The Twilight Zone Review
Although I have always thought of myself as an Outer Limits sort of guy, over and above The Twilight Zone, I hadn't gotten too far into this outstanding Blu-ray boxset for the complete Season One of Rod Serling's immortal TV show before realising – well, more like remembering - just how darn good this groundbreaking fantasy series really is.
Exquisitely restored for this Region A set, The Twilight Zone looks and sounds astonishing. Hailing from the golden period of 1959-1960, we get all thirty-six classic episodes, as well as original pilot shows and radio dramatisations, plus Serling's little end of the show teasers for the next episode. The cult show has been released many times over the years, but this is almost certainly the best all-round collection, boasting fabulous AV quality and all-new commentaries, and is therefore a definite treat for fans of what Serling came up with during those paranoid times, and for fans of the genre, itself.
Despite stories that span the universe and frequently traverse dimensions, the thrust of Serling’s explorations is predominantly one that seeks to unravel the essence of the human condition. What it means to be human. How we deal with things that are beyond our comprehension, and how we retain that all-important humanity, in all of its guises both good and bad, in the face of the unknown. There isn’t wonder or spectacle in his tales just for the sake of it, and the argument about the lack of budget for such things does not hold any water because even if he’d had access to millions per episode, the stories he wanted to tell would still have eschewed elaborate effects in favour of good, solid, old fashioned character-play and genuine performances that engage on emotional as well as cerebral levels. Most of the stories found in this season, as well as the seasons that would follow, have that certain “ring” to them, a sort of fable-like familiarity that gives them a cosy, warm aura of both nostalgia and awe. These are the types of story, the majority of them written by Serling himself, that you feel you already know, almost as if they have been passed down from generation to generation. And, in many ways, this is true. Moralistic dilemmas, flights of fancy and speculative fiction have been the mainstay of SF literature since the beginning, going right back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which was developed from all three ingredients. But whilst the majority of filmed SF and fantasy became exceptionally simplified – man versus monster – and remained that way for decades, it took the bravery and the raw imagination of Rod Serling to defy the trend and to give hard SF room to breathe on a weekly basis in the form of highly stylised anthology show. Bringing in great genre writers such as Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, Serling unlocked the perfect conduit to bring broader concepts to the masses, yet sugaring such audacities in tales of time travel, of aliens, of robots, and of spectral encounters and psychic abilities.
He was an incredibly shrewd operator.
Highly political, Serling found the ideal genre with which to observe and pass comment on social matters and cultural revelation. Although liberal in outlook, he understood precisely the mechanics of the right wing, of prejudices grand and small and of the complexities of moral paradox. He didn't see Fifth Columnists, he saw Fifth Dimensionists! As Gene Roddenberry would do with Star Trek, Serling would use the platforms of SF, of horror and of fantasy to bring home the relevance of certain attitudes and political stratagem – and he was extremely successful at this game because he believed in the messages that he was sneaking under the radar. He knew that he couldn't just write openly about race relations, about feminism, about bigotry, the penal code and the hell of war because, in the least, the network would not touch his material, and, at worst, he would face being blacklisted, as so many of his colleagues had been during the McCarthy witch-hunts that had strangled creativity and art across all forms of medium. With his little voice-over intros and final codas, Serling neatly wrapped up his episodes like live-action fairytales. He cleverly used the language of myth and melodrama, possibly over-egging the sage-isms a touch and stating things that a modern audience can see and understand quite blatantly, but he was preaching to minds that had been stifled and smothered, cosseted in Cold War doctrine and still quick to lapse into intolerance. He could hardly name names and he couldn't waggle a finger of accusation, but in that sombre tone of overcast, almost regretful optimism and dour reservation he could slip thoughts, ideas and impressions into those minds in the hope that they would open-up and soak in some new and possibly radical notions like sponges.
The strategy was inspired, the execution devoutly escapist. Salesmen, astronauts, explorers, soldiers, businessmen, sailors, neighbours and all the myriad folk from the mundanity of modern life were to teeter on the brink of The Twilight Zone, their understanding and even their very existence about to become irretrievably entwined with the impossible, the unbelievable … and, in most cases, the inescapable. Angels would appear, premonitions would mystify, wishes would be granted and theological laws would be broken, the physics of reality would be bent, twisted and re-shaped. Nothing, you could be certain, once you'd heard Serling's opening narrative, would ever be quite the same again. So let's have a look at some of what Serling and his team of dreamers conjured up for the first season … in no particular order.
Earl Holliman had just completed his tour of duty with Leslie Nielson in Forbidden Planet, and was still well over a decade away from patrolling the beat with Angie Dickinson in Police Woman, when he found himself all alone in a weirdly deserted Mid-Western town with absolutely no recollection of how he got there, or exactly who he is, in the Season opener, Where Is Everybody? The style of one person experiencing something completely out of the ordinary and being taken to edge of madness would becomes a mainstay of the show, as would the idyllic looking vogue of 50's Americana. The wonderful Time Enough At Last has an obsessive bookworm, played with myopic relish by Burgess Meredith, finding himself to be the last man left alive after an H-Bomb wipes the city clear and reduces it to rubble, and realising that his one dream of having all the time in the world to be able to read every book that he can excavate from the ruins of the public library may actually be his ultimate curse. Some terrific matte paintings of the devastated city and a marvellous array of shattered buildings and wrecked vehicles give this story a genuinely epic, yet intimate feel. Comedy and loneliness vie together in both stories, with Serling establishing the theme of every man being an island beset with strange tides that only he has the power to decipher.
Across the board, there are terrific, even barnstorming performances from actors, both established and newcomers alike, which propel what can often be quite corny set-ups into invigorating, exciting and sometimes very moving new dimensions. Pre-The Time Machine, Rod Taylor, then a fresh face to American TV, is excellent in And When The Sky Was Opened as a returning astronaut who finds, to his escalating paranoia and horror that he and his comrades have slipped through some sort of hole in the fabric not of time or space, but of fate, itself … and that fate is going to rectify its mistake, one way or another. Not quite Final Destination, but something far more haunting and, somehow, even more terrible, this story provides the epitome of the show at large – a concept that questions our physical existence and the powers that govern it, characters that we can immediately empathise with, and a tale that ponders upon the eerie wonder that engulfs us all and the symmetry that dictates our destiny. The somewhat derivative tale of a British First World War aviator flung through a time-slip to arrive at an American air base in France becomes a brilliantly compelling drama when we find out the absolutely imperative reasons why he must return to his own era … and make the ultimate sacrifice. A terrific performance from Kenneth Haigh anchors the frustration and the fear of the confused pilot, and a smartly delivered finale brings the weight of both pathos and emotional poetry to the ethereal and skin-prickling The Last Flight. Further war-time eeriness comes in Judgement Night in which a German U-Boat commander finds himself mysteriously relocated to the deck of the British steamship that his vessel is about to destroy. The Purple Testament is a tremendously evocative and well-acted WWII enigma that tells the sad story of Lt. Fitzgerald (a terrific William Reynolds) and his sudden ability to foretell which soldiers are about to die during their campaign against the Japanese in the Pacific. A mighty sense of doom and fatality hangs over the story, yet what could have been immensely pessimistic and depressing is actually cleverly drawn and achingly poignant. As with so many of Serling's stories, the theme of inevitability is excitingly captured.
One quite unusual concept that Serling liked to pitch into the show was the use of “asteroids” as a setting. There’s a few in this first season, with the best being The Lonely, the story revolving around Jack Warden’s future criminal imprisoned upon his own desert planetoid (actually the gloriously vast Death Valley) and left to eke out a fifty year sentence with only the cursory appearance of a supply ship every few months or so to offer him any scant (and often scornful) company. Beautifully portrayed by a pre-cuddly Warden, the tale focuses, once more, on the theme of desperate loneliness. When his only friend, the unusually compassionate captain of the supply ship breaks a few rules and leaves him a special surprise in a container only to be opened once the ship has left, Warden’s prisoner, Corey, finds that he now has a companion in the form of an attractive female robot, played with wide-eyed fragility by Jean Marsh. After a brief spell of rage at the apparent tease of this “mate”, Corey realises that a friend is still a friend no matter whether they are human or not. But Serling doesn’t allow the tale to pan out with such harmony and grace, and the twist that we all know is coming is slyly not permitted to develop the way that we think it will. A lovely scene has the pair of virtual castaways sitting out on the rocks and star-gazing, the notion of a couple finding their own perfect idyll out of the isolation of being outcast at the far edge of the galaxy suddenly becoming something to be envious of. It is also great the way that the supply ship only ever seems to have around fifteen minutes available to them when they arrive at the prison asteroid (we learn that there are several such cell-rocks in the quadrant, each presumably home to another inmate) and the anxiety of Corey for them to stay longer – which they cannot do for fear of losing the precision of an Earthbound trajectory and being stranded, themselves – is highly tangible. I like the animosity that the Captain’s two crewmen feel towards Corey – the fact that they have to travel all this way out and spend so much time away from home to cater to a “murderer” is a valid and credible point. One begins to wonder whether certain prisoners – ones they care even less about, perhaps – simply get forgotten and left to wither away to dust.
In People Are Alike All Over a young Roddy McDowell sets aside his fears of what Martians are like after he and his optimistic buddy crash-land on Mars, only to discover that his initial apprehension may just have been right all along. Other astronauts in the show fare little better, especially the three travellers who wind up on a crazy asteroid that looks just like small-town America but seems populated by living statues and presided over by a diminutive caretaker with a potentially sinister job to do, in Elegy. More unwary travellers plan to set out into the great unknown in Third From The Sun to avoid a nuclear holocaust, but things certainly aren't what they seem when an intimidating stooge seeks to throw a spanner in the works. A choking revelation awaits the crashed crew of a space mission as they struggle for survival on what appears to be a barren and arid asteroid in I Shot An Arrow Into The Sky
More down to earth puzzles and nightmares beset the vulnerable and the highly strung in A World Of Difference, in which a troubled and alcoholic actor unlocks a door to a paradise woven from the very pages of the script he is working from, and in Mirror Image, that puts Vera Miles (looking adorable) at the mercy of a conniving doppelgänger and the twisted attentions of a wannabe do-gooder. The Hitch-hiker, though, is a bit of a damp squib. The story isn't anything new, of course – a young woman (Inger Stevens) making a rather immense cross-country journey from Manhattan to LA by car finds herself plagued by the same odd hitcher time and time again, the thumb-jerker appearing ahead of her every leg of the trip. The pay-off is nothing that we didn't expect, but this is not the problem. The episode is saddled with a truly awful real-time voiceover from Stevens that is rather sickening and a weird aberration in Serling's format. Another dud would have to be The Fever, in which a woman wins a dream-trip to Las Vegas but has to contend with her staunchly tight-fisted husband who wants nothing at all to do with gambling … until a one-armed bandit begins to call to him and put under its spell. Neither the situation nor the actual drama elicits anything other mild irritation. As with all the other episodes, the performances are terrific, but the story just lacks any real hook and Serling's usually steady hand fumbles an all-too obvious message.
But, thankfully, such missteps are incredibly rare.
Show familiar Kevin McCarthy, who had already made a name for himself with Don Siegel's classic Invasion Of The Body Snatchers in 1956, causes concerns over his own real identity in Long Live Walter Jameson. A tale of the dark side of immortality, this episode is highly recommended for the surprisingly touching performance from Edgar Stelhi, who seeks to learn the secrets of why an old friend does not seem to age whilst his own body is slowly dying beneath him. Martin Landau crops up as bullying cowboy making life a misery for the town drunk, who just happens to be an ex-gunfighter in Mr. Denton On Doomsday. Fate, in the form of a travelling apothecary with some fantastical elixirs, soon steps in to lend a hand … but the message is a little more double-edged than our hero first assumes. This mini-Western has a classic feel of redemption and comeuppance, but the texture of prophetic magic is delightfully realised. Dan Duryea supplies great gravitas as the has-been who gets his chance to shine one more time.
Beautifully wistful whimsy would be the flavour of One for the Angels, in which a garrulous street salesman played by Ed Wynn attempts to elude the wonderfully polite and business-like Death (a terrifically human Murray Hamilton) by making the greatest and boldest pitch of his life. But when the salvation of little girl comes into the equation, the symmetry of his gamble reveals who the true angels are. Charming, funny and finally heart-rending, this is The Twilight Zone at its sweetest and most innocent. Yet, the most bittersweet story would have to be that of Martin Sloan's trip down memory lane to his home-town and a meeting with the mum and dad of his yesteryear in the moving Walking Distance starring Gig Young (looking a bit like Brenden Gleason). Boasting a fabulously heart-breaking score from Bernard Herrmann (see my review for this The Twilight Zone score from Herrmann on the CD release of Fahrenheit 451), and dreamily intoxicating cinematography from George T. Clemens, the tale is a magical warning to all those who long to revisit their childhood. Young is amazing as the man who takes a little walk back into a past that cannot accommodate him any more. And with Herrmann's mournful score serenading this lonely sojourn, it becomes incredibly difficult not to shed a tear as Martin realises he has to relinquish the very things he has longed so badly to see again. This is one of my personal favourites, folks, and it gets me every damn time.
Thus, Season One set out Serling's tone and intent with distinction, with its most famous episode, the critically acclaimed The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street providing him with the metaphor for his most condemning accusation about human nature of all. One of the show's bonafide classics, the story is, to be honest, all a little bit silly as it depicts the peculiar madness that ensnares one suburban street in the wake of a bright light in the afternoon sky and a sudden power-cut, but it is powerfully acted by a strong ensemble cast who give the tale of paranoid terror in the face of a possible alien invasion everything they've got, and is wonderfully gripping despite the all-too transparent message and the daftness of the scenario. The production values of this episode are remarkable and the show benefits from genuine night-for-night shooting, fabulously skewed camera angles, a truly dark and frightening depiction of small-town prejudice and a script that packs an enormous wallop. Watch how the tension builds with each spoken line, and how the accusations fly around the once cosy neighbourhood as the mob become aware that someone amongst their number may not be quite what they seem. Claude Akins, who was a regular face in Westerns and would go on to portray the gorilla General Aldo in Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, is magnificent as the one dependable neighbour, dressed symbolically in a white shirt, and the only voice of common sense amid the escalating intimidation that ensues. The episode proved to be a true milestone for television, Serling taking his socio-political warning very close to the wire. The aura of violence and mania is palpable and some of the imagery is potent and stays with you for a long time afterwards.
Fabulous writers such as Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and George Clayton Johnson crafted half-hour windows that looked out on the fantastique, and the show also became an impressive showcase for established and up-and-coming musical talent. The great Bernard Herrmann lent his style to episodes such as The Lonely, Where Is Everybody? and Walking Distance, and this slow-burn ominous alchemy became a sort of standard approach that each different composer would try to emulate, which had the effect of giving The Twilight Zone a voice that was immediately recognisable. A young Jerry Goldsmith toiled away on the show as well, this Season clocking up The Four Of Us Are Dying and The Big Tall Wish as he bounced around this and other TV shows such as Gun Law, Perry Mason and Dr. Kildare. Other composers like Van Cleave, Rene Garriguenc, Franz Waxman and Fred Steiner kept the same texture of sly menace and dripping melancholy.
But the class extended all the way through the show from the writing, the scoring and the performances to the direction, which could be prosaic and painterly (John Brahm, Alvin Ganzer), rich and redolent (Douglas Hayes, Robert Stevens), or even exciting and dynamic (Ted Post, Ron Winston). In some choice episodes, we get all three styles combining to weave mystery, menace and enchantment across a single continuous narrative. And the production values were exemplary. Those MGM backlots were in constant use, fitted up as lonely old gas stations, bus depots, Western towns, city streets, Martian landing-sites and, of course, those iconic little American hamlets of golden suburbia. Cinematographer George T. Clemens was the man who made these twenty-five minute excursions to the far reaches of the imagination so downright believable and involving, no matter what the environment or the story. When TV shows of the period were happy to just shoot the same old sets and locations from the same old tried and trusted angles week after week (just look at Wanted: Dead Or Alive or Dr. Kildare), Clemens injected intricate use of light and shadow, skewed angles to elicit that otherworldly and unnerving frisson, fluid tracking shots and intimate, mobile close-ups that sought to have us almost inside the heads and thoughts of the poor protagonists, sharing their terrors. The observant and genre-savvy can also spot the props and costumes that had been held over from other MGM productions, most notably Forbidden Planet, from which the uniforms of the star crew and even their spinning top ship were recycled and re-used.
The Twilight Zone remains intriguing, thought-provoking, affecting and just plain wonderful all these years after Rod Serling first smashed audience perceptions in the late fifties and helped usher in a new dawn for SF sophistication. It offered intelligence and emotion in a field that had been notorious for lacking both components, and it did so without sacrificing that vital sense of awe and magic. Vastly influential and endlessly entertaining, Season One is, unquestionably, very highly recommended.
Here is the full episode line-up -
1. Where is Everybody?
2. One for the Angels
3. Mr. Denton on Doomsday
4. The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine
5. Walking Distance
6. Escape Clause
7. The Lonely
8. Time Enough At Last
9. Perchance to Dream
10. Judgment Night
11. And When the Sky Was Opened
12. What You Need
13. The Four of Us Are Dying
14. Third from the Sun
15. I Shot an Arrow into the Air
16. The Hitch-Hiker
17. The Fever
18. The Last Flight
19. The Purple Testament
21. Mirror Image
22. The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street
23. A World of Difference
24. Long Live Walter Jameson
25. People Are Alike All Over
27. The Big Tall Wish
28. A Nice Place to Visit
29. Nightmare as a Child
30. A Stop at Willoughby
31. The Chaser
32. A Passage for Trumpet
33. Mr. Bevis
34. The After Hours
35. The Mighty Casey
36. A World of His Own