Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone”: 60 years of “shadow and substance”, Part 2…

Part 2: “You’ve just crossed over into…”

In “60 Years of Shadow and Substance” Part 1,” I covered seasons 1 through 3 of Rod Serling’s classic TV series, “The Twilight Zone” (1959-1962):

https://musingsofamiddleagedgeek.blog/2019/12/04/rod-serlings-the-twilight-zone-60-years-of-shadow-and-substance-part-1/

Rod Serling ‘disappears’ after being erased from existence in “A World Of His Own” (1960); a classic first season episode starring Keenan Wynn as a henpecked middle-aged writer who brings his characters into reality via his dictaphone. This marked the only time in the entire series where narrator Rod Serling interacted with characters in an episode.

For Part 2, I’m going to discuss “The Twilight Zone” seasons 4 and 5 (1963-4), and and a little about how the series was repackaged for American syndication in the 1970s and 1980s. I will also delve a bit into author/screenwriter/producer Marc Scott Zicree’s indispensable book, “The Twilight Zone Companion” (1982). Now in its 5th edition (or fifth dimension…?), it is the definitive book on Rod Serling’s classic series, unparalleled in analysis (and refreshingly frank critique) of the series. Can’t recommend it enough. For now? I offer my own humble observations on this amazing series.

As stated in Part 1, I won’t discuss each and every episode (people do have lives). I’m going to analyze a few from each season that really spark my memory and emotions. Yes, I’ll no doubt omit many fan favorites (and quite a few of my own, as well), but this is a personal cross-sectional view of The Twilight Zone. Once again apologizing for my subjectivity, and I hope you’ll enjoy reliving these classics with me.

Season Four (1963).

Season four started a bit late; debuting in January of 1963 with a mid-season start (instead of the fall of the previous year). The shorter season was also also came back with another surprise; the show was lengthened to fit in a full hour slot, instead of the usual half-hour previously (and subsequently) allotted. As someone who grew up watching Twilight Zone in syndication, I didn’t see the longer 4th season episodes until sometime in the early 1980s, and that was usually just one or two slipped into the all-day holiday marathons (the predecessors to modern ‘binge-watching’). Season four’s 18 episodes (as opposed to the 36 or so of other years) were a decidedly mixed bag, with a few truly outstanding episodes and a few mediocre entries. But part of the greater issue (for me) was the new length. The longer 4th season episodes convinced me of one fact; The Twilight Zone works best in a half-hour format. The twist-endings of the shorter shows had greater punch; the morals and commentaries were more easily digestible, and there was very little excess fat in the writing. The fifth and final year returned to the half-hour format and the show went out on a high note in its leaner, meaner, original form. That said? Even with its experimental (and arguably less successful) hour-length, there are still a few real gems in the fourth season.

“Death Ship” stars Jack Klugman (who did several episodes of the series, including the early Vietnam story, “In Praise of Pip”), Ross Martin (also a returning TZ costar) and Fred Beir as three astronauts orbiting an alien planet who find the wreckage of their own spaceship with their own corpses inside. As the men began to have illusions about their lives back on Earth, Capt. Ross (Klugman) speculates that the planet might be inhabited by telepathic aliens who are trying to scare them from colonizing their planet. Upon liftoff, the others admit that their captain may have been right about the aliens. They decide to land again and recover soil samples for return to Earth. Upon landing they find the same wreckage of their spacecraft. Lieutenants Mason (Martin) and Carter (Beir) begin to believe that they’re dead, and that they’re present is actually the ‘afterlife.’ Faced with a predestination paradox, Captain Ross refuses to believe it, and the crew find themselves back in space, and back in time…doomed to repeat the same circumstances all over again.

A common issue with the 4th season is exemplified here, as a decent sci-fi story with a fine cast (particularly Martin and Klugman, who are both terrific) is sabotaged by over-length. At 50 minutes, it feels a bit meandering in its middle act. This would’ve been a far more effective segment at 25 minutes instead of 50. Effective reuse of props and costumes from 1956’s “Forbidden Planet” (including new special effects with the C-57D space cruiser miniature) give the story nice production value.

“Miniature” sees a pre-“Godfather” Robert Duvall as shy, introverted Charles Parkes; a man who becomes entranced with a dollhouse in a museum. As he gazes for hours at the dolls, he sees them come alive and live out daily dramas. Losing himself in an imaginary life within the miniature house, he falls in love with one of the dolls (Claire Griswold), whom he imagines to be in an abusive relationship. Valiantly trying to ‘save’ her, Charles smashes the glass barrier to the dollhouse, and his family has him committed to a psychiatric hospital.

During his ‘rehabilitation’, Charles convinces his psychiatrist, Dr. Wallman (TZ returnee William Windom, from “Five Characters In Search of an Exit”) that he’s ‘cured’ by telling him exactly what he wants to hear. The cunning Charles is then released back into the custody of his mother, sister and brother-in-law, whom he escapes from in order to return to the museum and the dollhouse…where he manages to become a part of the exhibit and romance the beautiful living doll of his dreams (or reality?). Serling closes the episode by saying, “They never found Charley Parkes, because the guard didn’t tell them what he saw in the glass case. He knew what they’d say and he knew they’d be right, too, because seeing is not always believing, especially if what you see happens to be an odd corner of the Twilight Zone.”

A disturbing but tender romance that will either come across as deeply creepy or touching depending on where viewer sympathies lie. Robert Duvall’s performance of a lonely introvert is the best of its kind since Anthony Perkins in “Psycho” (though Charles Parkes, unlike Norman Bates, has real no violent intentions whatsoever). Either you will buy the escapist romance of the obviously troubled protagonist or you won’t. It’s either pathetically sad or whimsically beautiful (or some mix of both). This is an episode that doesn’t judge; it leaves that entirely to its audience. Arguably one of the best (if not the best) of the hour-long episodes, much of that fueled by Robert Duvall’s sad but riveting performance. Lots of future Oscar winners cut their teeth on this series (Duvall, Robert Redford, Martin Balsam, Cloris Leachman, Lee Marvin Jack Albertson, Gig Young and Art Carney).

In the late 1980s, when colorizing black & white productions was the current fad, this episode got a colorized facelift. Even if you’re curious, avoid this version at all costs. The characters are all tinted in the same tone of sepia, and the scenery looks flat and murky. There was a reason the colorizing fad ended shortly after it began. Stick with the black & white.


Another favorite hour-long episode of mine is “The New Exhibit.”
Martin Balsam (“Psycho” “12 Angry Men”) stars as socially awkward wax museum worker Martin Senescu. Senescu is the caretaker of the museum’s “Murderer’s Row” exhibit, which features wax figures of Jack the Ripper (David Bond), Henri Desire Landru (Milton Parsons), and Albert Hicks (Bob Mitchell), among others. The curator of the museum, Mr. Ferguson (Will Kuluva) is a friend of Martin’s, but has to break some bad news; low turnout is forcing him to shut down. Martin’s immediate concern is for the wax murderers, whom he cares for with an unhealthy level of obsession. He offers to take the wax figures of his murderers into his basement until Ferguson can find a buyer for them. This, of course, is nearly intolerable to Martin’s long-suffering wife Emma (Maggie Mahoney), who doesn’t exactly relish sharing her cramped basement with a slew of frozen-in-place, unblinking serial killers. With the onset of summer, Martin fears his wax ‘friends’ will melt, so he spends a sizable sum of the couple’s finances buying (and continuously running) an air conditioning unit for the basement.

Emma’s younger brother Dave (William Mims) is upset at seeing his sister losing her home’s living space to a group of wax serial killers. He suggests that she turn off the AC, melting the statues. One night while Martin sleeps, she goes down to the basement to shut it off, and “Jack” springs into action…stabbing Emma with his knife! Martin discovers his wife’s body, and buries her in concrete below the basement floor, fearing his defense won’t be believed. Dave stops by, and Martin lies to him, telling his brother-in-law that he got rid of the figures. Dave doesn’t believe him, and sneaks into the locked basement through a side entrance… and is butchered by an axe-wielding Albert Hicks! Weeks later, Mr. Ferguson stops by to take measurements for the wax figures, telling a nervous Martin that he might have a buyer at Marchand’s in Belgium. He is promptly strangled by Landru’s rope! As Martin admonishes the figures for their heinous acts, they come to life for him…telling Martin that it was HE who killed Emma, Dave and Mr. Ferguson. Martin has compartmentalized the killings by placing blame for them at the unmoving feet of his wax rogue’s gallery. The epilogue sees the Murderer’s Row relocated to Marchand’s, with a new figure added; the figure of Martin Senescu… the obsessive curator who murdered his wife, brother-in-law and former boss.

The actors playing the wax statues do a nice job of keeping their frozen positions, and are often lit from beneath to appear more menacing. Like Robert Duvall in “Miniature”, Martin Balsam owns this episode as the awkward, stammering Senescu, who is a radical departure from the more confident, worldly characters that Balsam usually plays. The twist-ending is also a kicker, with the wax-figure’s killings being revealed as a construct of Martin’s own murderous dementia. Wow! It’s an ending almost as powerful as the big reveal in “Psycho” (1960), which also costarred Balsam (though he didn’t play the killer). As you can see from Serling’s pose with the spooky ‘mannequins’ above, this one’s all about the horror. “The New Exhibit” would be equally at-home as an episode of Boris Karloff’s anthology show “Thriller” (1960-1962), or even Rod Serling’s later “Night Gallery” (1969-1973), both of which tended less towards morality plays and more towards pants-wetting scares.

“On Thursday We Leave For Home” is a timeless study in cult-of-personality leadership (a subject all-too relevant in the age of Donald Trump). James Whitmore plays Capt. William Benteen, the leader of a group of pioneering space colonists living on an oppressively hot and arid planet in the 21st century. The colony was founded 30 years before, escaping devastating wars on Earth. Benteen rallied the survivors through arduous times by acting as community leader, keeping his people together with a promise of eventual rescue and return to a verdant Earth. Now a decades-old call for help is being answered, and a rescue ship is coming. Excitement builds among the dispirited group, as the sleek new ship arrives, led by the younger Colonel Sloane (Tim O’Connor, later of “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”). The colonists begin to see the reasoning of Col. Sloane and away from Capt. Benteen. Benteen locks horns with Sloane, whom he perceives as a threat to his leadership. More concerned with remaining as a ruler in hell than serving in heaven, Benteen tries in vain to convince his followers that Sloane is lying about how Earth’s recovery from the wars. The colonists slowly turn against an increasingly unstable Benteen. In retaliation, Benteen takes a crude piece of pipe to the rescue ship, trying to sabotage it, but is stopped before causing serious damage. Eventually, the rescue ship is forced to leave without Benteen. Left alone, Benteen begins to talk with imaginary colonists as if he were still leader. Benteen then hears the rescue ship leave, which snaps him out of his delusion and he pleads for them to come back.

Timely as ever, especially in the US where cult-of-personality has become a dangerous default in our politics, “On Thursday We Leave For Home” offers strong lessons about the dangers of ignoring critical thinking and facts in favor of disinformation and the personal sway of leaders, too often at the expense of the greater good.

Once again, Twilight Zone speaks across the decades and addresses right now with the clarity of a bell.



Season Five (1963-1964).

Season five is a return to the shorter, tighter formula of the first three years of the show, and it’s like a breath of fresh air. A few iconic episodes that have come to represent the series came from its final year, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” “Masks” and “Living Doll.” There were also some interesting experiments like “Occurrence at Owl Creek Ridge” (a French short film bought & reedited as an episode), as well as a few choice clunkers like “The Fear” “Come Wander With Me” and “The Bewitching Pool” (the final episode of the show). Here are a few of my personal favorites from the final year of The Twilight Zone:

Richard Matheson’s short story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is brought to life by director Richard Donner (“Superman” “Lethal Weapon” “Goonies”). Nervous flyer Robert Wilson (William Shatner) and his wife (Christine White) are on a long stormy-skied flight. Wilson is recovering following an offscreen nervous breakdown, so being aloft 20,000 feet in a turbulent sky inside of a pressurized tube may not be the best therapy. Things go from bad to worse when he sees a giant, Sasquatch-like creature gumming up the plane’s engines. Only Wilson is able to see it, as it always disappears exactly when his wife, the flight attendant or the captain try to verify what he’s seeing. Wilson steals a gun from a sleeping cop and attempts to stop the monster himself, implausibly opening the emergency exit and firing at the creature, stopping it, and saving the plane…though we see him back in a straightjacket by the end of the show. As Serling’s narration begins, we see the damage the creature has done to the wings…

The gremlin today appears more laughable than scary, with its shag carpet romper-suit and suction cup-lips, but it still does the job. Despite its goofiness, the creature and William Shatner are both very effective in the scene when Wilson throws open a closed blind, only to be staring directly into the face of the creature through the window.

In 1983, Warner Bros released the long-troubled “Twilight Zone: The Movie.”
While I won’t delve into its cursed history (the deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two children during a helicopter crash on set in 1982), I’d like to mention the movie’s fourth segment, which is a remake of Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Directed by George Miller (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), the remake features John Lithgow as an unmarried “John Valentine” (nee: Robert Wilson), a man with the same pronounced fear of flying who is stuck on a plane in that familiar storm. While any past nervous breakdowns of the character are not alluded to in this remake, Lithgow plays his fear of flying with an even greater intensity than Shatner (a fear he riffed on in 1984’s “2010: The Year We Make Contact”, playing an astronaut with a fear of heights). Beyond the ‘bigger’ performance by Lithgow and the far greater production value afforded a feature film, the gremlin in the 1983 movie is also a lot closer to the description of the gremlin in Richard Matheson’s original short story; a small, fanged creature more like a malicious, wispy-haired spider monkey than the shag-carpeted Yeti of the original. Even the parody done on “The Simpsons” (the Halloween episode “Nightmare at 5 and 1/2 Feet”, wherein a gremlin attacked Bart’s school bus) retained this smaller, more animalistic version of Matheson’s original story and the 1983 film.

Jordan Peele’s 2019 version of “Twilight Zone” also did a somewhat more disjointed, barely-related reboot called “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”. I reviewed it (along with another episode) earlier on this site, so if anyone’s curious? Here’s the link: https://musingsofamiddleagedgeek.blog/2019/04/02/jordan-peeles-first-two-entries-into-the-twilight-zone/

“Living Doll” sees little Christie Streator (Tracy Stratford, a TZ returnee from season 3’s “Little Girl Lost”) get a new doll named “Talking Tina” from her mother Annabelle (TZ returnee Mary LaRoche). Annabelle is a former single mother who recently married one Eric Straetor (Telly Savalas), an ill-tempered and verbally abusive man. Eric resents Christie having an expensive talking doll, and he soon begins to take it out on his wife and stepdaughter with ugly, uncalled-for remarks. Alone with the doll, the sadistic Eric pulls its string to make it talk, and it warns him to be nice to Christie or he’ll “be sorry”. Eric thinks it’s a gag; that Christie or Annabelle put a radio in the doll, and are feeding it lines somehow. Annabelle is shocked at Eric’s paranoia. Once again alone with the doll, he begins to engage with it. The doll returns his anger with death threats. Eric’s feelings of isolation from Christie and Annabelle begin to manifest in all-out war with the doll. Stealing it from Christie in the middle of the night (Stratford’s teary-eyed pleas to her cruel stepfather are heartbreaking), he takes it to the garage and tries to destroy it with power tools, but “Talking Tina” somehow survives Eric’s aggressions. Ultimately, he ties it up in a sack and throws it in the trash with a weighted lid.

Later, he finds the doll back in Christie’s possession and loses his mind. Annabelle (finally) has enough of his s#!t. She packs her bags, threatening to take Christie and leave her bullying, cruel husband. Later that night as he tries to sleep, Eric awakens to the sound of Tina’s voice, taunting him. He proceeds to walk downstairs and slips on Tina, who was lying on the staircase, waiting. Falling violently down the steps, Eric lands at the bottom, breaking his neck. His last sight is that of Talking Tina, lying beside him. Annabelle sees Eric’s dead body and picks up the doll… which warns her to be nice to it as well.

This often imitated and parodied concept opened the floodgates for many other spooky, haunted doll films and TV shows (the “Annabelle” movie series, most recently; Annabelle curiously being the name of Mary LaRoche’s character as well). Savalas makes for a particularly menacing stepfather in this story, but there are small flashes of vulnerability in his performance as well; he’s not a one-note bad guy. One gets the feeling Eric and Annabelle have much bigger issues than Christie or her chatty doll, and that Eric might even have a history of abuse in his own history somewhere (abusers often become abusers). “Living Doll” is a chilling tale that speaks to the equal horrors of diabolical dolls and abusive parents. Strong performances all around, with special kudos to June Foray (“Rocky & Bullwinkle”) as the voice of Talking Tina. Foray’s memorable voice gives much life to a plastic prop.

“You Drive” is a simple story of all-consuming guilt.
Oliver Pope (Edward Andrews, yet another TZ returnee from “Third From The Sun”) is a middle-aged office rat who, in a bit of distracted driving (long before cell phones), hits a newspaper boy on his bicycle. In a fit of panic, Oliver flees the scene Returning home to his wife Lillian (Helen Westcott), Oliver’s guilt begins to manifest as psychosomatic illness. News begins to spread of the local boy hit on his bicycle. Sick with guilt, the cowardly Edward later discovers that the boy was killed. Later that night, Oliver is awakened as his car’s horn begins to honk repeatedly (much like a modern call alarm, in fact), and its headlights blink accusingly. His wife is worried that it might be a prowler in their garage, but Oliver begins to suspect his car is pulling a Poe on him (the Earl Hamner-scripted story is basically a four-wheeled version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”). Taking time off of work to avoid getting back behind the wheel, Pope receives a visit from concerned coworker Pete (Kevin Hagen) whom Pope accuses of trying to steal his job while he’s out. Pete assures him he’s mistaken, and Lillian is aghast at her husband’s nastiness. Feeling an urge to get back to work, Oliver chooses to walk rather than take his accusatory automobile. On the way to work, his car starts by itself and drives up alongside him. Oliver tries to elude his driverless car, but can’t. Eventually his damning car catches up, and nearly runs Oliver down on the exact same corner where he killed the paper boy. Realizing he can’t outrun his guilt, Pope gets into the car and it takes him to the local police station.

This story of all-consuming guilt and responsibility for one’s actions is the kind of morality play that Twilight Zone does best; a guilty person is brought to justice via supernatural means. Yes, it’s the kind of story that Twilight Zone has done (many times) before, but in a situation that is much more relatable to average audience members. Many of us have been impacted by distracted drivers, or perhaps have even been distracted drivers ourselves. I myself was nearly killed by a drunk driver over 25 years ago. The difference being that Oliver Pope deliberately avoids responsibility for his act. Lives are often changed forever on mundane suburban street corners just like we see in “You Drive.”

If only Oliver stayed with the boy and tried to help, he might’ve avoided the Zone altogether.

“Number 12 Looks Just Like You” is a tale of conformity reminiscent of “Eye of the Beholder”, but with a different execution. 18 year old Marilyn (Collin Wilcox) is a young nonconformist who rejects her futuristic society’s ritual of choosing a new body as one becomes an adult, in order to look just like one of several popular models. This nightmarish society praises conformity and a general vacuous ‘happiness’ over individuality, character and self-determination. Marilyn’s own father was also a conformist, and he killed himself not long after getting his ‘new body’ and losing his individuality. Marilyn’s mother Lana (Suzy Parker) and sister Valerie (Pam Austin) had no such issues with adopting their new looks, and smilingly urge Marilyn to do the same. The choosing is presented as less choice and more as inevitability. The society’s rationale is ‘why would one not want to conform’? Even Marilyn’s doctor (Richard Long) looks exactly like her “Uncle Rick”, as well as her German-accented psychiatrist (“Sigmund Friend”). It’s a society composed of human mirrors, where everyone sees only themselves in everyone else… a nonconformist’s worst nightmare. Marilyn makes a break for it, but is soon captured; forced to choose her ‘new body’ and undergo the procedure. The ending is a tragic one, as Marilyn wakes up looking exactly like her sister Val, and losing all sense of her former individuality as she stares vacuously into a mirror. The change now encompasses mind as well as body, leaving the patient beautiful on the outside, yes, but utterly vacant on the inside.

For a show born in the deeply conformist 1950s, Twilight Zone often spoke of the dangers of groupthink, as well as the dangers of rejecting or shunning our own uniqueness. This is an ongoing lesson for our current age; an age where some people gauge their self-worth by how many ‘followers’ they have on social media. The need to be accepted is a very human one, but it can also be taken to an extreme at the cost of our true selves.
“To thine own self be true” indeed…

“Night Call” is a spooky ghost story that focuses on the twin pains of loss and regret.
Like “Long-Distance Call”, the telephone is once again used as a supernatural conveyance. Elderly Elva Keene (Gladys Cooper, from TZ’s “Nothing in the Dark”) is disabled due to a car accident that also killed her fiancé Brian many years ago. That night many years ago, a young Elva insisted on driving, and drove the car into a tree, crippling herself and killing Brian. Elva’s been alone ever since, tended to by her loyal caregiver Margaret (Nora Marlowe). Now the old frightened woman has been receiving calls late at night from a mysterious voice through a weak connection. The male-voiced caller repeats “Hello…hello…” Elva is terrified when the caller then asks to see her in person, and she begs him to leave her alone! The next day Elva calls the phone company and asks them to trace the call. The phone company representative (Martine Bartlett) tells her that the call has been traced to a phone line that, due to a recent storm, has fallen onto a grave at the local cemetery (!). Margaret drives Elva out to the cemetery, where the old woman realizes the line has fallen onto the grave of her beloved Brian. He’s her mystery caller. Vowing to reach out to him, she realizes that she no longer has to be alone. That night, she picks up her phone and attempts an electronic seance, asking for Brian by name. Brian answers, telling her he will leave her alone now, because, as he says, “I always did what you wanted.” The connection is forever lost. Elva is alone yet again.

The ending seems a bit overkill, since the caller didn’t even identify himself, thus frightening the old woman. However, the moral of this story is regret. When faced with the opportunity to make amends, Elva is too cocooned in her own fears to recognize the opportunity as such. A harshly-delivered lesson, yes, but occasionally Twilight Zone’s lessons were muddled in the service of giving the audience a good fright.

“The Masks”, written by Serling and directed by actress Ida Lupino (also the star of TZ’s “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine”), is a tale of familial greed set against the backdrop of an offscreen Mardi Gras. Elderly Jason Foster (Robert Keith) is given mere hours to live by his physician (Willis Bouchey), which is just enough time to receive his greedy, self-absorbed family, the Harpers; hypochondriac daughter Emily (Virginia Gregg), greedy son-in-law Wilfred (Milton Selzer), vain granddaughter Paula (Brooke Hayward) and brutish grandson Wilfred Jr. (Alan Sues). Jason’s loyal butler Jeffrey (Bill Walker) presents the arriving family members with Jason’s ‘party favors’… hideous Mardi Gras masks that they must wear until midnight. If they fail to keep the masks on for the entire evening, they will forfeit their inheritances from the wealthy old patriarch. Jason himself wears the mask of a skull… a symbol of death (because he’s alive, see?). The Harpers don their masks. As the hours drag on, Jason lets his conniving, selfish family know exactly what he thinks of each of them. Jason knows full well that they’re only after his inheritance. The masks become increasingly uncomfortable to wear as the night drags on, but greedy Wilfred Sr. admonishes his wife and kids to keep them on. Eventually, midnight strikes. Jason quietly passes on. Overjoyed at the old man’s passing, the Harpers begin yanking off their masks one by one…only to realize that their faces are now in the shapes of the grotesque visages they’ve worn all evening. The dead Jason’s mask is removed by Jeffrey, and his lifeless facial features are unchanged. As summed up by narrator Serling: “Mardi Gras incident, the dramatis personae being four people who came to celebrate and in a sense let themselves go. This they did with a vengeance. They now wear the faces of all that was inside them—and they’ll wear them for the rest of their lives, said lives now to be spent in the shadow. Tonight’s tale of men, the macabre and masks, on the Twilight Zone.

“The Masks” is noteworthy for two significant reasons; the terrific makeup jobs by William Tuttle (“The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao”), and the direction of Ida Lupino; the only guest star, as well as the only woman, to have directed a Twilight Zone episode. Tuttle did many of the makeups on the series, and this was one of his more challenging jobs. Like “Eye of the Beholder”, the makeup is the linchpin on which the entire ending rests, and it doesn’t disappoint. That the Fosters’ faces now have an unnatural puddy-like appearance is just right, since their skin has been supernaturally molded like sculptor’s clay beneath their cursed masks.

“I Am The Night, Color Me Black” sees small town sheriff Koch (Michael Constantine) unable to sleep the night before an execution. He is conflicted about the fate of wrongfully convicted murderer Jagger (Terry Becker), a man scheduled for hanging the following morning after being wrongfully convicted of killing a bigot in self-defense. Jagger is unrepentant. The morning of Jagger’s hanging, the sun does not rise. The sun rises everywhere else, except for this small town. Doubt lingers regarding Jagger’s guilt (Koch’s own deputy is accused of perjury by the local press). At 9 am, right before the scheduled hanging, it’s still dark. News reports indicate that the darkness remains confined to the town. Koch feels guilt over his own dereliction with the investigation (at the time he didn’t want to risk his reelection bid). At 9:30 am Jagger is hung anyway, and the town celebrates. A black minister (TZ returnee Ivan Dixon, of “Big Tall Wish”) expresses gratitude for the late Jagger for previously standing up for him. While the minister had reluctantly supported the execution, he concedes that Jagger was killed for the wrong reasons. Meanwhile, the darkness over the town grows worse. Some think it’s like a fog that will lift, but it won’t… it only gets darker. The minister says that injustice itself is causing the darkness. News reports confirm that the skies have now darkened over North Vietnam, the Berlin Wall, a prison in Budapest, part of Chicago, Dallas (the site of Kennedy’s assassination), and many other places of hatred and injustice all over the world. Serling’s closing narration: “A sickness known as hate. Not a virus, not a microbe, not a germ—but a sickness nonetheless, highly contagious, deadly in its effects. Don’t look for it in the Twilight Zone—look for it in a mirror. Look for it before the light goes out altogether.

Once again, The Twilight Zone took on racism at a time when network television wasn’t uniformly so brave. Serling’s script is passionate, if a mite preachy. All the same, it should be celebrated as a landmark in helping to break down television taboos in dealing with uncomfortable subjects.

While I have some issues with the 2019 CBS-All Access reboot, I strongly contest those fans of Twilight Zone who insist that Rod Serling’s original was never about “social justice warrior” stuff. I strongly beg to differ. Serling’s stories dealt with racism, politics, the Vietnam war, the Holocaust, the morality of capital punishment, child abuse, and a slew of other subjects that weren’t considered ‘family viewing’ in those days. Yes, Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone incarnation is flawed in key respects, but its persistent tackling of current racial and social injustice (however clumsily executed at times) is in very much keeping with Rod Serling’s original vision for the show.
My final selection is “Mr. Garrity and the Graves”, which is yet another subgenre that Twilight Zone often tackled with aplomb; the supernatural comedy. In the Old West circa 1890, a polished conman named Garrity (TZ veteran John Dehner) wanders into the sleepy, slow-witted town of Happiness, Arizona. Walking into the local saloon, he orders a beer and makes casual conversation with the bartender Jensen (Stanley Adams, another TZ veteran). When asked what he does, Garrity casually mentions that he resurrects the dead (!). Initially unconvinced, everyone in the bar snickers until a dog is heard yelping outside, and appears to have been hit by wagon. He asks the crowd to turn away as he prepares his ritual learned from wise men in Tibet; he murmurs some mystical-sounding mumbo jumbo, and the the dog suddenly leaps up, wagging its tail. The dimwitted towns folk are convinced. He vows to resurrect all of their loved ones, ‘free of charge’, of course (the con comes later).

As night falls, Jensen sees what appears to be his twin brother, in a shuffling stride at the end of the misty street. Not terribly keen on the prospect of his cheating brother’s return, Jensen wonders how much much it would cost Garrity to send his ‘dear’ brother back to his rest. The other townspeople, including a nervous sheriff who shot a dead bandit in the back, and a weakling husband who was the victim of spousal abuse by his strong-arm wife, suddenly begin offering Garrity all of their money to return the dear departed to the hereafter. Garrity takes all of their eagerly offered money, of course, and the figure of Jensen’s brother down the street seem to disappear in the fog. Making a tactful exit, Garrity prepares to move on, and cheat new prospects elsewhere. He welcomes his dog, whom he’s trained to play dead for his earlier ‘resurrection trick.’ Chatting with his wagon driver Ace (John Mitchum), whom he used to play Jensen’s brother, as almost remorseful Garrity tells him that he wished he had the power to truly raise the dead. As Garrity’s wagon rides out, we see bodies exiting the cemetery, including Jensen’s brother, the dead bandit, and the abusive wife; all of whom have scores to settle with the living in Happiness. Garrity’s talent for resurrection would appear to be genuine, however unwitting…

“Mr Garrity and the Graves” is one of many examples of Twilight Zone’s occasional comedies, which don’t usually get as much mention as the more profound or frightening entries, but are worth a mention all the same. “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”, which I mentioned in Part 1, is possibly the most well-known of the humorous Twilight Zones, but other memorable examples include “Mr. Dingle, the Strong” (starring multiple TZ returnee Burgess Meredith), “A Kind of Stopwatch”, “Penny For Your Thoughts”, “A Most Unusual Camera” and “Cavender Is Coming” (starring future comedy legend Carol Burnett) to name a few. Some still work, others are hopelessly quaint, but I admire Serling’s attempt to break up the sturm und drang with occasional laughs. This mix was done somewhat less successfully in Serling’s later series, “The Night Gallery” (1971-1973), whose more leaden ‘comedy’ segments lacked the bounce of those done in the Zone.

Between light and shadow…

Between first run of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and its later syndication (which is where I discovered the series as a child), there were some significant changes made. The most obvious being the trimming of a few minutes from each episode to make room for more adverts. Yes, the scourge of American TV… commercial breaks. This trimming of content for more ads was common practice then, and is still done widely today. Back in the 1970s, actual film-based kinescopes of the episodes were physically cut and edited for rebroadcast, so you’d also have jarring cuts, pops and splices in the film where scenes or moments had been omitted for time (a five-year old child with an iPhone could make better edits today…). This sort of physical film manhandling by local stations simply doesn’t exist anymore in the age of digital television. Cuts for time are far smoother, with some prints are digitally compressed (sped-up) in order to fit better in their time slots.

Serling always opened and closed his show with narration, often accompanied by his on-camera appearances as well. He would do similar hosting duties for his later series “The Night Gallery” in the 1970s.

Another big change in syndication was the general omission of the hour-long fourth season episodes, which were ‘too big’ for syndicated Twilight Zone’s half-hour slots (at least for my then-local station in Los Angeles). I knew of the hour-long season by rumor, and later would see a few of them during the famous “Twilight Zone Marathons”, which were a syndication staple in the 1980s, running on local broadcast stations on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Day, Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. Sometimes the marathons would slip in a few of the hour-long episodes here and there, and over time, I eventually saw all of them. These marathons were the forerunner of today’s very common practice of binge-watching (which is far easier today with commercial-free streaming or DVD/Blu Rays). SyFy cable network continues the tradition of the Twilight Zone marathons on certain holidays, after local stations more or less abandoned the practice. Even though I own the entire series, I still enjoy chilling to a Twilight Zone episode on a lazy, uneventful holiday every now and then. Just feels right.

A tearful George Takei is goaded into a painful confession by Neville Brand.

Several episodes were omitted from the syndication packages in those days for various reasons. The first was the 5th season episode “The Encounter”, featuring a very young, pre-“Star Trek” George Takei. Takei plays Arthur Takamori, a young Japanese-American man looking for odd jobs around the neighborhood. He agrees to do some work for a neighbor named Fenton (Neville Brand). Fenton is a veteran of World War 2 who bears a simmering, passive-aggressive resentment of the Japanese despite a veneer of false hospitality. Arthur (whose pre-Anglicized name is Taro) notices a samurai sword in Fenton’s attic, and is curiously drawn to it. Fenton boasts that he stole it from a Japanese soldier he killed during the war, all the while continuing to bait and goad the young man with increasingly aggressive taunts. With the sword’s unspoken coercion, Arthur breaks down and admits that his father was a traitor during Pearl Harbor, signaling the Japanese planes to their shipyard targets. Feeling the dead Japanese soldier’s spirit of vengeance emanating from the weapon, Arthur takes it, slays his tormenter, and leaps out of the attic window crying “Banzai!” This episode was kept from syndication for many year due to its racially-charged content (yet “All in the Family”, a brilliant CBS comedy which often dealt with racism head-on, had no such censorship). Its controversy notwithstanding, “The Encounter” is poorly written, with broad characterizations (a Japanese-American man with a sword yelling ‘banzai’), and an overall lack of subtlety. It is not one of Twilight Zone’s better offerings on the topic of racism. Finally seeing “The Encounter” sometime in the 1990s, I realized I’d missed nothing, save for an energetic performance from George Takei.

Roger Jacquet in “The Owl River”, which became the Twilight Zone episode, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Ridge”, adapted from an 1890 short story by American author Ambrose Bierce.

The second episode omitted from the earlier syndication package was the 1962 French short film “The Owl River”, which was sold to the series and presented as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Ridge” during its 5th season in 1964. The short film sees Peyton Farquhar (Roger Jacquet), a Confederate soldier awaiting execution by Union officers during the American Civil War (the setting alone makes it perfect for TZ, which had multiple episodes set in that time). As the rope drops, it also breaks, and Peyton miraculously survives, falling into the river below. Swimming away and avoiding tracking parties, he is joyously reunited with his wife. Then the entire episode is then revealed to be a vision that occurred within the seconds of his execution, which he didn’t survive. A similar plot device was used to terrific effect in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Inner Light” (1992), in which Capt. Picard seemed to live an entire virtual lifetime during the span of mere minutes. Purchase rights of this episode only allowed for two airings, and it wasn’t included in the syndication package. I first saw the episode only about ten years ago on DVD, and I only knew of its existence from Marc Scott Zicree’s book, “The Twilight Zone Companion”, which each member of my family read cover-to-cover when we were teenagers.

Summit of his Knowledge.

Mr. SciFi himself! Author/screenwriter/producer/director Marc Scott Zicree. Amazing guy!

Marc Scott Zicree is the man who literally wrote the book on the Twilight Zone with his “The Twilight Zone Companion”, which he began writing at the age of 22 in the late 1970s, was given full access to Rod Serling’s estate by Serling’s widow, Carol. Zicree’s book was first published in 1982, and is now in its fifth edition, with updated information and links to all incarnations of The Twilight Zone series, including the newer versions from 1985, 2002 and 2019. My sisters and I read this book cover-to-cover when we were teens. It is indispensable for any serious Twilight Zone fan.

My own cherished 2nd edition of “The Twilight Zone Companion”.

I had the chance to do a two-part interview the amiable Zicree in August of 2018. We discussed topics such as “The Twilight Zone Companion”, his work on “Star Trek” (TNG’s 1991 episode “First Contact” and DS9’s “Far Beyond the Stars” from 1998), his long career, and his recent crowdsourced epic series “Space Command” https://spacecommandmovie.com (donations for the series can be made on Kickstarter.com). Zicree also does multiple commentary tracks for The Twilight Zone series blu rays.

If you own the Twilight Zone blu-rays, give Zicree’s audio commentary tracks a listen. If you enjoy them, you might want to check out Zicree’s YouTube channel Mr. Sci-Fi.

Parts one and two of my interview with Zicree are in the links below:

https://musingsofamiddleagedgeek.blog/2018/08/11/marc-scott-zicree-mr-sci-fi-part-1-from-the-twilight-zone-to-the-final-frontier/

https://musingsofamiddleagedgeek.blog/2018/08/12/marc-scott-zicree-mr-sci-fi-part-2-more-from-the-final-frontier-the-new-adventures-of-space-command-and-beyond/

Still in the Zone.

Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone is a childhood favorite of mine that remains comfortably iconic decades later. Rod Serling poured his heart and soul into the show, writing 92 of the 156 total episodes, as well as doing on-camera narration and hosting duties, too. That Serling passed away in 1975 at age 50 only served to cement his status as a legend gone too soon, like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe.

All the time in the world…

The Twilight Zone is a landmark of pure television excellence, unequaled in the anthology genre, even by its own remakes. Despite anachronisms in technology, terminology, fashions, etc. the stories of the series remain timeless, just waiting to be discovered by new generations of fans. Here’s hoping Serling’s original creation lives forever.

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