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Salon.com
MAY 3, 2012 1:50PM

"The Edge of Death"

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Episode:  46
Original Air Date: February 26, 1974
Written By:  Sol Panitz
Starring: Patrick O'Neal, Marian Seldes, Leon Janny, Ian Martin

A really enjoyable episode, albeit with some fuzzy science-fiction kind of thrown in.

Alex and Judy Harper are middle-aged (50s-ish, we're led to believe) farmers who live in a rural area where everybody knows your name, for better or worse.  They're starting to experience the indignities of age, Alex having sliced his arm open on his tractor, resulting in potentially permanent injury to his arm, and Judy having just learned that she has a "heart condition" that, while not fatal, will require her to adopt a special diet and monitor her activities, etc.  While she's at the hospital, Alex and their dog, Ace, find a curious case with no visible means of opening it, like a doctor's case.

On the way home from her doctor visit, Judy hears a report on the radio about someone having escaped from a nearby mental institution (and isn't there always a "nearby mental institution" in these stories?), and then practically runs off the road when she sees standing on the side of the road someone who . . . doesn't seem to have a face!  No eyes!  No nose!  No mouth!  Even worse, he "said" something like "I want to communicate with you" to her.  Without a mouth! 

 She's understandably freaked out, and Alex has to spend some time calming her down, assuring her that it must have been a trick of the light, and then furiously following up with Kindly Local Sherriff Ben and the director of the Nearby Mental Institution (NMI) trying to find out something about the escapee.  It turns out that the escaped patient is named "Michael," (he wrote just that name on a piece of paper) and had been there for just a day.  He's got a face, the director of NMI assures him.  Except that, well . . . he doesn't actually have a mouth.  They have no idea how he ingests food, etc. 

At some point, Alex drops the mysterious case on the floor and it falls open, revealing a bunch of pill and powder bottles marked with the names of various ailments, diseases and afflictions -- heart arrhythmia, carcinoma, skin ailments, etc.  In what can only be described as an impressive leap of logic, Alex tells Judy that this must be a case of Dr. Magick's Fabulous Cures!! and that if they just take the pills/powders, tinctures, whatever, it will heal whatever their problem is!!  So, yeah.  Seems like kind of a stretch.  Which Judy drily observes.  But that doesn't stop Alex from pouring the powder marked "skin ailments" on the massive stitched-up cut he got from the lawnmower and insisting to Judy that he's going to be just as good as new.

Alex's fantasizing is cut short when Judy sees Mr. No-Face again in their yard.  Ace goes running after him, barking, and chasing No-Face off the property.  Alex calls KLS Ben and heads off in hot pursuit.  Ben and Alex don't find No-Face (or, really, any sign of him), though they do find Ace, who appears to have had the crap literally scared right out of him, and is lying dead in the woods.  Upon returning to the house,  Judy notices that Alex's arm is completely healed, as good as it ever was!  Unfortunately, Judy had shut the case again before Alex got back, angry at Alex for taking such a foolish chance with some substance he knows nothing about.  Which, yeah, totally.  It was kind of a dumb thing to do.

However, now that they know they actually are in possession of miracle cures, they've got to get that box open!  Alex heads down to his basement to try and power-drill it open (he's the kind of guy who has lots of power tools in the basement), where he meets  . . . Michael, sans mouth.  Michael telepathically?  communicates with Alex, telling him that (a) he's from the future, (b) he accidentally was transported here through the ever-reliable rift in the "time warp", (c) he's not a "doctor" in the sense that Alex's time recognizes that term, but (d) he would really like that case back.  Pronto.

Alex is like "yeah, sure, sure, the case, no problem.  Right after I jimmy it open and get one of those heart pill thingys for my wife."  Michael is disturbed, arguing that physiologies aren't the same, and that those substances were meant for people of his time, not this one, and that Alex probably just got lucky with the powder that cured his arm.  To which Alex says like "yeah, sure, no problem.  Now I'm going to knock you out momentarily and then we'll get right back to it."  When Michael comes to, Alex smugly tells him that he's managed to open the case and given his wife a heart pill, so she's going to be FINE, and here's your case back, douchebag, and no hard feelings, right?

Michael is horrified, and finally tells Alex that he is actually an  . . . executioner.  In Michael's time, the population explosion has gotten so bad that humanity crowds out everything else, and they have to selectively cull the herd, so to speak.  But families of the culled like to be able to tell others that their beloved died of some silly disease, so Michael carries around pills that actually cause the disease marked on their front, and act really fast, like within minutes.  But, somehow, the death is also painless.  Because liver cancer doesn't hurt, I guess.

Alex, realizing that he's just killed his wife, is devastated. 

 Fin.

Now, obviously, there are some things that are kind of odd/not explained/dumb.  No mouth?  Really?  That's what would go on humanity first?  Alex's leap of understanding from "here are some bottles marked with some diseases" to "Magical Cure-All Potions for Everyone!!" is a little too facile to be believed.  And the construct about Michael killing people with "fake" diseases that give their families a way to avoid embarrassment is a little strained.  It would be odd if Jimmy, who you just saw over the weekend and seemed fine, suddenly died of lymphoma the following Tuesday.  I mean, I think people would know that Mike had paid a visit, is all.

But the acting is really nice.  Patrick O'Neal and Marian Seldes do a great job as a married couple with real affection for each other, and who are trying to meet the challenges of old age.  And the general switch -- the pills aren't cures, but curses, was unexpected.  So in all, a good one.  Probably my favorite of the first fifty thus far.

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