These aren’t academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.
One in particular, made me smile. It was a drawing of a Sherman tank, the stalwart American fighting machine of World War II, under attack by arrows from an unseen enemy. It might seem an incongruous combination of genres, a thorough and confusing mashup of different eras, but to me it made perfect sense. I had just stepped into The Twilight Zone.
As it turned out, the episode was both more and less than I’d remembered. The soldiers were not from World War II, but were National Guardsmen out on maneuvers not far from the Little Big Horn. The tank was not a Sherman, but a Stuart tank (although I didn’t find that out until I read the episode guide even later). For that matter, the tank didn’t even figure in the end – the men abamdoned it to walk into the battle, where they met their deadly fate. It was, in many ways, a lame entry in the series, as were so many in that final season.
On the other hand, there was also something remarkable about it, about how the imagination could overrun any boundaries put in front of it. The elements of unexplained time travel, the chilling scene in which one of the Guardsmen, returning from a reconnaissance mission, pitches forward – an arrow protruding from his back, the final twist (you mean that wasn’t it?) in which the commanding officer finds the names of the three missing Guardsmen on the list of those lost with Custer at Little Big Horn. This was something wonderful, and even if it was more powerful to me as a kid than it would be as an adult, it speaks to how extraordinary The Twilight Zone was, and how lasting was its impact.
The story behind the creation of The Twilight Zone is familiar to most people: how Rod Serling, tired of constant interference by sponsors and network officials over the content of his teleplays*, had decided that science fiction might offer him more of the freedom to deal with controversial themes and complex adult situations that he currently lacked.
*For example, British navy officers drinking coffee rather than tea because the show was sponsored by a coffee company. Networks were also nervous about stories dealing with politics, race, or anything else that might conceivably offend a segment of the viewing public.
By using science fiction and fantasy to offer allegorical takes on current issues, TZ demonstrated that – in more ways than one – what you saw on the screen might not be what you were actually seeing. A drama about invading aliens, for instance, might actually be a treatise on race relations. Often fantastic scenarios could be seen as a way to deal with everything from McCarthyism to contemporary society’s desire for conformity. That was a new way of storytelling for me; in much the same way that The Prisoner would redefine conventional representations of reality, The Twilight Zone would teach me that stories weren’t necessarily limited to one meaning.
Unfortunately, Serling was not always a subtle storyteller*, and that’s one of the reasons The Twilight Zone has perhaps less of a shelf life than any of the other series on my list, and comes in only at #10. Particularly when Serling was lazy or overworked, he barely made any attempt to disguise the meaning behind a story, and it would degenerate from literate entertainment to tiresome preaching. (See this for a non-TZ example of said habit.) Those stories are painful enough when first viewed; they become almost impossible to watch again, and when you run into enough episodes like that, it can make it very difficult to enjoy and appreciate a series.
*Not always? That's a subtle way of saying it.
*You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned some of the more famous episodes, such as “To Serve Man.” (“It’s a cookbook!”) They’re fun too, but they lack that something extra that puts it over the top for me.
And speaking of atmosphere – I may be in the minority here, but I always preferred Bernard Herrmann’s first-season theme to the more familiar Marius Constant version. Herrmann’s is sutble and sinister – just like TZ at its best. Combined with Serling’s opening title voiceover, you’ve got perhaps the perfect TV series opening. It likely wouldn’t exist now, since many shows have dropped their openers in order to squeeze in more commercials. But can you seriously imagine TZ without that opening? Sure, the stories may have been just as good, but it’s like eating a terrific dessert without having first had an excellent meal – you might think it’s pretty good, but think of how much better it could have been. While we’re on the subject, I think the reason the TZ revivals have fallen short lies, in part, with the shift from black and white to color. Yes, B&W was the norm when TZ was first run, but there’s still something about the look it gives the series that makes it an integral part of its success. After all, shouldn’t a show whose stories so often deal with outer space be shot in the same black and white colors of the nighttime sky?
The Twilight Zone is one of the two non-contemporary series on my list that I don’t have in my personal DVD collection, and that’s unfortunate when you consider how much the episodes have been butchered for syndication, even on Syfy, so much so that I don’t bother most of the time when the channel runs its periodic holiday marathons. But the DVDs are expensive, especially considering the number of episodes I’m not interested in re-watching, and the most likely way I’ll wind up with it is through some killer sale or a very good deal on a used box set.
But I figure by the time I do wind up with it, the episodes will be fresh enough that I’ll be ready to take them on again, ready for the wonder that accompanies a visit into the Fifth Dimension, the area of imagination. It’s a place everyone should visit at least once in a while.
Next week: the only animated series to crack the Top Ten