August 6, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #10: The Twilight Zone

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

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.




Many years ago, during one of my periodic inventories of the junk boxes that had dogged me throughout my life, I came across a cache of drawings I’d made when I was younger. I don’t know why I’d saved them at all; likely, it was my mother who had kept them stored away, and they’d wound up in the junk box after she’d died. Many of the drawings were cartoon scribblings, done with an earnest attention to detail, and often a corresponding lack of talent; almost all of them were, in a way, snapshots of what I’d considered important at the time, things that had captured my attention or reflected what I was studying at school.

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.

The episode portrayed in my panoramic landscape, “The 7th is Made Up of Phantoms,” was from the series’ fifth and final season in 1963, although I would have remembered it from the reruns that Channel 11 ran later in the 1960s. When, after many years, The Twilight Zone returned to local syndication in the late 70s, I waited eagerly for that episode to come around, wondering if I would see whatever it was that had made it memorable enough for me to capture for posterity. It’s a hell of an idea, you have to admit, a group of solders finding them somehow in the middle of Custer’s Last Stand, fighting the Indians with the most sophisticated weaponry of the time.

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.

But those first three seasons – ah, there were some great stories. Not only Serling, but two of his frequent collaborators, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, would pump out the best stuff. There’s “And When the Sky Was Opened,” a chilling story about astronauts returning from the first manned spaceflight, which featured great acting from Jim Hutton, Rod Taylor and Charles Aidman; “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” in which a passenger jet winds up in prehistoric times; “The Obsolete Man,” a story about book banning and the dignity of man – these were not only terrific stories, but the atmosphere was something else.* Even a lackluster story such as the final season “The Long Morrow,” starring Robert Lansing as an astronaut who turns off the suspended animation on his 40-year spaceflight so he’ll be the same age as the woman he loves when he returns, has an epic nature to it, as well as a score of painful beauty (from stock music, no less) that acts as a perfect companion to the story.

*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

2 comments:

  1. Just got back from a grand link-tour of things you wrote years back about Rod Serling's preachy side, viz., Carol For Another Christmas.
    No real argument there; I used to see TZ in its initial CBS run, when I was but a lad of 9-10.Staying up 'til 9 (Central Time), even on a Friday, was a privilege for a kid that age, and not one to waste.
    But even as a kid, I got the preachiness, usually long before the end of the show.
    I also noticed that the other writers on the show, Charles Beaumont particularly, were less prone to preach, and so I took note of them. This is how and why I came to be a credit reader at a very early age.
    Fifty years on, the preach factor does wear a bit, but still it cannont be denied - Rod Serling was a writer.
    He put words together as few have, before or since.
    As a kid, I read Serling's prose paperbacks of his TZ tales; I felt I was getting away with something back then because in the prose versions, Rod had his characters swear like pirates (no f-bombs or excretories; this was the early '60s), but even here, nobody swore like Serling.
    Currently, MeTV has TZ on a summer hiatus; they're running Night Gallery in its place, and here Serling was as preachy as ever -when he got the chance. But his way with the language was as pointed as ever, so let that stet.

    By the bye, Carol For Another Christmas - That wasn't Stewart Granger as Grudge.
    That was Sterling Hayden.
    I'm a little surprised no one caught on back then.
    Ah well ...

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  2. You can count me with you among those who prefer Herrmann's S1 theme to Constant's later theme. I think it's much better-orchestrated, and I find the 4 main notes of Constant's theme ("de-de-de-de") annoying.
    TZ went off the air before I was born, so I only saw it in syndication, first on Nashville's indie station at 10 PM weeknights, and then I eventually saw most of the rest, including the hour-long eps, on Sci-Fi (as it was then named) Network. I can't stand preachiness either, and S 5's "I Am the Night - Color Me Black" was I think the preachiest, though it's where I first remember seeing George Lindsey & Paul Fix before I knew them from TAGS & The Rifleman respectively.
    I was able to buy the full series on DVD for $150 several years ago, which may sound steep but was a bargain compared to the original price of $100 per season.
    Me-TV is running TZ now, weeknights at 11:30 PM CT, and Night Gallery as well, at 3:30 AM CT, when the Me-TV Mystery Movie runs 90 mins instead of 2 hours.

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