Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Twilight Zone

So I’ve been watching the reruns of the old The Twilight Zone (or Twilight Zone as it was called in the later episodes) and I have to say, it doesn’t seem to stand up well. It’s labeled as science fiction, but rarely is it science fiction. It is fantasy, it is psychological drama, it is old, bad science, but often it is not science fiction. It wrapped itself, periodically, in that mantle but it rarely was... and then the science was ridiculous even for the early 1960s.

Take Probe 7 – Over and Out. This story is so bad that editors of science fiction magazines would have all rejected it. Here Richard Basehart crashes on a planet far from home. He is destined to stay there for the rest of his life. He meets Antoinette Bower, apparently another alien visitor to that planet. They get along as they struggle to learn each other’s language. At the end we learn his name is Adam, hers is Eve and the place they where they are marooned is Earth... Really?... Earth?... the Adam and Eve story?

The writer’s guidelines from most science fiction magazines at the time said that they didn’t want any stories about two people stranded far from home... with the twist at the end... it’s Adam and Eve! It was an idea that had been done so many times and was so cliched that no one wanted to read it.

In a similar vein, is Third from the Sun. A group of scientists on a planet that is about to destroy itself have access to a spaceship. They plot a way to steal that ship, save their families, and blast off for another planet that has a startlingly similar atmosphere and even people just like them living there. We learn they are headed to Earth... Please.

Or the episode, The Invaders, that has almost no dialogue and features a single actor, Agnes Moorhead. She’s alone in her farmhouse, far from the neighbors when she is attacked by little men in spacesuits. She fights back, killing them until she finds their ship, crashed into her attic. She attacks with a hatchet, smashing it as the pilots scream over their radio about the trouble. We see the smoking wreckage and the words, "United States Air Force,"... Really? Again?

The Silence
isn’t science fiction. It isn’t fantasy. It would be more appropriate on Alfred Hitchcock’s old show. Here a man, Archie Taylor, tired of listening to another man, Jamie Tennyson, at their exclusive club, bets him that he can’t remain quiet for one year. If he can the man will earn half a million dollars. They erect a huge glass cage so that everyone can watch and listen. At the end of the year, Tennyson has won the bet. Taylor is forced to admit that he doesn’t have the money and leaves in disgrace. But then we learn that Tennyson had "the nerves to my vocal chords severed." So he cheated. A mystery of sorts with a twist. A drama that takes place in an expensive club. Science fiction it is not.

Nightmare as a Child
is not science fiction or fantasy but a psychological drama. A woman encounters a child who seems to know too much about her. In the end that child seems to save the woman, but then, the child could be just a psychological manifestation from the woman’s traumatic past with no elements of the paranormal or supernatural. In other words, a story more appropriate to Alfred Hitchcock than to the Twilight Zone.

And, as if to prove that science isn’t a necessary component to the stories, there is I Shot an Arrow into the Air. Astronauts crash onto an asteroid after their ship goes off course. Lost in this desert-like world, one of the astronauts, suffering from a case of terminal exposure, returns to his friends unable to speak. He draws a symbol in the sand, a thick line with two bars across it but his fellows can’t decipher it. Later there is a fight over water and another astronaut is killed as the final, ruthless man climbs a ridge and looks down into a valley. There is a highway and telephone poles along it. They have crashed on Earth and the mysterious symbol was the telephone pole.

There is so much wrong here that it is unbelievable. First, there are no asteroids with atmosphere. Their gravity, on the very largest, is no where near that of Earth’s. The sun would have looked smaller, given the distance... and no astronaut would be unable to realize they have crashed on Earth, or if he couldn’t, he shouldn’t have been an astronaut. At night, wouldn’t they have seen the moon? Finally, why in the hell would the guy draw a telephone pole. Why not write, "Earth?" This episode isn’t science fiction because there is no science in it.

There are episodes that I do enjoy, though often the science is lacking. For some reason I like A Hundred Yards Over the Rim in which a father, leading a small group in 1847 is lost in a desert with a dying son. He walks up a sand dune and below finds a modern highway. He is nearly run over by a truck, which frightens him, accidentally shoots himself in the arm, and ends up in a remote diner, surrounded by modern appliances. A doctor is called to help him, gives him some penicillin and wonders about his strangeness. The man comes out of a back room where he was resting, having read about his son in an encyclopedia.

Okay, I won’t ask why the diner has an encyclopedia and I won’t ask why they man would be in there reading it, even if he knew what it was, and I won’t ask why he looked up his son’s name... though in today’s world, we’ve all googled our own names, but that’s a different matter. In other words, there are some problems with the story.

The diner owners call the sheriff but the man flees, running back up the dune but drops his rifle. When he gets to the top, he sees his little party and hurries down to them. He has a small bottle with the penicillin in it and tells his wife to give it to his son... which saves him.

The sheriff deputies pick up the rifle he dropped, but now it is some old, rotten thing that looks as if it had been in the desert for a hundred years. A little twist at the end to prove the man had traveled, somehow, through time, to save his son.

There is Hocus Pocus and Frisby, starring Andy Devine. He is the local liar, telling outrageous tall tales while his friends egg him on and periodically point out the contradictions in his stories. He always has an excuse for those problems. On his birthday, he is abducted by aliens (in 1963 before the thoughts of alien abduction made bestsellers, one of the aliens seen here), wanting to extract information from such an accomplished man, apparently unaware that people lie, but Frisby, manages to escape.

Back in his general store, his friends surprise him with a party and ask where he’s been. He tells them the truth about his abduction but they all hoot, not believing a word of the truth. They had expected a great tale for his birthday and this is one of his best. They just don’t know that this time it is the truth.

The Parallel
is sort of interesting with an astronaut returning home, but finding little things are wrong. There is a picket fence around his house that hadn’t been there, some historic events played out differently, some of the people are slightly different. Just little things. He eventually returns to his home world. I think Journey to the Far Side of the Sun did it better.

The point here is that The Twilight Zone, at least for me, simply does not hold up. As a youngster a lot of it made sense, but as an adult, I see too many problems in the stories and am surprised that some of the concepts made it into production. They simply are not thought out and the problems are ignored in the interest of telling a story that itself makes little sense.

Some of the old science fiction shows do seem to hold up better. Star Trek, for the 1960s, of course but the emphasis was on character rather than on plot devices. The old Science Fiction Theater is still interesting, though the science on it is often outdated. Even the old Superman shows, which in the beginning were semi-serious, but later just devolved into a comic book appearance which has a certain charm (though in one Superman is frozen to 2000 degrees below zero... really... Can you figure out what is wrong with that?).

Given the time in which it was made, The Twilight Zone did attack some of the stereotypes and presented some stories that might have provoked a little thought, but in today’s world, they mostly just don’t work. Remember the old Laugh In, which was so funny and topical in 1970... but in today’s world seems lame. I think The Twilight Zone suffers from the same problem. It just didn’t age very well


rhuneke said...

Love this show. Looking for people who enjoy the same.

James Mercado said...

I think the show is great and aged well. You have to take it for what it is. If you are looking for holes you will find them. Just like all shows, there are allways holes, In the story's. But they are great storys we can all learn something from.

Sam Lee said...

In Third From the Sun, the families are going to a new star system a full 7 million miles from their planet.