Monday 24 November 2014

The Twilight Zone, season 1 (1959)

The Twilight Zone was one of the most influential television series ever made and it remains one of the most loved. It has retained a major cult following over more than half a century, and its creator Rod Serling is one of the legends of television.

I have to be perfectly honest right up front and say that I have never been a fan of Serling’s writing. At times I find his work to be overly sentimental. He often seems to me to be excessively concerned with stories that have a moral, and inclined to bludgeon the viewer with that moral. The political content of his writing is less than subtle. And at times his writing simply seems clumsy and heavy-handed. One of the most interesting extras included in the Blu-Ray release of season one of The Twilight Zone is a series of audio recordings of Serling delivering lectures at Sherwood Oaks College in 1975. These show that Serling himself was aware of the flaws in his writing, and was painfully aware of the deficiencies of many of his scripts for The Twilight Zone. In fact he is his own best critic, ruthlessly exposing his writing mistakes.

Having said that, I still regard The Twilight Zone as a very important series and I still have a great deal of affection for it, although my favourite episodes tend to be the ones written by Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont rather than the Serling-penned stories. Serling’s great achievement was in conceiving the series in the first place, and (against the odds) not only getting it made but renewed for a total of five seasons.

There were other excellent suspense/mystery anthology TV series made at around the same time, some of which (such as the superb Alfred Hitchcock Presents series) pre-date The Twilight Zone. Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff, was another very fine series of this type. These series relied on clever and nasty little plot twists, they were often very dark in tone, and at times they crossed the boundary into outright horror. Thriller at times even flirted with overt supernatural horror. What made The Twilight Zone different was that it was much more explicitly dealing with science fictional and fantasy themes, and it was much more uncompromising in rejecting the tyranny of realism. The Twilight Zone doesn’t even pretend to deal with reality. In 1959 this was a very bold move for a television series.

Serling wrote 92 of the 156 episodes himself. This enormous output probably has quite a lot to do with the unevenness of his writing at this time. He was under so much pressure to produce scripts that it’s not entirely surprising that some are not up to par. 

One of Serling’s most important contributions to the success of the series was his determination to maintain high production values. Persuading CBS that they were going to have to spend real money on the show was an extraordinary achievement and he fought bitterly against any moves to cut costs at the expense of quality. Serling was able to maintain a fair degree of control over the series, and to ensure that the directors employed were not only among the best in the business but were also people who understood his intentions for the series. As a result of these efforts of Serling’s The Twilight Zone is by the standards of its day a remarkably impressive-looking series. Indeed it looks impressive by any standards. It features some of the best black-and-white cinematography in television history.

These to me are the real strengths of this show - superb and imaginative visuals that set the mood plus an overall impression of quality. These strengths are often enough to compensate for the uneven quality of Serling’s writing.

This can be seen quite clearly in the very first episode, Where Is Everybody? A guy suddenly finds himself on a road. He doesn’t remember who he is. He comes to a town and it’s deserted. Totally. We eventually find out the explanation, but as Serling admits in his 1975 lectures, it’s very clumsy and full of bad writing and bad writing devices. As an example, it makes the mistake of having the guy tell us he feels like he’s being watched when that impression should have been achieved by visual means. Show, don’t tell. Serling is particularly devastating in his criticism of his own writing for this episode.

The Hitch-Hiker is a very much much better Rod Serling episode, based on a radio play by Lucille Fletcher. Inger Stevens stars as Nan Adams, a young woman driving cross-country who has a tyre blow-out. After having the tyre repaired she keeps seeing the same mysterious hitch-hiker over and over. This episode is Serling at his most subtle and his most skillful. He gives us a steady accumulation of hints as to what is really going on but the final reveal has real impact. One of the reasons it works so well is that both the audience and the protagonist  learn the truth at the exact same moment. A superb story brillantly executed.

Judgment Night is another very fine Serling story, superbly directed by John Brahm. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric production and it’s an example of a Serling story that succeeds in delivering the emotional punch the author intended. Unfortunately it’s impossible to say anything about the plot without the risk of revealing spoilers.

One For the Angels, Walking Distance and Escape Clause are well-regarded episodes written by Serling. The 69-year-old salesman protagonist of One For the Angels is told by Mr Death that his time is up. There is no escape but there are special circumstances in which an extension of time can be granted. The salesman believes he qualifies for such an extension, to give him time to make the one great pitch that he has never made. This is one of the more successful examples of a gently humorous Twilight Zone. It has some moments where it comes perilously close to sentimentality but on the whole it’s a fine episode.  

Walking Distance and Escape Clause are not so good. In Walking Distance a 36-year-old advertising executive from New York goes back to his home town and finds that he’s travelled back 25 years into the past. He sees his parents (now deceased) and himself as a boy. Serling in his 1975 lecture admits that the episode just doesn’t work, and he’s right. No-one could experience the shock that the protagonist experiences and continue to function. And as Serling points out the character keeps verbalising things that he would not and should not be verbalising. Escape Clause is yet another story of a man, in this case a hypochondriac obsessed by death, who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for immortality. He then of course finds life unutterably boring. It has a couple of twists, one of them quite clever. It’s another episode that seems too pleased with its own cleverness, and again the moral is too obvious and too laboured.

Apart from Serling the two other main writers of this series were Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont.

In Matheson’s The Last Flight a WW1 fighter pilot, Flight Lieutenant Decker, takes off in 1917, flies into a cloud-bank and lands at a US Air Force base in France in 1959. This is not just a case of weird stuff happening for its own sake. There is a very good for his finding himself at that particular place at that particular moment in the future, and it allows him to find his destiny. A World of Difference, also by Richard Matheson, stars Howard Duff as Arthur Curtis, a 36-year-old business executive who suddenly discovers that actually he’s actor Gerald Regan. And that Arthur Curtis is only a character in a movie. These are both very well-written and very well-made episodes that hit their target.

Charles Beaumont’s Elegy by is very creepy and very effective. Three astronauts lost in space in 2185 find an asteroid that seems remarkably like Earth in the 20th century. Except that everyone seems frozen in time. Eventually the caretaker explains to them the purpose of the asteroid. The only wish of the astronauts is to be in their ship on their way home. They get their wish, but with a very clever twist. A great episode.

Beaumont’s Long Live Walter Jameson involves an elderly college professor who discovers why his colleague Walter Jameson is able to teach history so vividly that you can almost believe him to be an eyewitness of the events he describes. This discovery makes it obvious that Walter Jameson is much too old to marry the elderly professor’s daughter. Much much too old. The basic idea is far from original but it’s reasonably well executed. Not as strong an episode as Elegy but still an effective story.

A Stop at Willoughby is thematically similar to Walking Distance, with another protagonist yearning for an idealised past. A Stop at Willoughby handles the idea with much greater skill and subtlety and is a fine and very moving story.

The Chaser was written by John Collier, Robert Presnell, Jr from a story by John Collier, and is notable for the strange and extraordinary book-lined room in which the protagonist meets the seller of potions. Director Douglas Heyes came up with the idea and recalls that despite the considerable expense this set entailed he had no difficulty getting the go ahead for it. The willingness of both Rod Serling and producer Buck Houghton to risk spending extra money was a major factor in the success of the series, allowing directors to create the kind of atmosphere that added so much to the stories.

Mr Denton on Doomsday was one of the very early episodes and it’s generally, and rightly, much admired. It’s a fine example of a Serling script that could have come across as being a little corny but Serling pulls off a fine balancing act and the story works.

The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine stars the great Ida Lupino who gets the opportunity to play a rôle clearly based on Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and she makes the most of it. This is another story which flirts dangerously with sentimentality but gets away with it. The premise of this story was later appropriated by Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo.

The After Hours has always been a favourite of mine and it remains one of the archetypal Twilight Zone stories.

I’d seen many of these episodes years ago on television and seeing them now on Blu-Ray is quite a revelation. The UK Blu-Ray release looks absolutely magnificent and includes quite a few audio commentaries as well as The Time Element, a 1958 television play written by Rod Serling and presented as part of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse series, which served as an unofficial pilot episode for The Twilight Zone

Despite the reservations I still have about Serling’s writing this remains an impressive series, a series that set new standards for television in terms of visual boldness and high production values. As Douglas Heyes, who directed some of the best episodes, notes in an interview included in the set, the half-hour format was particularly suitable for this series. Heyes maintains, correctly I think, that the premises of most of the stories could not have been sustained in an hour-long format. Episodes like The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine and the classic The After Hours seem to me to  be good examples of what Heyes was talking about.

The Twilight Zone is one of those must-see television series and the Blu-Ray release of season one is highly recommended. It should be noted that the screencaps used to illustrate this review are from the early DVD release and do not reflect the superb quality of the Blu-Ray release.

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