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The Dimension of Imagination

There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call... the Twilight Zone.


Andy: Marathons of the Twilight Zone started sometime during the early 80s, but the exact details are lost to another dimension. At the very least, they’ve become a staple tradition around the holidays and the Fourth of July is no different. You won’t find them on SyFy (both the fact and the current name still pain me) this year, but if you have the Decades station you can find episodes starting at noon. For many of us, though, streaming options are the easiest route to that scary door into the mind. If you have Netflix, Hulu or CBS All Access (which also hosts the current series rebooted by Jordan Peele), you can watch the 1960s episodes all day long. With all that availability, where should you start?

Bugsy: It feels right to have a Twilight Zone marathon on the fourth of July, it’s one of the United States’ best contributions to the canon of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. And it's particularly relevant right now, since Rod Serling created the series to address social issues without fear of censorship after a racism-focused TV movie he had written was massively changed by the network. It’s amazing to look back on the original series and see it as 156 standalone short films, each with its own complete story. I consider “films” to be an accurate descriptor - Serling had access to a lot of Hollywood resources, and was thus able to use hand-me-down sets, props, and costumes left over from big-budget movies. Even film actors who would never have time for a regular TV series were able to do single one-off episodes, a very early predecessor of the “prestige format” approach we see in short-run cable and streaming series today. All of this has given the Twilight Zone remarkable staying power, remaining relevant on its own terms rather than out of nostalgia.

The televised marathons did tend to stick to the most recognizable episodes, of course. “Time Enough at Last,” “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” “It’s a Good Life,” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet“ are some of the most well-known episodes (the last two were even remade for 1983’s ill-fated Twilight Zone: the Movie, which was my introduction to the franchise), and invariable staples of the marathons. Which stories do you think of when you hear the name “Twilight Zone,” Andy?

Andy: When I hear "Twilight Zone," aside from the classics, my mind goes instantly to “A Stop at Willoughby.” While not as creepy or horrific (or even science fiction-y) as many other episodes, the premise is easy for many to relate to, but ultimately depressing. Who hasn’t hit a low point in their lives and imagined being in the past, future, or anywhere else, really? While the classics that have already been mentioned are entrenched in the public subconscious, it is the ones that are easier to relate to that I think make the most impact on people. Which I guess after all was one of Rod Sterling’s goals - to get people to relate to important issues and think about them. Hearing about why he created the series, it's not surprising that he wrote so many episodes. Knowing you and your family for so long, I am surprised that the movie was your first exposure to Twilight Zone. How did that come about?

Bugsy: It was technically in syndication at that point, but no one was showing it. My parents, long-time fans of the original series and Night Gallery, taped it off cable suring one of the premium stations' free two-week trial - that’s how we got a lot of our movies. After that, I think I saw some on rented “Best Of” tapes, but that would have been six episodes at most. Just like with Doctor Who, my real fandom of Twilight Zone came from an excellent episode guide, in this case the Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scot Zicree, who also wrote some of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. The latter, “Far Beyond the Stars” is about the kind of 1950s pulp science fiction magazine that the original Twilight Zone adapted many of its stories from, and I’m sure a lot of the material came out of the research and interviews he did for the Companion.


Later on, local syndication finally happened, along with the Sci-Fi channel, so I finally got to see some of the episodes I’d read about for years. Luckily, the real thing usually held up to the versions I had created in my head out of Zicree’s episode descriptions. My odd history with the series also means I might remember a story as much for it’s behind-the-scenes history as for what’s actually onscreen, and it’s a great show for that. You could easily put together a marathon of your own just based on individual writer’s works - sci-fi and horror great Richard Matheson, for instance, wrote a number of episodes. The original Twilight Zone’s best writer, though, is probably Charles Beaumont, with a better track record than even Serling himself. It’s also almost the entirety of his available work, as well, since most of his many short stories were published in the aforementioned sci-fi magazines and have never properly been collected. We’ve started to see some anthologies come back into print recently, though, and I need to start picking them up. Beaumont died young of a disease, never really diagnosed, that seemed to make him age incredibly quickly - much like the title character of “Long Live Walter Jamison,” one of his first Twilight Zone stories.

Alternately, you could set up a marathon based on actors, with quite a few appearing across multiple episodes. I think every episode with Burgess Meredith or Jack Klugman is a stone-cold classic, in particular “The Obsolete Man,” which serves as a kind of counterpoint to Meredith’s legendary role as Henry Bemis in “Time Enough at Last,” playing another bibliophile in a very different circumstance. Or a Star Trek fan could do “Nick of Time,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (both with William Shatner), “A Quality of Mercy” (with Leonard Nimoy), “Valley of the Shadow” (with James Doohan),” and “The Encounter” (with George Takei.)


Andy: Focusing on actors is a fantastic idea, although we may be getting too far removed from what made some of them famous for your average viewer to recognize who they are. Certainly Star Trek is a good route to go, and if you’re a Trek fan you should easily know the actors previously mentioned. Bugsy may have missed one though. Possibly best known for his recurring role on “All in the Family”, Jason Wingreen made three appearances on Twilight Zone appearing in "A Stop at Willoughby," "The Midnight Sun," and "The Bard”. While none of these were starring roles (and it appears his role in “The Bard” was uncredited), there is something important you should know. Jason Wingreen is also known for being one of the few actors to be involved in both Star Trek and Star Wars. Wingreen played the small role of Dr. Linke in the Star Trek episode “The Empath.” He is also the original voice of none other than Star Wars’ Boba Fett. This makes him possibly the only actor to have been in all three properties.

You can also make several other nerdly connections through actors. Roddy McDowall was famous as Cornelius in Planet of the Apes, but also appears in the Twilight Zone episode
“People Are Alike All Over.” You can catch a young Robert Redford in “Nothing in the Dark", but I won’t even get into his long nerdly credits list. Don Rickles, the voice of Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story, starred in “Mr. Dingle, The Strong” along with Burgess Meredith whom you’ll know from many things giving him nerd cred, but specifically I’ll point out his role as the Penguin in Batman. And the original Catwoman, Julie Newmar was a character in the Twilight Zone episode “Of Late I Think Of Cliffordville.” If you don’t mind tracking down the Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, you can make a Batman day of it and listen to Adam West in “Still Valley” and “A Short Drink From a Certain Fountain." Pick a major nerdy franchise, and you just might trace your way back to the Twilight Zone.


The Twilight Zone
also expands beyond the genres of sci-fi, fantasy and horror. If you want to dip into the wild west, you can start with “Execution,” “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” “Mr. Garrity and the Graves,” and “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” just to name a few. If you want to head into the post-apocalyptic future (or present...past? I don’t know anymore) you can pull up “Two,” “Time Enough to Last,” or “The Old Man in the Cave.” In the mood for more of a romance? Try out “The Chaser,” “In His Image,” “The Lonely,” “The Trouble with Templeton,” or “The Trade-ins” for some possibly non-traditional romance. That is a short list as there are many more down this genre as well.  There are even a few comedy episodes in there. “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby” is a bit of a goofy classic. There is also one that I don’t exactly recall starring Carol Burnett titled “Cavender is Coming.” This is an interesting episode I’ll have to go watch as it is apparently the only original Twilight Zone to feature a laugh track. I imagine that it is pretty jarring.

Bugsy: I’d also be remiss if I didn't point out how the World War II episodes, including “The Purple Testament,” “King Nine Will Not Return,” and especially “A Quality of Mercy” present a different picture of that war than the we’re used to, having been made by vets and people who had lived through the war looking back on their still-recent memories. Rather than the valiant, heroic struggle that has become the standard portrayal, the war is seen as something closer to a natural disaster, a devastating catastrophe that sucked people in and destroyed lives. Not only are these excellent episodes, but they offer reflection on an era that hadn’t (yet) quite passed into history.

But all this does bring up quite a conundrum: for a show this diverse, how do you make recommendations? As you say, one can definitely fine tune it for the kinds of stories you’d like to see, but if you were trying to give someone a taste of the show in general, it becomes more a matter of choosing something that does what the Twilight Zone uniquely does well. I feel like a lot of the public perception of the series is mostly one of surprise (and frequently cruel) twist endings, which did  showed up from time to time (“To Serve Man” or “The People are Alike All Over,” essentially featuring the same twist), but were not the series’s defining feature by any means. I’d probably recommend more character-centric stories relying on consistent tone and performance than ones with major plot twists. On the scarier side, “It’s a Good Life” is very well-known, but remains a standout episode, due in no small part to fantastic performances (in particular Bill Mumy, pre-Lost in Space and VERY pre-Babylon 5). It’s also devoid of twists - the entire premise is set up by Mr. Serling in the opening narration, and is all the more terrifying in its implication that this, for the characters, is a typical day.

But I’d also want to convey how hopeful the show could be as well, how it would also end on positive notes. One story along those lines, “The Big Tall Wish,” features an historically significant all-Black cast, which was an extreme rarity on network television at the time. “The Fugitive,” “Kick the Can,” and (if you don’t mind a little Christmas in your July viewing) “The Night of the Meek” are excellent stories for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider and looked to science fiction and fantasy for a place to belong. On the other hand, if what you want out of the Twilight Zone is seeing horrible people receive an appropriate (and ironic) punishment, there are quite a few to choose from, but “A Most Unusual Camera,” and “the Masks” are both effective and not as well-known. The most definitive version of this, though, featuring the worst-imaginable (and, sadly, also real-life) crime, is “Death’s Head Revisited.” Serling himself tried a variation on this story in the first episode of Night Gallery, to lesser effect. 


One suggestion to the Twilight Zone newbie: avoid anything from Season 4 when you're starting out. Against the creators’ wishes, the series was switched from a half-hour to one hour format, and they struggled to fill the extra screentime.(Future incarnations, including Night Gallery, would do two or even three stories over the course of an hour, but the original Twilight Zone simply didn’t have the resources.) While there are a few classics in there, particularly “Printer’s Devil” (featuring, once again, Burgess Meredith having a blast at playing the titular Devil) and the implausible-but-riveting “He’s Alive” (starring a very young Dennis Hopper), the pacing is definitely slower and feels more like other shows of its era than the rest of the series’s rapid-fire pace better fitting modern sensibilities.

Andy: My first introduction to Twilight Zone wasn’t to the actual series either. Instead, I learned all about this Twilighty show about that Zone from the Simpsons and Futurama. The writers from each must have been huge fans to steal lovingly pepper references to the Twilight Zone in so many episodes. If you look back at "Treehouse of Horror" episodes, especially the early ones, you’ll see many parodies of the most classic episodes of Twilight Zone. If you’re new to direct contact with the series, I'd say to go watch all the ones you’ve heard of, but have never actually seen. Go enjoy “It’s A Good Life,” “To Serve Man,” and “Living Doll.” Any marathon you find will likely have them, and now your viewings of two animated shows (or comics, books, movies - however you started learning about Twilight Zone) will be enriched. If you do have All Access and are new to the series, go give the 2019 reboot a chance. I haven’t had the pleasure of doing so, but if my family should pick up the streaming service it will be on my list.


As for my picks this year? Certainly, this post discussion has provided a number of great examples. If I have a chance I’d like to watch “Cavender is Coming” to catch Carol Burnett and the infamous single use of a laugh track. As you may have read in previous posts, I grew up watching reruns of The Carol Burnett show as well as other things she did. Seeing her in something different would be a treat for me. I don’t know how I’ll feel about the laugh track, but I suppose for a single episode it is a small price to pay, even as jarring as I expect it will be. For a taste of something that might feel relevant today, I’d select “The Old Man in the Cave.” The themes of Faith, Technology, and Authority seem a painful mirror from the past on what is going on in our society today. I just hope there are more Mr. Goldsmiths than Major Frenches in this world right now. It also helps that this one is referenced in both Simpsons and Futurama. For a third pick, I would go with “Mirror Image.” It has been noted as a link to the 2019 reboot, and is apparently one of Jordan Peele’s favorite episodes. I’m not going to tell you what to watch though. You have your own journey to make between the light and shadow into the fifth dimension.

Far more likely for me, though, is that I will turn on Netflix, start episode one, and just let the series run. You can take a seat when an episode seems compelling to you, and otherwise you can putter around doing the things you need to do. Before you know it, you’ll be sucked into one episode or another. Hopefully not literally.

Comments

  1. Great post. My wife and I watched a good portion of the second season of the Jordan Peele revival today. Kind of a mixed bag (like the previous season) but particularly liked the premiere episode with Gillian Jacolbs. From the old series, "A Stop at Willoughby" has always been one of my father's and my favorites. Who hasn't at one time or another felt the entire world pushing down on you? The escape that the protagonist yearns for is so simple and bittersweet...Thanks for the article!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Twilight Zone also has a unique position of having won an Academy Award...sorta...During the fifth season when show was about to end the budget wasn't large enough to cover the costs for all of the episodes that season. So they had the brilliant idea of get the rights to air a French short film (which had won an Oscar for best Short Live Action Film) adapting the Ambrose Bierce short story, "Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge". The material fit Twilight Zone's fantasy tone and running time and at $25000 to get rights compared to the typical $65000 to make an episode was a bargain and kept the show from going over budget in its final season. I had read about this episode in "The Twilight Zone Companion" and Kristin and I watched it today.

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