6 December 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Gore Vidal's "Visit to a Small Planet"
'Goodyear Television Playhouse' was an anthology series with a low budget and poor production values; all the episodes were transmitted live from a small studio, and so the series favoured dramas which took place entirely indoors on minimal sets. This series aired fortnightly on NBC, alternating with 'The Philco Television Playhouse': basically the same series with a different sponsor.
The most notable episode of 'GTP' is 'Visit to a Small Planet' , a sardonic comedy scripted by Gore Vidal, which aired on 8 May 1955, starring Cyril Ritchard. This episode was so successful that Vidal later expanded it into a stage play, in which Ritchard starred on Broadway. It was also turned into a film, starring Jerry Lewis ... a casting which Vidal decried. I personally dislike Jerry Lewis, yet nothing he has ever done was as tasteless as Gore Vidal's screenplay for 'Caligula'.
'Small Planet' stars Ritchard as Kreton, a highly-advanced citizen of the future who has travelled yesterwards to study the pathetic humans of the Cold War era, gleefully provoking them to the brink of a nice little global nuclear holocaust. Kreton's base of operations is the suburban home of Roger Spelding, a pompous businessman. Spelding is played by Edward Andrews, a prolific character actor with an extremely narrow range: he basically gave the same performance throughout his career, yet Andrews was highly effective in that narrow range.
Dick York is impressive as the young man who hopes to marry Spelding's daughter. Unfortunately, York's character is named John Randolph: the same name as a real-life character actor who was an outspoken advocate of communist activities.
Due to the low budget and technical constraints of this period, most of the science-fictional events in 'Small Planet' happen offscreen. We see the Speldings' reactions as Kreton's spaceship lands in their front garden ... but we don't witness the landing itself, and we never see the spaceship. At one point, Kreton uses his psychokinetic abilities to make a rifle leap out of a soldier's hands and levitate past the Speldings' house. This is an amusing incident, but we can clearly see the wires enabling the rifle to 'fly'.
There is some clever dialogue when Kreton converses with the Spelding family's cat, and when he reveals his ability to see other people's thoughts in the form of colours: a combination of synaesthesia and telepathy. For all its technical faults, 'Visit to a Small Planet' is an intelligent and enjoyable comedy, worthy of revival on video. I hope that one day this story will be filmed as Gore Vidal originally wrote it.