Saturday, May 11, 2024

National Twilight Zone Day: "Where is Everybody?"

Sixty-five years ago, Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) premiered on network TV (CBS) with this story: "Where is Everybody?"

Written by Serling and directed by Robert Stevens, "Where is Everybody?" follows the lonely trek of a wandering amnesiac, played by Earl Holliman. This adult man, dressed in military overalls, comes upon a lonely town called Oakwood. 

Although there are signs in the diner and at other locales of recent habitation, the man cannot find any other human...anywhere. He seems entirely alone, not just in Oakwood, but in the world itself.

Increasingly, the lonely man, fears he is going mad. 

Finally, he can't take it anymore, and the truth is revealed. He is actually Mike Ferris, an American astronaut-in-training who has just hit the panic button in an isolation tank on a military base.

For his long trip to the stars, Mike has been learning how to contend with being alone...for 484 hours and 36 minutes, precisely.  

But now, finally, he has cracked. The town and all its locations were delusions.

The next time there is a man alone like this, Mike's superior tells another officer, there will be no escape, no panic button as man faces "an enemy known as isolation."  

That enemy is a force waiting..."in the Twilight Zone."

The pop culture journey of The Twilight Zone begins with "Where is Everybody?" and with an opening narration from Serling which orients audiences to the fact that "The place is here. The time is now." He also alerts viewers to the fact that "this could be our journey."

Today, few critics or viewers would place this particular story -- basically a one-man show -- in the upper tier of series episodes, and yet "Where is Everybody?" still casts an incredibly creepy spell.  What the episode lacks in supporting cast members and pacing, it makes up for in symbol-laden imagery.  

Throughout the episode, for example, Ferris keeps encountering *almost* companionship.  He sees himself in a mirror at one point. So there is a "second" person to talk to, but it is merely a reflection. At another point, Mike encounters a woman, but again, not the companion he would seek. Instead, she is a mannequin.  He is like the mythic Tantalus, always near companionship but forever without real companionship.

The modern technology that should connect Ferris to other individuals also fails him throughout the episode. He attempts to use a telephone, but again, doesn't find the human connection he seeks. An operator's voice tells him that the number he has dialed is not working.  Failure, once more!

And in the diner, another bit of technology, a jukebox, is playing, but there is no sign of any other person for Mike to interact with.  The world seems to be spinning on, with all its devices, only devoid of human life.  One wonders if this could be Purgatory, Hell, or even a weird alien experiment.

Other symbols suggest Ferris's isolation throughout "Where is Everybody?". The audience sees the lonely town through his eyes, and through a barrier (a chain link fence) in one shot, suggesting his constant separation from home, safety, and the rest of the human race.

Intriguingly, it is via the mass media that Mike begins to put together the pieces of his mysterious past and his frightening present.  

For example, the only paperback on a kiosk is one titled "The Last Man on Earth," which seems to indicate (and be aware of...) his plight. And at the local movie theater, a film called "Battle Hymn" is showing. An image on the poster reminds Mike that he is in the air force officer.

A label on the movie poster reads "Now Playing," which is a remarkable self-referential touch. The TV audience watches the story of a U.S. military officer, while the movie theater shows a movie starring a military officer at the same time. Both stories are "now playing."  The poster and the label, "Now Playing" also function as a suggestion that Mike's plight, like a movie now unfolding, is not quite real.

These visuals very much carry the story, as do the sounds of life everywhere, which constantly haunt Mike.  It all feels very much like the dream that Mike fears he cannot awake from.

The episode's final reveal is not one of the more stunning ones in the Twilight Zone canon. The surprise ending (that the town is a delusion of a cracked mind) doesn't feel particularly special or shocking, even if it does foster empathy for the lone, wanderer. The audience learns that Mike has been wandering in his mind, not a real town, and that another astronaut will be doing the same thing soon, only for space.

I love how the early episodes of the Twilight Zone focus on the advent of the space program, and that new and unknown age of space travel seems to be the basis for this story. Can man survive in space alone? For long spells?  Without the sights and smells and companionship of home? This episode is very concerned with that idea, noting that man possesses a hunger for companionship, and that such companionship is the "one thing we can't simulate" on a space journey.

It's a good, solid point, and one buttressed by the overall eeriness of the episode's central scenario, an abandoned town, and a man without memory, or company.  Yet with sixty years of hindsight it is also easy to see how this episode doesn't necessarily play to Serling's writing strengths.  This is a series that consists often of great dialogue and stunning narrative u-turns.  

"Where is Everybody" depends on visuals, not Serling's brilliant use of language, and the final u-turn is a little ho-hum in the context of the series, overall.

Again, there's cleverness in abundance here, especially in visual execution: the idea of the cracked mirror as a reflection of Ferris's cracked mind, for example. 

But if anything, "Where is Everybody?" is a potent reminder of the fact that at the beginning, The Twilight Zone still had some growing to do before becoming the classic it is recognized as today.

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