Saturday, May 07, 2011

why the twilight zone puts todays sci-fi to shame

Video - Twilight Zone - To Serve Man Part 1 of 3

Guardian | "There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition and it lies between the pit of man's fears and summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area we call … The Twilight Zone."

Now, that's how you start a television show. Those words were first heard coming out of TV sets across the USA on 2 October 1959. In the decades since, The Twilight Zone has become shorthand for anything offbeat, with that spooky four-note theme ("do-dee-do-do") an instant signal that something unusual is about to happen.

While the short story with a twist ending has always been a staple of storytelling, it was Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone that refined it to an artform. It deservedly casts a long shadow in popular culture: if you stick together The Time Element, where a man repeatedly "dreams" he's waking up in Pearl Harbor on the morning of the attack, with Where Is Everybody?, which contains images of a flight-suited army pilot in a capsule, you've pretty much got Source Code. Then there's An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, based on Ambrose Bierce's classic short story where a man about to be hanged in the American civil war escapes the noose, ventures across country to rejoin his wife and child and realises this has all been a dream condensed into seconds as the noose breaks his neck. Expand on that "dreams with time distortion" routine and you'll eventually hit Inception. The Simpsons still riffs on TZ episodes, particularly in their Halloween Treehouse Of Horror specials, and there's not an episode of Futurama that passes without some reference. Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly's bizarre oddity The Box was based on Button, Button, a Twilight Zone episode from its 1980s revamp. Once you get into the Twilight Zone you'll see writers and directors such as M Night Shyamalan as less remarkable: what is The Sixth Sense if not a half-hour Zone episode stretched out to over an hour and a half?

Watching The Twilight Zone today, it's striking how complex, satirical and thought-provoking it all is. While the tales include such fantastical imagery as a stopwatch that can stop time, department store mannequins coming to life, or a child whose dreams take corporeal form, you can clearly see that they're really about the early-60s: an era of race riots, assassinations, crooked politicians and the Vietnam war, when communism and nuclear bombs were palpable fears. People were confused, scared and paranoid, yet so little of the television of the time reflected this mood. Sponsors, executives, salesmen and producers were in charge of the networks and they didn't want viewers distracted by big issues when they should have been thinking about what products to buy. It was in this climate that 34-year-old writer-producer Rod Serling devised The Twilight Zone. After having almost all the contemporary political references excised from an early drama about a crooked senator, he hit upon the idea of using science fiction and fantasy to smuggle in more controversial elements, in plain sight of the moneymen.

Our world is just as chaotic as the 1960s, but you'd never know it from our genre shows. Apart from Battlestar Galactica's space-war on terror, they're full of missed opportunities; flashy and entertaining, sure – but did Lost really have anything to say? Did the remake of V tell us anything other than they really shouldn't have remade V?


Uglyblackjohn said...

We're not "there' yet.
This series and the comicbooks of the time were more about ideas and concepts than they were about simple entertainment.
Many watched the same shows but got nothing out of them.
Only those with eyes to see.

Gee Chee Vision said...


True nothing defines sci-fi like TZ. Sterling was concerned about the genre being respected. When you research television from that era, nothing has stood up to TZ (Hitchcock was a major contender though). Westerns just pretended blacks didn't exist. They had Comanches and Apaches fill in the extra space, but Bonanza decided they could tie up loose ends by toss'n some Chinese in. Sorry Hattie, this role is Gone with the Yuan.

Obviously writing race into TV scripts during the 50s and 60s proved a bit cumbersome. Like taking ink out your pen and replacing it with nitroglycerin.

I think M Night is as close as you get so far. I see him as a young Hitchcock doing TZ stories. Only thing he's like black power movements, he gets it started but it ends painfully.

umbrarchist said...

Science fiction has become intellectually shallow.

A Harry Potter book was given a Hugo Award in 2001. What an insult!

It is just about the publishing industry making money selling books. I finished listening to the Hyperion Cantos a few weeks ago. It ain't science fiction. The criteria for what is SF have changed since the 70s.


CNu said...

In retrospect, one could see this coming in the late 70's early 80's in comic books - as well. When comics ceased being thought and imagination provoking, readily obtainable and inexpensive - this game was all over except for the crying.

CNu said...

That's old folks rigamarole Umbra.

My 6th grader and his cronies all keep their bitorrents strong and anything they want, they get for free from that stream and then copy it out to their smart phones as desired. Movies, music, texts, etc....,

CNu said...

The lack of thought-provoking, vocabulary extending, and imagination stretching comic books everywhere for cheap in the old fashioned rotating stands, is still a HUGE hole that nothing I'm acquainted with has yet filled.

Oh, yeah, I guess video games are sposed to be doing something for these little busters besides turning them into passive consuming couch potatoes...,

Uglyblackjohn said...

- "...vocabulary extending..."
"Quirurgical" ?
Read it in a comic book once and still have yet to know the meaning?