Monday 16 June 2014

The Twilight Zone - Series One

Serling Steak

The Twilight Zone - Series One
1959/1960 USA
Produced by Rod Serling
Shock BluRay Region A/B

Five and dime, pulp fiction portrait of a young writer. Ex-army. Making some progress in writing for both radio and television but already battling censorship in one form or another.

His script, The Time Element, has just been aired as part of The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. Bookended with introduction and comments from the popular comic actor Desi Arnaz, it concerns the story of a man played by William Bendix who is time travelling backwards to the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 in his dreams... or are they the dreams of his psychiatrist, played by Martin Balsam? A clever enough script for a television show in 1958, with a classic sting in its tail.

The success of this story and the writer's current track record is such that CBS are willing to let the young writer in question have a go with a new show he wants to air.

The writer’s name is Rod Serling and his next stop... The Twilight Zone.

Yeah, that’s right! I’m finally catching back up to The Twilight Zone. I used to watch it a little as a teenager when they finally started re-running it again in the early 1980s. It was a show my dad always talks about with fond memories and when you get a measure of the style of the episodes and the famous “twist ending” style of writing... you can certainly see why this programme is both fondly remembered and cited as a major influence on the work of many writers and directors over the intervening decades.

When I was a kid, starting from its first issue in 1977, I used to read a comic (so did my dad) which was a big hit in the UK. It was a science fiction comic and it had a very hard edge to it... so much so that it was regularly getting into trouble with various censors and authorities and found itself having to dumb itself down at regular intervals or print retractions to the appropriate corporation it had managed to aggravate in its “everyone can be a target” attitude to life. It’s still popular to this day, probably not because the first issue introduced a kind of reboot of a famous British comic book character from a comic called The Eagle named Dan Dare, although that’s why everyone bought the first issue. It was probably due to the popularity of the character introduced in the second issue, still going strong and called Judge Dredd, that has kept this comic called 2000AD going for so long... but it was a general leaning towards twisty stories that kept people coming back for more.

One of the semi regular scripts over the first 25 years or so that I was reading it was named after the alien editor figurehead of the comic. Tharg’s Future Shocks was exactly the kind of stories you used to get in Serling’s The Twilight Zone and, with the comics reputation of plundering from the best, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the trick endings thrown up in the actual strip were, in fact, just rehashes of old episodes. Certainly, the creators of the comic were wearing their influences on their sleeve when they published a story about a man who was haunted by Rod Serling’s ghost... who would introduce an unseen audience to a man’s daily life routines while slowly driving him mad.

This is, of course, just one particular thing I’ve picked on which was influenced by Serling’s incredible show. Others would be very obvious copies of the format, a show where one off stories could have a range of tones (bleak, whimsy, hopeful, terrifying) and a variety of times and places (sometimes in just a single episode) to pull you in to the series. If you didn’t like the story one week, the next one would be competely different and draw you back in. And with Serling giving you his personal tease on the contents of the next show before the end credits would roll... you knew you’d be back for more. Shows such as The Outer Limits and One Step Beyond were obvious imitations of the “formula” of these kinds of shows and, as I’ll mention in another review coming soon, even the influential and well loved show Star Trek would be channelling exactly the same kind of stories that were present in The Twilight Zone. 

Serling, of course, would provide the astonishing (to this day if nobody tells you about if before you first watch it) twist ending at the end of Planet Of The Apes, an ending which keeps the same kind of spiritual concept of Pierre Boulle’s novel Monkey Planet (La Planète Des Singes) but which reconceives it into something that's a much more stronger and damning indictment of man’s stupidity (the ending of the Tim Burton version had a less stronger ending to it but, ironically, is closer to the denouement of the original novel in most ways). This style of setting up a specific story element and then pulling the rug from under the audience at the eleventh hour is something which a lot of writers on the programme seemed to adapt as their way of working and, truth be told, it’s not a million miles away from the style of a lot of science fiction short stories of the 20s, 30s, 40s and 1950s. Which makes sense because, in addition to Serling writing quite a lot of the episodes himself, you had people like Richard Matheson writing episodes for the show too.

Series One is as hit and miss as any other TV show with this kind of changeable format that pitches you up in a new story each week... leaving you with no regular cast to hang on to except the unflappable Rod Serling with his introductions, coming soons and much imitated voice over commentarys during parts of a story. This is to be expected, of course, and when it’s lousy it’s watchable and when it’s good it’s often incredible. And, as you would expect, everybody has their own favourites and their own clunkers which they respond to at some level in one way or another... but it’s probably a huge testament to the show’s popularity that so many people do have episodes which they vividly remember form the history of the show and which sparkle above all the rest for them.

I re-watched about a quarter of these things when they were repeated on the Bravo channel we used to have in the UK about 15 years ago. The repeats happened to coincide with a time when I was off work with a serious illness and recovering in my bed meant I got to wake up and watch daytime repeats of The Twilight Zone before slipping into sleep again at various intervals during the day. Watching the first series on blu ray now, I can see why the show had such an impact on people and why I’ve never forgotten them. A few of my favourites from series one would be...

Episode 2. One For The Angels
After a dullish opening show, we are introduced to an absolutely incredible episode full of whimsy but which also shows the consequences of one person’s decision. In this, a street salesman is visited by a rather charming and debonair incarnation of death and, due to trying to keep himself alive longer than he is destined, finds himself endangering the life of a young girl. In order to save her he must make “a pitch for the angels”, a show of absolutely brilliant sales patter that even death himself starts to make purchases for things he doesn’t really need. Will the man save the girl who is lying on her death bed and, if he does, what will be the consequences to him?

Episode 8. Time Enough At Last
Burgess Meredith in charmingly over the top mode as a bank worker whose life is dedicated to reading, much to the dismay and irritation of his battle axe of a wife and displeased boss. Then, one day as he locks himself in the bank vault during his lunch hour yet again, so his reading is not interrupted, he comes out to find the entire world has been turned to rubble in his absence. At first despondent, he finds enough food to last him forever and then, much to his delight, he finds that the books in the library are all still in tact and readable, containing decades of great literature for him to read in his existence as the last man on earth. Is this to be his final happy ending or does fate have one last blow in store for him?

Episode 9: Perchance To Dream
In which a patient comes to a psychiatrist to tell him of his fear of sleeping as he is pursued by a woman who will seal his fate. But how do you know when you are dreaming and when you are awake? The patient in question might not ever know the answer but we certainly will in this episode which plays around the concept of bleeding realities.

Episode 10. And When The Sky Was Opened
Starring Rod Taylor as a pilot in some distress, this is an early example of what happens when you find you and your colleagues are being extracted from both reality and history one person at a time, and how the world reshapes itself around the holes left by a person who never existed.

Episode 11. What you Need
A story of a salesman who knows what you want and will sell it to you cheap before you even knew you needed it yourself. When a thug uses his realisation of the man’s special powers to exploit the salesman, we get to find out that sometimes what you need is, really, not what you’d really like.

Episode 16. The Hitch Hiker
A young woman on a long road trip is terrorised by the frequent sightings of a hitch hiker who couldn’t have possibly gotten ahead of her whenever she sees him. Something’s not right and, although the twist ending on this one becomes fairly obvious from early on, it’s fun when you realise that, at some point, she will have to let the hitch hiker into her car in order to reach her final destination.

Episode 21. Mirror Image
A lady waiting in a bus station finds that she’s not the only one waiting for the bus... in such a way that she spends the episode in fear.

Episode 25. People Are Alike All Over
Roddy McDowall stars as the surviving astronaut who has crashed on a planet where he fears the alien race who are waiting for him just outside his wrecked space craft. When he finally meets them, his fears are allayed for awhile, only to be confronted at the end of the episode with the inescapable conclusion that, indeed, people are alike all over.

Episode 34. The After Hours
Another obvious twist but nicely done. One of the strengths of The Twilight Zone was that, even if you could see the twist coming a mile off, they were often written and directed so well that you certainly didn’t mind sticking around for the obvious denouement. This tale about a young lady played by Anne Francis (from Forbidden Planet) who finds herself on the floor of a department store not generally seen by the regular customers, and her final fate there, is nicely done.

Episode 36. A World Of His Own
This final episode of series one is pretty funny and even Rod Serling, in his own words, gets in on the act in this tale of a writer who can conjure up people out of thin air with just his words. It would be fair to say that the ending of this story is what youngsters these days would call... fairly “meta”.

And there you have it. Series one of the mother of all anthology shows has some pretty unmissable episodes which have been an inspiration to creative people ever since this first season aired over 1959/1960. One which guested a lot of interesting writers and, of course, many famous actors such as, in this series, Jack Klugman, Burgess Meredith, Roddy McDowell, Ida Lupino (who also directed an episode in a later series), Jean Marsh (as a robot in her days before playing Rose in Upstairs Downstairs, or even Sara Kingdom in Doctor Who) and future Avenger Patrick Macnee.

Another reason for watching this brilliant show, for the musically inclined among you, was the wealth of A-list movie composers used throughout the series. These were the days when big movie composers thought nothing of writing for TV too and we’re talking some pretty big hitters in the case of The Twilight Zone, which had several scores composed by the likes of such luminaries as Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and Leonard Rosenman. In fact, Herrmann even wrote the haunting opening title music of the first season. Not the “da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da” of Marius Constant’s much invoked signature tune, which was used from the second series, but a more haunting one, to my mind, which isn’t as splashy and catchy as the later choice of opening, but which I personally find a little stronger and more appropriate to the content of the episodes, if truth be told. Either way, some of the scores in these shows are amazing, sometimes culled from library music composed specifically for that purpose by people such as Herrmann and Goldsmith, and sometimes with bespoke compositions. Always great pieces of musical moods to give the drama of the show the weight it sometimes needed.

And that’s about it. The Twilight Zone was a series about ideas and the exploration of those ideas in a science fiction induced starting point. If you’ve never seen them but you like movies which make you think, it’s almost guaranteed that the films and TV shows that are doing that now owe some small debt to Serling’s classic show. The new Blu Ray transfers from Shock are absolutely brilliant and loaded with extras. This first one, for instance, has isolated score tracks for almost all of the 36 episodes, plus alternate versions of some of the episodes from other TV shows or radio dramatisations, plus interviews and commentaries for some of the key works. It even has, on the last disc, the original The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse hour long episode (minus adverts) that opened the gates and allowed Rod Serling to dazzle and, sometimes, terrify audiences for five series of absolutely riveting television in the late fifties and early sixties... shows which continue to be a well spring for directors such as Steven Spielberg and M. Night Shamalayan to this day. If you’ve never seen any of these before you might want to do yourself a favour and spend a good few hours getting acquainted with some characters and places you might not have met in their original form before. A cast of ideas and fiction which will go on to reside in that one special place in your heart... in The Twilight Zone.

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