The past ten weeks of studying The Twilight Zone has been a nostalgic experience for me, but the reason I took this course had as much to do with a feeling I’ve had that this nearly sixty-year-old series has never felt more prescient. As we have seen, Rod Serling performed a fabulous deceit on the network when he thought up TZ: tired of being censored for his progressive political ideas, he turned to genre fiction to sneak in his dark and dead-on take on contemporary society. We can still learn about our world by watching this show: I only wish more people would embrace its lessons.
For our final class, our instructor Elliot Lavine returned us to the beginning, and the three episodes he selected – two from Season 1, one from Season 2 – each exemplify a different type of story that repeated throughout the series. First, we have a Common Man – or, in this case, Woman – whose ordinary life is exploded by the inexplicable. Such stories embraced Serling’s favorite trope that fear springs from the unexplainable. Next, we have perhaps the most common type of tale we find in the Zone, involving a reckoning with personal responsibility. Usually, this involves a person with questionable moral values, but as we shall see, the episode in question offers a different path. And finally, we have a classic that embraces Serling’s full-on philosophical bent: it is one of those rare and brilliant episodes that consists largely of heady conversation and yet never bores us; rather, we are shocked, repulsed and delighted by the twist and then made to think it over for a long time to come.
* * * * *
“Mirror Image” (written by Rod Serling; original broadcast 2/26/60)
“Millicent Barnes, age twenty-five, young woman waiting for a bus on a rainy November night. Not a very imaginative type is Miss Barnes, not given to undo anxiety or fears, or for that matter, even the most temporal flights of fancy. Like most young career women, she has a generic classification as a, quote, girl with a head on her shoulders, end of quote. All of which is mentioned now, because in just a moment the head on Miss Barnes’ shoulders will be put to a test. Circumstances will assault her sense of reality, and the chain of nightmares will put her sanity on a block. Millicent Barnes, who in one minute will wonder if she’s going mad.”
This is the kind of role that Vera Miles played to perfection – the ordinary woman subjected to unbelievable circumstances that nearly-to-completely destroy her. Her performance in the first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents is testimony to that, as is her turn as Henry Fonda’s unfortunate wife in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man.) Fortunately, the director imbues her with a sturdy enough head on her shoulders in Psycho to survive that series of surprises.)
Millicent has done nothing to earn this nightmare; sometimes horrible things happen to just plain folks. Under the direction of John Brahm, who also helmed “Time Enough at Last” and “Judgment Night” (and my pal Sergio’s favorite episode of Outer Limits, “The Bellero Shield”), the first act is a marvel of growing suspense. Miles beautifully moves from irritation to horror as she begins to realize that something other-worldly is happening. Two great shots confirm this: Millicent’s first glimpse of her double in the mirror of the ladies’ room and then her terrified reaction when she sees herself (!) sitting on the bus, smiling at her.
The presence of Martin Milner as a sympathetic fellow passenger nicely sets up the final twist. What doesn’t work as well for me is that after Millicent collapses, she awakens and provides the most complicated bit of exposition that I can remember:
“I’ve been thinking about something . . . It’s very odd. I’ve been remembering . . . about some thing I read or heard about a long time ago, about different planes of existence, about two parallel worlds that exist side by side. And each of us has a counterpart in this world. And sometimes, through some freak, through something unexplainable, this counterpart – after the two worlds converge – comes into our world. And in order to survive, it has to take over . . . Replace us, move us out so that it can live. I remember reading it somewhere: each of us has a twin in this other world, an identical twin. Maybe that woman I saw . . . I can’t explain it, but I know that’s what’s happened.”
Perhaps the doppelganger IS a high concept, but I’m not sure it needs to be explained in such detail; nor do I totally accept that once Millicent accepts this outlandish premise, Miles’ portrayal goes into full weirdo mode. At any rate, the ending brings us back to a nice creepy place, as Milner chases his own double – and we all start to wonder if travel by bus is worth the discounted price.
Finally, don’t tell me that Jordan Peele, creator of the latest incarnation of Twilight Zone, didn’t have this episode fully on his mind when he conceived the movie Us.
* * * * *
“The Last Flight” (written by Richard Matheson, original broadcast 2/5/60)
“The first non-Serling script to go into production was Richard Matheson’s “The Last Flight”. While the episode is thoroughly as effective as anything Serling wrote for the series, it is totally different in its emphasis. Matheson had none of Serling’s sentimentality or nostalgia and none of his affection for the “little people,” those insignificant, slightly eccentric characters so in evidence in many of Serling’s scripts. Rather, his strengths lay in the power of his plotting, the inexorable way, in which his stories unfold . . . We watch not because of any particular warmth we feel for the characters, but because the story is so interesting!” Mark Scott Zicree, The Twilight Zone Companion
Zicree’s evaluation of “The Last Flight” is spot-on, as it is, most of all, a rich and moving story about redemption. A WWI pilot named Decker (Kenneth Haigh) is patrolling the skies over France with his best friend flying beside him when they are ambushed by a German battalion. Decker turns coward and flees, leaving his friend to suffer certain death, only to find himself in a strange white cloud. When he manages to escape and land, he finds himself in France alright – but in the France of 1959. He has landed on a military base and is escorted to Air Marshall Mackaye, the base commander. Mackaye quite naturally has a hard time believing Decker’s story, especially because the soldier’s friend, Harper, is very much alive and, in fact, is on his way to the base.
The story moves fast, giving us no time for much reaction to the events. Decker cuts a sympathetic figure, and before we can censure him for his act of cowardice, he decides that he must return and make sure that Harper did survive the air attack. And that indeed is what happens, even though it costs Decker his own life. Meanwhile, the present-day officers have all of the paraphernalia Decker must have carried with him on that plane to show Harper as proof that the man did indeed find a temporary way station in the future.
Over and over again, the flawed individuals who populate The Twilight Zone have doubled down on their flaws by finding a magic stopwatch/camera/TV/car – you name it, the Zone is selling it – and it always leads to their comeuppance. If Matheson’s story is lacking sentimentality, it is certainly sympathetic to the moral quandaries facing young soldiers at every moment of batter, and it allows Flight Lieutenant Decker the chance to make things right.
No commentary needed.
* * * * *
“Eye of the Beholder” (written by Rod Serling; original broadcast 11/11/60)
“I want to belong. I want to feel like everybody.”
During last week’s class, I got into an argument in the chat over the episode, “The Invaders,” the one where Agnes Moorehead battles tiny spacemen. My classmate kept referring to Moorehead’s character as “the monster” and “it.” I took offense to this for some reason; even Serling, in his opening narration, refers to her as a woman, and in every way she is a woman, in biology, in appearance, and in behavior. In fact, she’s quite a brave and strong woman who ultimately defeats her technically superior attackers.
I know my classmate understood the twist of the episode, where it turns out that those tiny invaders are actually from Earth, meaning that the woman is – at least from our perspective – a giant, just like the Cyclops, or Godzilla, or a host of other 50’s sci-fi monsters . . . but also just like the 50-Foot Woman or the Colossal Man, the hero/villains of their own movies. I know we both understood that this episode had to deal, in some way, with what exactly constitutes the idea of “normal.” Mostly, however, “The Invaders” asks us to look at the idea of exploration as colonialism and to side, at least for a half hour, with the indigenous people whose way of life is being assaulted. At the end of the tale, as the camera pans across the destroyed flying saucer and we see an American flag, I hardly think Serling or writer Richard Matheson expects us to switch sides. These guys landed on her roof. They shot her with ray guns and tried to kill her. If we’re going to use the word “monster” in some context here, they are the monster. And yet, my classmate kept referring to Moorehead’s character with that pejorative term. I know, I know, it was a matter of semantics, but it pissed me off!
But when we come to “Eye of the Beholder,” I would hasten to tell my classmate that his terms can certainly apply here. Janet Tyler lies in a hospital in with bandages all over her face, awaiting the results of the last of eleven experiments allowed by the society in which she lives to attempt to “fix” her hideous visage. Since she can remember, she has been labeled a “monster,” and people with her great deformity are decried by the Leader as non-conformist and a danger to society. On rare occasions, such people are allowed to self-exterminate, but being a kinder, gentler world, they are usually segregated into isolated communities of their own kind. Janet calls them ghettoes, and she is correct.
Is this Earth in the future or another planet? In the end, Serling says it doesn’t matter. But it sure feels like Earth, from the way people speak and the fact that all the doctors and nurses are constantly smoking and acting just like we do – or, at least, as we did in 1960. The dystopian aspect of conformity is a theme that played out often on Twilight Zone; in Season Five, “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” does it all very similarly to this episode, in an enjoyable if inferior way.
“Eye” stands out for the way it’s told, primarily through director Douglas Heyes’ clever way of shielding us from the twist. The 1950’s was filled with wonderful examples of experimental television, so I imagine a lot of viewers at the time simply accepted the decision to film the whole episode from Janet’s perspective. It’s not “point of view;” rather, the camera maintains a close-up on that alien-blank bandaged face as much as possible and keeps all the other characters in darkness or in positions that hide their faces. Most of us are distracted from drawing conclusions over this by Serling’s heady, beautifully written script. You tend not to seek meaning in unusual camera angles and lighting when a fine actor like Maxine Stuart delivers lines like this:
“You know sometimes I think I’ve lived my whole life inside of a dark cave. The walls are gone, and the wind that blows in through the mouth of the cave smells of ether and disinfectant. There’s a kind of a comfort living inside of a cave. it’s wonderfully private. Nobody can ever see me.”
How ironic that Stuart, who delivers her lines so brilliantly and makes you feel deeply for the woman under the bandages, is not the woman whose face is revealed in the end. Stuart was evidently not deemed “pretty” enough to play the exposed Janet, and they hired Donna Douglas, the future Elly-May Clampett, for that role. I won’t belabor the point, but clearly the world of 1960 television contained the seeds of “Pig People Philosophy.” We get a lot of this philosophy, for this episode mostly concerns the conversation between Janet and her doctor, who risks accusations of treason for being sympathetic to her plight. Serling is clearly asking us to look beyond the masks and connect his point to that of Jews in Europe and black and Asian Americans, to Joseph McCarthy’s demand for political conformity and Madison Avenue’s promotion of physical and social conformity.
For twenty minutes, we’ve been told that Janet Tyler is a “monster,” an “it,” and to expect that when the bandages are removed, we are going to be grossed out. Then, when she turns out to be a sexy blonde and the medical staff reveals their faces, we call out the pigs as monsters. But for the first part of the show, everything these characters, sight unseen, have been saying is monstrous: there is no room for different or “ugly” or non-conformist. Such folks must be put away or exterminated; however, in a “kind” society, we first must try and change them. No more blondes, no more Jews, no black or brown, just . . . . . pigs.
* * * * *
For our final round of bonus material, Elliot wanted to honor the two writers who served Twilight Zone so brilliantly alongside Rod Serling. Charles Beaumont’s life ended in a tragedy befitting an episode of the show: ravished by a disease that robbed him of his youth, he died at the age of 38, looking as if he were 95. He had written or conceived 22 episodes of the Zone. He also wrote the screenplays for 14 films, including a personal favorite of mine, The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, and the lurid Queen of Outer Space starring Zsa Zsa Gabor. He co-wrote another favorite of mine, Night of the Eagle(a.k.a. Burn, Witch, Burn!), an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, with none other than Richard Matheson. For our Beaumont Bonus, Elliot sent us a link to The Intruder, a drama adapted from Beaumont’s own novel of the same name.
The film is one of the most lurid depictions of racism I have ever seen, and its low-low- budget antecedents and utilization of real-life Southern townsfolk for background and crowd reactions lend it a sense of grimy authenticity. William Shatner plays Adam Cramer, a good-looking, well-mannered, psycho racist from L.A. who arrives in a small town called Caxton, where the white inhabitants have been forced to accept the new laws that will integrate black students into the high school. Cramer’s mission is to incite the townspeople to break that law as loudly and, if necessary, violently as possible. At the same time, Cramer goes about seducing a high school girl, daughter of the local newspaper editor, who at first supports the law because it is the law and then slowly begins to realize he sympathizes with the plight of the Black community. Cramer also sleeps with the wife of his apartment neighbor, a very bad idea when the husband is a 200-pound jealous ox.
This was a passion project for Roger Corman, at that time renowned for his cheap but effective science-fiction, horror and crime films. The film’s aim is good: despite his charm, Adam’s ugly motivations and willingness to use/hurt anyone to fulfill his ideological and personal desires is evident from the start. But the townsfolk are clearly willing: it only takes a moment of film time for Adam to churn up the ill-feelings of the mob. The “N” word flies out of everyone’s mouths once a minute, and really bad things start to happen right away. In the end, Cramer gets his comeuppance, the townsfolk are abashed, and Corman sends his audience away with the understanding that segregation is evil.
The audiences were having none of it. Even Corman recognized that he had essentially lectured to them for 80 minutes, grinding their faces in the ugly racism of the characters. It’s not that they couldn’t have used a little “in your face” reality, but it cut into the entertainment value of the film. Personally, I didn’t enjoy it at all, both for this reason and for one other: where were the Black people? The film suffers from having the very topic of discussion relegated to symbolic status. There’s a black minister who dies, and there is a young student named Joey who is scapegoated by the editor’s daughter and bravely insists on standing up to the mob. All he gets for his troubles is an attempted lynching, where he is rescued by the daughter and her father.
Still, it’s 1962, the same year that the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird came out, and at the time it seems white audiences needed to be coaxed into a pro-integration stance through the actions of a white hero. Robert Mulligan succeeded in his goal with the lushly filmed, beautifully acted Mockingbird, as much a paean to childhood innocence as it is a legal thriller about racism. In eschewing any Southern “charm” and showing the feelings that always bubbled within the people of Caxton, perhaps Roger Corman made a film that was more honest in its ugly depiction of race hatred. But the melodrama surrounding Adam Cramer’s sexual escapades and the sparse presence of Black characters as victims makes this a hard film to watch and/or appreciate.
Our second bonus came, of course, from the pen of Richard Matheson, whose contributions to genre fiction and film are, well, (I Am) legendary!! His 16 Twilight Zone episodes include classics like “The Invaders” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” but his many films are also classics of science fiction, films like The Incredible Shrinking Man, Somewhere in Time and every incarnation of I Am Legend, including the first one, The Last Man on Earth (which he co-wrote with William F. Leicester under the pen name Logan Swanson).
The evolution of this story, from the Vincent Price to the Charlton Heston to the Will Smith version, is pretty evident. The original film posits a virus spread from bats that turns everyone into Hollywood vampire-people, in that they are vulnerable to the garlic, the crosses, the stakes and the mirrors that sank Bela Lugosi. I’m sorry, but when did a virus get religious? Still, the 1964 version is helped in a way by its low-budget black-and-white qualifications, achieving a primitively gruesome effectiveness much in the way Night of the Living Dead did. The opening shots showing an abandoned city with fresh corpses strewn openly about is extremely effective. Things get less so when we have spent time with Price, who is wonderful in roles of mad scientists or haunted ghouls but here feels wrong as an action hero.
Plus, I can’t bear this story because – well, the dog dies. At least that doesn’t happen in The Omega Man, Charlton Heston’s 1971 remake, where the plague is caused by bio-warfare, and the afflicted become albino mutants with a mission to destroy the scientists (like Heston) who caused the plague. 2007’s I Am Legend takes out the war element but blames the scientists, who goofed in their attempt to cure cancer. Will Smith is easily the most likable of all the heroes here, but the dog is given an even bigger role, and though he dies a hero (like the human lead always does), I can’t watch sad endings to animals. Sue me.
Finally, if both of you who are reading this can take any more, I wanted to throw in one last bonus of my own. It’s the episode of The Twilight Zone that has haunted me since the day I cowered on my couch and watched on TV as a mob stormed our capital. “The Old Man in the Cave,” based on the Henry Slasar story, “The Old Man,” takes place in one of the many scorched Earths that appeared during the series. As in “Time Enough to Last,” the planet has been ravaged by a nuclear war. As one character points out, only about five hundred people are alive between New York and Maryland, and their existence in this blighted, radiation-soaked landscape is bleak. In one town, however, a small enclave of folks have come to rely (nay, worship?) a figure known only as “The Old Man in the Cave,” who dispenses advice to them about weather, farming and safety through a man named Goldsmith (John Anderson), the Moses of the town. It’s a hard existence because, basically, the planet is doomed, and most of the Old Man’s advice is hard to take.
The modern “doomsday” story, mostly taking the form of video games, graphic novels and TV series, posits that mankind will be the harbinger of his own destruction, and any monsters we create out of our folly will be nothing compared to the monstrous behavior of our fellow survivors. While COVID never had the cachet of a nuclear war or zombie outbreak, it did claim millions of lives and bring most of this world to varying degrees of a standstill for over a year. During that time, I couldn’t help but feel like I was trapped in one of these games. People took sides, and those sides were defined in opposing ways, somehow connected to the wearing of masks. If you were pro-mask, you saw the world as divided between the selfless and the selfish, the scientists and the morons. If you were anti-mask, you saw yourselves as rational and the opposing side as insane.
In “The Old Man in the Cave,” everyone is reluctantly “wearing masks” because – shades of Anthony Fauci! – the “Old Man” whom they have never met tells them to do so. A group of men drive into the town, led by Major French (James Coburn). They are dressed like soldiers and claim authority over the town. It isn’t clear whether they really are soldiers since they certainly don’t behave like what you might expect. Rather, they stand for the side that believes in everyone being out for themselves in hard times. This reminds me of early in the pandemic when you couldn’t find toilet paper to save your life. When the companies finally began to manufacture it in limited amounts, my local market (like all markets) put up signs saying “one per customer” for the big bag of toilet rolls. One night, a man came into the mostly empty store, threw six of the rolls into a cart, and went up to pay. His nature was so threatening that the assistant manager who was in charge at the time felt she could do nothing but complete his sale.
Anyway, Major French and Goldsmith represent these two sides, and while Serling’s screenplay absolutely sides with Goldsmith, those of us who have lived through COVID can recognize that his caution and rational thinking, which partially stems from the fact that the Old Man turns out to be incapable of irrational thought, has created a community that is surviving but not really living, while French’s insistence that their “diety” be ignored and even destroyed so that they can do what they want offers the villagers a much more happy, albeit temporary, existence.
To this day, I struggle. Having spent over half my life for the past three years in my home, wearing a mask to the market and the mall, doing my banking and most of my shopping online, going to the movies when I know there will be no one else there, cancelling and then foregoing travel – all of this has taken its toll. I revel in the fact that for three years I haven’t been sick. Nary a cold or a fever – and this after teaching school where I was sure to be felled by a bug twice a year. But I recognize the mental toll, and I keep asking myself 1) how sustainable is this in the long-term, and 2) is it worth it?
I took this class for two reasons: the joy of revisiting a beloved childhood series with a bunch of other interested folks, and for the chance to investigate why memories of the show have resonated so strongly with me lately. Both my wishes were granted, and yet . . . as I stared each Tuesday night into the little faces in the little boxes of the Zoom room, I couldn’t help being wistful for the time when classes were live and the energy of discussion and discovery were palpable.
I don’t wanna do anything crazy . . . but boy, do I want that back!
8 thoughts on “THE TWILIGHT ZONE, PART 10: The Final Signpost Up Ahead”
Excellent as always, Brad, thanks. I think this week’s assortment is a fitting farewell to our class. I’m really gonna miss this one a lot!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for a wonderful ride, Elliot!
I’m so with you on this Brad – some of the effects of the last three years are going to linger in really dark ways. And then there’s the battle fatigue, just trying to get out from under it! Slowly but surely we will, hopefully. But good to be reminded of a time when ideas mattered as a subject for discussion and debate and not as proof of dogmatic tribalism. Three great episodes with lots to say. I completely take your point about THE INTRUDER, it has certainly aged but I have a very good copy on Blu-ray (from France) and glad to have it. I’ll need to rewatch the Old Man in the Cave episode though, been a while. The only one I remember watching as a teen was the charming Penny for Your Thoughts. My life may have turned out differently if I’d seen the superb Nothing in the Dark instead! 😁
LikeLiked by 1 person
Brad, I’m the guy who pissed you off by referring to Moorehead ‘s character as the “monster” in the Invaders episode.
I was not suggesting that the woman was herself a monster, only that this allegorical story lets us see encroaching human exploration from the point of view of the creatures they encounter (and usually come into conflict with). We sympathize with the woman because she’s in her home minding her own business when these invaders show up to torment her, and when she defends her home, the invaders escalate the violence.
Much of sci-fi/space fantasy has humans arriving on a strange planet, only to come into conflict with whatever creature lives there. The creature is, for them, a MONSTER to be destroyed.
This episode makes us consider that the humans are the trespassers–the INVADERS–and that the indigenous creature is just defending itself against a strange, incomprehensible encroachment.
The woman isn’t literally a monster, but she stands in for those creatures in sci-fi that are only minding their own business when human invaders come onto their turf.
As I said in class, I don’t think we really see the episode much differently, it might just have been my wording that set you off!
I’ve been checking out this blog for the past few weeks and am really digging it!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Andy, certainly we all understand this in retrospect, but for the balance of the episode, we see a woman in a farmhouse battling tiny monsters. In the end, it’s tempting to reverse the character descriptions and call the aliens “human” and the woman “a giant” or a “creature.” In that respect, it’s another “eye of the beholder” episode, and I never had a doubt that you understood the implications of the twist. But I keep asking: what makes her less “human” once the U.S. flag is trotted out? I got annoyed by the repeated references to “her” as “it” and to the “woman” as a “monster.”
Great stuff Brad! I somehow didn’t discover this blog – or see the links to it – until the past couple of weeks. I always enjoyed your take on the episodes and looked forward to seeing what backdrop you would trot out each week. I assume this is a regular blog? I’ll continue to follow. Take care!
LikeLiked by 1 person
It was a pleasure to (virtually) meet you. I only wish we were all in a big theatre together to discuss these shows. Oh, the gatherings we would have all had afterwards!
I’ve been operating this blog since 2015. If you look around, you will find similar coverage of many of the classes I’ve already taken with Elliot, especially the film noir and Hitchcock courses. I think Westerns are in there, too!
I hope we bump Zoom heads again in the future. I took Elliot’s first sci-fi class three years ago, so I won’t repeat. But the cult film summer course sounds very interesting!!
All the best!
PS Should add that I have great affection for the Vincent Price version of I am Legend as it was shot in Rome and to us locals is very identifiable as such.