Friday, October 02, 2009

50 Years Of Keys To The Imagination & Signposts Up Ahead

Fifty years ago tonight, CBS aired the first episode of what would eventually become one of its most important and most beloved television series in network history. Spawned from the imagination of writer/creator Rod Serling, who was already becoming a household name due to scripts like "Patterns" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight" for PLAYHOUSE 90, THE TWILIGHT ZONE was not the first anthology series to take science fiction, horror, and fantasy themes seriously, but certainly the first one to achieve mainstream popularity.

Any fan of TZ is surely familiar with Marc Scott Zicree's essential 1982 book THE TWILIGHT ZONE COMPANION, which has been updated and kept in print for almost three decades. However, an author named Martin Grams, Jr. has trumped Zicree with a larger and even more comprehensive history of Serling's show, THE TWILIGHT ZONE: UNLOCKING THE DOOR TO A TELEVISION CLASSIC.

Topping out at well over 800 (!) pages, Grams' book—literally—contains everything you ever wanted to know about TZ. What dates did rehearsals and shooting occur for "To Serve Man?" How much did this prop cost? On which soundstage did this episode film inserts? It's all here—every piece of TZ minutiae you can imagine is packed inside this book. And in very small print too!

Grams says he wrote the book to clear up the many inaccuracies and false histories that have sprung up over the years, including many in Zicree's book. Since he had access to original TZ budget sheets, call sheets, and personal Serling papers, Grams was able to verify every fact in the book. And there are many.

Obviously, the idea that no fact is too minute to include may be too much for some readers, who may grow weary with crawling through tidbits about prop rentals and actors' salaries just to learn backstage trivia about a favorite episode. Some of it is tough slogging, for sure, but much more of it is fascinating and well worth the lengthy read. Grams was able to personally interview many TZ participants, which adds a personal touch to many of the entries.

One major weakness is that, unlike Zicree, Grams steers clear of any critical examination of the show. If you're wondering which episodes are classics and which ones you should stay away from, you won't find out here, as Grams sticks solely to the nuts and bolts of each segment.

A flaw, but not a fatal one. I'm a sucker for crisp, well-researched histories of television shows, and THE TWILIGHT ZONE: UNLOCKING THE DOOR TO A TELEVISION CLASSIC is one of the best, right up there with Patrick White's MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE guide and Mark Dawidziak's THE COLUMBO PHILE, among others.

Grams' book is independently published by Bear Manor, which provides a free view of a typical episode chapter on its Web site, in this case, "The Hitch-Hiker" (the one where Inger Stevens keeps seeing the same creepy dude standing alongside the highway). It will give you a good idea of whether this book is for you.

I suspect the Interweb tubes are filled with TWILIGHT ZONE tributes today, but I'll link to just one. Ivan Shreve's Thrilling Days of Yesteryear offers his 20 favorite TWILIGHT ZONE episodes. I can't quibble with his picks.

P.S. That first TWILIGHT ZONE episode that aired October 2, 1959, which was also the pilot that CBS bought, was "Where Is Everybody?", an intriguing opener with a nifty twist and a tour de force performance by Earl Holliman (POLICE WOMAN).

UPDATE: Another of my favorite blogs, the Classic TV History Blog, presents 13 overlooked, underrated TWILIGHT ZONE episodes.

1 comment:

constant gina said...

What is so amazing is that 50 years later these shows hold up so well. Oh they are in black and white, which is really kind of cool. And occasionally you'll see the old cars or a dial telephone that gives away the time. Most of the time, they could have been shot yesterday.