Serling Fest 2021: An All-Star Line-Up Set to Appear in Binghamton Oct. 15-17

It’s been two years since we last had an in-person Serling Fest. Thanks a lot, Covid! 😒

We didn’t go completely without last year, though. Thanks to Nick Parisi, president of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation (and author of an excellent volume on Rod Serling), we got to enjoy a one-day virtual Fest in August 2020. It was certainly fun, but there’s no substitute for meeting in person, is there?

So I’m happy to share with you the line-up for this year’s in-person (but masked) Serling Fest. It’s a packed agenda, and it includes a special guest: Marc Scott Zicree, author of the indispensable “Twilight Zone Companion.” There’s going to be talks, live performances, games, prizes — even a Kickstarter campaign to get a Rod Serling statue built in Recreation Park. And admission is free.

You may notice a familiar name on Sunday’s dance card. That’s right, yours truly will be there, in a presentation that covers “Rod Serling’s genius in adapting classic short stories by other authors into Night Gallery episodes.”

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“The Fugitive”: A Sweet Tale That Makes Some Twilight Zone Fans Uneasy. Should It?

When you’ve been fanning publicly over The Twilight Zone as long as I have, you start expecting certain reactions.

For example, when I tweet about “To Serve Man,” I know some people will make cookbook jokes. When I post a quote from “Time Enough at Last,” I’ll hear, “It’s not fair!” If the topic is “It’s a Good Life,” then “You’re a bad man!” is coming. And that’s fine! It’s part of the fun.

But not all predictable reactions are so benign. One that I don’t enjoy at all occurs when I tweet about “The Fugitive,” a story by Charles Beaumont that centers on the friendship between an old man named Ben and a young girl named Jenny.

This being the fifth dimension, Ben isn’t just an ordinary old man. In fact, we learn near the end (spoiler alert; click here to see where you can watch it first) that he’s neither old nor a man. Not an earth man, anyway. Ben is actually a rather young king from another planet.

So why was he here, disguised as actor J. Pat O’Malley? Because he got fed up with his royal responsibilities and ran away. The two men who have been hunting him down during the first half of the episode mean him no harm; they’re a duo from his planet, here to bring their popular monarch back home, where he can continue his benevolent rule.

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A Harsh “Encounter”: What a Long-Hidden Twilight Zone Can Teach Us About Hate

“It was a very harsh show. I’m sure it was considered too hot to handle.”

The speaker: Robert Butler, director of Twilight Zone’s “The Encounter.”

Few fans would disagree. The episode’s unflinching depiction of “raw conflict,” as Butler also described it, has been making audiences squirm since it first aired on May 1, 1964.

The racial antagonisms we see on-screen kept it off the air for the next couple days of decades. It was one of four Zone episodes that weren’t included in the original syndication package, and the only one excluded because it was controversial.

That’s a shame. Not because it’s a great episode — it’s not, despite earnest performances from Neville Brand and George Takei. No, it’s a shame because this episode, for all its faults, strikes me as one that’s eerily relevant today. In fact, I think we can learn something from it.

If you’ve never seen it, or it’s been a while, feel free to watch it before perusing my spoiler-filled musings. To briefly recap: This is the one about a World War II vet and a Japanese-American who find themselves locked in an attic, arguing about a mysterious samurai sword and lobbing some racially-charged barbs.

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Night Gallery Headed for a Blu-ray Release at Last

I remember when I first saw Rod Serling’s Night Gallery in its original form. Not the exact date, no, but the year: 2004. That’s when NBC Universal issued Season 1 on DVD.

Until then, Gallery fans had only one choice: the reruns that aired on Syfy (and elsewhere) in the 1980s and ’90s. They were larded with commercials, of course, but worse, they were part of the Syndication Edit. I have a link at the end to explain what I mean by that, but the upshot is that the Night Gallery I’d been watching until 2004 was a poor substitute for the episodes that first aired between 1969 and 1973.

Season 1 is the shortest, though: only six hour-long episodes. Sure, the DVD set included the pilot movie — and Universal tried to pad it out further by including a couple “bonus” episodes from Seasons 2 and 3 — but we’re still not talking a LOT of entertainment. And it lacked any other extras: no interviews, documentaries, or commentaries. So I was really looking forward to Season 2 coming out.

And it did … four years later, in 2008. Then Season 3 came out … four years after that, in 2012. Eight years to collect them all!

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Serling’s Re-Framing Efforts: Night Gallery’s “The House”

“Ghost story.” The phrase evokes images of a creaky, abandoned house, filled with large cobwebs and banging shutters. A pale moon in a dark sky casts deep shadows. A figure in white glides through dusty ruins.

In other words, the opposite of what we get in Night Gallery‘s “The House.”

Oh, it’s about a ghost, but this tale of a haunting is set in bright daylight. The titular abode looks like a real-estate agent’s dream. And the apparition lurking inside isn’t a foreboding phantom under a sheet.

Sounds very modern, doesn’t it? And yet to bring viewers this unconventional twist on a familiar trope, Rod Serling adapted a story written many years earlier by a French writer named André Maurois. It’s truly a short short story — only about 800 words.

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Spotlight on Season 4: “No Time Like the Past”

What if you could change the past — not just in your personal life, but on a global scale by stopping something horrible?

That’s the central conceit of Twilight Zone‘s “No Time Like the Past,” and it’s an intriguing one. I’ll give it a full review at a later date, but for now, I want to focus on one scene in particular. Even if you’re not a fan of this episode (and not many fans give it high marks), I think we can appreciate what Rod Serling was saying — or more accurately, condemning — about halfway through the story.

For those who haven’t seen it (check here if you want to see how to watch it first), or haven’t seen it in a while, the story concerns a man named Paul Driscoll (Dana Andrews). He has a time-travel machine, and to his credit, he wants to help mankind, not just himself. So he travels back to three key moments earlier in the 20th century: the day Hiroshima, Japan, was bombed; a day when Adolf Hitler made a pre-World War II public appearance in Berlin, Germany; and the day the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed, one of the events that led the U.S. to enter World War I.

Driscoll’s intention is to stop these events. He’s convinced that the modern world, which he detests, could be changed for the better if he succeeds. Yet each time he fails. Convinced the past can’t be changed, he decides instead to go to a quiet little town called Homeville, Indiana, in 1881, to live out the rest of his life.

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Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “The Hitch-Hiker”

“Do as much — or as little — as necessary.”

A boss of mine told me that once. My job as an editor entailed taking articles written by technical experts and rendering them into layman-friendly English. Some of these experts were terrible writers. Others were quite good. Many were in between.

The trick was not to do less than you had to, but also not to do more. If it was a solid piece, don’t do a rewrite job simply to justify your existence. Leave the good stuff intact.

I don’t know if anyone expressly taught that lesson to Rod Serling, but he clearly understood it. In my series of posts exploring his Twilight Zone scripts adapted from other writers’ work, I’ve seen stories where he did a lot, ones where he did a little, and others that fall somewhere in the middle.

This time I’m taking a closer look at a real fan favorite from Season 1: “The Hitch-Hiker.” It provides an excellent example of Serling knowing when to stay out of the way.

Oh, he made some changes, as we’ll see — some rather key ones. But the story that unfolds before our eyes is very close to what unfolded before people’s ears when this tale first aired on radio almost 20 years earlier. (Spoilers ahead, so, if you need to, go here for ways you can see the episode first.)

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Only the “Best” Coffin for the Star of TZ’s “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank”

You don’t have to be the most eagle-eyed Twilight Zone fan to notice that the coffin in “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank” has holes in the side.

If you assumed they were there for star James Best’s peace of mind, you’d be correct. And who could blame him? Even if you knew that your “resurrection” was imminent, it would be hard not to feel anxious with that lid closed.

And you know what? It turns out it wasn’t closed — at least not all the way. As Best relates in Martin Grams Jr.’s The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic:

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Twilight Zone’s Season 1 Opening Credits: A Perfect Passport to Serling’s World

Ask Twilight Zone fans to describe the opening to each episode, and you can be sure that many will mention the swirling vortex that spins into the vacuum of space, followed by the shattering title letters.

Or they may bring up the shattering window, the opening eye, the clock, the diver, the “E=mc2” equation. And quite a few, you can bet, will imitate the iconic “do do do do” music.

But as much as I love those elements, I can’t help thinking they got it right the first time — specifically, the opening theme for Season 1:

Bernard Herrmann’s haunting, dream-like music has a lot to do with it. It truly sounds as if we’re being ushered into that “middle ground between light and shadow.”

Rod Serling’s narration, meanwhile, is ideal — both in what he says and how he says it. His description of that land “between science and superstition” can’t help but intrigue a potential viewer, and the unhurried pace of his words sets the mood perfectly. We feel drawn in. Almost seduced, in a way.

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Meet Tracy Stratford, the Only Person Who’s Not Afraid of Talky Tina

Remember Talky Tina? If you’re a Twilight Zone fan, you do. The sweet-talking doll with the homicidal tendencies made quite an impression when she appeared early in Season 5.

Part of what makes Tina scary is that she’s nothing like Chucky or the other murderous playthings you may have seen on the big screen. She doesn’t run. You don’t see her waving a weapon around. She doesn’t even raise her voice. Heck, you can take a table saw to her neck, and she’ll act like you’re tickling her.

Erich Streator (Telly Savalas) learned too late how dangerous Tina could be. As the episode ends, even his gentle wife, Annabelle (that’s right, the name of the haunted doll in the Conjuring movies!) is being put on notice by her daughter Christie’s terrifying toy.

There’s really just one person with no reason to fear Tina: Christie. Indeed, Tina is her champion — to a fault.

So let’s get to know a little bit about Tracy Stratford, the girl who played Christie. This wasn’t her first appearance on The Twilight Zone. She’d already starred in another fan favorite: Season 3’s “Little Girl Lost.” Yep, she was the girl who fell out of bed and rolled into another dimension.

And interestingly enough, her character’s name in that episode … was Tina.

Here are some excerpts from an interview Tracy gave in 2018 about her unforgettable journey to that land between shadow and substance:

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