Tuesday 31 January 2023
Barbara Jean Trenton (Ida Lupino) was, briefly, a major movie star. But that was many years ago. Her career took off quickly and crashed just as quickly. She is now a middle-aged recluse. She spends her time watching her own old movies on 16mm in a private projection room in her mansion.
While Barbara Jean Trenton, the character played by Ida Lupino, clearly has a kinship with Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard and while the initial setup resembles that of Billy Wilder’s film it is quite wrong to see The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine as merely a television rip-off of Sunset Boulevard. The story does not follow the same trajectory, and there are differences in emphasis. And while it isn’t immediately obvious at first by the end of the story it has become very definitely a Twilight Zone story.
It has the essential Twilight Zone feel - everything seems just like everyday reality until suddenly it’s not everyday reality any more.
And of course the viewer is watching Barbara Jean watching herself.
The twist at the end was later borrowed (or homaged if you prefer) by a certain very famous film director but to say any more would constitute a spoiler. It goes without saying that the film director in question was hailed as a genius for this ending, but The Twilight Zone did it first.
This is Rod Serling’s writing at its best. It packs an emotional punch but without sentimentality and without the viewer feeling manipulated. Serling could be guilty of sentimentality and manipulation but when he avoided those pitfalls he could come up with some top-notch scripts. And this is a wonderfully subtle script.
But the success of this episode depends entirely on Lupino’s performance. She’s superb. She wisely avoids self-pity. Barbara Jean has isolated herself entirely from the contemporary world but we don’t despise or pity her. She has made a choice. She is happier living in the past. She knows that the modern world would destroy her. Lupino gives her a certain dignity.
While Sunset Boulevard was a rather scathing look at Hollywood and what it does to people The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine has a different tone. It certainly acknowledges that Hollywood uses people, makes them stars and then discards them but Serling’s story lacks Sunset Boulevard’s venom. Barbara Jean’s fate is sad, and yet there’s no question that for a brief moment Hollywood really did give her everything she wanted. It gave her complete happiness. Would she have been better off never having experienced her brief moment of fame and fulfilment? If happiness is fleeting would we really be better off without it? Would we really be better off living safe predictable conventional lives with no insane highs and no insane lows?
Barbara Jean would undoubtedly say that the highs are worth the price one has to pay. She knows that she was a star, and no-one can ever take that away from her.
So rather than the bleakness and venom of Sunset Boulevard we get a bitter-sweet tone here, and the combination of Serling’s writing and Lupino’s acting makes it work.
I’ve now seen The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine four times and it remains one of my favourite Twilight Zone moments. Very highly recommended.
Sunday 8 January 2023
Second Chance was written by Sonya Roberts and Lou Morheim and directed by Paul Stanley. It went to air in Match 1964.
A group of people are drawn to a carnival spaceship ride. They don’t know why. It’s just a silly fake spaceship. They get quite a surprise when the fake spacecraft actually lifts off and they find themselves in deep space. The carnival ride has been transformed into a real spaceship by an alien from a distant planet.
The people on the ride are a motley assortment and it’s difficult to understand why the alien wanted them aboard. That will however gradually become clear.
This is yet another example of The Outer Limits giving the alien invasion idea a major twist. And it’s another example of the series treating aliens as beings who might not necessarily be hostile. The idea of a carnival ride turning into a nightmare ride through outer space is very cool.
And, as so often in this series, there’s more emphasis on character than you’ll find in most TV sci-fi. The plot is mostly a device to allow the characters to learn something about themselves.
The Children of Spider County
Written by Anthony Lawrence, directed by Leonard J. Horn, screened February 1964.
This episode illustrates some of the weaknesses of this series - cheesy makeup and iffy special effects. But The Outer Limits never worried about stuff like that. If they felt that the monsters needed to be shown, they’d show them, and if they looked cheesy the producers felt that the scripts would be good enough to compensate. And usually they were.
This episode works because it takes the alien invasion idea and gives it lots of interesting twists, and lots of ambiguity. Cleverly, the ambiguities are never fully resolved. There’s some slightly cringe-inducing speechifying about accepting differences but there are some genuine moral and emotional dilemmas.
There’s some action, with Ethan and his girlfriend on the run from the cops, and maybe from the aliens, and maybe from Space Security. And again there’s ambiguity - maybe it would be better if the alien caught them, and maybe it wouldn’t.
Not one of the great Outer Limits episodes but even the less-great episodes of this series tended to be very good and very thoughtful.
Written by Stephen Lord, directed by Gerd Oswald, screened February 1964.
It’s that decision made by General Stocker in the past that provides the main thematic interest of this episode. It’s all about decisions and decisions that have to be made by both the human and alien characters. The aliens simply function as a catalyst for major personal upheavals involving General Stocker and Major Anderson and the mission’s chief scientist, Professor Diana Brice (Ruth Roman). There’s a romantic drama between the general and Diana Brice but Major Anderson seems to be mixed up in it as well.
It’s not very profound but it is a bit more than just a space adventure yarn.
The special effects are very cheap-looking but the aliens are rather cool. These are aliens who really look profoundly alien, rather than being guys in rubber suits or cheesy makeup.
The acting is good enough to make the characters at least a bit more than cardboard cutouts.
Not a great episode but it’s solid enough.
Monday 2 January 2023
My most exciting cult television find in 2022 was undoubtedly the 1983 first season of Simon & Simon, a delightfully quirky and charming private eye series.
My other exciting discovery was the Japanese anime TV series Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex. It was made in 2002 so it's a bit outside the normal time frame for this blog but it's a terrific science fiction series.
There was also the 1957 cop drama Decoy, the first cop series entirely focused on the work of a policewoman. Not an action series but intelligent, sensitive and occasionally provocative. In fact it's bet series ever made about a female cop.
And this was the year I discovered Miami Vice. This is my kind of TV show - style, style and more style.
So overall, not such a bad year.