Tag Archives: rod serling

[Oct. 15, 1961] Top of the Third (The Twilight Zone, Season 3)


by Gideon Marcus

and


by Lorelei Marcus

Two years ago, CBS aired the first episode of a new television anthology, one destined for the history books.  It was called The Twilight Zone, and it featured science fiction and fantasy themed stories in a most sophisticated fashion.  Twilight Zone garnered its creator, Rod Serling, a much deserved Emmy, and if Serling be remembered for nothing else, it’s certain he will leave a lasting legacy.

The new season began last month, and though I had high hopes, Serling’s creation is starting to feel a little tired.  Word through the grapevine is he’s a bit storied out, and the episodes that used to flow like water from his pen come a lot more sluggishly.  That said, a half hour of Twilight Zone is still better than most hours of other television — and two hours have already been aired this year.  Let’s take a look, shall we?  (Synopsis first, then my commentary followed by the Young Traveler’s)

First up is Two, and it’s easily my favorite of the new crop.  This may well be attributable to it having been written by someone other than Serling – in this case, writer/director Montgomery Pittman.  Two features an abandoned urban setting some years after the start of World War Three.  A ragged young invader (Elizabeth Montgomery) in a threadbare uniform is scavenging for scraps when she runs across a similarly bedraggled native soldier (Charles Bronson).  Though the latter would be quite happy to forget the horrors of war, the Russian woman continues the conflict, repeatedly attacking the American.  Ultimately, through kindness and appeal to reason, Bronson convinces Montgomery to give up the fight, her gun, her uniform, and the two head off into the sunset as friends. 

There is little dialogue in this episode and no twist.  It’s just a little post-apocalyptic meet cute.  What makes Two work is the sublime cinematography, the deft acting.  Bronson has already proven to be a charismatic leading man (q.v. Master of the Air), and Montgomery delivered her virtually wordless role convincingly.  Four stars.

Over the past couple of weeks, me and my father have been watching the first few episodes of the new season!  The first episode was fairly standard.  It was, once again, about life after a nuclear dust-up.  There were only two characters, a male and female soldier from opposite sides of the war.  The episode was basically just them interacting, and almost no words were spoken.  It was exactly what it was trying to be, and I don’t really have much else to say about it.  You may watch it if you like, but honestly, I would recommend skipping this episode.  Two stars.

Serling-penned The Arrival begins compellingly enough: a DC-3 lands at a busy airport with not a single soul or piece of luggage on board.  Grant Sheckly, an FAA investigator, is brought in to crack the case.  A little past halfway, realizing that none of the pieces are adding up to a coherent whole, Sheckly concludes that the plane is an illusion, the result of some kind of hypnosis.  In a tense scene, Sheckly places his hand in the path of the plane’s spinning propeller, and the aircraft disappears…along with the rest of the airport crew in the hangar with him! 

Sadly, this is the peak of the episode.  It turns out that the DC-3 is not some kind of ghost ship, nor is there some sinister purpose behind the apparition.  Rather, the plane is a personal demon of Sheckly’s; 17 years ago, the plane had disappeared without a trace, and Sheckly’s inability to solve the case has haunted him ever since.  It’s entirely too prosaic an explanation for The Twilight Zone, quite possibly the least satisfying resolution to what started as a most promising episode.  Two stars.

The second episode was interesting, at least until the end.  It was about a ghost plane with no one on it, and the man who was trying to figure out how it landed by itself.  His eventual conclusion was that the plane simply didn’t exist, and that turned out to be true.  In the end, the man was just crazy, end of story.  In my opinion there were a lot of stupid moments that could’ve easily been avoided that really damaged the story.  It was an interesting concept, but not very well carried out.  Despite the bad ending, I would recommend watching this one, as there were some interesting parts.  Two and a half stars.

The lackluster run continues through The Shelter, another Serling story.  A convivial birthday party for a neighborhood doctor is broken up by a bulletin from CONELRAD: unidentified flying objects, believed to be missiles, have been detected, and there is but a matter of minutes to reach safety.  The forward-thinking sawbones had built a shelter in his basement, and he quickly repairs there with his family.  Then the doctor’s friends arrive, each pleading to be let in, but the doctor refuses.  Whipped into a panicked frenzy, the neighbors bickeringly debate breaking into the shelter, then fight amongst themselves for the privilege of displacing the doctor’s family.  Racial slurs are cast against the one Jewish neighbor.  Just as the friends batter down the door to the shelter, CONELRAD announces that the UFOs were harmless space debris.  The neighbors, shamefaced, attempt to apologize to the doctor, but it is clear that the trappings of civilization cling loosely to them – and to the physician, as well, who refused to share his refuge. 

It’s not horrible, but this message was done more satisfyingly (and in a less over-the-top fashion) in the first season episode, The Monsters are due on Maple Street.  Two stars.

Episode three was fairly straight-forward.  It re-explored a common Twilight Zone topic of testing human nature under immense stress and danger.  I didn’t enjoy it very much, simply because people going crazy and yelling at eachother is not my cup of tea.  However, it is still an interesting episode and I recommend you watch it.  Three stars.

Last up for now is yet another Serling episode, the Civil War piece, The Passerby.  In the wake of Appomattox, a train of bedraggled soldiers trudges past a burned out home toward a final destination.  The inhabitant of the house is a fever-ridden widow whose husband died at Gettysburg.  She is joined by a maimed Confederate sergeant, who keeps her company as they are visited by several spectral forms in uniform.  One is the husband of one of the widow’s friends, a man the widow believed had been killed.  Then a Union lieutenant whose death the sergeant personally witnessed arrives, asking for water. 

The next morning, the sergeant confesses to a deep desire to continue down the road.  As the widow pleads for him not to leave, she hears the rich baritone of her husband.  He arrives, embracing her, and it is clear now that he, the sergeant, and even the widow are all ghosts of the war dead.  Last up the road is Honest Abe, himself, the last casualty of the “Great Unpleasantness.”

The first half is a talky muddle, the widow giving an overwrought performance of the kind I might expect in a high school play.  Yet, even though it was clear where the story was going (and I have, in fact made fun of shows employing this exact gimmick), I found its resolution somewhat moving.  It’s nicely scored, too.  It deserves two stars, but I’ll give it three anyway.

Last week’s episode was probably my favorite.  It was about a civil war fighter on the long road home who stops, seeking hospitality from a nice young woman.  I won’t spoil too much (though it looks like my dad may have), but despite the predictable ending, I still enjoyed the episode.  The acting was good, the sets, though simple, were attractive, and just overall it had a moody feel.  Of course, I highly recommend you watch this one on your own.  Three and a half stars.

So ends the first batch of the third season.  A mediocre batch, to be sure, though I have to remember that Season Two started badly, too. 

Next week, Galactic Journey will return to the written word.  It’s a little book called The Planet Strappers, and I think you’ll enjoy it (the review, if not the book).  In the meantime, as you know, I went to a small convention in Seattle last week.  While there, I met a lovely young lady who has since become a fan of this column.  She is a fashion model as well as the owner of a clothing store, and she sent me a photo to be included in the column as a kind of advertisement.  Please meet Sarah, the Journey’s latest Fellow Traveler.

[June 11, 1961] Until we meet again… (Twilight Zone Second Season wrap up)

When Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone debuted in October 1959, it was a fresh breeze across “the vast wasteland” of television.  Superior writing, brilliant cinematography, fine scoring, and, of course, consistently good acting earned its creator a deserved Emmy last year.

The show’s sophomore season had a high expectation to meet, and it didn’t quite.  That said, it was still head and shoulders above its competitors (Roald Dahl’s Way Out, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, etc.) The last two episodes of this year’s batch were par for the course: decent, but not outstanding:

Take Will the Real Martian please stand up.  A pair of policemen track the survivor of a flying saucer crash into a remote coffee house.  None of the folks inside will confess to being an alien, but it is certain one of them, all seemingly human, is no Terran.  Paranoia ensues, heightened by some electrical hijinks.  The show keeps you guessing to the end, and then there’s a bit of a twist. 

I think I’d have liked this piece more if it hadn’t been done better in first season’s The Monsters are due on Maple Street.  The episode was also a bit padded, with some unnecessary expository exposition.  I guess I’ll call it three stars, if only for getting to see John Hoyt again.  Jack Elam, who trades on looking weird, was also fun to watch.

I liked this episode a lot, even if it was slow.  It was similar to a previous episode of Twilight Zone, but the difference was this one almost turned the idea of people going crazy out of mistrust on its head (resolving the problem rather than going insane). 

The whole plot of the episode hinges on the fact that “There were only six passengers on the bus, and now there’s seven at the diner!”  At first I thought the twist was that there were only six passengers and the driver, a total of seven, until I did a headcount about halfway through the episode.

Something funny: earlier today I’d been watching the sit-com Angel, which had James Garner as a guest star!  Towards the end they had an in-show commercial for cereal.  In this Twilight Zone episode, one of the men was talking about how good his cigarettes tasted, and I thought for a moment he was going to break into an advertisement.  Of course that didn’t come until the end — when Rod Serling recommended Oasis cigarettes “for the freshest of tastes”.

I would give this episode a solid four.  It wasn’t perfect, and the pacing was a little slow, but I still loved the kooky special effects and funny story.  Even though it was simple, the story had me wondering the whole time.  I was hoping for a little more of a twist out of the end, but over all it was a good episode, and I highly recommend you watch it yourself.

The last episode of the second season, Obsolete, was a morality play.  A meek librarian endures a show trial under a regime clearly informed by Nazi Germany.  In it, he is declared “obsolete” and sentenced to execution.  The defiant man’s sole remaining right is to choose the method of his execution.  The librarian’s choice ultimately places the sentencing chancellor’s life in jeopardy as well.  Let us just say that one faces death more nobly than the other. 

It’s a beautifully shot piece, and the first half genuinely engages.  But the latter portion drags and is so monochromatic in its allegory that there is no room for pondering.  The God-loving, book-toting little man is right.  The Hitler-analogue is wrong.  Aren’t we glad that’s not us?  I give it three stars, but that comes from averaging the two halves.

I thought this episode was only okay.  The concept wasn’t that interesting and it was a pretty predictable episode overall.  The episode starred Burgess Meredith, who has already starred in two other Twilight Zone episodes.  The acting was alright, but the concept was so simple that the episode was almost bland.

The episode was about a society built on the idea that, if you were obsolete, you were killed.  There really wasn’t much else to the episode.  The man was tried, declared obsolete, and killed.  It felt even more drawn out than Martian.

I would give this episode a two and a half.  It was entirely mediocre and predictable the whole way through.  I would recommend skipping this one, because, to put it bluntly, it’s just not good.

And that’s that!  Next week’s episode is a summer rerun of the first of the first season, Where is Everybody.  Go check it out if you want to see where it all began.  Until next time,

This is the Traveler…

And, this is the Young Traveler, signing off.

[April 22, 1961] Out of time (Twilight Zone, Season 2, Eps. 22-24)

I’ve mentioned in previous articles that Rod Serling’s horror/science fiction anthology show, The Twilight Zone, has been lackluster this second season.  But things have been looking up recently, and I’m happy to announce that the latest run has been quite solid.  The show did not air on the 14th, owing to some stop-press coverage of Gagarin’s flight, so I just have three episodes for you this time around.  They are all worthy watching, should you catch them in the summer reruns.

First up is yet another of the awful run of video-tape experiments.  This is #6 for the season, and I hope they’ll give up the effort soon.  Twilight Zone is superlative in so many ways; it’s a shame when it has to settle for, at best, mediocre cinematography.  Long-Distance Call makes do rather admirably, however.  A 5-year old boy loses his doting grandmother but finds he can still reach her on the toy telephone she gave him just before she died.  Tragically for the boy’s parents, the grandma exhorts the tyke to join her – and there’s only one way that is possible.  It’s a strong episode, another episode that telegraphs its twist a mile away but has stand-out character development.  Three stars.

100 Yards over the Rim not only gives the gimmick away early, it’s a theme we’ve seen several times before on this show: namely, a fish out of water time travel story.  Chris Horne, a homesteader working his way West in a truncated wagon train, heads over a rise to secure game and water for his desperate party.  He finds, instead, a 1961 trucker’s diner, and a very puzzled man-and-wife pair of owners. 

Despite the hackneyed premise, it’s actually quite an excellent watch thanks to the efforts of the writer and the actors.  Cliff Robertson goes out of his way to recreate a pioneer from 1847.  Eschewing the cowboy duds that would have been used in a lesser show, Horne is inappropriately dressed for the desert in his Easterner’s clothes, complete with stovepipe hat.  Not only is he out of place in the future, but in desolate New Mexico.  Also effectively conveyed is the idea that folks are pretty much the same, regardless of era.  I liked it.  Four stars.

It’s pretty clear that the following episode, The Rip Van Winkle Caper, was shot at the same time so as to save costs – the backdrop is the same desert.  Interestingly enough, this episode is another time travel story, though of an entirely different sort.  It starts where Rim leaves off: in modern day.  Four men, one a scientist, hijack a million dollars in Fort Knox gold.  Their plan is to hide away in side a hill, put themselves in suspended animation for a century, and then stroll back into civilization with their ill-gotten, but now forgotten, gains.  It would be the perfect plan, if there were any honor among thieves…

Caper is a good watch, and it does a fine job of keeping you in suspense as to the outcome until the end.  It’s a bit padded for the first half, however, and the characters are not quite so engaging as in Rim.  Three stars.

That’s that for April.  There can’t be too much left to the season, so I’ll probably break up the remaining episodes into a couple of parts, with the latter summarizing the season as a whole.  Next up: the May 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction!

[April 2, 1961] Uprooting itself (The Twilight Zone, Season 2, Episodes 17, 19, 20, 21)

Twenty years ago, even ten (and zero in some places), science fiction was all about the twist ending.  Aliens would seed a dead planet with life only for it to turn out…that planet was EARTH!  Or folks might spend a story in a struggle to stay alive, only to find out THEY WERE ALREADY DEAD!  And so on.  Stories would usually end with a shock sentence, often with copious slammers (!!!)

But the genre matured.  Characters, writing, and fully explored concepts appeared.  These days, the “gimmick” often takes the back seat, facilitating rather than dominating the story.

The Twilight Zone, the science fiction/fantasy/horror anthology created by Rod Serling, is generally a cut above anything else on TV.  This includes its pale competitors like One Step Beyond and Way Out.  Unfortunately, several times in the first season, and more frequently in this, the second season, the show has aped the gimmick stories of print sf.  The result is a run of predictable, sub-par episodes.  There is light at the end of this tunnel, however – the most recent episodes have returned the focus to interesting characters and genuine drama. 

First, we have to get there:

The episode preceding the lackluster The Odyssey of Flight 33 was the lackluster 22.  In it, a young dancer has been committed to hospital for an apparent case of nerves.  She repeats a chilling dream: she awakens, a glass crashes to the floor, she follows a nurse to the hospital basement, and there she finds the nurse waiting behind a door marked “22” – the morgue.  It is a clear case of precognition, though no one believes her, including herself.  At the episode’s end, the dancer, wide awake, is about to board a plane.  Just before she does, something crashes to the terminal floor, and she notes the plane is number 22, its stewardess the nurse of her dreams.  She falls in hysterics and watches wide-eyed as the plane takes off without her…and explodes over the runway.

It sounds a lot better when I type it than when you watch it, which is the problem.  It’s yet another of the episodes captured on videotape rather than film, an unsuccessful experiment I hope is ended soon.  The acting is a notch too broad, particularly the sardonic, uncaring doctor (though perhaps this is intended to make us think that even the dancer’s waking scenes are dreams).  In short, good concept, mediocre presentation.  Two stars.

Burgess Meredith is back for the silly Mr. Dingle, the Strong.  Take the most nebbishy of folks and give him the strength of Superman; then sit back and watch the fun unfold.  Of course, you can’t leave it there, so rob him of his powers at a critical juncture to ensure maximum humiliation. 

It’s somehow not awful.  In particular, the strength effects are nicely done.  Lots of scenes with a scrawny fellow lifting heavy objects, punching holes in walls, etc.  Also, the aliens that bestow strength are genuinely hilarious.  Bad concept…but good presentation.  Three stars.

The dreary Static, in which a regretful old man tunes into the past on a magic radio, could have been good.  Like any bad gimmick story, it draws out far too long without developing the characters beyond bare pencil sketches.  Videotape doesn’t help this one either.  One star.

Things end on a high note, though.  The Prime Mover is an excellent character study that starts right – with the focus on the players, not the twist.  Ace Larsen is a fellow who feels down on his luck, despite co-ownership of a little coffee shop, the love of a lovely co-worker, Kitty, and the unflagging friendship of the other owner, Jimbo Cobb.  It’s Ace’s desire for more, what he considers his due, that promises to be his undoing, especially when it turns out Cobb has the power of psychokinesis, able to manipulate items with his mind.

They end up in Vegas, with Ace raking in the dough at the craps and roulette tables.  With winnings totaling $200,000, both Kitty and Cobb urge Ace to pack it in, but Ace wants one more game, even if it means losing Kitty, and perhaps, sight of what’s really important.  At a high-stakes craps bout with a notorious gangster, Cobb “blows a fuse” right as Ace lets his fortune ride.  Ace is left with nothing.

Or is he?  The event proves a watershed for the basically good-hearted Ace.  He laughs off the loss, returns back to the restaurant and proposes to Kitty, who accepts.  As a coda, we see that the seemingly simple Cobb hadn’t lost his power at all.  It was all orchestrated for Ace’s maximum benefit.  Now there’s a friend. 

The episode works because the gimmick, Cobb’s psionic ability, is almost incidental.  It isn’t even revealed until almost a quarter-way through.  While I was pretty sure Ace was going to lose his winnings in the end, I was delighted to see that it wasn’t the point.  Excellent acting and cinematography help, too.  Five stars.

More good news: the succeeding episode was also good…but you’ll just have to wait until the next round-up to read about it!

Coming up, Part 2 of my article on the Women of Science Fiction.  Expect it day-after-day-after-tomorrow.

[February 26, 1961] A Choice to Make (The Odyssey of Flight 33)

Friday night is The Twilight Zone night.  It’s true that the second season has not been as consistent in terms of quality as the show’s first season, but it has had enough good episodes to remain regular watching. 

Normally, I wait until I have a month’s worth of episodes before I summarize, but this week’s episode, The Odyssey of Flight 33 impacted me such that I wanted to talk about it with my readers.

The episode takes place entirely within the confines of a (refreshingly accurate mock-up of a) 707 jetliner.  On its way from London to New York, flight Global 33 comes across a superpowerful tail wind.  The hapless plane is accelerated to a ground speed of 3000 miles per hour and then plunged through a barrier of turbulence.  The flight crew loses all radio contact with the ground.

A dramatically changed ground—all traces of habitation have disappeared from the mid-Atlantic coast, though the contours of Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Hudson River are all recognizable.  When the co-pilot spots a Brontosaurus grazing in primeval jungles of New York, it is clear that the plane has somehow been transported far into the past.

On a hunch, the pilot takes the jet back into the heavens to ride the mysterious tailwind again.  Another crash of turbulence, and the plane’s radios come to life, the familiar skyline of Manhattan appears, and all seems well.

That is, until the pilot surveys the site of the United Nations.  Instead of that familiar building, he sees the distinctive structures of the World Exposition of 1939.  The plane has come back, but not quite all the way.

At that point, the pilot is faced with a choice: risk a landing at La Guardia, low on fuel, without radar, and on a runway that’s too short, or ascend again for one last try.  He chooses the latter, and on that note, the episode ends.

There is much to like and dislike about the episode.  On the con side, it is ploddingly paced and utterly predictable.  Within the first ten seconds, my daughter exclaimed, “Is the plane going to go back in time?”  The scene with the dinosaur is ludicrous, not just in the dodgy special effects, but conceptually.  The Hudson Valley is an artifact of the last glacial period.  Certainly no aspect of the Eastern seaboard would be remotely identifiable 100 million years ago.  The cockpit of Global 33 is cramped with five crewmembers, one of whom seems to have no purpose but to take dictation for the Captain.

On the other hand, the cockpit action is extremely accurate (aside from that last point).  As an aviation enthusiast and former leisure pilot, the terminology and procedures are spot-on.  The acting is universally good (we’ve seen the Captain before, as an angel in the first season episode , A Passage for Trumpet).  The soundtrack is excellent.

Most importantly, the show provoked a long, thoughtful discussion afterwards.  What a choice to have to make.  Is it worth the gamble that you might end up in the primordial past or the unfathomable future just to get a little closer to your proper time?  Could you relive the last 22 years, understanding that the entire course of history would be altered?  Knowing that every person on the plane had a younger self down there? 

I’ll say it flat out: I would land the plane.  22 years is close enough.  I would not risk the lives of my passengers on a slim hope, nor could I pass up the opportunity to avoid the horrendous toll of the second world war.  It’s not an ideal solution, but it entails the lesser risk, in my estimation.

Of course, as my wife points out, I spend much of my life dreaming about the past, anyway.  Perhaps the thought of being a temporal castaway is less appealing to most.  Or playing God with history…

What would you do?

[February 7, 1961] TV Addiction (The Twilight Zone, Season 2, Episodes 13-16)

I’ve been watching a lot of television, lately.  It’s embarrassing.  I should be reading more books or doing more than cursorily scanning the front page of the newspaper.  Instead, after work I flip on the set and vegetate for an hour.  I hope this doesn’t become a habit!

It’s certainly not as if TV has gotten significantly better.  Mr. Ed, My Sister Eileen, the umpteenth season of the Jack Benny Show, none of these are going to win any awards.  On the other hand, The Twilight Zone has already won an award (an Emmy last year), and I’m hoping that my continued watching and review of that show excuses my overindulgence in the others.

What did we see last month?  First off, there was Back There.  Corrigian, a youngish historian, departs for home from his Gentleman’s Club after a rousing discussion on time travel.  One step outside the Club, and he finds himself in April 1865 on the eve of Lincoln’s shooting.  Of course, he tries to avert the tragedy, but only one fellow, a sympathetic policeman believes him.  Then Corrigan is waylaid by none other than the assassin, John Wilkes Booth.  The President is slain, despite the policeman’s herculean efforts to warn him, and the professor returns to a seemingly unchanged present.  Or is it?  The servant who saw Corrigan out is now a wealthy businessman.  It turns out he’s the great grandson of the policeman from the past, whose attempts to save Lincoln won him acclaim.  The lesson: the river of time doesn’t like to make drastic changes of course, but it can meander a little.  Not bad.  Not great.  Three stars.

Second up, we have yet another of the hard-to-watch videotape episodes, The Whole Truth.  The gimmick for this one was spoiled in the prior week’s preview and in the opening of the episode: a crook of a used car salesman buys a haunted Model A, the purchase of which compels the new owner to always tell the truth.  This proves fatal to the fellow’s business until he hatches a plan to sell the vehicle to none other than Nikita Khruschev.  It’s an episode that relies on the charisma (or convincing lack thereof) of the main character.  Jack Carson does a pretty good job.  Three stars.

I looked forward to Invaders; Richard Matheson did the screenplay, and it was billed as a masterpiece of lines-less drama.  Something must have happened between the writer’s pen and the screen because watching 22 turgid minutes of a farm woman menaced by a pair of miniature Michelin Men was excruciating.  My first instinct is to put a good portion of the blame on the actress, Agnes Morehead.  There was enough ham in her silent performance to poison a dozen shuls.  On the other hand, it might be the director’s fault.  I heard through the grapevine that Matheson was not happy with the final product—he’d written in twice the action, and the alien invaders (who turn out to be human astronauts in a world of giants) had their screen time kept to a minimum in his version.  That would have been nice; they did not bear being in full view very well.  My daughter spent much of the show groaning in agonized boredom, pounding the floor.  I’m lucky the cops didn’t come to take me away for bad parenting.  One star.

Thankfully, the follow-up show was a lot of fun.  Dick York plays a harried banker who gains the ability to read minds for a day.  He figures out what’s going on with refreshing haste and uses the gift to great advantage, preventing a potential robbery, halting a bad loan, and getting the girl (who was too shy to verbalize her interest).  The scene where he listens in on the thoughts of a vacant-eyed bank patron who turns out not to be thinking about anything is a nice touch.  Four stars.

Not a bad run, and good enough to keep us watching on Fridays.  Are you tuning in, too?

[January 9, 1961] Looking up?  (The Twilight Zone, Season 2, Episodes 9-12)

What goes down sometimes comes up!  The sensational new sci-fi/surreal anthology, The Twilight Zone, started its sophomore season with a sharp decline in quality from its debut run of episodes; but, I’m happy to report that the quality of last month’s batch was pretty good.

The batch started out with a subtle bang with The Trouble with Templeton, in which an aging star of the stage seeks solace in the too-brief sweet time of his young adulthood.  It is both kin and different from the other episodes that have essayed this territory: A Stop at Willoughby or Walking Distance.  Though the 1920s Templeton returns to look as he remembers, particularly the lovely form of his long-dead wife, neither his bride nor his best friend seem happy to see him.  In fact, they practically chase the old man away.  But in one poignant moment, it is revealed that it was all an act; they were pushing him back for his own good, so he could live out his life with vigor rather than remorse.  A bit long in the first act, but worthy watching.  Four stars.

A Most Unusual Camera is the clunker of the four.  A trio of none-too-bright criminals pick up a vintage camera in a heist, one that takes pictures a few minutes into the future.  They quickly hatch a plan to turn it to profit–by snapshotting of the results board at the horse racetrack and betting before the end of the match.  Their winning streak is foiled by a greedy bellboy, and they all four end up dead in one way or another.  Unsubtle and rather grating.  Two stars.

The next in what was originally a consecutively produced batch of video-taped episodes is Night of the Meek.  It’s a Christmas episode, about a dipsomaniacal Santa who ends up about as down on his luck as one can imagine…until his wish is granted: to be a true Holiday gift giver, providing all the folks he knows with what they most desire for Christmas.  I was ready to dislike this episode as video-tape cripples the cinematography, and I tend to dislike Christmas-themed fare on principle.  But it was actually heart-warming and, more importantly, my daughter quite enjoyed it.  Three stars.

Day-before-yesterday, we wrapped all cozy in blankets, turned on the space heater, and tuned in for the latest episode of The Twilight Zone.  It didn’t look promising, this somber piece about a squalid Old West town in which a fellow was locked up, waiting to be hanged for running over and killing a little girl.  He had been drunk, you see, filled with the sadness of a village wasting away.  The prisoner is tormented by a vulgar snake-oil salesman, who is run out of the jail by a clearly sympathetic sheriff.  When the prisoner’s father pleads for his boy’s life, to no avail, the peddler offers for 100 pesos a bag of “magic dust” that, he claims, will warm the hearts of the lynch mob so that they spare the penitent killer.  Of course, it’s just a bag of dirt.  The young man is sent through the gallows with the rope around his neck…and yet, he is spared when the noose (ironically, also an item sold by the peddler) snaps.  The parents of the deceased decide the prisoner has suffered enough.  Was there any magic in this episode?  Or did the heartsick lawman give the rope a little fraying before use?

It’s a poignant episode with some of the best writing I’ve seen, both in the bumper narration and in some of the dialogue.  This was another one we expected to dislike, but it was surprisingly gripping.  Four stars.

If things are looking up in the New Year for television, they are looking decidedly grim in the world picture.  On New Year’s Eve, several North Vietnamese battalions charged into the neighboring Southeast Asian country of Laos.  There is concern that this could turn into a full-fledged proxy war between the Superpowers; America is actively supporting the Laotians, and Soviet planes have been spotted dropping supplies for the Communist Vietnamese troops. 

We avoided a catastrophe during the Suez crisis, when neither the USA nor the USSR was willing to intervene for their clients.  That is one of the reason the “Doomsday Clock” was turned back last year from two to seven minutes.  Perhaps the Federation of Atomic Scientists, the keepers of that macabre timepiece, were a bit hasty…

See you in a few with cheerier news, I hope.

[Dec. 5, 1960] Improved Batch (The Twilight Zone, Season 2, Eps: 5-8)

We are now deep into the second year of Rod Serling’s horror/fantasy anthology, The Twilight Zone.  I expressed my dissatisfaction with this sophomore season during my review of the first four episodes.  Has the show, justly nominated for a Hugo this year, gotten any better?

Well, you wouldn’t know it from the season’s fifth episode, The Howling Man.  My biggest beef with this show is the overused trope of a man’s slow descent into madness, usually punctuated by screaming in an episode’s padded second act.  This episode begins with a madman, an “American” with a strong foreign accent, who narrates the encounter he had decades before with a mysterious religious order.  It seems they had imprisoned the Devil.  Of course, the narrator was tricked into freeing him.  He then spent the next twenty years recapturing him…only to lose Beezelbub again when the narrator’s maid let him go.  It’s an overwrought, tilt-cameraed mess of an episode.  One star.

The next one, Eye of the Beholder, fares a little better.  A hospitalized woman, head completely bandaged, awaits the results of a treatment that will make her appearance “normal.” She is, reportedly, hideous.  The twist is given away within the first few minutes as the cinematographer takes ludicrous pains never to show the faces of any of the medical staff.  What saves this episode is the unsubtle yet still resonant commentary on modern prejudice and over-conformity.  Two stars.

Nick of Time is the first episode that approaches the standard set by the premiere season.  A honeymooning pair of newlyweds break down in a rural Ohio town and lunch in a cafe.  There, a Devil-headed fortune machine dispenses eerily accurate predictions.  William Shatner, a handsome young actor, really steals the show.  Moreover, there is flow and development to the story—you find yourself caring about this couple beyond the gimmick.  The ending is a nice kicker, too.  Four stars.

But then we’re back to form with episode four, The Lateness of the Hour, in which a young woman, shut in with her aging parents, rebels against the monotony of her life and the robotic, humanoid servants who enable it.  In the end, no surprise, it turns out she is a robot.  It stars Inger Stevens, who we saw last season in The Hitchhiker, and also in the great movie The World, The Flesh, and the Devil.  I like her, but this format was not kind to her.  The show has apparently switched to video-tape from film.  It may be cutting-edge and cheaper, but it looks tacky, and the whole thing runs like one-set dinner theater leaving no room for creative editing or cinematography.  Two stars.

This isn’t the first time a show has fallen short second year out.  Now that its leads are joining the Army, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis is disappointing, too.  Well, what’s worse: a long-lived mediocre program, or a show that burns brightly for a short time before petering out?

[Oct. 25, 1960] Great Expectations (the second season of The Twilight Zone

When does the New Year start?

Your first instinct might be to say “January 1, of course!”  But that’s simply the beginning of the calendar year.  Think of all the other days that kick off the next 365-year cycle.  For Jews, New Year is in September.  If you run a company, your fiscal year has a good chance of not matching the calendar.

And if you’re a student, a football fan…or a television viewer, you know viscerally that the New Year starts right after Labor Day.

Last TV year, writer/producer Rod Serling stunned his audiences with the exciting new anthology show The Twilight Zone.  Featuring half-hour episodes with science fiction/fantasy/horror themes, it was some of the best material the small screen had to offer.

It’s no surprise that Twilight Zone was renewed for 1960-61, but can the new season match the expectations set by the first?

So far, the answer is… no.  Let me go through the four episodes that have come out thus far, and then I’ll discuss the common elements that have been their undoing.

First up is King Nine will not Return, about a World War II bomber pilot who wakes up in the wreck of his plane stranded somewhere in North Africa.  The rest of his crew is gone, and his memory only gradually returns.  A nice hook, but it goes nowhere.  For 20 minutes, we get to watch the Captain laugh, cry, gibber, and run around.  Then he wakes up in a hospital, and it turns out it was all a battle-fatigue induced nightmare.  Except that his shoes are full of desert sand.

Then we have The Man in the Bottle, a prosaic little genie-grants-wishes story.  This episode is particularly maddening as the plot relies on the utter stupidity of the wishers (the genie, despite his rather sinister demeanor, is quite generous as genies go).  Granted four wishes, a near-bankrupt antique storekeeper and his wife wish: 1) That their display case glass be mended, 2) That they get a million dollars, 3) That they be unimpeachable rulers of a contemporary nation, 4) and (when #3 doesn’t work out), that they be restored to their former state.

The catch to their windfall of cash is the Internal Revenue Service, which claims most of the income.  Since (in a nice bit) the generous storekeepers give away about $60,000 right away, after taxes they are left with just $5.  As for the gratification of wish #3, you just knew the storekeeper was going to end up as Adolf Hitler on April 30, 1945.  And after #4, the storekeeper breaks the display case repaired by wish #1.  A complete reset.

Except, of course, that his neighborhood is $60,000 richer!  This isn’t touched upon, and it is a shame.  I would have liked to see the storekeepers’ community, now aflush with funds and overflowing with gratitude, helping to make their shop a success. 

Or, you know, for the storekeepers to make better wishes in the first place.

Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room

A two-bit hood spends the episode in a dingy hotel room literally wrestling with himself after being given his first murder contract.  In the end, his suppressed nobler self takes control and turns away from a life of crime. 

And is subsequently gunned down by the mob.  Ah, my mistake.  That didn’t happen, or at least, it was not shown in the episode.  It’s a logical conclusion, however.

I actually probably enjoyed this episode the most, but that’s not to say it was good; merely that it was not horrible.  Joe Mantell turned in a pretty good performance as the pathetic “Jackie.”

Finally, we have A Thing about Machines, which my daughter and I were able to preview before it airs this Friday (in three days).  A martinet of a writer in a palatial estate finds fault with all of his mechanical devices: his television, his radio, his typewriter, his phone.  So they all plot their revenge.  The typewriter composes an eviction notice (somehow, the thing magically replenishes its paper store).  The television and phone harangue him.  His electric shaver slithers after him like a snake.  Ultimately, his car chases him into a swimming pool, where he dies of a heart attack.  The acting, cinematography and music are fine.  Shame about the story.

My daughter told me recently, “Last season, Twilight Zone was creepy with a twist.  Now it’s just creepy.”  She’s right.  Each story starts with a premise and then goes nowhere, developmentally speaking.  We’re back to that padded middle, crazy fellow screaming pattern that dogged the worst episodes of the first season. 

What’s the common element?  Rod Serling wrote them all.

In fact, Rod Serling, who previously only showed up in the previews for next episodes now walks onto the set at the beginning of every story.  I don’t mind when Hitchcock does it, but it rather breaks the flow in this show.  As for the quality of writing, the stories Serling provided last season were among the weaker entries, and he’s no better this season.  I have a great deal of admiration for Serling as a producer and a raconteur, but he’s got to let other folks contribute some screenplays.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh.  It may well be that Serling is writing under strict budgetary guidelines, which limits his sets and number of actors (not to mention hiring out guest writers).  Between Serling and his restrictions, I don’t know that the show will survive the year.

On the other hand, next week’s episode is by Charles Beaumont.  That bodes well.

See you in two days with this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction!

[July 2, 1960] Bottom of the Cup (Twilight Zone 1st Season wrap-up)


Gabrielle and Chelsea–dig that futuristic dress the latter has on!

Greetings from Westercon San Diego!

Now, with an opening like that, I expect you’re expecting a convention report.  Well, this is just day one of a four day extravaganza, so not quite yet.  Just know that I’m having a lovely time, and I’ve already swept up many fellow travelers.

No, instead I want to talk about the end of an era.  After a successful run of 36 episodes, The Twilight Zone has come to a finish.  Well, for this season, anyway.  I can’t imagine that it won’t be renewed in Fall 1960. 

This latest one will review just two for the simple reason that there ain’t no more:

First up is Rod Serling’s The Mighty Casey, possibly the least inspired of the season’s line-up.  Here’s the set-up: The Hoboken Zephyrs are deep in the cellar, easily the losingest team in the National League.  Along comes a applicant with the goofiest face imaginable.  He is accompanied by a elderly gentleman who makes no obfuscations about the fact that the rookie is, in fact, a robot.  Interestingly, this is the second Twilight Zone to star the quite talented Jack Warden, and both times, a robot co-stars.

Well, the young artificial man, 22 years old in appearance yet just three weeks in existence, proves to be an amazing pitcher, and the Zephyrs come to have a solid shot at the pennant.  Until, of course, it is learned that Casey isn’t human.  Now, this is where I expected an interesting debate over what qualifies a player as a “man,” and the fine line between natural and artificial sapience.  Instead, I got a dopey resolution where the stellar pitcher is given a heart (so as to gain human status) and then subsequently doesn’t have it in him to strike anyone out. 

“Mediocre,” was my daughter’s assessment. 

A World of his Own, by Richard Matheson, fares a bit better.  Keenan Wynn is a famous but somewhat nebbishy playwright with the uncanny ability to make characters come alive–literally.  In fact, as the episode opens, he is caught by his wife (Phyllis Kirk) in the arms of a mistress of his own creation (Mary La Roche).  Well, that’s what the wife sees through a window, but by the time she enters the writer’s study, the mistress has vanished.

Eager to save his marriage, the writer explains his talent, but his wife remains dubious, threatening to lock him up so that she can collect all of the community property after obtaining a divorce.  Ultimately (as telegraphed from the first minutes of the show), it turns out that Kirk is also one of Wynn’s creations, and Wynn is compelled to destroy her by tossing the dictation tape that contains her description into the fireplace.  He contemplates bringing her back with a fresh dictation, but instead, he resurrects the less shrewish Mary. 

Rod Serling then appears to deliver a rare on-screen coda… only to be disposed of by Wynn in the same fashion as all of the playwright’s other creations.  Cute.

There is a rushed, claustrophobic element to these two stories, as if the show had run out of budget, and the Serling/Houghton production team forced to make them on the cheap.  Here’s hoping CBS funds the show more lavishly in Season Two.

Still, there’s no cause for complaint.  We got more than 15 hours of some of the best television has to offer, and strong indications that we can look forward to many more in the years to come!