Classic TV, Science Fiction

The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)

In 1959 a new Science Fiction TV series aired. This new series was quite unlike anything else airing at that time. The series bravely tackled the big issues of the day; issues such as racism, fear of others, individuality, conformity, hatred and war. These often controversial issues and topics were able to get on the air via this series in the guise of Sci-Fi. 

The series also examined what it even means to be human. The series reflected the unpleasant truth about the horrific things that humanity is capable of. The series is scary, moving, shocking, powerful and very thought provoking. The series stands up very well when viewed today, and not only that, but it more than retains its impact and ability to make the audience think. That series is The Twilight Zone.  

“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into The Twilight Zone!” Rod Serling’s opening narration for seasons 4 and 5.

I love this series! Growing up I had heard and read a lot about this series, but I had only ever actually seen a handful of episodes from it. That all changed a couple of years ago. I treated myself to the complete series on Blu-ray(the episodes are beautifully cleaned up and look like they could have been made today). It is now one of my favourite series.

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Gig Young takes a trip down memory lane in Walking Distance. Screenshot by me.

In addition to it being one of greatest Science Fiction series ever made, I also think that The Twilight Zone is the most human TV series that has ever been made. This series so perfectly captures just what it means to be human.

The series shows us our weaknesses, our strengths, our desire to better ourselves or to change a situation we don’t like. The Twilight Zone reflects humanity back to us, by showing us the best and worst of ourselves right there on that TV screen. The series also contains some very moving performances and scenarios which have the ability to really touch the viewers heart.

I especially love the episodes where we in the audience are made to think what we would do if we were in a particular characters shoes. Who among us wouldn’t love to be able to go back and offer advice and support to our younger selves? Well, by watching Gig Young in Walking Distance we can feel like we have done so. By watching No Time Like The Past, we can see that the good intentions in trying to change terrible historical events may not be possible or even advisable.

The Twilight Zone series was created by Rod Serling. Rod was an American WW2 veteran who despised hatred, war, bigotry and cruelty. He poured his heart and soul into this series and it shows on screen. He not only created the series, but he also produced it and wrote many of the episodes. 

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Martin Balsam and William Bendix in The Time Element. Screenshot by me.

The series first came into being with a script written by Serling, called The Time Element. This unofficial pilot episode for the series was first aired on the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, on the 24th of November, 1958.

Martin Balsam(who would go on to guest star in the official series)and William Bendix were the stars.

This pilot episode focuses on a man who claims to be able to travel back in time to Pearl Harbor, just before the horrific attack there on the 7th of December, 1941. This episode really sets the tone for the series that we know and love today. This episode is included as an extra with the Blu-ray boxset.

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Earl Holliman in Where Is Everybody? Screenshot by me.

The official series aired a year later, on the 2nd of October, 1959. The first episode of the official series was called Where Is Everybody? This episode finds a man (Earl Holliman) discovering an abandoned town and not remembering who he is. 

The series would continue on the air until 1964.  The series is primarily classed as Science Fiction, featuring many stories of time travel, alien invaders and alien worlds.

I like many of the time travel and alien focused episodes, but my personal favourite episodes are the creepy ones; episodes such as The Grave, Thirty- Fathom Grave, The Hitch-Hiker(the first episode that I ever saw), Deaths-head Revisited and The Howling Man.

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Some shocking information is revealed at the end of The Silence. Screenshot by me.

The powerful performances and different weekly settings ensured that Serling’s series became very popular with audiences. The series real claim to fame though was the twist ending to each episode.

These endings are the series trademark, and these twists often leave us reassessing the previous 25 minutes that we have been watching.

I love that no matter how many times I watch the episodes that those twists still retain their shock factor, even when I know full well what’s coming next they still work.

It is a credit to Serling and his superb regular writing staff of Charles Beumont, George Clayton Johnson and Richard Matheson, that the series is still as powerful and impactful today as it was when it first aired. Many other famous writers including Ray Bradbury took turns writing scripts for the series.

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Ed Wynn and Murray Hamilton have an important talk in One For The Angels. Screenshot by me.

The scripts are real quality too and they are very good character pieces. They really knew how to write back then and how to put so much into a simple 25 minute episode.

You just don’t see anthology series like this any more. You also seldom get script writing of this quality anymore, which is a real shame I think.

I also like how you never know where you’ll end up next in this series from episode to episode. One episode could be set on an alien world, another set in the old west, and another in the present(50’s and 60’s).

Serling’s series also bravely tackled the big issues of his day, particularly racism, fear of nuclear war, fear of people and places unknown to another set of people etc. The morality tales still pack quite a punch while sadly making you see that in some ways not much has changed since the series aired. Humans are still intent on killing one another, there is still racism, and there is still fear of other cultures etc.  When will we wake up and accept that we are all the same under the skin? We are born, and one day we will all die. Why do we have to spend our lives being hateful and violent? It’s madness. I think that Rod Serling would despair of the state of the world if he were alive today. 

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Rod Serling introduces a Twilight Zone episode. Screenshot by me.

I can also think of no other series where the creator became such an integral part of their own series(not even Alfred Hitchcock on his anthology series.) Serling is the heart and soul of the series I think.

He provides the voice over narration for all episodes and he filmed intros and outros to the episodes. The face of Serling is as much a part of the series as the famous theme tune and the twists.

In the Blu-ray boxset, Serling’s intros and outros are included for all the episodes. I really enjoy watching those and seeing Rod introduce each episode.

I consider the first three seasons to be the best in terms of quality. I am also in the minority of fans who actually quite likes season 4 too(locks self in sealed vault to escape onslaught of season 4 hate 😉 ). While I will agree with the season 4 critics that the format change from 25 minutes to 50 was a mistake, I do strongly disagree that the episodes found here are the weakest of the series.

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Robert Duvall becomes fascinated by a doll house in The Miniature. Screenshot by me.

Some of my favourites from season 4 are The Thirty-Fathom Grave, On Thursday We Leave For Home, Miniature(one of the most moving of all the episodes, and featuring a memorable performance by a young Robert Duvall),The New Exhibit, Jess-Belle and Printer’s Devil.

I actually think that season 5 is the worst of the series. So many of the episodes in this are terrible(what went wrong with the writing here?)or bear too strong a resemblance to earlier episodes. There are a few gems to be found though such as In Praise of Pip, Nightmare at 20,000 feet(perhaps the best known of all the episodes), An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, The Masks, Living Doll, Night Call and Stopover in a Quiet Town.

Throughout the series there are many fan favourite episodes: Time Enough At Last, Five Characters In Search Of An Exit, The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street(although I personally think this one would have worked better as a paranoia story without the alien involvement which we later discover), Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, The After Hours, And When The Sky Was Opened, The Invaders, In Praise Of Pip, Walking Distance, It’s A Good Life, The Silence, The Masks, A Stop At Willoughby and The Odyssey of Flight 33.

There are also somewhat lesser appreciated episodes to enjoy: The Last Flight, Nick of Time, People Are Alike All Over, One For The Angels, Printer’s Devil, The Hunt, The Passersby, I Am The Night,Color Me Black,  The Sixteen Millimetre Shrine, I Shot An Arrow Into The Air(surely the origins of Serling’s film The Planet of the Apes?), Judgement Night, The Obsolete Man,  Passage For Trumpet and Mirror Image.

I also love how many big film stars feature in this series. I envy classic era audiences who got to tune in weekly not knowing who would appear next. A handful of these stars made more than one appearance on the series: Jack Klugman(superb in several deeply moving episodes), Burgess Meredith, William Shatner, Martin Balsam etc. I think the quality of the work is evident given the amount of film stars who agreed to guest star in these episodes.

The series also features one of the most instantly recognisable themes in TV history. Chances are if you’ve never seen an episode, you’ll have heard that intro tune at some point in your life. The original theme tune for the series was composed by Bernard Herrmann, this theme can be heard in season 1. As much as I do love the later theme, Herrmann’s theme is very eerie and mysterious and I love it very much indeed because it’s so atmospheric. The theme that we all know today didn’t make its debut until season 2, that iconic later Zone theme was composed by Marius Constant.  

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Joanne Linville and James Gregory in The Passersby. Screenshot by me.

I suppose there is also the big question as to just what exactly The Twilight Zone is and what it means? I take it that it is a phrase that perfectly sums up the weird and unexplainable events in life, be it our current life or in a time back in the past or forward in the future. I have often found myself saying “I can’t believe this, it’s like I’m in The Twilight Zone”, when faced with bizarre or horrible situations in my life.

My ten favourite episodes are: The Passersby(featuring a heart wrenching performance by Joanne Linville, as a woman left in deep emotional distress following the American Civil War), Walking Distance, The Last Flight, The Grave, Printer’s Devil, The Odyssey of Flight 33, The Changing of the Guard,  In Praise of Pip, The Howling Man and One For The Angels.

Similar series to this which I like are One Step Beyond and Thriller. I have also seen Rod Serling’s later series called Night Gallery; this is a much darker series than The Twilight Zone and I highly recommend it to horror fans. 

Please share your thoughts on the series. What are your favourite episodes?

Never seen an episode? What are you waiting for? The Zone awaits you. Just make sure you get a return ticket though, because you wouldn’t want to get stuck there. Would you? 

 

 

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Blogathons, Classic TV, Science Fiction

Time Travel Blogathon: The Odyssey Of Flight 33 & Once Upon A Time

Time Travel Banner

Rich at Wide Screen World and Ruth at Silver Screenings are co-hosting this blogathon about time travel. Be sure to visit their sites to read all of the entries. I can’t wait to read them all myself.   

I have long been fascinated by time travel. What would it be like to actually be able to go forward or backwards in time? What would you do, and where would go if time travel were a reality? Once you travelled through time, would you be able to return to your own time afterwards?

If you went backwards in time would you try to save loved ones from death? Would you try and stop things from happening that would cause misery and death to millions? Should you try and interfere in past events at all?(I don’t think you should, as you would end up changing the future and further negative things could occur because of what you did.) These are all big questions and that is why I love these types of stories so much because they really challenge you to think about what you would do if you were the character travelling through time. 

I’ve decided to write about two of my favourite time travel episodes from the TV series The Twilight Zone. Long time readers of my blog will know of my great love for this series. I love the blend of genres found within it. I love the famous actors who agreed to guest star in it, and I love how the series makes you really think. My favourite stories from this anthology series are the horror and time travel ones.   

The two time travel episodes I’d like to write about are The Odyssey Of Flight 33 and Once Upon A Time. Both take a very different approach to how they tell a story of time travel.

 

If you’ve not seen either of these episodes, then please don’t read on any further as there will be spoilers!

 

 

 

The Odyssey Of Flight 33 (Season 2, Episode 18)

 

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The flight crew notice something is amiss. Screenshot by me.

There are no easy answers in this episode and I think that is precisely why I love this episode so much. The anomaly which causes the plane to move through time is completely unexplainable.

The anomaly is simply one of those weird things that exists in our world (like the Bermuda Triangle for example)and if you get caught up in it, then you will be in for a very weird experience indeed.

If you went through what the passengers and crew of this flight are about to, then I think you would be very scared and would be left speechless about the whole experience.

The episode begins up in the air mid flight. A passenger plane is on its way to land in New York.

Towards the end of the flight the Captain begins to feel a very strange sensation, it feels to him as though the plane has drastically increased its speed.  He gets quite concerned about this weird sensation. At first the other crew members don’t feel it, but then they do and become convinced something isn’t right.

      The flight crew can’t believe their eyes. Screenshot by me. 

When the passengers and crew next look out of the windows they are not where they expect to be at all. The land they see down below is empty of all signs of human existence.

Then they see that a dinosaur is down there happily chomping on a tree. They all realise then that they have taken a very strange detour indeed.  

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They see this dinosaur on the ground. Screenshot by me.

Everyone panics. Some people refuse to accept what they are seeing. Then the plane speeds up again and everyone looks out and sees they are back in New York. The crew slowly begin to stop celebrating though when they can’t contact their destination airport on the radio. They also soon see down below them the 1939 World Fair. The plane has come home, but this is not their New York, it is the New York of over twenty years earlier.

They obviously can’t land here either. So, with fuel supplies running dangerously low, they keep on flying, desperately hoping to keep speeding up and hopefully finding themselves back in their own time period. 

This episode is in my top 10 favourites from the whole series. I love the setup for the story and how it has a realistic look about it. There have been many stories and reports of planes vanishing. Many stories of pilots reporting seeing strange things while flying, or experiencing strange events mid flight. I think that those stories make you accept that this story is perhaps not so far fetched as it might sound. 

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Captain Farver. Screenshot by me.

I think that the actors all do a terrific job here. The ones playing the cabin crew all convince as pilots, navigators and radio operators who are all veterans of their jobs. Rod Serling’s brother Robert actually wrote several books on aviation, and he helped Rod write the cockpit dialogue and make it sound realistic. 

John Anderson delivers my favourite performance as the calm and rational Captain Farver, who slowly begins to realise that he and his flight are trapped in something far beyond his control.

This episode always leaves me wondering what happened to the people on this flight. Will they ever make it back home? Or are they doomed to fly around the planet, moving between time for eternity? It’s almost like this plane could become an air version of the Flying Dutchman. Thought provoking and quite sad really.  

 

 

Once Upon A Time (Season 3, Episode 13)

 

We now move on to a very different type of episode. This one is much less serious and I think it has an uplifting and warm feeling about it. This one also tells a time travel story, but it tells it in a completely different way to The Odyssey Of Flight 33.  

The episode is basically there to grant Buster Keaton an opportunity to show us all that he still had his comic skills, and that he was still more than capable of performing stunts. The first time I saw this episode I was overjoyed to discover Buster was in it.  

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Woodrow arrives in 1960. Screenshot by me.

Buster plays Woodrow Mulligan, a grumpy caretaker who lives in 1890. A professor he knows has invented a helmet. This helmet has the ability to transport whoever wears it through time.

Trying on the helmet himself, Woodrow gets transported forward in time to the year 1960. He has no sooner arrived there when he quickly realises he wants to get back to his own time. He certainly marvels at what he sees in this new era, but he really misses his own time. 

Woodrow meets Rollo, who is also a scientist and who is fascinated by the possibility of time travel. When the helmet gets damaged, Rollo and Woodrow work together to try and get it fixed. Once that’s done Rollo returns with Woodrow to 1890. When he arrives he soon wishes to be back in his own time too. He realises that his time is more advanced and therefore can better accommodate the sort of work he needs to do. So Woodrow helps send Rollo back to his own time.

I find that this episode makes you value what you have in the present. You may wish to visit another time but never forget that there is no place like home. The episode also shows you that technology may advance and change, but some things such as human behaviour and the need for money seldom ever change for the better.

The episode is also very funny with Buster getting to perform stunts (love the scene where he gets lifted up to put on some trousers in mid air) and make us laugh with his grumpy deadpan routine. He had still got his comic gift right up to the end.

I also love Buster’s performance in the scene where Woodrow sees a TV for the first time. At first he thinks it is a window, then when he turns it on, he thinks that the TV presenter is speaking directly to him and that the TV is a window and the guy is actually there. Buster is so funny in this scene. 

                         Woodrow reacts to seeing a TV for the first time. Screenshot by me.

The 1890 sequences are filmed like a Silent movie, while the 1960 sequences are filmed in the normal sound era way. I really liked the decision to film the different time periods like that.  

These two episodes also both serve to show you just how different this series could be each week. One week a story could be scary and thought provoking, the next it could be funny or moving. This is another reason why I love this series so much. You just never know where the zone will take you next.

Here are my picks for the five best time travel episodes from this series. 

1- The Last Flight

2- The Odyssey Of Flight 33

3- Execution

4- No Time Like The Past

5-A Hundred Yards Over The Rim

If you have seen these episodes what did you think of them? What other time travel episodes of this series do you like?