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Monday, December 17, 2007

SEASON'S GREETINGS FROM THE TWILIGHT ZONE

We start this post of The Quantum Blog with a shout-out to my Blogspot neighbor and old friend Roger Green (see my Neighbors links), for his assistance in learning how to add images and graphics to Blog pages. Thanks to Roger, visitors to The Quantum Blog will no longer have to plow through what my pal Danny B. calls "parking lots of text". Thus, for the holidays, this will be the first post of the new, visually enhanced Quantum Blog. And what better image to be the first to appear on the Blog than the one to which I only gave you the URL last week: The 2007 Quantum Christmas Card!




And now to follow up on a little business from last week. You'll recall that a Letter to the Editor in our local paper from a nun criticizing the yet-to-be-released fantasy film The Golden Compass for its supposed extolling of the virtues of atheism to children (yeah, right, from a Hollywood movie) had brought out my claws, and I was to have a rebuttal printed in the paper. Well, if you visited us last week, you saw the entirety of what I wrote to The Times Union. What appeared in the paper was an abridged version. Gone was my observation about the Catholic Church's treatment of Galileo. Gone were my notes on religiously motivated people who feel culturally threatened using children as weapons and shields instead of confronting their fears honestly. Gone was my wonderful kicker at the end about religious people protesting free and rational thought and the ability to enjoy ourselves at the movies. The "meat" of my letter was still there, just a little leaner than I would have liked to serve it. Well, I can understand the paper wanting to cut it for length, and actually, the letter that ran right beneath it was one that needed to be seen, with opinions that need to be heard. It was a rational discourse about the conspicuous failure of "abstinence-only" sex education and how it does nothing to abate the statistics on unwanted pregnancies and STDs among young people. This country of ours, I sometimes think, is among the most sexually backward nations on the planet. There are people in America--and I suspect my movie-bashing nun would be among them--who honestly believe that the way to foster sexual responsibility in our young people is to teach them, against all nature, human and otherwise, to pretend they have no genitalia until they are heterosexually married and trying to make babies. (And then, for God's sake, don't have fun with it or enjoy it!) The letter that ran under mine was the latest pin to be stuck in the balloon of sexual fear and loathing that permeates our society. If my letter had to be cut, I'm glad it went to a good cause.



Well, don't you know, the very next day there appeared another Letter to the Editor--this one backing up the movie-bashing nun and further decrying the rampant spread of atheism and the supposed banishment of the Old White Man in the Sky from all of our political, social, and cultural institutions! And for the part I really loved: the author of this letter had a Muslim name! No, really! It seems that when it comes to repression and fear of ideas, Jehovah and Allah are on the same team! Which is why I found it so gratifying a couple of days letter when still another letter on The Golden Compass appeared, and here's what it said:



In response to the opinion of [again, I'm not naming the nun] expressed in her letter of Dec. 4, I ask: Why do Christians fear The Golden Compass?



It seems as though Christianity has reacted to the recent success of numerous best-selling nonfiction atheist works by attempting to shelter their belivers from anything that might inspire free thought. From The Da Vinci Code to the choice of Wal-Mart to greet customers with "Happy holidays" as opposed to "Merry Christmas," Christians feel the absurd need to boycott anything that does not conform to their cherished traditions.



I would argue, Sister, that this book and movie can open the minds of children and adults alike to the virtues of rational thinking and the evils of a closed-minded worldview. Unlike the Christian attempts to quash free thought, the actual desire of what you call new atheism is not to plunder Christianity, but rather to strive for open inquiry in the search for truth.



If we are to advance as a society, we must move beyond the double standard that says Christianity cannot be challenged, while those with any other viewpoint are vilified. Why do Christians fear The Golden Compass? I suspect for the same reason they fear science, reason, and free thought, for fear that truth may compete with superstition.



HAH! I love it! Not only did this guy--who lives right here in Albany--get his opinion into print, he reiterated in his own fashion some of the very ideas that the paper cut from my letter! I wish I could meet this gentleman and shake his hand. Wherever in Albany he is, I thank him.



Okay, enough of that. It's the holidays; time to talk about something nice. Here's another J.A. FLUDD FACTOID: I like to spend Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve with Mary Tyler Moore and Rod Serling.



I have a couple of privately held holiday traditions, one that I observe on December 24, the other on December 31. For Christmas Eve, I like to get myself a mug of rum-and-nutmeg-spiked egg nog and something chocolate to munch on, dig into my DVDs, and whip out the Christmas episodes of Mary Tyler Moore and the 1980s Twilight Zone.





If you were to ask me to name the single greatest sitcom of all time, I would be torn between I Love Lucy and Mary Tyler Moore. I happen to have the first four seasons of Mary on disk (and I would like to have the remaining three seasons, if 20th Century Fox would ever get off the stick with it), and Season 1 happens to include a holiday-themed episode called "Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid". (As an aside, I won't tell you how young I was when Mary Tyler Moore started in 1970, but I distinctly remember thinking when I first heard about it, Are they serious? No one wants to see her without Dick Van Dyke! Nevertheless, I was there for Mary's first hat toss in 1970, and I was there--with tears in my eyes--for the chorus of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and the final fade-out in 1977.) In this episode, Mary finds herself stuck at the station on New Year's Eve instead of helping assimilated-Jewish girlfriend Rhoda celebrate the Gentile holiday, because her soft heart gets the better of her and she agrees to cover for someone else who plays the Guilt Card on her and tells her a sob story about wanting to have Christmas Eve with his kids. (This craven character is played by Ned Wertimer, who a few years later was Ralph, the tip-hungry doorman, on The Jeffersons.) So there's Mary, alone in the newsroom watching vacuous TV specials and trying not to cry, until three wise men named Lou, Murray, and Ted--okay, two wise men and Ted--show up to throw an impromptu Christmas party, and invite Rhoda to join them. What I would really love is to be able to watch both this show and the later Sue Ann episode, "Not a Christmas Story," in which everyone is stranded in the Happy Homemaker's studio when a blizzard hits, and Sue Ann subjects them to a holiday celebration such as only she could conceive. But that episode is in one of those seasons that Fox hasn't released yet, damnit!



After the MTM Kitty has meowed (all MTM sitcoms, you'll remember, ended with the MTM logo, a parody of the MGM Lion with Mary Tyler Moore's mewing kitten), my next stop is a place much stranger and more wondrous than Minneapolis in the 1970s.





It was the best-kept secret on television, but there are those who remember that there was a second coming of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s. I never think of this show as "The New Twilight Zone," as some call it. To me, it's an extension and a continuation of the old one. By rights, it should have the same cultural profile as the 1960s show. People should be able to recite 80s Twilight Zone plots with the same alacrity as they do the stories from the 60s. (Especially if they call themselves true, devoted Zonies.) There are reasons why they don't, which we'll get to in a moment. What concerns us first is that in the first season of the 80s Twilight Zone there was a wonderful Christmas show, which I watch every December 24.



The 1985 Twilight Zone Christmas Special was made up of three stories: a remake of Rod Serling's "Night of the Meek" with Richard Mulligan (Burt Campbell from Soap, in the first of two visits to the Zone) in the Art Carney role of the dishevelled, drunken department-store Santa who becomes the real Father Christmas; "But Can She Type?", a story that was substituted at the last minute for another one that we'll discuss momentarily; and what has become one of my very favorite holiday tales of all time, an adaptation of the short story "The Star" by Sir Arthur C. Clarke.





The remake of "Night of the Meek," like many of the stories from the 80s Zone, was a worthy successor to Rod Serling's show. (It could be argued that many of them even equalled Rod's work and the stories of Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, Rod's two main backup writers. In particular you owe it to yourself to seek out my favorite 80s episode of all, "Her Pilgrim Soul" by Alan Brennert.) What I especially love about it was a moment that you catch only if you listen very closely and pay very careful attention, and that you understand only if you're a dyed-in-the-wool Zonie. There's a moment when Dundee (William Atherton), the owner of the store, is driving in his car listening to the financial news on the radio. The radio anchor is talking about the brisk sales of a children's video called Tim Ferret and Friends--and if you're a dedicated Zonie, you immediately know that the news item is referring to an earlier episode, "The Uncle Devil Show," in which unsupervised children learn black magic and devil worship from watching Tim Ferret and Friends under their clueless parents' noses! This was a truly inspired detail that has always tickled me!



"But Can She Type?" is a story about an underappreciated secretary who gets her holiday wish when a magical Xerox machine transports her into a parallel universe where secretaries are wealthy, sought-after celebrities with glamourous lives. Pam Dawber plays the administrative assistant in question, and the episode is most noteworthy for two things: One, a cameo appearance of Jonathan Frakes just two years before he hit it out of the solar system in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and two, the fact that it was hastily substituted for a story by Harlan Ellison which, had CBS not had a fit of creative cowardice, would have been one of the best Twilight Zone tales ever presented. But again, more on that momentarily.



The capper of the Zone Christmas show is "The Star." This is another of my most special favorites. Based, as I said, on an Arthur C. Clarke story, "The Star" is about a space expedition whose science officer happens to be a Jesuit priest. (He's played by Serling T. Zone veteran Fritz Weaver--see "Third from the Sun" and "The Obsolete Man".) When the ship comes to a nebula left over from a long-ago supernova, our crew discovers that a planet in what had been the star's orbit was the home of a civilization that lived in beauty and high achievement in the arts and sciences--the most advanced and refined of beings. But our priest's wonderment turns to horror when he calculates when the star exploded and when and where it would have been seen on Earth: in the Eastern Hemisphere on the night that a certain child was born! And he is furious with God: "How could you do a thing like that? How could you feed these sweet, beautiful, peaceful creatures to a supernova to announce the birth of your son? What kind of God do you think you are?" But one of his crewmates--with whom he has been debating whether the beauty of the nebula is the result of natural processes or divine action--shows him the last recorded words of the aliens: "Don't grieve for us. We loved our lives and lived well. We had our time; we accept our fate and hold nothing against the universe. You have your time and do the same." And the priest's anger is stilled and the bitterness leaves his heart, and the ship goes on to explore other stars. I've always found this a truly lovely and touching little story.





As I was with Mary Tyler Moore, I was sure this show was going to be a dud. It just had "disaster" written all over it. The Twilight Zone returned in 1985, by which time Rod Serling had been dead for ten years. That was one strike against it. Another was the announced format: An hour long with multiple stories. That's not The Twilight Zone, I thought, that's Night Gallery! Indeed, Rod Serling's Night Gallery, an NBC series of the early 70s, was like the Love, American Style of the supernatural. It had started out auspiciously, and in its second season it produced some really memorable work. (But in what seems to be a recurring theme of this post, Universal has not released the second season of Night Gallery on DVD yet, only the first. What are they waiting for?) However, Universal Studios was not really interested in doing the kind of thoughtful, challenging stories that Rod enjoyed doing. They just wanted his name and face on a routine horror program, and as the show went on, a dissatisfied and contractually bound Serling compared it to "Mannix in a cemetery". (We talked about the theme from Mannix--the best thing about that show--last week.) He was probably relieved that the third season was the last. And now CBS was doing The Twilight Zone in a Night Gallery format? Uh-oh...



And it got worse. The next piece of news I heard was that a new Twilight Zone theme had been commissioned from...The Grateful Dead! Say what? A rock-n-roll band was creating a piece of music to front The Twilight Zone? My heart sank at the thought of it. I despaired, Who's going to watch this, a lot of stoners and cokeheads? And the worst piece of news was still to come. The new producer that CBS had hired for the show was Philip DeGuerre, the creator of a detective series called Simon & Simon starring Gerald McRaney and Jameson Parker! Please tell me this isn't happening! I thought. Tell me they didn't actually hire a producer of crime shows to do an imaginative series! Please! I had nightmare flashes of the second season of The Outer Limits at this point. The Outer Limits had run from 1963 to 1965 on ABC. The first season was one of the most brilliant things anyone ever put on the air. But then, the producer of that season was Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano, who married his own dark, twisted sensibility to series creator Leslie Stevens's love of science and interest in doing science fiction on TV. The result was a kind of Gothic, pulp-magazine-inspired science fiction that has never successfully been duplicated, not even in the frequently excellent revival of The Outer Limits in the 1990s. Stefano had hired the most creative people he could find to work on the show with him, people who thought outside of the box of early-60s network TV. He took on cinematographers and directors like Conrad Hall who had been influenced by foreign art films, and composer Dominic Frontiere, whose elaborate suites of music created a sound for The Outer Limits like nothing else on the air. Frontiere's music for the first season of the show is still remembered as one of the all-time great TV soundtracks.



However, people in the early 60s had even less understanding and appreciation for science fiction than they do today, and ABC abused The Outer Limits relentlessly. They slashed the production budget and assigned the second season of the show to Saturday nights at 8:00, when its intelligent audience (in the days before VCRs) would be out doing other things and miss it. Stefano resigned in protest, and Frontiere and many of the other talents he recruited went with him. To replace them, ABC hired a man named Ben Brady, who had been the producer of...Perry Mason. Yes, the producer of a legal drama was now running a science fiction program! The second season of The Outer Limits suffered miserably from the loss of Stefano and his team. The show was reduced to stock characterizations rather than the offbeat characters of the first year. The direction was pedestrian, the cinematography ordinary. Even the speeches of the Control Voice grew dull; the poetic prose of the first year turned to endless droning about man's quest and thirst for knowledge. And in place of Frontiere's vibrant, atmospheric music came cliched compositons by Harry Lubin that included passages on the theremin. (You know, that wailing, vibrating instrument you hear in a lot of 1950s science fiction movies.) The Outer Limits went from being the scariest and most inventive thing on TV to a warmed-over Saturday matinee on Saturday nights. That second season was only a half-season; the show was quickly done in by the meat-and-potatoes mundanity of Jackie Gleason on CBS.



And now CBS was trotting out a Twilight Zone produced by a detective-show creator. It was going to be the second season of The Outer Limits all over again, I just knew it!



I was never happier to be wrong about a TV series than I was the night that the continuation of The Twilight Zone signed on the air for the first time. It was the first series that I ever thought of as a work of both literature and art.





It was amazing! The stories were of the same calibre as Rod Serling's show. Some of them were just unbelievably good! (Okay, there were some dogs too, but Rod himself always copped to the fact that some of his episodes were bowsers as well.) The opening title--complete with a Grateful Dead tune that was elegantly creepy and segued into the familiar "doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo" of Marius Constant--was a masterpiece. (Yep, I misjudged The Grateful Dead.) It even incorporated a ghostly image of Rod Serling processed through dry-ice vapor--a superb touch! The new Twilight Zone logo was the best that the series ever had. And this was the first series to be produced by a method of transferring its film negatives directly to videotape; the result was an image quality like nothing else on the air. Tuning in to The Twilight Zone was like peeling someone's head open and looking at his dreams--or nightmares, as was often the case. Oh, and the narration by Charles Aidman was spot-on. It wasn't Rod, but it worked. (Charles Aidman had Twilight Zone credentials anyway. He was one of the luckless astronauts in "And When the Sky Was Opened" and the physicist in "Little Girl Lost.") I was elated! I couldn't wait for each week's batch of stories.



But it was too good to last. In fact, the bad turns started coming exactly a month into the new series. Up until that point, The Twilight Zone, settled back into its traditional time of Friday nights at 8 PM on CBS, was a hit all over again. It was winning its time slot. People were loving it. And then came..."Nightcrawlers".



It was the last story of the fourth episode. "Nightcrawlers," based on a short story by Robert R. McCammon, was one of the finest episodes of the 80s T. Zone. It was also the episode that shot the show in the foot.



"Nightcrawlers" is the story of a sleep-deprived Vietnam veteran (Scott Paulin) who pulls into a roadside dinner on your classic Dark and Stormy Night. He's popping uppers like Tic Tacs, which draws the suspicion of a state trooper who's also grabbing a bite at the diner. The trooper (James Whitmore Jr.) is a blindly patriotic type who wishes he could have seen some of the action that our vet saw. Little does he know that the veteran, one of the last of a platoon called the Nightcrawlers, was exposed to something strange over there. Because of it, he and four other soldiers have a power that no one should possess: they can turn thought into physical mass the way the Star Trek holodeck does with energy. The terrible catch is that when he's asleep, the depserate Nightcrawler's power acts involuntarily and draws animated matter out of his nightmares of the war. So when our Nightcrawler gets into an argument with the trooper, and the trooper is unwise enough to clock him in the head with a ketchup bottle and knock him out, guess what he and the unfortunate staff and patrons of the diner must face? You got it!



Now, if this Twilight Zone had been done a few years later for Cable TV like the revival of The Outer Limits, or even in first-run syndication like Star Trek: The Next Generation, it would have been okay. It would have worked. Regrettably, it was done instead on CBS at 8:00 in the evening in 1985--which was a disastrous creative miscalculation. That audience at that time was not equipped to handle "Nightcrawlers," and because of that episode--which, mind you, is one of the best stories ever presented on T. Zone--about a third of the audience that had made the Twilight Zone revival a hit, fled the show and never came back. And the show never recovered. It stayed just as great, but it was crippled by the loss of a third of its viewers.



This was not to be the end of the misfortunes of Philip DeGuerre and company. The next one came as they were prepping the Christmas episode. Up until this point, The Twilight Zone was being produced with the participation of eminent science fiction and fantasy writer Harlan Ellison as a consultant. For the Christmas show, Ellison had penned a story called "Nackles," which would have been a true masterpiece--had it ever been made. "Nackles," which was to star Edward Asner (Lou Grant on Mary Tyler Moore and his own series), was about a cruel and heartless slumlord who liked to tell inner-city kids that Santa wasn't coming for them. Instead, he sadistically said, their Christmas Eve visitor would be a creature called Nackles, who rode in a sleigh pulled by fearsome goats and carried little black and Hispanic kids away to an unspeakable fate! Well, after this sadist terrorized the poor little kids of the slums, Nackles did indeed show up on Christmas Eve--but you know whom he was there for, don't you, heh-heh-heh...





I didn't know anything about "Nackles" until some time after it was supposed to have aired. There was a feature on it in the now-defunct Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine, which included a transcript of Ellison's teleplay. It broke my heart to read it, because as I sat reading it I wished I could see it. I desperately wanted to see this actually played out on screen. I wanted to see Edward Asner play that part. I wanted to see Nackles! DAMN! The article told about how some stupid woman at CBS Standards and Practices wouldn't let DeGuerre and Ellison do this story. I forget the reasoning--or lack of same--behind it, but it boiled down to a fiat of creative cowardice, lack of vision, and pure stupidity. CBS had a masterpiece in the palm of its hand, and this woman just threw it away! It made my blood boil just to read about it. It made Harlan's blood boil too (and the boiling of Harlan Ellison's blood is a thing to fear), so much so that he quit The Twilight Zone over it! He just walked off the show! And I can't say that I blame him. DAMN the stupidity! DAMN! If I could, I would personally revive The Twilight Zone one more time, install myself as Executive Producer and Narrator (one of these days we're going to have a talk about my boyhood worship of Rod Serling), and beg Harlan Ellison on bended knee to let us do "Nackles" for Christmas. As it is, the stupidity of one woman at CBS dealt T. Zone another telling blow. (And that's how we got "But Can She Type?" as the second story in the holiday show.)





Anyway, great TV that it was, The Twilight Zone of the 1980s soon fell on hard times. CBS put it on hiatus (which is never good for a show because when and if it returns it has to find an audience all over again), then renewed it for a second season and stuck it at 10 PM on Saturday night (a time slot of certain death), then began to skip it around the schedule like a stone across a pond, even once pitting it against The Cosby Show (which was as bad as sending the crippled Outer Limits against Jackie Gleason). The marvel of it is that in the face of all this adversity, the quality of the show never suffered. The second season produced episodes as good as the first. Regrettably, too many people never got to see them. CBS was giving itself every excuse to cancel it. And they did, only to revive it again--this time not on network, but in first-run syndication, with a slashed production budget, different producers, and even a different narrator (Robin Ward, trying to do Charles Aidman). So it kind of was the second season of The Outer Limits again, in a way. However, the third, rather more minimalist season of T. Zone also produced some fine stories, many of them written by a pre-Babylon 5 J. Michael Straczynski. Remarkably, The Twilight Zone Magazine reported that the syndicated season of T. Zone was a sleeper hit. In some markets it was observed to out-draw the local news and sporting events! Yes--sporting events! And this was on word of mouth alone! Still, the only reason that third season was made at all was that CBS wanted a syndicated rerun package to recoup its investment on the first two seasons. So, at the end of Season 3, The Twilight Zone disappeared again.



It stayed gone until 2002, when Pen Densham and the other producers of the 1990s Outer Limits, who had just retired that show after seven years, were commissioned to do another Twilight Zone on the now-defunct UPN Network. That show, which lasted only one season, was mostly a disappointment. If you didn't see it, it's no loss. If you happen to run across the DVD collection and get curious, check out "One Night at Mercy," in which Mr. Death--the show's only recurring character--comes back played by Jason Alexander (opposite General Hospital's Tyler Christopher), "Still a Good Life," the one and only Twilight Zone sequel in which Bill Mumy and Cloris Leachman reprise their roles from the classic "It's a Good Life," and "the Placebo Effect," starring Tamila Poitier (Sidney's daughter) and Jeffrey Combs (Weyoun the Vorta, Brunt the Ferengi, and Shran the Andorian from Star Trek) in an episode with a chiller of an ending! Otherwise, you can give this one a miss.





Which brings us at last to my New Year's Eve tradition. For the last night of the year, I like to treat myself to my favorite dinner and, at midnight, my favorite wine. I will make myself a meal of steak and lobster with broccoli and sauteed mushrooms (I added the mushrooms last year) and consume it in the midst of the Sci Fi Channel Twilight Zone Marathon: 48 hours of the Rod Serling series. I go through the listings of Sci Fi Channel for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day in advance and note where all my favorite episodes are, and plan my 48 hours--and my dinner--accordingly. At midnight on New Year's Eve, I break open the bottle of wine, a perfectly chilled Asti Spumante, and toast out the old year and toast in the new. Generally speaking, this is when I like to take a temporary leave from Mr. Serling and go over to Jay Leno, who likes to bring on his wife for the New Year's Eve show. However, last year the evening fell on a weekend and Jay wasn't on, and this year we're probably not going to have Jay because of the WGA strike. This means that New Year's Eve 2008 will probably be the last time I'll ever have a toast with Jay, for he's leaving the show in 2009--an event to which I'm not looking forward because I'm going to miss him dreadfully! Complicating matters for the Zone Marathon is the possibility of counter-programming on other networks. The year before last, for example, Turner Classic Movies set aside New Year's Eve for a night of classic science fiction films from the 50s, which had me scrambling between them and Sci Fi. Note to self: Check out what TCM is doing this year and don't be caught unprepared again!


And that, I think, will wrap it up for The Quantum Blog for 2007. After these many weeks of lengthy posts, I think I'm going to give us all a break until 2008. For next year, I'll be back with more subjects and more of my own artwork, which I hope will properly entertain you. Until then, have a safe, happy, and FUN holiday season and a happy start to the New Year--and remember, whatever you do, beware of Nackles!

2 comments:

  1. The visuals help. A lot.

    LOVE the Harlan story. Watched the "new" TZ only occasionally; maybe I'll check it out.

    ReplyDelete
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