The Original Twilight Zone TV Series – An SF&F TV Review

Every summer the SyFy Channel features an enormous number of Twilight Zone episodes for no apparent reason.  And every year I watch way too many of these episodes.  It’s a moral failing of mine.  I think it’s because the show was on too late for me to watch when I was young so I felt deprived and therefore overvalued what I couldn’t get.  And watching these episodes every year drives home one fact, that most Twilight Zone episodes are stunningly bad.

To be fair, there is a small number of actually good episodes.  A debate can be had as to whether there are five or ten good episodes.  Opinions and tastes differ but it’s somewhere in that range.  Then there are another twenty or so that are watchable.  The plots are predictable and the acting is mediocre at best but watchable.  That leaves well over a hundred episodes that are actually painful to watch.  Let me give an example.

In the episode “King Nine Will Not Return” a man regains consciousness next to his crashed bomber aircraft somewhere in the North African desert during World War II.  By the end of the episode you find out this is a dream this man has as a result of his feelings of guilt for missing the mission where the bomber was shot down.  So far so good.  Psychological pain, some kind of manifestation where he physically visits this time and place and is allowed to heal.  Sure, why not.  Now what is the scene?  You have the protagonist standing around in what must be the California desert yelling and emoting about his anguish for his missing crew mates.  It’s like some unscripted improvisational method acting workshop.  Five minutes in you’re heading to the kitchen to get some snack or drink just to avoid the whole embarrassing spectacle.  I found myself pitying the actor doing the scene and wondering if the experience of performing this drivel might have driven him out of acting and into some honest profession like loan sharking or leg breaking.  But every time I returned my attention to the tv screen there he was yelling and grimacing and crying.  Mercifully it finally ended and I have sworn a mighty oath to never watch that episode again while there remains any hope at all for intelligent human life to continue on this planet.

Admittedly, not all bad episodes are that horrible.  Some are just stupid and annoying.  These usually involve mannequins or robots that think they are human.  They even did this to Anne Francis in an episode called “The After Hours.”  She’s in a department store and by the end of the episode she remembers that she’s an escaped mannequin.  I think we’re supposed to be glad she’s found her way back to where she belongs.  But it’s all so pointless that you really can’t be sure.

So, most of the episodes stink, but which ones do I admit liking?  Here they are:

  1. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
  2. Nick of Time
  3. To Serve Man
  4. Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?
  5. It’s a Good Life

And now I’ll tell you what I like about them.  The first four episodes I find comical.  The first two have William Shatner starring.  You can’t go wrong with Shatner.  He was born to act on the Twilight Zone.  The terrible dialog and nonexistent direction actually seem to jibe with Shatner’s bizarre overacting tics.  “Nick of Time” can’t compete with “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” for over the top hilarity but even in the lesser vessels the Shatnerian touch is still a force to be reckoned with.

“To Serve Man” and “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” are surprise ending stories that I can only think of as jokes.  For each, the whole episode is the set up for the reveal.  I find them amusing.  Let’s say personal preference.

And that brings us to the best and maybe the only truly original story in the whole series, “It’s a Good Life.”  The short story is even better than the teleplay but both are very effective.  Definitely worth viewing.

So that’s it.  If you’re a Burgess Meredith or a Jack Klugman fan there are a couple of episodes you can add and if you’re sentimental there is Christmas episode with Art Carney as Santa Claus that’s kind of cute.  But I’d be kidding myself if I said I watched them out of anything other than force of habit.  Your mileage may vary but this is my take.

William Shatner – A Demigod of Bad Acting

Over the course of over fifty-five years of television viewing I have become jaded and much of what I once felt was entertaining has lost its thrill.  For instance, as a young kid I was convinced that “The Twilight Zone” was not only great acting and entertainment but also intellectually dazzling.  I thought that “Flipper” was top-notch adventure and “Lost in Space” was cutting edge science fiction.  Ah, youth.

But one thing has remained constant from the early sixties to the present day.  And that is the Shatner.  From my first sighting of him on the Twilight Zone as the panicked lunatic on “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” to his every close-up on the original “Star Trek” TV series to his every career iteration he has distinguished himself as the World’s Greatest Bad Actor.  No one can compare.

And along the way I’ve cheered him on.  I thrilled to the scene where he agonized about “losing command” when the transporter separated him into “Good Kirk and Bad Kirk” and he knew that “Bad Kirk” was muy macho and he, “Good Kirk,” was a wimp.  I was transfixed as marooned Kirk shouted up to the sky, “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!!!!”  And I fought back the nausea listening to his riveting rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”  It’s been a wild ride.

But his greatest role is one that few have seen or remarked on.  In 1984 he starred in a made for tv movie called “Secrets of a Married Man.”  In it he is an engineer who is going through a mid-life crisis.  His job is on the line due to a difficult project.  He’s stressed out and his wife is busy with the kids.  He starts having sex with hookers.  There are a number of hilarious Shatner overacting scenes that turn what is supposed to be serious problems into over the top comedy.  In one scene he’s in the shower and looks down and starts spazzing out and choking out the words “Oh my God!”  In the next scene his doctor is telling him he just has a rash on his genitals and he shouldn’t worry.  Another gem is Shatner driving down the main street with his wife in the car next to him and all the hookers are calling out greetings to him by his first name (Chris) and him claiming that it’s some kind of standard hooker greeting.  Ah, if only the Oscar went to the deserving.

But time is running out.  Shatner was born March 22, 1931.  In a few days he’ll be 87.  One day soon the world will wake up to the news that the Shat is no more.  And on that day, I will morn.  But in the meantime, it’s comforting to know that in this world of relativism and revisionist propaganda the gold standard for something has stood the test of time and will be there immortalized in all its tacky splendor, the life work of William Shatner.  Well done Shatner, well done.