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Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone: The 50th Anniversary Tribute, by Douglas Brode and Carol Serling, Barricade Books, 2009, $24.95.
Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone: "The After Hours," adapted by Mark Kneece from Rod Serling's original scripts, illustrated by Rebekah Isaacs, Walker & Company, 2008, $16.99.
"Walking Distance," adapted by Mark Kneece from Rod Serling's original scripts, illustrated by Dove McHargue, Walker & Company, 2008, $16.99.
Twilight Zone: 19 Original Stories on the 50th Anniversary, edited by Carol Serling, Tor Books, 2009, $14.99.
Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade by Jonathan Clements, Titan Books, 2008, $14.95.
IT'S BEEN just over fifty years since The Twilight Zone debuted on CBS television, one of the most influential series in TV history and the first to consistently push the boundaries of censorship in episodes that dealt with racism, fascism, the costs of warfare, the social and cultural fallout of conformity, military mind control, nuclear destruction, advertising, union organization, and just about any hot-button topic you could name. Today, it's nearly impossible to imagine the entertainment landscape Rod Serling, the angry young man of broadcast TV, set to terraform with his groundbreaking work. Carol Serling, his widow and indefatigable keeper of the Serling flame, provides a glimpse in a 2009 interview published in Cemetery Dance magazine:
The censorship was intolerable. Foolish things like not allowing the Chrysler building to be shown on a NY skyline because Ford was sponsoring the show. You couldn't deal with gas for a certain episode about the Holocaust because the gas company was sponsoring the show! Rod wrote a script about the south and they took the Coke bottles off the table. A lot of it was ludicrous and foolish. He wrote a script about a young black man that was killed in the south. He felt very strongly about this, the sponsors got hold of it and told him he had to change the locale, the time of the script, etc. By the time the script went on, it was placed in the 1880s instead of 1950, in the southwest, and the victim was a Mexican kid. The whole thing was totally changed, and Rod said that by the time the script got on the air, the script had turned to dust.Prior to Twilight Zone, Serling left an indelible mark on the Golden Age of live broadcasting with teleplays like "Requiem for a Heavyweight," which featured legendary performances by Jack Palance and Ed Wynn, and "Patterns," a chilling depiction of the corporate snakes and shaky career ladders that fill a Manhattan financier's office. The current hit series "Mad Men" owes a debt to Serling, and gave him a tip of the fedora in one episode.
A genuine visionary, Serling saw the medium's potential being squandered almost from the beginning. Early 1950s anthology series such as Texaco Star Theater, Fireside Theater, and Philco TV Playhouse featured works of gritty realism by writers such as Serling and Paddy Chayefksy (who famously observed that "Television is democracy at its ugliest"). By the end of the decade, the ratings success of live broadcasts had given way to that of sitcoms, quiz shows, talent searches.
And westerns—in the broadcast year ending October 1959, the month The Twilight Zone debuted, more than half of the top twenty-five shows featured gunslingers. Rod Serling had to hack his way through a lot of sagebrush to get his new series on the air.
With The Twilight Zone, Serling disarmed the American viewing public by presenting real-life issues in the guise of the fantastic, and deftly played on both the paranoia and nostalgia engendered by the Cold War Era. An avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, Serling used genre storytelling as a stealth bomber to get his ideas past media censors and an audience hypnotized by the likes of Perry Como and Red Skelton. For the first season, he was contractually bound to write or adapt most of the episodes himself. But much of The Twilight Zone's success was due to Serling's choice of writers to pen the remainder of the scripts, in particular a cohort of L.A.-based authors known as The Group. Centered around the charismatic young Charles Beaumont (who tragically developed Alzheimer's when he was only thirty-four, and died four years layer), the Group was a Star Chamber of literary talent whose members included Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Earl Hamner Jr., William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson, and Jerry Sohl, among others. Christopher Conlon wrote an invaluable 1999 essay ("Southern California Sorcerors," also published in Cemetery Dance) detailing the Group's history, integral to that of The Twilight Zone, especially in its early years. (Later associates included Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon.)
Almost none of this remarkable tale surfaces in Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone: The 50th Anniversary Tribute, a piece of hagiography that does little to illuminate Serling's genius or the enduring appeal of his most famous creation. A heavy smoker, Serling died far too young—in 1975 at the age of fifty, during cardiac surgery following a massive heart attack. Since then, Carol Serling has worked tirelessly to keep his name and accomplishments in the public eye; one measure of her success is the Rod Serling postage stamp, issued early in 2009. (There's also the new Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Walt Disney World.)
And while one can certainly appreciate the impulse behind the 50th Anniversary Tribute, the end result is a bizarrely Rod-centric book, Being John Malkovich recast with Serling as the Alpha and Omega of TV. Douglas Brode (presumably the book's main author) has produced thirty works dealing with film and popular culture. Here he has the task of summing up the 92 episodes written by Serling, out of 151 episodes during the show's five-year-run—a remarkable achievement on Serling's part. Brode notes that the tribute does not profess to be an encyclopedic survey of the series, like Marc Scott Zicree's The Twilight Zone Companion. Rather, it's an attempt "to capture what we loved most about the best Zones, those that live on in what Jung tagged our 'collective unconscious.'" The selection process seems to have been fairly streamlined, as most of the episodes summed up here were written or adapted by Serling himself. Fair enough, though the end result offers little in the way of enlightenment, beyond repeated reminders of Serling's genius.
Readers get fair warning of this: the second sentence of the book's introduction proclaims Rod Serling "the most imaginative of all American writers since Edgar Allan Poe."
Well, okay, if you say so. In fact, much of Serling's work was derivative, and there were several accusations of plagiarism leveled against him during the show's run, most notably by Ray Bradbury. These may not have exactly been beside the point (a few court rulings favored the plaintiffs), but the fact is that Serling was far from "the most imaginative" of American writers. Some of the program's most memorable episodes show the unmistakable influence of other works: "The After Hours" and John Collier's "Evening Primrose;" the brilliant "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" and Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery;" "The Hitch-Hiker" and Somerset Maugham's "The Appointment at Samarra" (itself a retelling of an older tale); "Cavender Is Coming" and It's a Wonderful Life (and Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon).
But in all of these, the synthesis of script, acting, and direction create something marvelous, "a miracle of rare device" (to quote Ray Bradbury quoting Samuel Coleridge, in a script that Serling turned down and which went on to become Bradbury's memorable story of that title). Serling's great gift was as an assimilator, not just of literature, film, and television, but of popular culture and social upheaval—and as an assimilator, he had the great good fortune to be at the helm of his own series during a perfect storm of pop culture and societal change. Much of his work was produced as a deliberate homage to people he admired—Alfred Hitchcock (in the Tribute, referred to repeatedly and annoyingly by the chummy sobriquet Hitch), Frank Capra, O. Henry. And the quality of both acting and writing is a powerful testament to how both can trump special effects when putting sf/f onscreen.
Sadly, there's too little examination of how this synergistic process worked for Serling and his collaborators. Instead, there's facile and occasionally sloppy commentary more suitable for Spark Notes.
Of "The Hitch-Hiker's" protagonist, stalked by Death: "Her fear is no longer vague, if fear is the correct term. More likely, it is anxiety."
Of "Two": "The time; perhaps a hundred years from now, or this may have already happened two million years ago." As George Lucas would state at the beginning of Star Wars: "Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away." [Um, not what Lucas stated.]
Other observations are simply maddeningly Rod-centric, especially when it comes to Hitchcock, who in Brode's account, anyway, seems to have cast a long shadow over Serling's work, including the names of some female characters. In "The After-Hours," Ann Francis plays Marsha White, "yet another of Serling's attractive, Hitchcock-like 'M' women." "A Passage for Trumpet" can't simply be an astute portrait of an alcoholic; it also must offer the chance to "learn more about the workings of an alcoholic's mind here than we do in J. P. Miller's 'Days of Wine and Roses.'" There are several references to actors whose appearance and demeanor mirror Serling's own. And Brode just can't keep his hands off Serling's co-writers.
"One of Charles Beaumont's best-remembered episodes, adapted from his own short story and directed by Robert Florey, reveals that Zone was constantly autobiographical for Serling, even when he was not the author of a particular installment."
"'Long Distance Call' began with an idea by William Idelson, restructured by Richard Matheson, further refined by Charles Beaumont, finished by Serling. The process allows for a sense of collaboration, as well as a realization that what finally went on the air came down to one man."
By most accounts, Serling was a modest man who regretted never having written a novel or stage play, and was self-deprecating of his own substantial achievements. Shortly before his death, he stated "When I look back over thirty years of professional writing, I'm hard pressed to come up with anything that's important. Some things are literate, (some) are interesting…but very damn little (seems) important."
In its failure to bring Rod Serling and his work to life, The 50th Anniversary Tribute is a reminder of just how much larger than life he was, and how his work continues to be the best memorial he could have left to all of us. Two graphic novel adaptations of a pair of better-known episodes, "Walking Distance" and "The After-Hours," are pallid and uninspired. Twilight Zone: 19 Original Stories on the 50th Anniversary, is a far superior homage to Serling. Few of the stories take on social issues or reflect current events; exceptions are Jim DeFelice's "The Soldier He Needed To Be" ("GI Joe Perfect in the Afghan hills") and Laura Lippman's "Family Man" (a surreal take on corporate downsizing). Several are darkly whimsical: John Miller's "Your Last Breath Inc."; Timothy Zahn's Hollywood send-up "Vampin' Down the Avenue." There are good stories by horror stalwarts Joe R. Lansdale and R. L. Stine; excellent hauntings courtesy of Lucia St. Clair Robson and Kelley Armstrong; several stories that would have been perfect for the original series, by Robert J. Serling (Rod's older brother), Alan Brennert, Earl Hamner (one of the show's original writers), William F. Wu, and Carole Nelson Douglas. The only real misfires are a wan, previously unpublished treatment by Rod Serling, and a story by Whitley Strieber that starts out as a riff on "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" and devolves into alien goo. Best of all is David Hagberg's "Genesis," which out-Serlings Serling, and makes for a witty and moving memorial to television's angriest young man.
[Note: As research for this column, I watched a number of episodes from the first three seasons of The Twilight Zone, archived in pristine condition (and with a bit of advertising) at www.cbs.com, and well worth viewing.]
Back in the early 1990s, I was co-creator and co-writer on a DC Comics series titled Anima. As a result, at science fiction or comic conventions I'd periodically find myself assigned to a panel about anime, about which I knew nothing. I grew up enamored of Astro Boy and other early anime, loved Japanese monster movies with a passion, watched Miyazaki's films with my kids and, with my son and his friends, followed an impenetrable (to me) series called (I think) Bleach. At cons I'd inevitably spends hours in a dark room, enjoying the anime programming but understanding none of it.
But now, thanks to postmodern polymath Jonathan Clements, I can nod knowingly at mention of Plastic Little, Rei Rei: The Sensual Evangelist, and Shark-Skin Man & Peach-Hips Girl, and vigorously debate the merits of Superhuman Samurai Syber Squad over Dingding Versus the Monkey King. In short, Jonathan Clements changed my life, and he can change yours, too.
A British scholar and translator, Clements has written biographies of Confucius and Mao Tse-Tung; a short history of the Vikings; studies of Marco Polo, Beijing, and the fall of the Ming Dynasty, as well as the Anime Encyclopedia, the Erotic Anime Movie Guide, and scripts and stories relating to Doctor Who, Judge Dredd, and Halcyon Sun. He's done the English translations of scores of manga and anime. He's also the go-to guy for info about the Kalevala (he's married to a Finnish martial arts specialist), works as a voice-over actor, has performed open-heart surgery with a spoon, and is the hot pick to be Obama's Ambassador to Pohjola. This last is a considerable triumph as, according to his website, Clements is also the only man in history to have been exiled from Outer Mongolia, after an altercation with the mayor of Ulan Bator. He's an Indiana Jones for the twenty-first century.
And he's really, really funny.
Schoolgirl Milky Crisis is the suitably ludicrous, all-purpose name Clements made up for a (fictional) anime series that he used in his dissections of anime and manga culture in Newtype U.S.A., the now-defunct English-language counterpart to the popular Japanese anime magazine Newtype. As he notes in his intro to this collection of his work, Clements "picked three random words out of nowhere," allowing him to "take potshots at Japanese cartoons and comics and related fields, to read scurrilous gossip and tell tall tales. And my friends in the business didn't seem to mind, as long as they had plausible deniability."
So the collection contains damning and hilarious accounts of the work life of a young anime voice-over actress ("'You'll never catch me, McEvil!' she yells as her onscreen image fades into the distance. On the animatics, the lead bear shakes his fist in rage."), reviews of magazines such as Golf Lesson Comic and Hana's Highschool Girl's Golf Club, and accounts of Clements's own experiences inside the sound booth, at Finnish anime conventions, and the like.
But there are also insightful and engaging essays on Hayao Miyazaki, Neil Gaiman, Godzilla, Mothra, as well as a fascinating piece on erotic anime that argues persuasively that pornography anticipates mainstream adaptation of new technology by at least five years. Best of all, Clements explains why anime often makes no sense to American viewers, even as it enthralls us. Books on pop culture tend to be pretentious or superficial: Schoolgirl Milky Crisis is neither. It's essential reading for anyone who loved those teensy twins in Mothra—and honestly, who didn't?—as well as anyone whose response to the Hello Kitty phenomenon can be gently summed up as WTF???
An added plus: in true scholarly fashion, Clements provides a lengthy and meticulously organized index, which includes citations for "nostril hairs, as comedy sidekicks" and "sorcery, as illegal hockey tactic." I hope that future editions of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis will include "Clements, Jonathan: Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech."
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