by Timothy Lane
In 1959, the occasionally distinguished TV writer Rod Serling came up with an anthologyTV series (such shows were popular in that era) that combined elements of science fiction and fantasy (he was a fan of Ray Bradbury, one of whose stories would eventually be used in the series) with the sort of odd endings made famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s TV series.
My father was himself a reader of science fiction and fantasy, so perhaps it was no surprise that we at least occasionally (and maybe more often) watched the show. I definitely recall seeing the original pilot and many other episodes from the first 2 seasons (after which we moved to the vicinity of Athens, Greece because of his new posting as Assistant Army Attache, and they didn’t have TV there at the time). Later I saw a few of the last year’s episodes after we returned, and later still I saw most of the rest in syndication. There were also various books (including comic books) which presented TZ-type stories. (It was in one of those comic books that I first read about Lincoln’s famous dream of going through the White House, where they were mourning the death of the President.)
The Twilight Zone dealt with ironies. One interesting third-season episode, “Hocus Pocus and Frisby”, features Andy Devine as a teller of tall tales that fool some visiting aliens into thinking he would be a worthwhile acquisition. He eventually defeats them and escapes – but, of course, everyone thinks his (for once real) story is just another of his tale tales. And, of course, there was the first year episode “Third From the Sun” (based on a story by Richard Matheson, who also wrote many episodes himself for the series), in which two families decide to escape an impending World War III – as it turns out, to Earth.[pullquote]“The Eye of the Beholder” was poorly executed; it involves a woman undergoing surgery to get rid of her deformed appearance, and at the end it turns out that she’s very beautiful (played by Donna Douglas, better known since as Elly Mae Clampett) and the “normal” people have pig snouts.[/pullquote]Two episodes I want to discuss here are a pair that dealt with similar themes. In the second season, “The Eye of the Beholder” was poorly executed; it involves a woman undergoing surgery to get rid of her deformed appearance, and at the end it turns out that she’s very beautiful (played by Donna Douglas, better known since as Elly Mae Clampett) and the “normal” people have pig snouts. But this had required carefully keeping their faces in shadow, which made it very obvious that something of the sort was going to happen. Perhaps hoping to make it more significant, they ended it with the leader making some bombastic pronouncement about their glorious conformity even as the woman is taken to a woman of snoutless people (which probably is a good outcome for her).
In their final season (and one of those episodes I remember seeing after we returned from Greece) there was “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You”, an even more crushing view of conformity. This features a future utopia in which people receive a transformation that gives them prolonged life, but also turns them into one of a small number of body types. It’s also a very superficial society. One girl, on the cusp of the transformation, doesn’t want it; she doesn’t reject such benefits as the prolonged life, but she wants to be herself. There’s a lovely scene in the middle in which a doctor says they need to find out what makes her feel that way – and remove it, a thought that horrifies her. Eventually, trying to escape, she somehow ends up in the transformation room and somehow is carrying one of the body types, with the expected result. At the end, her family and her best friend meet her, and the girl comes out, gushing to her friend that “the best thing about it” is that she looks just like her. Individuality has been crushed. Strangely, Serling then weakened this message by having her preening in a mirror and talking about the desire to be attractive – though her problem had never been such benefits, but merely the loss of her own individuality (both in appearance and mindset).
Rod Serling was a liberal, but one of the old-fashioned types who really believed in both freedom and equality, and rejected both Nazism and Communism. A good example of the transformation of modern liberalism can be seen in Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion, a fine work with much useful information about the series, but marred by the author’s extreme political correctness. When an episode showed Mexican villagers reacting in panic to an alien, Zicree angrily criticizes this as vicious; but when ordinary Americans react that way in several episodes, he sees nothing wrong. When Communists come off badly in any way, he is critical of the Cold War attitude; but repeating the standard view of Nazism never impresses him as banal in any way. He also has the peculiarly ironic liberal hostility to authority figures, perhaps best demonstrated in his comments on an episode called “One More Pallbearer”, in which Joseph Wiseman (soon to play Dr. No) is a super-rich individual seeking a petty revenge on 3 people who punished his misbehavior in the past.
Long after Serling died, the series came back to life, at least for a while (naturally, I watched it, but it generally wasn’t quite up to the quality of the original). There had also been a movie, which combined
an interesting short lead with 4 episodes, of which 3 were based on original series episodes (and in one case – “Kick the Can”; Serling seemed to have a very strong nostalgic bent, though he could also mock it a bit as in the excellent first-season episode “A Stop at Willoughby” – was actually a thematic improvement over the original). There was also a magazine, which carried a lot of interesting (including the first appearance of Lois McMaster Bujold, who has since become a very distinguished science fiction/fantasy author). All that is long ago, but many of us still have our memories. • (2072 views)