So I’ve been binge watching the Twilight Zone this past week or so. I was always aware of the most famous tales from this show and had seen them parodied often (especially by the Simpsons). I had seen the movie too. I enjoyed it. But it wasn’t until I sat down and started watching these that I realised I had never really gotten into this show. Which is a crime for a writer, or a lover of scifi, or someone who loves the imagined, the weird and the fantastic. This really was a great show. It was amusing to watch the first episode where Rod Serling – the creator, main writer and that odd guy who always introduced and concluded each episode – mocks himself for daring to claim this TV series would go on to great things. He wasn’t wrong.
I guess we could call the Twilight Zone scifi, and many stories are straight up science fiction, with tales of aliens coming to Earth or humans ascending to space. Yet this show is far more about the fantastic. It reminded me of what scifi TV and films were like back then. There was a golden age of scifi during the 50s and 60s, at least for those of us who adore cerebral and challenging science fiction (I also love flashy nonsense like Flash Gordon and straight up action like Aliens). Movies like the Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, the Thing from Outer Space/Another World, etc were filled with social commentary and questioning the advancements of science. The atomic era especially. Also shows like Star Trek, Lost in Space, Land of the Giants and the Time Tunnel. It is amusing to see how old Star Trek differs from the newer stuff. The original series is full of episodes with weird things happening. More supernatural than science.
For me, the best scifi is often using science to tell us about humanity. In the Twilight Zone’s case, we have the classic episode ‘Time Enough at Last’. A nuclear holocaust leaves one man who loves to read alone with all the books he could possibly ever want. I won’t spoil the ending, even though it is well known, just in case, but the episode is about him, not about the science. In another, ‘People are Alike All Over’, we have a man land on another world, who fears what is out there, only to find that people – including alien people – are alike all over. Truly. Again, the science is a tool, not the main content.
But we have plenty of weird and wonderful episodes too. Some very dark ones. I was surprised to see Dennis Hopper in one episode, playing a Nazi, who becomes influenced by a shadowy figure and starts to win people over. There are a number of episodes laden with the aftermath of World War Two. An episode called ‘Deaths-Head Revisited’ has a former SS captain of a concentration camp going back to his place of torture, with old friends waiting for him. These can be pretty dark, but with meaningful messages.
The Twilight Zone is a celebration of the new frontier that was science fiction of American TV back then. We knew enough to use science to create new scenarios but not much more so that going out to space or developing new technologies had an almost magical feel to it. Admittedly, aliens tended to be a bunch of white people who spoke English, but this was not the time of diversity. We understand the cosmos much more too. But the episodes are still telling us about ourselves.
Other episodes are downright supernatural. I’ve seen the devil show up in two already. There has also been a ghost caller, a writer bringing characters to life, and a few individuals reliving a nightmare, even their death.
The Twilight Zone is entertaining as well as intelligent. I prefer the shorter episodes, they feel tightly written, whereas the ones closer to an hour sometimes feel a bit padded. Episodes often work on a nugget of realism with a character made to deal with it and then some weird wonderment thrown on top. So they can be very short and very effective.
I admit I love the way Rod Sterling presents them too. He seems so earnest. His presence as a visible narrator should be breaking the fourth wall. Perhaps it does in a way. Yet he also lures you in. He makes you feel as if you have front row seats to a television episode and also a notable event coming from the Twilight Zone itself. He never tries too hard. Never gives it the high hat. He states in that enunciated manner of his and you’re believing his words before you realise how absurd things sound.
I highly recommend watching the Twilight Zone if you haven’t. There are episodes all over Youtube. Not sure about availability on DVD and such, but for now my intent is simply sharing the love. Again, I liked the movie but the television show feels special. This was a ground breaking work from a brilliant writer. A lot of young actors are involved too who go on to great things. Stories that now feel overdone are freshly set for the first time.
Essentially, I’ve become a bit addicted. I guess this is what happens when you enter…. The Twilight Zone.
Do de do do, do de do do, do de do do, do de do do……..