Don’t miss television’s most imaginative show…
If it’s summer, it must be time for watching reruns on TV and checking out novelizations of movies and TV shows out of the local library!
(What? Isn’t this everyone?)
A few summers back we took a look at one of Rod Serling’s anthologies of “Twilight Zone” stories, so this year I present another scintillating selection of Serling short stories…*
*(You have to read this aloud in Serling’s voice to get the full effect)
Background: After The Twilight Zone was finally cancelled in 1965 (ratings, budget overruns and creative clashes with CBS had made things touch-and-go for the series since the start), Serling tried a number of other projects, some more successful (Planet of the Apes) than others (the one-season Serious Western The Loner); as a beloved media personality he served a pitchman for TV and print ads and taught writing at Ithaca College in upstate New York.
Arguably, his second-most-famous TV project was Night Gallery a horror/sci-fi/fantasy/thriller anthology series that he wrote for and hosted. While there seems to be a small and devoted group of Night Gallery fans, I have never been able to get into the series for much the same reason it didn’t catch on in the 70s: the writing isn’t as good and the format is weird.
Originally aired as part of Four in One, one of the “wheel series” format shows that enjoyed a brief vogue in the 1970s: 60- or 90-minute episodes in which each series would air one or two episodes a month in rotation. The other Four in One series included McCloud, San Francisco International Airport and The Psychiatrist. At the end of the 1970-71 season the Four in One concept was canceled, Night Gallery was picked up as a weekly series and McCloud was moved over to the most successful version of this format, the NBC Mystery Movie wheel, which begat Columbo, McMillan and Wife and Quincy, ME.
This tie-in was published in 1971 as a mass-market paperback was the first of two Night Gallery story anthologies- although my copy is a library-bound discard from the South Seneca Junior High School library, a district which serves the Finger Lakes towns of Ovid, Lodi and Interlaken (Serling’s final resting place).
“The Sole Survivor”: You can see where the TV series was having some issues with the new format: each 60-minute episode might be given over to a single story, or to two or even three different ones, and some of those single-story episodes seem awful flabby. Surprisingly, this story (aired as “Lone Survivor”) was one of the multiple story episodes, but the short story is interminably padded out with nautical and military jargon, as the crew of an ocean liner in the midst of a (not yet specified) wartime spots a lifeboat with a lone person in it and works to rescue him. The crew is startled to discover that the figure is a man dressed in women’s clothing… and the lifeboat is marked HMS Titanic!
I (as always, no master of unraveling mysteries) was able to figure out where this was going pretty early on… but also delighted since this was exactly the sort of story I loved as a child, because I felt REALLY CLEVER when I “got” the twist: the man is a sailor who has been cursed in the afterlife for his cowardice in abandoning his post when the Titanic sank, doomed to eternally float around, fruitlessly warning other doomed ships, including his rescuers, the crew of the Lusitania [!!!]
Additional twist! As the ship is struck by German torpedoes, the passengers and crew are raptured away, leaving the sailor to experience the sinking alone…
Cut to 40 years later, as another captain on another ship spots a man in a lifeboat and prepare to rescue him. As they pull him aboard, he notes uniforms indicating that his rescuers are the crew of the Andrea Doria [!!!!]
“Make Me Laugh”: This was a particularly low-voltage episode of the series, notable mainly for being directed by an up-and-comer named Steven Spielberg (who had made his professional debut with a segment of the “Night Gallery” pilot movie) and the casting of Black comedian Godfrey Cambridge in the lead role.
The plot is your basic monkey’s paw-deal, as truly terrible comedian Jackie Slater (Cambridge) gets fired from his latest night club gig for being truly terrible and is abandoned by his long-suffering agent (Tom Bosley). Drunkenly encountering a similarly failed guru/mystic in a bar he gets his wish to “make people laugh” and lives to regret it when that is all he can do. Demanding a reversal of his miracle, he is promptly run over by a car and killed.
In the episode, the casting of Cambridge is interesting, since it seems like the setting is the lowest rungs of the Borscht Belt (I lost count of how many times Bosley addresses people as “Bubbe”). The story doesn’t specify Slater’s race or ethnicity at all… but sets the story in upstate New York, as Jackie is fired from a club in Corning, and finally makes the big time in… Syracuse!
The style of writing is unexpectedly cynical, downbeat and crude coming from Serling: the strippers (“The Finger Lakes Fandangos” [!!!]) are first referred to as “eight sagging tits in sequins” and later as “a quartet of rouged and powdered beef”.
“Pamela’s Voice”: Several of these stories seem like re-treads of Serling’s earlier work on The Twilight Zone; this one is very similar to season 5’s “Uncle Simon” (in which a woman accidentally kills her tyrannical uncle, only to learn that in order to receive her inheritance she has to live with his personality implanted in a talking robot).
In this one, Jonathan murders his tyrannical wife, Pamela, and lives it up with her money… but when he dies due to excess of wine, women and song, he finds himself condemned to spend eternity with her complaining spirit.
“Does The Name Grimsby Do Anything for You?” This one is based on an unproduced “Night Gallery” script, and although it recycles the twist from Planet of the Apes, I think it’s the best of this collection.
Lt. Jonny Evans has recently returned from the first manned mission to the moon (in this alternate universe it was a solo expedition) a slightly changed man: troubled by recurring dreams about his mission and newly secretive around his beloved wife. He also is preoccupied with the name “Grimsby,” although he has no idea where he heard it or what the significance is. Although Evans was always a competitive and driven personality (in school, at the Naval Academy, and eventually at NASA), he also seems strangely touchy about his status at the FIRST man to reach the moon.
Evans’s Army doctor is concerned about all these developments, although not so much Evans’s fixation on “Grimsby,” even after he confessed he’s consulted the encyclopedia and found no relevant Grimsbies.
During one the numerous galas held in Evans’s honor, a German rocket scientist is rambling on and on about the development of space technology, when he mentions an obscure 19th century engineer who made some relevant early discoveries… a man named… Franklin Grimsby.
Evans freaks out, runs out of the banquet and smack into a lamp post, knocking himself out and again plunging into his recurring dream about his moon landing. This time the reader is privy to the full dream, as Evans steps from the lunar module, and goes to place a plaque with an inscription from President Nixon commemorating the first man landing on the moon… when Evans sees a plaque partially buried in the dust of the lunar surface, this one with a message from President Lincoln, commemorating the first manned mission to the moon, undertaken as a “one-way trip” by an engineer in employ of the Union Army named… Franklin Grimsby.
Enraged, Evans stomps the plaque into smithereens. Meanwhile NASA prepares its next mission, which Serling describes with a smirk will “carry yet a third man for a walk on the moon.”
I am sucker for that Planet of the Apes twist, but the scenes that deal with Evans’s apparent PTSD are effective, as is the reveal that the heroic and clean-cut Evans is an egomaniac.
Bonus Rochester-area reference: Evans refers to a photocopy as a Xerox.
“Clean Kills and Other Trophies” Aired as the second story in the same episode as “Make Me Laugh,” which seems like a bizarre pairing, since it is the only story collected here that is a straight-up horror tale.
Bill Pierce is the new partner in the law firm founded by his father, and has been put in charge of wrapping up some paperwork regarding Colonel Archie Dittman’s trust fund for Archie Jr.
Over the course of a long, indigestible banquet, Pierce finds Col. Dittman to be a blowhard and racist gun-nut, and that Archie Jr has barely a word to say for himself. After dinner Col. Dittman takes Pierce on a tour of his trophy room, displaying the mounted heads of the big game he’s killed over the course of a lifetime. Pierce is more than ready to get out of there when Dittman finally reveals the purpose of the visit: he wants to change the conditions of Archie Jr’s trust fund. In order to come into the money, Archie Jr must successfully kill an animal by he’s 21st birthday. Pierce is disgusted and offers to represent Archie Jr in suing his father. As wishy-washy about that as everything else, Jr (and Pierce) allow themselves to be talked into staying the night and going to hunt deer the next morning. Archie Jr decides that will be the path of least resistance to coming into his trust fund.
The next day Archie Jr shoots a deer, but it’s not a “clean kill” and it shambles off, enraging his father who insists that they spend the rest of the day tracking it.
Flash-forward to later in the day, when a badly shaken Pierce is packing his things and looking to get away from the Dittman estate as quickly as possible, having witnessed something so horrible that he has repressed the memory of it. As he flees the house, he hears a sound coming from Colonel Dittman’s trophy room… and when he looks inside he finds Archie Jr nailing his father’s bloody head to wall amongst the other trophies.
I have not seen this episode, but I’m left wondering how this was depicted on TV in 1971.
“They’re Tearing Down Tim Reilly’s Bar” is likely best-known episode of the series (it was nominated for an Emmy), but again, it’s a retread of a couple of stories that were done better as “Twilight Zone” episodes (the sublime “Walking Distance” and the pretty ok “The Trouble with Templeton”).
After 25 years in the plastics business, Randy Lane is a lonely alcoholic widower who is being squeezed out of the firm by his young, aggressively ambitious assistant, Harvey Doane. Supported only by his loyal secretary, Jane, the mental last straw for Lane seems to be the demolition of the neighborhood bar, the center of memories of his friends, family, wife and youthful optimism.
As the demolition continues throughout the week, Lane begins seeing and hearing ghosts of the past, luring him into the bar and back to the past and his own Army homecoming party 25 years earlier. At the construction site in the middle of the night, the ghosts disappear as the rubble is hauled away, despite Lane’s begging them to stay or take him with them.
When they have all disappeared, Lane finds himself alone on the city street… as he walks home he passes a new cocktail lounge where all of his colleagues (included a smitten Jane and reluctant Doane) have gathered to celebrate his 25th anniversary with the company, and Lane vows to look ahead to the future instead of back to the past.
What do you think, Constant Readers? Did he really turn over a new leaf, Martin Sloan-style or is it all an illusion in his own mind?