Friday, March 30, 2012

TZ Promo: “The Little People” (3/30/1962)

Season 3, Episode 28 (93 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4822

“Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

That’s Henry Frankenstein (as played by Colin Clive), ecstatically reveling in his successful reanimation of a corpse, in James Whale’s 1931 film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That quote could just as easily have come from The Twilight Zone episode “The Little People,” in which a man assumes the role of god over an entire race of alien beings.

50 years ago tonight, we met Fletcher and Craig, deep space explorers who set down on a rocky planetoid to repair their rocket ship. While Fletcher toils, Craig wanders off and discovers a civilization of tiny people, which he promptly asserts his complete and utter dominance over. The unfortunate titular populace (whom we never see) erect an impressive statue of him to honor him and, when the ship is fixed and ready to depart... well, Craig’s not sure he’s ready to walk away from his new-found deity status.

Serling comes dangerously close to plagiarizing himself in this episode. Craig shows up after several hours of exploring the surroundings, but his canteen is still full. Fletcher gets ready to pound him, forcing him to fess up about his discovery. It’s almost a word-for-word rehash of the same scene from season one’s “I Shot an Arrow into the Air.” Another example of the show parroting itself as it ages.

The episode evokes earlier episodes on a visual level as well. The rocky environment reminds us of multiple episodes shot in and around Death Valley, California (though “The Little People” was shot entirely on a soundstage). The full-sized rocket ship mockup looks familiar to the one used in season one’s “Elegy,” but I’m not convinced it’s the same (a quick review shows that we never see the lower half of the ship in that episode, so who knows?). The uniforms worn by Fletcher and Craig were also worn by Allenby and his crew in season one’s “The Lonely” (coincidentally, one of the Death Valley-shot episodes). And speaking of uniforms…

Forbidden Planet alert! The uniforms worn by the, um, two other guys that show up at the end (I’m trying hard not to spoil it) were worn by the intrepid crew of the United Planets C-57D Space Cruiser in the 1956 film.

Both leads are TZ veterans. Claude Akins previously waggled his disapproving finger in season one’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (in which Earth is invaded by human-looking aliens), while a more sedate Joe Maross co-starred in season one’s “Third from the Sun” (in which human-looking aliens escape their doomed planet TO earth).

The Showtime revival of The Outer Limits in the 90’s (of which I'm NOT a fan, incidentally) blatantly ripped this episode off for its pilot episode “Sandkings,” in which a scientist becomes an overlord of sorts to miniature aliens, who erect sand sculptures in his image (yeah, I’d call that a pretty damned blatant rip off). It was adapted from a 1979 novel by George R.R. Martin, which was much more elaborate (and not nearly as similar to “The Little People”). I’m not holding him responsible here.

“The Little People” is a bit derivative, but it’s still pretty decent, thanks to the fine performances by the leads and cool visuals (a couple of which I’m not discussing, since they’ll ruin the surprise). Not top-tier Zone, but definitely worthwhile.

Next: Heh, speaking of the show parroting itself!

Friday, March 23, 2012

TZ Promo: “Person or Persons Unknown” (3/23/1962)

Season 3, Episode 27 (#92 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4829

“You see, this man you think you are… he doesn’t really exist, except in your mind. Whether whole-cloth or from people you’ve met, you’ve invented him. There is no David Andrew Gurney.”

That’s a psychiatrist named Dr. Koslenko, rather unsympathetically telling patient David Gurney that his entire life is in fact an elaborate hallucination. Gurney has landed himself in the psych ward after waking up to find that nobody --- wife, friends, coworkers --- recognizes him. It’s not that he’s some sort of imposter in someone else's shoes…. He, as he knows himself, doesn’t exist, period.

“Person or Persons Unknown,” while pretty effective on its own, feels overly familiar. It’s a deft mash-up of previous TZ entries, predominantly season one’s “A World of Difference.” The scene in which Gurney calls his mother, only to learn that she has no idea who he is, is straight out of season one’s “And When the Sky Was Opened” (coincidentally, Charles Aidman was the victim that time around; we just saw him last week in “Little Girl Lost”).

The real joy of “Person or Persons Unknown” lies in Richard Long’s performance in the lead as the beleaguered Gurney. Probably best remembered for his work on TV’s The Big Valley, Long is just plain likeable. He assumes, as most of us probably would, that his identity crisis is in fact an elaborate joke. As things become progressively direr, he comes to believe that it’s instead an elaborate conspiracy. He never once questions his own sanity until the very end, when writer Charles Beaumont turns everything on its head for the sake of a shock ending and never explains a goddamned thing. Watch Long’s face positively crumble when…. well, you’ll see. Long will return to The Twilight Zone in season five’s “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You.”

What’s really happening here? We’ll never know. Is it an interconnected series of nightmares, a la season two’s “Shadow Play?” Is it a Lynchian* study of the precariousness of identity? I dunno. If this episode appeared early in the series, I’d feel inclined to examine it more deeply; however, coming late in season three, it feels derivative and a bit lazy. But it’s undeniably fun, thanks to Long’s spirited performance. It’s by no means a total loss; however, given that the great John Brahm directed it, it should at least be more interesting to look at. I guess maybe that’s more the fault of D.O.P. Robert W. Pittack, who subbed for George T. Clemens that week.

Next week: “The Little People” defies the law of gravity and common sense… and worst of all, never once shows us an actual little person, dammit.

* Lynchian, as in film director/auteur/genuine weirdo David Lynch. See Lost Highway and/or Mulholland Dr. for a nice surreal mindfuck.

Friday, March 16, 2012

TZ Promo: “Little Girl Lost” (3/16/1962)

Season 3, Episode 26 (#91 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4828

50 years ago tonight, a little girl fell out of her bed, rolled underneath, and… vanished. As a parent, the idea really hits home: any time your kid isn’t where they should be brings on a visceral and immediate sense of dread. “Little Girl Lost” opens with this powerful and promising idea but, unfortunately, things get kinda dicey from there. We discover that she’s passed through an invisible porthole into another dimension. “Probably the fourth,” muses her father’s friend, who is conveniently a physicist who knows exactly what to do in situations like this.

Okay, so what exactly is the fourth dimension? Algebraic geometry gives us the concept of Euclidian space. Physics, meanwhile, combines space and time to give us the Minkowski continuum. The fourth dimension, according to The Twilight Zone, is a topsy-turvy hallucinatory clusterfuck with distorting mirrorballs, twinkly stars and smoke effects. Oh, and things apparently rotate at random in there (we see both Tina and her Dad in various stages of upsidedownery). It appears to be some sort of parallel earth with a different set of physical laws, but there’s no indication that it contains life of any kind (there does seem to be oxygen present, conveniently enough). It’s basically the realm of the bad acid trip. It’s also really stupid looking.

Richard Matheson adapted his own 1953 short story, which was collected in his 1957 anthology The Shores of Space. My worn copy is pictured above (it’s actually the 2nd printing from 1969; sue me).

“Little Girl Lost” is one of the better-remembered (and well-regarded) episodes of The Twilight Zone, but I’ve never really warmed to it, and not just because of the poorly conceptualized (and even more poorly visualized) fourth dimension. My other main complaint pertains to the actress playing the mother. Ruth Miller (as played by Sarah Marshall) is a shrieking, panic-laden mess who contributes nothing positive to the proceedings (but definitely ratchets up the tension quotient considerably, and not in a good way). TZ certainly has its share of men slapping women, which I most certainly do not condone, but I wouldn’t have minded it so much here. Anything to shut her up, dammit.

Oh, and for some ungodly reason the child’s dialogue is overdubbed by an adult impersonating a child. Why? I have nary a clue, but it's completely unconvincing. Hey, at least it ain't June Foray.

That's Charles Aidman in the foreground. Ignore the dunces in the background.

Charles Aidman, however, is pretty great as Bill the physicist. Calm and collected, he carries the entire episode himself in spite of the other, um... actors. Aidman previously appeared in season one’s “And When the Sky Was Opened” (where he was equally excellent, albeit a bit upstaged by the brilliant Rod Taylor), but his TZ affiliation doesn’t end here. He’d go on to play faux-Serling as the offscreen narrator of the 80’s revival of The Twilight Zone (aka The New Twilight Zone) on CBS (it should be noted, however, that the bastards running that show didn’t even give him onscreen credit for his services until the show’s abbreviated second season).

I do have to give props for the cool effect in which Aidman feels the wall behind the child’s bed, looking for the portal to god-knows-where, and watches calmly as his hand passes right through the wall, right before our eyes, with no cuts or postproduction trickery. The family dog runs through the porthole too, but it happens off camera, which is a bit of a cheat.

If there’s one thing that really works about this episode, it’s the frankly spectacular original music score by Bernard Herrmann. Utilizing harps and viola d’amour (played by Virginia Majewski, who also performed on Herrmann’s score for the 1954 noir thriller On Dangerous Ground), the music is positively overflowing with a dizzy, alien eeriness that is somehow beautiful and unsettling at the same time. It almost makes the silly fourth dimension visuals work… almost (Bennie had a real talent for elevating mediocre material with his music). Herrmann’s score has never been properly released (vinyl, cassette, CD or iTunes), but it can be obtained via the isolated music track on both the DVD and blu-rays of season three from Image Entertainment. I should also note that Herrmann received screen credit at the start of act one (along with writer Matheson and director Paul Stewart) instead of during the end credits (as was customary). This is the only time this was done in the entire series, and no other composer was more deserving.

The core plot of “Little Girl Lost” (in which a little girl is pulled into another dimension by forces unknown) was more or less cribbed by Steven Spielberg for his 1984 film Poltergeist. Funny, he kinda cribbed last week’s episode too (“The Fugitive,” which is basically the same story as E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial). Sheesh, wotta hack.

Bottom line: "Little Girl Lost" is way overrated. Does it suck? Not exactly... but it'll never be a favorite of mine. Still better than almost anything on TV these days, I guess. And hey, who knows? Maybe my viewing of it tonight, on its 50th anniversary, will change my mind. At the very least, that uncompressed audio on the blu-ray should make Herrmann's score sound better than ever...

Next week: “Person or Persons Unknown” steals Richard Long’s identity for no apparent reason. It’s like UPN’s Nowhere Man, but way shorter.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Season 3 Theme Music Revision (1962)

Those who lamented (or continue to lament, to this day) the switch from Bernard Herrmann’s moody theme music to the frenetic, bouncy (and, admittedly, much more famous) offering by Marius Constant starting with The Twilight Zone’s second season should get a kick out of this.

When Herrmann was called in to score season three’s “Little Girl Lost" (which we'll be spotlighting on Friday), he went the extra mile and re-recorded the Constant theme (both opening and closing pieces) with decidedly different instrumentation; hell, “decidedly different” is putting it mildly. Check it out:

Pretty wacky, eh? Brittle, electronic... it almost sounds like an Esquivel recording. I like to think that this was Herrmann’s way of thumbing his nose at Constant for supplanting him as the show’s theme music provider (Herrmann was certainly known for not always playing nice). Cayuga apparently liked his rendition enough to switch over to it for most of the remaining season three episodes.

Herrmann's take on Constant's end title music, meanwhile, survived for a mere five weeks before Constant's recording was reinstated. Here it is:

Interestingly, a number of season five episodes contain a variation on Herrmann's version of the Constant end title theme, but it sounds like different recording. I have no idea where it came from... but hey, we'll deal with it when we get to season five (Autumn 2013!).

Friday, March 9, 2012

TZ Promo: “The Fugitive” (2/09/1962)

Season 3, Episode 25 (#90 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4816

"It's been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things: science fiction, the improbable made possible; fantasy, the impossible made probable. What would you have if you put these two different things together?”

…asks Rod Serling in his opening narration for “The Fugitive,” one of the brightest spots in the increasingly uneven landscape of The Twilight Zone’s third season. Written by Charles Beaumont and directed by Richard L. Bare, this heartwarming offering turns 50 tonight.

Ben is a friendly old codger who spends his days playing with neighborhood kids and keeping a watchful eye on Jenny, a disabled orphan who lives with her mean aunt Mrs. Gann (she’d fit right in with the evil aunts in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach). Ben and Jenny, as performed by J. Pat O’Malley and Susan Gordon, share an innocent but powerful bond. Ben is the parental figure Jenny lacks, but it’s more than that: she passionately adores this charming old man who is clearly more than he appears.

Ben can transmogrify into different forms, as we see in the episode’s prologue sequence (a masterfully staged scene that, in a brief couple of minutes, establishes the tone of the story to follow). He becomes a fearsome space monster to entertain the neighborhood kids; later, to evade the mysterious men looking for him, he’ll change into a mouse, then a housefly. Finally, he’ll become… well, I’d hate to spoil the delightful surprise that the episode’s climax brings.

Ben’s alien monster disguise, with skin that looks to be composed of rock fragments, is an impressive design. It manages to still look like Ben (well, an Asian caricature of Ben) despite the utterly inhuman appearance (thanks in large part to an upper lip piece that resembles his big mustache). Bang Bang Pow!, if you’re listening, this would make an awesome action figure (or bobblehead, or both). C’mon, if you’re going to make action figures of the Frisby alien and the Cyclops alien (both vastly inferior to this), you’ve gotta tackle Old Ben’s monster disguise. Pretty please?

I've gotta mention the cool device that both Ben and his pursuers wield. Whatever it is, it seems capable of both harming and healing. The design is whimsically retro-futuristic, which fits into the proceedings perfectly.

In animated form, “The Fugitive” would be right home among the classic animated films of Walt Disney, with its troubled female protagonist, magical sidekick, wicked aunt, propulsive story and happy ending. It’s a warm, sweet tale with just enough intrigue and peril to keep things balanced. It’s a complete success, not quite in my top 20… but damned close. My 11 year-old Kendyl has never watched The Twilight Zone, since she eschews black and white films and TV shows (I’m telling ya, this generation is doomed), but I’m gonna show this one to her whether she likes it or not. I have a feeling she’s gonna love it.

Next week, “Little Girl Lost” asks the age-old question: If a little kid can fall into another dimension just by rolling under her bed, is it okay for me to shove my wife under there too?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

TZ Promo: “To Serve Man” (3/02/1962)

Season 3, Episode 24 (#89 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4807

“This is the way nightmares begin… or perhaps end: very simple, direct, unadorned. Incredible, and yet so terribly real that even while they are happening, we live them, digest them, and assimilate them.”

That’s Michael Chambers, who we meet lounging uncomfortably in a small compartment in a spacecraft. Chambers is addressing us in voice-over, one of the only times in the series’ five-year run in which a character provides narration (off the top of my head, this device was also used in season two’s “King Nine Will Not Return” and season five’s “The Long Morrow;” there might be a couple others). But it gets better: at the end of the episode, Chambers will break the fourth wall and actually look directly at us while he speaks. Cool!

“To Serve Man” is one of The Twilight Zone’s best-remembered (and most notorious) episodes, and it’s really pretty impossible to discuss it without spoiling the surprise. I’ll try, but I make no promises. Written by Rod Serling (adapted from a short story by Damon Knight; Serling adapted many stories in the show’s third season; a sign of his growing fatigue as the show’s primary contributor of scripts) and directed by Richard L. Bare, “To Serve Man” tells the tale (in flashback) of earth’s first close encounter with an alien species, and it’s a doozy.

The Kanamits arrive en masse and do NOT attack. Rather, they guide the nations of the earth to near-immediate world peace. Almost overnight, hunger, famine and war are rendered obsolete. Diseases are cured, military forces are disbanded, and an apparent new millennium dawns. The Kanamits proceed to institute an exchange program, in which thousands of earthlings make the long space voyage to their home world for a visit.

Spoiler alert: they ain’t coming back.

The side story involves a team of government code crackers, led by Chambers (well played by Lloyd Bochner, with that wonderful voice of his), who are charged with decoding the alien’s language. Their only help in this endeavor is a book, left behind by the Kanamit who addresses the United Nations upon arriving. Halfway through the episode, they decipher the book’s title: To Serve Man. It appears that the Kanamits are just as altruistic as they appear.

You know the punchline. I don’t need to say it.

The various Kanamits seen in the episode are played by Richard Kiel (all 7+ feet of him!), who is probably best known as the villainous Jaws from the James Bond film series. My pal Bill Huelbig scored me an autographed picture of Kiel a few months ago; it’s worth sharing again:

Oh, and for the second week in a row, the series graces us with a TZ babe. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Susan Cummings!

I have one gripe about “To Serve Man,” and it’s admittedly pretty minor. The Kanamits do not speak with their mouths, since they communicate telepathically, which means that their dialogue was recorded separately and added in post-production. Joseph Ruskin, whom we saw in season two’s “The Man in the Bottle,” provided the voices, but he isn’t the problem. The issue is a technical one; specifically, the quality of the recorded dialogue is downright terrible, muffled and hard to comprehend (oddly, Bochner’s voiceover narration sounds crystal clear). Perhaps this was an intentional effect designed to make the Kanamit voices sound strange, but the execution just plain sucks. It sticks out like a sore thumb, especially within the otherwise-clean remastered audio found on the blu-ray set.

“To Serve Man” makes effective use of Jerry Goldsmith’s scores from previous TZ offerings “The Invaders” and “Back There.” This may be the only time in the show’s five-year run that a stock-scored episode pulled all its music from a single composer’s work. Both Goldsmith scores have been released multiple times on both vinyl and CD, but unfortunately every single release is now out of print. But fear not! The scores can be found on Image Entertainment’s season two Definitive DVD set (and it’s more recent blu-ray counterpart). Oh, and the specific cues used in “To Serve Man” are of course available on the season three set(s).

Forbidden Planet alert! While the flying saucer shots are culled from the Ray Harryhausen classic Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, the life-sized underside of the ship and retracting stairway ramp is a leftover chunk of the United Planets C-57D Space Cruiser. We’ve seen this set piece before (in season one’s “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”) and we’ll see it again (in season four’s “Death Ship”). Man, Forbidden Planet is the gift that just keeps on giving.

The Kanamit, one of my favorite aliens from the entire series, has been well-represented from a merchandise standpoint. Sideshow Collectibles released an amazing 14" deluxe action figure around ten years ago (I have it, but I've never opened it... I was planning on unveiling it for my planned "Kanamit Week," which fell through. My Kanamit is in storage someplace... one of these days I'll dig it out and spotlight it). More recently, Bif Bang Pow! has released (or is about to release) five distinct Kanamit-related items: Kanamit bobblehead (black and white or limited edition color variant), Kanamit action figure, Kanamit lunchbox, and a Kanamit cookbook journal. There's also a "To Serve Man" apron (available here) that I'd love to get my hands on one of these days.

What can I say? “To Serve Man” is an absolute classic, brilliantly executed and frankly unforgettable. It’s attained pop culture immortality and, as such, has been endlessly parodied in film and TV (most notably on The Simpsons, which has spoofed many TZ episodes over the years). It’s the “Eye of the Beholder” of season three, no question, and it lives quite comfortably in my top ten favorites list.

Next week, “The Fugitive” introduces to a kind alien, beloved by children, on the run from ominous men in black. Steven Spielberg totally ripped it off when he made E.T., but the original is better. Tune in.