Friday, 26 August 2011

Review: THE TWILIGHT ZONE, 1.16 – 1.23

Friday, 26 August 2011

Continuing my batch-reviews of The Twilight Zone's first season on Blu-ray (following part 1 and part 2), here are the next eight episodes that all aired in 1960, featuring a strange hitch-hiker, a time-travelling pilot, a gambling addict, scheming aliens, a duplicate of Earth, and a precognitive soldier...

Rod Serling adapted THE HITCH-HIKER from a radio play by Lucille Fletcher, making it the only episode of Twilight Zone to use audio as source material. In this half-hour, a 27-year-old woman called Nan Adams (Inger Stevens) is driving cross-country from New York to L.A, but keeps encountering a disquieting hitch-hiker (Leonard Strong) she first ignored on the roadside after a breakdown. Nan's journey continues apace, with the odd pedestrian somehow able to appear ahead of her, popping up in unexpected places along her journey, apparently invisible to everyone else.

Like many episodes, there are moments that look silly today (Nan's demure reaction to the impossibility of the hitch-hiker's movements, or a misjudged shot when the hitcher breaks the fourth wall), but overall this episode hasn't aged too badly. It works more in retrospect once the twist-ending's revealed, there's no doubt, but Stevens makes for a beguiling protagonist (particularly in the scene where the penny drops about what's going on during a phone call to her mother), there's a fun Hitchcockian flavour to the tale, and the eerie anxiety simmers nicely. / written by Rod Serling (based on a radio play by Lucille Fletcher) / directed by Alvin Ganzer / 22 January 1960

Inspired by a trip to a casino by Serling himself, THE FEVER is a cautionary tale about gambling, wherein Franklin Gibbs (Everett Sloane), on vacation in Las Vegas with his wife Flora (Vivi Janiss), becomes addicted to gambling after encountering a one-armed bandit with a $10,000 jackpot. Initially so contemptuous of gambling as to be a cantankerous killjoy, this episode charts the descent of Franklin into an insomniac fruit machine addict, to the dismay of his wife.

"The Fever" doesn't feel like a Twilight Zone episode for the majority of its runtime; more a basic example of how dangerous gambling can be for the weak-willed. This works well, though, despite the slightly implausible speed in which Franklin becomes a slave to the slots. A particularly brilliant effect was to have Franklin imagine his name being called in the jangling sound of dispensed coins, enticing him back to the casino in the dead of night. Unfortunately, despite building a palpable sense of Franklin's desperation to win his money back, the story takes a silly twist when Franklin starts to imagine the slot machine's literally come to life, eventually leading to a fall through a closed window that snaps credibility. It's a shame Serling's added something silly to the end of this story, when there were more realistic options available for a resolution. / written by Rod Serling / directed by Robert Florey / 29 January 1960

THE LAST FLIGHT is another offering from the mind of distinguished author Richard Matheson, and is a definite season highlight. This is a delightful time-travel story about British pilot Flt Lt Decker (Kenneth Haigh) who lands his WWI biplane on the airstrip of a USAF base after fleeing German fighters in the skies of 1917. Decker's taken into custody by a Major Wilson (Simon Scott) and asked to explain his presence to General Harper (Alexander Scourby), with both Americans suspecting Decker's a prankster when it becomes clear he think he's from the past.

Time-travel's my favourite SF sub-genre and "The Last Flight" is a classic example, if unsophisticated by modern standards. But it's still a great "what if?" idea, neatly told and containing fine performances from Haigh as the out of time pilot and Scott as the Major who begins to believe this Englishman's tall story. The resolution is also satisfying and surprisingly poignant, given what we learn about Decker's cowardice, and it's largely impossible to dislike Matheson's tight, flowing story. It's predictable in terms of big surprises, but sometimes you just want to sit back and watch something trot along in an entertaining manner. For me, this is the best episode of The Twilight Zone so far. / written by Richard Matheson / directed by William Claxton / 5 February 1960

Rod Serling's real wartime experiences informed aspects of THE PURPLE TESTAMENT, apparently, but it's hard to see exactly how. The episode finds Lt William Fitzgerald (William Reynolds) serving in WWII, where he realizes he can predict which of his comrades are going to die, as the doomed can be seen with a strange light shining on their face. Naturally, nobody believes him, even after his precognition is proven accurate, until the inevitable twist-in-the-tale that befalls nearly everyone with the ability to predict death in SF. A decent idea, but sorely predictable. / written by Rod Serling / directed by Richard L. Bare / 12 February 1960

It begins propitiously, but ELEGY suffers from a dumb explanation of a situation with broad similarities to the pilot episode, where a man roamed a deserted town. Here, three astronauts from the future—Meyers (Jeff Morrow), Webber (Kevin Hagen) and Kirby (Don Dubbins)—touch down on a planet millions of miles from home, only to discover it's an exact replica of 1950s Earth. The only difference is that the human population appear to be stuck in a trance, or perhaps frozen in time? What's going on? Unfortunately, what's going on is unconvincing nonsense, explained by a jolly Englishman unaffected by the time-freeze called Mr Wickwire (Cecil Kellaway).

Charles Beaumont's script (adapted from his own short story) provides a fun starting point, but ultimately proves how important a mystery's explanation is. "Elegy" doesn't make a lick of sense, turning the whole episode into a wasted opportunity. It's also becoming noticeable how often Zone covers similar territory: how many peculiar towns, creepy strangers, and trios of astronauts have we seen this season alone? Too many. To end on a positive note: it never fails to amuse me when classic SF refers to "future events" that never came to pass in reality, and here it's mentioned that nuclear war almost destroyed the Earth in... um, 1985. / written by Charles Beaumont / directed by Douglas Heyes / 19 February 1960

Another tale, like "The Hitch-Hiker", about a female commuter haunted by the supernatural. MIRROR IMAGE concerns a woman called Millicent Barnes (Vera Miles) who begins to think she's losing her mind while waiting for a bus at a half-empty depot. At first it appears she's jumping around in time (her luggage is processed, then it's not; she infuriates a ticket agent for asking the same question multiple times, despite having only enquired once), but the episode doesn't go down the interesting route of a place where time's flowing non-linearly. Maybe that concept was slightly too complex for '60s audiences, so instead it becomes a less interesting case of a doppelganger who intrudes in Millicent's life behind her back—perhaps from a parallel universe that's overlapping with her own?

Sadly, there's no real time or intention to explore what's going on any more deeply than Millicent occasionally catching sight of her twin and screaming and/or fainting—much to the annoyance of the cantankerous ticket agent. That is until a kindly fellow passenger called Paul (Martin Milner) hears her incredible theory, but then the story's allowed to trickle to a pretty disappointing climax. Still, this episode's nicely directed by Brahm, unnerving at times (there's a fun first reveal of Millicent's double in a mirror), and I suppose the lack of any explanation gives you something to think about as the credits roll. / written by Rod Serling / directed by John Brahm / 26 February 1960

This disc rounds out with another classic episode, deemed the show's greatest by Time Magazine, although I wouldn't go that far. THE MONSTERS ARE DUE ON MAPLE STREET finds the residents of an idyllic neighbourhood turning on each other after witnessing a meteor/UFO streaking overhead. The weakest aspect of the story is how everyone's so quick to believe a boy's theory that aliens have landed and may already have planted human-looking spies on the ground as recon, based purely on the fact he read a comic-book with that exact same plot!

Ignoring that absurdity, the intentions behind the tale are strong and interesting, as the people of Maple Street slowly turn on each other as their unspoken prejudices turn into frightened hysteria. The big reveal—that aliens orchestrated everyone's breakdown, intending to slowly destroy humanity by needling the tensions that lie beneath society's skin—was also nicely done. An influential and clever piece of social commentary by Serling (inspired by the era's fear of communism and Soviet spies), but one where you have to swallow a few stupid moments to get the ball rolling. / written by Rod Serling / directed by Ronald Winston / 4 March 1960