Via Jonny, I’ve been enthralled by the first, 50 year-old season of The Twilight Zone on DVD. It’s a much copied and parodied series, yet watching the run of 36 standalone episodes has been a constant surprise.
For one thing, having seen some episodes in my teens as stories, I thought it was all stories with twist endings. There are some good twist endings, but often we start with a twist that skews the ordinary, mundane world (and hooks us before the first ad break).
It is an anthology of quirky, one-off stories. Narrator Rod Serling explains in the three different title sequences (only one with the “doo-doo doo-doo, doo-doo doo-doo”), that the “twilight zone” is the realm of the imagination.
It quickly establishes some basic archetypes. There are protagonists battling the devil or fate who find they can’t cheat the rules. There are characters caught up in a dream world that turns out only too real. The show has been copied and parodied for five decades, so these moral set-ups feel familiar, almost cosy.
I’m not sure how much it invents these archetypes, but it’s weird seeing what feel such modern archetypes in stiff-suited black and white. “A World of Difference” must surely be ahead of the game. A man discovers his whole life is a film-set, the people he knows merely actors: a smart – and early – play on the conventions of television.
By the end of the season I was also spotting the same locations and sets. If I remember my tour of Universal Studios last year right, I think a lot of it’s set in the same safe all-American cul-de-sac as features in Desperate Housewives.
What makes the show so compelling, though, is not the familiarity but how it continually undermines the norm. It probes the cracks in the veneer of the everyday, and pokes the underlying sores and fears.
A lot of it’s about alienation. There are plenty of loners and misfits, and often no one believes the poor protagonist’s story. Figures of authority turn out to be villains – twinkly-eyed old men are really murderers, children having alarming powers. Or there’s the Doctor Who trick of making some everyday object the source of threat. In the genuinely spooky “The After Hours”, Anne Francis goes shopping with Autons.
Sometimes it seems to be sneaking in comment on the concerns of its day. There’s inherent paranoia – about the bomb and other people – in stories as different as “Third from the Sun” and “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”. There’s the fear of the new frontier – space – in “Where is Everybody?” and “And When the Sky was Opened”.
The hairstyles and clothes betray the series’ age, and the “norm” it’s disturbing is one of wholesome nuclear families where married women stay at home. I’m not quite sure what’s even behind “The Lonely”, in which a prisoner marooned on a rock in space is given a robot girlfriend he then won’t give up. Is it about our addiction to gadgets, or our need for companionship to survive, or just some weird misogynist nonsense? (The robot girlfriend is Jean Marsh, who I’ve now got playing a house.)
“Time Enough At Last”, by far the best episode, sees a bookish Burgess Meredith the sole survivor of nuclear holocaust. The first half, before the bomb, is light and fun, with Meredith ignoring his work and wife just to carry on reading. The second half, as he wanders alone through the ruin of his town, is then all the more disturbing. The twist end – having found the library and no one can stop him reading, he then breaks his glasses – underlines the bleakness. It verges on profundity without ever being explicit, sci-fi addressing the fear of the age in a way ordinary telly never could.
The final episode of the first season, “A World of his Own” again follows a protagonist whose fantasy life turns out real, but also – for the first time – makes the series’ own format part of the story. But it fluffs what should be an excellent gag. When the protagonist exorcises narrator Rod Serling himself, it’s the first time we’ve seen, not just heard, Serling. It would have worked better if we were used to seeing Serling walk through the set of previous episodes, commenting on events. And when he’s banished he still narrates the show’s coda. The twist fails because a show that constantly warps the normal rules won’t warp its own conventions.