Some shows start with a bang and quickly lose their spark; some are a slow burn, taking a while to find their stride; The Twilight Zone has remained a class act from the beginning.
As of Friday, April 8, 1960, there have been 27 episodes. They have ranged in quality from fair to outstanding, and the current crop of four (I like to review them in monthly batches) comprises superior installments.
I think the success of the show can be attributed in large part to the high bar that creator and writer, Rod Serling, has set for its production. This is a person who clearly knows his craft and seeks out like talents (Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, etc.) to draft screenplays. Much of the credit must be doled out to the directors, cinematographers, and composer Jerry Goldsmith, to say nothing of the frequently excellent acting talent that CBS has managed to contract.
So much for the general praise. On to the reviews!
Long Live Walter Jameson sets the standard for this batch. The eponymous Professor Jameson is a brilliant history teacher with a knack for vivid anecdotes. It’s almost as if Jameson has lived through each of the periods and settings he describes, which is, of course, the case.
This is a thoughtful, fascinating piece that describes the blessing and curse that is immortality. It’s hardly the first, of course. The one I remember most vividly is The Gnarly Man, by L. Sprague de Camp, but it is always a worthy topic. In a piece I wrote many years ago, I once put these words into the mouth of a 5000 year old man:
“Imagine being in library with every book you ever want to read, and all the time in the world in which to do so. And you read them… and you still have all the time in the world.”
The following week, People Are Alike All Over. Two astronauts, a rock-chinned type and a frightened intellectual, go to Mars where they find a remarkably human populace. But why does the fine house crafted for the scientist (the hero-type having died soon after landing) have no windows or doors?
I’ll spoil it for you. Roddy McDowell (the panicky scientist’s actor) has been turned into a zoo specimen, relegated to live out the rest of his life as an exhibit in his “native habitat.” I get the message, but I still think it was a weak story idea.
Execution is another time travel fish-out-of-water story, but unlike The Last Flight, the voyager is a thoroughly unlikable chap. Snatched from the hangman’s noose in 1880, the murderous viewpoint character finds himself in 1960, the guest of a dapper chronologist (is that what you call a time travel expert?) The criminal remains true to type, killing and looting, being driven close to madness by the ever-present 20th century cacophony. The ending comes as a surprise, for the most part.
An interesting point—time travelers often are inordinately worried about changing the past, but no one gives a thought to changing the future. After all, the present is really just someone else’s past, and any gross modification of the present (say, sending one of its inhabitants permanently into the past) must to a resident of the future, make a severe alteration to the timeline. Food for thought.
Finally, we have The Big Tall Wish, the first episode to date that features a black protagonist (and several black supporting actors). An over-the-hill boxer tries to win a come-back fight with the help of the wishes of a little boy.
The episode doesn’t feature the madness or the weirdness of its predecessors. Rather, it is a slow, wordy piece. My daughter particularly enjoyed the heart-warming relationship between the boxer and his child friend. That said, the twist (there’s always a twist on this show) is very effective, and we are left with this conundrum: is a fight won with magic preferable to one honestly lost?
That’s the wrap-up for this month. I’ll be back in two days with this month’s F&SF!
(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)