Gimme “Shelter”: The Perils of Survival At Any Price

“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
― John Wooden

The fifth-dimensional equivalent? I’d put it this way: “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when he believes his life is in danger.”

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Case in point: “The Shelter,” Rod Serling’s sobering look at a neighborhood full of average families who are happy to treat each other well … until the day when a nuclear bomb is apparently headed their way, and only one family has gone to the trouble and expense of building a bomb shelter. (If you haven’t watched it, or it’s been a while, go here.)

Serling excelled at entertaining us, but he never flinched from asking some tough questions. And here we’re left with two big ones:

1) If you had a shelter only big enough for you and your family — that had just enough supplies for all of you — what would you do if a missile was bearing down on you, and your neighbors were pleading for you to let them in? Read the rest of this entry

Fifth-Dimensional Finishes

The Twilight Zone is famous for its twist endings. But for me, the real cherry on top of our inter-dimensional sundaes is Rod Serling’s closing narrations.

Surprisingly, some critics deride them as unnecessary. How dense are we, right? Can’t we figure out the lesson without having it spelled out by an omniscient referee? Perhaps, but that’s not the point.

Rod Serling - The Obsolete Man1

The conclusions aren’t there because we’re slow. They serve an important purpose. Sometimes they tie up loose ends, sometimes they lay on a little irony, and sometimes they make a wry comment on the proceedings.

In short, they’re there to make the stories more enjoyable. Hearing Serling introduce and wrap up each episode, with his trademark voice and poetic language, is the perfect framing device. I’m convinced the show wouldn’t be as beloved without them. Read the rest of this entry

“I Just Poured on the Coal”

“What’s going on here?! Where are we?! WHAT are we?!”

If you’re a Twilight Zone fan, you “heard” those sentences in your head. And they were spoken — or should I say bellowed? — by one of the most well-known actors to appear on TV in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s: William Windom.

William Windom Cropped

His first and most memorable role on TZ came in Season 3’s “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”. Murray Matheson gives a scene-stealing performance as the unflappable clown, but Windom’s hot-headed, impatient army major is the real focal point of the story.

His determination to find a way out of their odd, cylindrical prison brings him the answers to the questions quoted above. But being The Twilight Zone, he probably wasn’t happy with what he found out. Read the rest of this entry

Steven Spielberg On Directing “Night Gallery”

Long before “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” made him a household name, Steven Spielberg was just another unknown director with hopes for fame and fortune. And the first step toward that goal took him through a shadowy museum known as … Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.

Steven Spielberg and Joan Crawford

The pilot movie, to be specific. The 21-year-old director would helm the middle segment of three dark-edged tales written by Serling himself. It premiered on November 8, 1969, and was a ratings success, leading to the Night Gallery series a year later.

While Spielberg was a novice, however, his star was anything but. The part of Claudia Menlo, the predatory blind dowager in “Eyes,” was to be played by none other than Joan Crawford.

Crawford, then 65, had already starred in more than 90 feature films, dating back to the silent era. “Directing Joan Crawford was like pitching to Hank Aaron your first time in the game,” Spielberg later remarked. Read the rest of this entry

Serling on the Shelf: Rescuing Rod

I have on my shelves a dog-eared paperback edition of Rod Serling’s 1967 book “The Season To Be Wary.” It sits near similarly worn copies of several other books that he either wrote or edited. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you one bit, but WHY I have them might.

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It’s not because I love old books (though I do). It’s because when I first began acquiring copies of Serling’s volumes, they were out of print.

You don’t have to be an obsessive fan like me to be struck by that fact. One of the most famous writers of the 20th century, and his books were less accessible than James Patterson’s? As Serling might say, file that under “L” for “literary crime.”

Enter Rod Serling Books.

44 Read the rest of this entry

Go “Fourth” and Marathon

I couldn’t help retweeting that when the 2014 TZ marathon rolled around on the SyFy channel earlier this month. Talk about a rhetorical question!

There’s no denying that the New Year’s Eve marathon is the more well-known and “attended” event. We get more episodes, yes, but there’s something about the chilly, post-Christmas weather that lends itself nicely to parking your body on the couch and sending your mind to that land of shadow and substance.

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Serling introducing “It’s a Good Life”

But how many Twilight Zone fans think you should over-indulge only ONCE a year? No, we’re only too happy to “Zone out” before, after, and in-between the barbecues and the fireworks.

This year’s marathon ran from 8 a.m. on July 4 until 4 a.m. on July 5. Subtracting four prime-time hours that were inexplicably devoted to wrestling and episodes of “Spartacus” (seriously, SyFy?), we got 16 hours of TZ — 32 episodes. Read the rest of this entry

The Case of the Missing Twilight Zone Season

“This is the way the world ends,” T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem The Hollow Men. “Not with a bang but a whimper.” Surely, though, the same fate should not befall The Twilight Zone?

Alas. 50 years ago today, on June 19, 1964, the last episode of the fifth season aired: “The Bewitchin’ Pool.” Even fans of this episode (and my most recent post showed that I’m not one) wouldn’t call this one a bang. Sorry, but this was no way for Rod Serling’s ground-breaking foray into the fifth dimension to conclude.

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But that’s the thing: It wasn’t supposed to end at that point. At least not as far as Serling was concerned. He’d already been mapping out plans for a sixth season, and I can’t help but feel that the way he talked about it suggested an awareness that TZ needed a return to form of sorts after an interesting but uneven Season 5.

On February 5, 1964, at the mid-point of Season 5, Serling wrote to Aldon Schwimmer of Ashley Steiner, the talent agency that represented him, with what he planned to do for the new season. According to author Martin Grams: Read the rest of this entry

The Twilight Zone’s Dirty Dozen

“We had some real turkeys, some fair ones, and some shows I’m really proud to have been a part of. I can walk away from this series unbowed.” — Rod Serling

Turkeys? Serling may have been his own harshest critic, but he wasn’t entirely wrong here. Even a series as distinguished as The Twilight Zone, with a hit-to-miss ratio that most TV producers would kill for, had a few misfires along the way.

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But which ones missed the mark? It’s entirely subjective. One man’s gem is another man’s junk. Bring up “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” and you’ll hear from people who consider it a delightful fantasy, and others who think it’s a clunker. Many people findOne for the Angelssweet and charming; others can’t get past the fact that Ed Wynn is hardly convincing as a fast-talking pitchman.

I even spoke to a man once who’d been going through TZ in order and said he had finally hit a dud. Curious, I asked which one. His reply: “The Invaders,” which nearly everyone hails as a Zone classic.

But these debates are part of the fun. It’s interesting to compare notes, as we do with our favorite TZs, and discuss what we don’t like — and why.

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Here are the 12 episodes you’ll find at the bottom of my list. Now, I’m not saying every one is an irredeemable time-waster. Even the worst TZ is better than much of what you’ll find on TV; they fall short mainly when measured against TZ’s routine excellence. And there are some aspects of nearly every episode below that I do like.

But for my money, the fifth-dimensional flops include: Read the rest of this entry

Saving “Almost Human”

I’ve been running this blog for almost three years now, but I’ve never written about anything other than the works of Rod Serling. Until today.

I’m making an exception because I don’t just believe in the past when it comes to high-quality science fiction. I believe in the future as well. And for my money, the series Almost Human is a prime example of that future.

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I’m not putting it on a par with The Twilight Zone, which is in a class by itself. But Almost Human is a show that can make you laugh and make you think. Most of all, it’s a show that keeps you entertained.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time excoriating Fox for cancelling it, or making a detailed case for keeping it. I urge you to check it out on Hulu or iTunes or whatever service or site you use to watch TV shows. Read the rest of this entry

“You’re Traveling Through Another Dimension …”

Everyone knows the theme music to The Twilight Zone. So well, in fact, that it’s a kind of shorthand “name” for the series itself at times. An odd thing will happen, and someone will go, “De do, de do, de do, de do …”

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Escher moment: Does it funnel IN … or OUT?

But while TZ’s musical signature lasted nearly the entire length of the series, the opening credits changed fairly often. The visual elements and Serling’s narration shifted almost from week to week at times, at least during the first three seasons.

Tinkering aside, though, The Twilight Zone featured three main opening credits: the clouds-landscape-starfield montage of Season 1 (the only one with different theme music), the swirling vortex of Seasons 2 and 3, and the shattering window-eyeball-ticking clock images of Seasons 4 and 5.

The question is, which one is the best? Here’s your chance to sound off. Play the videos below in case you need to refresh your memory, and vote. (Note from Anthony: Non-voters risk a trip to the cornfield!) Read the rest of this entry

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