Monday, March 27, 2017

A Journey Through "The Twilight Zone"(s) and the "Night Gallery"

Submitted for your consideration: an ongoing-project type of post, one which represents a march through several different television series, all of which are related to Rod Serling.
  
It started as a contemplation of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone.  My Mom gave me the complete series on Blu-ray for Christmas in 2016, and when I sat down to start working my way through the episodes at the rate of once per week or so, I thought maybe it made sense to keep track of my progress here. 
  
I'd actually already begun watching the originals via streaming earlier in the year, and had been marking that progress by pestering peppering the comments sections of various TZ-related posts at Dog Star Omnibus (home of Twilight Zone Tuesday) with my thoughts.  I'd gotten through most of the first season in that fashion before it occurred to me that I really ought to be putting something on my own blog as I went, given that this is one of the essential sci-fi television series.  I'd just about decided to do it, too, and then I got that Blu-ray set.

This brought up a quandary: should I continue my progress with episode 28, or circle back to the beginning and watch all the commentary tracks on the episodes I'd already watched, and then move forward?

Being as I am a sucker for home-video bonus features, the choice was clear: circle back to the beginning.

And I was going to do that, then it provided an opportunity to start working on a blog post about it.  Rather than wait until I finished with the whole project, though, I think I'll try something new: make this (as stated above) an ongoing-progress blog post.  I mean, sure, I could just do a separate post for each episode, but my intent here is to be very brief.  I'm not taking notes or extensive screencaps, just doing a quick little bit on each episode.  I'm prone to verbosity, and verbosity would slow this project down to the point of not being what I want to do with it.  So posts on each episode would be pointless.

Instead, I'm just going to do it all in a single post, and republish the post every time I update it.

THEN, I thought this: if I'm going to do that, why not expand the viewing list to include the relaunched versions of the series?  I'd been wanting to buy the eighties relaunch so as to own a copy of the Stephen King episode "Gramma."  Conveniently enough, an affordable complete-series DVD set is coming out in February.  It's like fate speaking to me!  And if I'm buying that, why not spend a wee bit more to get the '00s show, plus the Blu-ray of the 1983 movie (the latter of which I needed for my Spielberg collection)?

This, my friends, is the sound of progress being made.

Two final add-ons: I already owned all three seasons of Night Gallery, so figured hey, why not add that into the mix as well and call this sure-to-be-massive ongoing post a sort of Bryant-pedia page on the genre shows of Rod Serling?  Oh, and just for the hell of it, we'll toss the original Planet of the Apes in there too, when the time comes, chronologically-speaking.
  
If you're thinking that sounds like a lot of unrequested justification, you're not wrong.  I like leaving myself little reminders of why I've done certain things, though; it'll make for fun reading for me a decade from now.  For you, here and now?  Only you can say, and if you say no, I've got no hard feelings toward you for it.
  
But hopefully the rest of this sucker will be of interest.
 
With that in mind, let's get on the road.  There's a signpost up ahead...
  
  
  
  
"Where Is Everybody?"
  
(season 1, episode 1)
  
airdate:  October 2, 1959
written by:  Rod Serling
directed by:  Robert Stevens
  
The place is here; the time is now...
  


Earl Holliman plays a man who finds himself walking through a deserted town.  He doesn't know where everyone is; doesn't know where he is; doesn't even know who he is.  He'll find out.


  
This episode serves as a solid pilot for the series.  It's engaging, creepy, atmospheric, surreal.  Like many episodes of the series for which it led the way, it threatens to fall apart unless you engage with it on its own terms.  If you do engage with it on those terms, however, I think it still works pretty well going on sixty years later.  (It probably will actually be sixty years old by the time this post is finished...)
  
The Blu-ray set is crawling with special features, so I think I'll try to note those as I go.  For "Where Is Everybody?" you get a good commentary track by Holliman, an isolated-score track featuring the Bernard Herrmann music, a '00s radio-drama version starring John Schneider, and (best of all) the original pilot-presentation edit of the episode.
  
The latter is a few minutes longer, with the iconic voiceover delivered by some different actor (who was later replaced by Serling in what must rank as one of the all-time great Hollywood recasting jobs).  This version itself contains a commentary track by former CBS executive William Self, and another audio track consisting of fantastic excerpts from a 1975 university lecture by Serling (most of which are directly germane to "Where Is Everybody?").  It's also introduced by Serling in a pitch designed to help the series sell.
   
WNBHGB viewdate:  January 1, 2017
WNBHGB rating:  *** (out of *****)


"One for the Angels"  
 
(season 1, episode 2)

airdate:  October 9, 1959
written by:  Rod Serling
directed by:  Robert Parrish

Street scene: summer, the present...

Ed Wynn plays a street vendor who finds himself in the unenviable position of having to bargain with Death (played by Murray Hamilton).




A thoroughly sweet episode that has enough sentiment in it that it might well choke out an audience member or two.  Me?  I liked it just fine.  Ed Wynn is spellbinding, Murray Hamilton is likably despicable, and it all comes to a very satisfying conclusion.

The Blu-ray special features:

  • a commentary track by television historian Gary Gerani (who has some solid insights)
  • a brief interview with Dana Dillaway (who plays a crucial supporting role in the episode)
  • an isolated-score audio track
  • the radio-drama version, which stars Ed Begley, Jr. (who is okay, but is vastly inferior to Ed Wynn)

WNBHGB viewdate:  January 3, 2017
WNBHGB rating:  **** (out of *****)


"Mr. Denton on Doomsday"
  
(season 1, episode 3)
  
airdate:  October 16, 1959
written by:  Rod Serling
directed by:  Allen Reisner
  
This is a man who's begun his dying early... 
 
Dan Duryea plays a drunken, failed gunfighter who finds his fortunes changing after a visit from a traveling salesman.  Martin Landau plays an adversary.




This is not a particularly great episode.  It's not bad; but there's nothing special about it, except maybe for Duryea and Landau.

The Blu-ray includes a good commentary by Landau and an isolated-score audio track.

WNBGHB viewdate:  January 9, 2017
WNBHGB rating:  ** 1/2 (out of *****)

  
"The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine"
  
  
(season 1, episode 4)
  
 airdate:  October 23, 1959
written by:  Rod Serling
directed by:  Mitchell Leisen
  
Picture of a woman looking at a picture... 

Ida Lupino plays an aging Hollywood starlet whose ability to cope with the fact that she isn't a vibrant young romantic lead is eroding to the point of nonexistence.  She spends her days locked up in a projection room in her house, reliving former glories, and wishing she could still be up there on the screen.  She may get her wish.




I don't know whether I would have responded to this episode twenty years ago; I'd likely have thought it was okay, but nothing special.  In the middle of my middle age, however, I find this to be a moving piece of work.  Lupino plays Barbara Jean Trenton, an actor who is going through something that I suspect a great many actors of both genders have to deal with: they are growing older, while versions of them that have been immortalized on screen will remain forever young.  Some people can deal with this: Tom Hanks seems just as comfortable being Sully as he was the guy in Big, for example.  But it seems to strike others hard.

Same thing in real life, right?  I catch myself remembering some aspect of my teens or twenties and the remembrance that I'm no longer that person, that that person is in effect dead and long gone, sometimes hits me like a ton of bricks.  I don't think there's anything unusual in that; I think it would be very unusual if that were NOT the case.  Then again, the world doesn't continually celebrate those younger versions of me, and compare the new version to them, and find it wanting.

Martin Balsam is also on hand here playing Trenton's agent.  They're both very good, and of the four episodes so far, this one is my favorite.

The Blu-ray is a little skimpy on bonus features for this one, with only an isolated-score audio track for the Franz Waxman music.  I'll take it!

WNBHGB viewdate:  January 16, 2017
WNBHGB rating:  **** (out of *****)


"Walking Distance"


(season 1, episode 5)
  
airdate:  October 30, 1959
written by:  Rod Serling
directed by:  Robert Stevens
  
Somewhere up the road he's looking for sanity; and somewhere up the road he'll find something else... 

Gig Young plays a harried advertising executive who finds himself within walking distance of his childhood hometown while his car is being serviced.  He decides to take a stroll to see the old place, and somehow finds himself in the past. 




A solid episode through and through, one which routinely shows up on top-ten-of-the-series lists.  It shares a melancholy yearning for the past with the previous episode, "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine," and tops it by amping up the surrealism and having the entire episode live in that space (as opposed to merely having a surreal plot twist).

Is this the first classic episode of the series?  I'd say yes.  (I'd also say it's a shame nobody thought to do a remake of this episode as part of Mad Men.  It'd be a natural for Don Draper.)

The Blu-ray is packed with extras on this one:

  • A commentary track by Marc Scott Zicree, a television writer who also wrote The Twilight Zone Companion (which sold at least one copy on Amazon while this commentary was playing).
  • A second commentary track (by Steven Smith, John Morgan, and William T. Stromberg) which focuses almost entirely on Bernard Herrmann's superb score for the episode.  I'm a Herrmann fan (thanks in large part to his phenomenal scores for Alfred Hitchcock movies such as Vertigo and Psycho), and it thrills me to hear him getting his due in this manner.  
  • A third audio track consisting of excerpts from a 1975 lecture by Rod Serling.  Serling is much more critical of the episode than I would be, but nevertheless, this is priceless stuff.
  • Yet another audio track that's called an "alternate audio mix."  It's not immediately evident what is different here, but having listened to that Herrmann-centric commentary, I can tell you that the difference here seems to be that an additional cue by the composer has been restored to its originally-intended use.  The scene in question: the moment in which Gig Young hears calliope music coming from the carousel.  Hermann had written his own piece for this moment, but Serling wanted calliope music instead.  I suppose this is the sort of thing that many people would find to be insignificant; for everyone else, this is the sort of thing that makes DVD and Blu-ray a treasure of a format.  For what it's worth, I think the as-broadcast version works better dramatically; but this alternative piece by Herrmann is terrific.
  • One final audio track: an isolated track of the Herrmann score.
  • Last, and definitely least, a mediocre radio-drama version starring Chelcie Ross.

WNBHGB viewdate:  January 23, 2017
WNBHGB rating:  **** 1/2 (out of *****)


"Escape Clause"
  
  
(season 1, episode 6)
  
airdate: November 6, 1959
written by:  Rod Serling
directed by:  Mitchell Leisen
  
You're about to meet a hypochondriac... 

Walter Bedeker, a hypochondriac who frets over the question of why a man only has a tiny amount of time to be a live being on planet Earth, makes a deal for long life with the Devil himself.




This isn't much of an episode, and will almost certainly vie for the title of Bryant's Least Favorite.  David Wayne is great as Bedeker, and seems to have gone to the Jack-Nicholson-as-Jack-Torrance school of acting; Thomas Gomez is campy as Cadwallader, the Devil.  Serling's teleplay is rather obvious, and Leisen's direction a bit on the ham-fisted side.

The Blu-ray includes an isolated-score track and a radio version starring Mike Starr.  This version is relatively well-performed, but lacks even the mild comedic charm of the original episode, which makes the story seem even more inadequate than it already was.

WNBHGB viewdate:  January 29, 2017
WNBHGB rating: * 1/2 (out of *****)


"The Lonely"
  
  
(season 1, episode 7)
  
airdate:  November 13, 1959
written by:  Rod Serling
directed by:  Jack Smith
  
Witness, if you will, a dungeon... 

James Corey (played by Jack Warden) is a convicted murderer who has been sentenced to fifty years' imprisonment in solitary confinement on an asteroid.  A supply ship visits him periodically, and its Captain decides to bring him a robot companion (Jean Marsh).




This is a very good episode, provided you are willing to buy into some of the illogical ideas it presents.  For example, does it seem likely that any government would be willing to commit the financial resources to imprison one man on an asteroid?  That's a bigger buy-in than I'm willing to make.

The episode has a lot to recommend, however, including excellent performances and a characteristically strong Bernard Herrmann score.

The Blu-ray contains three different commentary tracks (one by Marc Scott Zicree, one by a trio of Herrmann experts, and one by television historian Gary Gerani), plus an isolated-score track and a radio-drama version (once again starring Mike Starr).

WNBHGB viewdate:  February 6, 2016
WNBHGB rating:  **** (out of *****)


"Time Enough at Last"
  
  
(season 1, episode 8)
   
airdate:  November 20, 1959
written by:  Rod Serling (based on a short story by Lynn Venable)
directed by:  John Brahm
  
He'll have a world all to himself... 

Burgess Meredith plays a bank teller who cares only for reading.  Then, one day, the world comes to an end.




It's entirely possible this is the most famous episode of The Twilight Zone, which would make it the most famous episode of one of the most famous series in television history.  So why am I not more enamored of it?

It's fine and all; if nothing else, it's got a crackerjack of a performance from Meredith.  But his character is entirely unlikable, in my opinion, and that keeps me from sympathizing with him.  The fact that everyone around him is even more unlikable does not enhance his likability; I think it's supposed to, but it doesn't work on me.  At the same time, he's not unlikable enough that his ultimate fate makes me feel as if he's gotten a good comeuppance.

Anyways, I gather that I'm something of an odd man out when it comes to this episode.  It's good, and some of the effusiveness our culture feels for it has rubbed off on me.  Still, it just doesn't quite work on me ... and I'm a guy who sometimes wishes he could have the world all to himself, so really, I'm kind of the target audience, wouldn't you say?

The Blu-ray has a good commentary track by Marc Scott Zicree, plus an audio track consisting of an interview with Burgess Meredith conducted by Zicree in 1978.  A radio-series adaptation rounds out the features for this episode.

WNBHGB viewdate:  February 13, 2017
WNBHGB rating:  **** (out of *****)


"Perchance to Dream"
  
  
(season 1, episode 9)
  
airdate:  November 27, 1959
written by:  Charles Beaumont (based on his own short story)
directed by:   Robert Florey
  
...time is an enemy, and the hour to come is a matter of life and death.
  
Edward Hall visits a psychiatrist and tells him a whale of a tale: he dreams serially, each night picking up where he left off the night before.  Lately, he's been dreaming of a carnival dancer, Maya, who wants nothing more than to literally scare him to death.  And with the heart condition he's had since childhood, that might not be too difficult for Maya to manage...
  
  
   
  
This is a terrific episode, top to bottom.  Written by Charles Beaumont (who, The Twilight Zome Companion leads me to believe, was quite a character), it is haunting, creepy, surreal stuff.  Is there a twist ending?  Of course there is!

If you're interested in reading what it is, this post at Dog Star Omnibus has you covered.  He's got lots of killer screencaps, too.

Of especial worth here: the lead actor, Richard Conte; Suzanne Lloyd (who is dynamite walking) as Maya; and the unsettling score by Van Cleave.

The Blu-ray isn't quite as loaded as one might wish when it comes to special features, but this episode is a special enough feature.  The visuals really pop on Blu-ray; you will appreciate the cinematography of George Clemens like never before.  But there is a solid ten-minute interview with Suzanne Lloyd, plus an isolated-score track and a radio-drama version starring Fred Willard.

WNBHGB viewdate:  February 21, 2017
WNBHGB rating:  **** 1/2 (out of *****)


"Judgment Night"
  
  
(season 1, episode 10)
  
airdate:  December 4, 1959
written by:  Rod Serling
directed by:  John Brahm
  
For one man, it is always 1942... 

A man named Lanser finds himself aboard a British tramp steamer during the Second World War, unaware of how he came to be there.  But he has the strangest feeling that a German U-boat is stalking them...




I liked this episode just fine when I first saw it last year.  I enjoyed it even more the second time, and that makes sense, given the Hell-is-repetition theme of the story.  The main role is played by Nehemiah Persoff, who is excellent.  He was an Israeli actor, and here, he plays a Nazi.  That must be a tough few days at work, but he commits to it, and does quite well.

Supporting roles are filled by Patrick Macnee (just a couple of years before he made it big with The Avengers) and James Fanciscus (who, among other things, would play the lead in the first sequel to the Serling-scripted Planet of the Apes).

The Blu-ray has no bonus features of any kind for this episode, which is a shame.

WNBHGB viewdate:  February 26, 2017
WNBHGB rating:  **** (out of *****)


"And When the Sky Was Opened"
  
  
(season 1, episode 11)
  
airdate:  December 11, 1959
written by:  Rod Serling (based on a short story by Richard Matheson)
directed by:  Douglas Heyes
  
They used to exist, but don't any longer... 

Rod Taylor plays an astronaut, one of a trio of military men who survived a recent crash after going on a trip into outer space.  One of the astronauts has gone missing, all traces of him removed from the world and the minds of the people living in it.  Will the other two be next?




This is a terrific nightmare of an episode, with a great performance from Rod Taylor, a great bosom on Gloria Pall (I apologize for saying that, but it's true, and it's quite surprising for an episode of American television in 1959), and a general sense of sweaty existential horror.  What's going on in this episode?  Not a clue, but it terrifies me.

The Blu-ray has some good stuff on this one, including a commentary track by Rod Taylor (who is engaging and Australian, the latter of which I did not know), an isolated audio track featuring Leonard Rosenman's score, a very good interview between Douglas Heyes and Marc Scott Zicree, and an unsurprisingly-awesome bit of audio from Serling about the episode.

WNBHGB viewdate:  March 5, 2017
WNBHGB rating:  **** 1/2 (out of *****)


"What You Need"
  
  
(season 1, episode 12)
  
airdate:  December 25, 1959
written by:  Rod Serling (based on the short story by Lewis Padgett)
directed by:  Alvin Ganzer
  
This is a sour man... 

A guy in a bar watches as an old man comes in and gives several patrons "what they need" (as he says).  He then observes the needful things actually pay off, and insists that the old peddler give him what he needs, too.

He'll get it.




This is a Jim-dandy episode, anchored by a terrific performance by Steve Cochran as Renard.  I don't think I've ever seen him in anything else (he seems to have never quite broken through), but he's menacing as all get-out here.  As played by Cochran, Renard has genuine menace, almost as if he were about to turn into a werewolf and begin eating the faces right off peoples' heads.  It's an important quality to the episode: without that threat, I'm not sure the episode works.

Cochran's Wikipedia page is worth checking out.  The phrases that stood out to me:

  • "Mamie Van Doren later wrote about their sex life in graphic detail in her tell-all autobiography Playing the Field: My Story."  I mean, that's kind of a legacy, right?
  • "On June 15, 1965, at the age of 48, Cochran died on his yacht off the coast of Guatemala, reportedly due to an acute lung infection. His body, along with three female assistants, remained aboard for ten days since the three women did not know how to operate the boat. It drifted to shore in Port Champerico, Guatemala, and was found by authorities. There were various rumors of foul play and poisoning, but reportedly no new evidence was found."  Tell me there's not a movie waiting to be made based on that...!

The episode aired on Christmas Day, 1959, and explains the reason why I kept hearing a few bars of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" in Van Cleave's score.

My only problem with the episode is that I just didn't need (a) to have the whole thing explained to me right at the end or (b) to hear the phrase "what you need" spoken as often as it was.  Like ... I got it.  The concept made sense.  You put it in a spoon and then fed it to me, and then shoved the whole spoon right down my gullet.

Apart from that, this one is fantastic.

The Blu-ray special features are limited to two things: an isolated score track and a Tales of Tomorrow episode of the same title from 1952.  It is unaffiliated with Serling or The Twilight Zone (obviously), but is adapted from the same Lewis Padgett story.  It's similar in a few key areas, but is mostly very different; and also mostly very bad.  You want need to see bad early-fifties live-television acting?  Brother, here it is.

But it's pretty sweet to have it there on the Blu-ray for reference.

WNBHGB viewdate:  March 23, 2017
WNBHGB rating:  **** (out of *****)


"The Four of Us Are Dying"
  
  
(season 1, episode 13)
  
airdate:  January 1, 1960
written by:  Rod Serling (based on an unpublished story by George Clayton Johnson)
directed by:  John Brahm
  
This is a cheap man, a nickel-and-dime man... 

A man who can change his face into any face at will gets up to shenanigans with a torch singer, a mobster, and a news vendor.


 

If I learned one thing from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it's that most shapeshifters are sumbtiches.  This episode only proved that axiom to be correct.

Unfortunately, it did so in a illogical and not particularly entertaining manner.  It's not much of an episode, and we'll speak of it no further here.  (If you feel moved to defend it -- or to pillory it further -- put the comments section to use.)

The Blu-ray has an interview with Beverly Garland (the torch singer), a commentary track with Garry Gerardi (who gives us a lot of background information about the actors), and an isolated audio track featuring Jerry Goldsmith's score (which is a far cry from Poltergeist or Alien or Star Trek: The Motion Picture).

WNBHGB viewdate:  March 23, 2017
WNBHGB rating:  * (out of *****)
 
 
"Third from the Sun"
  
(season 1, episode 14)
  
airdate:  January 8, 1960
written by:  Rod Serling (based on a short story by Richard Matheson)
directed by:  Richard L. Bare
  
...hanging invisible over the night is a horror without words. 
 
A defense-department scientist and his test-pilot friend enact a plot to steal an experimental spaceship and remove their friends across the stars to safety in the calm before an impending nuclear storm.
 
 
 
 
  
I can't swear that this is still the case, but when I was coming up in the world, the thing people thought about an average episode of The Twilight Zone was that it ended with a plot twist.  By no means is that true of every episode, but it's true more often than not; I'd say that of the fourteen episodes I've covered so far, it's true of nine of them to one degree or another.
 
This is one of the twistier ones so far, and the twist will either work for you or it won't.  It works like a charm for me, but your mileage may vary.  The good news is that it's a fine episode regardless of the twist; the episode may even gain in impact once you know the twist. 
  
This is the story of a bunch of people who are very, very afraid that the end of the world is one the way; not a hypothetical one, either, but the genuine article.  The tension they feel hangs over the episode like a pall, and that's entirely appropriate.  This is a subject that should be dark as night, palpable and cutting.  It still plays in 2017, but in 1960, it must have given any viewer with half a brain a case of the shivers.
 
The Blu-ray includes a commentary track by Marc Scott Zicree and a fellow TZ fan (Warehoue 13 producer David Simkins); it's pretty good.  So is a Zicree interview with the episode's director, Richard L. Bare.  Finally, there's an isolated-score track.  I haven't listened to any of those (the scoring is a bit too spare, meaning that the track would consist largely of silence), but I really dig that they are there.
 

5 comments:

  1. Very nice addition to the blogging landscape!

    Well, of course I'D like it, but still.

    "The Twilight Zone" really does begin (and end) with an episode that encapsulates the series to come.

    That's a lot of cool extras you got, there, with this Blu-Ray collection. I look forward to enjoying them vicariously! The old Laser Disc Collection that Klum had when we lived together had tons of essay material that came with it, but no commentary tracks or other bells and whistles.

    Plus, even though it was like 10 discs, there were only, like, 30 episodes tops in there. Ah the old days.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had a handful of Trek laserdiscs that, if memory serves, were a mere one episode per side. I abandoned the act of collecting that collection once it became apparent how expensive it would be. Laserdiscs -- not for the lower classes!

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    2. Ah, here it is. Very odd - I clicked on the link from my gmail where these comments appear, and it took me to a "sorry this page does not exist" notice. Then I clicked "home" and it brought me right to the post, but it was dated March 6th... but these comments are from January?

      Very odd! How fitting for the subject at hand.

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    3. Ah, it must re-set the date each time you add to it. Okay, maybe that's not quite the mystery I thought it was.

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    4. Writing the post this way is kind of an experiment. I eventually felt the need to write SOMETHING about the series as I was watching it, but the thought of just writing these little things and then doing nothing with them for five years or however long it takes me to actually work my way through it bummed me out.

      I was concerned that each time I reverted to draft and republished, any comments that had been left would vanish into the ether. But that seems not to happen, so that's cool.

      I'm a couple of weeks behind on these episodes. (Well, several decades behind, but you know what I mean.) This post about "The Naked Time" is taking too much, uh, time.

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