Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Cult-TV Flashback: Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected: "No Way Out" (August 24, 1977)
The cult-television Valhalla is populated by programs beloved and despised, old and new, popular and obscure. One of the most obscure series -- and one of the most highly-sought for an official DVD release -- is the 1977 program Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected.
This horror anthology series ran for just eight episodes from February to August of 1977, and featured William Conrad as the host, in voice-over form only. The basic premise of the series is that there are twists and turns in our lives, and we often can’t see them coming or prepare for them. Many episodes feature surprise endings, or ones with unusual “twists.”
Perhaps the most memorable episode of the eight segments is the final one aired, “No Way Out,” written by James Schmerer and directed by Walter Grauman.
It aired on August 24, 1977, and is set in 1952. It stars Bill Bixby as a Navy man, John Kelty who is too busy with his career and his hobby -- sailing -- to give much love or attention to his young son. On the eve of a sea trip with his friend, Richard (Dean Stockwell), John’s wife tries to shine a light on the problem. “I think that boat’s your real love,” she tells him. She isn’t really joking, either.
So John and Richard set off on a weekend boat trip, and promptly disappear into the Bermuda Triangle. When John emerges from a terrifying storm as the sole survivor, however, he discovers that it is the year 1977.
He has missed the last twenty-five years with his wife and son. Time has passed him by.
At first, John refuses to accept the fact that he has somehow become lost in time, but when he sees a 1977 calendar hanging on a hospital wall, he realizes the truth. John attempts to track down his wife, only to learn that she has moved on. She remarried some years earlier, and now seems quite happy, and cherished.
And then -- in an emotionally-wrenching scene – John discovers his son is now grown-up, and a successful cardiologist.
Worse, John’s son is making precisely the same mistakes in his family life that his father did. He is not spending enough time with his son and wife, and is focusing entirely on his business. So -- pretending to be an “old” friend of his father’s -- John tells his adult son: “The circle completes itself, doesn’t it?” He urges his boy to spend time with his children. That it is that time, and that relationship that matters.
Finally, John decides to go back to sea, to attempt to find the portal back to his life in 1952. If only he can get there, he swears that things will be different this time. He won’t neglect his family…
The episode’s final, shocking moment reveals, alas, that no matter how hard you try…you simply can’t go home again.
To use a rough analogy, “No Way Out” is sort of the Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected’s version of The Twilight Zone’s stand-out episode, Walking Distance.” In that story, as you may recall, a man, played by Gig Young returned to his home town and found he had traveled back in time to his own childhood. But, as he learned the hard way, every customer -- every child – gets only one summer. You can’t run away to the past. You can only make the present better.
Of course, “No Way Out” concerns not going back, not returning to a cherished time long gone, but rather traveling forward, and the realization that if you are not present in your life – moment to moment – it will pass you by in a flash.
The episode is a good reminder, as well -- to busy Dads, especially -- that there is nothing more important than spending time with their children while they are young. John Kelty is occupied by his own wants and needs to the exclusions of his son’s interests. And yet his son grows up to be a mirror image, making the same mistakes.
The finale of “No Way Out” is unexpectedly dark and grim, and a direct refutation of John’s mantra that “if there is a way in, there must be a way out.” His failure to pinpoint that way out is, again, an explicit reminder to audiences that you literally can’t make up for lost time. Time moves in only one direction: forward. So again, don’t squander the present.
“No Way Out” is by turns intense and tragic. Kelty is desperate to return home, desperate to get back that which he once failed to value, and his story is a very human one. We all make mistakes, but “No Way Out” is terrifying because Kelty makes a mistake his life can’t recover from, and which impacts his family.
For fans of seventies sci-fi franchises, this story not only provides a unique variation on Twilight Zone-style storytelling but features a famous toy of the era. At about the twenty-one minute point, Kelty goes to a toy store in a Califonia mall, and there, displayed (upside down) is a Mattel Eagle One toy from Space:1999 (1975 – 1977).
I’ve covered Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected before on the blog (way back in 2008, I think), and in my book, Terror Television (2001). The series certainly had its share of stinkers (like “A Hand for Sonny Blue” and the two-parter, “Force of Evil,”) but yet it also boasted some remarkably effective shows, like “The Nomads” and this, its most emotionally-charged entry, “No Way Out.”
I’d love to see this series available on DVD. It’s a piece of genre history that is too often forgotten, and I think modern audiences would still enjoy “No Way Out,” in particular.
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