Thursday, April 24, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Stopover in a Quiet Town" (4/24/1964)

Season 5, Episode 30 (150 overall)
Originally aired 4/24/1964
Cayuga Production # 2611

Ah, the hangover. You wake up disoriented, your head throbbing, your mouth dry and pasty, the previous night a disjointed blur. “Where am I?” you ask yourself feebly. “What happened? Oh god, I drank so much I blacked out. How big an ass did I make of myself? Never again, goddammit. Never again.” Fifty years ago tonight, a young couple joined the illustrious ranks of the bleary-eyed party goers in search of their bearings… only these two have much bigger issues to sort out. 

Bob and Millie Frazier wake up in a strange house in a strange town, hung over and unsure what transpired the night before. Millie vaguely remembers having to drive (since Bob was too drunk to do so) and seeing a large shadow loom over their car. They hear the giggling of a little girl, but can’t find her as they search their surroundings for a clue as to where they are.

They gradually notice that everything is fake --- appliances, food, trees (complete with a stuffed squirrel), even the grass is nothing more than papier-mâché. They find a car, but there’s a mannequin at the wheel and no engine under the hood. They can’t shake the odd sensation that, despite the absolute lack of people to be found, they are being watched. They begin to ask themselves the typical Twilight Zone questions: is it an elaborate joke? Are they dreaming? Are they dead?

They find a railway station and board a train, which goes in a circle and returns them to where they started. They exit the train and are terrified to see a giant shadow looming over them. They make a run for it, but are quickly scooped up by a gigantic hand. They stare up in horror at the enormous face of a little girl, the source of the laughter they’ve been hearing all morning. It seems her father brought the Fraziers to her “all the way from Earth,” and they’ll be the perfect toys for her sprawling small-town playset.

“Stopover in a Quiet Town” is written by Earl Hamner Jr., who is better known for his more rural contributions to the series (“Jess-Belle,” “The Hunt,” etc.). It’s competently written (more so than many season five episodes); unfortunately, it rips off Rod Serling’s “Where Is Everybody?”. and blatantly so. Aside from the basic story idea (a seemingly-populated town inexplicably absent its populace), Hamner lifts very specific story details, the most glaring of which concerns a mannequin sitting inside a parked car (though the accompanying crane shot is quite nice). The ending is of course completely different here, and is clever and surprising enough to at least partially make up for the obvious pilfering.  

The direction by Ron Winston (who also helmed “The Big Tall Wish” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” both in season one) is fine but not remarkable; however, the optical effects used for the climax are quite impressive (similar shots of miniature people in the hands of giants in season three’s “The Little People” and season four’s “Miniature” aren’t quite as as cleanly achieved).

"The Little People" (left), "Miniature" (right)

Speaking of “The Little People,” it ends quite similarly to “Stopover,” except that the tiny Earthling in that episode ends up crushed to death in the giant astronaut’s hand. I can’t help but wonder if those enormous astronauts hail from the unnamed planet depicted here. Speaking of which, it seems highly unlikely that the alien child’s town playset would be such a dead ringer for an Earth town; moreover, what are the odds that the Fraziers --- (comparatively miniature) aliens from another world --- would be exact fits for it?


“Stopover in a Quiet Town” is stock-scored almost exclusively with Jerry Goldsmith cues from scores from “The Invaders,” "Back There,” and “The Big Tall Wish.” It’s interesting that “The Invaders” score was used, since that episode also concerns tiny Earth men.


Bob Frazier is played by Barry Nelson in his only Twilight Zone appearance. Other genre credits include roles on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The Waxwork”), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Misadventure” and “Anyone for Murder?”), and the original Battlestar Galactica (“The Magnificent Warriors”). On the big screen, he played Stuart Ullman in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.

Nancy Malone (Millie Frazier) is also TZ one-timer, but she also showed up over on ABC’s The Outer Limits (“Fun and Games,” which just turned 50 a few weeks ago). Frazier also directed two episodes of Star Trek: Voyager (“Coda” and “Message in a Bottle”) and, speaking of that venerable sci-fi institution, she can be seen in The Green Girl, a 2014 documentary about the life and career of Trek icon (and TZ alum) Susan Oliver.

“Stopover in a Quiet Town” probably seems better than it actually is, coming so late in The Twilight Zone’s fifth, final, subpar season. Despite the familiar subject matter (it’s usually Serling ripping himself off, so it’s interesting to see someone else doing it, not to mention getting away with it), I don’t dislike it. I realize that’s not exactly praise, but the episode isn’t quite praiseworthy. It’s okay.

Next week:
George Takai pays a pre-Star Trek visit to The Twilight Zone to do battle
with some WWII demons. Not a comedy.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Jeopardy Room" (4/17/1964)

Season 5, Episode 49 (149 overall)
Originally aired 4/17/1964
Cayuga Production # 2639

Fifty years ago tonight, The Twilight Zone brought us a tense life-and-death game of cat-and-mouse. No, it’s not a Tom and Jerry cartoon (but seriously, how awesome would a Rod Serling-penned Tom and Jerry cartoon be? Oh, wait. They’d just stand around and talk for half an hour. Never mind…).

“The Jeopardy Room” finds Major Ivan Kuchenko in the process of defecting from Mother Russia. He’s holed up in a cheap hotel room in an unspecified neutral country, killing time until his scheduled departure. Watching across the way is Commissar Vassiloff and his sidekick, marksman Boris. Boris has an itchy trigger finger and wants to take Kuchenko out quickly; Vassiloff prefers to take his time and exterminate his quarry with finesse.

Vassiloff visits Kuchenko, claiming to be “a friend.” Kuchenko recognizes him as a Russian agent immediately and pulls a gun on him. Vassiloff tricks him into drinking a drugged glass of wine, which quickly renders him unconscious. Kuchenko awakens alone. Via a tape-recorded message, Vassiloff explains that a bomb has been hidden somewhere in the room. If Kuchenko can find and disarm it within three hours, he is free to go. He also indicates that Boris has been instructed to shoot him should he stop searching, turn out the lights or leave the room.

After bemusedly watching Kuchenko’s desperate (and ultimately fruitless) search, Vassiloff dials his room. Kuchenko goes to answer the call, but pauses before he lifts the receiver. Understanding dawning on his face, he bolts from the room, narrowly avoiding a hail of bullets.

Later, Vassiloff and Boris commiserate over their failure in Kuchenko’s room. The telephone rings, and Boris absently lifts the receiver… detonating the bomb hidden inside. We see Kuchenko at a pay phone at the airport, now free to embark on his new life unimpeded. 

“The Jeopardy Room” is one of Rod Serling’s better teleplays in this fifth and final season. It’s very Hitchcockian, and it’s not the first time TZ has stepped on ol’ Hitch’s toes (see season two’s “The Silence”). Unfortunately, this also means that the story contains no supernatural elements whatsoever. There’s no intervention by cosmic forces, no kink in the fabric of reality, no time travel, no labyrinthine psychological delusions, no…. well, I think you get the point. For what it is, it’s a taut and intriguing political thriller with fine performances… but ultimately it has no place in The Twilight Zone

In the director’s chair is Richard Donner, who somewhat acquits himself for his earlier crimes (“From Agnes – With Love” and “Sounds and Silences”). There’s not much here in the way of stylish direction, but I do like the panning in and out seen in the prologue, which gives us a great Rear Window-lite orientation of the position of the predator and his prey.

Vassiloff’s tape-recorded instructions/taunts, set within the aforementioned political/international intrigue environment, serve to forge a kind of proto-Mission: Impossible ethos, particularly fitting since Martin Landau would go on to star in that series just two years later (one almost expects the tape recorder to self-destruct). However, Landau’s character here doesn’t exhibit quite the same level of cunning as M:I’s Rollin Hand: what idiot would drink anything offered by an enemy agent, even if said agent took a drink first (plus it’s amontillado of all things! Wait, was Poe banned in Russia?).

Boris is clueless as to where Vassiloff has hid the explosive during Kuchenko’s unconsciousness. He stated earlier that he has a clear shot at Kuchenko’s head, even if he’s lying down. The telephone is right next to the bed, so obviously Boris can see it. And since he’s Vassiloff’s henchman, it’s logical to assume that he was watching while Vassiloff was over there…. I think you know where I’m going with this. How the hell did Boris not see Vassiloff plant the bomb? But I guess Boris is a moron, as we learn in the end. The morale of this story? Don’t employ stupid henchmen.


“The Jeopardy Room” consists of stock cues, predominantly by Jerry Goldsmith and Fred Steiner. One familiar piece is “Silent Flight,” a CBS Music Library cue by Goldsmith, was also used to great effect in season one’s “Mirror Image” and season two’s “The Odyssey of Flight 33.”


Martin Landau (Major Ivan Kuchenko) needs to no introduction to genre fans. This is his second Twilight Zone appearance (he was the slimy bully Dan Hotaling in season one’s “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”; he also appeared in the 80’s revival series on CBS, in “The Beacon.” He did two tours on The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born” and “The Bellero Shield”; incidentally two of my favorites). After a few years on the aforementioned Mission: Impossible, Landau headlined TV’s Space: 1999, and he’s still kicking as of this writing. He provides insightful commentary tracks for both “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” and “The Jeopardy Room” on Image Entertainment’s Blu-ray releases of seasons one and five, respectively.

John van Dreelen is sufficiently villainous as Commissar Vassiloff. He popped up in a variety of genre TV shows (including Thriller, Men into Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Wonder Woman), as well as 1960's The Leech Woman, the very last classic Universal horror film (you might say it was the final nail in that particular coffin).

Robert Kelljan (Boris) was an uncredited extra in the Outer Limits episode “Controlled Experiment”; he also appeared in “The Dividing Wall” on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However, the real meat of his genre cred came in the director’s chair, where he helmed such cinematic opuses as Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), The Return of Count Yorga (1971), and Scream Blacula Scream (1973). Y'now, sometimes the damn jokes just write themselves.

L.A. artist (and über-nice guy) Woody Welch has shared several TZ sketches and paintings via his Facebook page in recent months, including a great portrait of Martin Landau. However, if I want to see a Welch rendering of Landau, I need only cast my eyes upon the stunning painting he gave me for my birthday this past November.

It depicts the two faces of Andro, a mutant from the future played (brilliantly so) by Landau in the aforementioned “The Man Who Was Never Born” on The Outer Limits. Go here for more info.

Season five is a crap shoot (or maybe a game of Russian roulette) when it comes to quality (compared to the rich minefield of masterpieces of the show’s earlier years); however, “The Jeopardy Room” (despite lacking a supernatural or mystical element) feels like an ice cold beer in the Sahara: it makes no sense that it’s there, but you appreciate it all the same. 

Next week:
A couple wakes up in empty town and demands to know... say it with me now... Where Is Everybody????

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Caesar and Me" (4/10/1964)

Season 5, Episode 28 (148 overall)
Originally aired 4/10/1964
Cayuga Production # 2636

Fifty years ago tonight, The Twilight Zone brought us yet another pint-sized anthropomorphized terrorist.

Jonathan West is an Irish immigrant trying to make a living as a ventriloquist and failing miserably. Susan, his landlady’s niece, torments him relentlessly. His dummy, Caesar, is inexplicably alive (and sounds like a bad Humphrey Bogart impersonator) and convinces him that he’ll have to stoop to petty theft in order to stay afloat. 

West successfully robs a local delicatessen and gets his rent caught up, much to Susan’s chagrin. With a full belly and a few belts of (presumably Irish) whiskey for courage, he cracks the safe of a local club. The night watchman spots him, but he’s able to charm his way out with Caesar’s help.

Susan is delighted to discover West’s guilt (she’s an expert eavesdropper) and promptly reports him to the authorities. He’s hauled away, leaving Caesar to start making plans with the scheming Susan…. he knows where West hid the loot, after all.

Dos Dummies: Willie (left) and Caesar. Are they the same exact dummy? They look awfully similar....

“Caesar and Me” is of course a second-rate copy of season three’s “The Dummy,” a Rod Serling effort that is superior in every respect. In that episode we witnessed an alcoholic ventriloquist on the verge of a nervous breakdown, locked in mortal combat with a dummy that would ultimately take over his life (and transform him into a wooden dummy in the process). Here we have a dummy that is alive for no apparent reason other than to ruin its puppeteer and take up with an evil little girl. When Caesar convinces the kid to murder her aunt and run away with him, it’s painfully clear that the series has completely given up doling out cosmic justice. The lunatics have taken over the asylum, and all bets are off.

“Caesar and Me” was written by Adele T. Strassfield who was series producer William Froug’s secretary (I could speculate about what she probably had to do in 1964 to get her “cute little script” produced… but I won’t), the sale of which launched an extremely brief career in which she sold a total of three television scripts. And yeah, this one sure as hell ain't great… but to put things in perspective, it’s quite a bit better than last week’s “Sounds and Silences,” which was a Serling script.

In the director’s chair is Robert Butler (who will also direct May’s “The Encounter”), who would go on to a few notable genre gigs: he directed three episodes of The Invaders (“Panic,” “The Enemy,” and “The Trial”) and the original Star Trek pilot (“The Cage,” most of which would be recycled as flashback footage in the two-part “The Menagerie”). I was especially tickled to learn that he directed the pilot episode of TV’s Moonlighting, which was my favorite TV show in the late 80’s.


The only positive aspect of “Caesar and Me” is the original score by Richard Shores, who is probably best remembered for his extensive compositional contributions to TV’s Perry Mason (though he isn’t responsible for that show’s famous theme; we have Fred Steiner, another TZ composer, to thank for that). His work here features some very effective dramatic and mysterious cues, and it’s a real shame that it’s never been released on any of the series’ myriad soundtracks. The DVD and Blu-ray sets include many isolated music tracks, which has historically been a great resource for obsessive TZ music collectors (like yours truly); however, as with several other season five episodes, “Caesar and Me” lacks this feature.


Top o' the morning to ya laddie! Jackie Cooper is sufficiently morose as the Danny Boy-stereotype Jonathan West. Genre fans might recognize him as the Daily Planet editor Perry White in all four Christopher Reeve Superman films (1978-1987).

Susanne Cupito is quite convincing as the vile little snot Susan. Cupito also appeared in season one’s “Nightmare as a Child” and season four’s “Valley of the Shadow”; she also popped up on The Outer Limits (“The Inheritors, Part 2”). She grew up to be breathtakingly beautiful and, when she turned 18, she changed her professional name to Morgan Brittany.

Stafford Repp (left) plays the unnamed pawnbroker in the prologue (we've seen him twice before: he was the auto mechanic in season two’s “Nick of Time,” and Ira Broadly in season three’s “The Grave”; below left). Mr. Smiles, the clerk at the unemployment office, is played by Olan Soule (right), who played the IRS agent in season two’s “The Man in the Bottle" (below, right).

The unnamed man watching West’s pathetic audition in act one is played by Robert McCord, who can be seen in over a third of the series’ 156 episodes, usually as an easy-to-miss extra (see my recent spotlight on “What’s in the Box” for more).

Ugh. I don’t hate “Caesar and Me,” but I sure as hell don’t like it much. Been there, done that, that's it, that's all there is.

Next up:
Martin Landau searches The Jeopardy Room, but can’t find Alex Trebek anywhere.