Friday, January 31, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Black Leather Jackets" (1/31/1964)

Season 5, Episode 18 (138 overall)
Originally aired 1/31/1964
Cayuga Production # 2628

50 years ago, The Twilight Zone continued its slide into oblivion with something truly…. weird. Oh, and stupid too.

Suburbanite Stu Tillman is annoyed by his new neighbors, three leather-clad motorcycle riders whose elaborate rooftop antenna array is interfering with his TV reception. When he goes to bust their chops about it, they telepathically change his disposition. Back at home, he vacantly tells his wife that the new neighbors are “nice boys.”

But they aren’t. They’re invaders from an unspecified planet, one small cell in a large force planning to eradicate mankind by poisoning the earth’s water supply. The youngest of the three, Scott, starts hanging around Ellen, Stu’s daughter and, as he gets to know her, he starts thinking twice about their mission. Maybe humans aren’t the self-destructive, godless cretins their research has indicated.

The night before the worldwide poisoning, Scott confesses the whole thing to Ellen who, thinking he’s off his nut, relays the story to her father. Stu, still hypnotized into thinking the best of the alien thugs next door, calls the police in an earnest attempt to “get that boy some help.” The sheriff, however, has been replaced with another invader. Scott is apprehended without incident, and the invasion commences.

Earl Hamner Jr.'s “Black Leather Jackets” is hands down the weirdest, wackiest episode in the entire series; however, compared to The Outer Limits (which around the same time was airing its wildest and woolliest entries, “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” and “ZZZZZ”), it seems pretty tame. By TZ standards, however…. well, it's quite jarring after almost five years of conservative urbanity.

Often in these types of stories, the invasion plan is full of exploitable inexplicable holes (honestly, many Outer Limits invasion tales, particularly the aforementioned “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” and "The Mice" are guilty of this). Surprisingly, this invasion plot, essentially a silent affair without bloodshed or planet-wide destruction, is actually pretty ingenious. Where it gets stupid is the hilariously unsilent manner with which our trio goes about its business, with its loud motorcycles and confrontational behavior… unless they’re using some kind of alien reverse psychology approach, which I suppose is possible. They don’t seem like dangerous extraterrestrials… they just seem like assholes who speak in 60’s lingo (in his "next week on The Twilight Zone" preview at the end of last week's episode, Serling called them “beatniks” and “raunchy-looking characters”). So yeah, maybe it’s intentional. If so, the episode isn’t as stupid as I want to think it is.

The episode would work immeasurably better if the invaders masqueraded as everyday ordinary guys. Well, they could still be dicks (which would preserve the initial conflict with Stu), but subtract the leather jackets and the motorcycles (and the horrendously dated “Daddy-O” dialogue), and you've got a much more convincing story. Actually, replace the biker trio altogether with a nice couple and their teenage son, and you've got something even better… nobody’s gonna suspect em, right? Nope, we get brash, obnoxious proto-Fonzies instead. But, no matter what, it’s fun. Goofy, eye-rolling fun. Part of the fun is the relative lack of campiness, which one might expect from a story like this: the actors play their parts earnestly, without eye-winking or in-joking, as this TV equivalent of a 50’s-b-movie-slash-60's-teen-rampage-flick unfolds.

And it’s worth noting that, while it’s certainly not the first alien invasion the show has done, it doesn’t shamelessly rehash previous episodes (like many season five efforts do). So at least it’s got that going for it. And I do like the big communications center, just sitting there in any otherwise empty house, and the fact that we only see one eye of the Imperious Leader-type that our invaders report to (why? Who cares? It looks cool!). And look! The aliens even have their own insignia!


“Black Leather Jackets” features an original jazz score by Nathan Van Cleave. Like all fifth season original scores, it’s never had a soundtrack release; however, unlike most of them, it’s NOT available as an isolated track on the DVD and blu-ray releases. The only way one can possibly hear Van Cleave’s score is to actually watch the episode and try to ignore the hep-cat dialogue. For a TZ music collector like me, this is a major drag, man.


Scott is well-played by Lee Kinsolving in his only TZ appearance; he’d also appear the same year on The Outer Limits (in “The Guests,” which turns 50 in March). Despite his talent, Kinsolving’s acting career was brief: he retired from Hollywood after a scant eight years. Ten years after "Black Leather Jackets" aired, he passed away from a rare respiratory illness. He was only 36 years old. I was going to make a joke about the hazards of being a leather-clad street biker, but it suddenly seems callous.

The lovely Shelley Fabares plays Ellen Tillman in her only TZ appearance. This is the only sci-fi/fantasy credit on her considerable résumébut she did co-star in three Elvis Presley films, which I guess is sorta tangentially related to the whole 60’s “Daddy-O” vibe on display this week. It’s a stretch, I know. Maybe I just wanted a reason to show her in a bikini. She is undoubtedly a TZ Babe.


Michael Forest plays Steve, one of Scott’s biker alien peers. Interestingly, he played outlaw biker Zeno in 1972’s The Dirt Gang, a role which “Black Leather Jackets” undoubtedly prepared him for. Forest’s other genre credits include appearances on Star Trek and One Step Beyond, but I know him best from his work on The Outer Limits (“It Crawled Out of the Woodwork”).

Michael Conrad plays Deputy Harper in his only TZ appearance, but he does have another (extremely tenuous) Rod Serling connection: he appeared in an episode of TV’s Planet of the Apes in 1974 ("The Tyrant"), a series which was based on the 1968 film of the same name… which Serling co-wrote.

Finally, Wayne Heffley is easy to miss as an uncredited mover here, but he was much more visible (and he did receive credit) as 2nd Officer Wyatt in season two’s “The Odyssey of Flight 33.”

“Black Leather Jackets” is stupid, but entertaining. Given some of the shitty episodes coming up, however... well, it’s hard to hate it. Turn off your brain and enjoy it.

Next week:
TZ alum Gladys Cooper is getting obscene phone calls. Okay, maybe they aren’t
exactly obscene, but they’re definitely creepy.*

* For real this time!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" (1/24/1964)

Season 5, Episode 17 (137 overall)
Originally aired 1/24/1964
Cayuga Production # 2618

50 years ago tonight, The Twilight Zone offered us a chilling glimpse of the future, where beauty really is only skin deep.

Marilyn is a troubled teen. She’s reached the optimal age to receive The Transformation, a government-sponsored program in which citizens are given beautiful faces and bodies. Those around her pressure her to choose a pre-designed model (her mother is Number 12, while her best friend Val is Number 8), but she fears the loss of individuality that will inevitably result. The Transformation is supposed to be optional, but nobody seems willing to let her remain herself.

Lana, Marilyn’s mother, finally sends her to a psychiatric clinic in the hopes that she’ll come to her senses. After an unproductive session, Marilyn attempts to sneak out… only to accidentally wander into the operating room, where the doctors are waiting to Transform her.

Lana and Val anxiously await her emergence. Marilyn bounds in the waiting room, full of smiling, empty joy. She’s now a Number 8. “And the nicest part of all, Val,” she coos, admiring herself in a mirror, "I look just like you!"

The smiling, vacuous characters surrounding Marilyn are similar to the denizens of François Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: bereft of depth, relentlessly pro-conformity and chemically propped up. Their society has reached something of a zenith in plastic surgery technology; the next logical advancement would be in utero genetic intervention (a concept explored in 1997’s Gattaca, whose "Invalid" characters are those who haven't been genetically altered). In our world, however, I’m betting we’ll be resequencing DNA and predesigning babies before we ever figure out to perfect a boob job with no visible scarring.

I can’t help but imagine what lies behind the curtain of this future society. What kind of government are we dealing with here? I assume it’s some kind of dictatorship, given the push toward conformity (I’m reminded of The Leader’s speech in season two’s “Eye of the Beholder,” which shares common themes with this episode). I understand the overmedication approach, since a happy populace isn’t likely to ask questions or rise up against The Powers That Be. But why is it necessary to cosmetically modify the citizenry? It’s clearly a form of control, but to what end? They aren't all identical, since there are several “models” to choose from, so the goal isn’t absolute physical conformity. I dunno, maybe I’m looking too deep, when I should really just focus on the surface… wait, did someone slip some Instant Smile into my beer?

The costumes and décor have a nice retro-futuristic flair; however, the lighting and staging of the episode is a fairly flat affair. That all changes in act two with Dr. Sigmund Friend’s shadowy office, which looks like something straight out of German expressionism (Friend’s German accent no doubt contributes to this). The institute's vast hallways appear to be the same as those seen in “The Long Morrow” two weeks ago.

The episode's teleplay is based on Charles Beaumont's 1952 short story “The Beautiful People.” However, like all Beaumont-credited episodes this season, he didn't actually write the teleplay: this one was written by John Tomerlin. Unlike other examples of Beaumont using ghostwriters, both get screen credit here.


The episode is stock scored; most of the music heard is from Bernard Herrmann’s “Brave New World” suite, which was originally composed for a radio adaptation of the Aldous Huxley classic. The suite was first released by Cerberus Records as part of their 1986 vinyl album Bernard Herrmann: Music for Radio and Television. It subsequently showed up on CD on Bernard Herrmann: The CBS Years Volume 2: American Gothic from Prometheus Records.

We also get a few snippets from Fred Steiner’s score for season two’s “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” which actually coexist quite nicely with the Herrmann stuff.


Collin Wilcox is quite good as Marilyn in her only TZ appearance. Wilcox is best remembered as Mayella Ewell, who falsely accuses Tom Robinson of rape, in the 1962 big screen adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (which featured several TZ alums, among them William Windom, Robert Duvall, Frank Overton, and Mary Badham). She played a similar white-trash-type of character in “The Jar” on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1964, which was written by Ray Bradbury and featured an original music score by frequent TZ contributor Bernard Herrmann.

TZ Babe alert! The lovely Suzy Parker is a treat for the eyes as the titular #12, the model inhabited by several characters in the episode (most notably Lana Cuberle, Marilyn’s mother). Parker would cross paths with Rod Serling again in 1970, in Night Gallery segment “The Housekeeper.”

Richard Long returns to The Twilight Zone as #17, which seems to the model every male in the episode chooses. We last saw him in season three’s “Person or Persons Unknown.”

And while Pam Austin (#8) doesn't seem to have any other genre connections, I'm gonna mention her because, yes, she's a TZ Babe (I'm assuming--- okay, hoping--- she was 18 when this episode was filmed).

“Number Twelve Looks Just like You” is a high point of The Twilight Zone’s fifth and final season. It succeeds as an effective meditation on beauty and conformity (and serves as a perfect bookend to season two’s “Eye of the Beholder”); however, on a more, ahem, surface level... well, it’s just plain fun to watch. You might say it brings an Instant Smile to my face.

Next week:
If The Fonz was from outer space… and there were three of him…

Friday, January 17, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross" (1/17/1964)

Season 5, Episode 16 (136 overall)
Originally aired 1/17/1964
Cayuga Production # 2612

I recently turned 44, which isn’t terribly old in the grand scheme of things, but I’m experiencing some fairly significant hair loss. It really bugs me to see older men --- like really old --- sporting full heads of hair. They’ll probably be dead within a few short years; meanwhile, I've still got a few decades left, during which I’ll continue to lose hair. It doesn’t seem fair, dammit. Old men don’t need hair in their twilight years; in fact, it’s kinda strange to see an old man who isn’t balding. They’d probably prefer to live longer and have less hair, given the choice, and I’d happily trade a few of my years for a thick, lustrous head of hair. Sounds like an equitable trade to me.

Fifty years ago tonight, a man inexplicably gained the ability to make such impossible trades. “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” is exactly what it sounds like: the titular Salvadore Ross uses his newfound supernatural bartering talents to better himself. 

Sal is aggressively courting Leah; it’s not a matter of love, it’s a matter of possession. He makes no attempt to hide it, either: “I want her,” he unabashedly tells Leah’s disapproving father. Leah, however, has standards when it comes to choosing a mate, and the crude and directionless Sal doesn’t measure up. Sal angrily punches a wall after she breaks things off with him and ends up in the hospital.

He’s kept overnight for some reason (did a broken bone really require an overnight hospital stay back in the 60’s?), and is roomed with an old man with the flu. They joke about trading maladies and, the next morning, Sal is shocked and delighted to discover that his hand is healed, but he has a cold. The old man objects; his new broken hand will never heal, given his advanced age. No take-backs, Sal decrees as he leaves.

Sal then uses his new talent to systematically improve himself: he sells his youth for a vast fortune, then regains it by buying time from others, a year at a time. Soon he’s young again (but still quite rich) and back on Leah’s scent. She’s still not interested, though, seeing as how he lacks the non-material qualities she prizes most: kindness, selflessness, compassion.

When we next see Sal, he’s a changed man. Leah sees the change and relents; he is the man she wants after all. Her father will have none of it, and pulls a gun on Sal. Sal begs for him to show him mercy and compassion, to which he coldly replies: “Compassion? Don’t you remember? I sold it to you yesterday.” He pulls the trigger.

Written by Jerry McNeely from a short story by Henry Slesar, “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” is one of the better offerings of the fifth season despite the ridiculously implausible and confusing ending. Leah is convinced that Sal has evolved into a man worthy of her love… in a single day? Sal’s proven himself to be a manipulative bastard in the past; she has no reason whatsoever to think he’s not simply putting on an act. Why does Sal ask Mr. Maitland for compassion when he knows for a fact he no longer possesses it? Does the acquisition of compassion somehow impair his memory? And if Mr. Maitland is the upright saintly type we've been led to believe he is, why would he ever sell his compassion --- his defining, honorable trait --- to anyone, especially a slimeball like Sal? It’s sloppy, expedient and… yes, another example of the dreaded deus ex machina. The end renders everything before it moot.

If there’s one thing I like about the ending, it’s that it serves as a nice bookend for season one’s “The Four Of Us Are Dying,” which also ends with Don Gordon getting shot by an old man. But that ending was organic and jibed with the events that preceded it; I guess we can argue that cosmic justice is indeed served here by Sal getting blown away, but at what cost? A good man (Mr. Maitland) is now a soulless shell of a man (and will almost certainly go to prison for murder), and the innocent Leah just lost the man she loves and her father in one shot (har har). If this is cosmic justice, it’s hugely skewed.

But “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” is still an entertaining episode, thanks largely to the great cast and the clever story (up till that ending, that is). The concept of buying and selling years is a fascinating one: the 2011 sci-fi film In Time uses this idea as the basis for its parallel-earth society, the citizens of which have built-in bio-clocks that keep them frozen at the age of 25 forever… as long as they continually acquire time, which is their currency.

There's particularly effective bit at the top of act two. The elderly Sal enters an elevator, which is operated by a young man. When he gets off, he's young again... and the bellhop is now an old man, holding a big fat check in his hands.

Rod’s not smoking during his opening narration: he’s holding a pair of sunglasses. I dunno, maybe sponsor American Tobacco was giving away sunglasses in some kind of promotion or something (remember all that Joe Camel and Marlboro Man merchandise?).


The episode is stock-scored, mostly with non-TZ cues from the CBS Music Library; however, we do hear a few bits of Fred Steiner’s scores for “King Nine Will Not Return” (“Sand”) and “The Passersby” (“Morning,” which was also used in last week’s “The Long Morrow”).


The major players this week should be quite familiar to Twilight Zone fans. First up is Don Gordon (Salvadore Ross), who memorably played one of Arch Hammer’s alternate identities in season one’s “The Four of Us Are Dying.” He also appeared on The Outer Limits twice (“The Invisibles” and “Second Chance”).

*Sigh* Gail Kobe (Leah Maitland) is on hand for her third and final TZ appearance (she made me swoon in season one’s “A World of Difference,” then again in season four’s “In His Image”). Like Don Gordon, she popped up on The Outer Limits twice (“Specimen: Unknown” and “Keeper of the Purple Twilight”).  If you can’t tell, I have something of a crush on her. She passed away last August. Rest in peace, you beautiful thing you.

Mr. Maitland is played by Vaughn Taylor in his fifth and final TZ excursion (he appeared in season one’s “Time Enough at Last,” season three’s “Still Valley” and “I Sing the Body Electric,” and season four’s “The Incredible World of Horace Ford”). He also did two episodes of The Outer Limits (“The Guests” and “Expanding Human”).

The unnamed old man in the hospital is played by J. Pat O'Malley, whom you may remember from “The Chaser” in season one and “The Fugitive” in season three. He’ll also be back later this season for “Mr. Garrity and the Graves.” Interestingly, the unnamed hospital nurse is played by Kathleen O'Malley… his daughter!

“The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” is quite good, better than many season five offerings, and it shines despite its unsatisfying conclusion. If we could just take a page from Sal’s book and trade its ending for a different one….

Next week:
“The Eye of the Beholder,” but without the pig people. It’s better than it sounds.