Saturday, May 13, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Lidsville: "Turn In your Turban, You're Through"

Tired of being out-foxed by Mark (Butch Patrick), Hoo-Doo (Charles Nelson Reilly) sets a new trap for the boy. Masquerading as an elderly woman, he captures Mark and then switches Weenie’s (Billie Hayes) powers to Mark.

Now a subservient genie, Mark is tied to the magic ring, and considers Hoo-Doo his master. Hoo-Doo is happy because he now has a “slave with a brain.”

Stripped of her powers, Weenie must find a way not only to regain them, but to free Mark from enslavement.

Compared to last week’s cross-over (not to mention cross-dressing…), “Turn In Your Turban, You’re Through” is a pretty conventional episode of Sid and Marty Krofft’s Lidsville (1971-1973).  

Hoo-Doo is once again up to no good, and the insecure Weenie must find the resources within himself to defeat the villain and rescue his friend.

The most interesting aspect about the episode is the fact that Weenie is jealous, at least a little, that Mark makes a better genie than he does. He has to do the right thing, and overcome his fears, to succeed.  

Mark, meanwhile, is a real evil genie, doing the will of Hoo-Doo without hesitation. And, of course, Hoo-Doo’s first job for Mark: collect taxes!

Next week: “Alias, the Imperial Wizard.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Ghost Busters: "The Vikings are Coming" (November 29, 1975)

In “The Vikings are Coming,” Eric the Red (Jim Backus) and the Viking warrior Brunhilda (Lisa Todd) materialize in the local cemetery hoping to prevent their (unseen) enemy, Lothar, from planting his flag on this new territory.

Now they just need to find their own banner to plant.

The Ghost Busters are on the job, however, and send the Vikings back to the Great Beyond using the ghost materializer, giving the ghosts an inept variation of a Viking funeral.

“The Vikings are Coming” features Jim Backus -- Mr. Howell of Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967) -- as a Viking warrior.

Let that description settle in for a while.

The episode is absolutely as ridiculous as that casting suggests. His casting makes one wonder why almost every guest star on the series is well-into-middle age.  Backus doesn't exactly have what we might think of as a Viking physique, or mind-set.

Backus can also be seen in an episode of Filmation’s Ark II (1976), “The Cryogenic Man.”  Here, he chases the Ghost Busters through a variation of the series’ running “corridor” joke.  Another running gag sees Brunhilda blowing a Viking horn in close proximity to him, causing him immense pain.

Next week: “Merlin the Magician.”

Friday, May 12, 2017

Planet of the Apes TV Series Blogging: "The Good Seeds" (October 4, 1974)

Virdon (Ron Harper) and Burke (James Naughton) must stop at a local ape’s farm, after Galen (Roddy McDowall) is badly injured.

While Galen recuperates, the humans must contend with the grumpy chimpanzee farmer, Polar (Lonny Chapman), and his resentful, superstitious son, Anto (Geoffrey Deuel).

Meanwhile, gorillas are on the hunt for the refugee humans...

“The Good Seeds” demonstrates well the serious flaws of the Planet of the Apes (1974) TV series.  

In particular, this is a series largely devoid of what today we would term mythology.  For example, even a mediocre sci-fi series such as Logan’s Run (1977) was smart enough to develop its mythology. The refugee characters, in their episodic journeys, would encounter the “first runner,” various places that could be the mysterious “Sanctuary,” and contend with issues outside the “civilization of the week.”

The Planet of the Apes series features very little in terms of on-going mythology.  There isn't that added layer to the storytelling. We have the astronauts’ data disc, which can provide details about the trajectory that brought them to this future Earth, if only they can find a computer to play it.  That’s about it, alas.

What mythology could there be here? Well, there are thousands of years of history we could learn about. How did the changeover in planetary dominance occur? When did it occur? Who are, historically, the great ape leaders?

In the absence of mythology, this TV series doesn’t often find stories that grab and hold the attention.  Occasionally, the program will brilliantly handle a contemporary issue with social commentary (mainly involving racism and prejudice). One impressive upcoming story, “The Deception,” is essentially about an ape version of the Ku Klux Klan, for example.

But too many episodes of the short-lived series depend on the simple premise that one of the fugitives (Burke, Virdon or Galen) is badly injured, or captured, and then must be healed or rescued. 

Similarly, many episodes are about humans “outsmarting” bad apes.  One future episode “The Tyrant” is like Mission: Impossible on the Planet of the Apes.

It’s not the series is bad, necessarily, only that it is often aimless, and largely uninteresting. “The Good Seeds” falls into this category. It’s a largely inoffensive, but not terribly compelling story about the fugitives spending time with a family of farmers.

As I’ve noted in previous weeks, the social commentary in the Apes TV series is all about racism; about how the ruling apes treat humans like lesser, inferior beings.  That aspect of commentary is certainly here.  

One gorilla notes, for example, that “all humans look alike.”  Urko laments that some humans think “they are as good as we are,” meaning the apes.  And then, of course, we get the sexism of the ape culture. One woman ape is told to “shut up, female.”

So, “The Good Seeds” does conform to the series’ main line about social disparity on this future world of apes.  I can also see it how the episode attempts to address what I call the medieval mind-set of ape culture. The apes clearly dwell in a pre-Renaissance culture, though it is by (Zaius's) design)

At the start of the episode, Galen expresses amazement at Virdon’s home-made compass. Galen likens the device to witchcraft. 

Later in the story, Anto believes that the humans have caused a “hex” on his cow, when in fact she is just pregnant. Both instances reveal that the apes place very little stock in science or learning. Anything that is not known, or different, is automatically considered suspicious, unnatural, or dangerous.

Although the series doesn’t explore the concept fully, this lack of knowledge is not an accident, but a choice. Zaius (Booth Colman) and the Ape Council repress knowledge, knowingly, so that apes and humans will not get any ideas about changing the status quo.  

Of course, Zaius knows that humans all-but destroyed the world. Is he so bad for attempting to not repeat the same mistake?  I do wish the series went more deeply into the background on Zaius, and the reason he demands his people (and the humans) live in a state of ignorance. Though, I suppose, he may call it innocence.

Another not entirely palatable aspect of the series is evident in “The Good Seeds.” Virdon and Burke -- the knowledgeable humans -- overcome the “simpleton” apes with their superior human knowledge and know-how.  

I say that this is aspect of the tale not entirely palatable because, let’s face it, humans are responsible for the near destruction of the planet.  I’m not saying Zaius and Urko are “good” in any sense. They are zealots who repress the truth (though, as I noted above, apparently for a reason they believe valid).  But it gets tiresome sometimes for the humans to always be victorious, running circles around the ignorant, primitive apes. If humans are so awesome, so brilliant and learned, how come they have lost their perch atop the food chain? 

It would be nice, sometimes, to see the humans learn something from the apes, or acknowledge that the apes now rule the Earth because mankind, apparently, blew it.  But that’s more depth than we get in the Planet of the Apes TV series.

“The Good Seeds” is a fine, one-off story about humans and apes learning not to view each other with suspicion and fear. But absolutely nothing in the episode seems important, or vital to the characters or their on-going journey.

In two weeks: “The Legacy” -- a mythology episode!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

National Twilight Zone Day: "Death Ship"

During The Twilight Zone's fourth season in 1963, Rod Serling's trademark anthology was expanded from half-an-hour to an hour in length. 

Most of the episodes produced during this span are not included in syndication packages or annual marathons (except for the Robert Duvall episode, "Miniature"), because they don't fit the half-hour time slot. For Twilight Zone's fifth and last season, the format was restored to the more famous 30-minute period, and many of these hour-long installments faded to undeserved obscurity.

And the general meme on the fourth season, on the hour-long shows, is that somehow the experiment failed. That the episodes are not as good, or as powerfully wrought as the shorter installments. The thinking goes that at a half-hour, Serling sets up the premise, expands it just enough, and then delivers the closing whammy or twist before you grow fatigued with the narrative. It's a perfect thirty-minute structure. 

By contrast, goes the conventional wisdom, at an hour length, you get mired in the story-line and sort of wander off the point.

I haven't watched all of the fourth season shows recently, but based on my viewing of "Death Ship," I'm not sure that the latter argument holds much water. Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Don Medford, "Death Ship" is the sort of creepy sci-fi story I'm almost predisposed to love. Why? Well, as much as I love, adore, revere, and honor Star Trek and what it has accomplished over the long years, I prefer to view the realm of outer space not as a giant ocean separating countries, where starships stay in touch with Earth by subspace radio and serve a sort of cosmic United Nations, but as something more...enigmatic

Again, this is merely my personal preference, but I especially enjoy the concept of outer space as terrain of mystery, awe, and terror...a realm that we -- even as intelligent and technologically-advanced human beings -- are not quite able to understand at this point.

Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Space:1999 and yes, Richard Matheson's "Death Ship" all seem to view outer space in these fascinating terms. I think space adventuring is great in any form, but especially so when the mysteries unlocked at the end of the universe have some bearing on our understanding of ourselves and the very nature of existence. I'm not talking about morality (Star Trek was unmatched in focusing on the morality of our species), but the very core ideas of "what are we?" "what is existence?" and so forth.

And those are the sorts of interrogatives raised in "Death Ship."

As the story begins, it is the far-flung year of 1997, and three astronauts from the rocket bureau man the exploratory vessel E-89 as it seeks out habitable planets for colonization. 

Captain Ross (Jack Klugman), Lt. Mason (Ross Martin) and Lt. Carter (Frederick Beir) observe the surface of one distant planet, and spot something odd: something metallic glittering in the jungle far below them

Excited at the prospect of man's first alien contact, they land E-89 (the spaceship from Forbidden Planet [1956] redressed...) and discover that the "glittering" on their scope is actually something more frightening, the wreckage of an Earth spaceship.

The astronauts head out to the ruined ship and find that it is of the same class and construction as their own vessel, E-89. When they enter the wrecked craft, they discover the bodies of the three-person, human crew. Disturbingly the corpses are actually...their own. 

The crashed ship is actually E-89 and somehow it crashed on the surface of this alien world, and Ross, Mason and Carter were all killed during the event. Now, thanks to the auspices of the Twilight Zone, the astronauts have caught up with their grim fate.

At first, the thoughtful and determined Captain Ross thinks that they have "circumnavigated" time and somehow arrived on the planet in their own near future, perhaps as the result of a time warp. He makes an interesting decision. If their future involves a crash, he suggests, then he won't order the crew to launch. Ever. He decides to stay on the planet for an unlimited duration instead, because he knows he will eventually discover a "logical" explanation for what they've found on the surface. He just has to puzzle it through. "Eventually, we'll find an answer," he suggests.

But then another odd thing occurs. The longer the crew remains on the strange planet with their corpses aboard that duplicate ship, the more the crew begins to "fall apart," hallucinating a very different existence. Lt. Carter imagines he is home and visits his house on the very day of his funeral. He finds his wife's mourning attire laid out across his bed, next to a telegram from the rocket bureau announcing his demise.

Lt. Mason also experiences what might be a delusion. Outside, on the surface of the planet, he encounters his daughter and wife. They are happily sharing a picnic lunch lakeside, and Mason feels compelled to join them. In short order, however, he is torn out of this pleasant reality by the committed and stubborn Captain Ross, who reminds him that his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident long, long ago.

Captain Ross rallies the troops. He believes he has discovered the logical explanation (because everything has a logical explanation, he says). 

Everything that has happened on the mysterious planet is an alien trick, he tells his men; a ruse to keep humans from colonizing there. It's mind control...illusion.

Ross is so convincing in his "logical" explanation of the events on the planet that Mason and Carter believe him. The three men recommit to their mission, with great trepidation lift off, and head once more for the stars.

Miraculously, the spaceship does not crash on ascent, as the crew feared it would. E-89 makes orbit successfully. The three men have escaped their fate, or so it seems. The trap below cannot snare them.

But then the determined and intellectual Captain Ross orders they return to the planet surface to collect specimens and complete their assignment. After all, he says to his men, he understands the alien trick now, and won't be fooled again.

Ross sets the controls for re-entry, Carter objects and...

...Well, to tell you any more of "Death Ship" would be to ruin the denouement of one of the truly great (and perhaps not very well-known) Twilight Zone episodes. 

What occurs finally on that distant planet, and the explanation to the riddle -- the very thing that renders E-89 "a latter day flying dutchman" -- has nothing whatsoever to do with time warps or alien tricks. 

Instead, as you may have guessed at this point, the solution to the mystery grows out of the characters, and in some aspect, the so-called "cult of personality," the willingness of some men to follow leaders...because they want to believe something pleasant so badly. 

"Death Ship" is a great story because it arrives at the shocking ending sideways. The episode features all the trappings of futuristic science fiction drama, with discussions of time travel and alien life, but as is so often the case on The Twilight Zone (and in the work of Richard Matheson) the resolution of the enigma involves the very nature of man; the metaphysical not the technological.

In crafting a tale of a protagonist and captain who sees what he wants to see, and the men who follow him in that vision, Matheson's "Death Ship" takes the mysteries of outer space and links them right back to the essential nature of humanity, right here on Earth. For awhile it looks like the story is about "fear," the "death fear" as one character describes it, but the tale actually involves the acceptance of the unacceptable in our lives...and in our deaths.

As is typical for The Twilight Zone, "Death Ship" is presented in stark black-and-white and beautifully shot. There's one terrific, highly cinematic shot in which the camera prowls through a hole in the damaged vessel's wrecked exterior, and then scans the ruined command center, finally settling on the three corpses. 

There's some nice, unobtrusive use of split-screens and photographic doubles in another scene, and the performances are all intense and very good. Jack Klugman, in particular, does well in the role of the stubborn commander. One wouldn't automatically think of Klugman as astronaut timber, but he is intense and charismatic here. We pin our hopes on his character; just as his men do.

It's startling a bit startling to recognize the fact that this series (despite "futuristic" dates like 1997...) and the works of Richard Matheson don't seem to age at all.  They are -- truly -- as timeless as infinity.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuable, and more resonant in a simple, emotional sense than "Come Wander with Me." Many Twilight Zone segments also boast superior twist endings.

And yet, for my money, there are few segments more haunting or dream-like than this superb fifth season phantasm, penned by Anthony Wilson and directed by a young Richard Donner (The Omen [1976]; Superman: The Movie [1978], Ladyhawke [1985]).

Whenever I return to The Twilight Zone DVD Box Set, this episode ranks near the top of my list of episodes to see again -- even if I've watched it recently; even though I know the story by heart. There's just something that draws me to it.

Simply stated, "Come Wander With Me" casts a hypnotic spell.

"Come Wander With Me" was the final episode of The Twilight Zone filmed/produced for CBS, and the third-to-last episode to air on that network in prime time. It premiered on May 22, 1964 and dramatized the tale of Floyd Burney (Gary Crosby), the so-called "Rock-a-Billy Kid."

Burney is a cocky but insecure "celebrity," an up-and-coming music star without the slightest sense of originality, individuality or artistry. As the episode begins, Burney has arrived at the foothills of Appalachia in hopes of "stealing" a song from the naive locals there and "conjuring" another hit to augment his singing career. He justifies this act of creative theft by noting that all the folk-music stars of the day do it...

This narrative set-up mirrors a real-life context of the times. From the 1950s-to-early 1960s, there was a folk music revival movement in the U.S., one in which a wide variety of artists imported the fiddle and banjo-style of Appalachian folk songs (often ballads...) from remote, poverty-stricken Appalachia into the nation's musical mainstream.

This local music style proved increasingly popular -- especially as the Beatnik "coffeehouse" movement came to life -- but so did the notion of Appalachia as a backward, violent, isolated realm of cultural separation and inscrutable mystique.This geographical region in the South East U.S. became increasingly feared and derided because of popular stereotypes; for the sense of it as a setting of oppressive fundamental religion and...ghost stories.

In "Come Wander with Me," we see such a world-view fully articulated.This Appalachia is a dangerous, foreign place that doesn't conform to the "rules" of life as Burney understands them. In other words, cash isn't God; and actions (such as pre-marital sex...) have consequences. And far from being an authentic musician (or even boasting a particularly "Up with People" attitude...) Floyd Burney is but a slick, self-centered celebrity looking simply to steal a resource. Even his car is gaudily decorated with the titles of his insipid hit songs. We recognize immediately that he's out-of-his-element...and playing with fire.

There's a great visual touch that inaugurates "Come Wander with Me." As Burney stops his car at the foot of a rickety, damaged bridge, we can see that a floorboard is missing directly ahead. So Burney exits his car, and steps over that gulf himself, unawares.

That missing plank in the bridge, however, is the specific demarcation point between reality and the supernatural; between the American mainstream and isolated Appalachia. And, as Rod Serling would no doubt declare, it's our point-of-entrance into...The Twilight Zone.

Once in the woods, the hungry, exploitative Burney begins hunting for his "new" song. He tells a gargoyle-esque junk/music shop owner "Anything you got is PD - public domain! You've got no rights!" and then graciously (!) offers to buy the old man's songs for a meager handful of cash. The local declines to help, but Burney refuses to relent...until he hears a recurrent, eerie melody emanating from somewhere deep within the forest ahead.

Burney passes into a heavy mist as he treads deeper into the seemingly-endless woods, and is so consumed with his mission that he misses something important nearby: his own grave-stone, jutting roughly out of the Earth.

As Burney goes in search of the obsessive melody, he misses something else too. In at least two separate shots, we detect a mystery figure shrouded in black...reaching out for him in the distance. This apparition appears in the background of the frame (as Burney hunts in the foreground...), and the long-shot, deep-focus composition crafted by Donner is creepy as hell. Because the figure is at first stationary -- and almost camouflaged -- we don't see it right off the bat amid the ancient woods. When we do see it, we're startled. 

This Life and the After-Life have merged...

Burney soon discovers that the source of the song is an innocent young woman, Mary Rachel (Bonnie Beecher). This siren is beautiful, a bit sad, and all-together reluctant to sing Burney the entire song.

Ever the smooth operator, Burney romances Mary Rachel, even though she's already "be-spoke" to a local gent named Billy Rayford. Successfully taken-in by promises of a life with Burney, Mary Rachel finally reveals the melancholy song in its apparent entirety: a haunting, timeless composition by Jeff Alexander, called, appropriately, "Come Wander with Me."

As the song is repeated -- and as Floyd and Mary Rachel consummate their relationship 'neath an old willow tree -- the episode cuts to another montage that seems to fracture time: a series of progressive zooms leading into crisp dissolves. The zooms always draw us nearer to the intermingled duo (sometimes from doom-laden high angles). It's as though Fate itself has locked them in its cross-hairs.

"That song was meant for me." Floyd declares, more accurate than he realizes.

"It can't be bought," Mary Rachel counters, but Burney doesn't understand what she means.

Then a jealous Billy Rayford shows up -- a man with the odd, shambling gait and blind, lifeless stare of the living dead. There's a scuffle, and Burney (too easily, perhaps...) kills him.

Suddenly, Mary's song changes. It is no longer soft and melancholy. Now it is loud, strident, and fearful. A new verse emanates from the tape recorder and states "You Killed Billy Rayford...bespoke unto me..."

In fact, as Billy's brothers relentlessly hunt down Floyd Burney to avenge the death of their kin, Mary Rachel's song continues to morph and grow, adding new, more disturbing verses all the time.

Mary Rachel begs Floyd not to run "this time," but he does it anyway. As he flees, he sees Mary Rachel once more, now garbed in black...a mourner at his grave

And when the Rayfords finally come for Floyd, we never actually see them as human beings. Rather, they are suggested as inhuman Furies. They are depicted as long black shadows which stretch malevolently across the ground, and then, finally, eclipse the light over Floyd Burney's terrified face...

What "Come Wander with Me" circumscribes, however, is truly a vicious circle. A cycle without end and without beginning, very much like a song being composed before our eyes and ears. If we could ever truly feel what it likes to be trapped inside a song -- inside a personal melody -- I have the feeling it would seem just like "Come Wander with Me" because the story is graced with a sense of the inevitable, the inescapable.

And the main character, Floyd Burney, has already been "conceived" or "imagined" by the composer as the subject of this tune, and therefore cannot change his path, his destiny, his crescendo. He will always be the Rock-A-Billy Kid...the one who trespassed (by stealing a song and a woman...), and who paid with his life. The song tells us who he is; and he can never change because those verses are already written and sung. The song which can't be bought...defines him. He already "owns" it.

Or it owns him.

The less-important supporting characters, like the doomed Billy Rayford, are barely "human" at all. They are merely ciphers -- musical notes, perhaps -- who help bring the song round to its final stanza. As Mary Rachel explains, they do only what is expected of them. "He always comes here," she says, in regards to Billy. He has no choice in the matter, because this isn't his's Floyd's.

If you remember the story of Sisyphus, you might recognize "Come Wander with Me" as something more than a never-ending song. 

It's also a personal Hell for Floyd Burney (meaning, perhaps, that it occurs after his mortality ends, in Hell itself). 

Just as Sisyphus's punishment was to always push a rock up a hill, only to see it roll back down, and have to start over, our Floyd Burney must likewise re-live -- again and again -- the avaricious song hunt (and personal manipulation of Mary Rachel) that led him to his trespass and demise. 

In each refrain of the song (and of his personal Hell...) Mary Rachel begs Floyd to change his course (to hide, rather than run...) but Floyd is stuck in a rut -- like a record repeating on the same groove again and again. Even Fate (or is the Devil?) is seemingly against Floyd: when he returns to the junk music store to hide, all the musical instruments come miraculously to life to reveal his position to the Rayfords.

And, finally, when Burney states that he has "come too far, too fast to be buried in Sticksville," I wondered if he meant, perchance Styx-ville.

There's a majestic sweep, and subtle, cerebral horror underlining "Come Wander with Me." The song was deployed to similar haunting effect in Vincent Gallo's 2003 film, Brown Bunny. Several contemporary bands have covered the tune too, and it even appeared in a Dutch insurance commercial in 2006.

But for me, it's virtually impossible to separate "Come Wander with Me" from Bonnie Beecher, Floyd Burney's personal hell, Applachia, or this unique, brilliantly-crafted episode of The Twilight Zone

This is a song (and an episode) you just can't get out of your head...

National Twilight Zone Day: "Nick of Time"

"Nick of Time" is a Richard Matheson story, and one of my all-time favorite installments of the 1959-1964 Rod Serling series, The Twilight Zone. There are flashier shows, there are scarier shows, but I really enjoy how ambiguous this story is.

"Nick of Time" is the story of Don S. Carter (William Shatner) and his new wife, Pam (Patricia Breslin). Their car has broken down on their honeymoon trip to New York, and the couple is forced to make a pit stop for repairs in the sleepy little town of Ridgeview, Ohio. 

It is there, in the Busy Bee Diner, that this couple will -- according to narrator Serling -- find "a gift most humans will never receive," the ability to "learn the future." 

Why? Well, because this town and this diner rests on "the outskirts" of The Twilight Zone.

Our central character Don is an interesting guy, and Shatner's performance here is one of his best. Don's the superstitious type, with a rabbits foot on his key chain right beside a four-leaf clover. He is given to expressing himself in phrases such as "keep your fingers crossed." 

"It's like you married an alcoholic" he admits to Pam in one of his more lucid moments, aware of how superstitious he really is.

But on now to Don's unusual nemesis. It's a rinky-dink napkin dispenser with a Devil Bobblehead perched on top. It's the "one cent" "Mystic Seer," a fortune telling-device that for one penny will read you your future. It does so by ejecting little cards that cryptically answer yes or no questions.

Sounds harmless enough, right?

Not so fast...

First, the machine accurately predicts that Don will get the promotion he's been waiting for. 

Then it reports that the couple's car will not take four hours to be repaired, as was told the couple.

 Don grows ever more convinced that the "gizmo" is actually telling him his future. "Why was it so specific?" He asks Pam. "Every answer seems to fit," he insists. 

Pam isn't so sure.

And then things get really spooky. Don asks the machine if something will happen to the couple if they leave town. The answer: "if you move soon." 

He then asks, "should we stay here?" 

The answer: "that makes a good deal of sense." 

Finally, Bob interprets a message from the Devil Bobblehead to mean that he and Pam shouldn't leave the diner until after 3:00 pm that afternoon.

Pam objects and forces Don to leave the diner. At one minute to three, on the street outside, they are nearly run over by a speeding car...

Convinced and stubborn, Don returns to the diner and begins asking the Mystic Seer more questions, even though Pam begs him not to. "You made up all the details, and all that thing did is give back generalities," she tells him. 

He still won't leave. Not until his new wife tells him that the machine is running his life, and that she can't be married to a man who "believes more in luck and fortune" than in himself.

Don and Pam escape this trap, what Serling terms "the tyranny of fear and superstition," but in the episode's final shot, we see that another couple isn't so lucky. "Can we ask some more questions today?" They ask the machine.

"Do you think we might leave Ridgeview today?"

"Is there any way out?"

So again, in the most wonderful and entertaining terms imaginable, The Twilight Zone has presented us with a morality play of sorts, one about human nature.

Yet what's so enjoyable about "Nick of Time" is that we don't know whether Don is right (and the Devil machine is predicting the future), or if, in fact, he's merely superstitious and all the right answers are mere "coincidence" as Pam suggests. 

The ultimate point is, I suppose, what you choose to believe in: fear or hope. You can choose to believe that you are small and in danger; or you can take control of your life and face the hardships with strength,  and with the ones you love at your side.

Beyond a fortune telling device that may or may not be supernatural, there is no overt fantastical element in this installment of the Twilight Zone and yet it is oddly effective, and affecting despite this fact. 

Visually, it's assembled in clever fashion by director Richard Bare. The first shot of the episode is a wobbly view from a tow truck bed, looking down from a high angle at the car being towed, with Don and Pam inside. This is an important view, because it establishes right from the beginning of the episode that Don is not "driving" his life (nor his car). He's simply being pulled in one direction or another, towed by his fear and superstition.

Later, when the couple first enters the Busy Bee Diner with the Devil Bobblehead/Mystic Seer, the camera views Don and Pat from the far side of a lattice-work room separator/divider, a sort of visual frame-within-a-frame signifying entrapment or doom. 

This same camera set-up recurs at several important moments in the show. 

The first time, we view two other local residents in thrall to the Mystic Seer at the dining booth, also through this "entrapment" lens (the criss-cross frame of the lattice).

Finally, when Pam encourages Don to summon his inner courage, the shot has changed to reflect their strength. The lattice wall is no longer between camera and character -- a visual obstacle and blockade -- but rather behind the characters. They have escaped the trap. They have moved literally past it.

I also get a kick out of the extreme (and I mean, EXTREME) close-up shots of the Devil Bobblehead, always jittering ever so slightly but nonetheless playing his Satanic cards close to the vest. He's an interesting villain because he's inanimate and yet we "impose" some sense of fear or personality on him.

If it were just a napkin dispenser, minus the Bobblehead, this episode wouldn't work nearly so well.

Shatner's performance is so good because he plays a character suffering from a lack of confidence. That's funny, given that he's the guy who plays Captain Kirk, but I would argue that even there, in Star Trek, that's the quality that makes the character work so well. Kirk is a human being, a leader of men, but he still second guesses himself ("Balance of Terror") or fears losing his job ("The Ultimate Computer"). 

Watching early Shatner performances you get a sense at how deft the actor is in playing a likable yet vulnerable character. He doesn't quite reach the heights of hysteria in "Nick of Time" that he would achieve later in "A Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," but the script calls for different things. I really like Shatner in this kind of every man persona. To me, he represents the perfect 1960s young male: a self-aware, intelligent, resourceful, JFK-type with just enough self doubt and neurosis to make him thoroughly disarming.

I find it fascinating that Shatner's two Twilight Zones and one Outer Limits ("Cold Hands, Warm Heart") place the actor in the thick of a couple relationship in crisis. He's always playing a husband dealing with something terrible, and trying to convince his wife that he isn't insane. Gremlins on planes, Venusians on "Project Vulcan," or a fortune telling machine that may be the Devil Himself. 

National Twilight Zone Day: "To Serve Man"

“To Serve Man” remains one of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes ever broadcast. 

Everyone remembers the tale’s unforgettable punch-line: “it’s a cook book!!!”  But by the same token, it’s easy to forget what a sturdy, brilliantly-constructed episode it is.

Based on a 1950 short-story by Damon Knight (1922 – 2002), “To Serve Man” features a flashback structure. 

From his room (or cell…) on a spaceship in flight, an American man named Chambers (Lloyd Bochner) recounts how alien Kanamits (Richard Kiel) came to Earth promising friendship and peace, but actually executed an insidious and secret agenda.

Chambers explains how the alien spaceships were first seen over many cities across the globe, and how the U.N. Secretary General welcomed the aliens, with some reservations.

But the 9-foot tall Kanamits promised peace and honorable intentions. They planned to transform Earth into a veritable paradise by offering economical new power sources, and radically improving means of agriculture.  And if humans didn’t want their help, the aliens promised that “nothing would be forced” upon them.

All the while, Chambers worked on translating an alien book that one Kanamit representative left behind at the U.N. 

The deciphered title?

To Serve Man.

Over the months, Chambers toiled further on the extra-terrestrial book even as excited humans boarded Kanamit spaceships and headed to the distant home-world for vacations, shopping excursions, and guided tours.

Chambers then decided to go on one such visit for himself. 

But before he left -- right as he was boarding a saucer in fact – Chambers’ assistant discovered a terrible secret.

To Serve Man was a cook-book…

Much of “To Serve Man” appears to concern humanity’s short-sightedness.

Chambers regrets that the human race should have been focusing on the “calendar” and not the “clock” while contending with the Kanamits.

He states that humans should more often be worried about “tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow.”

This is a universal real-life refrain, certainly, in regards to man’s stewardship of the environment, and even his foreign policy principles.

Too often, it seems, we are focused on crisis-management and dealing with what is right in front of our face, rather than planning for the looming disaster just around the next curve.

Here, humanity is taken in by the Kanamit promises of a brave new world, and immediate gratification too.

“It was the age of Santa Claus,” Chambers notes with cynicism.

In other words, because things seem to be good at present, humans don’t look beyond that “shiny” surface to the future. In “To Serve Man,” no one really examines the alien race’s long-term motivations for fundamentally transforming the Earth.

In this case, the Kanamits end war (with the creation of national force-fields…), hunger, and poverty…but for the express purpose of growing and fattening the herd.

Clearly, given the episode’s prominence in the pop-culture, “To Serve Man’s” most memorable moment arises when the other shoe drops.

Chambers assistant tells him that “To Serve Man” is a cook-book. And then he is forced on the ship anyway…by a hulking Kanamit.

In that moment, Chambers learns that mankind has gone from “being ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup.

Sooner or later,” notes Chambers caustically “we’re all of us on the menu.”


“To Serve Man” doesn’t really reveal much detail or background information about the Kanamits. We don’t know if there is famine on their world…only that we are their latest smorgasbord, and that they have been to other worlds…and done the same thing before.

And, I suppose, we know that their name -- Kanamit -- isn’t far from our word “cannibal.”

That's enough.  This episode is one of the most chilling of all the Twilight Zone canon.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Walking Distance"

The funny thing about The Twilight Zone is that there are 156 episodes of this classic anthology series, but during the yearly marathons on Sy Fy, the same thirty or so segments get rerun. 

The one with "Talky Tina," or the woman (Agnes Moorehead) in the remote cabin with little spacemen chasing her ("The Invaders'), or the one about a very special alien cookbook ("To Serve Man.") 

These episodes are all timeless and terrific and worthy of broadcast from here to eternity.

But there are other eminently worthy wonders in this land of imagination too; ones that don't quite bite with scalding irony, or sting with surprise and O'Henry twists. 

Instead, these installments tug at the heart strings and evidence a deep melancholy. Which brings us to my selection now: "Walking Distance," by Rod Serling. It originally aired in 1959...more than fifty years ago, during The Twilight Zone's first season on CBS.

This is the story of 36 year old "vice president of media" Martin Sloan (Gig Young), a successful but overworked businessman. He feels like he's been at a "dead run" for a long time, and has grown tired. 

Martin makes an unexpected stop at a rural gas station one day, only to realize that he's within walking distance of his hometown, "Homewood."

It's a place he hasn't visited in over twenty years. 

While his car is serviced at the station, Martin walks down a dusty road (and we watch him go down that long path in a clever shot utilizing a mirror...), and straight into...the Twilight Zone.

For that old town -- a place of ice cream sodas, merry-go-rounds, games of marbles, Sundays in the parks and band concerts -- hasn't changed a whit in two decades.

It still costs a dime for a chocolate ice cream soda with three scoops, for example.

Martin wanders the streets and begins to remember a time in his life when things were simpler; slower...happier. He remembers a time when he was eleven years old carving his initials onto a gazebo in the park.

Then, wonder of wonders, Martin spies himself as a teenager carving those very initials. He has returned the past. He has traveled back 25 years.

Excited, Martin runs to his house and sees his Mom and Dad; both long dead in the present. He pleads with them, telling them that he's their son. However, they fear he's a crazed man, a lunatic escaped from an asylum. 

Determined, the adult Martin chases down his young self on a merry-go-round, and tries to tell him a very important message. He succeeds only in scaring the teenage version of himself, and the boy falls and injures his knee. It's an injury that both Martins feel simultaneously since they are one in the same. 

"I only wanted to tell you that this is a wonderful time of life for you," the elder Martin whispers sadly after the boy has been taken away. "Don't let any of it go by without enjoying it."

Finally, Martin meets his father again at the foot of the merry-go-round and his Dad knows who he really is now, because Martin dropped his wallet. His father is loving but stern, and tells the elder Martin he must return to the present. 

"There's no room. There's no place," he tells him. "...maybe there's only one summer for every customer..." 

Giving the kind of advice only a Daddy can give, Martin's father also suggests "You've been looking behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead."

As Serling's closing narration makes plain, "Walking Distance" is about the fact that no matter how hard we try, we can't go home again. The past is sometimes so close to us that we feel we can reach out and touch it, that it is merely "walking distance" from here. 

A scent, a turn of a phrase, a photograph, a song, even an old TV episode (!) can spur images of a past that we have left behind...yet not forgotten. And many people, like Martin Sloan, experience that "errant wish" in terms of age.  They dream that a "man might not have to become older," that he might never have to outgrow the merry-go-rounds of his youth.

"Walking Distance" is a beautifully-shot episode of The Twilight Zone, as well as an emotional journey that speaks to hard human truths about mortality. At the center of the story is the merry-go-round as metaphor

Life is indeed like a merry-go-round, we understand. We climb on, it starts to spin, and it feels like we can't easily get off....not without jumping. The episode plays with that notion artfully as the adult Martin chases down his younger self on the spinning amusement park ride.

The merry-go-round is depicted at a cockeyed angle, spinning ever faster. As the elder Martin nears his prey, the camera adopts a high-angle during the chase. Tellingly, Martin never quite reaches his younger self, just as a merry-go-round spins and spins but never actually goes anywhere or reaches any destination. 

When Martin turns around and goes against the tide of the merry-go-round, time seems to slow down and this descent feels like a reckoning -- as past and future finally collide -- and Martin must make a choice about where he is going to live, and more importantly, how he is going to live. 

His world needn't be one of "no more cotton candy," "no more band concerts" but to change it, he has to change how he sees life. 

I love how the episode culminates around a tender conversation between father and grown son...a conversation that could not occur anywhere but the Twilight Zone, because in reality, the father is now long dead. Here, the "fifth dimension" makes room for a son -- no longer a kid -- to experience the wisdom of his father one last time; when he needs it the most.  I must confess, I find this conversation very emotional, very touching.

Martin's father is the age of the elder Martin, and one sense in both the performance and the dialogue that his Pop understands too well Martin's desire to return to the past; a past without responsibility or stress.

Rod Serling died young, and much of his work, including "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" on Night Gallery expressed this wistful desire to return to a "simpler" time. "A Stop at Willoughby" on The Twilight Zone is a darker meditation on the same demons haunting "Walking Distance," but there the quest to stop running, to find peace, results only in death, not learning. 

In some sense, I guess I prefer "Walking Distance" because Martin Sloan does get a second chance to get life right; to change who he is. As sad as it is that the past is gone, there's also an optimistic side to this tale: every new day is a chance to recapture what was lost; or find a different kind of happiness.

I sometimes wonder if Rod Serling -- who wrote a whopping 90 episodes of the Twilight Zone's 156 -- felt like life was a merry-go-round he couldn't escape from.

Or if  -- with the help and catharsis of The Twilight Zone -- he managed to exorcise the same demons expressed by Martin Sloan in "Walking Distance."