“The Fugitive”: A Sweet Tale That Makes Some Twilight Zone Fans Uneasy. Should It?
When you’ve been fanning publicly over The Twilight Zone as long as I have, you start expecting certain reactions.
For example, when I tweet about “To Serve Man,” I know some people will make cookbook jokes. When I post a quote from “Time Enough at Last,” I’ll hear, “It’s not fair!” If the topic is “It’s a Good Life,” then “You’re a bad man!” is coming. And that’s fine! It’s part of the fun.
But not all predictable reactions are so benign. One that I don’t enjoy at all occurs when I tweet about “The Fugitive,” a story by Charles Beaumont that centers on the friendship between an old man named Ben and a young girl named Jenny.
This being the fifth dimension, Ben isn’t just an ordinary old man. In fact, we learn near the end (spoiler alert; click here to see where you can watch it first) that he’s neither old nor a man. Not an earth man, anyway. Ben is actually a rather young king from another planet.
So why was he here, disguised as actor J. Pat O’Malley? Because he got fed up with his royal responsibilities and ran away. The two men who have been hunting him down during the first half of the episode mean him no harm; they’re a duo from his planet, here to bring their popular monarch back home, where he can continue his benevolent rule.
But Ben doesn’t want to go back. He’s been enjoying his life on earth, where he lives in an apartment building and pals around with the neighborhood kids — kind of like a retired grandpa. He’s grown especially fond of Jenny (Susan Gordon), a sweet girl with a bad leg who lives with Mrs. Gann, her crabby aunt.
He finally agrees to return to his planet, but he insists on taking Jenny (who wants to go). His two escorts protest, saying it’s not allowed, whereupon Ben — after asking for a few seconds of privacy — shape-shifts into an image of Jenny. Now they have to take them both back, since they can’t be sure who’s the real king, and they dare not leave him behind.
In a series that often presented serious, suspenseful, and frightening tales, “The Fugitive” stands out. It’s one of the Zone‘s gentler stories, with some small moments of humor and a more whimsical tone. But that can’t save it from being dubbed “creepy” by some fans. And not in a good way. The whole relationship between Ben and Jenny just rubs them the wrong way.
It’s a shame, really. I realize that viewers today (myself included) can’t help looking at things from a 21st century perspective. In 1962, when this episode aired, adults and those in positions of authority were assumed to be good unless proven otherwise. Now it tends to be the opposite. We look askance at strangers (often forgetting they do the same to us) and put a negative spin on words and actions that may be quite innocent.
But there’s another aspect to the story of Ben and Jenny that causes some viewers to narrow their eyes in suspicion. The friendly-old-man part they can take without too much trouble; after all, hardly anyone has a bad word to say about “One for the Angels,” which also focuses on an older man who’s a friend to the neighborhood kids. No, what bothers some viewers is how “The Fugitive” ends.
I mentioned how Ben is not an old man, but a young one. In fact, we see a picture of the real Ben as Serling (in a rare on-screen closing narration) tips us to their future as king and queen.
Whoa, some viewers say, this man is marrying a child? They don’t care for that thought one bit — and I don’t blame them. Marrying a child is most emphatically not okay. But take a closer look at what Serling says:
“Mrs. Gann will be in for a big surprise when she finds this under Jenny’s pillow, because Mrs. Gann has more temper than imagination. She’ll never dream that this is a picture of Old Ben as he really looks, and it will never occur to her that eventually her niece will grow up to be an honest-to-goodness queen — somewhere … in The Twilight Zone.”
That wording is key: Jenny’s nuptials aren’t set to occur tomorrow or next week or next month. No, “eventually” she “will grow up to be” a queen.
I think that’s why I’ve never gotten a bad vibe from this story. I took the ending to mean that only after Jenny’s grown up, they’d marry — not right away.
And check that pic of the real “Old Ben.” He looks like a high-school senior. That makes him about 17. Susan Gordon was 12 when she did this episode. Now, if a 17-year-old was marrying a 12-year-old? No way in hell that would be acceptable. But a 27-year-old marrying a 22-year-old? Young, to be sure, but hardly inappropriate.
So while I can’t wave a magic wand and make everyone happy with this episode, I hope I’ve at least cast it in a better light. Because regardless of how people take it, I’m convinced it was meant to be a nice story and that nothing improper was going on.
Besides, to take two other accusations raised in the episode, Ben might have been a Martian. Or a Communist!
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!