Friday, September 27, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "In Praise of Pip" (9/27/1963)



Season 5, Episode 1 (121 overall)
Cayuga Production #2607
Originally aired September 27, 1963


The Twilight Zone returned for its fifth season with a heartbreaking bang: Rod Serling’s “In Praise of Pip” is an aching study of a man’s love for his son, and the lengths he’ll go to save his life.



Max Phillips (expertly played by TZ favorite Jack Klugman) is a low-rent bookie, living in semi-squalor in a boarding house, marking time between drinks and letters from his son Pip, who is serving in Vietnam.  When he receives word that Pip has been injured in combat and is hovering between life and death, he revolts against his crime lord boss and gets a bullet for his trouble.  Wounded, he wanders down to the locked gates of a nearby amusement park and asks God for the chance to talk --- just talk --- to Pip.  This is only the setup; the real story takes place during act two, inside the amusement park, where an unexpected visitor awaits him.  


“In Praise of Pip” resides squarely in TZ’s gentle fantasy category (other occupants of this sub-genre include “Walking Distance,” “The Trouble with Templeton” and “The Fugitive”); it’s also one of the series’ subtlest outings.  It could be argued that the events in act two are simply hallucinations experienced by Max as he slowly bleeds to death. If we take the episode at face value and accept that God grants Max’s request (actually requests, plural), then we’re moving outside of The Twilight Zone and into fundamentalist Christianity (which my agnostic self refuses to allow for). I suppose that the fact that Max specifically calls on God doesn't necessarily mean that it’s God who answers, so it’s not necessarily a conundrum after all.  And ultimately it doesn't really matter: emotion is driving the story, not the entity stimulating said emotion behind the machinations.



There’s a nice montage featuring Max and Pip taking in the assorted pleasures of the amusement park (rides, cotton candy, etc). We’re reminded of the carnival in season one’s “Perchance to Dream”; here, however, the nightmarish aspect is confined to the House of Mirrors, and even that is ultimately more disorienting than frightening.




Max voices regret about all the times he flaked on his parenting time with Pip, which indicates that Pip didn't live with him, but it’s interesting to note that there isn't a single mention of the child’s mother anywhere in the episode. I suppose it doesn't change anything, since we’re really only interested in the father-son relationship, but just a quick reference might’ve been nice.  Is she dead?  Remarried? We’ll never know.




THE MUSIC



“In Praise of Pip” features an original music score by Rene Garriguenc (conducted by Lud Gluskin). It’s fairly generic aside from a couple of nice jazzy cues but, overall, it supports the drama well enough (I almost wonder if using stock cues from “Walking Distance” might’ve been more effective…?). You won’t find Garriguenc’s score on any TZ soundtracks; however, it’s conveniently included as an isolated music track on both the Definitive DVD and blu-ray releases on season five from Image Entertainment.





FAMILIAR FACES


“In Praise of Pip” is Jack Klugman’s fourth and final TZ appearance: he previously headlined season one’s “A Passage for Trumpet” (in which his Joey Crown is something of a dry run for his Max Phillips here), season three’s “A Game of Pool” and season four’s “Death Ship.” Klugman is my favorite actor to ever appear on the series, so I was naturally devastated when he passed away this last Christmas Eve.




Pip is played by Billy Mumy, who attained TZ Legend status with his portrayal of the Godchild Anthony Fremont in season three’s “It’s a Good Life” (he also appeared in season two’s “Long Distance Call”). Observing how much Mumy changed over those three appearances (see pic below) effectively underlines Max’s lament over how quickly his son has grown up.



Several other TZ vets are on display in "In Praise of Pip." Max’s boss Moran is played by John Launer, the Lieutenant Colonel in season one’s “The Purple Testament” (memorable for his unfortunate “War stinks!” line; Launer also provided voice work in “And When the Sky was Opened” and “Third from the Sun,” both from season one).  That’s Ross Elliot as the doctor who first examines Private Pip in South Vietnam; he appeared briefly in season four’s “Death Ship” as Kramer, the hunter in Lieutenant Carter’s vision of home (Elliot never crossed screen paths with Jack Klugman, however, who had the lead in that particular episode). And Russell Horton, who we saw in season three’s “The Changing of the Guard,” is effectively twitchy and pathetic here as ol’ black-eyed George (for whom Max takes the fateful bullet).


Kreg Martin is sufficiently menacing as Moran’s silent, unnamed gunman. This is his only TZ appearance; however, he appeared three times on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and three times on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  The IMDB only lists acting credits for him in 1962 and 1963, so he evidently came out of nowhere, scored a bunch of TV roles, and abruptly dropped off the face of the earth. I can’t explain why, as I couldn't find anything in the way of biographical info on him.  Anyone?



“In Praise of Pip” is probably the single most heart-wrenching (and tear-inducing) episodes of The Twilight Zone, and Klugman’s performance is truly transcendent. There are several episodes that I count among my favorite filmed productions of all time for various reasons (writing, cinematography, performance, etc), but this particular episode is one I identify with on a very personal and visceral level. As a parent who has watched his children transform into adults (in what feels like mere moments instead of years), I experience a nostalgic twinge whenever I see pictures or videos of them when they were small, and… well, I’m reduced to tears every time I watch this. No other episode in the entire series hits me this hard.

Me and my kids, Isaac and Sierra, circa 1995.






Serling’s daughter Anne recently published As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling, an autobiographical account of her relationship with her famous (okay, legendary) father.  She reveals that some of the dialogue from “In Praise of Pip” was directly inspired by exchanges between the two of them, adding yet another layer of bittersweetness to the proceedings.



“In Praise of Pip” is Serling’s last truly great Twilight Zone script, on par with the general excellence of his work in the series’ glorious first season. There are a few decent Serling efforts still to come, but they won’t reach the heights he achieves here. Truth be told, I wish this episode had been the final episode to be aired this season (which would've made it the series finale). It would've been a nice bookend to close out the series.



Next week:  A three-round bout featuring the original Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Bet a fin, take your seat and tune in.




Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Season 5 Opening Sequence


In a break with tradition, a new opening sequence was not created for The Twilight Zone’s fifth season (perhaps because the season four opening sequence had only been used for eighteen episodes, and they wanted to get their money’s worth). The existing opening was retained for the entirety of season five, which meant that it was attached to a total of 54 episodes, the most of any of the five opening sequences created for the series (season one had two, remember). Go here for the breakdown of the season four (and five) opening.


Left to right: season 1, season 1a, season 2, season 3, seasons 4-5.


Where season five differs is on the opposite end of the reel:  the end credits.



Gone is the starry black background; rather, an episode-specific still shot is used (as was the case for the first three seasons). An odious form of advertising appears this season: actual products (a tube of Crest toothpaste, a pack of Pall Malls, etc) are shown during the end credits of most episodes. These episodes find the end titles, normally centered on the screen, off-centered to create a dead area to accommodate the product on display.


Smoke up, Sulu.


In the case of "Spur of the Moment," a Red Cross ad is actually spliced directly into the end credits:



video



On the sonic end of things, Bernard Herrmann’s re-orchestration of Marius Constant’s TZ theme (from season three, detailed here) returns in shortened form, minus the ubiquitous “doo-doo-doo-doo” riff (it's "Milieu 2" on its own, without its usual partner-in-crime "Etrange #3"):



video



This version graces the end credits of 9 season five episodes:

In Praise of Pip
Steel
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
The Last Night of a Jockey
The Old Man in the Cave
Uncle Simon
The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms
Night Call
The Masks

As for the other 27 episodes, 26 of them feature a shorter version of the standard Constant theme which, despite being shorter overall, features a longer-than-normal chunk of "Etrange #3 (the aforementioned "do-do-do-do" riff). And finally, "Spur of the Moment" uses an even longer version of the standard Constant theme (to accommodate the Red Ad cross, shown above).

Got all that? Okay, bring on season five!


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Pwnd! (a discussion with the minds behind The Twilight Pwn)


I name-dropped a number of Twilight Zone podcasts in yesterday's entry, including the hilarious and highly entertaining The Twilight Pwn. I've had the honor of being mentioned twice on their podcast ("Twenty Two" on 6/18/13 and "Perchance to Dream" on 8/27/13), so it brings me great pleasure to return the favor, in a sense, and present the following Q and A with John and Fred, the masterminds behind the podcast.





Who the hell are you guys, anyway?

John: I'm John.  Fred and I were roommates in college. At the time, I had some of the Twilight Zone episodes on DVD and we would occasionally watch them together.  Many years later, I acquired the Twilight Zone complete definitive collection on DVD, but never got around to watching them.  Several years after that, Fred posted a picture from the TZ episode "Uncle Simon" on my Facebook wall and the germ of The Twilight Pwn was born.

Fred: I'm Fred.  


For our less-than-slang-savvy readers, explain what “pwn” means.

John: Pwn is internet slang that means to "own" something, which in turn means to "dominate an opponent." It can also be used after making a joke at someone's expense, in the way "Burn!" or "Faced!" might be used.

Fred: I think some kid was playing Halo online, killed his friend, and typoed "You got PWNED" and history was made.  We chose the name because it was the dumbest pun we could think of.  It sets the tone nicely for the show.  


There are so many TV shows that deserve ridicule.  What is it about The Twilight Zone, in your opinion, that makes it ripe for pwning?

John: I don't know if it's ripe for pwning per se. We didn't necessarily start the podcast with the intention of tearing the show down.  Frankly, the biggest allure of the name Twilight Pwn was that it rhymed with Twilight Zone. Generally, we're just interested in talking about the episodes and things we discover while searching around the margins of the episode's creation.  We try to do it with a lighter, more snarky tone I think (a) because that's where we're naturally more comfortable and (b) because Tom Elliott had already filled the space of a more serious, reverent Twilight Zone podcast (which we both agree is the gold standard of TZ podcasts).

Fred: I think, to "pwn" something, it helps if you feel a base level of affection for it.  If you're just ragging on something, it's mean-spirited.  Even the bad episodes of the Twilight Zone I feel a kind of fondness for (except "The Bard").  I also think the fact that it's an anthology show makes it fun each week - it would get old if it was just constantly pointing something funny out about a recurring character. 


Describe your workflow for producing the podcast, start to finish. Do you record several episodes at a time? How far in advance do you record them?  I suspect you’re in different cities when you record them, but I have no proof.

John: We are indeed in separate states - I in Texas and Fred in New York.  Generally, we watch the episodes separately and take notes. I grab sound clips to use during the show.  We also search through imdb and other sources to find out about the bios of the cast & crew and related trivia. Sources usually include Marc Scott Zicree's Twilight Zone Companion, Wikipedia, whatever Google searching will uncover (including one guy's wonderfully angry free market critique of "The Brain Center at Whipple's") and Fred's recently acquired 800 page book on Twilight Zone trivia.  We also write up our Serling intros separately, preferably well in advance, but sometimes minutes before the show records (as is probably obvious).  

At a pre-arranged time we call each other up on Skype and record the conversation. We then take turns editing the hourlong rambling conversation into 35 semi-coherent minutes.  On Thursday, we load it all up and send it out into the world. We have recorded multiple episodes in one sitting once or twice in an effort to keep current on our release schedule despite vacations, travels needs, etc. We don't want to disappoint the legions of fans.


Remember when Ross slept with that drunk girl while he and Rachel were “on a break”?  Was that really cheating?  I mean, really?

Fred: That's an interesting question.  It was not "cheating" in the technical sense of the word, but it was definitely a violation of the trust they had built up.  You can't really apply the rule of law to relationships, because emotional boundaries are much more vague and contextual than legal ones.  More to the point, I think the problem was that Ross' explanation ("We were ON A BREAK!") is so outward-looking.  It's an attempt to appear blameless in the eyes of society by claiming the literal definition of what constitutes cheating.  That works if all you're trying to do is not come across as a cad to your friends.  But if he truly wanted to repair the relationship, he should have acknowledged that he had done something insensitive.  

John: I don't think so, no. But really that is a discussion for our other podcast "The Pwn about Friends."


John has never, to my knowledge, given any episode a 10. Is he impossible to please?

John:  I gave a 10 to "Walking Distance" and took some heat for it. I am difficult to please, but am a sucker for all-things nostalgia.

Fred: Throw some sentimental calliope music, a carousel, and a young Ron Howard at John and he breaks into tears and starts handing out the 10s willy-nilly. 


What’s the hands-down shittiest episode of the series?  Of the ones you’ve seen, I mean.

Fred: The Bard. It's godawful. "The Brain Center At Whipple's" is pretty bad, but something about an hour of failed comedy is so much more painful.  

John: Episodes can be bad in different ways in the same way they can be outstanding in different ways. Some are bad, but funny (Whipple's), some are just mediocre and dull, and some are just irredeemably bad. Luckily, I don't think there's many TZ episodes that fall into the third category. I will say The Bard is easily the worst thing we've watched, but even it had a small, wonderful bit with Burt Reynolds. That said, I hope to never see it again.


Do you get any sort of monetary compensation for the podcast?  If so, I’m totally starting my own competing pwncast.

John: Ha. No, so far the Twilight Pwn is still in the red. We have not looked into ways to monetize the podcast. At our level, I'm not sure how realistic that would be. It'd be nice to one day figure out a way to cover our minor expenses, but I don't think most people think, "You know how I'm gonna make my fortune? By starting a Twilight Zone podcast."

Fred: No, but we do enjoy pretending that the world of Twilight Zone podcasting is a Bloodsportian battle for dominance.  If you want to enter the Kumite, bring it on I say.  You wouldn't be the first 'caster to test our mettle, only to fall away (*cough* Twilight Highlight Zone *cough*). 


Is this y’all’s first podcast? Will it be your last?

Fred: Yes and likely yes.  


Extra credit question: If a train leaves Boston at 1:35 pm due east under severe winter weather conditions, how many hamsters will fit on the roof of your local McDonalds?

John: Is it an African or European swallow?

Fred: The answer to your question can be found only in....the...well...you know, that zone.  




Thanks to John and Fred for indulging me. I fully expect every single reader of this blog (all 4.8 of you) to drop what you're doing and seek out The Twilight Pwn. Go, now!


Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Podcast Zone


Podcasting. It's the 21st century's answer to talk radio, only you aren't limited to sports, news, or advice for the lovelorn. For every topic, even the most specific of interests, there's undoubtedly a podcast only a Google search and a couple of mouse clicks away. Happily, The Twilight Zone is well represented in this arena. A quick search on iTunes reveals no less than five distinct offerings:




Tom Elliot's The Twilight Zone Podcast, originating from the UK, is a rather sober, quite intelligent episode-by-episode analysis. Half-lecture and half-fireside chat, it's probably the most scholarly of the podcasts I've sampled. After a prolific launch in May of 2012, Elliot has unfortunately slowed down considerably: he's only released three episodes so far in 2013, and he hasn't even finished season one yet. Still, there's a lot to enjoy here, and he certainly tops the bunch when it comes to prestige (his most recent installment found him interviewing Rod Serling's daughter Anne, so color me impressed as hell).

The oldest TZ podcast out there, Sharon Hawkins' Twilight Zone Club, launched in 2007. Sadly, it folded after a scant four episodes, so I'm not going to bother with it.

TJ's Twilight Zone, despite the logo, has nothing whatsoever to do with TZ, so don't waste your time.

The Twilight Highlight Zone, the newest offering on the block, is an interesting animal. Jeff Cork and Ben Hanson discuss five episodes per half-hour installment, which has allowed them to finish season one in two short months. Their enthusiasm is refreshing; however, the superficial, cursory nature of their program is frustrating to say the least. There's no time for any meaningful analysis, so really, what's the point?

Talking Twilight Zone is a fairly informal group discussion format, webcast live every two weeks, which debuted in 2009. They just finished season four's "Death Ship," so they're well on their way to completing the entire series. While I admire their efforts, I find their program problematic due to the terrible sound quality but, more importantly, I find the podcasters deeply annoying (particularly "Kitty"). 




My personal favorite TZ podcast is The Twilight Pwn, which launched in February of this year and is already 20% through the entire series thanks to its weekly release schedule. Eschewing episodic chronology for listener requests, they discuss each episode from a comedic standpoint. The uninitiated may mistake their efforts for mean-spirited condescension, but there's actually quite a bit of love for the show between the lines (and, in all honesty, there's quite a bit to make fun of throughout the series' run). Further, their tumblr page features various humorous tidbits to augment the 'cast. New episodes surface every Thursday. Do check it out.

I've actually toyed with the idea of launching a TZ podcast of my own but, frankly, it's a crowded field with more or less all the bases covered. Add in the numerous commentary tracks on the DVDs/blu-rays, and there's more than enough audio analysis of the series out there. And damn, I don't think I could take on that kind of commitment (I wouldn't be averse to participating in an existing podcast, though). Hey, if nothing else, you can read this blog out loud and imitate my voice.



Friday, September 6, 2013

The Workflow Zone





Twilight Zone fans know what Rod Serling’s workflow looked like: he’d lounge by the pool, basking in the Southern California sun, verbally composing his teleplays into a Dictaphone, which his secretary would type into script form. This is about as leisurely an approach as one can take, and I’m jealous as hell.  My workflow for writing this blog is nowhere near as relaxing and, as I’m about to relate, has mutated out of necessity a number of times since I started this thing four years ago.



In the early days, I did most of the work in my home office/mini home theater, which we'd built inside our garage. I had the complete setup: computer, big monitor/TV, blu-ray player, scanner, etc. Every facet of the blog was easily addressed in that one room: it was there that I screened the episodes, composed the blog entries, acquired the screen captures (directly from the Definitive Edition DVDs using a highly useful --- and totally free --- program called VideoLAN), took pictures of merchandise to be spotlighted and, finally, published each entry.  It all happened right there in that 8x8 tech-cave, and God, I loved that room.  Note the past tense there.


A confluence of unfortunate circumstances led to us losing our house, which subtracted my beloved office from my life. A dramatically inferior workstation was set up in a tiny kitchen nook in our new residence, which provided a place to pull screen caps but not much else, since it was a noisy, high-traffic area. Since I no longer had a private, quiet place to write, I began doing most of the writing at work. It was relatively quiet, and I always had time to kill (still do, actually). 

The kitchen nook, April 2010. Far less than ideal.

I got a new laptop* about a year after moving into our new digs, complete with a blu-ray drive. At this point (summer 2011), I set up a makeshift workstation in our den (which was fairly isolated from the rest of the house), at which I was able to both write the blog and pull screen caps (which, from then on, were sourced from the blu-rays instead of the DVDs, dramatically improving the image quality**). The den gradually became my new office, complete with a swanky turntable/liquor bar and lots of atmospheric candlelight, which I christened The Vinyl Lounge. For about eight months, I toiled in swanky style. Note the past tense there.


The legendary Vinyl Lounge, January 2012 (left: workstation, right: turntable/bar area across the room)

Things kinda went to hell around June of last year.  Our lease on the rental house was up, and since my wife had lost her job, we couldn't afford to renew it. Our marriage had deteriorated pretty severely as well, so we separated upon vacating the house.

If this trailer's rockin'... well, it's probably just the subwoofer. 

For the next four months (July-October 2012), I was holed up in an RV park deep in the forests of a tiny town called Boring, Oregon (the jokes just write themselves, don’t they?).  I wrote about this dark chapter in my life hereThe Twilight Zone was on a six-month hiatus for the entire second half of 1962, which meant no episodes were turning 50 during this time period. In all honesty, my depression was deep enough to preclude me from being productive anyway, so my blogging was sparse to say the least (I posted a paltry seven entries during this period). I spent most of my time drinking and watching movies on a setup which I christened The Endor Micro-Theater.

The Endor Micro-Theater, inside the RV.

My wife and I got back together on a trial basis at the end of October, so I moved in with her (she was sharing a house with some friends, renting what amounted to a large studio apartment, plus a separate bedroom for our daughter). The new workstation was essentially the same as the one I’d used previously in the Vinyl Lounge, without any of the swank or atmosphere (I also shared the desk with my wife, who was now a college student). My workflow for the abbreviated fourth season was as follows: I watched the episodes on my laptop during my lunch hours, during which I’d pull my screen caps. I also used the Notes app on my iPhone to record my vocal ramblings during my commute to and from work (which I detailed here). I wrote the entries themselves during my work hours, in between actual work-related tasks. I assembled and posted the blog entries at home, in the evenings or on weekends.  This system worked well for me (plus it gave me something constructive to do during my downtime at work, which is plentiful, often maddeningly so), and I fully expected to continue with this approach through season five. Note the past tense there.


My laptop died a painful, tragic death in early July of this year. I was suddenly absent the ability to watch episodes and pull screen caps during my lunch hours. Since we’re currently a one-income family, buying a new laptop was out of the question. There was no way I could possibly do it all at home, especially since my wife’s course load required massive amounts of computer time. It became apparent that the blog was essentially doomed; it would have to end a year early, incomplete. Further, there was absolutely no way I could manage my other blog, My Life in the Glow of The Outer Limits, which was to officially launch in September (to coincide with that series’ 50th anniversary). I began composing a final tearful entry, in which I’d explain the catastrophe and offer my heartfelt thanks to those who had embarked on this five-year mission with me (pardon the Trek reference), before closing up shop for good.




But you never saw that final entry, because I never finished writing it. And as you can see, this shop is still open for business. Like Kirk beating the Kobyashi Maru by modifying its parameters, my thoughts drifted beyond the geometric shackles of the proverbial box and hit upon another way.





It occurred to me in late July that, since I subscribe to Hulu Plus (which is a steal at $7.99 a month, by the way), I could watch the season five episodes on my iPhone during my lunch hours. I could continue writing the entries during my downtime at work (since I wasn’t using my laptop for that part anyway). I’d still have to do the screen caps at home, but moving that task to the end of the process would make it a much quicker job (I could essentially pre-pick the images I’d use).  To test this possible solution, I watched “In Praise of Pip" one day during my lunch hour. I made some mental notes, came back to work, and started writing the associated blog entry. I quickly realized that, at the advanced age of 43, making mental notes is a pretty unreliable method. Since I was already using my iPhone to watch the episodes, I couldn't use it to take dictation at the same time.





And then I dimly recalled having purchased a digital voice recorder some years earlier. I dug it out of my storage unit, threw in some fresh batteries, and voila! I was in business. I worked like mad all through August, getting as far ahead as possible (you know, just in case some other catastrophe might be looming on the horizon). As of right now, I've finished writing entries for the first thirteen episodes of season five (which takes me up through the end of the year) and, now that I’m four months ahead of schedule, I can slow down a bit. Relax. Reflect. Breathe.

  

This is my life in the shadow of The Twilight Zone. Chaos rules my personal life, I’m repeatedly beset with misfortune, and I’m regularly forced to find new tools and methods to get things done. Keeping the blog going has been much, much harder than it should’ve been, and I've certainly done my share of shaking my fist at the heavens in protest. But I’m gonna see this thing through to the end, goddammit, one way or another. And who knows? Maybe all of this has transpired for a reason.  Maybe I've been subtly (and sometimes, not so subtly) maneuvered here, to my current circumstance, by a force beyond my comprehension. Those friends I mentioned, the ones we’re cohabitating with?  They just happen to have a very nice swimming pool, and we've still got at least a couple of months of warm weather left…. and I have the modern equivalent of a Dictaphone…. I think you know where this is going.







* Yes, that's a picture of me licking my new laptop. It's a tradition started when I got my first laptop back in '06. Here's proof:



I certainly had more hair then. It had thinned a lot by the time I got the newer laptop in '11, and I imagine I'll be stone cold bald when I get my third one.... whenever the hell that might be. 


** You may be wondering how I’ll manage to acquire high-definition screen caps for season five, since my blu-ray drive died with my laptop.  I’m not aware of any software that allows screen captures directly from a blu-ray disc, so I used a marvelous program called MakeMKV to rip all 156 episodes in August of 2011, before I started spotlighting season three. I still have those ripped files, safely archived on an external hard drive, so this blog shall remain happily HD.