THE TWILIGHT ZONE: HISTORIAN AND ORACLE

It comes as no surprise to regular readers that I find inspiration for my writing in the images and sounds emanating from my flat screen TV. Oftentimes that inspiration results in mockery, not contemplations of wisdom.

In the present case the annual Twilight Zone marathon on the SyFy Channel has just come to an end. I believe it consumed about 45 hours or 90 episodes of the 156 produced in the science fiction show’s five year run. Truth be told, science fiction is a poor description of the genre to which The Twilight Zone belongs.

Indeed, while the stories themselves are fictional and entail phenomena not experienced in the usual science class or research laboratory, the body of work itself is greatly reflective of our world, as it was prior to the series, in the present time of the series, and occasionally startlingly predictive of the future lying ahead of the series.

Using irony, fear, whimsey, sarcasm, satire and other literary devices, the episodes were both amazingly original yet borrowed freely from the classics or even from its entertainment family with its take on the great movie The Hustler.

Everyone who grew up with the show or who developed their fandom through the easy availability of reruns through the ensuing years has a favorite episode or three.

Some relish the early exhibition of William Shatner’s overacting skills as an airline passenger who sees a monster on the wing outside his window. Ask for an aisle seat next time, Mr. Shatner, assuming one can be booked via Priceline.

Others savor the mostly dialogless entry in which Agnes Morehead battles invading aliens who landed in  her attic. These unseen creatures, faced with an overwhelming giant, finally radio that they will be returning to their native planet, better known as Earth.

Aliens are a common meme in the series, ones from Mars playfully experimenting with human nature by endowing Burgess Meredith (a frequent star) with tremendous physical strength and withdrawing that power to his embarrassment, only to be replaced by Venusians who grant him an uncanny fount of knowledge. Further folly sure to follow.

Roddy McDowell’s astronaut on Mars is at first stunned and pleased by the humanlike beings on Mars, who warmly greet him and provide a home perfect for his earthling tastes. (Appallingly this residence lacks hardwood floors, a garden tub and granite countertops, all de rigeur according to HGTV.) Alas, his comfort level is smashed as he discovers he has become ensconced in a Martian zoo as an example of an “earth creature in his natural habitat”.

Two standouts for me illustrate the ugliness of war and the shallowness and destructiveness of greed. Both, coincidentally, feature Oscar Beregi. In the first, which I believe is the best episode ever, he plays a former Nazi death camp commander (Dachau) who returns some fifteen years after the war to tour the still standing facility and revel in his fond memories of his own extreme sadism.

To his ultimate horror there is an ample supply of his victims…or their ghosts…justifiably willing and able to try him for his crimes. His conviction by these stripes clad and emaciated jurors results in a sentence far more fitting than imprisonment or execution. He is driven forever insane while suffering all the agony of the pain he inflicted prior to his victims’ deaths without undergoing physical trauma himself.

Of course this madness, this insanity, is only a slight degree of the insanity inflicted upon the world and millions of people by Hitler and his minions.

In the other Beregi episode he is the leader of a small band of thieves who steal gold bars worth millions, put themselves into suspended animation for 100 years and awaken with the expectations of being able to cash in their fortune with no recriminations. Naturally their greed causes them to fight amongst themselves and Beregi, as the eventual sole survivor makes his way to civilization only to learn that gold is no longer a precious commodity and his heavy burden procured by murder is utterly worthless.

But perhaps the individual episode that showcases the program as both historian and oracle is “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”. Here the residents of a neighborhood, hearing rumors of a pending alien invasion, begin to suspect each other of being aliens disguised as human and making unfounded accusations on the merest scintilla of “evidence”

It is a not so subtle attack on the then recent shame of McCarthyism but also is remarkably prescient in light of the far more recent reflexive action to 9/11 wherein anything Islam is is considered by the wowsers to be a subterfuge for terror coming from the corner mosque.

The ultimate lesson is that again the humans were being manipulated by aliens, smug in their knowledge that defeating humans would be easy since they were perfectly willing to destroy themselves.

Racism and sexism and war and avarice were common themes for exploration with the worst instincts of man drawing scorn and repudiation and  temporary triumphs or rewards for this behavior being reversed or ironically punished with the only true satisfaction for the characters coming upon their repentance of their offenses.

While The Twilight Zone attracted ample praise during its five year life, I believe its true brilliance can only be more fully appreciated as a complete body of work. Thus, much in the way of contemporary biographies of Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, its flaws…few as they were…are laid bare for all to see which permits us to recognize the complete greatness of the subject at hand in balance.

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Comments

  • Little_Minx  On January 2, 2013 at 9:21 PM

    Methinks this has publication potential (depending on the word-limit of the journal in question)!

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