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Wednesday 18 July 2007

"The Pit of Man's Fears": Revisiting The Twilight Zone

by Gary Westfahl

Submitted for your consideration: a television program, a very old television program, one that should be long forgotten by now. Its episodes are all more than forty years old, shot in the now-unpopular format of black-and-white film. It was the type of series that has consistently been the least popular, an anthology series with no regular characters. Even by the low standards of its time, the series was visibly produced cheaply and hastily, with "special effects" that were often on the verge of being ludicrous. As even its creator would admit, many of its stories were little more than over-extended jokes or desperate contrivances.

And yet, the late Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone remains on the air today, forty-three years after its last original episode was aired. Every weeknight, Los Angeles's channel 56, KDOC, airs one or two episodes of the series, and on most holidays, the Sci-Fi Channel garners respectable ratings by presenting a Twilight Zone marathon featuring twenty or more episodes back to back. Noting its improbable durability, other producers have created a feature film, a television movie, and two additional series based on the original series, all shot in color with big budgets, prominent stars, and state-of-the-art special effects, but none of them have succeeded in recapturing the magic of Rod Serling's unique creation. What, one must ask, is so special about this series? Why does it remain such compelling viewing for millions or people, many who were not even born when the series first aired?

The answer, it occurred to me today, can be summed up in one word: tragedy.

It is a word, of course, that can be defined in at least three ways. To the ancient Greeks, as famously articulated by Aristotle, it is a special sort of drama featuring a noble and generally admirable character who, nonetheless, succumbs to hubris and makes one mistake that inexorably drives him to an unhappy fate. In the twentieth century, feeling that this sort of story no longer resonated with modern audiences, Arthur Miller devised a new sort of tragedy, exemplified by his Death of a Salesman: here, the doomed protagonist is a very ordinary person who, while lacking the overweening pride of the classic tragic hero, simply seems unable to cope with the demands of the contemporary world, which leads to his downfall. Finally, in general discourse, a "tragedy" is simply any sort of unhappy event; thus, when Vic Morrow and two child actors were accidentally killed during the filming of Twilight Zone — The Movie, the event was universally described as a "tragedy," even though the circumstances conspicuously failed to match either Aristotle's or Miller's formula.

During its five seasons on the air, The Twilight Zone regularly offered its viewers all three types of tragedy. Consider three episodes that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel on July 4, 2007, also the day I am writing this essay. "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville" resembles an Aristotelian tragedy: its hero is a successful business tycoon who is unwisely dissatisfied, as he confesses to a janitor that he is bored by his own triumphs. When the Devil offers him the opportunity to go back in time and relive his own climb to the top, he eagerly agrees. But, pridefully, he does not inquire too much about the details of the arrangement (the Devil makes him look younger, but he retains the body of an old man), and he relies too much on his faulty memory and makes bad decisions (purchasing property filled with oil which is inaccessible using the technology of 1910 and hence worthless at the time). When the Devil finally allows him to return to the present, he finds that history has been changed by his visit: he is now the janitor, and the janitor is the successful tycoon.

"A Stop at Willoughby" is very much in the mold of Death of a Salesman. An advertising executive, incredibly stressed out by the constant demands of his job, begins to dream that the train taking him home is stopping at an idyllic nineteenth-century town named Willoughby, that seems to offer a soothing alternative to his maddening life. One day, when the transformed train of his dreams stops at Willoughby, he decides to get off and is briefly exhilarated by the experience of being in that town. It turns out, however, that he actually jumped off the speeding train and fell to his death; and the funeral home that comes to claim his body is called the "Willoughby Funeral Home."

A third episode, "The Invaders," fits no tragic patterns: a solitary old woman in a rural home finds herself suddenly afflicted by tiny invaders from another planet, whose spaceship enters her house. After a few skirmishes, she manages to smash the spaceship with an ax, and one of its dying inhabitants sends a final message, identifying himself as an American who has encountered dangerous giants on a distant alien world. Since we never get to know these astronauts, their deaths are simply sad, lacking the emotional impact of the death of a tragic hero, and the old woman, in destroying the beings that were threatening her, has apparently achieved a happy ending. Yet the circumstances of her lonely life are sordid and unpleasant, and the removal of those annoying invaders will clearly do nothing to improve the miserable routine of her daily existence.

Again and again, and in various ways, episodes of The Twilight Zone end unhappily, whether it is the last man on Earth, anxious to spend his time reading, who breaks his glasses ("Time Enough at Last"), the beautiful woman who cannot be transformed to comfortingly match the ugliness of other members of her race ("Eye of the Beholder"), or the alcoholic ventriloquist who ends up trading places with his malevolent dummy ("The Dummy"). True, there are also episodes with happy endings, such as the Christmas episode "The Night of the Meek," or episodes that at least soften the sadness with an overlay of sentimentality, like "In Praise of Pip," in which the bookie's death also allows his son to live. But these are generally not the episodes that people remember or cherish. Rather, I submit for your consideration, what keeps attracting viewers to Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone is its steady diet of tragedy, in all its varied forms, because we now live in an era which, in life and in the media, has strived to banish tragedy at all costs.

Consider: today, if a few cheerleaders are killed in a bus accident, you can be sure that a small army of "grief counselors" will descend upon the high school to comfort the distraught classmates and strive to make their feelings of sadness as brief and as minimal as the situation will allow. We have identified the overriding psychological problem afflicting contemporary civilization as "depression"; quite literally, feeling sad is now defined as a mental disorder which must be attacked and eliminated by means of therapy or medication. Wherever you go in California, you are daily commanded to "Have a nice day," defining the perpetually happy life as the normal, desirable life.

And all of this is horribly, unspeakably wrong. Let's face it: tragedy and sadness are an inescapable part of everyone's life. If your friend and classmate dies in a bus accident, "grief counselors" be damned, you should be sad, you should be very, very sad, and you should be very, very sad for a very long time; responding in any other way is virtually inhuman. The first time I realized that The Simpsons was going to be an extraordinary series came when I watched the first-season episode in which Lisa announces that she is feeling sad; Marge, like any well-trained modern parent, insists that she break out of her funk and put on a happy face. But Lisa meets and is schooled by a blues musician in the fine art of being depressed, and the episode ends with a wiser Marge telling Lisa that it is perfectly all right for her to feel sad sometimes. How strange, I thought, that only a cartoon would have the courage to speak such heretical truths.

Instead, contemporary film and television have, in pursuit of profits, relentlessly offered only the upbeat messages that they are sure their audiences crave. Hence, however one breaks down the contemporary formula of the box-office blockbuster, one absolutely essential ingredient is clearly a happy ending. In Frank Wu's delightful short film Guidolon the Giant Space Chicken, the monster representing the Hollywood studio is appalled that a main character in the monster's film heroically sacrifices herself while killing the monster and insists that the film must be changed so that she survives. Here, Wu must be recalling the original Godzilla film — still the best one ever made — which in fact does conclude with a scientist who kills himself in order to destroy Godzilla. Four decades later, imagine suggesting to Roland Emmerich that the proper ending to his American Godzilla would be to have scientist Matthew Broderick die as part of his own effort to kill Godzilla. "No, no, no, are you crazy?," he would have responded; audiences will want to see Broderick live, and hug his girlfriend, and presumably go on to live happily ever after, or at least until Godzilla's inevitable return. With such an ending, and all of the other ingredients for sure-fire success in place, he knew that his Godzilla would prove to be overwhelmingly popular and was already planning two sequels before the film opened.

In reality, of course, the film was not a big hit at all — which suggests to me an unacknowledged truth about modern life, and modern movies. Contrary to popular belief, people aren't stupid; they recognize that occasional sorrows have to be part of their lives, and part of everyone's life, and they are starved for entertainment that displays and validates such sorrows. Consider the one film of the last two decades which really was overwhelmingly popular — James Cameron's Titanic — and note that it had an undeniably tragic ending (albeit one lightened a bit, in the manner of Serling's The Twilight Zone, with a final uplifting moment). At some point during the filming, some idiot no doubt told Cameron that the ending would never work and insisted that Jack Dawson had to survive, and if he had followed that advice, no one would remember the film today. But one likes to imagine Cameron responding indignantly: look, the sinking of the Titanic was a genuine tragedy that resulted in the undeserved deaths of many good people, and any honest film about that disaster has to feature the undeserved death of one good person. Did audiences object? Hardly. Instead, they kept coming back to see the film again and again and again, sensing that it was providing them with something they needed, something that all of the other blockbuster films were desperately striving to avoid — namely, tragedy.

When it was on the air, The Twilight Zone seemed very strange because, in the midst of the generally realistic series and films of its day, it was offering stories about aliens, monsters, robots, angels, and devils. Today, such stories are commonplace, and episodes of the original The Twilight Zone might seem strange only because their makeup and special effects, in contrast to the computer-generated marvels of today, seem so laughably crude to modern viewers. And that is undoubtedly why the other, similarly crude black-and-white science fiction series of the 1950s and early 1960s, ranging from the juvenile Rocky Jones, Space Ranger to the highly commendable The Outer Limits, are so rarely watched today. The Twilight Zone continues to command attention because it now seems very strange in another way — that it so frequently defies contemporary expectations by presenting stories with unhappy endings, stories that honestly and truthfully convey the point that a lot of people, a lot of the time, are inevitably destined to have considerably less than a nice day.

And it is a point that, especially today, strikes me with extraordinary force. For, although there are no major tragedies to report, the past year of my life has been extremely difficult and stressful, and there have been many times when I, and the other members of my family, have felt very sad indeed. I could easily relate to the harried executive of "A Stop at Willoughby," feeling trapped in a painfully unpleasant routine and longing for escape, any sort of escape, and there have been many days when I would have been happy to end the day by boarding a train and going to some magical place where I could get away from the unpleasant realities of my life. Watching such a story doesn't make me feel any better, but it does help me realize that my situation is not an aberration, that I am simply experiencing the pain and frustration which many people have experienced and are experiencing, and that, while I can always hope for the best, I must also realize that life never guarantees happy endings. And, I can be sure, there was no other film or television program being shown on July 4, 2007 which was bold enough to present this important message.

In sum, we continue to watch Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone because we urgently need to hear what it has to say, and few if any other films and television programs are saying it. Paradoxically, to fully understand the realities of our own lives, we now must keep traveling into another dimension where, in Rod Serling's words, humanity (described as "man") can singularly confront not only "the summit of his knowledge" but also "the pit of man's fears."

© 2007 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.