Thursday, 2 June 2011

Review: THE TWILIGHT ZONE, 1.1 - 1.7

Thursday, 2 June 2011

As announced recently, here's the first batch of my planned reviews of THE TWILIGHT ZONE's first season (1959-60) to celebrate Rod Serling's classic anthology making its debut on high-definition Blu-ray. I hope these reviews will entertain existing fans, but also draw some newcomers to this acclaimed, pioneering television drama. I'm at the mercy of my LoveFilm rental queue, so I'm not sure how frequent these batch-reviews will be, but I'll be posting reviews covering each disc's episodes as and when...

Pilot episode "WHERE IS EVERYBODY?" gently eases its '50s audience into Rod Serling's peculiar Twilight Zone, with a story that's relatively humdrum by today's standards, but nevertheless a confident and economical piece of genre writing. In it, a man (Forbidden Planet's Earl Holliman) suffering amnesia wanders into a small, apparently deserted town, his paranoia increasing as he notices signs of recent presence (a jukebox playing to an empty diner, coffee boiling on an unwatched stove, a cigar smoldering on the lip of an ashtray), leading him to doubt his own sanity as he wanders around the eerie ghost town trying to find signs of life.

In many ways this opener encapsulates the embryonic series (strong Americana, a baffled everyman, pervasive atmosphere, a twist-ending), but it's still slightly anemic. The man's dialogue is more for the benefit of viewers than realistic self-comforting talk, and while the twist in the tail's unpredictable it's also quite weak by the show's standards. Still, Holliman performs the material well, there's a terrific camera trick involving a smashed mirror, it's bizarre seeing the "Courthouse Square" set (used as Back To The Future's Hill Valley) in a genuine 1950s context, and its theme of isolation and loneliness obviously haven't dated as badly as talk about microfilms being used to store books on. / written by Rod Serling / directed by Robert Stevens / 2 October 1959

"ONE FOR THE ANGELS" is a largely forgettable tale, where kindly 69-year-old salesman Lou Bookman (Mary Poppins' Ed Wynn) is visited by Mr Death (Jaws' Murray Hamilton) after a day selling toys out of a suitcase--including a Robbie the Robot (the second Forbidden Planet nod in as many episodes.) The debonair Angel of Death's arrived for a midnight appointment to take Bookman to the hereafter, but makes the foolish mistake of agreeing to let Bookman delay his "departure" until he makes a momentous sales pitch that'll make his name in memoriam. Understandably, Bookman double-crosses Death by announcing his forthwith retirement after the deal's struck--not realizing his deceit means the bureaucratic Death's forced to look elsewhere to keep his "appointment", as a sweet child is hit by a car...

There's a nice idea simmering throughout this episode, but it's unfortunate Wynn isn't terribly convincing as a salesman, which kills an already unconvincing climax where Bookman's super-pitch is supposed to mesmerize Death into missing his rearranged appointment. And for modern audiences, too much feels illogical or daft: could Death really be fooled so easily by Bookman? Why is Death's attention taken with material concerns like neck-ties? Why does Bookman continue to see Death after avoiding his fate? An appealing story in some respects, but a minor chapter in the show's history. / written by Rod Serling / directed by Robert Parrish / 9 October 1959

The embodiment of Death gives way to the personification of Fate for the oddly-titled "MR DENTON ON DOOMSDAY", a Wild West fable where town drunk Al Denton (Dan Duryea), teased and humiliated by leering cowboy Dan Hotaling (Martin Landau) and his cronies, magically regains the gun-slinging prowess from his long-forgotten sobriety after finding an enchanted revolver in the dirt. That would ordinarily be enough to fuel a story, but Serling throws in a peddler called Henry J. Fate (Malcolm Atterbury) who offers Denton a potion that guaranteed 10-seconds of exceptional aim to help Denton defeat rival gunman Pete Grant (Doug McClure) who's ridden into town for a duel.

To be honest, the addition of Fate as a actual character confused me. Why would Denton care about a potion if his aim was seemingly super-accurate without it--as far as he was concerned, unaware Fate was lending a hand from the very start? My guess is that Serling just likes the idea of ordinary people encountering embodiments of existential things, and it's a handy way to impart knowledge with dialogue. There's a lovely twist to the tale regarding Denton's challenger, and the overall moral of the story has a neatness that lingers for awhile. Twilight Zone sometimes feels like adult Aesop Fables, and this episode's strong evidence of that. Factor in a good performance from Western veteran Duryea, who makes for a sympathetic and a plausible drunk, and a fun early appearance by the now-legendary Landau, and you have a good episode with questionable superfluities. / written by Rod Serling / directed by Allen Reisner / 16 October 1959

Fourth episode "THE SIXTEEN-MILLIMETER SHRINE" is unusual, in so much as there's nothing fantastical about it until the last five minutes. Instead, it's the show's most accessible episode yet, and one that deals with an issue most people can relate to: aging. In it, we meet Barbara Jean Trenton (Ida Lupino), an erstwhile Hollywood movie starlet of the 1930s, who now spends her middle-age in seclusion, watching 16mm films of her old movies--psychologically imprisoned by a desire to relive her glory days. Her kindly agent Danny Weiss (Psycho's Martin Balsam), concerned about her mental state, devises a plan to get Barbara to accept her current circumstances and advancing years: an audition for a new movie with a big studio, and getting Barbara reacquainted with her aged screen lover Jerry (Jerome Cowan).

This is a Sunset Boulevard-inspired episode of mixed success. The performances are good from Lupino as the delusional prima donna and Balsam as her patient agent, but it's essentially an episode that spends the majority of its time reiterating the same points about Barbara's state of mind. And by the time the twist comes, with Barbara's wish to return to the good ol' days, we've had too much time to predict it. Still, the theme's a strong one that's even more relevant today, as nostalgia and "living in the past" has become more commonplace, and the characters are well-drawn. / written by Rod Serling / directed by Mitchell Leisen / 23 October 1959

From one actress's yearning to revisit her past, to a businessman achieving the same in "WALKING DISTANCE", Twilight Zone's first proper foray into time-travel. Middle-aged ad man Martin Sloan (Gig Young) stops at a remote gas station while on a cross-country trip and use the free time to walk to his nearby hometown. Arriving in Homewood, where he grew up as a boy, Martin's amazed at how little the place has changed in 25 years, soon realizing that's because he's somehow wandered into the past when he catches sight of his younger self in the local park...

Time magazine heralded "Walking Distance" the eighth best Twilight Zone episode ever made, and it's certainly a very strong one. Some of its ideas are no longer particularly clever (although I love the moment when Martin suffers leg pain when he accidentally caused his 11-year-old self to fall off a carousel), and there are some noticeable flaws (why doesn't the man in the diner react strangely when Martin's talking about a long-dead janitor who's very much alive?), but there's a beautiful sweetness to this story that takes advantage of nostalgia for childhood innocence. Plus, there's a great score from Psycho composer Bernard Hermann. / written by Rod Serling / directed by Robert Stevens / 30 October 1959

A sense of repetition creeps into the show with "ESCAPE CLAUSE" as it reworks "One For The Angels" badly, wasting a decent idea. One issue with The Twilight Zone, in hindsight, is that modern audiences have become sophisticated enough to see through its often naive developments and plotting. That's unfortunately what unravels this episode, where hateful hypochondriac Walter Bedeker (David Wayne) makes a deal with "Mr Cadwallader" (Thomas Gomez), Satan in disguise: immortality, for the price of his eternal soul, although Bedeker can choose when he wants to die as an "escape clause." Bedeker agrees, but then decides to spend his immortality chasing various death-defying thrills as an insurance scam (jumping in front of trains, drinking ammonia). Following the accidental death of his long-suffering wife (Virginia Christine), Bedeker confesses to her murder in the hope he'll be given the electric chair...

I didn't like this episode, as nothing about it felt logical enough to me. Bedeker's reaction to the arrival of The Devil didn't feel realistic (at least Bookman in "One For The Angels" demanded proof of Mr Death), and it just struck me as ridiculous a reclusive man would spend eternity trying to kill himself as a scam. Added to that, Bedeker wasn't enough of a sympathetic character (he barely batted an eyelid when his poor wife fell to her death!), and the outcome was painfully obvious in a "be careful what you wish for..." sense. Even accepting this must have felt fresh and clever to its original audience, I didn't warm to "Escape Clause" because it now feels built on a shaky, specious structure. / written by Rod Serling / directed by Mitchell Leisen / 6 November 1959

The season began with a treatise on loneliness in the pilot, and "THE LONELY" returns to that well in a generally less satisfying way, although the story dealt with the theme in a better way. James Corry (12 Angry Men's Jack Warden) is a prisoner on a distant asteroid (looking uncannily like Death Valley...), where he's serving 50 years in complete isolation for murder. Understandably, Corry's going stir crazy after 4 years spent on this barren rock with no company, only visited four times a year by a supply ship captained by a suave astronaut called Allenby (John Dehner), who very often only has minutes to exchange pleasantries. During one such visit, Allenby shows a kindness by gifting Corry a mysterious box which he's told to open after they leave--whereupon Corry discovers a robot woman inside called Alicia (Upstairs, Downstairs' Jean Marsh), who eventually becomes his beloved companion...

It's silly how Allenby's crew have negligible time to chat with Corry, or that their employers would think it makes sense to keep individual prisoners 9,000,000 miles away on separate asteroids, but it's becoming obvious Zone's finer details can appear strange, naive or occasionally stupid from a 21st-century perspective with modern demands. That said, I rather enjoyed this episode's core idea, although it only really amounted to anything once Corry's asked to give up his artificial companion for his freedom (the rocket can't carry Alicia's weigh, or make a return trip for her.) It's just a pity the ending didn't feel like the best creative option available to Serling. Alicia winds up "killed" by Allenby so Corry can leave the asteroid, which takes the issue completely out of the lead character's hands. It's a sad ending, sure, but it also washes its hands of something stickier. I'd have preferred Alicia being left alone for eternity in Corry's place, effectively inheriting her human friend's punishment. But what do I know, right? / written by Rod Serling / directed by Jack Smight / 13 November 1959