The Twilight Zone Companion: A TZ Trailblazer Takes Us Behind the Scenes
Let’s admit it, fellow Twilight Zone fans – we’re pretty spoiled.
Want to watch an episode or two? Have at it. You can see them on DVD or Blu-ray. You can stream them on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. You can purchase them on iTunes, or through CBS’s website — anytime, day or night.
And let’s not forget good old-fashioned reruns, which are still broadcast on Syfy, Me-TV, and other smaller channels (especially at marathon time, when I invite you to join me on Twitter).
What about books? There are plenty – ones about the show, ones about Rod Serling, ones featuring stories done in the TZ vein. There’s a movie. There was a magazine. There have been two revivals so far, and there’s talk of more to come.
In short, it’s not hard to get your Twilight Zone fix. But it didn’t used to be that way.
Let’s travel back in time for a moment. It’s the late 1970s. Rod Serling has recently died. Episodes of his amazing anthology are available, but only in reruns on one of your local stations — edited, of course, and with the kind of damaging cuts you still see today on Syfy and Me-TV.
You don’t get to pick the episode you’ll see. It’s on their timetable. You can’t record it, pause it, or replay it.
Want a reference book on TZ? Sorry. There aren’t any. There’s no movie, no revivals, no magazine – nothing. Just you and some grainy, chopped-up reruns.
But fear not, TZ fan. Help is on the way. Unbeknownst to you, a young writer is compiling the first episode guide to the fifth dimension. He’s interviewing stars, directors and writers, all while their work on the show is still relatively fresh in their minds.
And then, one day in 1982, The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree is published. You snap up a copy, and you read every word. You keep it near the TV for quick reference.
Before long, it’s pretty dog-eared, but you hold on to it. Even today, in the wake of other TZ volumes, it’s the one that most fans are familiar with. And with good reason: Zicree, who would go on to pen episodes of Babylon 5, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and many other TV shows, is a very good writer.
Some of my favorite quotes and stories about TZ come from Zicree’s book (like this one about Charles Beaumont). He provides good capsule biographies of the major players. Zicree has a nice, smooth style, which greatly elevates what might otherwise be simply a reference volume for names and dates. If you like behind-the-scenes info even half as much as I do, and you’re a TZ fan, the Companion should definitely be on your shelf.
That’s not to say the book is flawless. For one thing, the way Zicree sequences the episodes is apt to throw off most fans. Yes, he goes season by season, but not in broadcast order. Instead, he lists them in the order in which they were produced.
Now, back when Zicree was writing this, and people could watch TZ only via whatever rerun happened to come on, that wasn’t really a problem. But today, most fans are watching in broadcast order via streaming or disc, and when they go to Zicree’s book to look up a particular episode, they have to flip around a bit. A minor demerit, to be sure, but still.
(One time on Twitter, a follower referred to “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” as the last TZ episode to be broadcast. Actually, I said, it was “The Bewitchin’ Pool”. I asked him if he had a copy of Zicree’s book. Yes, he replied. Bingo – Zicree places “Owl Creek” at the end of his chapter on Season 5.)
A more serious drawback is the unevenness of the write-ups. It’s easy to tell which episodes Zicree likes, and which ones he doesn’t. If he likes an episode, it usually gets several pages and lots of detailed info. If he doesn’t like it, it barely rates a dismissive paragraph or two.
Now, we all have our favorites, and of course certain episodes merit more attention than others. But when you’re assembling what is meant to be a fairly definitive look at a landmark TV series — especially when yours is, at least, initially, the only game in town – wouldn’t it be a good idea to ensure that no episode, even the less-popular ones, gets short shrift?
But no. Zicree either says a particular episode is dull or uninspiring or by the numbers or unconvincing or whatever — and he says that pretty often — or he provides one little quote or anecdote, and moves on.
A surprisingly high number of episodes fall into this category, especially when he gets into the last two seasons. Yes, as Serling said, a few “turkeys” were produced, but I’ve found that even some of the most middling TZ episodes have something interesting in them. At its worst, TZ still outshines much of what passes for entertainment, then or now.
Mind you, I’m not saying that a TZ fan can’t say a critical word about the series. (I have my own list of least-favorite episodes.) But you’d think someone who’s enough of a fan to have gone to all the trouble Zicree did to write this book, especially at a time when no other references existed, wouldn’t find quite as much fault as he does. Perhaps over-familiarity with the material as he wrote did it?
He also questions the science of TZ repeatedly. He’ll note, for example, how impossible it would be to cover the vast distances people do in the space-travel episodes. Or he’ll say, “Serling didn’t do his homework” in writing “Third From The Sun”, because (spoiler alert) a character says they’ll be traveling “11 million miles” to reach Earth. “Venus is our closest neighbor at 24,600,000 miles,” Zicree points out.
Or consider his write-up of “The Little People”, which (another spoiler alert) concerns a power-hungry astronaut who’s been lording it over some tiny people he found on a far-off planet. At the end, he encounters two gigantic human-looking figures who accidentally crush him to death. Notes Zicree:
As far as science goes, ‘The Little People’ is out-and-out fantasy. As height is squared, volume is cubed, meaning that weight increases at a much faster rate than size. Humans the size of those seen at the end of the episode couldn’t possibly exist; their own weight would crush them.
Fair enough, but I think nearly every TZ fan realizes that the scientific details given in almost any episode are an expedient. They’re there to move the story along — no more, no less. A true science-fiction show would sweat those details, but here they’re very much secondary.
In short, to get the idea across in, say, “Third From The Sun”, we don’t need a NASA-approved measurement – we just need to know it’s a really long distance. And we can enjoy the irony-filled comeuppance at the end of “The Little People” without howling about how scientifically implausible it is.
But in the end, The Twilight Zone Companion is a must. I know I’ve dwelt on its demerits at some length, but that’s only because they mar what is otherwise a very good book. Faults aside, Zicree was a trailblazer of TZ research, and his affection for the series still manages to come through. I’ll end with this quote from his epilogue:
If, in his darkest moments, Rod Serling felt his accomplishments on The Twilight Zone were of a transient nature, these were only the passing fears of every writer that his life‘s work has been of no consequence. The shining product of his imagination still flourishes, reborn each time a person turns on television and sits before the glowing screen, caught in the spell. To those already acquainted, each new meeting is a reunion filled with delight. To those coming to it fresh, it is a revelation full of wonder and mystery and awe.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!