Friday -- October 2, 2009 -- was the 50th anniversary of Rod Serling's classic CBS anthology series, The Twilight Zone. Yet neither CBS nor Syfy bothered to make a big deal of it. Or even a small one...
This weekend, for example, Syfy is showing a couple of early-morning showings of the original series, including (at 5:30 a.m. ET Sunday) Billy Mumy and Cloris Leachman in "It's a Good Life," the 1961 episode about a kid with the power to control the world around him. And the Chiller network is showing a small gaggle of episodes of the 1980s remake series on Sunday, including (at 1:30 p.m. ET) a remake, starring Terry Farrell, of the classic "After Hours" episode, starring Anne Francis as a woman trapped in a department store.
But that's it. CBS, the network that spawned the show half a century ago, did nothing. Not even a prime-time retrospective special, which would have been a Friday night natural.
But here at TV WORTH WATCHING, we try not to forget the classics. My own Zone favorites are legion: Telly Savalas being terrorized by a taking doll in "Living Doll"; the studies of relative beauty in "The Eye of the Beholder" and "Number Twelve Looks Just Like You"; William Shatner terrorized on a plane in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"; Burgess Meredith as the last man on Earth in "Time Enough at Last"; the rampant paranoia of "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"; and so many more.
Of them all, "Living Doll" creeped me out the most.
"My name is Talky Tina," the little doll told the frightened father, "and I'm going to kill you!" The voice of Talky Tina, I learned years later, was provided by Jone Foray, the same woman who provided the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel.
When I teach TV history at Rowan University, to students in their late teens and early 20s, there basically are three shows from TV's Golden Age that most of the class -- yet by no means ALL of the class -- has seen before signing up for class. I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners and The Twilight Zone. And that's it. That's the Holy Trinity of Vintage TV.
Our correspondents, though, have longer memories, and share them here:
A Less Experienced Brioux, On An Early TV Writing Assignment, Feels Like a Deadhead
By Bill Brioux
My most vivid Twilight Zone memory was almost worthy of a Rod Serling script. On that signpost straight ahead could have been written, "Warning: Clueless journalist."
It occurred in the mid-'80s, when CBS tried to revive the series. It was an uneven revival, featuring scripts from writers like Stephen King, Arthur C. Clarke and even an aborted attempt by Harlan Ellison. Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman got a little face time on the revival; one episode, featuring Sid Caesar as a past-his-prime magician, stands out in my memory.
I was living in LA at the time, and as a photo editor and writer for TV Guide Canada was just starting to get into this racket.
A photographer I knew back then introduced me to her boyfriend, an amiable Texan who knew this guy who was re-doing the music for the series. He figured he could get him on the phone if I wanted to interview the dude. Why not, I thought, looking to fill space in the TV magazine's front page "Grapevine" column.
The call came through, and we talked about staying true to the original melody, so closely identified with the old black and white series. This guy was a guitarist, and said he tried to add a bit of a rock edge to the iconic theme. He was a pleasant gent on the phone and seemed happy to talk about being pulled into the Twilight Zone.
It wasn't until I sent the short piece back to the office in Toronto that an editor asked if I knew who the hell I had just interviewed. It was a name I was not, at the time, that familiar with. It lay somewhere between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. Submitted for your approval: Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, a rock icon now found only in... The Twilight Zone.
Brinkmoeller's Most Memorable 'Zone' Episode, But for A Surprising Reason
By Tom Brinkmoeller
Having watched nearly every Twilight Zone episode during its network run, many more than once during syndication, it is amazing that only one has stayed in this Boomer brain so long. "Time Enough at Last," starring Burgess Meredith as book-loving Henry Bemis, never was completely completely erased from my memory.
Miniscule recap: Bemis loves reading more than almost anything, making him a ridiculed person by those who know him. He works at a bank and takes his book and his lunch into the vault one day so he can be alone. The vault shields him from a nuclear blast, and he learns he's the only one spared from the bomb. Initial reactions of fear are replaced when he realizes he now has all the time in the world to read. He surrounds himself with books, prepares for a feast, then breaks the glasses on which he is so dependent.
My adolescent brain was at first sucked into the horror of being totally alone. Then, as I thought about it over weeks, I realized it wasn't such a horror story after all. And I got a bit angry with the previously perfect Mr. Serling. Bemis had books, he had food, he had a neutron-bomb world in which most things survived, though people didn't. Even though semi-blind, I was sure he just didn't sit down and give up. I was certain he eventually stumbled over a magnifying glass, another pair of glasses, an optical store.
It was a clever ending, very Republican by my way of thinking, but way short of reality. Few people, when facing a high wall, don't look for another route. That's why this episode stayed with me, I believe. Buying into another's vision of gloom and despair without examining the situation on your own is so simple-minded it's plain stupid.
Ed Martin Surveys the Entire 'Zone," From Original Series to Remakes and Marathons
By Ed Martin
The highest compliment I can pay to The Twilight Zone is to admit that after decades of enjoying this classic series I still look forward to Syfy's annual marathon during the New Year's holiday. Not that I sit and watch every episode on December 31st or January 1st, but I happily dip in and out to briefly savor some of the finest television ever produced, not to mention the work of dozens of wonderful actors, most of them very early in their careers.
I can't say that I have a favorite episode -- seriously, how can you choose a single gem from dozens? But the one that first comes to mind whenever I think about the show is "The Invaders," in which a hardscrabble, axe-wielding woman who cannot speak (played by Agnes Moorehead) desperately seeks to defend her isolated home from two small robot-like aliens after they land their ship on her roof.
After fearing for the woman through much of the episode and breathlessly watching as she smashed their ship and killed them, I was completely thrown by the shocking reveal that the aliens were actually American astronauts that had crashed on a planet populated by giants. It was a lot for my young mind to wrap itself around and I still get a chill when I think about it.
An episode I am thinking more about now more than I did then is "To Serve Man," about seemingly benevolent aliens who come to Earth and declare their intent to help mankind. The visitors leave behind a book written in their language after a meeting at the United Nations, the title of which translates to "To Serve Man," which convinces everyone to trust them and accept their outsized generosity.
They cure diseases, turn deserts into farmlands and offer free passage to their home planet -- a Utopian world, they claim, that would be the ultimate vacation destination for harried humans, thousands of whom excitedly decide to make the trip. All that big love turns instantly to terror when the people working to decipher the tome realize that it's an alien cookbook featuring humans as a tasty ingredient in its many recipes! As I reflect on this episode I can't help but wonder how nasty the seemingly benevolent aliens will turn out to be in ABC's upcoming sci-fi thriller V. Will they also be hungry for human flesh?
There are three other episodes I watch for during those Syfy marathons: "Long Distance Call," "It's a Good Life" and "In Praise of Pip," all three featuring a very young Billy Mumy at the start of his career.
Mumy was one of the biggest child stars on television during much of the Sixties, and was best known as one of the stars of Lost in Space. (I'm a big fan because I looked a lot like Mumy when I was that age, which earned me the grade school nickname Will Robinson. That was a cool nickname to have back then, because Mumy was one of the coolest kids on TV.)
In keeping with his television persona, Mumy played a good kid in "Long Distance Call" and "In Praise of Pip," but he went unforgettably against type in "It's a Good Life," as a malevolent brat who could alter reality to suit his spontaneous desires.
The one and only Cloris Leachman played Mumy's terrified mother in this memorable 1961 tale, which was remade as one of the three features in the regrettable 1982 Twilight Zone movie. The story continued in 2003 in a sequel episode on UPN's short-lived Twilight Zone, with Mumy and Leachman both reprising their long-ago roles.