Saturday, May 11, 2024

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]).

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: "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: "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: "It's A Good Life"

In 1953, acclaimed author Jerome Bixby penned "It's a Good Life," a terrifying story later voted one of the greatest in sci-fi history.

Nearly a decade after the story's publication, television legend and producer Rod Serling famously adapted Bixby's story of a God-like (or Devil-Like?) child, Anthony Fremont (Bill Mumy), for The Twilight Zone during its memorable third season.

The result, which first aired on November 3, 1961, remains among the most famous -- and creepy -- installments of the landmark anthology program.

In his opening narration of "It's a Good Life," Rod Serling stands before a map of the United States and introduces viewers to the quaint little town of Peaksville, Ohio. 

As our guide soon relates in staccato, clipped tone, something strange happened in this little American burg. "A monster had arrived" there and the "rest of the world disappeared," leaving Peaksville in a New Dark Age without electricity; without any modern conveniences at all, for that matter.

This monster, Serling quickly informs the viewers, is "a six-year old boy" named Anthony Fremont, who can make things happen...with his mind.

Anthony can also "hear" what others are thinking and has a nasty habit of wishing away his enemies "to the cornfield."

This frightening psychic power means that the grown-ups of Peaksville are constantly re-assuring and excusing the boy's bad behavior, so he doesn't turn his laser-like glare towards them. 

"That's a good thing you did, Anthony. That's a real good thing you did."

On the night of a birthday party, Anthony's neighbor Dan Hollis learns about the terror of the cornfield the hard way when -- after drinking too much -- he urges his terrified neighbors to kill the dictatorial child. Nobody moves. Although Aunt Amy does contemplate a fireplace poker, at least for an instant...

You're a very bad man," Anthony tells Dan before transforming the poor sap -- in a horrifying moment -- into a living toy; a macabre, bouncing jack-in-the-box.

Anthony's father then urges the boy to wish the monstrosity away to that cornfield, where all of Anthony's misshapen, monstrous creations dwell.

The capper of the episode is overtly pessimistic. On a whim, Anthony causes a snow blizzard. This sudden, drastic alteration in the weather will likely result in the destruction of half the crops supplying the town's food supply...

For almost fifty-years, "It's a Good Life" has resonated with generations of TV audiences, and I suppose that's primarily because the episode expresses some brand of universal truth about children and parents. 

When a child doesn't know limits, when a child isn't taught limits, the result may very well be a selfish, entitled monster. Not a monster who can destroy the world, like Anthony perhaps, but a monster nonetheless. 

When a child goes out-of-control, and the community does nothing, everyone suffers. Or as Ben Franklin once famously suggested: "educate your child to self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society."

So it takes a village to raise a child. Or the village suffers. Or something like that. 

Considering this notion, it's not difficult to parse this iconic episode of The Twilight Zone as a commentary on what I sometimes term parenting paralysis. Nobody is entirely immune to this condition. Not me, certainly, though I try to be aware of it. 

I define parenting paralysis as the refusal of a parent to step up and do something that needs to be done "in the moment," even if it's distinctly unpleasant. But the downside of avoiding conflict is tremendous. The next time the same behavior pops up, it will be even harder to address...

Instead of confronting Anthony, the Fremonts in "It's a Good Life" just keep appeasing him over and over, refusing to acknowledge that every time they engage in this appeasement they simultaneously encourage Anthony's bad behavior. 

Behavior like creating three-headed gophers...that bite.

I don't know that Anthony is actually evil, as some have suggested. Rather, he's merely Id unloosed. He's six, and he wants what he wants he wants, and there is no one in his family courageous enough to subject those selfish desires to an "upright and reasoning will."

I have to say, Captain Kirk did substantially better addressing a teenager with the same powers, Charles Evans (in the episode "Charlie X"). As a father figure, Kirk understood he had a kind of psychological authority over the boy, even if the boy was the one with all the powers. There's no one like that in Anthony's world.

One aspect of "It's a Good Life" that I still find remarkable is the meticulous attention paid to detail. Specifically, the episode's screenplay informs the audience that Anthony doesn't like singing, and that he doesn't like people to talk while the TV is on. But Anthony also, apparently, does not like art work. And if you look closely, every painting, photograph or other piece of artwork in the Fremont house is missing...sent to the cornfield, I would presume. Throughout the episode, you can see shading on the walls, tell-tale signs of locations where picture frames once hung.

Again, the episode doesn't specify this particular dislike by Anthony, but again and again we detect those rectangular outlines and variations in shading...reminding us that once upon a time, art work was present. 

What's the larger purpose of such a background detail? Not to sound cruel, because I am a happy father who loves his child to the moon and back, but "It's a Good Life" suggests that in having and indulging a spoiled child, parents stand to lose a lot. The "comfortable" elements of their lives (electricity, art work, music, bars of soap etc.) virtually evaporate as the child becomes the sole focus of their lives.

I also have to admit, I get a kick out of the episode's not-so-veiled critique of television. There is no television in Peaksville, save for what Anthony generates from his strange and childish mind. The drama he creates consists of dinosaurs endlessly growling and duking it out on volcano tops. There's no human interaction whatsoever.

To please Anthony, one of his neighbors notes, deadpan, "It's much better than the old television..." Now, on one hand, she's trying to ingratiate herself with the boy and this is an entirely appropriate remark. 

On the other hand, I think I hear Serling's voice there, commenting on the quality of a medium designed to sell cigarettes and laundry detergent.

Perhaps the freakiest element of "It's a Good Life," -- and as a kid I was absolutely terrorized out by this -- is the fate of Dan Hollis. The episode utilizes two shots to reveal this fellow's metamorphosis into a Jack in the Box. In the first shot, we see a close-up of Dan's bobbing head, wearing a pointed cap. In the next shot, sequentially, we see a silhouette of Dan's head, the springs, and the box, on the wall.

Somehow, this one-two punch seems more psychologically effective than seeing some special effect deployed. Because the transformation involves two shots -- and is never viewed entirely in one frame -- it's as if the viewer's brain has to assemble the pieces. And when it does, the image is grotesque and disturbing.

I also love that at the denouement of the episode, Rod Serling feels no need to expand or explain any of what has occurred in the narrative during the preceding half hour. 

"No comment here," he says. "No comment at all." Again, I think that gets at the universality of the theme: that parents make monsters of their children by not disciplining them; by avoiding conflict.  The parents are, therefore, the ones to blame.

On February 19, 2003, the UPN update of The Twilight Zone broadcast a follow-up to this tale called "It's Still a Good Life." The story involves a grown Anthony (Bill Mumy) still holding Peaksville hostage to his narcissistic whims. But now he has a young daughter, Audrey (Liliana Mumy), who has kept her similar powers a secret. Anthony's Mom, Agnes (Cloris Leachman) believes that Audrey can be made to turn against her father, and save the town.

In addition, Audrey possesses a psychic power Anthony lacks: a creative power. She can return everyone and everything that Anthony has banished into the cornfield over the years. I felt that this was an interesting narrative development, and an effective counterpoint to Anthony's destructive abilities.

In fact, if you view the end of the episode in this light, I would submit that Audrey pulls a fast-one on her Dad. She beats him at his own game by making Anthony feel, for the first time, what it's like to lonely. This is the very thing that allows Audrey to use her power and actually restore the entirety of the world. I guess some people felt that this episode features a downer ending, that it lets two "monsters" rule the day. 

I would argue the opposite. Audrey doesn't so much as join up with her Dad, as skillfully undermine him. She wishes away all of Peaksville residents so that she and her Dad are really and truly alone. When he confesses he's feeling the effects of that isolation, Audrey brings back the world. Airplanes. Cities. Communities

That's a happy ending, isn't it? 

Sure, if you ever see these tourists in your town, you should think only happy thoughts, but least the planet and human race are restored. The wrong of four decades ago is set right, at last. So if you want to see how things turned out for Anthony and his Mom, I recommend this follow-up episode so you can get a sense of closure.

However, If you are hoping that the story will be vetted with the same confidence, visual distinction and resonant imagery as the original you're going to be sorely disappointed by the pedestrian nature of the presentation.  The Twilight Zone's brand, for me, is expressive black-and-white photography, and staccato Serling-esque dialogue.  

"It's Still a Good Life" doesn't get the sound or images right, even if it is nice to see what became of indulged little Anthony.  

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: "Mirror Image"

In “Mirror Image,” young Millicent Barnes (Vera Miles) spends the night in a near-empty bus depot, and begins to experience what she fears are hallucinations or delusions. 

Specifically, those around her -- including the cranky baggage clerk and the ladies room maid -- claim to have seen her before. And then, later, Millicent sees a suitcase that looks identical to her own.

Millicent grows ever more paranoid about the situation, but her terror reaches a crescendo when she spies an identical double of herself sitting on a bench nearby. Millicent comes to believe -- as she tells another commuter, Paul -- that a version of herself from a “parallel” world has come to this world to destroy her…

Paul dismisses her fears as a mental illness, until he has reason to question his own sanity…

This underrated and yet utterly creepy episode of The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) by Rod Serling concerns the notion that “each of us has a twin” in “a parallel world.” 

Specifically, unlucky Millicent Barnes is confronted with her own doppelganger, who reveals, when she appears briefly on-screen, a kind of wicked malevolence. There’s a creepy shot of the doppelganger ensconced on the bus to Buffalo, NY, for instance. There’s a smug nastiness about her expression there, and it’s hard to get that smirk out of your thoughts.

“Mirror Image” is set almost entirely on just one large set: the bus depot interior. Although in some hands, this might be considered a limitation, the episode’s director, John Brahms, works wonders with the location. 

For one thing, there’s no visual sign of a ceiling in the depot, which means that the walls and doors look exceptionally -- even expressionistically -- large, and the people inhabiting the depot look small and insignificant in comparison. 

The clerk -- who turns off the lights for the night at one point -- notes ominously that “this place is like a tomb between now and morning.”

Secondly, the absence of many extras means that the large space of the depot is mostly vacant, so that, again, it seems to defy reality that a malevolent double or “counterpart” could be “hiding” anywhere nearby.  

When Paul views his double, for instance, the reverse angles don’t actually match. Paul looks up to see his suitcase gone, and in some of the same space he “occupies” in the frame, the double runs out the door.  It’s like two disjointed worlds are just barely overlapping one another.

Add to these touches the incessant sound of pounding rain outside the depot, and certain visual cues about the danger Millicent finds herself in, and “Mirror Image” builds a powerful and surreal sense, indeed, of the protagonist’s paranoia.  

In terms of the aforementioned visual clues, the neon over the ladies room, which read LADIES” at some points in the episode is seen to read merely “DIES.” 

“Mirror Image’s” apex of terror, however, is a nicely composed special effects shot. Millicent gazes into the bathroom mirror -- the door open behind her -- and sees both herself and her malevolent double reflected in the glass.  

In essence, there should be two Millicents --herself and her reflection -- but instead, and quite disconcertingly, there are four. The moment is subtly disturbing and wrong, and the effects are perfectly executed.

The episode’s kicker is chilling too. The man, Paul (Martin Milner), who consigns Millicent to a hospital, himself falls victim to a double of his own. And again, the double seems utterly unhinged and wicked: laughing and smiling at his counterpart’s plight. Paul gives the doppelganger chase, but loses him, standing alone in the dark, contemplating a world that has gone, frankly, insane.

Legend has it that Rod Serling devised “Mirror Image” when he was in an airport, and saw a man dressed like him, carrying baggage like his own. The terrifying thought came to him that the man could be him…after a fashion.  Or more aptly, another him.

There’s an undeniable dream (or nightmare…) logic to that thought, and that dream impulse courses vividly throughout “Mirror Image.” Millicent is told by the clerk at one point that she is “walking in her sleep” and truly, this Twilight Zone installment has the feel of a disturbing phantasm, one that can’t possibly be real, but can’t also be denied…or escaped.

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-valuab...