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The Twilight Zone 3.24 – To Serve Man

You might ask yourself, wasn’t our son a little young to start watching The Twilight Zone? And honestly, there have been times that the cultural divide of nearly sixty years has seemed awfully vast for such a small boy, but I wanted to get started when he was six because the twist of “To Serve Man” is one of those that just about everybody learns before they actually see the story.

I’m genuinely curious, readers. If you’re in your forties or younger, did you ever get to see this unspoiled? It’s like the end of Citizen Kane. If you didn’t see this in the sixties, you heard the twist before you could see it.

And so I thought I was able to sneak this under the bar and apparently I failed. Our son exclaimed “I knew it! I knew it!” And this is not how he responds to the devilish twists of The Twilight Zone. He insisted that he knew where this one was going as soon as he heard the title. So this morning, I was looking over a gargantuan list of movies and TV shows that have referenced the Kanamits’ cookbook. It’s in Madagascar. Madafreakinggascar! My wife was hurrying to finish making her lunch and get out the door. “Has he seen Madagascar in afterschool care?!” I grumbled. “That would explain it,” she said. “He did seen very sincere last night.”

And to think I gave that dumb movie a pass for the wonderful gag about flinging poo at Tom Wolfe!

Anyway, the surprisingly large cast of “To Serve Man” includes Lloyd Bochner and Susan Cummings, with Richard Kiel as the main Kanamit and Joseph Ruskin, uncredited, as the alien’s voice. The screenplay was written by Rod Serling from a story by Damon Knight. Some of the special effects were repurposed from Ray Harryhausen’s 1956 movie Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, which is a much better movie than you’d expect from one with a name that silly. It’s a pretty good episode.

You know, I’ve held off showing him Planet of the Apes because the gorillas are so amazingly cruel. I’ll try to accept the probability that some fool cartoon with breakdancing pigs or linedancing antelopes has referenced the end of that one as well.



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The Twilight Zone 3.14 – Five Characters in Search of an Exit

“Five Characters in Search of an Exit” is by some measure my favorite episode of this series, but I’ve never enjoyed it so much as I did tonight, as our son tried figuring it out. He was so excited as the stranded characters stand on each other’s shoulders to climb out of their prison that he couldn’t sit down any more. The tension was unbelievable! And he summed it up by saying “That! When I found out where they were, that was, that was just so crazy!” It really is just about the best twist ending in anything, ever.

The characters are played by Clark Allen, Kelton Garwood, Susan Harrison, Murray Matheson, and William Windom. The screenplay was written by Rod Serling from a short story by Marvin Petal. It is a wonderful half hour.

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The Twilight Zone 3.8 – It’s a Good Life

I amused myself last night by telling our son, who, like little Anthony Fremont, is six, that this episode of The Twilight Zone is about a boy who can have everything that he wants, only it’s told from the adult’s perspective. He puzzled over what that might mean while I chuckled.

The really interesting thing about watching Bill Mumy’s star turn in “It’s a Good Life,” written by Rod Serling from a short story by Jerome Bixby, in the company of a six year-old is comparing Anthony’s utter lack of emotional maturity with our boy’s. Our son, of course, has been told “no” many, many times. He watched in real fascination as this horrifying story unfolded, with John Larch and Cloris Leachman absolutely riveting in their portrayals of parents crippled with fear at what their son has become.

“One teeny thing I like about The Twilight Zone is that it teaches you a lesson,” our son offered unexpectedly. We talked a little bit about how important it is to be told you can’t do something, and to understand why, when possible. I’m sure that won’t keep him from wishing we could be teleported into some cornfield the next time that we tell him he’s had enough screen time for the day, but maybe he’ll not judge us too harshly now that he has seen what can become of kids who get absolutely everything that they want.

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The Twilight Zone 2.29 – The Obsolete Man

I knew going in that “The Obsolete Man” was probably going to be a little over our six year-old’s head. I also knew the blasted kid would fail to recognize Burgess Meredith yet again, and I was right. Rod Serling’s story is a warning about a totalitarian state which, having proved that God does not exist and books are unnecessary, has begun a long purge of citizens who do not contribute to society. Librarians like Meredith’s character are in line to be “liquidated,” leading to a war of nerves between Meredith’s character and a State chancellor played by Fritz Weaver.

The concept was a bit heady for him, although drawing a comparison to the original film of Logan’s Run, which, honestly by chance, he rewatched just a couple of days ago, helped him understand that this is one of those stark and awful futures where the government decides who lives and dies and the people just go along with it. He was still a little thrown by the visuals, though. The librarian’s apartment is handled simply enough, but the State office is a minimalist nightmare with a towering podium. It is designed and lit like something from German expressionist cinema; the citizens who pass judgement on their fellows’ obsolescence move like dancers hired for an experimental theater production. It’s very exciting to see something that looks so thunderously strange and written with such anger and passion shown on a major network.

I was very pleased to hear him quizzing his mommy about what he’d seen. They had a good discussion about the value of people. This was a very worthwhile half-hour.

That’s all from the second season of The Twilight Zone, but stay tuned! We’ll be looking at some highlights from season three in March.

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The Twilight Zone 2.28 – Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?

There are a couple of more obvious visuals that one might provide to illustrate the famous and delightful Rod Serling story “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?,” but I didn’t want to be obvious. Even though one photo of Barney Phillips is so iconic that it’s used as his main biography picture at IMDB, I think there may yet be one or two people in the world who don’t know where this episode goes. They even use the photo as the illustration in the DVD booklet! Life is full enough of spoilers, and the ending is so amusing that it should have been kept a little more secretive.

I had hoped that our son might play along and try to guess which of seven bus passengers stranded in a rural diner called the Hi-Way Cafe might be a space alien, but he didn’t. He was more concerned about why the Martian landed his ship in a pond. It just goes to show you, sometimes there’s a deeper mystery to consider than the one that the program makers wish for you to ponder.

Anyway, other than Phillips, this episode features a small cast of notable actors, including John Hoyt and Jack Elam, who’s aggravatingly blocking a funny little sign promising buttermilk hot cakes for 60 cents in the picture above. You could add ham or bacon for fifteen cents more. Coffee is a dime a cup, and they charge for refills. Does anybody remember paying a buck forty for fourteen cups of coffee? Sometimes the past isn’t just another country, it’s another planet. Mars, probably.

Elam also namechecks Ray Bradbury when the state troopers foolishly let everybody know that they’re looking for a space alien. Bradbury would contribute a teleplay to The Twilight Zone‘s next season, which of course we plan to watch. Look for that in the spring. And, in a funny but still disagreeable moment, those Oasis cigarettes that we talked about last time make an in-story appearance, where one of the characters comments on their pleasant taste. Maxwell House should have sponsored that dime-a-cup coffee, so somebody could note that it’s good to the last drop.

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The Twilight Zone 2.24 – The Rip Van Winkle Caper

Overall, I have been much, much happier with the season two episodes that I selected for us to sample, but I had to hit a loser eventually. In Rod Serling’s “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” Oscar Beregi Jr. and Simon Oakland are among a group of four criminals who heist a train and go into suspended animation for a century to avoid detection. Weirdly, Serling didn’t do anything with the resulting situation that even required suspended animation and de facto time travel, just the desperation of criminals in the desert. There are some good performances – Oakland’s character is remarkably vicious – but I was left wanting them to get on with it and check out the world of the 2060s already.

By far the most interesting thing about the presentation was seeing Rod Serling endorse Oasis cigarettes after a preview of next week’s installment. Evidently, Oasis offered “the softest taste of all.” It doesn’t quite have the “I can’t believe I just saw that” cache of the Flinstones hawking Winston cigarettes, but it was an oddball little surprise. Since so many of these sponsorship ads from the period were trimmed from the films for rebroadcast, it was nice to see this in such splendid quality! Although clearly Oasis should have enlisted the services of the Flinstones because they still make Winstons, unfortunately, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Oasis before this evening.


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The Twilight Zone 2.23 – A Hundred Yards Over the Rim

And then there was that time that Batman’s enemies Shame and the Riddler teamed up and got lost in Arizona.

How funny! I picked some of these episodes because of the guest stars, and as you may know, I have a fondness for the actors who would later play Batvillains on ABC. I didn’t expect to run into two of them together! Cliff Robertson, on the right above, has the lead role in this time travel tale by Rod Serling, but John Astin, who played the replacement Riddler in season two when Frank Gorshin wasn’t willing to return, also has a small part in this story. Familiar sixties teevee faces John Crawford and Ed Platt also appear.

Stories that are set in the past are a stumbling block for our son. I think this is because the reality of modern television means that kids have 24/7 TV intended for them, and made within the past decade, and set in a contemporary or futuristic world. If you remember when we were kids, there was only a small window of children’s programming each afternoon, and a chunk of that was probably an hour of Tom & Jerry and Woody Woodpecker shorts made for audiences in the 1930s and 1940s that were set all throughout history.

If we were watching TV outside that window, we’d see things like The Rifleman or The Big Valley or Bonanza because there were a thousand episodes of westerns available, cheaply, to small TV stations, and kids could follow these simple and straightforward stories. Sure, we’d rather be watching Star Blazers or The Space Giants in the afternoon, but in the seventies, there was a whole lot less programming available. So if any of us, then, were to tune into this Twilight Zone, we’d have enough background to understand what this wagon train was doing in the desert.

Our son had absolutely no idea. He interrupted very early – before Rod Serling’s introduction in fact – to say “Wait. I don’t understand what’s happening.” I stopped and gave him a quick history lesson about the dangers of crossing the desert in the pre-railroad days, so he got that this took months and was incredibly risky. He really enjoyed this episode, in large part because Cliff Robertson is completely excellent and convincing as a stranger in a strange land. It still blew our son’s mind to imagine a world before power lines, but he learned a little bit. It’s always nice when TV’s actually good for something. Idiot box, my eye!

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The Twilight Zone 2.19 – Mr. Dingle, the Strong

This blasted son of mine watched the Batman story “Fine Finny Fiends” literally three days ago and he still didn’t recognize Burgess Meredith, who made his second Twilight Zone appearance in this delightful little comedy. I figured he was due something light after the last two super-creepy episodes of the show, and since rain killed our hiking plans this afternoon, it’s a good day to sit around and watch a little classic TV.

While Meredith and Don Rickles are the most recognizable faces in this cast, there’s a deep bench of character actor talent in this story. James Milhollin, Michael Fox, and Eddie Ryder are also in this story, although sadly it was the final part for Douglas Spencer, who died before the episode was first broadcast. That’s Spencer above as the Martian’s left head and arm, turning a ray on the incompetent vacuum cleaner salesman Mr. Dingle, giving him the strength of three hundred men. Dingle is another of Rod Serling’s quiet and well-read everymen. We learn little about Dingle beyond his poor salesmanship and his appreciation of Abner Doubleday. A similar production today would probably have the Dingle character more familiar with a tawdry reality show than the alleged origins of baseball.

The sight gags are really quite funny in this episode, with some clever special effects and cute ideas for how Dingle will demonstrate his new Samson-like powers. Naturally, he wastes this gift, but there’s a cute little twist in the end and he gets a fabulous vocabulary. If you enjoyed Meredith’s command of seventy-five cent words as the Penguin, the audiences of 1961 got a sneak preview of it at the end of this story!

We were also amused by the very, very end of this story. Most of the episodes on the “Complete Definitive Collection” DVD contain the original sponsor tags and quick reminders to check out other CBS programming “on most of these stations,” often advertising CBS’s flop sitcom My Sister Eileen. This one, though, contains a blurb for The Andy Griffith Show, which debuted that season (1960-61). I told our son that the little boy in the boat is Ron Howard, the man who directed the next Star Wars movie, and he just fell over.

Huh. We’ve got seven movies to watch before Solo is released. Probably better get started on those.

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