I was never really there…


Posted by in October's Magazine

Theme:
Hero worship, focusing on sixties TV producer and key writer Rod Serling whose whip smart, stylish, sparkling ideas in Sci-Fi, human drama, urban tales created great TV that will never be forgotten

Suggested Titles:
You’re travelling in another dimension
No smoking. Really?
“I’m not really here you see.”

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You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind, a journey into a wondrous land of imagination. Next stop…  The Twilight Zone!

Created, produced, often presented, always narrated and sometimes (the best ones) written by the epicentre of smooth, popular, thoughtful, vape-avoiding, radio ingénue… Rod Serling. 

A sixty-a-day man, the smokes saw him off in 1975, which at 51 is absurd for a brilliant-fucker like him. (The tabs don’t work). It’s always tempting to skim read the Wiki, but you can do that yourself, so this is my reaction to his master work with no reference to web sources. 

I’m devouring 157 episodes in about three months that for viewers, back then, would have been spread over a couple of years.  So my perspective is intense. I’m seeking story models to apply to my own life, searching for succour amidst the show’s former need to sell Geritol balms, Studebaker self-drives, and Marlboro Menthol Lights to corn-feed mid-country Americans.

Woof! There’s composer Bernard Hermann and actor Martin Balsam (working a year before 1960’s Psycho), and boy like Robert Redford as a cop-cum-Mr Death hoovering up a stay-at-home Granny, precocious UK émigré and Upstairs Downstairs creator Jean Marsh getting all robot nymph-on-you and her nervy astronaut beau Jack Warden on a lonely planet, then later-to-be Quincy’s Jack Klugman as an ace pool master, playing for his life. 

They had little notion they were gonna be brilliant, but I feel they knew The Twilight Zone was. Sure, some of the acting can be a bit mincey-fruity, a bit pre-reboot Doctor Who with the odd set-wobble or cruddy-prop. 

((“You want it when for how little?” might be the mantra of the late-fifties production-designer at CBS America’s Burbank studios.)) Observe hamtastic William Shatner (yes of course long before Star Trek… a journey-man actor I’ve always had a soft spot for. Because he knew he was shit but still gave emotion albeit fake, like laminate flooring) with a depiction of superstition, gambling addiction. Alongside beau, keen to get out-of-town before his cent pumping destroyed his honeymoon: “Do you have another penny Honey?”

Rod Serling beneath his six Emmys at home in February 1972

Fantasy, future-past, dream state, dark human fear-fantasy, a past familiar of the old West, an unspeaking big-head thinking-not-talking alien type ducking into a human-town diner… perhaps lost on a bus to no-where, no-when, no-how… a nuclear bunker, an alarm amidst happy barbecuing neighbours who become murderous dogs within seconds… society on knife-edge and paranoid cold-war whatevers… There’s the real alarm – what next?

The other, the foreigner, the immigrant-the alien. If they look like us maybe they are us? Could that be a metaphor for… we don’t serve your type here (racial tolerance)… that young child kills with his mind (technology broken-all gone wrong) … or a plane lost in a cloud that can’t get home, yet discovers dinosaurs (modernity sucks). 

Hollywood, Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan are watching – listening – thinking.

Oh, go on then… I’ll have a social metaphor thanks, and a fruit smoothie, plus a pack of Camels for Rod. I no smoke but he gets furious if he goes dry. 

The application of massive intelligence with the dark, maturing fruit of story worlds pinned to acting talent in respectively, New York (sharp acid), Chicago (dark moisture), and Los Angeles (fizzing nervousness)… all shabbily surprising in late-fifties, aspirant-imitator, early-sixties culture of populist pleasing producers.  Game-on! They’ve got the money – Rod’s got the talent. 

Don’t get me wrong, the BBC of 2019 are good-guys but they’ve been brutalised by the market and are in an ever present ‘please the audience’ mode, not always realising the audience, though distracted or drunk) are actually on their side and up for a bit of risk-taking. The iPlayertastic culture of ‘you’ve watched this so watch that’ feels a touch crowd-pleasing. No?

When Alan Clark’s Steadicam operator walked backwards on a housing estate, (not a studio) due to a strike in 1986 for Jim Cartwright’s Royal Court hit Road, the BBC might have thought, “I hope this works.” Well it did (in a big way for me). And that’s why the tears of careful-tender-brutal drama worked then, worked for Rod Serling, and still work now, even in a completely different context.

The tears that move and those that inspire more than crying and watching? Or a gut-belch of, “That’s good … what’s next?”  An endless distraction to trivial moment then mood. We’re all feeling all the time.  Great drama never stops being important.  Now. Then. Always. 

Rod Serling was a great American, a great writer, and a great guy. We’re all people seeking answers, so find yours. Choose Rod. Choose The Twilight Zone

It’s up to you.

 Mark Young

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