Archive for August, 2008

My Twilight Zone Top Ten (No. 6)

Back several days later than expected (sorry - blame World of Warcraft), and submitted for your approval…

6. Will the real Martian please stand up? (Season 2, 1961)

‘A wintry February night - the present. Order of events: a phone call from a frightened woman notating the arrival of an unidentified flying object, and the check-out you’ve just witnessed with two state troopers verifying the event, but with nothing more enlightening to add beyond evidence of some tracks leading across the highway to a diner. You’ve heard of trying to find a needle in a haystack? Well, stay with us now and you’ll be a part of an investigating team whose mission is not to find that proverbial needle - no, their task is even harder. They’ve got to find a Martian in a diner, and in just a moment you’ll search with them, because you’ve just landed in the Twilight Zone.’

Synopsis
A snowstorm forces six bus passengers to make a stop at a diner. But when the police arrive seven people are present - which one’s the Martian?

Review
Zone stories about people searching their own ranks for an outsider are nothing new. Season One’s rather harrowing The Monsters are due on Maple Street gave us a chilling snapshot of a small community falling apart when the folk suspect one of their own of being an alien. The twist of course is that they’re all 100% human, but the idea of a danger from within undermines them entirely. Will the real Martian please stand up? is wittier and less dark than that, but it adheres to the same basic premise. A diner contains seven passengers from a bus that has had to make its unscheduled stop due to a bridge being declared out of use during a snowstorm, yet there should only be six of them. One is a doppelgänger, a Martian in disguise. It’s up to the investigating troopers to discover the alien’s identity before the road is considered passable once again.

Will the real Martian please stand up?Having watched this episode on a number of occasions, I’m still hugely entertained by it. Partly this is due to the fact that none of the passengers really give anything away. It would be easy to label the bad-tempered businessman, the obvious baddie, as the Martian, but having also read and seen an endless number of murder mysteries over the years I have to consider that it’s very nearly always the one you least expect who is actually to blame. This episode isn’t a whodunnit. Not until its climax does the yarn give the merest clue over the Martian’s identity. It’s tempting to point the finger at wily Avery (Jack Elam) thanks to his bulging eyes and the fact he seems to take none of it seriously. But just as cuilpable is the beautiful Ethel (Jean Willes), or one member from within the two innocent couples. Everyone is a potential suspect. At one point, a girl accuses her boyfriend of missing a mole that she was sure he once had, and he doesn’t even turn out to be the alien!

Will the real Martian please stand up? is a great episode because it plays on the national paranoia of the era. With America engaged in Cold War antics against the Soviet Union, people were afraid of an unknowable foe, an enemy of untold might that could seek to undermine the good guys of the West in all kinds of ways, not least by infiltrating society at all levels. The alien doesn’t provoke any of the susipcion within the party of trapped passengers. It plays the part of an innocent traveller to perfection, being as human as everyone else as the collective finger is pointed at one of the group, and then another, and another. The unravelling of the party is such that the story doesn’t even need the occasional aural effect to take place. A jukebox starts playing a record all by itself. The lights flicker on and off. Sugar pots are violently spilled over. Yet you get the impression that everyone is spooked enough; this just adds to the creepy ambience, suggesting that the people are indeed being played by a presence more powerful than themselves.

If the episode has a weak spot, it comes with the conclusion. We get not one but two twists for our money, the second a bit on the unnecessary side as it was probably enough just to know the identity of the Martian. It’s good fun all the same, and the yarn features a very fine turn from classic movie villain, John Hoyt, who manages to be both irritated and composed as the denouement plays out all around him.

Posted on 15th August 2008
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My Twilight Zone Top Ten (No. 7)

Back a day later than expected, and submitted for your approval…

7. A World of His Own (Season 1, 1960)

‘The home of Mr Gregory West, one of America’s most noted playwrights. The office of Mr Gregory West. Mr Gregory West - shy, quiet, and at the moment very happy. Mary - warm, affectionate. And the final ingredient - Mrs Gregory West.’

Synopsis
A playwright possesses the ability to bring his own characters to life, much to the consternation of his wife.

Review
A nice change of pace arrives in the shape of A World of His Own. Despite featuring all the usual Zone staples, it’s an episode played very much for laughs, and it’s all the more welcome for that. Given the story is about a playwright, it’s nice to find that we’re watching a Zone that’s structured like a play. The action takes place on a single set, with characters wandering on and off as though working to stage instructions.

A world of his ownIn the yarn, Gregory West (Keenan Wynn) is first seen in the company of a lovely blonde woman, Mary (Mary La Roche). Rod Serling’s narration sets it up as though the latter is Gregory’s wife, but then a third character appears, and she’s introduced as Mrs Gregory West, Victoria (Phyllis Kirk). Convinced that her husband is having an affair, Victoria is understandably nonplussed when he tells her the blonde is merely one of a number of characters he has brought to life. Speaking into a tape recorder, Gregory can describe a person or an animal and then suddenly find them stood before him, whether it’s the homely Mary or even an elephant. ‘Uncreating’ them is just as easy - he simply cuts the piece of tape on which he has talked about the character and throws it on to the fire, extinguishing them instantly.

Even after he has explained all this to Victoria, going so far as to recreate his ‘bringing to life’ ritual as proof, she’s unconvinced, and it soon becomes apparent that this couple has no business being together. Gregory is quiet, bookish and mild. Victoria is ravishing in the aloof, ice queen kind of way that made Joan Collins a star. Over the course of the episode, she threatens to both have him committed and claim all his assets, an unwise move as it turns out that she too is a character Gregory has conjured up via the tape recorder and he can get rid of her any time he likes.

In the best bit, Serling himself turns up, delivering his closing narration. Describing the story as ‘purely fictional’ and ’such ridiculous nonsense’ he’s suddenly cut off by a very much still active Gregory, who shows Serling the tape that proves he too is a creation of the playwright’s. Angered at the narrator’s dismissal of his story, Gregory feeds the tape to the flames, at which point Serling looks resignedly at the camera, says ‘Well, that’s the way it goes’ and vanishes.

Gregory it seems is in control of the Twilight Zone, and his story is one of its finest. A comedy of manners that retains the essential Zone spirit, A World of His Own is a hoot and demonstrates the enormous flexibility of this series.

Posted on 6th August 2008
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My Twilight Zone Top Ten (No. 8)

Refer to the previous two articles for a longer preamble. Suffice it to say that anyone reading these words who hasn’t seen the episode of The Twilight Zone described below should stop once they reach the spoiler-free synopsis, catch the show and then come back and read the rest of the article. It really is that good (the episode, not the review).

Today submitted for your approval…

8. Living Doll (Season 5, 1963)

‘Talky Tina, a doll that does everything, a lifelike creation of plastic and springs and painted smile. To Erich Streator, she is a most unwelcome addition to his household, but without her he’d never enter the Twilight Zone.

Synopsis
A little girl brings her new doll home, but her stepfather doesn’t like it. The little girl thinks he doesn’t like her. The doll thinks it’s time to do something about that.

Review
As far as the more blatantly frightening Zones go, this has to be among the finest. Perpetually creepy, working on two levels and driven by its performers, Living Doll is riveting and scary as hell. Almost as scary as Talky Tina itself, in fact. With its little girl voice and outstretched arms, Talky Tina is still an object of fear, proving that dolls can be sinister as well as cute. This isn’t the only story about childrens’ toys that come to life and hurt people, but it’s certainly the most powerful.

Telly Savalas and Talky TinaTelly Savalas stars as Erich Streator, husband to Anabelle (Mary LaRoche) and stepfather to little Christie (Tracy Stratford). There are clear references to his inadequacy as a father figure from the very start of the episode. Trying to do the right thing by Christie, his temper drives her away and makes him an emeny of Tina, the talking doll Anabelle has bought for her daughter. When the family are together, Tina speaks in platitudes - ‘My name is Talky Tina, and I love you very much.’ Alone with Erich, her patter soon changes - ‘My name is Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you.’ He thinks Anabelle or Christie are playing a grotesque joke on him, but later he becomes convinced Tina somehow has a personality of its own, and resolves to destroy it. Only he can’t. His every effort is thwarted, all the while Tina promising him that he’ll be sorry.

On one level, the story can be enjoyed as it plays. Tina really is alive, and it’s out to get the rather odious Erich. However, there are clues in the episode that suggest otherwise. Christie and Tina are two names that could join together, suggesting the little girl and doll share one personality. Certainly, Christie has reason enough to attack Erich. He isn’t an especially nice piece of work, though it seems deep down he means well. A little girl wouldn’t necessarily see this, insteasd focusing on the anger and mood swings to transfer her dark desires into the body of her doll. This means that she can be innocent throughout, whilst Tina carries out all the dirty work.

Another theory is that Erich is doing it all to himself. There’s some deep self-loathing going on inside him, and it’s possible, at least until the very last scene, to suppose that this transfers itself into his imagined persecution at the hands of a small piece of plastic.

Living Doll is superb for what doesn’t happen rather than what does. We never see Talky Tina act on her own, save for twisting her head and delivering chilling pronouncements to Erich. When she finally does make him sorry, as promised, the moment doesn’t require any special effects, or for Tina to carry out any actual work on her own. Almost certainly, a scene showing Tina moving about independently would have dragged the episode into silliness. Instead, it’s a genuinely creepy finish. To add to the chill factor, June Foray was hired to provide Tina’s squeaky voice. Previously, Foray had done the same work for Mattel, adding vocals for real-life doll, Chatty Cathy, which was a big seller at the time this episode screened. It can only be imagined what contemporary audiences might have felt as they heard the murderous Tina use the same voice as the doll that had been part of their household for years.

Posted on 4th August 2008
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My Twilight Zone Top Ten (No. 9)

The Twilight ZoneTo celebrate one of the very best television shows in history (and because I’m off work this week), TBW presents a week of articles looking back over my personal favourite episodes from The Twilight Zone. These aren’t necessarily the ten best stories, more those that have gripped me the strongest - I’m sure your own top ten will be very different. Please feel free to comment and make your recommendation.

Though many of you will have seen these episodes previously, possibly on a number of occasions, I am aware there are those who haven’t, and I have structured these pieces with a short, spoiler-free synopsis at the start to whet your whistle. Afterwards, I go into a little more detail about the episode, discussing nuances of the plot that will almost certainly and unapologetically give away its intricacies - you have been warned! In any event, the Zone is available on DVD, and it’s easy enough to discover episodes on the Internet, where Google is always your friend.

So without further ado, submitted for your approval…

9. Nick of Time (Season 2, 1960)

‘The hand belongs to Mr. Don S. Carter, male member of a honeymoon team en route across the Ohio countryside to New York City. In one moment, they will be subjected to a gift most humans never receive in a lifetime. For one penny, they will be able to look into the future. The time is now, the place is a little diner in Ridgeview, Ohio, and what this young couple doesn’t realize is that this town happens to lie on the outskirts of the Twilight Zone.

Synopsis
A pair of newlyweds on their way to New York have to stop in a sleepy Ohio town when their car breaks down. As they wait for it to be repaired, they enter a diner and come across a ‘Mystic Seer’ napkin holder, which uncannily seems to be able to predict their future correctly. Does it? Or rather is it trapping the couple into relying on its enigmatic pronouncements?

Review
William Alan Shatner might be seen as a bit of a joke these days, a camp performer with great comic timing and clipped readings of dialogue, which to his credit he has played up to in his recent roles. His ancient turns in the likes of The Twilight Zone, however, show us a different Shatner entirely. Just like his landmark starring performance in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, he carries this slight tale on his broad shoulders, putting in a fine piece of acting as a seemingly level-headed man whose veneer cracks as soon as he is given the opportunity to hand control of his life away.

William Shatner boldly doesn't goShatner is only one of the reasons for loving Nick of Time. Another is that it’s a perfect yarn for the Zone’s slim 25 minutes format. It covers a very specific situation, introduces two main characters and tells us as much about them as we need to know in order to get along. Unless you find soothsaying machines with little snaggle-toothed devil heads atop them the height of scariness, it isn’t a particularly sinister episode. And the twist is that… well, there isn’t one!

Instead, the show offers a psychological snapshot and asks some really interesting questions. As Don (Shatner) feeds the little machine with dimes, getting answers for his trouble that are open-ended enough to be interpreted just about any way he likes, the premise demands the level to which we want, even need somebody/thing else to be in control of our destiny. Is the machine almost a mirror of religion? After all, cynics would have it that Christianity is a smokescreen, a demand that innocent people put their lives in the hands of a higher being that may not even exist.

Even without that subtext, the episode is pretty chilling. Don is finally prised away from his growing obsession with the machine by his new wife, Pat (Patricia Breslin), but it’s a close run thing. They exit, finally seen driving out of the town, and at the close of the episode, another, older couple enter the diner. They huddle by the soothsayer and ask it whether today is their chance to leave. It’s obvious they’ve been there for years, their lives now completely in thrall to a cheap contraption that seems to provide all the answers.

It’s a rather silly concept, yet one that becomes quite earnest when taken too far. We as viewers might smile knowingly at Don’s predicament. The machine appears to know that he’s due for a promotion (he goes so far as to call the office and find out for himself) and that Pat and he might be in danger if they leave the diner (they do go out, only to narrowly avoid getting run over when they dash across a street). And yet the cards it expels, carrying their oblique messages, really could mean anything, and it’s Don himself who fills in the blanks. Watching their predicament, we can chuckle over Don’s naivete, but are we really so different, when we see something that resonates in a random newspaper Horoscope, or look for sequences that could reveal the winning numbers in the National Lottery? The truth, as ever, is in a realm that will ever be known as the Twilight Zone.

Posted on 3rd August 2008
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My Twilight Zone Top Ten (No. 10)

The Twilight ZoneTo celebrate one of the very best television shows in history (and because I’m off work this week), TBW presents a week of articles looking back over my personal favourite episodes from The Twilight Zone. These aren’t necessarily the ten best stories, more those that have gripped me the strongest - I’m sure your own top ten will be very different. Please feel free to comment and make your recommendation.

Though many of you will have seen these episodes previously, possibly on a number of occasions, I am aware there are those who haven’t, and I have structured these pieces with a short, spoiler-free synopsis at the start to whet your whistle. Afterwards, I go into a little more detail about the episode, discussing nuances of the plot that will almost certainly and unapologetically give away its intricacies - you have been warned! In any event, the Zone is available on DVD, and it’s easy enough to discover episodes on the Internet, where Google is always your friend.

So without further ado, submitted for your approval…

10. The Howling Man (Season 2, 1960)

‘The prostrate form of Mr David Ellington, scholar, seeker of truth and, regrettably, finder of truth. A man who will shortly arise from his exhaustion to confront a problem that has tormented mankind since the beginning of time. A man who knocked on a door seeking sanctuary and found instead the outer edges of the Twilight Zone.’

Synopsis
Twenty years ago, a man who finds himself lost and caught in a storm comes across a remote castle. This is occupied by an enigmatic Brotherhood, a religious order, who claim to have locked up the Devil. However, the prisoner tells a very different story.

Review
It isn’t hard to be drawn to stories about the Devil, just as in the episode Ellington (HM Wynant) is tempted into seeing and ultimately freeing the prisoner, despite the best efforts of the Brotherhood and in particular Brother Jerome (Horror veteran John Carradine) to persuade him otherwise. As in every Zone yarn, there is an underlying theme, and in The Howling Man it is that of temptation. It’s obvious who the prisoner is from the moment Ellington first meets him, and when Jerome explains the identity of the howling man to him we know he’s telling the truth. The episode isn’t a guessing game, nor is there a typically Zone twist e.g. I half expected Ellington to turn out to be an acolyte, when in fact the story isn’t really interested in delivering that kind of plot-driven revelation. The theme is strong enough to pull the tale along, suggesting that people are drawn inevitably towards evil. It’s in our nature, and just to underline this the Devil is freed twice during the course of the episode.

John Carradine as Father JeromeIt’s only once the yarn reaches its conclusion that the subtlety of various elements within it start making sense. Carradine appears to give an overly mannered performance as Jerome, reaching Biblical levels of over-acting when describing his exploits in capturing the Devil. It doesn’t help that he actually looks like a Hestonesque Moses. Later, you realise that Carradine intentionally played him that way. You’re supposed to believe that he’s a bit of a nutter, and that the prisoner - who tells Ellington he’s been locked away for kissing Jerome’s sweetheart, and that the order is ruled by insanity - is completely rational. Indeed, considering he’s the prisoner, the Devil (Robin Hughes) delivers an altogether quieter and less bombastic turn, howling aside. This helps to expand on the theme of temptation, the prisoner working deviously on Ellington’s innate sense of right and wrong in order to get himself released.

When Ellington is alone, the camera is placed at an askew angle, filming at a diagonal to heighten the character’s feeling of disorientation and confusion. It’s only when he is with Jerome or the prisoner that it rights itself, as though these figures offer a degree of clarity, and even then this isn’t always the case. Of course, Ellington eventually frees the prisoner, which turns out to be pathetically easy - he’s bound symbolically rather than by chains and locks. It’s then we get to see the ragged, bearded figure’s transformation into Satan, a masterpiece of revelation and make-up (he becomes more ‘Devilish’ every time he walks behind a column on his stride towards freedom). Though the Devil in his real form conforms to stereotype images, all theatrical cloak and horns, it’s an impressive effect. Naturally, he’s far scarier when all you get as a clue is his incessant howling.

The Howling Man was written by Charles Beaumont and adapted from his own short story. Originally, it was envisioned that the Devil was to be imprisoned by a crucifix, but concerns over upsetting the religious community meant this was changed into the ’staff of truth,’ which actually ends up conjuring a much more subversive image.

It really is a fine little tale, which ends on a devastating note. Having spent 20 years tracking down the Devil who he originally freed, Ellington finally imprisons him once more. The story of their meeting is told in flashback, to a chambermaid, when Ellington reveals that thanks to his action World War II and the Korean War have taken place. As soon as he leaves to contact Jerome and let him know he’s recaptured the Devil, the chambermaid instantly sets him loose.

Posted on 2nd August 2008
Under: Telly | 2 Comments »

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