Friday, December 13, 2019

Review of The Twilight Zone, Season 1, Episode 11: "Three Unnecessary Characters"

From early on in the story, you can feel something different about The Twilight Zone episode, "When the Sky Was Opened." It's not because the main character is so sweaty that it causes the viewer to feel uncomfortable, anxious, and sexually satisfied. Something about the existential dread felt by the characters in this episode reaches a level only hinted at in previous episodes. So it was absolutely no surprise to see that while Rod Serling wrote the teleplay, Richard Matheson, sci-fi/horror legend (wordplay!), wrote the story this episode was based on. I knew his name would be showing up in the credits eventually but wasn't expecting it so soon. In a way, it's a bit disappointing because I was thinking, "Wow! Rod really began hitting his writing stride earlier than I realized!"

This is a story about three test pilots who wind up in one of existence's subplots that Somebody ultimately realized wasn't needed. They return to Earth after crashing an experimental craft, begin to feel an undefined existential dread, and then disappear from existence entirely one by one. My theory is that God has a higher power which we should call The Editor. The Editor looks upon God's creation and, occasionally, says, "Do we really need this story about this experimental craft? I mean, it's 1960. Are people going to believe this crap? Maybe wait until later in the decade for this kind of thing. And now that you've got me looking closely at the three pilots, do we even need them? Just excise their entire existences. But don't mess with that nurse! I've always loved Miss Landers!" Although Sue Randall (Miss Landers) died at 49 which I guess is either proof that God's Editor loved her too much or not enough. It's hard to tell when you're dealing with omnipotent beings like Gods and editors.

Maybe Rod Serling learns something from his experience writing the teleplay of this story. Maybe he learns you don't need a compelling and definitive explanation for the cause of the main character or characters' existential dread. You don't need the U-boat first officer explicating the first two-thirds of the story during the final third. You don't need the accidental time-traveler's father patiently explaining to his time traveling son how maybe he should stop time traveling, literally and daydreamily. You don't need the man full of existential dread to dream the reason for his existential dread before he flings himself out of the window to die on the couch. You can just present a situation to which the protagonist can react with fear, paranoia, and anxiousness until that fear, paranoia, and anxiousness is ultimately proven true and the protagonist disappears without a hint of a reason why. Oh, sure, this story isn't perfect in that regard. But the theories as to why these men are disappearing come straight from the men trying to figure out why they're disappearing. Which is the entire point of this episode and The Twilight Zone in general and life in super general.

We're all eventually going to die and be forgotten. If that doesn't make you, at least occasionally, sweat like an anxious and terrified protagonist of a 1960s television show, you might not understand life at all.

I realize that I would only make every story I review worse with my suggestions but here's my suggestion to make this story better: instead of the main protagonist going back to the third astronaut after the first one disappears in his need for somebody to understand his terror of how reality has warped before him and his need to find some meaning behind it and possibly a way to fix it, he should just stay in the hotel fucking his girlfriend until he disappears mid-thrust. Some people might think I'm a pervert for coming up with that story change and, while I am a pervert who still thinks about Maya the Cat Girl's sexy dance (but with Sue Randall in the original actress's place), it would also be a pretty good metaphor for life. We're all just here to fuck until we wink out of existence because fucking is the only way to ensure that you're not the only one who has to suffer existing. Fuck you, future generations! You need to experience this terror too! Because if there is one thing more powerful than the drive to produce offspring, it's the drive to make people suffer as much as you've suffered. I could point to politics but I'd rather point to and Ringu and Bill Cosby (in three different examples. I don't have an overarching theory that combines them all). I feel when most people see, there's a biological need to show somebody else. Maybe even a gleeful need to make somebody else experience the shock and pain you've just experienced. In the novel, Ringu, the only way to keep from dying after watching a movie full of existential dread and terrifying images is to make another person watch the video as well (and to make a copy! Which only bolsters what I'm saying since Ringu really just asks the question, "What are memes?" I mean, it asks the question, "What is the biological imperative of every living thing and can inanimate objects somehow have the same viral drive to replicate?" Okay, maybe it doesn't ask that exactly but what am I? A critic? I mean an actual critic that is smart and does research and actually understands things like plot and character development and why movies hardly ever show boobies anymore). My third example doesn't have anything to do with Bill Cosby drugging and raping people. It's about his comedy which is still pretty good even if it now makes you think, "I'm laughing hysterically at a guy who raped people!" In whatever album it is where he talks about Fat Albert, he tells the story of being scared by a friend with a Frankenstein mask. After getting scared, the first thing Bill wants to do is scare somebody else. It's just the way we're fucking programmed, man!

Does that make my perverted story idea sound better when I add a bunch of bullshit 7th Grade argumentative reasons for it? I suppose the other reason is that I just want to see two people fuck for ten minutes but nobody wants to agree to that one! At least not out loud.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Review of The Twilight Zone, S1, E10: "You-Boat"

Back in 2011 or so, I was re-watching Spielberg's Amazing Stories on Netflix and this was one of my thoughts on the show: "I think Spielberg filled a notebook with 2-3 sentence story ideas and told a bunch of other writers to flesh them out." I'd forgotten that but my brain reused the same basic theory for The Twilight Zone and Rod Serling. Apparently my view on sci-fi anthology shows is that they tend to feel like one simple idea taffy-pulled out into an extended story. Sometimes the character presented in the story fleshes it out in a way that makes the story more appealing and less like a one-note concept. The best ones, I believe, are ideas like "What if a person with X personality found themselves in Y situation." Because then the story doesn't have to rely on one twist moment or one speculative plot point. And then there's episodes like Episode 10 of Season 1 of The Twilight Zone, "Judgment Night."

This episode tells the story of an amnesiac German man aboard a British ocean liner. He only knows who he is and that something terrible is about to happen. Eventually he realizes the boat will be sunk by a U-boat at 1:15 in the morning and he freaks the fuck out more and more as time goes on. Nobody will listen to him and then the U-boat's spotlight hits the boat! They're all going to die! He gets out some binoculars and looks at the U-boat, seeing the captain of the U-boat standing on top directing fire when he realizes: the captain is him! Then the boat sinks and he drowns.

If that were the entire story, audiences would have discussed this episode for decades. What does it mean? How could he have been in both places? What sort of spooky nonsense took place here?! But, alas, Rod Serling decided the story needed to be explained explicitly in a short epilogue that takes place on the U-boat. Based on the beginning narration by Serling which seems inordinately long for a typical The Twilight Zone episode, it didn't surprise me that the end was just another long monologue to explain the point of the story.

Just when the audience is most confused by what happened, they're met with a scene where the main character, now acting as the German U-boat commander, sits in his submarine office proud of the murder he's just done. The first officer comes aboard sweaty and upset and full of pangs of conscious. He's all, "Are we the baddies?" And the commander is all, "We're at war! We had to kill everybody on board! Even the stupid kid with the stupid doll! Heil Hitler!" But the first officer isn't convinced. He's all, "Shouldn't we have at least warned them we were going to kill them?" And the commander is all, "Ah ha ha! You naive dolt!" And then the first officer looks at the camera and winks and says, "Don't worry! I'm going to explain my view of the universe and the afterlife right now and it's going to be spot on, according to the story you just watched! Because I believe the afterlife is where we have to reenact the terrible things we did in life but as the victims of those terrible things! Over and over and over again! That's what I think!" And you know what? The kid was right! He was like that one character in The Good Place whose image hangs in Ted Danson's office because he's the only person to ever figure out how it all actually works. Or like the woman in the coffee shop in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (unless it was one of the sequels!) who suddenly figures it all out and knows her plan to fix everything will work and then she is vaporized as the Vogon's destroy Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

I'm not going to complain too much about the tacked on explanation of the story. Did Rod Serling even know in 1959 that a writer and director could be Lynchian?! You know what I mean! I know he didn't "literally" know he could be Lynchian because what was David Lynch doing in 1959? Getting his eagle scout masturbation badge? You know what I meant was, "Did Rod Serling even know he could write a story that didn't explicitly tell the audience exactly what was going on and just leave it a mystery for them to philosophize and theorize on?" Maybe in later seasons! But he was still finding his Twilight Zone legs by episode ten.

This episode wasn't terrible but it loses something in the tension it tries to build because there's no mystery to what's going to happen. The ship is going to be sunk by a submarine. Why everybody isn't as paranoid as the German guy is the bigger mystery! They should be running around flipping the fuck out the way everybody does in Airplane when they realize they're out of coffee and the "Okay, panic" light goes on. And the tacked on explanation at the end just seems like a CBS executive saw Serling's episode and was all, "What the fuck was that?" And Serling was all, "Pretty evocative, right? So crazy! What's going on?!" And the producer was all, "In your show notes, you wrote, 'German U-boat commander punished for all eternity to be victim of his own surprise murder.' Can you just stick that in there at the end explaining it?"

Maybe I'm being too hard on television executives and not hard enough on Serling! He just didn't work the script long enough to come up with a natural way of portraying that this night was just one of an endless string of identical nights in the U-boat commander's eternal Hell. He probably had a few packs of cigarettes to smoke and couldn't be bothered with it.