Serling’s Re-Framing Efforts: Night Gallery’s “The Doll”

Willie. Caesar. Talky Tina. Yes, when it came to haunted dolls, The Twilight Zone certainly left its mark. But Night Gallery made one notable contribution to this spooky subgenre in its first season: “The Doll.”

That’s right, Gallery fans — the toy that resembles Barbie on meth. Talky Tina liked to talk, but not this little darling. Like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, she prefers to keep quiet (at least when she’s on screen) and let her weapons speak for themselves — said weapons in this case being a set of sharp teeth.

I guess with a calling card like that, you don’t need a name. Here’s how Serling sets it up:

“This little collector’s item here dates back a few hundred years to the British-Indian Colonial period — proving only that sometimes the least likely objects can be filled with the most likely horror. Our painting is called ‘The Doll,’ and this one you’d best not play with.”

This, by the way, is one of the few Gallery intros that fans will often quote to me — that last phrase, anyway — if I share the painting for this episode, or just a pic from it. So this story obviously has had a real impact on most viewers!

So let me give you a recap of the episode so we can better appreciate how Serling changed the original short story it was based on. (Spoilers ahead, so if you’d rather see the Gallery version first, check it out on DVD or watch it here.)

We open on a street scene in London, then move inside the residence of one Col. Masters, played by John Williams. Williams, of course, is very familiar to anyone who’s a fan of movies and TV shows from this period. Zone fans know him as the title character in “The Bard.”

The colonel has just returned from a long trip, something he apparently does quite often, judging from the conversation he has with Miss Danton, the housekeeper. She’s played by Shani Wallis, best known for playing Nancy, the doomed girlfriend of Bill Sykes, in the 1968 musical “Oliver!”

Then Monica, his young niece, comes down to greet him, carrying a new friend that immediately fills the colonel with terror.

Now, I doubt any of us would be able to slap on a grin after seeing that face, but the colonel looks unusually stricken. He demands to know where it came from. From you, a stunned Miss Danton says. At least that’s what she assumed when it arrived one day — that the colonel had mailed his niece a gift.

He didn’t. In fact, as he reveals to a baffled Miss Danton in a cryptic conversation held out of Monica’s earshot, the doll is meant for him.

We’ll learn why soon enough, but before we do, Monica tells him something that only heightens his sense of dread — the doll talks to her: “She speaks to me all the time. Mostly at night. She talks about all kinds of things. Especially you.”

As an aside: Doesn’t it seem odd that Monica a) isn’t the least bit repulsed by the doll’s appearance, and b) relates the fact that the doll speaks as if dolls talked all the time? She seems old enough to consider that frightening, but Monica discusses it as if it were a commonplace occurrence.

The colonel gets his niece a new doll, but Monica soon informs him that the “other one” doesn’t like her. She wants her gone. The colonel presses her to keep the new one anyway. Soon after, the colonel and Miss Danton hear Monica crying, only to discover the new doll in pieces … courtesy of You Know Who.

At this point, I’d have called for an exorcist, but instead the colonel is visited by Pandit Chola, played by another well-known character actor from this period, Henry Silva (who’s still alive at 93). Chola is the brother of a man in India — a criminal to the colonel, a freedom fighter to his brother — who was executed under orders from the colonel.

So now we get it. This is a case of supernatural revenge.

Nevertheless, the colonel tries to get rid of it, suffering a fatal gash in the process. Before dying, he tells Miss Danton he’s made up a new will, bequeathing the estate to her, and asking her to be a good guardian for Monica. And oh, he asks, would you mail this package for me?

The final scene has Chola packing for his return to India. A package arrives. He opens it warily, then drops it in horror. In it, we see a doll who looks vaguely like a certain colonel. And then … it smiles. The end.

So! What about the original tale?

It was one of two lengthy stories published in 1946 as “The Doll and One Other,” by Algernon Blackwood, an English novelist who specialized in tales that dealt with ghosts and other Halloween-ish topics.

The basic story is the same. Col. Masters is there. Monica. And of course … the doll. So what did Serling change?

Some small things, of course. Monica is his daughter in the original story, not his niece. There’s no Miss Danton. Instead, we get a cook and other servants who fill essentially the role that Miss Danton does, so we get a smaller, more economical cast of characters on Night Gallery.

And in the original story, there’s no Pandit Chola.

So where does the package come from? It’s delivered in the opening scene by a mysterious man who is never named. And here is Serling’s most notable contribution: In Blackwood’s story, we’re given no details as to what the colonel’s offense might be. We get some vague hints that he did something, but exactly what it might be, we never learn.

In creating the character of Chola, and writing the scene where he and the colonel talk, Serling gives purpose to the story. There’s a reason for the horror — and that, for me, makes all the difference.

Blackwood’s story is heavy on atmosphere, and certain moments sure to creep you out, especially if you read them late at night. We get some terrific scenes that would look amazing in an adaptation that followed the original more closely – ones where the servants actually see the doll moving and slithering through the shadows in Monica’s darkened bedroom, even charging at them. It’s great stuff.

Serling, by contrast, sets the “action,” so to speak, off stage. I’m sure this was partly because of budgetary concerns, not to mention how well or convincingly you could stage it on TV 50 years ago. But what we may have lost in sheer terror, we more than gained in a meaningful story that stays with us long after the last goose bump has faded. The horror builds more quietly — and is therefore more lasting.

Especially because of one other key element Serling added: the ending. Blackwood’s story concludes with the colonel’s demise. The whole business of another package being delivered, and it being the colonel getting back at Chola, thus perpetuating the cycle of revenge? That’s all Serling.

And yet that scene is key! Like the best Twilight Zone episodes, it leaves an indelible impression. Just ask Guillermo del Toro. The famed director, who got hooked on Night Gallery as a kid, even contributed some commentaries to the Season 2 DVDs. In an interview he gave a few years ago about his film “Cronos” (quoted below from The Los Angeles Times), he spoke of how influential the show was for him:

“I would go into complete paroxysms of terror,” he said. “The only time I literally, literally peed my pants in fear. I did! I’m not talking figuratively! I released the bladder! It was a ‘Night Gallery’ episode called ‘The Doll’ that was based on the Algernon Blackwood short story.

And when the doll smiles, I just started screaming, and” — Del Toro paused to supply an appropriate sound effect and waved his arm around like an escaped garden hose — “I was forever haunted by that. I think that was very formative to me. … Those fears, the corridor to the bathroom in that house, they’re all in my shots.”

A word of caution to those who may want to seek out Blackwood’s short story: There’s a disturbing undercurrent of racism in it, with an unseemly focus on the dark skin color of the man who delivers the package. Worse, there are no fewer than three uses of the n-word. It’s really distasteful, and of course it adds nothing to the story.

Serling, by contrast, added a lot – and turned this into a Gallery classic.

***

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 10/22/2021, in Night Gallery and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Great article. I enjoy the way that you tell a story without getting too wordy

  2. I’ll be content just reading your post about the episode. I like dolls and this would just creep me out too much.

    When my daughter was young she begged me to get rid of one of my dolls b/c she said it terrified her. So, I packed it away and later gave her away.

    • Ha, I completely understand! You’re not alone in avoiding creepy-doll stories. I get a kick out of them, but I can see why some people might want to avoid them — if only to ensure a good night’s sleep.

      As for that doll of your daughter’s, I don’t blame you for getting rid of it. Wonder if it’s off somewhere now, terrifying someone else … :-o

  3. Paul, thanks for posting this article. This NG episode is indeed a classic and so appropriate that it’s one of the paintings on the cover of the recent “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery – The Art of Darkness”. I’ve never read the original so it was great to read your comparison which clearly seems inferior to the NG treatment.

    I don’t know how many NG stories Rod adapted from other sources (but I bet you do!). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the original stories were published in a collection, much like the 30 or so stories collected in “The Twilight Zone – The Original Stories” circa 1985 by Greenberg, Matheson & Waugh?

    • Glad you liked the post, Ken. :) Yes, The Doll is quite a favorite among Gallery fans, and with good reason. Serling truly made it his own. The original story is good and creepy, to be sure, but Serling’s version is clearly superior.

      As for how many stories he adapted for NG, yes, I can tell you exactly how many: 17 out of the 38 scripts he did for the show. And yes, I’d love to see all the stories collected in one volume. Only some of them are even in print now, and either way, they’re all scattered around in different books. Maybe I should make that a project!

  4. I didn’t pee my pants, but the one and only time I watched this episode, I had to watch three or four episodes of M*A*S*H as a chaser.

    I enjoyed this post, Paul, but I scrolled around so I could read without looking too long at that image. I do like what I’ve learned about how Serling changed the story. It’s always interesting to learn more about the way his mind worked and how he improved upon other good work.

    • Ha, yes — I do something similar whenever I watch something scary: I’ll watch at least one episode of some classic comedy (M*A*S*H is a great choice) to sort of cleanse the palate — particularly before bed!

      Glad you liked the post, Dan. Serling’s talent continues to impress me, the more I delve into it. The next ones I’ll be posting are “A Death in the Family,”
      “Cool Air,” and “Green Fingers,” in case you want to rewatch any of them.

  5. I have a small collection of Arkham House books. The first one that I purchased was “The Doll and One Other” by Algernon Blackwood (pictured above). I found it in a used bookstore purchased it strictly because of my memory seeing the Night Gallery episode when I was a child. It is still one of my favorite Night Gallery episodes.

    I think your analysis is spot on. Blackwood’s version is a fine tale, but Serling improves it, particularly with the cycle of revenge theme.

    • Very cool. It can be a bit expensive to pick up these days, especially if it’s in good shape. And thanks — glad you enjoyed the post. Doing these comparisons makes me appreciate the episodes even more.

  6. “Barbie on meth”! Great line for what is surely one of this series’ finest segments.

    Kensall, there actually was a collection of stories adapted for “Night Gallery” called “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery Reader” edited by Carol Serling, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin H. Greenberg published by Dembner Books in 1987. It’s long out of print but available used. It doesn’t have all the original stories, nor is it limited to just the ones Rod Serling adapted, but it has about 18 pieces in all. It’s actually a damn good anthology on its own merits, quite apart from the show.

    • Ha, glad you liked that!

      And yes, I almost mentioned that book, which I got years ago for a few bucks in some secondhand bookstore. But yeah, for my purposes in this series, it’s of limited value, as it has — of the stories Serling adapted from others — only five out of the 17 he did. But yes, it’s still a fine volume, and one I’ll surely turn to as I write about other, non-Serling-scripted segments. A shame it’s not in print.

  7. Carl Rosenberg

    I like this segment very much (I haven’t yet read the story by Blackwood), partly for its political aspects: “Chola is the brother of a man in India — a criminal to the colonel, a freedom fighter to his brother — who was executed under orders from the colonel.”

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