Pop Culture Questions: Twilight Zone Edition

I bet in the show itself, this photo would be in color.

Serling: Picture if you will, a famous TV writer and host talking to himself in the middle of a hotel room, desperate for a meaningless distraction to come from outside the space he inhabits.
Room Service outside front door: Um, Mr. Serling, I’m still waiting for you to pick up your prime rib out here.
Serling: Tonight’s tale of meat consumption and satisfying hunger, in the Twilight Zone.

The Syfy channel’s annual Fourth of July Twilight Zone marathon aired on Independence Day a short while ago.  I watched a few episodes in the morning and was delighted to see how well a lot of these stories hold up decades after they originally aired.  Still, like most great pieces of science fiction (or any kind of intellectually stimulating media for that matter), it did raise a few questions in my mind.  These are not the usual questions of morality and the natural feel of the unknown that Rod Serling and company raised practically every episode, but rather little queries about the events of the episodes themselves that figure prominently in how I view them.  For instance, have you ever considered…

Is Mr. Bemis’s fate at the end of “Time Enough at Last” really such a bad thing?  (I didn’t actually watch this one on the 4th, but since we’re talking Twilight Zone, I figured I might as well talk about it here.)

From what I have learned about the series over the years, it seems to me that the ending of “Time Enough at Last” is one of the most famous moments the original Twilight Zone series ever produced.  The plot in a nutshell for those of you who have never watched it (here’s the whole kit and kaboodle for you to enjoy, I know I sure did): Mr. Henry Bemis, a book-a-holic and professional windbag (played wonderfully by Burgess Meredith), locks himself in a bank vault for some peace, quiet, and good reading.  Meanwhile, World War III breaks out outside (we know that because the newspaper Bemis brought in with him conveniently says so).  When Bemis climbs out of the vault, he steps into a nightmarish landscape devastated by the atomic bomb.  After wandering around for a considerable length of time, he comes across a library literally overflowing with books of seemingly every type.  Just as he’s about to settle down for a lifetime of reading pleasure, he trips and breaks his glasses on the pavement.  As his vision blurs and goes out of focus, Bemis proceeds to whine like a little girl and complain about how true happiness will be denied him for the rest of his life, just because he can’t see anything he reads as clearly anymore.

Personally, I don’t think Mr. Bemis’s situation is quite as dire as the ending makes it out to be.  I remember from watching the episode (and confirming my suspicions via Wikipedia) that Bemis has enough food to survive for the long haul, so he certainly shouldn’t starve to death any time soon.  In addition, who’s to say that there isn’t some remains of an optometrist store left in all the ruins that he could raid for some new glasses or a pair of contact lenses?  He’s bound to find the right prescription for his eyes if he looks hard enough.  I bet he will soon indeed have all the time he needs, all the books he could ever want, and all the vision he can handle before he inevitably dies of radiation poisoning (well, what did you expect from this episode, a happy ending?).

How has the computer in “The Old Man in the Cave” managed to keep running for all this time without breaking down?  (Enjoy this two-minute version.)

In this episode, it is revealed that a giant computer has guided the lives of a small U.S. town’s residents for roughly a decade following a nuclear-fueled World War III (there’s that subplot again!), telling them which foods are safe to eat, where to go for fresh non-contaminated water, etc.  In 1974, after discovering the true identity of the “person” who has told them to go without canned food for more than a week, the townspeople show their gratitude by demolishing the computer into itty-bitty pieces.  The impressive thing about this is that it’s not your average run-of-the-mill laptop they’re smashing to bits.  This is a huge UNIVAC-type vaccuum-tube model you can normally only find in cheap sci-fi comic books.  I’ve always wondered just how this machine came to be placed in the cave and how it’s been able to operate so smoothly for such a long time after a nuclear war.  From the way it gives the townspeople weather reports and food health analyses, I believe it might be used for some type of farming program.  The cave residence might likely be to protect it from inclement weather and wanton marauders looking to destroy anything they can get their hands on.   How the thing’s been operational for so long, though, is beyond me.  There is a guy named Goldsmith who appears to know what the machine does within the episode itself, but who knows if he’s been with it from the beginning?  Also, where can I get one of those giant computers?  I wouldn’t mind one taking up most of the room in a corner of my house; I wouldn’t do anything with it of course, but it could just sit there and look important.

Is Rod Serling a figment of the imagination in the Twlight Zone universe?

Picture if you will: Your humble host, Rod Serling, is wrapping up a typical Twilight Zone episode with some long-winded closing narration.  You’re not really paying attention because you’ve heard this guy’s schtick a hundred times before (there are 154 episodes in the original series, after all).  Suddenly, he does something you’ve never seen him do before in any of his TV appearances.  He walks into the camera’s view, one of the story’s principal characters in the background tells him not to talk that way, that guy throws a paper into the nearby fireplace, and Serling suddenly disappears.  No folks, that’s not your nightmares coming true.  That’s actually a real ending to an early episode, and when I learned about it, it scared the living daylights out of me.

The episode in question is called, “A Room of His Own” (part 1 here, part 2 over yonder), a sleepy little yarn about a guy with a dictaphone who can make anything he speaks into it come to life.  For some strange unexplained reason, Rod Serling just so happens to be one of the things he has made.  This set of circumstances made me think: What if in all the other episodes, Rod Serling happens to be just as fictional as he is here?  After all, he has delivered his opening narrations from the weirdest places (his “fly on the wall” routine in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” comes to mind).  Who’s to say that, in the show’s context, he isn’t some kind of ghost or other unnatural being who has a predilection for finding weird, unsettling sci-fi stories and telling them to an unseen audience, all the while oblivious to the characters around him who are fully aware of his presence but choose to ignore him in the hopes that he’ll find some other poor freaks to rattle on about.  I’d be interested in seeing a Twilight Zone show like that someday; it might attract viewers interested in seeing just how this young man became so fascinated with the paranormal.

Any other strange questions you’ve ever had about The Twilight Zone?  Jot them down in the comments; I’d be up for a good chat concerning  any one of these episodes.

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8 Responses to “Pop Culture Questions: Twilight Zone Edition”

  1. Aunt Becky Says:

    Bravo! Loved it! Keep up the good work!

  2. Benjamin Kellogg Says:

    Thanks for reading my blog, Aunt Becky! Working hard and feeling good!

  3. jeanne kiesinger Says:

    Hi, Ben! Rod Serling was a hometown hero for Binghamton. He went to my high school and was big into the drama department there. I remember the episode with the library and the broken glasses. The irony of getting to heaven and finding the door locked! One of my favorites is a couple who goes to a party and wakes up in a small town where everything is fake. They are in a house where nothing really works. When they try to drive a car they find it’s just for show too. They think they’ve stumbled onto a movie set until you hear a little girl’s laughter and see a giant, chubby hand reaching down to grab the little human dolls that wandered into her doll house overnight! So glad you have found this gem of a writer!

  4. Benjamin Kellogg Says:

    Hi, Mrs. Kiesinger! Thanks for reading my blog! I did not know that about the fact that Rod really liked the drama department, but I guess it makes sense considering his line of work. A lot of his shows do seem like little plays to me, so maybe he always had some theater blood in him! I love that “Time Enough at Last” episode with the broken glasses; such an iconic piece of TV! Strangely enough, this episode reminds me of another heaven-focused episode, “A Nice Place to Visit,” with Sebastian Cabot as an “angel” who (spoilers!) turns out to be the devil. I remember reading about this a few years ago and thinking to myself, “Now how on earth could the Winnie the Pooh narrator play a bad guy?” Of course, after watching the episode, I was pleasantly surprised to see him pull that switch off so well! I remember that episode with the dollhouse very well; it’s called “Stopover in a Quiet Town,” and it’s one of my particular favorites. A classic Twilight Zone plot with a heck of a twist ending: not just that house but the whole town is fake, and they’ve somehow gotten stuck on another planet to boot! But it always left a few questions in my mind. Wouldn’t the couple realize what was going on as soon as they saw that everything was bolted down and they were eating off of stickers? Why didn’t they discover the town was fake sooner? After all, they couldn’t possibly see the sky in that town; wouldn’t they just see the walls and ceiling of the little girl’s room or something like that? Still, this is one of my favorite TV episodes of all time, and well-acted at that. They sure don’t present TV like this anymore! Thanks for checking out my blog, and stop by again sometime! Ben

  5. Aunt Patti Says:

    Hi Ben! I really enjoyed this one, especially since Uncle Mack & I are BIG Twilight Zone fans! It was one of my favorite TV shows when I was growing up. There was one episode that really scared me…it was about a car that would not stop driving – all by itself without a driver! Have you seen that one? We now have a complete collection of all of the Twilight Zone episodes on DVD. I haven’t watched them lately, but your blog has reminded me that I should! Time Enough At Last is a very interesting story and I like your ideas about the ending. Thanks for writing… I look forward to more to come!
    Love, Aunt Patti

  6. Benjamin Kellogg Says:

    Thanks for reading my blog! Yes, I have seen that episode with the driverless car, “A Thing About Machines,” and it’s one of my personal favorites. I think the plot sounds pretty standard (a guy who hates technology is harassed by the very machines he complains about every day; I could swear I’ve seen this before somewhere but I don’t know where), but the scenes where he is attacked by the machines came across as both hilarious and scary to me. The part at the end where he is running from his own car is menacing enough, but how about when the electric razor starts slithering toward him like a snake? I think it is quite interesting that Bugs Bunny plays this for laughs in “Rabbit of Seville“, but this “Twilight Zone” episode makes the same gag seem a lot more terrifying. Pretty cool, though! Thanks again for reading!

    Ben

  7. jeanne kiesinger Says:

    Hi, Ben, Sometimes writers have to ignore some obvious facts to get their stories across. Like the lack of sky, wind, etc, that most people would notice. They seemed to think they were in a movie set. I also like the episode where the earth is getting closer and closer to the sun. A sneak preview of global warming. When it finally nears the end of the story you can see that the narrator has pneumonia and a fever from the earth actually traveling away from the sun. Very interesting concept.

  8. Benjamin Kellogg Says:

    Hi, Jeanne! I agree that a few leaps of logic are sometimes necessary if they serve the story well, but I still find them fun to notice and think about a bit. I didn’t even think about the lack of wind, although I wonder if that would have been enough of a signal that something was off or if something more would be required. That whole movie set idea reminds me of another “Twilight Zone” episode where a guy is working in the office when all of a sudden someone from offscreen yells “Cut!” The camera pulls back to reveal that the guy is suddenly on a movie set and everyone thinks he is just an actor. He spends the rest of the show trying to get back to his normal life. I remember originally reading about that episode in a Twilight Zone companion book and thinking that was a very interesting premise. The author observed, as did I upon actually watching it, that nowhere in that episode is there any strong indication of what the guy’s “normal life” is really like; would the show be more or less interesting if we knew of that lifestyle? I like that episode with the sun, too; the way the cast expressed rising panic, frustration, and anger in extreme heat was top-notch, and the inversion at the end with global cooling instead of global warming was a pleasant surprise to me. It makes me wonder, though: what’s the future of that world going to be like? I’ve got images of that movie, “The Day After Tomorrow,” running through my mind. I do not think I would enjoy the world turning to ice, but the idea of pneumonia and a fever are not too appealing either!! I hope I never have to see either senario play out! Thanks for reading my blogs. It is always interesting to discuss others’ ideas! Ben

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