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. Your next stop…the Twilight Zone.
— Rod Serling
Continuing my appreciation of this wonderful old series, the following are my favourites from Season 3, first aired 1961-1962.
“The Shelter” – A birthday party is taking place in a suburban home. A doctor is the recipient, and his friends have gathered to celebrate with him and his family. During the evening they make references to the fallout shelter he has built in his basement. Over the radio there is an announcement that unidentified objects are heading their way and everyone is encouraged to take shelter. The friendly gathering turns sour as friends demand entrance to the shelter. But the doctor has built it for his own family, and it will not fit any more.
There is no science fiction in this episode. It is instead a depiction of the way people will behave when they are desperate. The friends and relatives become nasty, turning on their host as well as each other. Undercurrent resentments come out, accusations are made, and there is violent action. At the end it turns out to have been a false alarm. The group, now highly embarrassed, make their apologies, but the protagonist and his family are left wondering if friendship has been irrevocably destroyed. How can they ever regard their friends in the same light again?
There is nothing hard to understand about this episode. It is entirely believable that someone who is scared will put others at risk to ensure his/her own survival. Apparently it was made in response to escalating tensions in Europe, when the USSR demanded NATO troops be removed from Berlin and threatened nuclear war. Series creator Rod Serling saw an opportunity to address the fears and concerns of people, which included at the time the purchase and building of bomb shelters. Two weeks after this episode aired, the building of the Berlin Wall commenced.
Growing up during the Cold War era, this episode resonated with me. My childhood was full of talk among adults about nuclear war, the possibility of survival, how things might be. My mother used to say it would be better not to survive. As children we would daydream about fancy shelters that we would build when we were grown up so we could survive. It was only as an adult I could look back and realise how much that fear permeated everyday living. Children’s imaginings should not involve bomb shelters. Also, I could absolutely believe the character behaviour in this story.
No moral, no message, no prophetic tract, just a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized. Tonight’s very small exercise in logic from the Twilight Zone.
“The Passersby” – At the end of the Civil War, a wounded Confederate soldier limps down a road on a crutch. He passes a mansion and sees a woman outside, so he asks her if he can have water from her well. The soldier lingers, and he and the woman watch as more and more soldiers, Confederate and Union, walk past on the road. The woman tells the soldier that her husband was killed in the war. The soldier starts to realize that there is something different about the road, and he has to continue on to find out what is waiting at the end. As the woman tries to stop him leaving, an unexpected arrival reveals what is really going on.
I found this episode eery, but also sweet. It talks about the untold damage done by war, about grief and bitterness, and refusal to see the truth. I loved its very simple setting, and how a profound and moving story could be told without much movement and in one setting. I think mostly the episode illustrates the waste of war, in so many lives lost so needlessly. This one is not the most complex, but it is memorable and has stayed with me.
“Nothing in the dark” – An elderly woman lives alone in a rundown basement apartment, in an abandoned building. She is very scared of interacting with any human being. There are noises outside, and looking out, she sees a policeman has been shot and is calling out to her for help. She has no phone to call anyone and does not want to open the door. But he keeps pleading and eventually she lets him in. It appears that the woman is terrified of death. She refers to ‘Mr Death’ and insists she has seen the personification of Death taking a life. She has been hiding from him ever since, and as she believes he takes different faces to trick her, she shuns contact with anyone. After another man turns up, terrifying her, he explains the building is going to be torn down, and she needs to leave. He says he will have to get the police if she doesn’t leave of her own accord. He apparently does not see the ‘policeman’ in the room. The woman, terrified, realises that the policeman is, in fact, Mr Death. However Death explains there is nothing to be afraid of and he is not there to hurt her. She realises that she has, in fact, died peacefully on her bed, and allows Death to escort her out of the dark room into the light.
First note of interest here – Death is being played by a very young Robert Redford. This was very early in Redford’s career – he had only one movie and a few tv appearances to his name at this point. It was interesting to see this early performance, but as in all of his work he was very good.
I found this episode very moving. It talks about the fear of death taken to extremes when this woman has seen Death in person and it has made her so afraid she is harming herself. She is living in squalor out of some paranoid fear that ‘Mr death’ is hunting her. The people she has believed were him were undoubtedly regular people. Death is peaceful and reassuring when he does come for her, when it is her natural time to die.
There was an old woman who lived in a room. And, like all of us, was frightened of the dark. But who discovered in a minute last fragment of her life that there was nothing in the dark that wasn’t there when the lights were on. Object lesson for the more frightened amongst us in, or out of, the Twilight Zone.
“Little girl lost” – parents are woken by the cries of their daughter, but when they go to her room to find her, she is not there. They can still hear her voice, still in the room. Eventually, with the help of a physicist friend, it is discovered that an opening to another dimension has appeared in the wall behind her bed. The girl’s dog has run after her and also disappeared, and can be heard barking. The child’s father calls out to the dog to bring the girl back, but though they seem to be coming closer they cannot find their way back through the opening. The father eventually enters the portal, finding himself in a distorted environment full of odd angles, mist, and crystalline shapes. He locates his daughter and the dog, and they are all pulled back into the bedroom by his friend, who had been holding onto him. The portal closes, and despite scientists running many tests, they never find an explanation.
This is one of the real science fiction episodes, and I enjoy it precisely because of that. Of course, the talk of parallel dimensions in this episode is quite rudimentary, but I feel it is a brave effort to look at the concept of other dimensions, and possible gateways between. The setting in the other dimension was an attempt to imagine an environment alien enough that human perception would become hopelessly confused by it, and consequently quite lost. The script was written by the science fiction writer Richard Matheson and based on one of his short stories. Matheson is the author of science fiction classics ‘I am Legend’ and ‘The Shrinking Man’, so a quality script is guaranteed from a writer of this calibre.
They never found the answer. Despite a battery of research physicists equipped with every device known to man, electronic and otherwise, no result was ever achieved, except perhaps a little more respect for and uncertainty about the mechanisms of the Twilight Zone.
“The Changing of the Guard” – an elderly teacher is forced into retirement after having taught English for 51 years at the same school. He becomes depressed, convinced he has nothing to show for his life. It is Christmas Eve, and he goes out with a gun, determined to shoot himself. He hears the school bell ringing, and goes to investigate, as the school should be closed. He enters his old classroom and is visited by ghosts of his former students, those who have died heroically. Some died in war, saving lives. One died of cancer after radiation exposure while researching treatments for leukaemia. One by one the ghostly students stand up and identify what the teacher taught them along with English Literature – courage, honesty, decency, how they were inspired to be better men because of him. After they leave the professor returns home, ready to face retirement, realising that his teaching has made a difference to the world.
The great actor Donald Pleasance played the teacher in this sweet Christmas episode. He was only 42 at the time, and was made up to look much older. His portrayal of an old man was thoroughly convincing. I’m a huge fan of his, so his presence is certainly a plus in this episode.
I have a fondness for ghost stories, so this appeals to me on that level. But I think the main beauty of this story is its theme about finding meaning in one’s life. At the beginning of this episode we see the teacher interacting with his current students. It is very obvious that the students are very fond of him and he them. He also tells them they all passed. So it is clear to the audience that he is a good teacher and a popular one. His sadness after being forced out is all the more jarring – he cannot see what is so clear to an outside observer. This is a universal theme – I think we are all guilty, at some point, of failing to see the value in what we do, even when others can. The ghosts all died young, bu t they had no regrets because he taught them how to live. This is a beautiful and extremely inspiring story.
Professor Ellis Fowler, teacher, who discovered rather belatedly something of his own value. A very small scholastic lesson, from the campus of the Twilight Zone.
So these are some favourites of mine from Season 3 of ‘The Twilight Zone’. I would love to hear your thoughts on these. Please feel free to comment – what are your favourites?