Currently viewing the tag: "the twilight zone"

I recently had the pleasure of being on Timothy Westmyer’s Super Critical podcast, which is a deep dive into pop culture that surrounds nuclear weapons. Westmyer is a lovely, funny dude who knows nuke-related real world stuff, and therefore can actually speak to SCIENCE. I can — and did — speak to Fallout-related stuff.

Behold!

Timothy has other intriguing episodes on depressing pieces of pop culture such as Threads. I’ve actually not yet tackled his Twilight Zone-themed episodes, even though I covered some of them on this very blog.

Give his podcast a listen. Hopefully you’ll find me on it again sometime. Heck, demanding to be a guest worked quite well the first time! (Literally demanded. Politely, but firmly. I regret nothing.)

  • Serling-Mad-Men-600x447I just enjoyed this oddly convincing, unsold Mad Men script in which Don Draper meets Rod Serling. Some of the details don’t quite work, but the idea of the two men meeting is a pleasing one. (Well, except for the fact that nobody is Rod Serling but Rod Serling.) Maybe Serling’s family wouldn’t be into it, though, since they can’t even let Rod be licensed into a sweet action figure (note: I have a vested interest here).
  • Rod Serling interviews Asimov and and other sci-fi dudes during the moon landing coverage. (Maybe this isn’t the best age of television after all.)
  • Kelly Vlahos on the disturbing pertinence of The Twilight Zone. 
  • The Root has an intriguing piece on black people who dig the confederate flag.
  • Jesse Walker noted other recent attempts to take back the confederate flag. 
  • I’m suddenly terribly excited, while slightly creeped out by the prospect of the movie Everest, which is based on Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and the 1996 disaster in general. I’ve read Into Thin Air no less than five times, the first when I was about 10. It is a beautifully written, horribly tense book which was very influential for me. I already had begun reading about World War II and such, but Krakauer’s book — and in particular, what happened to Beck Weathers — really got the point across that nonfiction can be as bizarre, dramatic, and epic as a made-up story. The movie might be quite good, and the trailer — before it devolves into mindless DUN DUN short cuts — confirms that. But it’s still sort of creepy to stare at the IMDB cast list and to know exactly who dies and who makes it. We actually already did the fictionalized thing with a TV movie from the ’90s which is both strangely accurate and cheesy in the way only a TV movie can be (see the one about the Weavers and Ruby Ridge for a similar problem). This could be a good film, I’m dying to watch it, and to be a total pain in the ass who knows exactly what happened. But I’ve already see the IMAX film where base camp overhears stranded Rob Hall saying goodbye to his wife. Seeing that repeated with Keira Knightly and Jason Clarke feels like a cheap, tacky ghost of that gut-wrenching thing. Because it is. No matter how good this film might be it, that’s what it is.

See what you think of the trailer. As I say, it looks good, and it makes me hate the people who cut trailers.

Don't be these guys.

Don’t be these guys.

“The Shelter,” season 3, episode 68: air date: September 29, 1961

One of my criticisms of apocalyptic fiction — particularly the alien invasion or nuclear war variety — is that most characters are not hysterical enough. For example, the early aughts CBS show Jericho, which was all about a small Kansas town surviving after 25 cities are nuked, was enjoyable and disturbing, but nobody was ever upset enough about the situation. The very first shot of a faraway mushroom cloud is seen by a little kid standing on his roof — and it’s just killer. But five seconds later, after only the kid being shown in tears, that’s it. No adults are crying, no adults are hysterical in the nightmare way that I truly believe they would be. Not that civilization would crumble, or people would eat their children in five minutes, exactly, but that in the initial moments and days of nuclear war — even in the face of a visible mushroom cloud — people would flip. Even if they later rallied, the toughest among us would break down to some extent.

The Twilight Zone is not known for its realism — social commentary notwithstanding — perhaps because old TV shows are inherently a bit theatrical to youthful eyes (or to cranky people like my father).

Burgess Meredith the bookworm is eventually suicidal after he survives the H-bomb attack in “Time Enough at Last,” but he’s still impossibly mild-mannered about it all. “Time Enough at Last”  is a classic episode for a reason, but I don’t fully believe his reactions after the world is gone. The Rod Serling-penned episode “The Shelter” — in spite of some dramatic, necessarily dated elements, and some showing, and then telling — works better.

We see that Dr. Bill Stockton is throwing a dinner party, with his wife and three other couples. A warning comes over the radio that unidentified objects have entered US airspace.  Stockton, who has previously been teased for his doomsday preparations, has a fallout shelter in the basement. The other couples run home. Stockton and his wife, along with their nauseatingly chipper ’60s son, gather supplies. There’s an eerie conversation between Stockton’s wife and himself about the point of survival at all after the missiles come. The actress (Peggy Stewart) does a fabulous job, not hysterical, but displaying a bleak, tearful terror that shows she has already given up just from imagining the world that is to come. Stockton (Larry Gates) is not quite as good, but his sweaty, wide-eyed determination to save his family still rings true enough. He’s all masculine, reasonable panic.

The true conflict arises when one by one the couples come back, some with children in tow, begging to be let into the shelter. They have no basements, or they have half-finished ones, or they simply know that Stockton has a shelter and they do not. They plead, they cry, and Stockton grimly says there isn’t enough air or supplies. Every single person with dialogue sells this episode. There are no women to be slapped back into sense, no men who have everything in hand, there is just barely-contained desperation that explodes.

And the way they turn on each other — AKA, the topical commentary of it all — mostly works. Half of them preserve their humanity fairly well, the worst man goes from zero to xenophobic — turning on the sympathetic, desperate mustached guy — and he also has the bright idea of breaking down the shelter door. This mob, with some protests from the two half-reasonable men, does so. The viewer will note that everyone crowds in once the deed is done. (No mention is made of the fact that they have doomed Stockton and family, and still not saved themselves through this idiocy.)

The moment they are inside the shelter, the radio says the objects were just satellites. There is a palpable sense of shame in the air, again done well. The final speech from Stockton — wondering whether something besides a bomb destroyed them that night — is not fully necessary. Nor is the Serling tag that says the only moral here is that “for civilization to remain, the human race must remain civilized.” This was already there for the teaching, without the postscript.

Contrast “The Shelter” with “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” — another Serling classic — and you can see the former is vastly superior. Written at the height of the Berlin crisis, it feels credible, in spite of the aforementioned moral lampshading. “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” is the story of another block dissolving into suspicion, fighting, and hatred. But they do this simply because the power is out and a few strange things are happening. Much of the dialogue feels clunky, and the episode cannot be watched today without it feeling like a hamfisted anti-McCarthyist screed. The end result that it’s all been an actual alien experiment in inducing paranoia — something the aliens feel the need to highlight, though it was clearly already shown to us — doesn’t make the conflicts feel any more believable.

And the ET subject matter isn’t the problem. Move “The Shelter” to an imminent alien invasion, and it would feel just as true, and the barely-contained terror radiating from the actors would still impress. I am an optimist about human nature, but we were told to fear fear itself for a reason. It does bad things to us. Serling, more subtle than average, shows this nicely in “The Shelter.”

 

Don't be this guy either.

Don’t be this guy either.

“One More Pallbearer,” season 3, episode 82: air date: January 12, 1962

Another Serling-penned episode, this mostly exists as a character study of an awful man. The setting is a bomb shelter and the stage is set for a would-be practical joke. Millionaire Paul Radin (Joseph Wiseman) invites three people from his past to come to his lair, and has readied a fake Civil Defense warning and a television screen with bomb footage to make them believe that nuclear war is now.

Present are his former highschool teacher, his former military commander, and a reverend, all of whom he has decided wronged him, but we see that only in his arrogant, nasty impression of how things were. Unfortunately for Radin, they all believe his trick, but after unpleasant conversation (the teacher is particularly good and cutting, she’s played by Katherine Squire), each one chooses to leave the shelter instead of begging his pardon, and to let them stay. This is all Radin wanted, but they won’t do it. They face annihilation rather than apologize to him — or rather, they are not interested in living out their days with an awful man in his awful, doomsday kingdom.

They leave, and he yells at their backs, and then rather abruptly he seems to lose his damn mind. The audience is waiting for a twist, and Serling plays with that expectation — maybe a nuke will really happen just at this synchronistic time! Nope. Radin has just snapped. His Twilight Zone fate is to be nuts and to believe he is the only man left after nuclear holocaust. The message here isn’t so much remain civilized in the face of the greatest imaginable horror, but don’t be a dick, otherwise people will let themselves be melted rather than spend time with you; this makes it a bit less satisfying an entry in the nuclear terrors Twilight Zone canon.

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And today’s video:

Hurray for the Alan Lomax archives.

Burgess_Meredith_The_Twilight_ZoneWelcome to The Stag Blog’s new series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guests posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

This week, I was planning to write about On the Beach — the original movie, and maybe the novel and the 2000 remake in passing — but instead I thought I would talk about two Twilight Zone episodes that deal quite differently with nuclear annihilation. Be warned, I had many classic Twilight Zone episodes spoiled decades ago by many classic Simpsons Halloween specials, but I’d rather not be the ruiner of even 50-year-old TV shows. 

Forgive the lateness of the hour, but remember the Andy Warhol joke about going to Pittsburgh in the event of nuclear war — everything, you see, comes to Pittsburgh five years late.

Time Enough At Last, season 1, episode 8

You know this one, or you know a parody. This is one of the most famous Twilight Zones — maybe the most famous not starring William Shatner (who was actually in two episodes, on a sidenote!). This is the story of poor bank teller Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) who seems good-hearted, if frustratingly absent-minded, and is the world’s biggest bookworm. A bookworm, but nobody in his life will let poor Mr. Bemis read. His boss’s scolding is one thing, but Bemis’ wife, portrayed with oddly-masculine coldness by Jacqueline DeWit, is simply sadistic. Who did she think was marrying, if not a be-speckled Burgess Meredith who only wants to lose himself in Dickens, poetry, and any other literature? I don’t think her husband was ever a dynamic, suave individual. Her fault, then, if she’s now unhappy. Indeed, you could write a whole story about Mrs. Bemis and what made her so cruel. The scene where she pretends to be interested in her husband’s poetry book is her peak of small, but sharp horribleness. The fact that he really believes she might be interested after God knows how many years of marriage is a testament to his infuriating fuzzy-headedness, perhaps, but his face when he sees what his wife has done to his book — blacked out every single word on every page — breaks the heart.

That scene is why the most upsetting part of this episode is not the destruction of everything. Yes, Mr. Bemis goes down to the bank vault and therefore survives what seems to the end of the world (though there must have been a few more people going into basements at just the right moment). The empty, H-bomb-wrecked world is a little tidy in it’s carefully-placed rubble, like a film set. But the producers did well for the times. It looks pretty bad, it looks well and truly destroyed. And Bemis has been portrayed and remembered and parodied as a character who is bothered by all the people around him, but he doesn’t suddenly adapt to this new, empty world. He is after all not really an introvert, so much as someone who needed time to read, and then meet some folks who shared his love of books. Didn’t they have book clubs in your time, Mr. Bemis?

Anyway, Bemis tries to cope. He talks to himself a little, finds some food, and mourns. Eventually, he very nearly commits suicide. With a pistol to his temple he tells himself he’ll be forgiven, considering the circumstances. Then he sees the books in the ruined bits of a public library! Suddenly it’s all turned around! After a few minutes of hopeful scenes where Mr. Bemis gathers enough stacks of books to keep him going for the next several years (assuming that rain and snow has stopped existing; find some shelter, Mr. Bemis), we get to the final, oft-parodied scene where Mr. Bemis breaks his glasses. In my case, breaking glasses would hinder my survival, but not my ability to read. Still, Bemis is probably doomed now. But worse still, it’s not fair. There was time now!

There is often justice in the twilight zone, but not always. Mr. Bemis didn’t deserve his fate, but irony chose him.

And the nuclear destruction is only incidental. The real tragedy is that what he asks for is so simple, and he doesn’t get it.

But at least his horrible wife is dead, I guess.

Third From the Sun, season 1, episode 14

Since the twist in this episode is much less commonly-known, I will again warn that readers wishing to remain unspoiled should proceed with caution.

I’m a connoisseur of well-crafted dread in movies or television that deals with subjects as heavy as nuclear war or worlds’ ends. It’s only so-so for most of this episode, perhaps because the character mostly speak of feeling it in the air. There’s a lot of tell, and the show of it is confined to Dutch angles and tight shots on nervous faces. It’s not unsubtle, but since the plot is fundamentally horrifying, I demand nothing less than soul-crushing. And it’s just not that. (Maybe the Richard Matheson short story it’s based on is that — I’d like to read it.)

The main character in “Third From the Sun” is Will Sturka a father who works at a military base on horrible weapons; we also see his wife, his teenage daughter, and a couple where the husband, Jerry Riden, works at the same plant, but on a secret spaceship. The antagonist is the boss,Carling, who seems to be a true-believer of striking first and watching what you say and think in such times as these.

What times? Well, the end times. Or nearly. Sturka and Riden know it’s coming. They plan to gather their families and flee. Their cover is an evening card game, during which Carling stops by briefly. Then there’s a whole lot of charged dialogue where everyone knows everyone else knows, but nobody says anything. Carling leaves, and the two families head for the base to steal away on the craft Riden has been building. At one point we learn that there has even been talk of other planets that contain people not unlike our characters. Riden and Sturka and their families hope to head for one.

When they reach the base, Carling is there — naturally — but the teenage daughter actually helps to save the day by smacking him with a car door.

We see that the ship looks an awful lot like a UFO, and we either get it now, or we don’t. The final shot is Sturka and Riden discussing how the ship is holding up (well), and if they can really image that there are people like them on this distant planet they’re flying towards. It’s third from the sun, and it is called Earth.

Is this a throwaway, “he was dead the whole time?!” type of ending? Perhaps, but no more than other Twilight Zones, which often dealt with the question of who was the real alien in various scenarios. (Man is of course, the real monster in all cases.) And in a greater context of Cold War terrors, it strikes a more effectively sinister note than all previous dialogue about man destroying man, and all the fear in the air; because if the same insane scenario of weapons build-up and worldwide suicide is happening on this other planet, what hope is there for little old Earth?

Walter M. Miller’s brutal and wonderful A Canticle for Leibowitz says humans will utterly destroy themselves not once, but over and over again through the course of thousands of years. With its twist ending, the more flawed but still thoughtful “Third From the Sun” suggests the same pattern can repeat across the galaxies. So much for Klaatu or other aliens coming to save us from our deadly impulses. Things are just as bad up in the stars.