Next week on the Twilight Zone, we tell a story that we think might prove a rather haunting little item in the scheme of things. It tells of a small Mexican boy and a visitor from another planet. And it tells further what happens when this extra terrestrial traveller is faced with some of the less personable instincts of human beings, like fear, superstitions and intolerance. Our story is called “The Gift”.
A space ship crashes outside a small, quiet town in Mexico. Following an altercation, one police officer is dead and the alien has been shot. The authorities and townspeople are out for vengeance – and blood. The injured alien steals into the town, seeking asylum, and hopefully compassion.
But there is much more to this alien stranger than meets the eye. For he not only comes in peace, he comes bearing a “Gift”. A very special gift. But it’s a gift that, unfortunately for the world, is reduced to a pile of ashes because the people of this tiny village simply refused to listen for even a moment.
Episode 32 of The Twilight Zone’s third season aired on April 27, 1962 – just five days after Easter, which was very appropriate timing given the topic. Written by Rod Serling, and directed by Allen H. Miner, “The Gift” is perhaps the most under-appreciated TZ episode there is.
It’s an episode that has been knocked, mocked, criticized and dismissed, as shown by this unsavoury review I found online:
“…this Rod Serling-scripted Twilight Zone episode is widely regarded as the series’ low point. A ham-handed Christ parable, the story is set in a backward Mexican village, where the arrival of a mysterious stranger named Williams (Geoffrey Horne) brings out the superstitious worst in the local citizenry. Only little Pedro (Edmund Vargas) and the town’s doctor (Nico Minardos) refuse to regard Williams as a threat, but they are shouted down by a hostile mob, leading to a painfully obvious climax that wouldn’t have gotten past “Creative Writing 101.” The sole redeeming virtue of “The Gift” was its classical guitar score by the great Laurindo Almeida.” Review by Hal Erickson
Um… “widely regarded” by whom? Illiterates? Degenerates? Closed-minded atheists? The self-righteous religious who are ashamed of what they supposedly believe?
Come off it, Hal.
Yet another example of this type of unfounded criticism can be found in Marc Scott Zicree’s book, “The Twilight Zone Companion”:
“The Gift” is no gift to fans of The Twilight Zone, however. It is pretentious, stereotypical, and insulting, particularly to anyone of Mexican heritage. With the exception of Pedro, the doctor, and a blind guitar player (Vladimir Sokoloff), all the people in the village are presented as superstitious, fearful peasants who prefer to see the alien as an agent of the Devil rather than as a friendly emissary from “beyond the stars.”
Interesting. So according to Zicree, the episode is racist and the people are all mentally deficient. I’ll touch on all of those points later in the post.
And my apologies, but I refuse to soil my blog by quoting anything but the bare minimum from my final example – a recent online review by Todd VanDerWerff of the A.V. Club, which has been reviewing every episode of the Twilight Zone in chronological order.
You can read the offending article for yourself here: http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-tradeinsthe-gift,98629/ It’s nasty, distasteful, and the author, Todd, is rather archaic in his thinking and comprehension.
These three examples illustrate very well people’s lack of patience and understanding. Apparently “The Gift” just doesn’t have enough explosions to hold some viewers’ interest. But most importantly, they all reveal an alarmingly high degree of ignorance, which I will illustrate later on.
Reading this last review left me spitting fire. It’s one thing to give constructive criticism that has at least some basis in reality and fact. But this was just a blood bath. And it infuriated me.
There are plenty of examples in the A.V. Club review which show the blatant lack of thought behind what’s discussed in the article.
I got the impression that he was criticizing the idea of the alien waiting until he’s about to die before he gives up the gift: “Williams, it turns out, has brought humanity a gift he’s refused to show anybody until his life is in danger.”
Why does Williams not hand over the gift immediately? Simple. The people didn’t deserve it yet. Should we only act civil to someone if he can offer us something? If the villagers had known what the stranger had brought them, they’d have certainly welcomed him with open arms. But that’s not how all people are, and it would defeat the purpose of this story.
The entire episode is filled with analogies, examples of Serling taking the lessons of old and fashioning them into something new and modern, to help the viewer relate. “Soon your people will no longer be afraid of me. They will not be afraid, and then… then I can show them the gift.” Shades of Jesus, perhaps? His is a gift that’s freely given, but you must believe and accept Him in order to claim it. You must have faith. Similarly in “The Gift”, the alien brings a gift of goodwill for the people of earth. But again, although it too was given freely, receiving the gift was dependent upon the people accepting and at the very least, being decent to the stranger. Which unfortunately they weren’t.
The author even suggests that the episode strays from Serling’s intended message. “But by introducing the uneasy racial politics—and, it has to be said, so many bad actors—“The Gift” takes on a different meaning entirely, far from the one Serling obviously intended.”
And right there the credibility of the author and by extension his review, becomes worthless. Often critical of his own work, Serling himself seemed to think this was a good, solid story. It was one of several prospective pilot scripts he wrote for Twilight Zone. He rewrote the hour-long teleplay to make this episode.
Serling’s script. Serling’s show. Pretty much complete creative control. I think it’s a safe bet that “The Gift” played out exactly as Serling wanted it to.
Although it’s met with so many hostile, negative reviews, what Serling penned here was a true masterpiece. I believe “The Gift” belongs in the top five greatest TZ scripts he ever wrote, and why not? “The Gift” is a futuristic tale, taking place in an old-fashioned setting, with a clever allegorical twist.
Initially titled “The Guest” in 1962, when the episode was assigned a production number it was retitled “The Visitor”. Two days later, it was given the title we know it by now, “The Gift”.
In the mid-1960s, Serling once again had big plans for this piece. He rewrote the story into a screenplay, intending to make a Twilight Zone movie. Unfortunately, the film never got off the ground.
Like much of Serling’s work, “The Gift” is a story with a lesson. A lesson in tolerance, kindness, acceptance and perhaps most important of all, faith.
This is indeed an allegory of Jesus Christ. But what makes it especially beautiful, is that this isn’t just a retelling of the story of Jesus. In the episode, Williams (the alien) and Pedro (the little boy), actually speak OF Him.
It comes when Williams tells Pedro he must leave.
Pedro: “For good, señor? For good and all?”
Williams: “Oh, no, Pedro, there’s no such thing as “for good and all.” There is only forever. I will come back sometime… or others like me.”
Pedro: “Where you’re from, is there a God?”
Williams: “The same God, Pedro.”
Pedro: “I wonder.”
Pedro: “If God were to come to earth, would they find him so strange that they would be afraid, and would they shoot him?”
Williams: “Did not His son come once, Pedro?”
Pedro: “And they nailed Him to a cross.”
Williams: “And then spent 2,000 years learning to believe in Him. All things take time, Pedro. Soon, Pedro, soon your people will no longer be afraid of me. They will not be afraid, and then… then I can show them the gift.”
That exchange gives me goosebumps each and every time I hear it. After watching the episode literally dozens of times, it still sends shivers right down to my soul. No one will ever convince me that this isn’t a damn good bit of writing.
While Williams isn’t being depicted directly AS Jesus, there are some clear similarities between them. Two instances really stand out to me.
The alien arrives at the bar. He’s been shot by the policeman. In the back room, the Doctor sits down and prepares to remove the bullets from Williams’ chest. The Doctor pulls out a bottle of ether. When he takes the cap off, Williams smells it, and when he realizes it’s ether, refuses to take it.
Serling would have used these two Bible references for this detail:
John 19:29: “A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink…”
Matthew 27:34 – “There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it.”
You need both of those scripture references because it’s important to note that Jesus tasted the mixture, but then refused to drink it. In “The Gift”, Williams sees the Doctor pull out the bottle and he doesn’t seem to mind, until he gets a whiff of what’s inside. Then he refuses it.
The second, perhaps more potent correlation, is when the Doctor emerges from the back room of the bar after patching up Williams. The shot opens with Manolo, the bartender, counting coins on the bar.
While the doctor was busy tending to the stranger, Manolo went out and told the Sheriff that the alien could be found right there, in the bar. “They would not have to go walking through the hills at night. They would only have to come here to find what they want.” Manolo knows the authorities are looking for a monster that allegedly killed the other deputy. The Doctor is incensed when Manolo tells him what he has done. They have this exchange as the Doctor leaves:
Doctor: “At your baptism, they forgot to give you a proper name.”
Manolo: “What would that be, Doctor?”
Doctor: “That would be Judas, Manolo.”
Manolo shrugs it off and resumes counting his… pieces of silver…?
Matthew 26:15 – “Judas went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I hand Him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty silver coins.”
Nico Minardos (who portrayed the Doctor) recalled his experience on “The Gift” in this excerpt from Martin Grams’ book, “The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic”:
“I did some thirty movies over the years and a number of television and of all those, The Twilight Zone is the one I get more mail about. I’m getting fan mail from Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, as well as the United States. In those years we used to rehearse a couple days, and then film for three days. Rod wanted me to do the show and what I remember most was the excitement we all had of the show. We knew it was an allegory to Jesus Christ, which was the premise, and everyone was trying to remain calm for the crowd sequence.”
Serling crafted this episode so beautifully. The entire piece is amazing. But I do have a favourite part. A part that I consider the script’s crowning jewel. And it’s a single line of dialogue: Pedro: “Where you’re from, is there a God?” Williams: “The same God, Pedro.”
Perhaps this is simply me projecting my own personal belief on this exchange. But maybe not. This dialogue, to me, is the true “gift” of Serling’s tale.
Williams is an alien. He comes from another world, from “beyond the stars”, as he tells Pedro. At the time The Twilight Zone was airing (1959-64), the idea of space travel and aliens was still brand new. People were afraid, and I’m sure there was great speculation about what it would mean – finding intelligent lifeforms somewhere in the universe other than ourselves.
Even today, the subject brings about theories that aliens are far more advanced than we are, both intellectually and technologically. Indeed, many people believe that if aliens do exist, then they must have created us. And therefore, they must be God.
When I read this line, I can’t help but wonder if this was Serling’s way of saying what should be common belief amongst all, Christians especially: If there is alien life in the universe, OUR God (Truth and Love, Jesus is His name) is still God over them.
As I expressed in a previous post, “Ghosts, Aliens and Evolution”, the belief in one (God or aliens) does not negate the existence of the other. “The same God, Pedro.” Williams didn’t say, “No, Pedro. WE are gods. We created you.”
Serling was a genius writer. I don’t believe he chose his words without careful consideration. And I don’t believe he would have written that line unless he was making a specific point. Even the emphasis that actor Geoffrey Horne puts into the delivery of this line… there’s conviction there, there’s feeling, there’s faith. He BELIEVES it.
So what was the “gift” that Williams brought?
“Greetings to the people of earth. We come as friends, and in peace. We bring you this gift. The following chemical formula is a vaccine. It’s a vaccine against all forms of cancer.”
He brought them the gift of LIFE. How beautifully apropos. For was LIFE not the gift that Jesus brought as well?
Perhaps the great irony of this episode is that it wasn’t Williams who was the monster. It was the people, who in their ignorance became monsters themselves. This is a recurring theme in Serling’s writing – the consequences of mankind’s lack of decency. Two good examples of this are “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “The Shelter”, both in my Top 25 list along with “The Gift”. As always, Serling illustrates the human capacity for intolerance, cruelty and savagery with frightening realism.
“The Gift” is not a story written to entertain. It is a story meant to teach. There is so much to be learned from this tale.
And isn’t it also ironic that the very thing this teaches against is the same thing that leads people to dismiss it as garbage in the first place? For is it not our prejudice, our intolerance, our bigotry and fear that makes us shy away from anything even remotely associated with Jesus? Do we not have preconceived notions about Christianity that cause us to turn our noses up when someone references it, directly or indirectly?
Would “The Gift” receive such harsh and unfounded criticism if all the Christ-like references were removed? Would people question its validity, its value, its worth, if some other religion were being suggested in it? I highly doubt it.
And don’t let your perspective be skewed by the race of the people portrayed or the time the story is set in. The negative reviewers cry “racist”, “insulting” and “derogatory”, but in fact it is THEY who are exhibiting racism and prejudice. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. And if YOUR mind lives in the gutter, then everything you look at will appear to be in the gutter too. Because you drag it down into the filth with you.
“Serling intends for all of this to depict humanity as a whole coming in contact with a superior intellect and destroying that intellect because of its own insecurities or fears.” (A.V. Club review) Superior intellect had nothing to do with this. The fact that Williams is more advanced than the people is a moot point because the villagers knew nothing about Williams. He looked the same, dressed the same, spoke their language. No one knew what the gift was until it was all over, making Todd’s observation a pathetic grasping-at-straws attempt to further degrade the episode with his false suppositions.
Take the blinders off, shrug away YOUR prejudice and intolerance, and view this episode with fresh eyes. If an alien space ship crashed in downtown New York, the people would panic. The whole world would panic. Everyone would be afraid. Not just a hundred years ago, or fifty years ago, but today.
Would we really behave much differently than the so-called “backward” Mexicans we see in “The Gift”? Zicree charges, “All the people in the village are presented as superstitious, fearful peasants who prefer to see the alien as an agent of the Devil rather than as a friendly emissary from “beyond the stars.” But today, if you saw someone lurking around your backyard in the middle of the night, would you immediately assume he was a “friendly emissary”? Would you run out, greet him with open arms and welcome him into your home? Or would your first instinct be “danger”?
Serling’s scripts are timeless. The lessons are applicable any time, anywhere, to anyone. That is what made him such an incredible writer. His work spans generations, it broke boundaries and forced the darkness inside of every man and woman out into the light. Not to hurt or bring anyone down, but to teach them, to hopefully better them, then, now and in the future.
What makes this Serling script so valuable is that it’s teaching the same lesson Jesus taught – seek the Truth and Love one another — but with all the ignorance-imposed connotations stripped away in the hopes that we’ll actually pay attention this time. But have we paid attention? Well, considering this episode is still looked down upon to an astonishing degree, then apparently not.
There is a wonderful gift in this episode, but many people are too blinded by their own prejudice to see it. Like the villagers, they judge without thought or consideration. And what will they reap from it? Nothing good. Just the pain and disappointment that comes from making a huge, needless mistake, that results in the suffering of innocent people.
Madeiro, Mexico, the present. The subject: fear. The cure: a little more faith. An RX off a shelf – in the Twilight Zone.
Yes, wouldn’t we all benefit from just a little more faith.
So we have not just killed a man. We have killed a dream.
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