Keep in mind that this is a blog. And that sometimes I’m going to veer a little off topic … okay? And “enter a dimension of not only sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination … at the signpost up ahead, your next stop … the Twilight Zone.”
Whenever I heard those words coming from my television, I stopped whatever I was doing and gave up a half hour of my time to the first great storyteller I knew – Rod Serling. You have to forgive me, and indulge me as I luxuriate in the idea that I have discovered a place online where I can watch many episodes of the Twilight Zone. Seriously, this television program holds a special place in my heart, soul and imagination … and not just because I remember watching it with my grandfather who died when I was very young, but because the Twilight Zone’s tales of isolation, alienation and life in a dystopian world were often the first time that I saw many of the archetypes I would encounter over and over again as a student, an English major, an educator, and a consumer of popular culture.
While the original Twilight Zone (TZ) was broadcast from 1959-1964, years before I was born, there were always reruns of the program on one the seven VHF channels that aired in NYC in my youth. I watched them eagerly, often with my abuelo and my young mother explaining to each other in Spanish what was going on in the twisting, convoluted tales filled with science fiction, magic and mythology. Many of these stories, of course, are not original to Rod Serling, but he was a master when it came to reinventing these ageless tales and infusing them with the right combination of social and political commentary; never losing sight of the idea that good stories are about people. (Watch part one and part two of Mike Wallace’s interview of Rod Serling discussing censorship, commercialism, celebrity, television and writing – fascinating).
In the real world, the Korean War was over, but the United States was in the midst of the Cold War. The Russians had launched Sputnik and gotten off to an early lead in the space race, and the US had lost its young, charismatic President who had set the nation’s new horizon on the moon. At home, Americans were in the middle of a social revolution that would bring an end to segregation, stay-at-home moms, and the black and white world of “Father Knows Best” and “Let it to Beaver”.
It was in this world of uncertainty, anxiety and great promise that Serling wove his stories that captured my young imagination and have held me as a lifelong fan. Even a cursory look at a handful of TZ episodes demonstrates Serling’s creative depth and how he used visions of dystopias aligned against the common person to tell his compelling stories. The tales also warned of the dangers of mob mentality and the deadening of human emotions in the age of increasing dependency on technology and machinery.
Serling’s brand of storytelling influenced the popular culture that came after it as evidenced by shows such as the Outer Limits, the X-Files, Lost, Fringe and just about anything by M. Night Shyamalan; stories that bend the rules of reality as we know them, while asking that we remain calm, logical and rational when confronting the hitherto unreal, supernatural or paranormal. Today, in our ever evolving world of super connectivity, the 24-hour news cycle, incessant narcissism, viral videos of UFOs and real executions, the Twilight Zone’s stories of isolation, alienation and inhumanity are both eerily haunting and comfortably familiar.
Here then, are five of my favorite TZ episodes you can watch online, in chronological order according to broadcast date, with some commentary:
I Shot an Arrow in the Air (1/15/1960). When a rocket ship crash lands, the three remaining survivors are torn by conflict, personal agendas and the reality of a dwindling water supply. The ending is reminiscent of the original Planet of the Apes ending and the title comes from poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – who needs more than that?
The Obsolete Man (6/2/1961). I’m a librarian, remember, and how many tales do you know of in which a librarian is the hero? It’s not like I grew up dreaming I would be a librarian, but I always loved books and reading. Burgess Meredith (the original penguin on TV’s Batman, and Rocky Balboa’s trainer Mickey) starred in at least two awesome TZ episodes involving books. In this one, the state has declared him obsolete and condemned him to death. Later in life I would read Kafka’s The Trial and Orwell’s 1984 and think of this TZ episode.
The Whole Truth (1/20/1961). This episode appears to be shot on a stage and is kind of campy because it looks like a home movie, but it employs the standards of the sleazy car salesman (later perfected in Glengarry Glen Ross and Fargo), the haunted car (Stephen King’s Christine wasn’t the first), and the truth telling curse (like the one that affected Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar). Then comes the great twist at the end. In the midst of the cold war, just five years after, Krushchev had made his famous, “We will bury you” speech, it turns out, that he is the person who buys the car! Guess we know how Serling felt about the Soviet threat.
Five Characters in Search of an Exit (12/22/1961). This episode of TZ scared me as a child in ways I never knew before then. It is an absurdist nightmare where five people find themselves trapped in a void, unaware of how they got there or why they’re trapped. This was a theme I would later discover in everything from Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Sartre’s No Exit and even the Will Ferrell movie Stranger than Fiction.
To Serve Man (3/2/1962). Long before Dan Brown’s cryptography professor Robert Langdon made it cool to dabble in codes and pictographs, one man had to decipher a book left by the Kanamits (9ft tall aliens who arrive to earth). Shortly after the lead character’s team of code-breakers decipher the title, To Serve Man, the aliens bring an end to war, to famine and to the other ills that have plagued humanity throughout history. Since these extraterrestrials are much nicer than the ones from Independence Day, most people (except the military) lose interest in decoding the rest of the book, as the Kanamits seem open to sharing all their secrets with humanity. If you don’t know by now, To Serve Man, turns out to be a recipe book (kind of like the aliens from the original V). Yummy.
Hope you find a Twilight Zone episode that you enjoy. Thank you for stopping by and have a great day.
© 2008 henry toromoreno