William Shatner stars as psychology professor Stephen Turner who performs a series of experiments wherein two participants act as “teacher” and “student.” The teacher lists four sets of adjectives and nouns. The student has to associate the correct noun with the correct adjective under penalty of electric shock. If a student answers incorrectly, the teacher administers the shock with higher voltage each time. Turner’s experiment isn’t about memory under duress. Instead, it’s about obedience. The student is not the subject of the experiment (he’s a confederate and never gets shocked). The real purpose is to see how far the teacher will go; how much pain he will administer. Will a human being cause another person pain, even when the student moans and pleads for mercy? Will the teacher bend to the authority of the experiment’s administrator?
Turner relates his findings to previous incarnations of people being pushed to harm other human beings who were “just following orders” such as French torturers in Algeria and SS officers in Nazi Germany. Through his work, Turner uncovers a disturbing aspect of human behavior. A surprising number of “teachers” go the entire distance, giving their “students” the maximum amount of pain; the titular tenth level.
The Turner character is based on Stanley Milgram—author of the “six degrees of separation” concept—who performed a similar series of tests at Yale University in the 1960s. Not the only filmic reference one can find about Milgram (the extrasensory perception test in GHOSTBUSTERS comes to mind), THE TENTH LEVEL is said to have had Milgram as a consultant (according to www.stanleymilgram.com).
The experiment breaks down, literally, when Turner employs Barry Dahlquist (Stephen Macht) as a test subject. The laid-back carpenter goes wild, smashing Turner’s equipment and making the authorities at the American Psychological Association (APA) take notice of the potential immorality of Turner’s work. A hearing is convened wherein all members of the faculty involved and subjects are interviewed. Things look grim for Turner even after Dahlquist testifies that he came to admire Turner for showing him “the beast inside.”
This made-for-TV movie eluded me for years. Shot on video tape on soundstages, THE TENTH LEVEL has barely survived its sole 1975 airing on CBS. Colors have faded and the harsh studio lighting washes out actors’ faces in the extreme close-ups director Charles S. Dubin employs when trying to wrench up the drama. While Shatner sits at the center of the story, he’s not on screen as much as one would hope. He plays things relatively subdued, even in his post-hearing crisis of faith.
Some sources cite that John Travolta was in this film. That is not the case. The only Travolta/Shatner pairing, as of this writing, is Robert Fuest’s THE DEVIL’S RAIN (also from 1975).
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