Imagine you’re writing Twilight Zone‘s “Little Girl Lost”, and you get to the part where the father literally stumbles into that alternate dimension where his daughter is trapped. How would you describe it?
Sure, you could spell out what you’re imagining in detail. Nothing wrong with that. Or you could trust the Zone production crew and do what Richard Matheson did: His script at that point simply says: “INTERIOR: LIMBO.”
In “The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic”, author Martin Grams relates how TZ’s art director approached producer Buck Houghton, pointed out those two words, and asked, “What’s that supposed to be, Buck?” Houghton’s reply: “That’s up to you.”
His faith was certainly not misplaced. Added Houghton:
Have you ever watched a Twilight Zone, then thought about how it’s even more relevant today than when it first aired?
If so, you’re not alone. Many fans feel that episodes ranging from “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” to “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” offer more insight into our own time than they did into the early 1960s. We joke about the writers having Mystic Seers and time machines, but what they really had was a deep understanding of human nature — which, of course, never changes, no matter what the era.
But every now and then, you encounter an episode that seems eerily prescient. Case in point: Charles Beaumont’s “Gentlemen, Be Seated.”
Doesn’t sound familiar? I’m not surprised. It was commissioned and written, but never filmed (though it was later made into a TZ radio drama). When producer Bert Granet took another job shortly after Season 5 began, he left behind several assignments, including this Beaumont script. The next producer, unfortunately, didn’t care for “Gentlemen, Be Seated,” so he passed on it.
Which is a shame, really. I read it recently, and believe me, the feeling of déjà vu was particularly strong. Check out the radio summary, and I think you’ll see why: “In the future, humor is outlawed, so James Kinkaid joins a secret underground organization, the Society for the Preservation of Laughter, which exists to keep comedy and satire alive.” Read the rest of this entry
So many memorable stories begin in a writer’s mind with a simple question: “What if … ?”
Ideas can come from anywhere — something you read, something you hear, or something you experience. The difference between the writer and the rest of us is pushing beyond the moment and asking that crucial question.
Richard Matheson, for example, did it with “Little Girl Lost” when his young daughter rolled out of bed in the middle of the night. And Rod Serling did it with “The Fever”. (Spoilers ahead, naturally.)
Twilight Zone fans often call Earl Hamner’s “Stopover in a Quiet Town” the ultimate ad against drunken driving. Well, “The Fever” does the same thing for unchecked gambling.
If you’ve seen “A Traveler”, the fourth episode of the new Twilight Zone series on CBS All-Access, there’s a good chance your head was spinning a bit while it was on.
Even fans who liked this episode seemed at least a bit confused by the story. But as I explained in a podcast with Tom Elliot, that appears to be the point. The episode (written, tellingly enough, by X-Files scribe Glenn Morgan) plays quite freely with the whole idea of what’s true and what’s not — and whether, in the end, it even matters.
“You believe what you want to believe”, the title character says at one point. “Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?” The main gifts here aren’t packages that come wrapped with bows, but claims that, depending on your state of mind, are either acceptable or not.
If you’re interested in delving into the episode a bit more, check out the podcast. It’s a bit long (Tom was too gracious a host to cut me off mid-ramble!), but if you’re trying to figure out what was going on, and why, it might answer some questions for you.
I recently started to write a conventional review of “Replay”, the third episode of the new Twilight Zone on CBS All-Access. But I soon got bogged down in a lengthy synopsis, and it just wasn’t clicking for me.
Besides, if you’re interested enough to read an article about a particular episode, you’ve likely seen that episode. No recap is needed. So let’s try something that, I hope, will work whether you’ve seen “Replay” or not. Let’s talk about … messages.
If there’s one piece of conventional wisdom we’ve all absorbed about The Twilight Zone, it’s this: It was a “message” show. TV censorship was notoriously strict in the late 1950s and early 1960s, so Serling cleverly snuck his viewpoints in via allegory.
Instead of doing a show about, say, Senator Joseph McCarthy — whose investigations into charges of Communist infiltration in the U.S. government helped fuel the notorious “red scare” of the early 1950s — Serling would write “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”. That way, he could show us the corrosive effect of suspicion and betrayal on ordinary Americans without saying one direct word about politics.
But while there is no question that Serling wove messages into the original TZ, people seem to forget that he didn’t do it all the time. Yes, some episodes had direct, pointed messages — like “He’s Alive” and “Deaths-Head Revisited”. And the Fidel Castro look-alike in “The Mirror” left little doubt he thought the Cuban leader might soon meet a violent end.
Other episodes functioned as modern-day fables. There are indirect messages that can be detected and appreciated if you’re looking for them, but they’re not essential to a “surface” enjoyment of the story. Examples include “People are Alike All Over”, “Eye of the Beholder”, “The Old Man in the Cave”, and “The Obsolete Man”, to name just a few.
I’m used to writing “spoiler alert” on some of my articles about the original Twilight Zone, but it’s practically a joke. I mean, we’re talking about a series that debuted almost 60 years ago. And yet here I am, reviewing a new TZ, so it actually makes sense to warn people who may not have seen the initial episodes — or who are withholding judgment until they learn more about them.
So let me give you my impressions of “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”. I’ll try to keep them, yes, spoiler-free.
WHAT I LIKE:
First off, this is a really handsome production. That’s not much of a surprise, of course, given the involvement of producer Jordan Peele, but for anyone familiar with the previous two reboots, it’s nice to see. CBS is finally giving TZ the respect it deserves. Gone is the cheap look of the TZ that ran from 1985-1989, and again in 2002. The cinematography and direction are feature-film-worthy.
And as you’ve probably heard, the show seems loaded with Easter eggs. For example, sharp-eyed viewers will spot Willie from “The Dummy” lounging in a scene from “The Comedian”. There are also in-jokes, such as the pilot’s name in “Nightmare”: Captain Donner. The director of the original episode? Richard Donner. (Here’s a spoiler-filled list of every Easter egg, courtesy of TV Guide.) Read the rest of this entry
Every now and then, I’ll see an argument erupt on one of Facebook’s many Twilight Zone fan pages. Not about which episode is best — though feelings can run strong about that, too — but about politics.
Someone will post a meme about something that’s in the news, and the sparks start flying. Because getting political violates the ground rules for these pages, the admins soon delete it. Some people even end up getting thrown out if they’ve been especially rude.
One thing almost always occurs before the dust settles, though. Most people approve of the no-politics rule, but someone will say something like, “Well, Serling was political!” Or “The Twilight Zone was about politics!”
And you know what? They’re right. But when we look at how Serling handled politics on TZ, we see a window into why he was so clever, and why the show’s popularity endures to this day. Read the rest of this entry