The Twilight Zone can be an unforgiving place. Think of Henry Bemis clutching his broken eyeglasses in “Time Enough at Last.” Or Samuel Conrad trapped in a human zoo on Mars in “People are Alike All Over.” Or the mayhem that erupts in “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”
But it can also be a place of redemption.
Ask Al Denton (Dan Duryea) — a resident of the Old West who, we learn in “Mr. Denton on Doomsday,” has “begun his dying early.” He’s also a man destined to take a special place in Rod Serling’s pantheon of broken heroes.
A former fast gun, Denton has devolved into the town drunk. He’s so pathetic that he lets the local bully (played with relish by Martin Landau in the first of two Zone roles) regularly push him into singing “How Dry I Am” just to get a free shot of whiskey.
But all that changes one day. A travelling salesman named Henry Fate rides into town and ensures that a special gun falls into Denton’s hands. Now he can shoot straight again. The bully is humiliated. The townspeople respect him.
Being The Twilight Zone, of course, his troubles are just beginning. Now every man who considers himself a fast draw wants to challenge him.
Two things that Serling does at this point lift this tale above the ordinary.
One is to clue us in to the reason for Al’s alcoholic ways: A long time ago, he killed a fast draw who turned out to be a mere teenager, and the memory haunts him. Our sympathy is naturally aroused. He’s no mere sot. He’s a compassionate, tortured man struggling to quiet a troubled conscience.
The second thing is the resolution. (Stop here if you haven’t seen it.) A new challenger is riding into town, so Mr. Fate supplies Denton with a special tonic. Once consumed, it gives the user 10 seconds to make a perfect shot at almost any distance.
Then comes the twist. At the climactic gun battle, Denton swallows the tonic seconds before he sees his young challenger do the same. They wind up wounding one another in the shooting hand. Neither will be able to compete in a fast-draw contest again.
“You’ll never be able to fire a gun again in anger,” Denton tells the young man. “You’re blessed, son. We’ve both been blessed.”
Thus we see how “fate” works in Serling’s universe. It can, he says in his closing narration, “help a man climbing out of a pit — or another man from falling into one.”
Look for this one, you might say, under “S” for “second chances.”
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!