The Twilight Zone
Picture this if you will. Television time on any week day evening; time to huddle in front of the TV set; time to traverse the odd boundaries of the surreal and the serendipitous; Yet for most, this will be a very short trip; a sojourn into an invsible valley between rabbit ears and radio waves; a short stopping off place where fact and fiction and day and night share the same zip code. This is a page dedicated to... The Twilight Zone.
Yes, indeedy, this was one fine television show! It was almost as much fun describing the various episodes to one another as it was watching them. The Twilight Zone was a true sixties signature. When I was growing up, our family tried to watch as many of these shows as possible, but depending on what was on competing channels, ( we had 5 whole channels in our city), we often missed it.
My dad loved his westerns, and my mom loved her dramas, but both of them liked Twilight Zone for its strangeness. When the show first came out, it aired after my bedtime, therefore, much of its allure was in the stories my mom would tell about it:
Remember that one episode where the guy...
Remember that show where those people went into space...
Remember last week's show? I never thought they were all really mannequins!
EVERYBODY watched The Twilight Zone; and for the few that didn't tune in, well, they have my condolences. This show was as popular as apple pie. It's not a wonder that so many people embrace The Twilight Zone with fond and loving memories, probably more so than many other great shows of the era. Few programs had the impact it did. This is largely due to Rod Serling, a man with a special gift, a man who hosted the weekly anthology serving as both master storyteller and presenter of the odd and curious. His typewriter was a warehouse for thought-provoking ideas that normally would never have seen the light of day let alone a television camera. Not only was Rod a great host, he was an impeccable writer with an oft-imitated style.
Entering the Zone
The Twilight Zone was dependable; as a television program its protracted style has entertained generations for six decades and will no doubt continue on. The program repeated a variety of themes in its five-year run: loneliness and isolation, the last person on earth, returning to a more peaceful and pleasant past, invaders from another world, nuclear devastation, time travel, haunted objects, life in the future and occult dramas were among its most notorious story lines. In short, when American television audiences wanted to take a mind-bending trip across parallel universes and impossible places, they sat down and flipped the channel knob over the the CBS Network.
Rod Serling (December 25, 1924 - June 28, 1975)
was, and still is, perhaps my favorite writer; his style is eloquent, yet impacting like a hard punch to the gut. His words were a razor's edge flowered with beatific prose and precise description of what most would consider blasé everyday existence. He was also a handsome guy who presented well, employing an uncanny knack of satirizing his own material with a courtly sleight-of-hand manner. Rod will always be with me, and was a strong contributor to the sixties culture.
The teleplay "Requiem for a Heavyweight" was my personal favorite from Serling. It's a sad account of an almost child-like heavyweight boxer suffering from Dementia Pugilistica (punch drunk syndrome) who can't make it in the world on his own. The play won Serling a Peabody award and skyrocketed his career.
Popular and Recurring Themes:
The Twilight Zone gave us a generous run of familiar themes which have so endeared the show to its fans. Among these themes are isolation, separation, last-man-on-earth, loneliness, going home again to a safe and loving past, nightmare scenarios, impossible events, time travel and, of course, paranoia.
"Is there anybody here?"
One of the most unnerving of themes is the "last man left on earth" idea where Twilight Zone characters suddenly find themselves in a world void of people. In these scenarios there's nobody to talk to, or explain what happened. Great episodes such as "Where is Everybody?", "King Nine Will Not Return" and "Time Enough at Last" cover this theme brilliantly. "Time Enough at Last" tells of a man who is delighted to be the last man standing, but a twist ending destroys his beautiful fate. The "Last man in the world" theme also incorporated interesting counter-themes such as the person who is not supposed to be living in the present world; they're either ghosts, machines, or supernatural entities. After realizing this, they find that they must return to their pre-ordained existence. Such classics in this genre are "The After Hours" where a young woman comes to realize she's only a mannequin; "The Lateness of the Hour" presents a vibrant young woman who slowly begins to understand that she is only a robot-a perfect daughter-built by her designer father.
The episode "Stopover in a Quiet Town" adroitly covers the theme of isolation as a young couple wakes up from a night of hard-partying complete with hangovers and a new location. The couple find themselves at a loss for explanation. Immediately they recon the city blocks, and, of course, there's nobody to be found. The streets are deserted as are the buildings. For anyone who hasn't seen this episode yet, I won't spoil it! "Stopover" is one of Serling's finest moments.
"If there was just someone to talk to, anybody."
Isolation and loneliness was a theme that was played to the hilt with fervor and flavor on The Twilight Zone. There's nothing more maddening than to be left alone, stranded, living in a world where one doesn't belong, or to be in a circumstance where nobody believes your predicament. Classic episodes like "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet", "The Lonely", "Back There", "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim", and "Miniature" present these themes magnificently. "Miniature", from the hour-long episodes of season four, is probably a cut above the rest, as the hour-long slot, and the talents of Robert Duvall lend more of a sense of placement as well as misplacement to the theme. "In Praise of Pip" is an episode of intense longing and aching loneliness that brings up the topic of The Vietnam war. For me, some of the most fascinating elements on the theme of isolation were the time travel scenarios. Parallel universes and time/warp realms where the traveler was completely unaware that they have slipped into the future, the past, or inadvertantly zig-zagged back into the present, were fascinating. "I Shot an Arrow Into the Sky", "The 7th is Made Up of Phantoms" and "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" are wonderful examples.
"You're going to think I'm crazy, ...but I was born right here in this town, and nobody has gotten any older."
Going home again; a visit to a past long forgotten seems to be one of Serling's favorite themes. There's so much passion in these episodes that it's nearly impossible not to share the longings that they present. Looking back on these episodes, I believe that every adult wants to revisit their childhood, hometown, or birthplace, and remain there forever. It's not fun to enter the adult world on a permanent basis. Rod Serling capitalized on these feelings of longing for another time when life was slower and more simple. These types of episodes are probably the most notorious of the entire Twilight Zone catalog for being emotive and wistful. Haven't we all been pushed so far to the edge that we'd like to jump off the train to a bucolic little town called Willoughby? How many of us wish to visit the Randolph Streets of our youth and go back to kid games and childish rituals just as Horace Ford did? "Kick the Can", "Walking Distance", "A Stop at Willoughby" and "The Incredible World of Horace Ford" were among the finest Twilight Zone episodes aired. Sometimes the theme would be a bit corrupted such as the case with "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville" where a ruthless tycoon wishes to go back and start over again, for getting there, making his millions, was "the kicker". The going back to the past theme would later be revisited on the series Night Gallery with the episode "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" which was rightfully nominated for an Emmy award. The episode "Static" stars Dean Jagger as an older man who tunes into his past courtesy of an old radio that plays all of his favorite old shows. His entire life appears to revolve around his antique radio that seems to feed an anger and frustration of living in a modern world. Sadly he's the only person who can hear these shows.
"They're out there and nobody knows it but me."
Paranoia, invaders from another planet, voices in one's head, mysterious stalkers, and plots against a person or, persons were great cold war themes that permeated many sixties movies and TV episodes. Twilight Zone made splendid use of these themes in its five year run. "The Hitch-Hiker" was one of the most notorious episodes in this genre. "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" gave us the hometown, U.S.A. invasion theme dashed with a healthy portion of paranoia, and "don't trust thy neighbor." "The Invaders", "The Fear", "Valley of the Shadow",and "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" are all classic episodes incorporating, fear, paranoia, invasion, and another hallucinatory runner up: delusion. The 60's were indeed a wonderful era, but fear and paranoia existed just as it always has, and always will in a tumultuous world. Being chased by an invisible-to-everyone-but-yourself villain, or hounded by demons that no one can see but you, were classic TZ thriller elements that today, usually embody what most people consider, the top episodes of the series.
"You're not real! You're not real!"
Things that were absolutely out of anyone's control, such as machines, toys, or other objects made for great monsters when they came alive, or were otherwise animated by some secret unknown force. "You Drive" is a story of a car involved in a hit and run. When the owner runs, the car comes alive and becomes his jury and conscience, finally chasing him down the street to the police station. "Living Doll" is a great story about a doll with a mind of its own. Though daddy may hate his daughter's toy, the doll could care less:
"My name is Talky Tina, and I'm going to kill you."
and "A Thing About Machines" is a little tale about machines with minds of their own. One man hates "gadgets", and wants to be rid of them altogether. Unfortunately, they have a different idea. All of these were great episodes dealing with relentless, but living, vengeful objects.
"Strange happenings, weird behavior..."
The Twilight Zone's greatest trick was convincing us all of wierd happenings where past and future collide with the present, objects take on a life of their own, wishes come true, and impossible things become all too possible. Such was the case of "Nick of Time" where an average man of reasonable intelligence finds himself at the mercy of a simple table-top coin operated fortune telling machine. For a penny, his life is controlled and his destiny is shaped. A small cafe is where his life takes on a whole new meaning at the whims of a little bobble-head devil, that for a penny a shot, spits out fortunes that seem to come true.
Some kids you just don't want to play with. In the episode "It's a Good Life" life isn't so good for anyone who lives with, or comes in contact with six year-old Anthony. Beloved child actor Billy Mumy portrays the boy who has a terrifying power and control over his household. Kinfolk are forced at finger-point to do his bidding and keep him happy and content-or else.
In the episode "The Masks" Greedy and self-centered relatives are dealt a wicked hand when they are forced to put on party masks in order to receive an inheritance. This episode, similar to "The Silence", an episode where a classic blabbermouth is wagered a large sum of money that he can't keep silent for one full year. In any event, both episodes prove that sometimes money just ain't worth it!
"The Grave": My Favorite Episode
"Pinto's a waitin' on ya'."
The genius of Rod Serling poured like fine wine when it came to his western themes. Rod knew that there was horror in the American West, and knew exactly how to pen it for the screen. To this day my favorite Twilight Zone episode is: "The Grave". If you can let your own imagination run free, you can find sheer horror in this episode as well. There's always the fear of the unknown for any man. On a bet, Connie Miller is challenged to visit the grave of his long time foe Pinto Sykes. Pinto had sworn a graveside threat: if Connie ever came to visit, he'd reach up through the ground and grab him. Here's where the show takes off. Blessed with the talents of Lee Marvin and some of the finest character actors on the planet, this episode is so filled with flavor, that every single shot is suitable for framing.
Serling's Night Gallery 1969-1973, featured a similar classic titled: "The Waiting Room". This creepy Serling western truly expresses a feeling of dread and horror-and in a small sense-claustrophobia since the action never leaves a small saloon. It doesn't take long to figure out what's happening in the plot, and the plot is genius.
The only criticisms I have of The Twilight Zone are the comic episodes. With the exception of a small few, I never liked the comic episodes of any anthology show. Speaking only for myself, comedy should have a very small, (if any), chapter in horror.