This week we travel way back in time, long before the Art Attack TV Club writers were even specks of dust in our parents' loins, with the exception of Pete, who was already like ten or something, to visit an episode of one of the greatest science fiction shows of all time, The Twilight Zone.
The episode we watched was from the first season and originally aired in December of 1959; so I apologize, Pete was 11. [This is because I drew attention to your body-hair fetish last week, isn't it? -- PVH]
"And When the Sky Was Opened" tells the tale of three astronauts who defy the odds when their spaceship, which was thought to be lost, abruptly returns to Earth. The three men, Major Gart, Lt. Col. Forbes and Col. Harrington, who are declared to be heroes in the newspaper, are brought to the local VA hospital for examination. Forbes and Harrington are soon released, having no injuries, while Gart has broken his leg.
Harrington and Forbes head over to the bar, a natural thing to do after you've just been potentially lost in space, and are treated with a king's welcome from the bartender. But something is off with Harrington; he feels strange, as if he doesn't belong. He goes to call his parents, who have no idea who he is. Forbes wonders if perhaps someone is playing some sort of "gag." But it has to be the most elaborate gag in the history of all gags (I enjoy that word) because NO ONE knows who Harrington is, not even their fellow space traveler. And that's when shit gets weird.
ABBY: I really enjoyed this episode, despite its 1950s acting, because they alluded for a while to the fact that Forbes was a big drinker and so perhaps all of this was some sort of drunk illusion. Anyone get that but me? Or was I just drunk?
JEF: Nah, it wasn't just you. The unreliable drunken hallucinatory guy is a stock character in a lot of sci fi from that time, and they're always wonderful. They're uniquely American versions of Cassandra that have been whitewashed out of modern fiction, sadly.
PETE: I just thought it was because everyone was drunk -- sorry, "on a toot," as Gart says -- in the '50s. Post-WWII benders, the "Space Race," smoking in hospitals; what a time to be alive.
ABBY: Wasn't this episode made into a movie called Final Destination 4?
JEF: I object, Your Honor, on the grounds Abby compared Twilight Zone to a move where someone got their guts sucked through a pool vent.
PETE: Point of order: The fourth installment is officially known as The Final Destination. And the budget for a single episode of the original Zone wouldn't have covered one hour's worth of cocaine for the movie's cast.
ABBY: If one day everyone in your life didn't know who your best friend was, how would you take it? I've had the same best friend since high school and my mom refuses to acknowledge her existence, but that's another story.
JEF: Well, mine's my wife, so it would be pretty traumatic. My second best friend is my former guitar player in Black Math, but I just assume everyone has forgotten all of that anyway so it wouldn't be all that different.
PETE: My best friend's in Canada; you probably don't know him anyway.
ABBY: Pete, that guy's your best friend? I didn't know you guys knew each other. Moving on, the bartender who joyously offers the two hero astronauts a drink really has no idea how to pour a proper beer. Did you see the head on that thing! Free beer or not, I would have pointed out that he was in the wrong profession and it would have been okay because eventually he would have forgotten who I was.
JEF: It's weird, isn't it? Everyone drinks like pros and serves like amateurs.
PETE: The lack of respect is especially weird considering how many Twilight Zone episodes were devoted to astronaut escapades. The one we watched aired two years before Yuri Gagarin went up, and it's hard to imagine the mystique surrounding space travel some 44 years after the first moon landing.
ABBY: On a serious note, this episode taps into a very human fear that one day we won't exist or perhaps be important, even to those people who supposedly care about us. Thoughts?
JEF: I think Matheson was making a point about how even the most noteworthy of accomplishments, like space travel, can be blown away into dust. We all like to think we'll be remembered, but people like Cleopatra that we're still talking about millennia later are few and far between. Even she, eventually, will be gone. What did Neil Gaiman say? "None of us will survive this version of the universe."
PETE: Matheson touches on that theme a lot (the Zone episode "Little Girl Lost" is pretty similar, for example). I saw it more as emphasizing the vast, unknowable ginormitude of space and the possible risks involved in hurtling ourselves into the void. I may be prejudiced, because I've always tended to believe any extraterrestrials we encounter will be more like the Vogons than E.T.
ABBY: (I just had to take a pause and look up "ginormitude." Google is not 100 percent sure either.) Forbes went on a freak-out, screaming "Harrington" at the top of his lungs, trying to find the guy. And during this mayhem, he was able to break through a glass door. Is there a power of Harrington that gives men great strength?
JEF: It's roughly a third as powerful as Shazam and 50 percent the Power of Greyskull.
PETE: Think about what you just said: He was able to break through a glass door.
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ABBY: As writers, are you amazed at how many completely different stories Rod Serling was able to crank out? I am in awe of his creativity.
JEF: Well, this was Richard Matheson, but you're forgiven because holy God, did Serling know how to produce! No other writer is even close to his ability to churn out powerful, haunting scripts at such a rate. You had guys like that in '60s science fiction. Serling and Matheson in America, and David Whitacre and Robert Holmes in England on Doctor Who. That sort of amazing ability and ethic is just gone, except maybe hidden in the bowels of Internet-generated content. Even then, those people don't have CBS standing over them demanding. Rod Serling was a prince of stories, and we'll never see his like.
PETE: Serling, Matheson and Charles Beaumont wrote most of the epsiodes, and Serling the bulk of those. But it wasn't just the quantity of their output that made them so impressive: They incorporated current events and themes that you'd never see on TV of that era. There are still people making a living doing scripted TV, but you're not going to see anything like The Twilight Zone again. Not that they haven't tried.
Join us next week for another thrilling installment when we will examine the high-brow merits of a program called Saved By the Bell with the episode "Jessie's Song." Watch along with us; you know you love that show.