Blog Archives

Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “It’s a Good Life”

“It’s an adaptation of what has been called one of the most terrifying modern fantasies ever written.” — Rod Serling on “It’s a Good Life”

One key to being a good editor is knowing what to change — and what to leave alone. Change for the sake of change is a rookie mistake.

Rod Serling knew that well. When he bought the rights to a story for use on The Twilight Zone, he did exactly what was necessary to make it work for television. No more, no less.

Sometimes — as with “And When the Sky Was Opened” and “The Four of Us Are Dying” — that meant making some pretty drastic changes. Other times — with, say, “To Serve Man” — he presented the written story a bit more faithfully.

In the case of Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life”, it was more than a bit. Bixby had already provided a very visual story, so Serling transferred much of what we find on the page to the screen.

But he did make a few interesting changes. Read the rest of this entry

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Serling Edit: The Outro to “To Serve Man”

Rod Serling’s scripts were nearly always so smooth, even poetic, that it’s easy to assume they just came out of his head that way. But no. Like any good writer, he edited himself — sometimes quite extensively.

“A Thing About Machines”

I don’t mean he simply cut lines. He would also reword certain passages, often more than once. That way, he wound up with a polished product he could be proud of — one that, we can see with the benefit of hindsight, has a timeless appeal.

Consider his closing introduction to one of the most iconic episodes, “To Serve Man”. The final product goes like this:

The recollections of one Michael Chambers with appropriate flashbacks and soliloquy. Or more simply stated, the evolution of man, the cycle of going from dust to dessert, the metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup. It’s tonight’s bill of fare … on the Twilight Zone.

Read the rest of this entry

Serling on Camera: Filming “the Star of the Show”

“Because there was no regular, recurring cast, he was, in essence, the star of the show.” — Billy Mumy on Rod Serling

“The Old Man in the Cave”

Billy has a point. Anthologies differ from other TV series in one important way: Every episode offers us an entirely new story, with a new cast. The only continuity is the quality of the series itself.

The Twilight Zone had that in spades, obviously. But it had something else: Rod Serling, on screen. Hinting at what we’d see in the episode ahead, then returning at the end (at least vocally) to offer some wry comment about what we had witnessed.

I don’t know about you, but his presence is one of my favorite things about the series. “I think it was a major factor in the success of the show,” William Self, the producer of “Where is Everybody?” once said of Serling’s narrations. Read the rest of this entry

From Reel to Real: “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine”

The Twilight Zone has a pretty straightforward moral code. The evil are punished. The proud are humbled. The good are rewarded. The forgotten are remembered.

True, there are some exceptions. “Time Enough at Last,” for example, appears to be a prime instance of Fate punishing an innocent. The earthlings in “To Serve Man” did nothing to merit becoming “an ingredient in someone’s soup.” But by and large, you deserve the ending you get.

And then there’s “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”.

It’s the earliest example in TZ of someone yearning for the past. It aired just before “Walking Distance”, which explored this theme so beautifully that it inevitably overshone its predecessor.

But Shrine‘s problem isn’t merely standing in the shadow of “Walking Distance”. I think this episode fails to really resonate with fans because the main character, Barbara Jean Trenton (played by the amazing Ida Lupino, who would later direct TZ’s “The Masks”), is a hard figure to sympathize with.

Read the rest of this entry

Spotlight on Season 4: “Passage on the Lady Anne”

The usual criticism of Twilight Zone‘s 4th season is familiar to most fans: Stretching the series from a half-hour to an hour meant bloat. Something was lost. Suddenly more added up to less.

“Mute”

Sure, the series still brought us the elements of fantasy that had served it so well throughout the first three seasons: time travel, space travel, horror, and loads of irony. But the extra length mean the writers inevitably drifted more toward drama. Instead of snap, there was sag.

But hey, we’re still talking about the amazing Twilight Zone. And we continued getting stories from Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson. So we may have been denied the classic Zone formula, but we weren’t exactly getting junk.

Freed from the need to sprint to the finish line, the writers had room to explore their themes a bit more deeply. This meant padding at times, but on other occasions, it gave the material a chance to breathe and draw us more deeply into the world of the story. Read the rest of this entry

Serling Fest 2018: Celebrating TZ — and More — in Rod’s Hometown

My disappointment over Syfy ditching the July 4th marathon was, I’m happy to say, fairly short-lived. On July 5, I hit the road for “Serling Fest 2018” in Rod’s hometown of Binghamton, New York.

It was a first for me. I’d never been there before.

Surprised? I don’t blame you. Considering how long I’ve been fanning publicly over Serling’s work (starting when I set up my Twitter page in September 2010), you’d think I’d have visited long before now. But the timing or the money (or both!) was never right — until now.

It was a long drive (four hours one-way), but well worth it. It’s one thing to read about Serling’s childhood experiences, or to view pics online. It’s another to walk the streets he did and reflect on the fact that you’re in the very spot where, for all intents and purposes, The Twilight Zone was born.

Read the rest of this entry

No Twilight Zone Marathon on July 4th? Say It Ain’t So, Syfy

This isn’t the Twilight Zone marathon blog post I thought I’d be writing.

I was sure I’d be continuing my late-June tradition of publishing the schedule for the Syfy channel’s July 4 line-up of TZ episodes. But we recently learned they won’t be airing a marathon that day – unless you’re counting their replacement: an all-day slate of “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies.

Hey, I enjoy some Elm Street action at times. But I think even Freddy Krueger would admit the real horror here is leaving people without their biannual fifth-dimensional fix.

It’s true that this isn’t unprecedented. In 2011, Syfy ran a Greatest American Hero marathon over the Fourth. Granted, that’s more thematically appropriate, but you mess with TZ fans at your peril. They complained – mightily – and TZ returned in 2012. Read the rest of this entry

No Laughing Matter: Serling’s “The Comedian”

The first time I saw “The Comedian,” I was astonished.

I knew it was one of a trio of works from the early days of live television drama that had earned Rod Serling his first three Emmys. But that was it. An avid Twilight Zone fan, I had watched the live version of “Patterns” (January 12, 1955), then “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (October 11, 1956), and immediately saw themes in these beautiful plays that would later emerge on his signature series.

Then I watched “The Comedian”.

Think Mickey Rooney is on fire in Twilight Zone‘s “The Last Night of a Jockey”? That episode plays like the warm-up act for his off-the-hook performance in “The Comedian” (February 14, 1957). Rooney is Sammy Hogarth, an old-school comic in the style of Milton Berle. He stages big TV specials packed with skits, monologues and musical numbers — and he makes life for his staff and family a living hell. Read the rest of this entry

Serling’s 1972 Speech to Graduates: “Cherish What You Believe”

With graduation season in full swing, it seems an ideal time to share these illuminating passages from Rod Serling’s May 13, 1972 commencement address to New York’s Ithaca College:

Commencement means beginning. Those robes you now sweat under will soon be replaced by lab aprons, business suits, and whatever are the working uniforms of your chosen profession. And some of those professions will prove to be back-breaking impossibilities.

For some of you, the frustrations are only beginning. For all of you, the world society beyond this campus is going to prove tough, competitive, demanding, unforgiving of error, and full of rebuttals to the things you most earnestly believe.

So first – and most important – cherish what you believe. Don’t job off one single value judgment because it swims upstream against what appears to be a majority. Respect your own logic, your own sense of morality. Death and taxes may be the only absolutes. It’s for you to conjure up the modus operandi of how you live, act, react and hammer out a code of ethics. Read the rest of this entry

“Eye of the Beholder”: The Face Under the Bandages

She starred in one of the most iconic Twilight Zone episodes of all time. And yet if you passed Maxine Stuart on the street, you probably wouldn’t recognize her.

That’s because she spent all of her screen time under a thick layer of bandages in “Eye of the Beholder”. Yes, Stuart played poor Janet Tyler, whose only crime was not upholding the standards of beauty in some skewed dystopia.

Of course, she wasn’t the only actress who played Janet Tyler. Once the bandages were off, we saw only the face of Donna Douglas (the future Elly May Clampett on “The Beverly Hillbillies”). So why the switch? Why wasn’t the part handled entirely by either Stuart or Douglas?

Primarily because of how director Douglas Heyes opted to handle this amazing script. He wanted the twist ending to land with a real wallop. That led him to stage it so that we never see the faces of the doctors and nurses until the big reveal.

It also led him, he later said, to audition the actors and actresses with his back to them. He knew their voices were key. So for the medical personnel, he picked ones with warm, caring voices, to make it all the more shocking when we see how they really look.

We’re supposed to assume that Janet Tyler is horribly ugly. Since her appearance is only talked about for the first three-quarters of the episode, we have to use our imaginations. So, to convey (at least aurally) the notion that she’s ugly, he cast Maxine Stuart at least in part for her somewhat rough-sounding voice. Read the rest of this entry