Original Airdate: October 16, 1959
For the third episode to air Rod Serling penned the first western of the series and it is as bizarre as one might imagine. “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” eschews obvious narrative entanglements instead pulls the storyline along a seemingly normal pathway save for some minor interferences by fate. The title character, Al Denton (Dan Duryea, “Flight of the Phoenix,” 1965) is the town drunk tormented ruthlessly by Dan Hotaling (Martin Landau, “Ed Wood”) and his lackeys for entertainment. When Henry J. Fate (Malcolm Atterbury, “The Birds,” 1963), a salesman, rolls into town Denton’s situation changes after a six-shooter mysteriously appears next to him and previously lost gun skills sporadically return.
This episode wears its strangeness out in the open for all to see, Mr. Fate is clearly the one manipulating the situation. When he is present things are vastly different. What isn’t clear is why. As the episode continues and the philosophical ramifications of the presence of the gun become more nuanced we are still left with the question: where is this episode going? Many westerns, old and new, have explored the issue of guns and violence and guns being the source of violence, that is nothing new…clearly. This episode openly discusses it and uses it as a major source of motivation for our characters plights. Mel Brooks included it as the source of angst for one of his characters (maybe as a nod to this episode) in “Blazing Saddles.” The gun is pivotal in many ways. What I found most revealing is that even fifty-five years ago they were having similar conversations to ours today.
Subtlety isn’t a known concept in this episode, after all the intervening agent’s name is Henry J. Fate, and there are a few verbal plays on this, but first and foremost this episode is a character study and that is where this episode shines. “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” is not one of the great episodes, but it is good. We spend so much time with drunk-Denton and the transition to sober-Denton is unbelievably easy. It is understandable though when you have to pack this entire tale into just twenty-four minutes some sacrifices must be made. The sacrifices are all made in the right spots for when the finale comes between Denton and Pete Grant (Doug McClure, “Death Race,” 1973) the outcome is fantastic and unpredictable.
While not as great as the previous two episodes “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” is still good and has strengths and charms of its own. Excellent character writing and fluid story make “Twilight Zone’s” first western a memorable one and easily demonstrates Rod Serling’s range of genre, story, and character. Again superior acting anchor a fantastical tale and a surprising climax brings a poetic ending to the first wild west tale in the “Twilight Zone.”