Welcome to Retro Time. In this blog, I’ll be covering topics related to film and television from past decades. These won’t be reviews, but rather a selection of memories, thoughts, and ideas designed to spark a little nostalgia and maybe inspire a conversation or two. Spoilers will likely come up, so please keep that in mind. Thanks for stopping by, and if you have any thoughts or ideas, feel free to chime in. I’d love to get your feedback. Now, let’s get ready to take a look back…
The Twilight Zone
Lists seem to be all the rage these days so I figured it was high time that I chimed in with one of my own. When looking for a subject to cover, the choice was obvious. The Twilight Zone has always had a special place in my memory. A local syndication channel used to play late night reruns when I was a kid and I can remember staying up on non-school nights to watch them. Often I was by myself, the lights turned down, watching as the opening images combined with Bernard Herrmann’s iconic theme to set the mood for the creepy tale to come.
For me, the zone was like the TV equivalent of a campfire ghost story. You know the kind, where a wily camp counselor or tale-spinning uncle sits there with a flashlight under his chin breaking out a bizarre yarn that you eat up right along with your horribly charred marshmallows. Maybe it was the bleakness of the black and white imagery combined with the lateness of the hour that made me feel that way. Whatever the case, these pieces of pure television gold will always shine a flashlight-sized spotlight on the dark corners of my TV-viewing memory.
So let’s get to it. This will not be a top five list. There are too many good ones for me to pick a top five. Instead, I’m just going with five random eps that I felt like talking about. Here they are in no particular order.
The Monsters are Due on Maple Street
Plot: A random power outage in a seemingly normal suburban neighborhood causes the neighbors to become paranoid and turn on each other.
Serling was a master at showing how fragile the human psyche really is. Here, a few simple acts of misdirection is all it takes for the characters to start questioning their own reality. It reminds me of Orson Wells’ 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds where he actually convinced a large amount of the population that Martians were invading Earth. This episode does a similar thing. A power outage here. Strange lights there. Communications down. And from that, paranoia sets in, leading to arguments, mistrust, and eventually outright murder. It’s somewhat ironic when we find out that aliens are behind the whole thing, jacking around with the humans in a sort of mental test that they fail miserably. But the true enemy here is not the aliens but our own perception of reality, which – if tinkered with only slightly – can literally lead to chaos in the streets. Personally, I find this concept terrifying and all too plausible, aliens or not.
Plot: A perfectly normal night in a New York suburb is turned upside down when a radio broadcast warns of an imminent nuclear strike.
This one probably won’t make too many people’s highlight reels, but for me it’s always been a stand out. The Zone tapped into Cold War fears on numerous occasions, but this one brings them front row center. Similar to what The Monsters are Due on Maple Street did, this episode shows the horrible things that can happen when fear and panic sets in. The set-up is simple. When word of the bombs comes, a doctor ushers his family into a bomb shelter that he built in the hopes of surviving the blast. Problem is, he’s the only one in the neighborhood who had the foresight to build one. Soon his neighbors come knocking, begging to be let in. And when the doctor refuses, well…let’s just say that the fan is going to need a major hosing off after all is said and done. I think what always gripped me about this one is the sense of pure fear and desperation that is put on display. It’s a truly terrifying concept that is showcased perfectly here.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
Plot: On a plane ride home, a mentally unstable man is the only one who can see a monster on the plane’s wing.
This one was actually written by the late great Richard Matheson, author of the horror classics I Am Legend and Hell House, among many others. If you don’t know his work you need to unscrew that right now. Rod Serling did the lion’s share of writing for the zone. But for my money, Matheson’s work – especially this episode – was right on par with Serling’s. This episode also has the added bonus of featuring a young pre-Kirk William Shatner in one of his most memorable non-Trek performances. What makes this one so special is not the monster as much as the maddening frustration we all feel while watching Shatner as he tries to convince others that the monster is real, all to no avail. And the climax is one of the tensest and most shocking scenes this show ever did. Might I also add that it was directed by Richard Donner, who would later go on to a great film career with credits like The Omen, Superman, and The Goonies. Great writer, legendary actor, and ace director. Yeah, this one is definitely a winner.
The Obsolete Man
Plot: In a totalitarian future, a humble librarian must prove to the State that his profession has a purpose or risk death.
I picked this episode because it was structured in a unique way. Most Twilight Zone eps were set in that time’s present day, some in the past, but this one was set in the future. Again Cold War fears come out as we see the future depicted as a socialist nightmare where people have to prove their worth to the powers that be or get the axe on live television. Burges Meredith – unlike his turn as the wishy washy Mr. Bemis in the also great Time Enough at Last – plays an unassuming everyman who ends up having more guts than a platoon of Marines. The dialogue between him and Fritz Weaver’s heavy-handed statesman is some of the best this show has to offer. It manages to pack a lot of serious themes in there (mostly focusing the nature of freedom) without feeling forced or preachy. I love how this episode exposes the fragility of power and shows how one man can stand up to the system. The writing and the performances alone make this one an instant classic in my book.
To Serve Man
Plot: Benevolent aliens come to Earth and teach us how to wipe out hunger and disease. But there’s a hidden cost.
Serling knew how to drive home a twist ending that could make the M. Night Shyamalan’s of the world green with envy. It starts off pretty straight forward. Advanced aliens want to show us how to make a better world. After helping us solve all our petty problems, they give us a book titled To Serve Man. Oh isn’t that great! How nice! This wonderfully advanced civilization wants to help usher in a better tomorrow for all mankind. But there’s just one thing. We won’t know what the book actually says until the Earth’s top scientists figure out how to translate it. I vividly remember watching this one as a kid and being completely shocked by that famous line toward the end. “Wait! Don’t get on the ship. To serve man. It’s a cook book!” That’s right. The aliens weren’t there to help us. They were just fattening us up so they could eat us. Zany twists like these made this show what it was and I feel that this episode offers one of the best.
So there we are. I can go on and on but I think I’ll stop there for now. Thanks for reading and keep on zoning out.
George Ebey is the author of the recently released sci-fi novella, DEBBI, as well as a contributor to the anthology Brave New Girls. He is currently working on a full-length series of adventure tales set on Mars. You can connect with him on Facebook at George Ebey-Author and on Twitter at @Ebeybooks.