Tag Archives: Twilight Zone

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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Lest we be gravediggers

“The Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes—all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers.”—Rod Serling, Twilight Zone: Death’s Head Revisited.

Unfortunately we’re already seeing conservatives lining up to shovel those graves by explaining that Nazis and white supremacists aren’t the only issue in Charlottesville. No, the liberals and Black Lives Matter and identity politics, they’re at fault at least as much or even more. Because it’s not like when Martin Luther King was fighting against racism — according to the Wall Street Journal that fight is overthe fault of the left. Now when nonwhite people talk about racism or oppression, it’s just identity politics. And that just inspires extremists on the right, so really it’s the left’s fault (just like we’re responsible for Trump). Erick Erickson just argues flat out that this violence is for pissing off right-wingers.

And of course the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer is celebrating the deaths.

Plus the creeps I linked to this morning.

None of this surprises me. Right-wingers talk very big about getting tough with terrorists, but only when those terrorists are some unrelated, unloved group such as Muslims. I’ve written several columns on right-wing terrorism and violence over the years and invariably trigger outcries of “No, no, it’s a lie, why don’t you mention all the other terrorists?” But even when I mention black militant terrorism, radical leftist terrorism, the Unabomber, etc., they still find my facts politically incorrect (by conservative-PC standards).

Since this morning, Trump has finally denounced white supremacists, which is better than sticking with Both Sides at Fault but … I don’t believe he’s sincere. Whether he’s feeling political pressure or doesn’t like the negative attention (like the Trump Tower protest) I do not know, but I doubt he’s had one of those magic “pivots” to decency. Though if I’m wrong and he’s finally seen some sort of light, I’ll be happy to apologize.

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Angry Martians, a disappointing black film, TV and a play: reviews (#SFWApro)

THE ANGRY RED PLANET (1960) is by the same creators as the tedious The Time Travelers and equally uninteresting, except for one truly memorable monster, the absurd bat-rat-spider. An expedition to Mars encounters various Martian horrors before the Martians send them home and tell them not to come back, the end. Very, very talky in the drawing-room SF vein (even though most of the talk takes place in labs or on the ship). “Nothing I’ve seen contradicts the theory that basic matter is the same everywhere in the universe.”

A PIECE OF THE ACTION (1976) was Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier’s third and final big-screen team-up (the first being Uptown Saturday Night) and easily the worst. Instead of blue-collar buddies, they’re now master criminals (safe cracker and conman respectively) blackmailed by retired cop James Earl Jones into serving as mentors at a job center for troubled inner-city youth. I loved this the first time I saw it, but now I recognize how many shopworn tropes are in it — this could as easily have been Welcome Back Kotter or one of Warner Brothers’ 1930s dramas about slum kids, coupled with the time-honored plot of Guy Becomes Teacher, Blossoms Into Decent Human Being and lots of stuff about how all the kids need is Confidence and a Good Attitude. Another problem is that there are two main plots, the crime drama (will the vengeful mobsters catch up with them?) and the kid stuff, and the film doesn’t mesh them smoothly. “That’s your first lesson — nobody gives you something for nothing.”

DC LEGENDS OF TOMORROW had a much better season than its first, replacing Vandal Savage with the Legion of Doom (“I got the name from this cartoon I watched as a kid.”), a trio of established villains who very much want to rewrite history to put wrong what once went right. This was just a really fun show and the final episode of the season was spectacular. “Why would a relic from the Crusades turn up in the Galapagos during the Reagan era?”

I recently discovered that the one nonsyndicated episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, The Encounter, was online at YouTube and so thought I’d give it a look. This story of Nisei George Takei and WW II veteran Neville Brand locking horns with each other is superbly acted — given it’s a two-man show, they picked two great guys. Unfortunately the racial overtones are (as they say) problematic, staring with the Big Reveal that Takei’s father was a Japanese spy working with the attackers at Pearl Harbor (there was no Japanese fifth column at Pearl Harbor). The rest of the arc seems to imply that Takei has something to atone for equivalent to Brand murdering a Japanese officer, or that he’s still somehow a threat just because of his sinister Japanese-ness or something, which probably explains why it’s not in syndication or on DVD.THE GRAND DUKE was Gilbert and Sullivan’s last production and I wasn’t optimistic about it given Utopia Limited and Princess Ida (the preceding creations) were hardly their A-game. Surprisingly this was very entertaining: a troupe of actors plotting to take over a small German principality get a lucky break due to an arcane rule of law that allows one of their number to legally assume the Grand Duke’s role. However it turns out that includes the Grand Duke’s responsibilities, such as marriage — or engagements — and it turns out the Duke’s been kind of free with his proposals. Great fun, good looking and well performed; the duke is somewhat modeled on Trump, but that works fine.. “Be a violet — a crushed, despairing violet.”


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Time for Christmassy Movies! (#SFWApro)

For the first time in a couple of years, I can binge on Christmas movies this month instead of sharing space with time-travel material. Woo-hoo! Two of the  movies this week belong in the bring people together subgenre of Christmas films: Christmas is simply an excuse for a lot of people to be together in the same place at the same time.

Case in point The Best Man (1999) brought a group of college friends back together for a wedding, but Christmas serves just as well in 2013’s BEST MAN HOLIDAY. It’s fourteen years later and the cast of the first film (including writer Taye Diggs and pro football star Morris Chestnutt) has a big Christmas reunion, which leads to them dealing with career collapse, celebrity, cancer, pregnancy, adultery and parenthood. Not a standout, but watchable, and I don’t require much more in December. “He can get married again, but not to her.”


Likewise WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) has a plot that could as easily have been made into, say, July in Vermont: entertainment duo Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby wind up at their former CO’s inn, realize he feels over-the-hill and useless (not to mention the inn is struggling) and launch a scheme to rebuild his confidence and boost bookings. Meanwhile Kaye conspires to nudge his partner into a liaison with pretty nightclub entertainer Rosemary Clooney, while himself falling into the arms of Vera Allen. But of course, would July in Vermont be watched half as much as a Christmas film? Some great dance numbers and good songs (“White Christmas” itself, for instance) but “What do you do with a general?” is not one of them. And a production number that includes nostalgia for minstrel shows makes me wince a little. Still, overall this is good, old-fashioned entertainment. All rights to image reside with current holders  “If there’s one thing I learned in the army it’s to be positive—especially when you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Now the non-Christmas duo—Surprisingly, RUDOLPH AND FROSTY’S CHRISTMAS IN JULY (1979) puts two of the best-known Christmas characters into a film set, yes, in July: Rudolph, Frosty and the latter’s family leave the North Pole to help out a struggling circus, which gives the evil sorcerer Winterbolt a chance to snuff out the light in Rudoph’s nose, the last remnant of the magic that kept Winterbolt imprisoned for centuries. This might have worked as an hour special, but at ninety minutes (probably two hours with commercials when first aired) it feels very padded (the circus stuff in particular). However it is interesting to see Rankin-Bass throw in added continuity from Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town (makes me wonder they didn’t work in Peter Cottontail or the Winter Warlock). “Darker, darker, grimmer, grimmer/Let Rudoph’s nose/Lose it’s glimmer!”

SNOW DAY (2000) wasn’t actually a Christmas movie, only a winter movie: when the eponymous event hits, weatherman Chevy Chase has to outperform a TV Weatherman of Evil to keep ratings up, wife Jean Smart finds herself cut off from the office and their kid and his friends hope that just once they can gum up the snowplow long enough to get two days out of it. Bland, though I’m obviously not the target audience. “Is it true what they say about running over kids with your snow plough?”

NOEL (2004) is in the second subcategory, using Christmas joy for a contrast with the characters’ loneliness and despair, with the lonely and despairing including Susan Sarandon (mother has Alzheimer’s), Penelope Cruz (boyfriend is violently jealous), Paul Walker (boyfriend in question), Alan Arkin (loonie with a tragic past) and Robin Williams (despairing priest). Nowhere near as deep or poignant as it imagines, but again, watchable. “He didn’t give you a cock-and-bull story about being my reincarnated mother, did he?”

TWILIGHT ZONE: Night of the Meek was a second season episode that fits into the second subgenre but also the third (movies that are actually about Christmas—because for me, any movie where Santa Is Real qualifies). Art Carney plays a drunken department-store Santa who stumbles across a sack in the street, then discovers that whatever people ask for, he can find inside it …I’ve seen it several times, and it’s still remarkably effective. “Just once, on Christmas, I’d like to know that the meek really do inherit the Earth.”

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No-one deserves to die like that! (#SFWApro)

the-twilight-zoneSo I was watching an episode of The Twilight Zone last month and it got me thinking about endings (all rights to image reside with current holder).

The second-season episode A Thing About Machines deals with Finchley, an unpleasant, snide malcontent (Richard Haydn) who hates modern technology and doesn’t like people much anyway (he seems to be some kind of wit or critic professionally). Machines, it turns out, hate him and the way he mistreats them too. At the climax the machines in Finchley’s house rise up (the shaver slithering down the stairs is a neat moment) and drive him out; Finchley’s car chases him and he escapes into a swimming pool where he dies of a heart attack.

Coming right after the outstanding Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room, it’s disappointing, though it would be poor regardless of when it aired. The problem for me is simple: from what I saw, Finchley didn’t deserve to die. Oh, he’s not likable—he seems to be an unpleasantly mean-spirited dude–but not liking machines or even using them so harshly they break hardly seems like a hanging offense.

That’s not a fatal flaw in itself. Twilight Zone does lots of stories where the protagonist doesn’t deserve what happens: the victims of the parallel-world counterparts in Mirror Image, Roddy McDowell’s good-hearted astronaut in People Are Alike All Over. My short story Others Must Fail is all about bad things happening to good people. But the thing is (and the point of this post), when the show (or anywhere else) offers up an odious, unpleasant person coming to a bad end, it’s hard not to see the message as “they had it coming.” It’s possible to write about a horrible person who doesn’t deserve their fate — as Willa Cather put it, even the wicked suffer more than they deserve — but it’s not my default assumption. So instead I assume that the story structure is disproportionate, just as I didn’t think Ida Lupino in The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine deserved her miraculous happy ending.

To use another example, Fritz Leiber’s short story Belsen Express concerns a shallow, middle-class American in the 1950s who hates thinking of unpleasant things like the Holocaust. Sure, it was awful, and a lot of Jews died and stuff, but it’s not his concern—why can’t he stay in his nice coccoon of peaceful cluelessness? But it’s not to be: the echoes of the Holocaust penetrate his daily life until he drops dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, just as if he’d been one of the Jews sentenced to die. It’s very well executed (despite being, according to Leiber, his most rejected story), but rereading it a few years ago, I was discomfited by the death sentence inflicted on the guy. It’s obvious he didn’t do much for the Jews of Europe, but he’s also not someone who was actually there and closing his eyes to what his own country was doing. I felt that a wake-up call would have been more appropriate than a slow, unpleasant death. Leiber, obviously felt differently, and other readers may have too. But I still think that in writing this kind of supernatural vengeance, it’s better if the punishment fits the crime.

EDIT: In response to a comment, let me clarify. I’m fine with tragic stories and bad things happening to good characters. The problem with A Thing About Machines is that the protagonist is apparently supposed to deserve his fate, and I don’t think he does.


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Ghostbusters in the Twilight Zone: Films and TV watched (#SFWApro)

0004565435-ew-1420ghostbusttersGHOSTBUSTERS (2016) is the all-woman remake starring Kristen Wig and Melissa McCarthy as former ghost-hunting best friends who broke up when Wig turned to serious physics instead. Now they reunite alongside mad scientist Kate McKinnon and Big Apple history buff Leslie Jones to stop disgruntled janitor Neil Casey from unleashing Hell on Earth. Extremely funny (TYG liked it and she’s not a fan of the original) with a cast include Mayor Andy Garcia (“Do not compare me to the mayor in Jaws!”), university dean Charles Dance, Annie Potts as a snide hotel clerk, Dan Ackroyd as a cabbie (“I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.”), Bill Murray as a James Randi-type and Chris Hemsworth as the women’s brain-dead receptionist (there are also cameos for Slimer and Stay-Pufft). I highly recommend this one (all rights to image with current holders). “When the Fourth Cataclysm comes, laborers such as yourself will be the last ones led to the butchery.”

TYG then dredged out my copy of GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) to see if she’d enjoy it more than when she watched it years ago — nope, but I had fun watching Bill Murray do psychic research, Sigourney Weaver finding evil in her fridge, Rick Moranis attempting to make friends and Ernie Hudson promising to believe anything for a paycheck (his character was originally much more competent, but the role was rewritten when plans for a name black star fell through). “What my associate says is right—this man has no dick!”

ROWS (2015) is a horror film in which the protagonist’s efforts to deliver an eviction notice to a spooky old woman in a supposedly haunted house lead to what are either precognitive flashes, hallucinations or time jumps back and forth. One that I might add to the appendix in the proofing stage (lord knows I’ve picked ones with flimsier qualifications); in its own right, a chaotic mess. “Why did you stab that man?”

Rewatching the first season of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, the most striking thing is Rod Serling’s fondness for ordinary guys and out-of-luck losers, from drunken ex-gunfighter Mr. Denton to Jack Klugman’s depressed musician in “A Passage for Trumpet” to the burned-out businessman in “A Stop at Willoughby.” (a fondness which didn’t stop Serling from going tragic, as in “The Big Tall Wish.”). It’s also noteworthy that despite the affection in many scripts, Serling was perfectly aware how horrible we could be, most particularly in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Plus of course, despite occasional flops such as “Mr. Bevis,” the stories are mostly excellent. Still worth watching after all these years. “No, it’s not what you need—but it’s exactly what I need.”

DEFIANCE‘s second season (I reviewed the first here) has the city now under control of the Earth Republic, despite which things go on much as before, with various romances at cross-purposes, crime on the streets and the Daytak family entangled in various personal dramas. Still not A-list for me, but still worth watching. “You killed my parents and I loved you for it.”


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The greatest time-travel movies ever … were not what I watched this week (#SFWApro)

Adapted from Vonnegut’s novel, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE (1972) is a rather dull tale in which the protagonist jumping in time is just a framework for his picaresque adventures (it doesn’t really make a difference to events unlike, say Shuffle) in WW II, in romance, encountering other Vonnegut characters such as the protagonist of Mother Night) and ultimately ending up as an exhibit for fourth-dimensional aliens to gawk it. This last bit comes off as a cringeworthy sex fantasy, as fellow abductee Valerie Perrine responds to their plight by jumping the protagonist’s bones and happily having his babies.  “There is no how, there is no why, the moment simply is.”

TWILIGHT ZONE THE MOVIE (1983) didn’t require a full viewing as the only relevant part is the first segment in which bigot Vic Morrow experiences life as a Jew in the Holocaust, a black man in the Jim Crow south and a Vietnamese fleeing American soldiers in ‘nam. This is just way too heavy handed—Morrow’s a horrible human being, but it’s a bit much to make bigotry literally a death penalty offense, and there’s no sign he learns his views are wrong. Poor, though as my friend Ross once remaked, Serling did more than a few heavy-handed preachments in the original.“Do you want to see something really scary?”

LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1962) is the pretentious art film in which a man tries to convince a woman they had a torrid affair a year ago and that their meeting now is an agreed-on reunion, but she says she remembers nothing … While this shows the past as mutable, it could just as easily be the limits of memory or the arty directing as anything else, so I can cross this off the list. “We are like two coffins, buried side by side in frozen ground.”

WEIRD SCIENCE (1985) has Anthony Michael Hall and his best bud accidentally create a living hologram (Kelly LeBrock) as their genie-like servant, then awkwardly enlist her help to navigate high-school angst and romance issues. One of John Hughes’ weakest films, I’d rewatched this because of a vague memory it culminates with LeBrock unleashing post-apocalypse warriors at a high school party. As it turns out, they’re just punked-out bikers, so I can cross this one off the list. Bill Paxton plays an oafish bully and Robert Downey Jr. is a high school jerk. “Your typical party—chips, dips, chains and whips.”

TWICE UPON A YESTERDAY (1998) is a frustrating do-over in which drunken actor Douglas Henshall loses Lena Headey after admitting to cheating on her, then gets a do-over from Elizabeth McGovern that allows him to lie about the affair, then keep Headey from meeting the man she eventually married. When she winds up leaving him for the same man anyway, I thought it would be a display of inherent strength—no matter what, she’s better off with Guy Two—but instead it’s just the set-up for punishing Headey for throwing Henshall out, as she winds up miserable (even given she gets her own do-over in the last scene) while he finds happiness with Penelope Cruz. As Roger Ebert says, it’s hard to see why Henshall deserves so many breaks, given he’s a jerk. “You’re going to choose some faraway place over me, and I don’t want to be there when it happens.”

NOT ANOTHER SCI-FI MOVIE (2008) falls into the That’s Time I’ll Never Get Back category of crappy films: a bad X-files knockoff about Scully and Mulder clones battling aliens impregnating human women, it’s so unbelievably badly acted the mediocre script isn’t really a problem. Fortunately there’s no time-travel in this one either. “The FBI may finally accept the X, Y and Z files are right there in the back of the cabinet.”


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Why does it always have to be time-travel? (#SFWApro)

THE SANTA CLAUSE 3: Escape Clause (2006) has Santa (Tim Allen) coping with his wife’s imminent pregnancy, bringing his inlaws to the North Pole and Jack Frost’s (Martin Short) desire to replace him—which is what leads to the time-travel angle, Frost contriving to rewind time to the moment Allen became Santa, then replace him. This has the It’s a Wonderful Life effect of making everyone’s life more miserable, even Allen’s first wife’s second husband, Judge Reinhold, so Allen sets out to fix things. Extremely forgettable, but it would double bill well with the later Rise of the Guardians or the earlier Like Father, Like Santa (another where an ice-themed villain tries replacing the guy in the suit). “They’re not little Canadians—they’re elves!”
FOR ALL TIME (2000) is nominally inspired by The Twilight Zone episode “A Stop at Willoughby,” in which a stressed out businessman gets the chance to stop at an idyllic old-fashioned town. What happens next is so different that the film feels like it owes more to Jack Finney’s nostalgia-drenched time-travel stories. Mark Harmon is the stressed-out ad man who discovers his antique pocket watch lets him step off his commuter train into 1896, where he fall sin love with not only peaceful small-town life but newspaper editor Mary McDonnell (as my friend Ross has observed, “female newspaper editor” seems to replace “schoolteacher” as the job of choice for 19th century female leads). Blithely ignores the ugly side of the past (lynching, sexism, etc.) and the ending is odd: After Harmon goes back to the past to stay, we see this leads to an alternate present in which his career-oriented, not-having-kids wife is married to Harmon’s best friend (though they don’t remember him) and has a son (would having her stay child-free not have been happy enough?) “The only things that have to show are the grim reaper—and the taxman.”

Now the not-going-in-the-book ones: DINOSAUR ISLAND (1994) presents its fur bikini-wearing blonde jungle women and dinosaurs as a stock Lost World rather than a time-rift, but I couldn’t be sure until I watched it This Fred Olin Ray schlock production was such crap (and with such gratuitous toplessness) that I fast forwarded through most of it. “Page 32! Page 32!”
DINOSAUR PROJECT (2012) was a Found Footage story in which an expedition hunting cryptids in Africa discovers another lost world swarming with dinosaurs—but it turns out the mysterious valley they come from is just a mysterious valley (as far as the movie shows) rather than a time-rift, so it doesn’t make the cut either. Competent, but stock, and the found-footage angle detracts rather than adds to the film as it makes it obvious nobody’s coming back (which is predictable in a horror movie, not so much here).


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A world unlike our own (sort of another Illogicon post)

One of the topics that came up at Illogicon was working with characters from cultures not our own. Different concepts of good, evil, honor, bad behavior—and even if they freak you out, you have to be true to your characters’ views. Particularly if it’s a historical setting. Natania Barron pointed out that the Roman protagonist in one of the things she’s working on has by our standards some really creepy attitudes, but they’re what you get when you’re in Rome (do you notice me avoiding the obvious joke?).
The remarkable thing is, you don’t even have to go back that far to get really different viewpoints. The protagonist of my 1950s-set Not In Our Stars But In Ourselves, for instance, is horrified to be framed for murder. He’s a lot more horrified that the woman he supposedly killed was (also supposedly) his black lover. If his parents should see that, if they thought he’d done that … for L.G. Walker, the possibility of people thinking he’s crossed the color line is horrifying.
I came across another example in New Worlds of Fantasy, an excellent anthology from the 1960s edited by Terry Carr. Eschewing epic and adventure fantasy, it includes Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Immortal,” Ray Russell’s tale of a composer’s pact with Satan (“Comet Wine”), and J.G. Ballard’s excellent “The Lost Leonardo” (a Wandering Jew story) though probably the best known tale today is Peter Beagle’s “Come Lady Death.”
And then there’s “Nackles,” a short story written pseudonymously by crime writer Donald Westlake (Harlan Ellison would later rework it into a Western Union script for one of the Twilight Zone revivals, but it never aired).
The premise of the story: Santa Claus has all the attributes of godhood, such as being everywhere at once (at least on Christmas Eve), judging our sins, answering children’s prayers and millions of devout believers. And most gods have some sort of evil counterpart. So when the central character starts telling his kids about Nackles, the anti-Santa who devours naughty children on Christmas Eve—and then tells other kids he meets, and encourages other parents to tell their kids—the belief that creates Santa eventually manifests a real Nackles as his player on the other side who carries of the drunk as the meanest, least-good person around (or so it’s implied—Westlake left the ending a little ambiguous).
The thing about “Nackles” is, the protagonist is a drunken, physically and verbally abusive man and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Okay, the narrator (his brother-in-law) gets him to stop hitting his wife by beating him up (I do not believe this works in real life), but there’s no suggestion of calling the cops or getting social services involved, let alone any consideration of getting divorced or moving out. Which is perfectly true to the time: Divorce was hard to get and spousal/child abuse really wasn’t taken seriously (particularly not when you’ve got a respectable middle-class taxpayer involved). Other than slapping the guy around, all the narrator can say is that he shouldn’t have let his sister marry the guy (which makes an assumption about the sister’s standing in itself). It’s a good plot and well written but it’s incredibly distracting to see a contemporary fantasy that feels so … un-contemporary.


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Writing eucatastrophe

JRR Tolkien defined a eucatastrophe as the miraculous happy ending he thought fantasy required—“a sudden and miraculous grace, never counted on to recur.” A triumph that makes the heart catch in the throat, that gains power not because it denies defeat and despair, but because it comes in spite of them.
This is tricky to write (I’d also argue it isn’t essential to fantasy, but that’s another topic). If you don’t set it up in advance, it comes off as deus ex machina. If you do set it off in advance, readers may see it coming. Watching the first season of The Twilight Zone on Netflix last week (I’ve been streaming it, episode by episode), I found two textbook examples of how to do it—and how to not do it.
In Mr. Denton on Doomsday, Dan Duryea plans a drunken ex-gunfighter, a man who crawled into a bottle after killing too many people who tried to make a name for themselves by out-shooting him. As local bully Martin Landau knocks him to the ground, a shabby old peddler pulls up into town … and a gun materializes by Duryea’s side. His hand falls on the gun, he gets to his feet and the gun fires itself, blasting Landau’s gun out of his hand (from the point of view of the characters, it looks like Duryea snatched up a gun and recovered his fast-draw skills). He regains his self-respect, stops drinking—and then learns Doug McClure is riding into town to challenge him. It’s all going to happen again.
The peddler, Professor Fate, offers a solution: A potion that will make Duryea the fastest gun alive for just ten seconds after he drinks—enough to guarantee a win. Desperate, Duryea accepts; McClure rides into town, Duryea down the vial—and sees McClure doing the same. Next second, both men (or rather, their guns) shoot, both crippling each other’s hands: Usable for everyday stuff, but they’ll never have the motor skills for a fast draw. Duryea gets to hang up his guns, and so does McClure.
It works because even though it’s obvious Fate is up to something—the ending’s no deus ex machina—it’s never clear what (I expected a much nastier twist). And also because Duryea plays a good guy in a no-win situation, someone who needs a eucatastrophe.
Not so Ida Lupino in the next episode, The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine. A Hollywood star in the 1930s, she’s become a recluse, sitting in her mansion, watching her old movies (back when you had to rent 16-mm copies and run them on a home projector), dreaming of her glory years a quarter-century gone (the resemblance to Sunset Boulevard is not coincidental, I’m sure). Unable to deal with growing old and no longer getting great romantic leads (supporting parts are not for her) she finally walks into the movie screen by the power of her longing, there to meet all her old co-stars (or rather the characters they played) and dwell in glamor, unaging, ever more.
It’s a good concept: Robert Bloch did well with it in The Movie People. And it fits Rod Serling’s fondness for stories of people recovering their lost past. But it doesn’t work. Partly because it comes out of the blue—until we see Lupino onscreen at the end, it’s a straight drama.
And partly it’s because I can’t see any reasons she gets a eucatastrophe. In other Serling stories in this vein, the characters are regaining a lost love (Static), tragically losing everything (Night Gallery: They’re Tearing Down Tim Reilly’s Bar) or suffering the hell of sitting around a nursing home waiting for death (Kick the Can). Lupino’s problem is simply that she doesn’t like being in her fifties. When her former romantic lead shows up—now a fiftysomething manager of a supermarket chain—she throws him out because he’s not the heartthrob she remembers.
She’s not miserable because her life sucks. Her life sucks because she’s miserable. Like the brooding protagonist of another episode, The Trouble With Templeton, she needs a eucatastrophe that adjusts her attitude, not her life.
And that’s how to make a eucatastrophe ending fail.


Filed under TV, Writing