Sun 25 May 2014
“NO TIME LIKE THE PAST.” An episode of The Twilight Zone, CBS, 7 March 1963 (Season 4, Episode 10). Dana Andrews, Patricia Breslin, Malcolm Atterbury. Radio adaptation: The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, syndicated, circa 2002-2003, starring Jason Alexander.
“No Time Like The Past” is a Twilight Zone original series episode starring Dana Andrews (Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends) as Paul Driscoll, a time-traveling physicist who comes to realize that, no matter how much you may want to, you simply can’t change the past. It’s one of those Twilight Zone episodes, which, apart from the somewhat clunky-looking scientific equipment one sees in beginning, does not seem remotely dated.
Indeed, the plot of “No Time Like The Past” and its theme of fatalism seem as timely as ever. That is one reason why Jason Alexander’s (Seinfeld) portrayal of Driscoll in the radio and audio drama version works so well.
We begin with Paul Driscoll (Andrews) in conversation with his colleague, Harvey (Robert F. Simon). They’re in a laboratory. Driscoll is standing in a crude time machine that he invented. Light and shadow play prominent roles, both literally and figuratively, in this scene. A man of both academic knowledge and unbridled humanism, Driscoll has an incredibly bleak view of the twentieth-century and he’s not remotely reluctant to make his views crystal clear:
It’s Driscoll’s intention to travel backward in time so as to change the present. He chooses three destinations: Hiroshima, in order to evacuate citizens before the atomic bomb is dropped; Nazi Germany before World War II, so he can assassinate Hitler; and on board the Lusitania, to halt the American entrance into the First World War. (In the radio play, Driscoll visits the same three points in time but in reverse order.) In all three situations, he fails to complete his task. He returns, disappointed, to the present and once again meets up with Harvey in the laboratory.
Driscoll now has a new plan. Rather than trying to change the past, he opts for living in it. Specifically, he wants to go back to 1881 and live in Homeville, Indiana where he can enjoy band concerts and lemonade. He’s read a book about the Midwest in the nineteenth-century and decides he wants to live in simpler times, before world wars and atom bombs. His naivety is galling.
When Driscoll gets to Homeville, he soon realizes that the past may not be all that great either. He ends up living in a boarding house with an armchair warrior who advocates for American imperialism in East Asia and, within a couple of days, President James Garfield is shot. Complicating matters is the fact that he begins to have romantic feelings for a schoolteacher, Abigail Sloan (Patricia Breslin) but soon realizes that he can’t do anything about it, lest he change the course of History.
Things get even worse for Driscoll when he realizes that some of Sloan’s schoolchildren are going to die in a fire. He read about it in the history book he carries with him. A man divided against himself, he can’t decide if he should intervene. In a sadly ironic twist of fate, Driscoll inadvertently ends up causing the very historical event he intended to stop. One of the perils of time travel, no doubt. Driscoll finally accepts that the past, as Harvey told him all along, is indeed inviolate.
Dana Andrews, best known for his film work in the 1940s, skillfully conveys the conflicted emotions the hopelessly tormented Driscoll. He convincingly portrays a man who is angry and sentimental, fearful and hopeful. In the slightly modified radio show version, Jason Alexander successfully pulls off the quite difficult feat of bringing this episode to life without the benefit of visuals. Alexander’s voice acting never once reminds you of his portrayal of George Costanza on Seinfeld.
In conclusion, “No Time Like The Past” is a classic Twilight Zone episode that stands up to the test of time. The themes of nostalgia, sentimentalism, and wishing one could change the past so as to change the present remain poignant today.
While some contemporary listeners might be less familiar with the Lusitania than with the Second World War, the points in time that Driscoll visits remain alive in the American public consciousness. One could imagine a future reworking of the script to include references to the Vietnam War and to 9/11, but that might have to wait another couple of decades. It’s an episode both worth watching and listening to.
NOTE: The TV episode can be watched in its entirety on IMDb here.