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!

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