Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Freedom, fireworks, and Twilight Zone? Yes, Twilight Zone

I love a good ol’ Independence Day BBQ, but for me, one of the highlights of the holiday is the SyFy Channel’s Twilight Zone marathon. Yes, I was raised on a steady diet of TZone—I’ve seen most, if not all, of the episodes, and I’ve seen many of them more times than I can count. There aren’t too many modern TV shows that can match its stories and characters. Some episodes still give me chills, even if I’ve seen them many times before.  And its plot twists are really second to none. (Like in “The Eye of the Beholder,” in which a horribly disfigured woman’s face is about to be revealed following a last-ditch surgery to make her look normal. I saw it for the first time as a kid, and I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the big reveal. My mother kept giving me this devilish, knowing smile, which just scared me more. Well, if you know what happens, things don’t turn out as expected—and young me might have freaked out. But let’s not turn this into a therapy session… :-))

Having sat through the TZone in its entirety, I have a few favorite episodes which MUSTBEWATCHED whenever they’re on TV.  Here’s a short list of recommendations (in alphabetical order), along with when they first ran and when they’ll be run during this year’s marathon. Hey, you never know: it might rain on Thursday and you might need some quality television to pass the time.

1.) Deaths-Head Revisited (first aired November 10, 1961; alas, not part of this year’s marathon! Definitely Netflix this one.)—While this episode will unfortunately not be included in the Fourth of July marathon, I have to have it on this list, because this one just grabs you by the throat. Perhaps the most obscure episode in my top five, Season 3’s “Deaths-Head Revisited” deals with the demons of recent history—namely, Nazi atrocities. World War II had occurred less than two decades prior to the making of this episode; as difficult as it can be to watch this episode today, it’s hard to imagine watching this when World War II was just a recent memory.

The villainous main character, Captain Gunther Lutze, living in post-war exile in South America, is returning to Dachau for a visit fifteen years after the end of WWII. He wishes to see the now-abandoned concentration camp in which he was personally responsible for the torture and execution of countless prisoners. But he is not returning with any sense of remorse; instead, he misses the “good old days,” when he was a powerful man who held the fate of many in his hands. Shortly after his arrival at Dachau, he comes upon the camp’s “caretaker,” whom he ultimately recognizes as a former prisoner—one he had executed.  Suffice it to say, justice is meted out in major doses. It is both painful and riveting to watch.

As haunting as the entire episode is, the part that stays with me is TZone creator Rod Serling’s closing narration. After a minor character rhetorically asks why Dachau still stands, Serling’s voice responds: “All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God's Earth.” Serling often had striking narrations at the end of TZone episodes, but I think this one might be his best. It’s especially affecting to modern ears—there’s no moral relativism in this narration. It’s not afraid to identify evil, to distinguish between right and wrong—and to hold onto memories of atrocities in order to prevent them from happening again.

The Twilight Zone is usually thought of primarily as a sci-fi series, but make no mistake: it often wades into political and historical lessons as well. “Deaths-Head Revisited” is a great example of that.

2.) A Hundred Yards Over the Rim (first aired April 7, 1961; airing July 4 at 11am)—This one has a happy ending—yay!  There are a number of TZone episodes that include time travel (“The Odyssey of Flight 33,” “Back There,” “No Time Like the Past”), but “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” is my favorite of these. The year is 1847, and Chris Horn is leading a wagon train out to California. The group left Ohio more than a year earlier, and it’s now decimated. To make matters worse, Horn’s young son is ill and on the verge of death. Horn goes off by himself to try to find water, and upon scaling a hill, he sees (bum bum BUM!) telephone lines. He enters a roadside cafĂ© and meets a helpful and (not surprisingly) confused couple, and he eventually discovers that it’s 1961. Will Chris be able to return to his own time and get the wagon train the aid it needs? I won’t ruin it, but since I already said there’s a happy ending, you can just guess.

The time travel episodes of The Twilight Zone tend to have a similar theme: the events of the past were inevitable, and one can’t change what’s happened—at least without major unforeseen consequences. In “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” the inevitability of the past is a good thing, the reason why the episode ends on a positive note. Other time travel episodes have a somewhat darker turn—“Back There,” which deals with the Lincoln assassination, is an example. If you’ve ever read Ray Bradbury’s excellent short story “A Sound of Thunder,” you know what I’m talking about. As an aside, here's an interesting, though not exactly shocking, fact: Bradbury was supposed to be deeply involved with making The Twilight Zone and contributed a few scripts.  However, the only script of his which made it to production was “I Sing the Body Electric,” based on his short story of the same name. But the time travel episodes—and in particular, the creative portrayal of time travel in “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim”—show how influential Bradbury was on the show.

3.) The Night of the Meek (first aired December 23, 1960; airing July 5 at 2am)—The Christmas Episode. Yup, even The Twilight Zone has a Christmas episode. And of course, there’s more than a little of the supernatural involved. Art Carney (the same guy who played Ed Norton on The Honeymooners) plays Henry Corwin, a drunk department store Santa Claus who lives in a dirty tenement surrounded by poverty. The only thing he wants for Christmas is to “see the meek inherit the earth.” On Christmas Eve, he wanders into an alley and comes upon a bag—a magic bag which supplies whatever gifts he asks for. Again, I won’t ruin the ending, but I’ll tell you, this is an episode which makes me cry every time I see it. Every. Time.

This is a really, really great Christmas episode, which manages to walk the line between the religious and the secular in telling a heartwarming tale. It’s unique in that it focuses on the poor, on those who have next to nothing. The images of elderly men celebrating Christmas mass in a shabby mission house, and of a young girl who wants a job for her father for Christmas, will have you choking back tears. And the juxtaposition of these images with the avarice that is often part of contemporary celebrations of the holidays is extremely noticeable. Corwin’s life seems especially seedy and squalid, for example, when he tells off his boss in the department store. Greed and commercialism often seem pervasive around the holidays, while Corwin feels for those “where the only thing to come down the chimney on Christmas Eve is more poverty.” This one’s a must-watch, all year round.

4.) The Obsolete Man (first aired June 2, 1961; airing July 4 at 7pm)—Hoo boy, this is a good one. It’s important to remember that The Twilight Zone was made at the height of the Cold War, and this is one of the episodes in which Cold War fears were the most overtly expressed.  This is the story of librarian Romney Wordsworth (best librarian name ever!), who lives a totalitarian state of the future. Books and reading have been outlawed, and so Wordsworth is deemed to be obsolete and is sentenced to death; furthermore, he is also a believer in God, also illegal in this society (and an important plot point—wink, wink). He is allowed to determine his own method of execution, and he chooses to tell his executioner how he wants to die while keeping the method a secret from “The State.”  Let’s just say all that fancy book learnin’ paid off—he’s got a big surprise in store for The State.

As I said, “The Obsolete Man” has the stink of the Cold War all over it, showing that a society in which art, religion, and individualism are stifled is doomed. But it also tries to take lessons from the fascist states of World War II. The episode’s Chancellor, the personification of The State, commends the methods of Hitler and Stalin, but says that they did not go far enough in eliminating undesirables. By the end of the episode, however, the failures of totalitarianism are more than clear. Also: watch it for the scary, moaning mob at the end. Freaky! If you twisted my arm and forced me to pick my one favorite TZone episode, this would be it.

5.) Walking Distance (first aired October 30, 1959; airing July 4 at 8am)—This gem from Season 1 had it all: great acting, a fantastic score, and a wistful, beautiful story. Martin Sloan, an advertising executive who’s disillusioned with the modern world and tired of its fast pace, takes a drive through the country and winds up in his boyhood hometown. He finds to his happy surprise that nothing has really changed since he was a kid. Turns out nothing has at all—it’s 1934 there. His efforts to recapture the past show that it’s impossible to go back, and that he must seek happiness and contentment in his own time.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, listen to J.J. Abrams, the director who’s probably best known for creating Lost: “[‘Walking Distance’ is] a beautiful demonstration of the burden of adulthood, told in The Twilight Zone, which everyone thinks is a scary show, but it’s actually a beautiful show. The Twilight Zone at its best is better than anything else I’ve ever seen on television.” The pressures of adulthood and modern life is another big theme in the series. Another one of my favorite episodes, “A Stop at Willoughby,” is extremely similar to “Walking Distance,” except the main character in “Willoughby” finds that suicide is his path to happiness. Yeah…not exactly the happiest of endings. Oddly enough, though, the conclusion of “Walking Distance” is a sadder one, perhaps because it is so inconclusive. But it’s easy to relate to Sloan: who hasn’t longed to return to the happiness and security of their youth, at least for a short time?  Hard to believe that Sloan would want to leave the late 1950s, though.  If only he knew how much worse it would get…

Well, enough of my opinions. Here’s the full marathon schedule. Even if marathon watching isn’t in the cards, any of these episodes would make a great addition to a Netflix queue. Happy Fourth!