Pop Culture Questions: Twilight Zone Edition

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013
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.