January 5, 2019

Lost in the Twilight Zone: Lesser Known Episodes, Part One

The Twilight Zone has been a staple of TV New Year’s marathons for as long as I can remember. To kick off 2019, Decades TV hosted a TZ ultra marathon, spanning 5 days starting with New Year’s Eve.

Having been a fan since childhood, I’ve seen the popular episodes multiple times. Last year, after discovering that Netflix had most of the show’s run (excepting season 4, when the show went to hour-long episodes), I started revisiting episodes I hadn’t seen in ages. I scanned the capsule descriptions and then played the ones that didn’t ring a bell or were only dimly remembered. (Amazon Prime also includes seasons 1-3 and 5.)

I was pleasantly surprised to find one that I don’t ever remember seeing, or even reading about (more on that later). It wasn’t exactly on par with finding a celebrated lost film in the attic, but it was gratifying nonetheless.

The other thing that jumped out at me as I perused the seasons was how much of the show reflected the cold war/space age anxieties of the time. The late 1950s through the early ‘60s saw the rise of the mighty hydrogen bomb, ballistic missiles, Soviet space triumphs, and in reaction, hysteria in the media and duck and cover drills in schools.

For the creator of one of the most beloved TV shows of all time, Rod Serling was an odd duck. He was a chain-smoking intellectual and inheritor of Beat generation sensibilities. He created great fantasy, but it wasn’t escapist fantasy. It’s a testimony to the times that a show that was often so downbeat, anti-materialistic, anti-technology and ultimately pessimistic about humanity’s survival could make such a successful run on a major American TV network.

Twilight Zone series title from the first season
The bleakest of nightmares, nuclear annihilation, kept popping up time and again. Some of the show’s fondly remembered episodes like “Time Enough at Last” and “Two” dealt with post-apocalyptic themes. Others, like “Third from the Sun” and “The Shelter” featured anxious, sometimes paranoid protagonists caught in the run-up to nuclear armageddon. Whatever else it was, this was certainly not a show for children.

Perhaps not surprisingly, another theme emerged in multiple episodes: a reaction against modern life and technology and a longing for simpler times. Sometimes, protagonists traveled back in time, or to an alternate, gentler universe (“Walking Distance,” “A Stop at Willoughby,” “Static,” “The Bewitchin’ Pool”). Sometimes, they tried throwing monkey wrenches into the remorseless technology that was grinding them up (“A Thing About Machines,” “From Agnes with Love,” “The Brain Center at Whipple’s”). While some baby boomers might look back at the Eisenhower years of the 1950s as a golden age of calm and stability, for many living back then it was a fraught, fearful time, one to escape from rather than embrace.

But it’s largely not for the somber, socially-conscious “message” episodes that the Twilight Zone is remembered today. The most (in)famous, best loved episodes are mostly message-free, instead emphasizing dark, disturbing settings, eccentric characters and clever twist endings. Episodes like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “To Serve Man,” and “It’s a Good Life” are still entertaining and bingeable to this day, and will be for years to come.

Like me, you may have seen these celebrated episodes many times. In digging around the Netflix TZ collection, I found quite a few others that, while maybe not on most people’s “best of” lists, still entertain while exemplifying the show’s dark, weird imagination. For this and follow-up posts, I’ve picked a few lesser known episodes that are typically strange and “high concept,” and deserve a look from fans who may have gorged themselves on the highly popular “classic” episodes. If you’re in the mood for a binge, any or all of these might be a good start for wandering around in the murkier shadows of the Twilight Zone.

This first season episode, written by Rod Serling and based on a short story by Richard Matheson, is a very good example of the show’s uncanny mix of fantasy and science fiction, and of its vague anti-technology leanings. An experimental rocket plane has crash landed after having mysteriously disappeared from radar and communication links for a portion of its flight into space. Incredibly, two surviving crew members, Lt. Colonel Forbes (Rod Taylor) and Major Gart (Jim Hutton), can’t seem to agree on how many men there were on the flight.

Rod Taylor and Jim Hutton in "And When the Sky Opened," The Twilight Zone, 1959
Col. Forbes (Rod Taylor) has an existential crisis as a concerned
Major Gart (Jim Hutton) looks on from his hospital bed.
A very spooked Forbes insists that a Colonel Harrington (Charles Aidman) was with them as well, while Gart (bedridden with injuries from the crash), is just as adamant that it was only the two of them. While all the evidence supports Gart’s story, Forbes remembers celebrating the mission with Harrington at a local bar. But the celebration turned sour when Harrington began to act strangely, dropping his beer on the floor, and muttering cryptically that “I shouldn't be here, … none of us should be here! It's as if... we shouldn't have come back from that flight at all.”

The episode’s set-up is reminiscent of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), with Klaatu’s warning to humanity to refrain from contaminating space with its aggression and nuclear weapons, or be destroyed. Other sci-fi movies of the era -- Roger Corman’s War of the Satellites (1958) among them -- took up the theme of aliens hostile to humanity’s tentative attempts to conquer space. “And When the Sky Was Opened” is far more mystical in its play on the theme. Forget nuclear weapons -- the mere attempt to travel beyond earth’s atmosphere seems to be a transgression that has awakened forces stranger and more powerful than could ever be imagined.

Rod Taylor is particularly good as Lt. Colonel Forbes, who, back on earth, travels from vague disquiet, to sanity-doubting anxiousness, to existential despair over the course of the half hour. The Australian actor had done a fair amount of television and smaller roles in a few big movies (Giant, Raintree County) leading up to the Twilight Zone role. He also played a time-traveling astronaut stranded on a far-future earth in 1956’s World Without End. In 1960 he time traveled again in his best known role (at least to sci-fi fans) as H.G. Wells in George Pal’s The Time Machine.

With its emphasis on men trapped by forces they cannot see or understand, “And When the Sky was Opened” is emblematic of the whole series, which used fantasy and judicious (and often minimal) special effects to examine its characters’ humanity. It still sends a little shiver down my spine, and is one of my favorite episodes of the series.

“Elegy” (1960)

This episode, penned by Charles Beaumont and starring Cecil Kellaway and Jeff Morrow, is one that I “discovered” last year, having no memory of ever having seen it as a kid or as an adult in the show’s many reruns. This too features a trio of astronauts caught up in a strange mystery that they struggle to understand.

After narrowly avoiding a meteor storm and getting lost in space, the crew of an interplanetary geological expedition manage to land on a large asteroid hundreds of millions of miles from earth. With no fuel left and no communication with earth, the three realize that this will be their permanent home. To their delight, the ship’s instruments indicate breathable air and gravity identical to earth’s.

When they disembark to explore, they’re startled to find an environment almost identical to earth, complete with vegetation, trees, streams, farmhouses and a town seemingly lifted out of early 20th century America and plopped down on the asteroid. Stranger still, the town is populated with people (and dogs) who seem to the touch to be alive, but are frozen in place like waxwork statues.

One eerie tableaux that they stop to gawk at is an old-fashioned town hall crammed with exuberant, yet frozen supporters bearing signs and banners celebrating their new mayor, who, also frozen, is waving to them from the top of a staircase. Thoroughly mystified, they trade theories about what could be going on, from traveling back in time/space, to aliens setting up earth-like conditions to make them feel more at home (a la The Martian Chronicles), to encountering a civilization for whom time has slowed down to a crawl compared to the earthmen. One by one, they dismiss the theories.

Don Dubbins, Jeff Morrow and Kevin Hagen in "Elegy," The Twilight Zone, 1960
The trio of spooked astronauts (Don Dubbins, Jeff Morrow and Kevin Hagen)
are wondering what sucked all the life out of the party.
When they do finally meet a living, breathing inhabitant in the form of a gregarious old man (Kellaway), the explanation is mind-blowingly strange.

“Elegy” writer Charles Beaumont was an enormous contributor to and influence on the Twilight Zone, penning twenty-two episodes through the series’ six year run. (I will be looking at a couple more of his contributions in future posts.) His episodes were some of the more imaginative and less preachy of the series. Some were just plain macabre, and some darkly humorous. “Elegy” fits into the latter category, especially with the Kellaway character, whose folksy geniality masks a very surprising purpose (and a very menacing one as far as the astronauts are concerned).

There are some social messages in “Elegy,” but they complement rather than detract from the script’s weird atmosphere. One is the absurd lengths to which the fabulously wealthy will go to celebrate themselves. The other, more overarching one is voiced by the old man: “And while there are men, there can be no peace.”

Beaumont wrote quite a few television scripts in the ‘50s and ‘60s, including such series as One Step Beyond, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller. He also wrote adaptations for some of the more interesting horror films of the early ‘60s, including several of Roger Corman’s Poe-inspired films (Premature Burial, 1962; The Haunted Palace, 1963; and The Masque of the Red Death, 1964), as well as for the very creepy and underrated Burn, Witch, Burn (1962). Tragically, Beaumont died of complications from early-onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 38.

“Elegy’s” other gift to fans of B sci-fi movies are the recognizable faces of Kellaway and Jeff Morrow as one of the astronauts. Kellaway will forever be remembered as the endearing Prof. Elson in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Jeff Morrow lent his staid, serious demeanor to such ‘50s sci-fi classics as This Island Earth (1955), The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), Kronos (1957), and the unintentionally hilarious The Giant Claw (1957).

So how did I manage to miss this episode for all those years? It's not as if it's one of the handful of TZ "lost" episodes that didn't make it into syndication packages for legal reasons. I can't shake the uncanny feeling that in true Twilight Zone fashion, "Elegy" just blinked into existence the moment I clicked on the Netflix episode menu. Whatever the explanation, I’m glad I discovered it after all this time.

Next in Part 2, more Charles Beaumont weirdness from season two.