Tag Archives: Twilight Zone

Why do we return to the Twilight Zone?

So after blogging about Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone revival, I got to thinking about the enduring popularity of Rod Serling’s original. Why is it remembered so well? Why does it keep getting revivals?Well, it’s become a brand name so it’s no surprise CBS wants to keep reviving it. That’s a much safer bet than encouraging people to catch an all-new series — as witness I tuned in to the Peele and I’ve never made any effort to catch Black Mirror (not a reflection on that show, just on the amount of stuff that’s out there to watch). And part of the reason it’s become a brand name is that when it came out there wasn’t anything like it. TV SF was treated as kids’ stuff; TV fantasy was limited to sitcoms such as Topper or Bewitched. Twilight Zone took specfic seriously, as something adults could enjoy and that could be done well. It didn’t hurt that along with Serling, we had Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, both established and excellent writers of contemporary fantasy (among other things). Serling also cast a lot of first-rate actors including Burgess Meredith, Ross Martin, Jack Klugman, Wilfred Hyde-White and others. Running from 1959 to 1964, Serling’s work had an impact I don’t think it could possibly have today.

But not every show that made a big splash back in ye ancient times of a mere three networks has such a devoted following today. The original series holds up well.

Part of that is Serling’s interest in people and human nature, particularly his fondness for the down-and-out and the unlucky losers. The insecure cheap crook in Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room. The anguished bookie in In Praise of Pip, getting one last night with his dead son. Art Carney delivering Christmas cheer on The Night of the Meek. But while people often have crappy lives and don’t get happy endings (case in point, Burgess Meredith’s myopic bank clerk in  All The Time in the World) Serling’s not looking to to shrug and say “life isn’t fair.” He gets that unfairness is something that should be fixed. And in many stories he does, delivering a eucatastrophe, a miraculous (but plausible) happy ending.

Another factor, and I think this is a big one, is the nature of the stories. Twilight Zone had a big range: stories with no specfic element (The Silence), post-apocalypse (Two), space adventure (The Parallel) and time travel (No Time Like the Past), but the “generic” TZ story is intrusion fantasy: a contemporary setting with the supernatural or super-scientific intruding on it. And doing so, in many cases, randomly.

In a few of the episodes, there’s a clear reason for what’s happening, such as Jess-Belle where the protagonist apprentices herself to a witch, or The Trouble With Templeton in which the protagonist’s long-dead wife has arranged events for his benefit. In many more, there’s none: fate or God or Satan has decided to upend someone’s life for no reason at all. The businessman in A World of Difference suddenly finds he’s an actor and his life is the script. He doesn’t do anything to bring it about, it just happens. Ditto the woman haunted by her double in Mirror Image or the rejuvenated seniors in Kick the Can. They don’t cross any lines, tamper with anything forbidden, piss off the dark gods — they’re just shit out of luck. Sure, some of them deserve their doom or their miraculous redemption, such as Dan Duryea’s drunken gunfighter in Mr. Denton on Doomsday. Even so, there’s no reason why Fate should (literally) stop in his town and turn his life around, it just happens.

That, I think, makes it more compelling. Because if things like this can happen at random, then they can happen to us. We don’t have to be chosen ones, or profane an Egyptian tomb to be affected. Any one of us, at any time, could stumble into the impossible.

Into the Twilight Zone.

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I hoped for better: Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone

I doubt I’d have bothered with CBS’ latest revival of THE TWILIGHT ZONE if Jordan Peele hadn’t been the man in the Rod Serling role (including serving as narrator). Given how good Peele’s Get Out and Us were, he seemed like the right guy to deliver Twilight Zone stories tailored for the 21st century. But whether it’s the different requirements for a TV series from a movie or too much network interference, Peele didn’t pull it off.

He’s not unique. The first attempt to remake Serling was the 1983 Twilight Zone — The Movie which had one memorable story (a remake of  Nightmare at 20,000 Feet) and three “meh” ones. This led to a 1985 CBS series I remember as pretty good, though it’s quite possible I’m erasing the bad stuff. Then there was a completely forgettable UPN revival nearly 20 years ago.

And no, I’m not biased by nostalgia for the original series. I love it but even before I started rewatching it the past few years, I had no illusions it was perfect. I remember many crappy episodes (Cavender Is Coming, Mute, Steel) but the good outnumber the bad and every season has some great episodes. After watching six of the ten-episode first season of the new version I found no great, two good and four bad. That’s not a win.

The first episode, The Comedian, runs an hour, which was a mistake: as the original’s  S4 showed, some stories fail simply by being stretched out. The title comic is Samir, who wants to do political humor but flops with it. Then a legendary comic advises Samir to draw on his life for material; the audience loves this approach, but whenever he talks about his dog, his nephew, a coworker, they vanish from existence. In fact, they never existed and only Samir remembers them.

There’s obvious potential here for a metaphor about creative people mining their own lives for material, or how someone with ambition can discard people in their life on the climb to the top. Instead, this tries to fill the hour by going in too many directions; at one point, Samir pulls a Death Note and starts erasing abusers, drunk drivers and other people, but then we’re off in another direction. The story never has the punch it might have.

To give Peele credit, Nightmare at 30,000 Feet doesn’t simply remake the original story about a man seeing a monster destroying the wing of a plane. Instead, nn investigative journalist discovers the Weird Mysteries podcast he’s downloaded to listen to is talking about a mysteriously vanished flight … that’s the exact flight the protagonist is on. Can he figure out what’s happening in time to avert catastrophe? Not a bad concept, but it never built up enough tension for me.

Replay was one of the good ones. Black lawyer Nina (Sanaa Lathan)is driving her son to college when she discovers rewinding her old camcorder can rewind time. This comes in handy when a bigoted cop starts harassing them, but no matter how many times Nina tries changing how she deals with him, nothing can neutralize the threat.I think it’s the best of the ones I watched.

But then comes A Traveler, set in a rural Alaskan police station where Captain Pendleton (Greg Kinnear) shows a suitably Christian compassion by letting one prisoner out of jail; as he doesn’t have anyone this year, Sgt. Mongoyak (Marika Sila) arrests her brother just so Pendleton can free him. But it turns out Mr. A. Traveler (Steven Yuen) is already in jail, claiming that as a YouTuber who covers extreme tourism, he’s there to witness the annual release. Is he telling the truth? Of course not, but the results make it impossible to care.

Wunderkind isn’t good but it was amusing. Failed political consultant Raff (John Cho) spots an 11-year-old, Oliver (Jacob Tremblay), running for president on YouTube. Everyone likes his simplistic proposals so Raff launches a campaign to put Oliver in the White House. Oops: who’d have thought a temperamental, selfish brat running the government was a bad thing? Why yes, I do think this has a point about politics, but it’s not executed well-enough to work. It hand-waves Oliver being too young to get elected and can’t decide if he’s a brat or a child sociopath.

I’d have stopped there but Not All Men sounded too interesting to pass up. Annie (Taissa Farmiga) goes on a date with her coworker Phil but stops short of sleeping with him. Next morning at work, their boss transfers her current project to Phil, telling her she’ll rise farther as his assistant. Coincidence? Then things get really nasty when a meteor shower unleashes the local male population’s worst impulses; can Annie survive? Can she trust that the guy who says he’s not infected is safe?

This is at its best dealing with the little annoyances women have to put up with (“You’d look really cute if you’d smile.”) and the challenge of figuring out what’s really going on (is Phil punishing Annie for not putting out, or is it just their boss favoring the white guy?). The outright violence isn’t as interesting, and I couldn’t buy the reveal the meteors were a placebo, a rationalization for the guys losing control — why would anyone assume the rocks had that effect? Still, it was interesting enough that in another era I might have kept watching. But these days there’s too many alternatives to give this more of a chance.

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A delayed double feature to last week’s movies

One the Night of the Comet commentary track, writer/director Thom Eberhardt listed TARGET EARTH (1954) as an influence on the film, so that was my first choice for viewing last weekend.The film’s opening scenes in which Kathleen Crowley wakes up (having tried and failed to commit suicide by sleeping pills) to find the small city she lives in completely empty are extremely effective. Then she meets up with a similarly baffoed Richard Denning and a couple of party animals; together they figure out that the city was evacuated while they were all passed out for one reason or another. Then the sight of some rather unconvincing robots tells them why everyone else left … meanwhile the military tries to figure out how to stop the robots sent as the first wave of a Venusian invasion.

Despite the robots and the underlying absurdity (I’m familiar with evacuation issues and clearing out a city in 12 hours is impossible), this is pretty good. I don’t like the gangster who wanders in late in the movie but I do like that the protagonists are just trying to survive; they’re not part of the fight against the aliens and don’t really know what’s going on (I used a similar approach in my Atoms for Peace short story The Claws That Catch). “All we can be sure of was that this invasion was not launched by any power upon this Earth!”

Kelli Maroney says Eberhardt told her to watch Carole Lombard in MY MAN GODFREY (1936) for her role as Samantha and I can sort of see why. Lombard’s character is something of a space cadet, a ditzy heiress who recruits derelict William Powell as a find in a scavenger hunt, then gets him to work for her family as the new butler. Much to her annoyance, he refuses to fall in love with her, but her efforts to change his mind keep the movie humming. With Eugene Pallette as Lombard’s grumpy father and Alan Mowbray (to the left of Powell in the post above) as a former college chum of Powell’s. Definitely worth rewatching in its own right. “What does it matter where one puts flowers when one’s heart is broken?”

And to go with Webber’s Phantom of the Opera I rewatched Lon Chaney’s classic silent THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). While I suspect Webber may have replaced Chaney as the definitive version of this story, this is truly spectacular production in the sets Chaney’s powerful performance and his grotesque makeup (unlike most later versions, Erik here was born a freak; later incarnations were the result of accidents). Another one that’s a pleasure to rewatch, though Christine has a better role in the stage show. “No longer shall I spew venom like a toad.”

I also caught an episode of the old DESILU PLAYHOUSE, The Time Element, which I’ve wanted to see for years because it’s the pilot from which Twilight Zone launched. William Bendix plays a bookie telling psychiatrist Martin Balsam about this recurring dream in which he wakes up in Hawaii — specifically Pearl Harbor, Dec. 6, 1941. Initially he plans to exploit his knowledge and bet on every upcoming sporting event, but then he starts having qualms and tries to warn people about the Day That Will Live In Infamy — but will anyone listen? The version of the grandfather paradox given here doesn’t make sense, but the cast is solid and the situation is effectively intense; it says a lot about the limited exposure to SF most of the audience had back then that Desi Arnaz, as host, reassures viewers this was all the psychiatrist’s imagination. “The U.S.S. Arizona’s never been sunk!”

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Black Lightning in the Twilight Zone: wrapping up a couple of TV seasons

I thought after watching this week’s Nancy Drew I’d be included that too, but despite some major reveals that seem to wrap everything up, they have a half-dozen episodes to come.

I had a mixed review of BLACK LIGHTNING‘s second season, but this season more than made up for it. Freeland spends most of the season caught between the American Security Agency and agents from Markovia, both of which want control of Freeland’s metas; the ASA’s conniving, cold-blooded Odell (Bill Duke) insists he’s acting for the community’s own protection, but while Jeff tries to be moderate, Anissa and Inspector Henderson both join the Resistance, helping to get metas out of town past both sides. Jennifer, meanwhile, discovers how powerful she really is and lets Odell manipulate her before she discovers during the Crisis how far she’s crossing the line. Plus Odell gets Lynn hooked on greenlight to boost her IQ while she’s working with the metas, and turns Jen’s boyfriend Khalil into a brainwashed killer. If ever anyone had He Needed Killing plastered to his forehead …

Into this mess, we then bring Tyson “Gravedigger” Sykes (Wayne Brady), the world’s first metahuman, the result of WW II experiments (his story reminded me a lot of the MU’s Isaiah Bradley). Bradley has nothing but contempt for the way the U.S. has treated his people and so after working on the Markovian meta-research program (the U.S. set it up in Markovia to avoid scrutiny, and because that put its metas in striking distance of the USSR) he co-opted it to attack his own country (the tendency of metas to die or go comatose delayed the plan). There’s a great bit where he tells Jennifer Martin Luther King was a coward who couldn’t do what needed doing; she reminds him that nonviolence was a calculated, and successful tactic.

The ending episode this week has Gravedigger and his Markovian allies making an all-out attack on Freeland and the ASA meta-research lab, while Odell prepares to withdraw, then have the city nuked so the Markovians don’t get what they want. Its Gravedigger against the Pierces in all-out action with a surprisingly high body count (even given some of the deaths could be easily reversed); not knowing it was the season ender, I really was surprised.

If I have any complainst, it’s that the show doesn’t at all acknowledge that it’s now on the same Earth as Flash and post-Crisis always has been. The dark-matter Central City metas are stable and someone should at least have mentioned it. And that while they avoided turning Anissa’s lover Grace into a Dead Lesbian Trope, I’m not sure Comatose Lesbian is an improvement (okay, it’s an improvement, but not much of one).

THE TWILIGHT ZONE‘s fourth season switched from thirty minutes to an hour (I think there’s a meta-joke about that in the episode The Bard) and most fans dismiss it as a failure. Although a slight majority of episodes are indeed flops, I don’t know how much is due to expanded length and how much due to the show just running out of steam, which was happening even in S3. It’s true that some episodes, such as The Thirty-Fathom Grave, might have worked at an hour’s length, but most of the bad ones would be bad at any length. Particular un-favorites are Mute, a story about a telepathic kid getting integrated into society that comes off unpleasantly abusive, and The Bard, in which a hack writer summons up Shakespeare’s spirit to write a TV movie only to see it hacked to death by sponsor and network requirements. It’s one The Twilight Zone Companion cites as a classic, but I find it predictable and just ridiculous, like nobody noticing the script’s Shakespearian language. Some good roles (Burt Reynolds as a Brando knockoff, John McGiver as a clueless sponsor) but I hated it.

And the good stuff is very good, despite the hour length. Astronauts Jack Klugman and Ross Martin trying to understand how they found their crashed Death Ship on an alien world with their bodies inside; space-colony leader James Whitmore reluctant to release his grip on the colony when he learns they can return to Earth (On Thursday We Leave For Home); Miniature; the rural fantasy Jess-Belle; and the gentle romantic fantasy Passage on the Lady Anne. There are also a few middling ones. Printer’s Devil is poor, but Burgess Meredith makes a great villain; I Dream of Genie is uneven but it still won me over, especially the ending.

IIRC the fifth and final season of the original had a lot of flops too. As it was 36 episodes long, it’ll be a while before you get a review though.

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Stacking the deck: Twilight Zone’s “Miniature”

So I wrote a couple of weeks back about the way writers stack the deck to make their point: that life is fair/isn’t fair, that God is good/shitty, that violence is/isn’t the answer, that the legal system can/can’t be trusted. Watching the Twilight Zone episode Miniature, it occurred to me we stack the deck in our stories on a personal level as well.

The story is part of the show’s fourth season, when it jumped to hour-long episode and most fell flat on its face (I think the ratio of good to bad is at best, 1/3). But it had gems and Charles Beaumont’s Miniature is one of them. Robert Duvall plays Charlie, an introverted guy who just doesn’t fit with the world. His boss fires him because he doesn’t like to hang with his coworkers and that’s bad for morale. His mother obsessively takes care of him. His sister (the most likable of the supporting cast) tries to fix him up with a girl but Charlie’s not at all comfortable with her. And everyone assumes he’s the problem. Being in the Twilight Zone, of course, he has an escape hatch: a beautiful, elaborate dolls’ house at the local museum. Gazing into it, he fantasizes the young woman of the house is alive, and as lonely as he is … if only he could be with her, she’d be a woman he could connect with. If only … Of course everyone tells him it’s a delusion but guess what? It isn’t (yes, you probably guessed that). And two lonely people end up finding each other.

It didn’t move me as much as it did first go-round, probably because, like Harlan Ellison’s Jeffty Is Five, I got past the point where I was inclined to withdraw from the world into fantasy. It’s still well executed, with a great performance by Duvall. But it got me thinking about how stories stack the deck in regard to characters’ lives, as well as the big picture political/economic stuff.

Serling did a lot of stories about people desperate to escape into fantasy. Into their past, or their youth or some other world. But unlike a lot of writers who wallow in that (Jack Finney was particularly fond of rejecting the present for what he imagined was the wonderful 19th century), Serling knew it could be a trap. In Trouble With Templeton, the protagonist learns to stop living in the past and get on with his life. Jack Klugman in Passage for Trumpet is bitter and miserable about life, but learns “it can be as rich and sweet as the music he plays — if only he will listen.”

Stacking the deck is how Serling (and writers on the show such as Beaumont and Richard Matheson) show us which is the right outcome. Is the problem that the protagonist needs to embrace life instead of hiding from it? Or that life really sucks, as for the frustrated nursing-home residents in Kick the Can? Is love a possibility if you reach out, or have they lost the big chance already? Does the hero need to change, or is it other people? The answer is whatever the story tells us or shows us.

Of course sometimes I just don’t buy what it’s showing. Ida Lupino in Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine seemed to me like someone who needed to embrace the world, but she gets a retreat into fantasy instead. That’s the risk of stacking the deck: if you’re not plausible about it, it won’t work. And it’s hard to stack the deck if the audience really wants it stacked the other way. I can’t get into stories where the happy ending is the protagonist becoming a happy recluse because for me that’s a sad ending (the whole withdrawing thing).

But that’s the risk we take with writing.

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The Twilight Zone, a tree and the Incredibles: TV and movies

With S3 of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, the bloom is definitely off the rose with way more flops than in previous seasons. E.g., Cavender is Coming, The Shelter, The Passerby, Still Valley, Dead Man’s Shoes, Four o’Clock and Showdown With Rance McGrew. Some are preachy and heavy-handed, some are unfunny comedies, some just fill a half-hour of TV and accomplish nothing more.

That said, the season also had some terrific episodes. Elizabeth Montgomery and Charles Bronson give solid performances as post-WW III survivors in Two, which opens the season. Donald Pleasance gives a moving performance as an aging teacher in the final S3 episode, Changing of the Guard. In between we have It’s a Good Life, the anti-Nazi drama Death’s Head Revisited, Five Characters in Search of an Exit and Person or Persons Unknown. It’s worth sitting through the mediocre to get to the good stuff. I’m not sure I’ll feel that way about S4, the notoriously unsuccessful switch to hour-long episodes (I think mediocre-to-bad episodes are the majority) but I won’t turn back before I finish the whole run (are you impressed at my heroism?).

CHARISMA (1999) is a confusing Korean thriller in which a cop is put on mandatory leave after a botched hostage crisis, travels to a small village and winds up obsessing over a mysterious tree in the arae. I’d assume my utter lack of interest in this (I checked out after about 40 minutes) was due to a culture gap if I hadn’t watched and enjoyed so many Korean films for the time-travel book.

THE INCREDIBLES 2 (2018) picks up immediately where the first film wrapped up, as the family’s battle against Undermind creates so much wreckage it looks like superheroes will stay on everyone’s shit list. A billionaire superhero comes up with a solution, using Elastigirl to fight crime on camera so that viewers will see how much good they do; Mr. Incredible, being overly prone to collateral damage, has to become the stay-at-home parent. But a villain named Screenslaver has a plot that may destroy the family for good … This was a lot of fun, and I give them credit for showing Mr. Incredible as a competent parent rather than a complete inability to handle the kids. Jack-Jack isn’t as cute as they think, but overall this makes me hope for Incredibles 3 some day. “Let’s not go testing the ‘insurance will pay for everything’ idea all at once, okay?”

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The First Law of Evil Magic

Brandon Sanderson’s first law of magic (which I’ve blogged about before) is that “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” Lately I’ve been wondering if that works the opposite way: does the ability to make the conflict unsolvable require the reader to understand magic? Like a horror story where the magic is all evil, and all on the bad guys’ side?

I’m inclined to say yes. It doesn’t have to be hard magic (Sanderson’s term for a system of magic with clearly defined rules) but it does have to have internal logic. Though neither readers nor the protagonist may understand the logic until the protagonist gets it in the neck.

For example there was an episode of an anthology series on VH-1 some years ago in which the devil (Roger Daltrey) traps the protagonist into playing a magic guitar. The strings cut his fingers, the blood forms the notes but if he survives to the end of the song he gets to keep the guitar. Only when he reaches the end, it’s some musical symbol that says “go back to the beginning and repeat.” He’s doomed.

That story was definitely soft magic. We have no idea what rules bind Lucifer, other than being obligated to honor the letter of whatever pact he makes (a staple of any “deal with the devil” story). If the protagonist won and Satan killed him anyway, that would make sort-of sense (he’s the Devil, after all) but dramatically it falls flat.

Or consider a movie from 2009, Drag Me To Hell. Protagonist refuses an old woman a loan; woman places curse on protagonist that threatens to destroy her life. We eventually learn some of the rules by which the curse can be broken because that gives the protagonist her endgame: follow the rules, save herself. It doesn’t work but providing the rules provides the suspense.

For a story where magic has no rules, there’s the classic Twilight Zone episode It’s a Good Life. Billy Mumy (above) plays a little kid with the reality warping power of the Infinity Gauntlet. He wishes it, it happens. Why no, a small child having that power doesn’t end well for anyone around him, how did you guess?

We get no explanation how Mumy got his power or how it works. But for the purpose of this story, that’s okay. We know going on that he has absolute power, so again, we have a clear understanding of the rules.

Victoria Feistner’s excellent Melanie in the Underworld in Love, Time, Space, Magic (the anthology with my short story Leave the World to Darkness) seems like an exception. It involves an Orpheus-like quest to free someone from the netherworld, but even though Melanie follows the rules, she loses. That works because the story ultimately isn’t about freeing her lover, it’s about accepting that he’s gone and dealing with the loss. All of which is foreshadowed early in the story so it doesn’t come out of the blue.

So I guess Sanderson’s law applies here too.

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Rogue Christmas spirits, forgettable Christmas films and more!

KARROLL’S CHRISTMAS (2004) is a fun Christmas Carol riff; Alex Karroll is a disgruntled greeting-card writer who hates Christmas ever since his ex-girlfriend shot down his proposal (in public, no less), only half aware of how badly he’s slipping into bitter depression despite having a new and better girlfriend. When Bob Marley’s ghost shows up (it seems Jacob spent some time in Jamaica as a young man; Bob’s a descendant), it turns out they’ve mistaken Karroll for his even meaner neighbor, Wallace Shawn, so he finds himself dragged into Shawn’s past life instead of his own. Of course the spirit of goodwill wins out, but not before some fun; in its own way as subversive of the conventions as Scrooged. “Your use of the word ‘lunatic’ is very offensive to me and to, well, lunatics.”

Having watched CHASING CHRISTMAS (2004) for Now and Then We Time Travel, I knew it would make a good double bill for the first film; Jack (Tom Arnold) is the Christmas hater this time, due to catching his wife cheating on him during their daughter’s Christmas pageant; unfortunately after Christmas Past (Leslie Jordan) drags Jack back into his childhood, Past snaps, feeling centuries of guilt-tripping people has been completely futile, and strands Arnold in 1965. And if Jack can’t get back to the present before Christmas Day, he’ won’t exist any longer … A fun one, as I thought the first time I watched it.  “I am not some mean old man — I hate Christmas for a reason and no amount of memory is ever going to change that.”

I also caught EVE’S CHRISTMAS (2004) for the book, but I had no memory of that when I decided to stream it. Nor did the first thirty minutes jog my memory as unlucky-in-love Eve gets transported back to right before the wedding to her hometown sweetheart that never happened when she left for a Big Apple job (leaving your home town and not marrying your childhood sweetheart are terrible, terrible, terrible mistake in rom-coms like this). Once I realized I’d seen it, I stopped (trust me, I wasn’t missing anything).

I can’t say THE SANTA CHRONICLES (2018) did any better for me. This made-for-Netflix programmer has two kids attempt to catch Santa result in Mr. Claus losing the hat that gives him his magic powers. Can kids and Santa recover the hat in time to save Christmas? Despite Kurt Russell as a somewhat grump Father Christmas (constantly annoyed that no matter how much he works out, people expect him to be plus-size), this wasn’t worth finishing either.

While I’d planned to rewatch 12 Dates of Christmas it appears I gave that one away with many of the other time-travel DVDs. So instead I went with the old reliable WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) in which entertainers Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby put on a show to save their former CO’s Vermont Inn, and possibly snag dancers Vera Allen and Rosemary Clooney for themselves. As familiar as an old shoe by now, but there’s no denying the charm of the performances (particularly Kaye and Vera Allen in “Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing”) and the gorgeous Technicolor look. I also found myself thinking of ways it could have gone horribly wrong, like if they’d done the minstrel-show number in actual blackface. “‘Wow’ is somewhere between ‘ouch’ and ‘boing!’”

Another perennial is TWILIGHT ZONE: The Night of the Meek with Art Carney as a burned-out, drunken department-store Santa who gets to play the role for real when he finds a bag that allows him to give everyone the present of their dreams (hmm, where do you suppose it came from? Why, that’s right!). Rewatching, I was struck by the episode’s generosity of spirit; the officious department store-owner is precisely the kind of character who usually gets coal in his stocking in some fashion, but here even he gets a merry Christmas. “Just once, I’d like to see the meek inherit the Earth.”

MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1962) stars the short-sighted cartoon character voiced by Jim Backus as a Broadway star, here performing in an musical adaptation of Dickens. This squeezes in a substantial amount of plot for under an hour, though dropping some details such as Scrooge’s family. Well done, with good songs, though I’m curious what millennials would make of the stylized, simplified style of animation UPA uses here (it was considered quite groundbreaking back in the day). “A hand for each hand was the way it was planned/Why won’t my fingers reach?/A million grains of sand in the world/Why such a lonely beach?”

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The first time ever I saw that trope

Some of you may be familiar with the infamous concept  of the “Adam and Eve” story. This is an SF story which ends with a man and women as the last survivors of a nuclear war, or the first colonists on an alien planet. And their first names are … Adam and Eve. So was this set in our future — or Earth’s past?

I don’t know when the first version of this appeared, but it goes back at least to the 1960s or early 1950s. There’s a Marvel short SF story that uses the trope (probably the first place I encountered it), and an S5 Twilight Zone episode, “Probe 7, Over and Out.” And truthfully, I don’t think it’s that horrible an idea. Not deep, but cute enough for a flash fiction story — much less satisfying as the punchline of the TZ episode. The reason it’s infamous is because lots and lots of people write and submit the story (or they used to, back in the 20th century), convinced it’s a fresh idea that’s sure to sell. No Adam and Eve Stories is a staple of “what not to submit” guidelines.

And I get that. It’s cute the first time you encounter it, but never again. But the point I’m working around to is that when someone reads it for the first time, it doesn’t matter that it’s trite or cliched — for them it’s fresh and clever. Maybe not that clever in this case, but it’s not just this case, it’s any case. The first time we read a detective story, a ghost story, a superhero story, watch a rom com it doesn’t matter that the tropes are hackneyed, assuming they’re done with a reasonable level of competence. As the late critic Pauline Kael said back in the 1990s, if you’re a teenager who doesn’t watch a lot of movies, Titanic really may have been the greatest movie you’d ever seen.

It’s very easy to overlook this as a critic. The mere fact you’re watching way more movies than the average person has an effect on your perceptions (I can speak from personal experience after all the watching I’ve done for my various film books). The cliches become more annoying; conversely, stuff that breaks genre convention may seem a lot fresher and better to you than it would to ordinary viewers. Writing Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan I included comments on several films that if it was the first haunted house film you’d ever seen (or cops-and-robots or Christmas fantasy comedy), it might be entertaining, conceding most people wouldn’t have my jaundiced viewpoint (I watched a shit-ton of Poltergeist knockoffs for that book!).

I suspect binge-watching can have the same effect: the Roger Moore Bond films came off much weaker when I watched them relatively quickly after watching all the Connery movies.

I sometimes see this creeping into writing too, particularly comics. The Emerald Dawn series retelling Green Lantern’s origin in the 1990s was a good example: the writer seemed to assume we knew all about the Green Lantern Corps and the Guardians, we’d seen them in lots of stories and yeah, who cares any more, amiright? Zero attempt to infuse the story with the sense of wonder the early Green Lantern issues gave me. Conversely, the late Len Wein has said that in every Superman story he’d use the standard tropes such as “This looks like a job … for Superman!” because each story was probably someone’s first and the trope will be fresh.

It’s something to keep in mind as we write, perhaps. Are we writing for newbies? For people who read a lot of genre stuff but still enjoy the old tropes? Someone who wants something new within limited values of “new”? Or someone whose seen it all, written it all and desperately wants tropes questioned and metafictional commentary made? I suspect I’m writing to categories two and three in that list, mostly three. Not that any of them are unworthy to write too, but the same stories may not work for all four groups.

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Twilight Zone aesthetics: shabby chic? (#SFWApro)

I just finished rewatching the second season of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and it holds up just as well as the first (all rights to image remain with current holder).

There are some real turkeys, such as the Three Wishes story “Man in the Bottle” and the recycled urban legend “Twenty Two.” But the good ones far outnumber them.

“Shadow Play,” in which Dennis Weaver tries to convince the court sentencing him to death that the whole thing is Weaver’s dream.

Agnes Moorehead is a farmwife who has to battle “The Invaders” in what’s effectively a one-woman show.

“Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room” is close to a one-man show, as a petty hood has an unexpected conversation with the man in the mirror.

“The Odyssey of Flight 33,” in which the cockpit crew of a passenger jet realize they’ve slipped through time.

And “The Trouble With Templeton” in which Serling shows that despite his fondness for nostalgic stories about people trying to recapture the past, he knows nostalgia can be a trap too.

As I mentioned reviewing the first season, Serling has a fascination with losers, the lonely, the down-and-out. Giving them a second chance, or sometimes taking away their last chance (as in the first season’s “The Big Tall Wish.”). Watching S2, I wonder if the set design doesn’t reflect this.

It’s common for characters on TV who have next to no money to still have huge, attractive apartments. Not in The Twilight Zone. Here cheap rooms look like cheap rooms, flophouses look floppy, a decayed boarding house looks rundown. Struggling small-town diners look small and struggling. It’s most noticeable in “Penny for Your Thoughts,” in which Ace, a compulsive gambler, discovers his best friend Jimbo (Buddy Ebsen) has TK, which he doesn’t use for anything but little everyday tasks. Ace badgers Jimbo into using his powers to cheat at the craps table and they have a brief shot at the big time before Ace ends up broke but wiser.

The thing is, even when they go to a casino to play, it doesn’t look at all glamorous. It’s a little hole-in-the-wall motel/casino somewhere in Nevada, a big step up for Ace but still small time. And it looks it. Ace never even gets close to glamor.

The cheap look wasn’t budget or a lack of vision. The series has no trouble portraying a nice, middle-class lifestyle as in the prosecutor’s house in “Shadow Play.” So was it a conscious decision to drive home that these stories are about the down-and-outers of the world?

Or is it that with everything in color, these just look even shabbier than they originally were? Or maybe this was the norm for 1950s TV, before things got glossy, and it’s just that Twilight Zone is the only 1950s stuff I watch regularly?

I don’t have an answer but I do find it an interesting question.

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