CC2K staff member and fright-specialist Big Ross shares his choices for the best trips into the Zone ever.
An ordinary-looking door set in a frame free-standing of any wall appears in front of a backdrop of stars and blackness. “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of the mind.” The door opens and you appear to travel through it. A series of images appears at each description of this new dimension: a shattering window, a disembodied eyeball, Einstein’s famous equation. “You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into The Twilight Zone.”
Man, they just don’t make openings to television shows like that anymore.
And really, they don’t make shows like The Twilight Zone anymore. It’s not for lack of trying. Whether intended or not (and despite structural differences), there are shows on air today that capture the same feel and tone of The Twilight Zone. Shows like Heroes and especially Lost have the same air of mystery and touch of the fantastic and the same altering of perceptions with twists and surprises that was such a staple of Zone. One thing that Zone’s spiritual contemporaries lack (through no fault of their own) is the key element that has lent to Zone’s iconic status: its place in history. Zone premiered in the late 1950s, the time of the Second Red Scare, McCarthyism, humanity’s first attempts at space exploration, the burgeoning of the Cold War and nuclear expansion, as well as the early years of the Civil Rights movement. This was the calm before the storm of the 60s, and Freedom of Speech was not so readily enjoyed by those with dissenting views. Rod Serling and his fellow writers created the fictional world of the Twilight Zone not only to entertain, but also to share their social and moral commentary with the American people in a way that would be ignored and written off as harmless fantasy by those in power. I think it is this more than anything else that has seen the attempted resurgence of Zone, first in the late 80s and more recently in 2002, fail. This mixture created a kind of magic that simply can’t be recaptured, but it can still be enjoyed today.
I’d like to share my top 5 personal favorite episodes from The Twilight Zone, in no particular order:
· The Obsolete Man – A story that could have been ripped from the pages of Fahrenheit 451 or 1984, it told of one Romney Wordsworth, a librarian. Living in a totalitarian state that views Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin as having the right idea but being too timid, the State has moved from eliminating all who are a threat, different, sick, old, and lame to judging the worth of every individual by their contribution to society. Having outlawed books, thereby eliminating the need for libraries as well as librarians, Wordsworth is deemed obsolete and is sentenced to die. Wordsworth asserts his worth as a man with a mind and will to live, but it is in vain as a Chancellor of the State dismisses all of Wordsworth’s arguments. Seemingly defeated, he requests and is granted a public execution, and is allowed to choose the precise time and manner of his death. Wordsworth sets an ingenious plan into motion when he invites the Chancellor into his apartment for a meeting, then locks him in and reveals (on camera and televised to the entire nation) that he arranged to die by explosion in his home at precisely midnight. Unwilling to display weakness in front of the society and the State, the Chancellor has no choice but to sit with Wordsworth during his vigil. Contrasted with Wordsworth’s finding solace in passages from a contraband Bible is the Chancellor’s rising panic at having to face his own mortality.
Creepiest Moment – After breaking down and begging to God (whom the State has deemed not to exist) to be let out, the Chancellor faces his own judgment and is also found obsolete by the State. In the final moments of the episode a crowd of young fanatics close upon the Chancellor emitting a very disconcerting, eerie keening that rises to an almost euphoric cry as they carry out his execution with their bare hands.
· The Monsters are Due on Maple Street – More a lesson in paranoia than tale of alien invasion, this episode is an all time classic. It begins on a bright, clear day in Suburbia, America. The residents of Maple Street are up to various, typical activities on a weekend afternoon. Kids are playing, one man is washing his car, and another is mowing his lawn. One woman hangs laundry out to dry in a backyard, and another sets a pie out on a windowsill to cool. This perfect slice of Americana is violently disrupted when a mysterious object tears through the sky overhead. Troubled neighbors gather to discuss what it could have been. One suggests it was probably just an airplane, but it didn’t look or sound like one. Another wonders if it was a meteor, but nobody saw or heard it land. A kid speaks up, insisting he knows what it was. Just like the stories out of one of his comic books, it was a Martian spaceship that has come to invade Earth. Of course, none of the adults believe him, until other strange things begin to happen. First they discover that all of the electricity as stopped working. From televisions and radios to telephones and houselights, all are dead. Their apprehension grows to fear as they find the same applies to their lawnmowers and automobiles. Confounded at what could cause the malfunctioning of everything, they wonder at a connection to the object seen earlier. The little boy again insists it’s all part of a Martian invasion plan (remember this was a time before Apollo, Viking, and Voyager when such a notion was within the realm of possibility) that also includes sending Martian scouts disguised as humans to reconnoiter for the full invasion force. While cooler, more rational heads prevail, this is a temporary reprieve as another development stirs new panic. Certain residents’ cars and houselights begin turning on and off seemingly by themselves, arousing suspicions and accusations. The folks of Maple Street work themselves into a frenzied mob hell bent on finding a scapegoat for their fear.
Creepiest Moment – One man who left shortly after the blackout to walk to Town Hall looking for an explanation returns after dark, only to be shot by an individual of the terrified, irrational group. As Maple Street dissolves into chaos we see two Martians observing the scene from their ship, and as one says in effect to the other “See, we needn’t do anything but instill them with fear and they will destroy themselves,” we realize that the monsters were on Maple Street all along.
· Eye of the Beholder – This is one of the classic “twist” episodes with a surprise ending that M. Night Shyamalan might cite as the inspiration for his style of film making. It’s a rather simple story of a young woman who has undergone a recent plastic surgery procedure to correct her grotesque visage, and is recovering in a hospital anxiously awaiting the removal of her bandages, which is where the big twist occurs. Up until that point, her face remains covered and (mostly by theatrical and technical tricks) so do the faces of her doctor and nurses. When her bandages are removed the doctor exclaims, “No change, no change at all!” yet we see she bears a perfectly normal and quite beautiful face. What could be wrong? That is quickly answered when the doctor pulls off his surgical mask to reveal a hideously malformed nose and mouth. The nurses possess those same features, and as the woman runs from the room screaming, she encounters people in person, on television screens, and in pictures that all look the same. “Ugliness” is the norm and “beauty” is the aberration.
Creepiest Moment – Actually not the big twist but an earlier scene between the young woman and her doctor. The still bandaged woman laments at how much she wants to “fit in” and “look like everyone else,” how much she needs to not be “ugly.” So much so that we learn this is her eleventh and final operation; she begs her doctor to euthanize her if this last attempt has failed.
· The Masks – This tale of revenge with connections to voodoo seems an appropriate pick considering it’s Fright Week. The person on the exacting end is Jason Foster, a very wealthy and elderly gentleman. On the receiving end are his surviving family and heirs to his fortune: his daughter, her husband, and their son and daughter. They are joining Jason at his home in New Orleans for Mardi Gras where (because of his poor health) he has agreed to read his last will and testament. First he asks them to join in the Mardis Gras spirit by donning masks he had specially made by “an old Cajun.” Appalled by their gruesome appearance, Jason explains it is an old tradition to wear a mask that reflects qualities and characteristics that are the exact opposite of those possessed by the wearer. So for his brave and selfless daughter he gives a mask of a sniveling coward, for his generous son-in-law the mask of a greedy hoarder, for his modest and genuine granddaughter, he gives a mask of a haughty, superficial hag, and for his gentle and scholarly grandson a mask of a twisted buffoon. Lastly for himself, fighting to prolong his life, he has a skeletal mask of the face of Death. Initially scoffing at the idea, Jason insists that according to his will they will get no part of his fortune if they do not wear the masks until midnight. Readily agreeing at first, they complain more and more about their “party favors” until their growing claustrophobia and discomfort becomes unbearable. Jason lashes out at them, telling of his true feelings – that he knows his children are all terrible, that the masks they wear are in fact exact representations of the true faces of the people they are on the inside (as has been hinted at throughout the episode). With his dying breath he informs them they will receive his entire inheritance. Before his despicable children can enjoy it, they discover a horrifying truth. Jason isn’t the only one who has “become” his mask. Each of their faces has been disfigured to match the grotesque masks they’ve been wearing, their true selves exposed to the world.
Creepiest Moment – As Jason is passing out masks he gets to his grandson, and while I can’t remember exactly the description Jason gives for the person his mask represents (which is how his grandson truly is), my impression was of a depraved, perverted soon-to-be sociopathic serial killer in the vein of Ted Bundy (and this was 1950’s television!).
· Time Enough At Last – One of the best remembered episodes of Zone featuring the late Burgess Meredith, perhaps I’ll let the man himself (Rod Serling) introduce this one:
“Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself, without anyone.”
Mr. Bemis is in the habit of taking his lunch breaks in the vault of the bank he works at, a place of refuge where he can get a few minutes alone with his precious books. With a bit of foreshadowing in the form of a newspaper headline “H-BOMB CAPABLE OF TOTAL DESTRUCTION”, Mr. Bemis’s latest lunch break is interrupted with sounds of huge explosions and violent tremors. Mr. Bemis cautiously explores the bank’s surroundings, discovering that the once familiar world is now a desolate wasteland. He seems to be the lone survivor of nuclear holocaust. Mr. Bemis is close to committing suicide when he happens upon the remains of the public library and finds that it (and its contents) have largely survived the blasts. Finding reason (as well as ample food supplies) on which to live, Mr. Bemis rather joyfully begins sorting through books he will read throughout the year, and just as he sets about to begin his first book, he falls and breaks his glasses, reducing his vision to a blur.
Creepiest Moment – Mr. Bemis, clutching the remains of his glasses cries, “That’s–that’s not fair. That’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was, was all the time I needed…! It’s not fair!” Rod Serling narrates somberly, “The best laid plans of mice and men and Henry Bemis, the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis in the Twilight Zone.” Gives me chills just reading it!
· Honorable Mention – People are Alike All Over, Deaths-Head Revisited, Probe 7, Over and Out, To Serve Man, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, It’s a Good Life, The Purple Testament, Shadow Play, Nothing in the Dark, Number 12 Looks Just Like You
Even though The Twilight Zone is incredibly dated, I find that adds to, rather than detracts from, my enjoyment of this show. With a background and career in science it’s very interesting (and often really amusing) for me to see what people at the time these were made knew about the physical universe around them, as well as what they imagined the future (probably near present day) would be like. It’s also intriguing to consider that despite all of our advances in science and technology we still haven’t achieved the kinds of feats in manned space exploration and robotics that were common elements in the science fiction stories of Zone.
Of course, besides all of that you get entertaining thrills and chills. Lacking the special effects and gore of today’s thrillers, this show still has the storytelling power to affect you, and hit you on a more intellectual level. If you want to experience these stories and can’t wait for the once-a-year-all-day marathon on the Scifi Channel (which I believe is New Year’s Day), you can make an extended trip to the Twilight Zone on DVD. Here’s hoping you find your way back out again.