The other day, a friend of mine tweeted: “The Outer Limits was the most interesting of all those late 50s/early 60s US anthology series. I much prefer it to The Twilight Zone.” I like my friend, but he was wrong. In the days of Elon Musk’s Twitter, this sort of wrong opinion is harmless; plus, it’s only an opinion, and we’re all entitled to our own. Even when they’re wrong.
Comparing the Zone to the Limits is like comparing apples to oranges – especially if the oranges have three eyes, antennae and shout “Hail Zardon!” in a Munchkin-like voice. Outer Limits was pure science fiction, surprisingly minimal in its speculative nature or moral messaging, two things at which the best sci-fi excels, and really all about the monsters – some of which were really cool and some of which were silly as heck. That, and the futuristic technology that never failed to let the monsters in the house! Even when it took place in outer space, Twilight Zone was never really about the science or the aliens or the monsters; it was about we foolish mortals and how we reacted/adapted/blew it when these situations were thrust upon us.
Still, it’s natural to compare the two series. In truth, I may be prejudiced because Outer Limits was one of my brother’s favorite series, and growing up we fought about everything! But I thought Twilight Zone (which ran for five seasons, thank you) ran rings around the two-season ratings struggle of Outer Limits. The show has come up more than once in our class with Elliot, and he finally succumbed by giving us the premiere episode of TOL as an extra. (More about that later.)
Sometimes we can’t help but smirk at the set-up of an episode of Twilight Zone, and this happened more and more in the final two seasons of the show when Serling started to get tired of it all. This was especially true with some of the more purely sci-fi episodes: “Black Leather Jackets,” about a trio of hot teenage aliens, remind one of the horrid C-picture Teenagers from Outer Space, while “The Fear,” about aliens trying to terrify a fashion editor, inflates a joke that pops badly. Plus, there was a growing proliferation of objects and doodads that sprung up in people’s lives to dispense justice or simply make mischief: a TV that showed the future, a car that prodded one’s conscience, a computer dispensing love advice. A lot of it was sub-standard, a sure sign that the show was heading toward a final episode.
There were still some great shows to be had: last week’s “Living Doll” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” are good examples, and we’ll have another one tonight and one more next week. For the most part, though, Elliot is taking us backwards for the last three classes, and what makes some of the shows we will watch for these three weeks exceptional is how Serling and his fellow writers refuse to explain. Explanations are only necessary if you are dealing with a more literal show – like, ahem, The Outer Limits. But Serling always used speculative fiction as a means rather than an end. And that’s what we find in today’s three episodes, each fashioned in a different way to spook people and drive them to . . . well, to their outer limits!!!
* * * * *
“Little Girl Lost” (written by Richard Matheson; original broadcast 3/16/62)
In his book The Twilight Zone Companion, Mark Zicree says (in speaking of a different episode) that the true essence of the series is best found in those stories where “(the) fear of the unknown (is) working on you, which you cannot share with others.” Here we have a typical family disrupted by something beyond their understanding: one night Tina, the six-year-old daughter, simply disappears from her bed. Her parents can hear her crying out for them, but they cannot find her anywhere.
Fortunately, this family man has a brother who’s a physicist (who, fortunately for us, is played by Charles Aidman, whom we have seen a few times before in the Zone), and he rushes over with a theory already bubbling in his brain. It seems that Tina has fallen into another dimension, one that doesn’t operate in the same way ours does. Soon she is joined by the family dog, a sacrifice which allows the parents to locate the dimensional portal just behind the bed.
The opening shot here, under the direction of actor Paul Stewart (Citizen Kane) is creepy, especially accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s score. The camera glides from a suburban street at midnight into the Miller’s home. We hear a thump and the little girl’s cry. And then the panicking begins. It is hard to understand why Mr. Miller would call a physicist rather than, say, the police, but after all they have only twenty-five minutes to get to the point.
Tina is played by Tracy Stratford, who would appear two seasons later with a dolly named Tina in “Living Doll.” I was a bit distracted because the little girl’s voice was clearly not that of Stratford. (The adult actor speaking the lines is named Rhoda Williams.) In his commentary on the episode, Zicree points out all the things that annoyed me – including Williams’ voice and the irritating performances by the actors playing Tina’s parents. Still, Aidman’s performance makes the whole concept seem credible, as does the way the art design and camera work combine with the music and Stewart’s fine direction.
In the end, this one is pure science fiction. We get no explanations, only theories, and the fact that the anomaly that nearly lost the Millers their little girl came and left without warning – and could therefore pop up again anywhere at any time – leaves us with a nice little chill at the end.
* * * * *
“A World of His Own” (written by Richard Matheson; original broadcast 171/11/60)
When I was at U.C. Berkeley, I took a playwrighting class. Our instructor was, frankly, not heavily invested in the course, and so he pretty much gave us free reign to write whatever we wanted. My first project, a verse drama based on a totally made-up Greek myth, was pure dreck, but I was pretty happy with the one-act I wrote after that.
It was a sophisticated comedy in the Noel Coward vein, about a wealthy, brittle married couple who were amused only with themselves. On this fateful morning, however, strange things begin to happen to them: dinner dates vanish, deliveries aren’t made, friends they call seem not to know them. When the husband looks into his mirror while shaving to find his reflection starting to fade, the couple make the horrifying discovery that they are such worthless human beings that they are simply fading out of existence! Eventually, they come upon their one chance at salvation: they have a maid in their employ, a kind, simple girl whose existence is bound up in the job she does for them. And so they try to placate this poor, overworked lass in the hopes that she will literally keep them alive in her thoughts. But when she realizes the power she holds over this horrible pair, she shuts her eyes and wills them out of her mind. In the end, they vanish – and the girl opens her eyes and stares around her in total confusion.
So yes, this was inspired more by The Twilight Zone than by Coward, although I did try to make the dialogue as dryly witty as I could. Watching our next episode, “A World of His Own,” I might very well have found my source of inspiration. For the most part, we have avoided the “funny” episodes of TZ because they’re not so funny. But this one is a comic delight from start to finish and, to be honest, has a bit of that Cowardesque wit about it, as well as the best Rod Serling finish in the entire series. So, kudos to Richard Matheson.
The great Keenan Wynn, son of the remarkable comic Ed Wynn, plays Gregory West, a very ordinary sort of guy who happens to be America’s greatest playwright. The characters he writes seem to come to life on the stage – and we soon find out why. The opening scene plays like a sophisticated romantic comedy: Gregory sits on the sofa in his study watching the beautiful Mary mix him the perfect martini. Mary is played by Mary La Roche, who we also saw in “Living Doll” and who also plays the perfect mate in the film adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie. She also appeared in five episodes of Perry Mason, which friends of mine know I consider a sign of great success.
Anyway, Mary and Gregory are enjoying domestic bliss when they are spotted in the window by Victoria (Phyllis Kirk), who happens to be Gregory’s wife. But when Victoria barges into the study – Mary isn’t there!
It turns out that Gregory’s characters come to life onstage because they actually do come to life. Anything the playwright dictates into his Dictaphone manifests itself immediately. Naturally, Victoria has no idea that she is in an episode of The Twilight Zone, and so her husband has to prove his power by conjuring up Mary and then making her disappear. Yes, the set-up is as weird and far-fetched as a stopwatch that stops time or the killer doll that Mary bought with her second husband! But it works here. It also manages to create a second act that’s even more amusing than the first, where Gregory’s gift is taken to its natural conclusion.
This was the final episode of the first season, and Matheson came up with a nifty variation on Serling’s inevitable final wrap-up. The camera pans to our host as usual, and he starts in on his last words, mentioning that the whole idea of this episode is pretty silly. It turns out, however, that Gregory West is still there. He shakes his finger at Serling, retrieves a section of dicta-tape – and makes the host vanish!
I call it the best comedy episode of them all.
* * * * *
“The Masks” (written by Rod Serling; directed by Ida Lupino; original broadcast 3/20/64)
I have to admit I’ve been dreading re-watching this one because it calls to mind a terrible nightmare I had as a child. In my dream, Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel were my parents (bear with me) and they took me to the doctor’s office. I remember that the office was a long, complex warren of rooms, and there was a lot of darkness and red. The doctor’s daughter was gathered with a group of her friends, and as my four parents went to talk to the doctor, the kids all started jeering at me. But even at eight years old, I was a witty little cuss, and I gave back as good as I got. But then, in revenge, the doctor’s daughter revealed that her father was a plastic surgeon and that he was at this moment taking a scalpel to the faces of Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel. I could hear their screaming and I knew I couldn’t bear to look at the final result . . . . . . . . and then I woke up.
I’ve never told anyone that dream, but it haunted me for years. I bet it was mostly inspired by the film The Black Cat, where mad scientist Bela Lugosi does something similar to criminal Boris Karloff. (“My face! What have you done to my faaaaaaaace!?!”) But it represents a lifelong fear of body horror and deformity that never really left me even when I all grown up. And of all the episodes of The Twilight Zone that plays on this fear, the most effective is “The Masks.” It is also the only episode to be directed by a woman, and that job is beautifully handled by Ida Lupino, one of the few women of classic Hollywood to invade the all-male bastion of directors that dominated the industry throughout its first hundred years.
Dying millionaire Jason Foster (Robert Keith) summons his greedy relatives to his New Orleans mansion for one final gathering. He is certain that this will be his last night on earth, and he demands one final price for bequeathing his fortune to this ungrateful bunch: he and they will don Cajun masks that each represent the person’s true nature: Jason will wear a skull’s head for Death, his daughter a mask showing self-pity, his son-in-law a mask of greed, his granddaughter a mask representing vanity, and his grandson a mask of cruelty. The heirs must keep the masks on until midnight if they want to inherit. Even so, they barely tolerate the hot, stifling facial coverings as the hours go slowly by. And then, midnight comes – and everything becomes more horrible still!
An abiding TZ theme was the comeuppance of horrible people. By the fifth season, that moral had become sloppy: good people and bad suffered consequences for utilizing magic that often seemed, well, silly. Here, though, the original concept is beautifully – make that terrifyingly – rendered, thanks to the fabulously ugly masks and the power they wield. It’s a great episode, even if it still makes me horribly nervous for the first twenty-two minutes and then makes me move to shield my eyes – just like the eight-year-old kid I used to be.
* * * * *
“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume; if we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal – we will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur . . . or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly, and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery that reaches from the inner mind to . . . The Outer Limits!!!”
Despite appearing on an opposing network, The Outer Limits’ opening is clearly honoring its rival, The Twilight Zone. The narrator, Vic Perrin, was a veteran performer of radio and early television. The premier episode, “The Galaxy Being,” posits a similar story to the one found in the 1951 film classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still: a radio engineer and amateur scientist (Cliff Robertson) uses the powerful tower of his Southern California radio station to contact an alien being from the Andromeda galaxy (voiced by the series’ producer, Leslie Stevens.) Both of them are breaking the rules – the earthling by siphoning power from the tower and the Andromedan for contacting one of these crazy Earthlings. (Evidently we have a bad reputation in all parts of the universe!!)
Much conversation between them ensues, some of it scientific, some philosophical, and all of it very slow, due to the nature of the alien’s speech. Robertson wants to know if the aliens believe in God, but since the Andromedans are nitrogen- rather than carbon-based, they don’t die and so, like our God, they are infinite. Still, they manage to establish quickly that they are both “good guys.” Unfortunately, Robertson’s wife (Jacqueline Scott) is a shrew, and the other Earthlings are not much better. Thus, it all ends pretty much the same way that Earth Stood Still did. Klaatu barada nikto!
Vic Perrin returns at the end to dictate the episode’s message:
“The planet Earth is a speck of dust, remote and alone in the void. There are powers in the universe inscrutable and profound. Fear cannot save us. Rage cannot help us. We must see the stranger in a new light – the light of understanding. And to achieve this, we must begin to understand ourselves, and each other.”
The Galaxy being itself is pretty cool, but the direction the story takes is immediately obvious, and the episode is slowly paced. Things would get livelier as the series progressed, but, again, I’m pretty baffled that my friend preferred this one to The Twilight Zone.
Next week, our penultimate journey to Twilight Zone provides three new mysteries. One of them involves our span of life and another the nature of death itself. But it’s the third that is a full-blown classic, easily one of the series’ best.
I’ll leave you with two magical words: Agnes Moorehead.
4 thoughts on “THE TWILIGHT ZONE, PART 8: No Explanations, Please!”
THE MASKS, with IN PRAISE OF PIP, was probably the best things Serling wrote for season 5, I agree. And the emphasis on gadgets, possessed or otherwise, did get tiresome – the lack of empathy in the season, subordinating all to a twist, is very noticeable as coming from producer William Froug’s episodes. God, that nightmare is horrible. I didn’t really start watching Twilight Zone until I was 15 so had nine of that trauma thankfully. I have just been watching the first season of The Outer Linits, which just got released in the UK on Blu-ray, and if one wanted to look at an episode that was a bit on the Serling mode, then I would pick “The Bellero Shield” by Setano. The pilot is frankly not that great and runs out of steam halfway through. I do like Outer Limits, and thr Karloff anthology Thriller come to that, and it works best as a psychoanalytical Gothic thriller than SF. But I also definitely prefer Twilight Zone, though there are about a dozen episodes on Outer Limits that I think are really superb.
Sorry, off topic Brad, but can you do your stuff on ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ when you next get a free year or two? Most of it is currently available on Sky Arts in the UK, but there is a lot to get through and Season 1 is proving a chore to watch so far.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I love Alfred Hitchcock Presents so much. So many deliciously nasty little stories.
Honestly, Steve, I think Alfred Hitchcock Presents is much more uneven than The Twilight Zone, both in its storylines and its presentation. There are some classic episodes – the pilot, “Lamb to the Slaughter,” “Banquo’s Chair” and quite a few others (it ran much longer than TZ), but I don’t think I could manage this sort of exploration with that series.
Still, as my reading gets slower and slower, I have to find SOMEthing to write about . . .