In a world before on-demand TV, YouTube, boxset DVDs or even affordable pre-recorded videotapes, glimpses of original MidCentury programming on terrestrial TV were rare and precious occurrences, to be seized on and planned into the diary. Often, an entire day’s diary would be built around the appearance of some gem in the schedules and there were occasions when the attractions of a night out had to be weighed up against an unmissable, and usually unrepeated, screening. Even so, there were limits – while one might forego a night out to catch something, using up a day’s holiday for a half hour programme during the day was – in most cases – a level of dedication we wouldn’t rise to. The arrival of home videorecorders marked a seismic shift in the world of cult film and TV fans; not only could you record and watch programmes that were showing at a time you couldn’t be home for, but you could keep the tapes afterwards and quickly build up a library of material previously unimaginable. Surprisingly for a family where my Dad and I were classic movie devotees, we weren’t early adopters, but there came a point in early 1984, just before Channel 4 appeared on our screens, where Dad suggested ‘These videorecorders seem quite good. Shall we rent one for a while and see how we get on?’ So the magic box duly appeared fromRumbelows (fortunately VHS, not Betamax) and in a short space of time the row of tapes along the top of the dresser quickly started to grow. Classic and cult movies were, of course, our staple, but there were also particular TV shows that leapt from the pages of the Radio and TV Times as essential viewing. Channel 4 led the way with their early evening programming, bringing classics like The Munsters and Car 54 Where Are You? Into our living rooms, and BBC2 uncharacteristically countered with re-runs of SergeantBilko (to be featured in a future blog post) but it was their late Friday night screenings of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone series that captivated me above all others.
I won’t try to replicate the excellent articles and books written about Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone series. Suffice to say that the original series aired on CBS from 1959 to 1964, with 156 episodes spread across the five seasons, most in a half-hour slot, with season four’s stretching to an hour slot (so a 50-minute story). Serling himself wrote nearly two-thirds of the stories, drawing on his youthful love of science fiction and fantasy writing, along with his experiences in the Pacific during WW2 and underlined by his social conscience. For other episodes, he drew on leading contemporary authors (including some of my favourite short story writers like Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson) or adaptations of classic short stories from authors like Ambrose Bierce and Jerome Bixby.
I think it was that combination of science fiction and social realism that made the series so absorbing to a devotee of midcentury culture watching them for the first time in the 1980s and early 1990s. Here was a world when space travel was in its infancy, where 1950s technology abounded and stories from two World Wars and the American Civil War were firmly embedded in US popular culture. At the same time, I was being immersed in the issues that were bubbling under in the society depicted in the technicolour world of be-chromed cars, diners and soda shops: racism, social justice, nuclear war, McCarthyism and mass hysteria. If that makes it sound like a weekly sociology lesson, far from it – I watched the Twilight Zone because I loved the storytelling and the style, but the message always made me think. And then there was the combination of the iconic open titles, theme music and Serling’s voice-overs: ‘There is a fifth dimension…’, or ‘You unlock this door with the key of imagination….’ – this was the definition of cult TV: hugely popular in its own time, a joy shared by a select few in mine (though, let’s be honest, there have always been thousands and thousands of Twilight Zone fans worldwide – it just felt special in 1980s Britain).
Armed with the videorecorder and an episode guide from Primetime magazine, I set about collecting as many episodes as I could as Channel 4 continued to screen them, usually late on a Friday night. The publication of a ‘Companion to’ book by Marc Scott Zicree (sourced from the Forbidden Planet of course), provided a wealth of other background information. Occasionally, I’d screw up the settings, or it would start early or late, clipping off the beginning or end. Thanks to a fairly random screening programme, which seemed to jump between clutches of episodes from various seasons, I eventually managed to build up a virtually complete collection – just in time for them to come out in beautifully boxed set of DVDs. Well, you’ve got to, haven’t you?
We’re in the midst of rewatching them all from start to finish. Relishing favourites, discovering episodes I’d forgotten, and given added piquancy by a Christmas present of Rod Serling’s biography by Joel Engel. I’ve tried to come up with an absolute favourite, or even a short list, but it keeps growing! There’s the true space travel/scifi stories (though always with a twist): ‘A Hundred Yards Over the Rim’, ‘I Shot an Arrow in the Air’, ‘Third from the Sun’ and ‘The Invaders’; the nostalgic, reflecting Serling’s affection for small-town Americana, like ‘A Stop at Willoughby’ and ‘Walking Distance’; cold war paranoia: ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street’ and ‘The Shelter’; wartime: ‘Death’s Head Revisited’ and ‘The Purple Testament’; classic performances by actors either famous or soon-to-be so: Burgess Meredith in ‘Time Enough at Last’, William Shatner in ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ and Telly Savalas in ‘Living Doll’ (‘my name is Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you….’). A close runner up has to be ‘It’s a Good Life’, though mainly because it’s based on a story by Jerome Bixby that’s equally, if not more, chilling in print. Which I guess leaves ‘To Serve Man’ – it’s got everything: science fiction, a marvellous twist, and a denouement line that’s entered the cult lexicon (and found its way to The Simpsons) – ‘It’s a cookbook!’
And remember, “You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Twilight Zone…”