the first stanza of Lathbury’s poem “A Song of Hope.”