Ray Bradbury Theater: The Town Where No One Got Off
Episode 4 (Series 2, Episode 1)
First aired 22 February 1986
"The Town Where No One Got Off"
The short story first appeared in Ellery Queen in October 1958.
Its first book appearance was in The Day it Rained Forever (UK) (1959).
Its also appeared in A Medicine for Melancholy (1960).
Directed by Don McBrearty
Cogswell - Jeff Goldblum
With Errol Slue, Clare Coulter, Samantha Langevin, Rachel Gemmell, Wayne Robson
On a cross-country train, Cogswell sits opposite a salesman reading a newspaper. The salesman notices Cogswell staring with interest at a settlement they are passing. The salesman thinks people who would live out in the middle of nowhere are crazy. Cogswell isn't so sure, and decides to get off at the next town - wherever that may be.
He asks the conductor what the next town is. The conductor tells him, but says no-one ever gets of there. Cogswell says he will. When the train stops, the conductor helps him off the train, but asks him if he is sure he wants to get off.
The station is quiet. There is one old man sitting on a chair on the platform. Nobody else.
In the waiting room and ticket office, there is a man behind the counter, wearing earphones. He ignores almost everything that Cogswell says. When Cogswell asks if there are any lockers where he could leave his luggage, the man gestures with his head.
Cogswell wanders the streets of the small town. He attempts to buy a drink from a vending machine, but it jams on him. The owner of a store comes out and questions him, hostile.
Cogswell notices he is being followed.
Finding a house with a "vacancy" sign outside, Cogswell tries to get a room for the night. The landlady says there is no vacancy, and protectively pulls her young daughter inside.
Cogswell enters a store and tries to start a conversation with the locals. They give him short shrift. He asks when the next train is due. The storekeeper tells him it won't stop - unless a flare is lit on the tracks to flag it down.
He agains spots the old man who is following him, catches him up. They begin to talk.
The old man asks Cogswell some questions, and as they walk and talk reveals that he has waited some twenty years for Cogswell to arrive - or, at least, someone like Cogswell - a stranger to the town who could have no imaginable reason to have got off here.
They walk out of town, past a river, into a barn. The old man reveals his plan: to take out his accumulated life frustrations on a total stranger by murdering him. That is, by murdering Cogswell. He puts his hands in his pockets and approches Cogswell.
Cogswell swiftly counters - he puts his hand in his pocket, and claims that he has always dreamed of coming to an anonymous small town and murdering a stranger. Somewhere no one would ever guess he had ever visited...
Night, and Cogswell has a flare lit on the rail tracks. He boards the train, and it slips away in the night. As it leaves, Cogswell sees the old man, back on his chair on the station platform, watching and waiting for the next stranger to drop by.
Publicity still: Jeff Goldblum, Cec Linder.
This adaptation is unusual for incorporating at its heart an almost verbatim transcription of the dialogue in Bradbury's original short story. Once again, as with "Marionettes' Inc.", there is new material filling out the earlier half of the episode.
In 1986, Bradbury discussed the adaptation process for this episode: "You have a half-hour to fill, and a short story is a short story. Otherwise you would have a fifteen-minute show. So the challenge comes in doing the extra material without ruining the story. I think, so far, it has worked out and the producers are happy."
Although there are some haunting moments in this adaptation - the hostility of the townsfolk is very well executed, making it no wonder that no one ever got off here - it does make some changes which make it a different story to the original short story.
The premise of the original is that the protagonist is postively attracted to the idea of visiting somewhere where nobody ever gets off the train. He doesn't know exactly why this appeal to him. After the meeting with the man who threatens to kill him, he questions whether his actual motive for visiting might be that he did actually want to kill a stranger himself. Bradbury's original ending makes it clear that "the town" represents a state of mind for our "hero":
Now the darkness that had brought us together stood between. The old man, the station, the town, the forest, were lost in the night.
For an hour I stood in the roaring blast staring back at all that darkness.
In the adaptation, however, our hero doesn't particularly consider visiting a strange town. Instead, he appears to rise to a challenge laid down by the salesman, who appears to be a stranger to him. The town is not just a small town where not much happens, it is a hostile town full of hostile people, where strangers are not welcome.
What's more, we know that Cogswell is lying when he suggests that he might be here to kill a stranger. We know this because we know that he wouldn't be here if it weren't for the challenge raised by the salesman.
In other words, far from representing a passing dark state of mind, this is most definitely a strange place which our hapless hero has stumbled upon.
Although this is an effective little shocker, and appealing for its almost reverential attempt to dramatise the central dialogue between Cogswell and the old man, it disappointingly takes away any role for the imagination, or for psychological explanations of the hero's behaviour.