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Friday, February 10, 2006

1.51 --- Need to Know

Reviewer's note : you know what those mean, don't you ? This is 1.51, and Red Snow is 1.52.


Directed by :
Paul Lynch
Written by : Mary Sheldon (story by Sidney Sheldon)
Starring : William L. Petersen, Frances McDormand
First aired : 21st of March, 1986.

When the population of a small town starts going crazy out of the blue, the local senator sends Edward Sayers (William L. Petersen, Manhunter, CSI : Las Vegas), a top flight biologist, to investigate the situation. Once there, he teams up with Amanda Strickland (Frances McDormand, Darkman, Mississippi Burning), who fills him in on the current affairs.

Sayers first interrogates Strickland's father, freshly insane since that morning. From him, he is being lead to mrs. Hotchkiss, who also is a loon - after talking some random drivel to them, she attempts to kill them with a cutting knife. At the lab, Sayers can't find any bacteriological cause to this occurence, and Amanda suggests that it might be a disease, as it moves between people in contagious fashion.

Amanda soon figures out that all the cases of insanity trace back to a certain Jeffrey Potts, an university professor recently back from the far East. Sayers drives off to visit him, and meets Potts alone inside his house, being busy with some sculptures. Potts them tells him that he discovered something wonderful - the secret to meaning of life, God, devil, and other things. He approaches Sayers in order to whisper it to him, but is rebuffed - Sayers realizes that this might well be the source of madness. When Potts joyously exclaims he will spread the message through the radio, a struggle between the two ensues and Sayers is knocked out unconscious.

He wakes up after 20 minutes, and immediately drives back to Amanda, managing to destroy her radio seconds before Potts reveals "the truth". But he's late - it spread to Amanda too, and she whispers it to him as well, condemning him to a lifetime of lunacy.


Adapted from a short story by Sidney Sheldon by Mary Sheldon (no idea if they're related), Need to Know is an intriguing episode which leaves a LOT open for imagination. Part of its appeal is that we indeed do not know what sort of a message is it which makes people stark raving mad, and can only guess. Charles Aidman's opening narration suggests it might be something trivially simple - yet again, it's not unheard of that people went mad after hearing something horrendous. You be the judge.

Starring roles are handled well by a rather young William L. Peterson and Frances McDormand - neither really excels, but the episode doesn't call for it, either. Director Paul Lynch again delivers a winner here, and that shouldn't surprise you if you have followed my blog so far - he was the man behind the camera for A Message from Charity, Examination Day and Wong's Lost and Found Emporium, all upper echelon colour TZ pieces.

Serling Trivia : no TZ veterans here, but Ray Ballard, who appears in the prologue, appeared in one Night Gallery episode - namely, The Phantom Farmhouse.

Comments on "1.51 --- Need to Know"


Anonymous John said ... (6:00 AM) : 

Seeing William L. Peterson at such a young age was great. I was a fan of 'Manhunter' way before 'Silence Of The Lambs' was released, and I thought Peterson did a great job in that film.

You're right though, this role really didn't stretch his acting ability much, but he was very good in it.


Anonymous chogokinman said ... (9:24 AM) : 

Un des meilleurs épisodes de la new TZ. Le mot qui rend fou est un script excellent et le final est génial.
Ma note : 5/5


Blogger ps3udov3ctor said ... (12:10 PM) : 

I loved shows like Friday the 13th, Tales From the Darkside, and the new Twilight Zone. This was the only episode on that series that I can remember still because it was so great.


Anonymous Caleb Barber said ... (2:28 PM) : 

My question is- Frances McDormand whispered something in his ear (and yes I realize it was probably something inane & stupid), but I really wonder just what it was.


Anonymous KBrew said ... (8:17 AM) : 

When I saw "Need to Know" nearly 20 years ago, I was fascinated and disturbed by the thought that such a simple phrase whispered to a person could cause your brain to snap. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to find the short story at the library, hoping to discover what is the "meaning of life".


Blogger The Night Watchman said ... (5:51 AM) : 

"Need to Know" is a great variation on an old horror trope - dating back at least as far back Robert Chambers' linked story collection, _The King in Yellow_. In that collection, there are several references to a play of the same name. This play is something like a Jacobean revenge tragedy - we never get more than little summaries of fragments of the play. The first act is mundane, but those who read or watch the second act are compelled to watch the rest of the play - and by the end are driven mad. Lovecraft was possibly influenced by this idea when he wrote "The Call of Chthulu," in which an ancient text called the Necronomicon has a similar effect. In Lovecraft's story especially, the protagonist is driven to find the text even if it means madness, because he is a scholar who _must_ know what the book actually says. In both cases, the story implies that the insanity-inducing literary work contains some ultimate truth about the universe.


Blogger jared terry said ... (2:56 AM) : 

First of all thanks for the work you have put into this blog, most appreciated.

I first saw this episode (and many others) when it was shown in the early to mid 1990's on ITV in the United Kingdom. It is certainly one of the best episodes of the whole run. I tended to favor the episodes which kept things simple. I think for the Twilight Zone the more outlandish the tales the better, as long as they were executed simply. 'Word play' comes to mind as another example of an excellent episode, also in this season.

I was only 13 or 14 when I first saw this and the episode really played on my mind at school. It uses ambiguity in a most powerful way. We want to know what is whispered but cannot know so it is a case where the imagination works on filling in the blanks, therefore the real horror of this episode is in what your own mind brings to it. I also find this one of the stronger episodes as it remains nihilistic to a degree and avoids the sentimentality and inane humor what often blighted later seasons.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (5:34 PM) : 

To me, I've always imagined that the secret whispered to them, sometimes described as the meaning of life...is something so profound, that their minds cannot handle the complexity of it, despite it being a simple phrase.


Anonymous Adrock said ... (10:04 PM) : 

William Petersen is auditioning his later role on too many CSI investigators, and Frances McDormand before winning her Oscar for Fargo -- so funny seeing her minus the Fargo accent, even if that's not her real accent.

I saw this episode when it first aired. It always bugged me because there's no plot logic. There's no answer to the question of "what words drive people insane?", other than that the two times we see the words whispered, the messages are of very different length.


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