Night Gallery’s “Class of ’99”: Serling’s Chilling Examination of Prejudice
You don’t have to be the world’s greatest writer to pen an effective script about the evils of prejudice. But to do it in a witty, inventive way? To create a story that really makes you think, that stays with you long after it’s over?
Leave that to Rod Serling. Exhibit A: Night Gallery’s “Class of ‘99”. It’s a shame this story isn’t better known, because it’s one of his best works. And I don’t say that lightly.
If you haven’t seen it before, I’d fix that ASAP. It’s not long — only about 18 minutes. If you have the Season 2 DVDs, it’s the third segment of the second episode. Or you can click this link and watch it on NBC.com (with a couple of ad breaks, but at least it’s uncut). Spoilers ahead, as always.
The story begins simply enough. We see college students filing into a classroom — a rather Spartan, amphitheater-type setting, rather than the usual desks — to take their final exam. The professor (Vincent Price, in the first of two Night Gallery roles) cordially wishes them good luck as they field oral questions from him.
The first few deal with the physical sciences. The students are right on top of it, supplying names and formulas with no hesitation. Then a student named Johnson is asked to name four leading experts in the last 300 years in the field of propulsion. He falters, though, on the fourth name. The professor is clearly unimpressed, but before he can ask another student for the answer, Johnson objects.
“Part of my answer was correct.”
“I’m sorry, what was your point?”
“I said part of my answer was correct. I gave you three names.”
“And I asked for four!”
“I gave you three out of four!”
“Yes, indeed you did, Mr. Johnson. And in giving me three out of four, you proved yourself incompetent. You are proving now by your behavior you are even less responsive to authority than you are to the scholastic criteria established for graduation! Now, will you sit down, Mr. Johnson, or shall I …”
“No, no — please, sir. I’ll do as I’m told, sir.” His defiance suddenly replaced by fear, he sits.
His classmates are listening to all of this, of course, but they remain utterly impassive throughout. The reason Johnson folds so quickly at the end is left unspoken. We can only assume the disciplinary measures at this school are unpleasant, to say the least.
But as the professor moves on to the behavioral sciences — “the most important facet of the university curriculum”, he tells the students — things go from strange to bizarre.
He asks a white, blond-haired male student named Clinton to imagine he’s competing for a job with a black male student named Barnes. Describe Barnes, he says. Clinton guesses at Barnes’s height, weight, and age. “Look again,” the professor says. “Is there any other salient feature that you might consider relevant?”
“And being black may pose a special problem?” Clinton nods. “What sort of a special problem?”
“Well, he might be pushy. Aggressive.”
“He might be inferior. Being black, he might possibly be inferior.”
None of the other students, Barnes included, reacts in any way to this. They might as well be discussing the weather. The professor replies:
“So we have Mr. Barnes here as an irritant, a possible block to your ambitions. An inferior man who is trying to usurp your superiority. What would you do to a man like that, Mr. Clinton?”
“On the primary emotional level …”
“That’s all I want from you now.”
“I’d slap him.”
“Quite correct. Do so, if you will.”
He walks over to Barnes, who dutifully stands and gets slapped. The professor then asks Barnes to describe Clinton. He estimates Clinton’s height, weight and age. The professor asks for his complexion. “White,” Barnes says, giving it a slightly sneering spin, as if it’s more a curse than a color. The professor then requests his emotional impression of Clinton.
“Bigoted. Aggressive. Pre-set prejudices. Illogical attitudes.” His desired response? “Slap him back.”
“Do so, if you will, Mr. Barnes.” Whap!
He then asks each one to describe his reaction to what they’ve just done. Each in turn gives the same one-word answer: “Satisfaction.”
“You may be seated, gentlemen.”
Yet Serling isn’t done. And his target isn’t only racial prejudice. The professor next calls on Miss Peterson, a plain-looking woman in unstylish clothes who is asked to survey the room and “pick a subject to whom you instinctively respond in a primarily negative way.”
She spots an attractive blonde-haired student in fashionable attire. “Joanne Fields.” The professor asks for her impression.
“Well-dressed. Obviously wealthy parents. Social register, that sort of thing. Tends toward snobbery.”
“The source of hostility?”
“My family. Southern Pennsylvania. Father dead. Mother uneducated. Many brothers and sisters. Very poor. No social distinction at all.”
“Proceed, if you will.”
Instead of a slap, though, Peterson walks over to Fields, pulls a presumably expensive necklace from around her neck, and throws it to the floor. The professor asks Fields for a reaction: “Hostility first.”
“White trash. Ignorant. No graces. Envious. Money-conscious. Social-climber.” Fields retrieves her necklace, puts it in Peterson’s hand, and spits in her face. Then, as with Clinton and Barnes, they take their seats as if nothing has happened.
Next up is a white male student named Mr. Elkins (Randolph Mantooth, a year or so before he took a starring role in “Emergency!”). He’s asked to stand. “The hypothesis as follows: a society made up of your own kind and an enemy. Pick out a potential enemy.”
He looks around the room and settles on a male student named William Chang, who’s asked to stand.
“How would you view a potential relationship, Mr. Elkins?”
“No relationship possible. Question only of survival.”
“Mr. Chang or you?”
“One or the other.”
“And how would you translate that into a form of action?”
The professor lays a handgun on the lectern. “Modus operandi, Mr. Elkins. Proceed, if you will.”
Elkins picks up the gun, turns, and slowly advances toward Chang. The other students watch silently. But as he holds the gun on his unresisting target, he hesitates. A shot finally rings out, but he’s merely broken a nearby light.
The professor is incensed, especially when Elkins confirms the miss was deliberate. The professor angrily demands to know why he “failed to kill the enemy.”
But Elkins, puzzled at first, now seems to realize something. “He’s not the enemy,” he says. The students begin murmuring as he stares at the gun in his hand. “I can’t deliberately kill someone without knowing why I’m killing, or who I’m killing. I can’t do that!”
The professor nervously tells his assistants, “He’s infecting the others. Deactivate all of them.” A button is pressed, and the students run down, their speech slowing to a stop. We realize now that they’re not human beings at all, but robots — and they’re standing as still as mannequins.
“Unusual,” the professor mutters, “to find such total resistance.” He requests “selective control” where Johnson is seated, then asks for his attention. Johnson stands amid his frozen classmates. The professor asks if he recalls the problem. “Yes, sir. You’d established the presence of the enemy.”
And what, the professor inquires, are the “new ramifications” of the problem?
“Elkins refused to respond to his responsibility. He failed to kill the enemy.”
“Very good. Go on.”
Johnson moves over to where Elkins stands like a statue. “So what evolves is a second enemy.”
“In the nature of?”
“A traitor. A subversive. An unreliable.” Without being asked, he takes the gun from Elkins and shoots him. The students awaken as Elkins crumples to the floor, his robotic voice slowly saying “He’s not the enemy” as sparks flash and smoke rises from the mass of wires and circuits exposed beneath his face. (Shades of poor Alicia’s fate in Twilight Zone’s “The Lonely”!)
The professor smiles. “Very good, Mr. Johnson. You have reinstated yourself most admirably. You get an A.”
We segue to a crowded graduation ceremony. We see our robot students in caps and gowns, listening to Johnson give the valedictory address. It was, he says, to repopulate a world ravaged by “major wars, pestilence, and pollution” that he and his fellow robots were created:
We have been created by man in his image. All that we know — our attitudes, our values — are part of the integral data that’s been fed into us, and we shall use them as a point of beginning. We must be just, but ruthless in terms of survival. We must recognize that many of the ancient virtues are simply witnesses. For example, to tolerate an inferior is an act of misplaced compassion and, as such, interferes with our function as members of the society. We shall repay our debt to men by emulating him. We shall act as men, react as men. We shall be men.
I’ve broken with my usual practice here. I generally dislike giving detailed synopses. I did here, though, for a couple of reasons. One is that Night Gallery, although fairly well known, isn’t as familiar as The Twilight Zone to many Serling fans, so I wanted to make sure anyone reading this would know the story — and better than what you could get from a thumbnail description.
If anyone has read this without having seen the episode, though, I would still strongly recommend you watch it yourself. This is Night Gallery at its best. The acting is top-notch, led by Brandon de Wilde (young Joey in 1953’s “Shane”) and Vincent Price. “Price’s calm, clinical delivery of this incendiary material is icy and authoritative,” Scott Skelton and Jim Benson write in “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour“. And the direction by Jeannot Szwarc (who greatly impressed Serling and eventually helmed almost two dozen NG segments) is first-rate.
So is the script, and that leads to the other reason I related the entire story with so many generous quotes. Serling here strikes a remarkably clever blow against prejudice. Seeing it deliberately taught in a classroom setting — where it’s not only accepted but preferred, and students are flunked for not being bigoted — is alarming.
It is, I believe, designed to show the sheer lunacy (the “illogical attitudes”, as Barnes puts it) of prejudice, which normally operates in the shadows, both literally and figuratively. Few people are proud of their bigotry. Indeed, many are unaware of it, especially if it’s not particularly overt. But there’s no escape in “Class of ‘99”. Serling has dragged prejudice from the basement and the attic and set it on the porch and in the living room, where no one can turn a blind eye to it.
But what really elevates the story is the sci-fi aspect. The full weight of Serling’s point hits us when we see that this situation is the result of our own folly. Our irrational behavior has become self-destructive to the point where our replacements must be literally programmed with prejudice if they’re to pass as accurate versions of us. Ouch.
Serling had struck numerous blows against prejudice before, but not like this. As Nicholas Parisi writes in “Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination”, “This scathing, shocking attack on prejudice could never have been produced on television ten years earlier.”
Another genius touch: having the “behavioral sciences” questions follow the hard-sciences section. At first, all the technical aspects that we’re hearing — mathematical formulas, etc. — come off as filler. It’s impressive to see how well the students can rattle off the information, sure, but it’s almost boring. Yet that only underscores how insane the prejudice behind the behavioral-sciences really is. Names, dates and mathematical formulas are pure logic, devoid of emotion. To then present the social scenarios just as clinically, with bigoted reactions being the “correct” reply, helps us see even more how wrong prejudice is. The contrast is brilliant — and illuminating.
Notice, too, how Serling has Elkins wrestle with what appears to be his conscience. I say “appears to be” because we still think he’s human at that point. But then we see he’s a robot. In short, he’s a machine. His mind is a computer. And a machine can only react in a bigoted fashion if it’s programmed to do so. There’s nothing logical about prejudice. Indeed, it’s illogical.
Elkins, being a machine, rebels because what he’s being asked to do makes no sense. But as the professor tells the class, “your capacity to function in society and to contribute are of the essence,” so he’s either got to change … or be eliminated.
Not so a human being. He can hold unexamined prejudicial attitudes in his mind alongside completely logical information, and not even notice. A person can be that schizophrenic. A machine can’t, at least not without being forced to do so — and that, as we’ve seen, it cannot easily do.
And who’s the ultimate enemy here? Not someone of the wrong class or color, but one who won’t conform. One must be on the lookout for a “traitor” or a “subversive”. Sounds like someone who might, to quote a famous Twilight Zone, be labeled “obsolete”.
Only Serling could have written an examination of prejudice that applies as much today as it did in 1971. The clothes and the hairstyles offer the only clues as to when “Class of ‘99” was made. This story worked then, it worked in 1999, and it works today.
Will we need his warning in future decades? That depends entirely on us.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!