28 September 2018

Back in the Zone (1/24)

I hadn’t meant to slide back into The Twilight Zone.

Notwithstanding my objections to A Certain Writer’s spurious methods of expressing his preference for The Outer Limits to Rod Serling’s landmark series, my viewing (soon after) the episodes “The Chameleon” and “The Forms of Things Unknown" was an encouragement to continue with The Outer Limits. Yet, continue did I not.

Instead, control of my Blu-ray player was lost to The Twilight Zone, and I found myself readily lured into watching (again!) the first seven episodes of Season One. Only one of the considerations was, this time, I concentrated more on Bernard Herrmann’s superb scoring for “Where Is Everybody?,” “Walking Distance,” and “The Lonely.”

Spoilers will follow.

“Where Is Everybody?,” the pilot for the series, faked out producer William Dozier (who also produced Batman, and was the voice of “Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel”) because at the end, a plausible, real-world rationale is provided, which explains the combination mystery and paranoid fantasy which preceded.

One criticism leveled at “One for the Angels” was, that Ed Wynn was incapable of a pitchman’s rapid sales patter; yet I find that his affable manner, indeed partly reflected in his disinclination to fast talking, makes Lew Bookman all the more sympathetic a character. This more than compensates for the possible disbelief that Ed Wynn could so engross Mr Death that the hour of his fateful appointment slips his steely mind. And Lew Bookman becomes Twilight Zone Casualty #1.

There is a touch of gentle humor, too, in the fairly earnest Western, “Mr Denton on Doomsday,” though at first the emotional highlight is Martin Landau’s cruel hazing. The character of Henry J. Fate is at once both a chap of neighborly concern, and a businessman who does not play favorites, and in the process gives the momentary appearance of having betrayed Al Denton. The first of the episodes to have an unambiguously happy ending, perhaps.

Ida Lupino provides perhaps the necessary celebrity factor so that the central character “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” is both plausibly a prima donna, yet sympathetic.  But there is an unforgiving edge to her nostalgia, and while Jerry Hearndan takes no offense (out of affection for his former partner), her rejection is appallingly cold.  For Barbara Jean Trenton, escape is all; so in a sense, this episode, too, concludes happily.

His own harshest critic, Rod Serling afterwards spoke negatively of “Walking Distance,” which is the first time-travel episode of the series (though we add as a footnote that Barbara Jean Trenton’s transfer to celluloid was essential a desire to travel back in time).  The middle-aged businessman who meets his 11-year-old self, carving his name on the town gazebo (Serling later said) should have been frozen into astonished inaction.  But this strikes me as quibbling with believabilities in fantasy.  The older Martin responds with a fully believable frustration which springs from his dissatisfaction with the daily New York grind; he hectors his mother to the point that she must slap his cheek to stop his mad-seeming rant.  Serling’s later equivocation notwithstanding, “Walking Distance” is a signal dramatic and emotional success.

The first of a number of updated Faustian fables, “Escape Clause” is mostly comic, but with an unforgiving comeuppance that overtakes Walter Bedeker. Bedeker is so insufferable, though, that satisfaction at the miscarriage of his scheme rings resonantly with the comedy. Twilight Zone casualty #2 occasions no mourning for the audience, either.

 Although it is the first science-fiction episode of the series, “The Lonely” is more an off-beat love story.  Jack Warden is won over, in despite of his harsh initial reception of Alicia.  At last, he finds, not without bitterness at the visual shocker at the end, that it is better to have loved and lost, than to remain to bake his brains out on a prison asteroid.

I’ve written at length out of fresh love and admiration for a show which, to my eyes and heart, is one of the pinnacles of American television, and the enduring cornerstone of the legacy of one of America’s great writers, and a man who was humane and humble as well as a great writer.

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