09 October 2018

Vegas, the Philippines, and a Bus Depot, for instance (3/24)

This ongoing survey of The Twilight Zone is very apt to contain SPOILERS.

My spontaneous impulse was to call this one of my favorite discs in the series.  Without at all wishing to squelch that rejoicing, I wanted to recollect briefly, and note that this is no negative reflection on the first two discs.  To exult in the extraordinary and sustained success of the series, is not to deny that sometimes a show, or elements of a show, will flag beneath the series' own high standards.  I do persist in the opinion that even B-grade Twilight Zone is generally superior television.  Are there shows in the series which I might cringe, to view again?  That remains to be seen.

Returning to the "The Hitch-Hiker," one perceives now that the twist is given to us, with some nonchalance, near the outset, by the chap changing Nan's tire.  With the understanding that this is all in the realm of imagination, it is not any actual quarrel with the story to step aside and wonder how it is that people perceive her as just an ordinary woman:  she knocks on a window and wakes a man who testily refuses to sell her fuel until he opens in the morning;  and she horrifies the sailor whom she has promised to drive right to his ship's dock, by attempting to run down the mysterious hitcher.  The teleplay is, then, something of a hip ghost story, and if, in the course of Nan's journey, we come to wonder about the nature of the titular traveler, it is perhaps equally inevitable and shocking–because Nan has managed to exasperate more than one (apparently actual) person–to find that Nan herself is no more, although she has continued to travel here in the material US of A.

It may not be that "The Fever" is genuinely 'predictable'; I cannot truly say, since I am not now watching it for the first time, and I did remember just where it was going.  But it may be fair to say that it is, for the series, an unusually straightforward story line (and telegraphed by the title).  The sound-design special effect of the slot machine's voice was creative and ingenious; and yet, I'll admit to finding it grating after a while (and of course, the whole episode is done after 25 minutes).  One thing I picked up this time is that Everett Sloane is here reunited with Serling; Sloane starred in the television broadcast of Patterns.

After "Walking Distance," "The Last Flight" is as yet only the second episode to turn on time travel.  The teleplay does a neat job of taking rather a non-dramatic situation, on the face of it (an errant airman kept in confinement on a US airbase) and generating dramatic tension.  Curiously, this is one of the very upbeat episodes, as a man who confesses that he was a coward (and who explains that it was his cowardice which, we might say, brought him here) discovers a spark of courage in himself, a spark which he is determined to fan into a flame.  In the spirit of placing the series' employment of women actors under the microscope, this episode is especially peculiar.  I believe that none of the actresses speaks so much as a line–they are there for the sole purpose of being (to the Royal Flying Corps man) a visible anachronism.

Now and again there is a Twilight Zone episode which is, essentially, 'war is hell' with a twist.  It is worth reflecting on the fact that this is born in part out of Serling's own combat experience, a tour of duty which informs his writing and sensibilities, but which was (we speculate) less traumatic than many endured.  (Let us say this without suggesting that there was anything easy about it.)  "The Purple Testament" is the first episode to appear in this genre, and its theme is poignant:  a soldier who wonders how to live with a kind of clairvoyance as to who among them will not be returning from the battlefield.  He tries to explain, but who can believe him.  Nevertheless, Capt. Riker (Dick York) does believe "Fitz," though without telling him–by the fact of leaving his effects in camp before rolling out.

"Elegy" is an episode which leaves me a bit mixed.  The conceit and the story are good, but early on the drama is a bit wooden–one of the spacemen calls, "Here, boy!" to a dog which is clearly not a live animal; and there are similar instances of the wanderers accosting people, even though there is no visual suggestion that they are persons rather than mannequins.  Those unfortunate false notes notwithstanding, it is a story which leads to rather a wrenching dénouement.  In fine:  any quarrel I have with the episode, is mechanical, or a question of execution.

"Mirror Image" introduces us to Millicent Barnes, who means to go to Buffalo for a new job, but who wonders what or whom she and others are seeing.  Paul Grinstead is, by stages, sympathetic, then equally puzzled, and at last–he is in just exactly the position which had him shuffling Millicent off to the hospital for.  "The Hitch-Hiker" and "Mirror Image" are, thus far, the high points in terms of interesting roles assigned to women actors.

A story which has painful pertinence in our own day, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" warns us of kindness which is no deeper than "Howdy, bub"; of the toxicity of scapegoating the Other; of the mob and every man for himself.  Jack Weston as Charlie Farnsworth is particularly poisonous.  The fear and uncertainty throw everyone off, which is why I do not find myself shouting at the television, No, Barry, don't turn on Steve, he was only now defending you against Charlie.  Charlie is the meanest, though, both in firing upon and killing a neighbor who was shrouded in darkness, and in trying to pin the blame on the boy Tommy.

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