One of the new traditions that I appreciate is the TV show marathons some channels have on holidays. New Year’s Eve and Day on the Sci Fi Channel is a non-stop Twilight Zone marathon, playing in the background.

It’s odd watching shows you think you know by heart after seeing reruns ever since grade school. It’s easy to dismiss them when you know all the “surprise” endings, and Sturgeon’s Law applies of course. The majority were not all that great, but some had a power that made them cultural icons. It wasn’t the repetition that made them part of our memories, it was the strength of those few that got all of them repeated again and again and again.

Case in point: the one that is on as I’m typing this. “Third From the Sun.” Everyone knows the ending; its become a part of the mass culture like Grimm fairy tales. You don’t even remember when you first saw it, its like you’ve always already seen it. Like nursery rhymes and fairy tales, you can’t remember when you first heard them or even if you really did, you just pick
them up through osmosis. “Time enough at last.” Oh yeah — Burgess Meredith, nuclear war, broken glasses. Bummer. Third from the Sun. Imagine a time when that title didn’t give the ending away, when most people didn’t incorporate the Solar system in their world view.

Watching it today is an education in film making. The lighting is moody, utilizing faces lit from underneath and the deep shadows you only get from B&W. If you look carefully you will notice that every frame is skewed, the camera is never level or aligned normally. Wide shots are often from floor level, ceilings appear lower than normal. Even in close-ups you can see the background is tilted. Sometimes the effect is enhanced by the camera being aligned with the actor with the background tilted.

Right now the episode on is “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Another well-crafted piece. Think of it as a cascade experiment with mass hysteria.

You have to do some mental time travelling to appreciate Zones properly. Try to imagine a time when no one ever saw that story before. A time before Shatner was Shatner. I can vividly remember the night “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was first on for me. Living in Brockton. Lugene was babysitting. Had salisbury steak for dinner in front of the TV. Sure, the monster was a lame albino gorilla suit, but the atmosphere was electric. Pure magic.

Most of the best Zones were classic sci fi and fantasy stories in their first incarnation. Check out the credits sometime. Very often the original story was adapted for TV by the original writer. I credit The Twilight Zone for lowering the barricades at the sci fi ghetto. It mainstreamed themes and conventions that were segregated in the magazines in those dark days before there was a sci fi section at the chain bookstore.

The circle of writers that made some of the best Zones called themselves the Green Hand, and were later dubbed the California Sorcerors. Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, Ray Bradbury (in the avuncular role), Earl Hamner Jr. and always always the brilliant, doomed Charles Beaumont farming out ideas to younger writers as his faculties closed down on him. Others in the circle include Robert Bloch and Harlan Ellison. Of course, Rod Serling churning out an avalanche of stories with the occasional gold in the dross.

Let’s see, which Zone taglines need no expansion? Which have become part of mass culture?

  • “Time enough at last.”
  • “There’s a man on the wing!”
  • “It’s *good* that you did that Anthony.”
  • “It’s a cook book!”
  • “That one. The third planet from the sun.”
  • “Room for one more, honey.”
  • “People are alike all over.”
  • “Next stop, Willoughby.”
  • “Kick the can.”
  • “He came in, fell asleep on the couch, then jumped through the window.”
  • “Fr-ank-lin (chi-ching)!”

Or the visual kickers:

  • The bandages are removed and it’s everyone else that is hideous.
  • The caricature face of Cliff Robertson as a ventriloquist dummy.
  • The hitchhiker.
  • The mad look on the face of the double at the bus depot.
  • A normal day at the office interrupted by a director calling “Cut!” and the set opening up.
  • The physicist-next-door outlining the opening into the fourth dimension on the bedroom wall in chalk.
  • Lights coming on and engines starting on Maple Street.

It’s hard for me to imagine what a shock The Twilight Zone was when it first appeared. Rod Serling was at the height of his career, a TV writer that was getting his award-winning teleplays adapted into films. Known for tackling big subjects and challenging the status quo, and apparently abandoning it all for a half-hour weirdo show.

Serling stated that part of the inspiration for “abandoning” “serious” work was the effort it took to get anything controversial on TV against the pressure of censors, standards and sponsors. He had an epiphany during a story conference for a story about racial tension in America, when it occurred to him that if he changed the setting to the future and the tension between different species he could say what he wanted to say and pass under the sponsor’s radar. It was “just” science fiction, nothing to worry aboutor keep a close eye on. The hip would get it and everyone else would only see the surface they expected. I dig that a lot.

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