Monday, February 15, 2016

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man

The Twilight Zone- Both Original 1959 Intros

In 1959 I was ten years old and still taking the measure of a world in which, if all turned out quite normally, I would live 67.4 years (see the infoplease life expectancy table for White males @ In that year, President Eisenhower and both houses of Congress enthusiastically passed the Imagination and Inspiration Suppression Act of 1959, the upshot of which was that the US Government, in support of universally perceived societal values, would use all power available to maintain a climate of intellectual and spiritual normalcy and mediocrity.

I'm kidding, of course, but if you were alive and American at the end of the 1950s, then you lived in a society that was still deep in the thrall of a shared belief system that might have produced such a thing. Our popular culture reflected this and can be mined for artifacts that reveal it. Our collective state of mind of that time can be well understood by viewing TV shows of the era like Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and The Donna Reed Show. All were so over-the-top wholesome and family values friendly that sex wasn't even hinted at in their episodes.The only members of minority ethnic groups to be seen in them were character actors who played lovable, amazingly wise, considering their race, Black maids - Well, let me not forget Hop Sing, the pig tail wearing, pidgin' speaking 'Chinaman' cook at the Ponderosa in the show Bonanza. Conflict? Remember Conflict, that necessary element of a story that you learned about in English class? These shows always had  the protagonist of the story grapple with weighty issues on the order of The Beaver getting a poor report card (it actually had a C mixed in among the A's), Jim Anderson (the father who was supposed to always know best.., ho ho :) struggling to figure out how to handle, Bud, the son, who had overspent his allowance; and Margie (heroine of the show My Little Margie) having her latest scheme to get her dad to buy her a new dress backfire somehow.

Yes, Yes, I know there were shows that were out of the box (a bit); Topper was about an uptight old fart banker named Cosmo who kept seeing and talking to ghosts. But the ghosts were so normal and boring that they might have been alive and active members of the PTA. And there was Ed, the talking horse, who spoke only to Wilbur, his owner. But Ed, even if he had been a real guy would have been BOR-ING; he may have been more of a wild man that Wilbur, but Wilbur was pathetic.  

But in 1959, FINALLY, for those like my 10 year old self, there appeared something to slake a deep, but unspoken of thirst; something Earth shatteringly DIFFERENT; something designed to scratch an itch for the bizarre, the wildly whimsical, and the spookily and hauntingly far beyond the ordinary. This was something that turned its back on the predictable, hackneyed logic of TV show plots, thus far.  Seemingly without warning, like a Japanese film monster, upon us was The Twilight Zone! And we loved it. I know I sure did!

When I think of TV shows that were more than entertaining for me, that were... formative, I realize that the likes of: The Outer Limits ('63 - '65); Night Gallery ('69 - '73); Star Trek ('66 - '69);  Kolchack, the Night Stalker ('74 - '75); and The X Files ('98 - '02), would never have emerged if not for ground that was broken by The Twilight Zone.

But there's much more to acknowledge about The Twilight Zone; namely that the writing was excellent. Twilight Zone episodes, when considered for their structure and story content come off as adhering to the great literary tradition of The Short Story, and in fact the classic print short story must have been a strong influence on the series and its creator, Rod Serling. Wikipedia's comprehensive list of Twilight Zone episodes reveals that in addition to Serling, episodes were written by such writers as: Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, and RayBradbury.  I always walked away from watching an episode feeling that I was better for it, that I had learned something important about life and how to live it. That's exactly the way a good piece of literature should leave you.

Could I say that about the brain goo I watched in the guise of My Three Sons, The Ozzy & Harriet Show, or The Andy Griffith Show, all of which were well produced entertainments, replete with heartwarming characters and their relationships to one another and nostalgic details of that simpler, purer America that probably never existed for the vast majority of its citizens. These, by the way, in addition to the snappy repartee in their dialog, sight gags, laugh tracks to cue the audience about what was funny, and catchy intro music, had plots that studiously conveyed a moral lesson, or should I say, hit you over the head with it. But these 'messages' were stilted and artificial and superficial, and more often than not, principally were there to justify the rest of the fluff that comprised the bulk of the show. Small wonder that years later Jerry Seinfeld would explain over and over in interviews that his concept for his blockbuster comedy show was to have no learning associated with the plot, simply to let the show's gauche characters react to true-to-life, trivial scenarios, revealing themselves to be the vapid, lost individuals that so many of us are as we go through our 'deer caught in the headlights' lives.

As I reflect on it, many of those traditional, 'comforting'  shows were popular because they presented everyday folks, in all their wonderful ordinariness, succeeding after just 20 odd minutes of struggle (including commercials for the likes of Campbell's Soup and Pepsodent Toothpaste)  in tieing up the dangling threads of life ever so neatly; demonstrating that life would turn out alright in the end even for the average jerk. They portrayed American Society as so nourishing a soup to swim around in that even sad sack goofballs like The Beaver, Barney Fife, and Robert Petrie would end up in the warm bosom of loving families and circles of friends,  prosperously ensconced in beautiful 3 bedroom, 2 bath suburban, split level houses

Not so with the plots of episodes of Twilight Zone and its progeny. They showed the world to be a mysterious, unfathomable place and life to be filled with risk and challenge. The characters that carried the weight of their stories revealed inner conflict as they coped with situations that clearly had them way out of their depths. These few shows were the real thing, delivered the real goods.

Doing some YouTube search engine exploration I came across these 2 gems. The first (above) offers 2 versions of the musical sound track created for The Twilight Zone, a wonderfully retro look back at what at the time was intended to be a taste for the masses of the modern music of the future. It's powerful and it still makes the hairs on my forearms stand up when I hear it. Here are both versions of Serling's voice over introduction to his series:

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!


There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man
It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity
It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition
And it lies between the pit of Man's fears and the summit of his knowledge
This is the dimension of imagination, it is an area which we call... The Twilight Zone

And the second video (below) is a wonderful interview with writer/producer Rod Serling. It offers not only insights into the show and the thinking behind it, but also an important description of American Culture at the time it emerged, seen through the politics and values of America's most important medium, Television.

The Twilight Zone - Rod Serling Interview (1959)

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