The Thunder Child
Science Fiction and Fantasy
An Element of Time - Steve Vertlieb on The Twilight ZoneNote: Published concurrently with Film Music Review by kind permission of Roger Hall and Steve Vertlieb.
There is an obscure Air Force term relating to a moment when a plane is coming down on approach and a pilot cannot see the horizon. It's called the Twilight Zone.
Searching for new avenues of expression, and freedom from scrutiny, Serling explored provocative issues cloaked in the guise of science fiction and fantasy, firing his sphere of social commentary significantly over the heads of most network executives and censors. Social commentary and journalistic heroism were no longer being courted by the three television networks. The most original and daring literary treatments were becoming alarmingly watered down in the wake of the McCarthy era, while networks pursued innocuous pabulum appealing to only the lowest common denominator. Sponsors, eager to sell their products to millions of television viewers, were adamant about playing it safe, rather than running the risk of offending anybody.
Serling's plan was to continue challenging the censors with provocative adult teleplays camouflaged as harmless science fiction and fantasy. Searching for a suitable, if non-confrontive story, he submitted a script to the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse entitled "The Time Element" concerning a man whose dreams of re-living the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor torment him every night.
William Bendix was cast as the hapless bartender who inexplicably visits Honolulu on December 6th, 1941 every night in his dreams. His attempts at warning the locals of an impending attack by the Japanese fall, understandably, on deaf ears. He consults a psychiatrist, explaining that he's never even visited Hawaii. In the midst of his analysis, Pete Jenson (Bendix) falls asleep on the couch, returning to Pearl Harbor in his dreams one last time.
The doctor, seemingly asleep himself, awakens with a start to find his office empty of patients. Shaken, he goes to a local bar where he recognizes an old photo of his patient hanging on the wall. Inquiring about the familiar man in the photo, he learns that Pete Jenson had tended bar there years ago before the war. He was killed at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.
On November 24, 1958, CBS aired "The Time Element" as part of the Desilu anthology series. The episode received positive recognition by the critics, and generated more mail than any other episode of the series. Still skeptical of long range appeal for fantasy programming, CBS nonetheless commissioned a pilot episode for a new series to be called The Twilight Zone. The premiere episode, "Where Is Everybody?" aired on October 2nd, 1959.
"Walking Distance""Walking Distance," generally considered the show's most significant episode, aired on October 30, 1959. Written by Serling, sensitively directed by Robert Stevens, with an exquisite original musical score by Bernard Herrmann, "Walking Distance" remains the quintessential heart of the series.
"Witness Martin Sloan, an emotionally exhausted New York City advertising executive whose psychological scars have nearly destroyed his humanity, and left him impotent. He is a haunted soul...weary...embittered. a skeletal marionette dancing on tattered strings. Racing from the frenzied madness of Madison Avenue toward salvation, he is mercifully enveloped within a tender accident of time. At a rural gas station, Sloan leaves his battered car for repairs as he returns to the little town in which he spent his youth. Homewood is a mere mile and a half away...walking distance."
Nothing has changed as he returns to his childhood. The town appears the same. In his idyllic dreams, innocence recaptured is simply a stone's throw across a pond. It is summer, and the purity of sacred memory is within his reach. Twenty five years have evaporated in a wistful moment. He is home once more and there is, after all, "no place like home." Mom and Dad are alive as they were in his childhood. Even Martin himself is transformed into the sweet boy that he was. As if hurled through a miraculous mirror in time, the reflection of forgotten purity brings comfort and aching solace to the faded specter of his wounded heart. Martin is a lonely stranger in a strange land, and he yearns for the peace and tranquility he left behind so many forgotten years ago.
But none of this real. It is simply a reminder that life is not to be wasted on the frenzied highway of imagined success. Each moment is a precious gift to be savored, and lovingly remembered with the passage of time. Martin must return to his own time and place, for he does not belong here. As "pop" gently reminds him as he points to the little boy left behind: "This is his time...his Summer. Don't make him share it."
His eyes opened, perhaps, for the first time in his adult life, Martin must learn to cherish the memory of the child he was and carry the sublime serenity of innocence in his heart forever.
Gig Young, who played the adult Martin Sloan, seemed to harbor an innate understanding of, and sensitivity to, the inner longing of this tortured characterization, for his own primal hunger for acceptance and affection led inevitably to his own personal tragedy so many years later. Yet, if the winding road had ended for the actor portraying Serling's troubled character, there may still have been salvation offered to his fictional Martin Sloan, for in the closing narration there is redemption.
"A Stop at Willoughby"In "A Stop At Willoughby," which aired later that season on May 5, 1960, Serling composed another heartbreaking scenario in which an emotionally fragile advertising executive crosses the lonely border between sanity and psychological escape.
James Daly plays Gart Williams, an ulcer-ridden slave to his wife's economic demands and expectations. On the brink of mental collapse, Williams takes the commuter train each day from New York back to his home in Connecticut. On this particular day, however, his commute will be interrupted by an unscheduled stop at Willoughby, "a place where a man can slow down to a walk, and live his life full measure."
Willoughby is a small, uncomplicated town, like many such towns across America at the turn of the last century. There are band concerts, and creeks where boys can tell tall tales and go fishing. Gart longs to find peace in the gentle obscurity he observes beyond the wintry reflection of the train's frozen windows. As he leaves his briefcase behind on the seat he will never occupy again, Gart walks off the platform of a moving train, falling instantly to his death in a blanket of icy snow beside the silver track.
His body is transported by hearse to the undertaker whose name clearly adorns the side of the waiting vehicle - Willoughby Funeral Home. But Gart is unaware of the tragedy unfolding in the cold night air beside the silent train, for he is walking happily with the children toward a day of fishing at the waiting pond, and the heat of the noon day sun.
Romantic melancholia was a searing presence in the stories of the fantasy series. Sad, frustrated children in grown up bodies searched yearningly for an escape from the cynical madness sealing their hearts in cruel isolation from the wonder and magic of youth and comparative innocence.
"Kick the Can"Among The Twilight Zone's loveliest moments was the airing of a bittersweet segment concerning the elderly residents of a county nursing home. "Kick The Can," written by George Clayton Johnson, told the tender story of a charming pied piper who, like Peter Pan, vows never to succumb to the emotional boundaries of old age.
Charles Whitley (Ernest Truex) is confined by his son to Sunnyvale Rest, an arthritic waking coffin inhabited by lifeless zombies waiting in lonely succession to pass from seemingly pointless mortality.
"The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine"
"A World of Difference"
"The Trouble With Templeton"For "The Trouble With Templeton," which aired on December 9, 1960, former matinee idol Brian Aherne was cast as a distinguished elderly actor longing for the romantic recollection of an idealized past.
He returns to the present wiser for the experience, better able to confront reality and survive in the moment. Laura faces her act of sacrifice with resignation and sadness, knowing that time will deliver her beloved husband back into her arms soon enough. For the moment, however, she has sent Booth back to his own life- better able to cope with the present, rather than drown helplessly in melancholy reflections of the past.
"Static"In "Static," first broadcast on March 10, 1961 and written by Charles Beaumont, a disgruntled cynic ridicules the fast-paced society he feels has passed him by. Living in a safe, sanitary, homogenized replica of the world he once knew, Ed Lindsay (Dean Jagger) abandons the saccharine company of his boring, one dimensional neighbors and longs for the more colorful legacy of his youth. Finding an old antique radio in the basement of the boarding house he lives in, Lindsay is astounded to tune into live presentations of Tommy Dorsey and Jack Benny on the faded dial. No one believes him, of course, until...through a gentle miracle of time and space...he returns to a magical realm of wonder and perceived innocence he recalled as a young man, finding restorative happiness and escape in the enchanted invitation of a forgotten radio.
"Disappearing Act"As merciful an escape as such bedeviled characters might have enjoyed, poetic repose was not to be for the survivors of the X-20, and experimental space craft that should never have come back to Earth after its ill fated flight. Rod Serling based his nightmarish teleplay on a short story by Richard Matheson titled "Disappearing Act."
"And When The Sky Was Opened"Among the most disturbing half hours ever produced for television, "And When The Sky Was Opened" premiered on December 11, 1959, and starred Rod Taylor with Jim Hutton and Charles Aidman as triumphant astronauts who begin to suspect that they were never meant to return home. Mirror images offer no reflection as the doomed flyers begin, one by one, to disappear from memory and sight, their families retaining no recollection of their ever having existed. In the end, not even their craft remains in this fragile dimension of time and space. "And if any of you have any questions concerning an aircraft and three men who flew her, speak softly of them - and only in The Twilight Zone."
WritersRod Serling encouraged his small stable of writers, directors, actors, and composers to let their imaginations soar. Stories by Serling, along with Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson and other distinguished science fiction and fantasy poets helped bring the five year run of this cherished CBS anthology series to enduring life and success. Composers Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, Franz Waxman and Fred Steiner contributed some of the most expressively original scoring of their respective careers to the cherished program...with Herrmann's music for "Walking Distance" among the tenderest and most exquisite ever written for television.
Rod SerlingAs for the visionary face, voice, and legend behind the transformational series, Rod Serling's reputation and legend remain forever encased in both bravado and tragedy. A workaholic and prolific chain smoker, Serling died prematurely on the a surgical table of a massive heart attack, occurring during ten hours of coronary surgery, on June 28, 1975 in Rochester, New York. Rod Serling was fifty years old.
He had long ago relinquished all rights to the series he had created, and would never again achieve the fame and celebrity he derived as the on camera personification and sultry vocal inflection of these twilight excursions into the unknown. Perhaps he succumbed to the beckoning imagery of a simpler, less complicated landscape in which frustration and regret might be tenderly enveloped by hope and infinite promise. Seeing The Twilight Zone for the first time would have been mind-altering. You might not even believe your eyes when it first aired. If you're sick of glasses you could visit Lasik eye surgery Houston to have you vision corrected.
This tantalizing scenario is respectfully submitted for your approval, for his legacy grows undiminished with the misty passage of time, and echos in scarlet reverberations to be found only in - The Twilight Zone.
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