“It may be that in the reality of our third dimension, we humans perceive ourselves as powerful human beings in control of our own destinies, but underneath the masks of illusion and time, we’re as weak and lost as any other animal.”
Stewart T. Stanyard
We live in an age of fears. We are often told to take comfort from our fears and don’t let them control us. To allow our fears to rule us indicates a lack of control over our own lives that we are not willing to accept. This is largely in part due to the fact that on both an international and a domestic level, it is in our nature to seek control. What happens when we lose that control? Or more importantly, what if we never had it to begin with? These are the kinds of questions Rod Serling asked with his groundbreaking television series The Twilight Zone. The issue of control is a particularly American concern which is one of the things that makes The Twilight Zone resonate so strongly. Walking Distance deals with the issue of control in its own way, although the link between the show and its place in American history strengthens them when viewed as a running theme, important to understanding the fear that The Twilight Zone evoked in audiences of old and even people today.
Walking Distance is the story of a man who, in his middle age, has lost a sense of who he is. When his car breaks down not far from his old home town he decides to re-visit the area to pass the time. What he finds when he arrives there is that time has doubled back upon itself and when he goes back to his home, he’s actually going back in time. What is most important to understand in this episode is the sense of dissatisfaction that the main character, Martin Sloan, played by Gig Young feels. It is his unhappiness with the present, particularly in his job as an ad executive, that leads him to travel back to his old stomping grounds and unintentionally back in time. In an effort to make sense of what he’s become, he feels the need to go back to where he came from, back when things were simpler. It’s as if in its simplicity, he hopes to find the control that he’s lost, specifically in his role as part of the well-functioning corporate mechanism that is so stereotypical of the time period. Although a seemingly minute detail, Sloan’s job as an ad exec serves to make this episode not only memorable as a genuinely eerie piece of television history, but as a strong social commentary in that day and age. Particularly, in understanding his position in the corporate world of the late 50s and early 60s, the weight behind his decisions, which may seem foolish to the viewer, is much clearer. As previously mentioned, this lack of control in the professional world dictates Sloan’s choice in returning home, but more importantly, how the events play out. When he returns to the town, Sloan takes the opportunity to indulge himself, visiting the old soda shop, and wandering around, fondly recalling his childhood. When he sees a young boy carving “Martin Sloan” into a tree, he is first baffled, before realizing that he has traveled back in time and is actually seeing himself as a child. In a desperate attempt to take control of his life again, he seeks out the young boy trying to tell him to treasure his time that he has before being forced to grow up. This is yet another example of how the theme of control plays out in this particular episode. He asserts himself and takes control in trying to speak to the younger version of himself, however, he frightens the little boy, causing him to fall off a carousel and break his leg. By trying to take control, he loses control in the worst kind of way, hurting himself as both a boy and his adult self. By the end of the episode, he understands that he must return to the present. The only way that he is able to return to his life is by accepting his lack of control.