Twilight Zone – Personal Demons (02/14/86)

TZ goes mega-meta with an episode where the main character is TZ Story Editor and segment writer Rockne S. O’Bannon.  Strangely, however, they cast Martin Balsam who is 36 years older than the real O’Bannon.  The camera pans over the covers of several scripts written by the fictional O’Bannon:  Gunsmoke, The Mod Squad, SWAT, Dukes of Hazzard.

He is pecking away at a new script on a manual typewriter when his pal Harry bursts in.  It is rough going because he is determined to come up with an original idea.  He says for the last 20 years, or since everyone else stopped using manual typewriters, he has been doing rehashes of plots and recycled characters.  He is determined to come up with one fresh idea before he retires.

That day on the street, he sees a group of kids and standing behind them is a black-robed demon.  It begins to laugh and run at him.  Rockne gets into his car.  The demon claws at the window, leaving some serious scratches.

At a screening for one of his episodes, he tells Harry about the demon, but Harry is understandably skeptical.  Fortuitously, Rockne looks out the window and sees 3 of the little demons tearing up his car.  He calls Harry over, but Harry can’t see them.  The rest of the guests gather around the window, but they also do not see the creatures  The party follows Rockne outside.  The creatures are gone, however, the guests are able to see the damage done to his car.

That night he hears noises in the living room.  When he investigates, there is a whole gang of the demons tearing up his furniture.  When they spot him, he retreats to the bedroom.

The next day, Rockne has a business lunch with his agent.  he sees the demons flock into the restaurant and swirl around the other patrons who take no notice.  When they spot him, he runs out of the restaurant.

We next see Rockne in his house.  He has boarded up the windows, but took no time to clean up the debris from the demon’s shenanigans.  The phone rings, and he hears one of their cackles.  Then they start tearing through the boards to get in.  Rockne asks what they want.  One of the demons tells him, “to write about us and you’ll never see us again.”  As he types, the demons begin disappearing.

I’m not sure what to make of this.  I guess the most literal interpretation is that you can slay your personal demons by confronting them; for a writer, that means writing about them.  But we were never shown any of Rockne’s personal demons.  The desire to be a better writer is laudable not a character flaw, although that would explain a lot of TV.

This also seems a strange segment for a writer to write himself into.  As mentioned, his namesake is old enough to be his father.  He also pretty much describes himself as a hack.  Maybe having the character not resemble him was intentional, just to get some distance from Rockne Prime.

Ultimately, though, I was very entertained.  The demons ranged from truly menacing to amusing. The first one sighted actually gave me a bit of a chill and reminded me of Kim Darby spotting a li’l monster in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.  When they start marauding through his house, though, it is just a hoot.  Amazingly, within the same segment, both representations work.

Fun stuff.

Post-Post:

  • Classic TZ Legacy:  Martin Balsam was in The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine and The New Exhibit.  There was also a man on the wing of the plane vibe.
  • Skipped segment:  Cold Reading is actually a better, more ambitious segment than Personal Demons.  First, the insufferable Dick Shawn drags it down for me. Second, it is just one damn thing after another.  While that was great for the episode, not so much for writing about it.  Events in a radio script begin physically manifesting in the studio.  Very enjoyable — more fun stuff.

Twilight Zone – Gramma (02/14/86)

There is just not a lot to grab on to here, but that is a reflection on my deficiencies, not the segment’s.  For almost all of the run time, the only character is 11 year old George and he is very good.

The story taps into some shared but seldom discussed fears:  Fear of the otherness of really old people, fear of responsibility, and fear of helplessness.  And all are handled well.  There is some witchery involved, but the human elements are the scariest.

George is left alone with his Gramma while his mother goes to see his brother in the hospital.  The ancient, morbidly obese, intermittently senile old woman is terrifying to George under the best of circumstances.  When he is the temporary man of the house, his anxiety escalates.

I watched it, then watched it two more times with different commentaries, then read the short story.  Both the segment and the story are very good.  The short story really didn’t need to be 28 pages, but that’s typical Stephen King.

And that’s about all I have to say about that.

Post-Post:

  • Based on Stephen King’s short story in Skeleton Crew.  I have the hard-back with a cover price of $18.95.  That would be $42 in today’s dollars so I must have bought it hugely discounted at CostCo.  I’m not sure I ever actually read this story since it was the 3rd to last story and I have a habit of bailing before I finish anthologies.
  • There is a toy monkey on the kitchen counter that looks suspiciously like the one on the cover of Skeleton Crew.

Twilight Zone – Quarantine (02/07/86)

Matthew Foreman (Scott Wilson) is awakened from suspended anim-ation.  In the future, it is apparently recommended to shine a flashlight directly into the eyes of people waking up after a coma. Sarah is evasive about how long he has been asleep.  He tells her to “cut to the chase” thus ensuring that idiotic phrase will survive another 324 years into the future.

They go outside and Foreman sees a pastoral, almost Amish, farming community. There is a horse, a pig, a bull and I swear I think I even see a monkey.  He asks why he was brought “way out here” and not taken to a city.  They take him in for a medical procedure.  Rather than getting an anesthetic, an empath feels his pain for him.  A remote viewer diagnoses his carcinomas.  Sarah performs psychic surgery, reaching into his stomach without an incision to remove the growths.  There is great synergy in this being a farming community because there’s a lot of horseshit here.

After he recovers (i.e. the next day), Sarah explains the new-agey philosophy that governs life now.  Foreman was an engineer who actually built things — planes, tanks, satellites.  He wonders what his role is in this society.  After the nuclear war, the earth’s population fell to 200,000.  They take him to their computer room which is hefty Hefty bags of primates wired up like the human battery farms in The Matrix, but hairier.  The monkeys are intelligent enough to choose life in the matrix where they have all the bananas they can eat and all the feces they can fling — which is efficiently circuitous.

Three weeks ago, the remote viewers spotted an asteroid heading toward earth.  That image is telepathically sent to Foreman.  Such a rock could pound the earth back to the stone age which is, granted, not as far as it used to be.  They hope Foreman can use his engineering skills to instruct satellites still in orbit to blast the asteroid into bits, and also get free HBO.

Foreman successfully reboots the old satellite and targets the asteroid.  As it comes into range, it slows down and alters its course as if it is slipping into orbit.  He suddenly realizes that with their psychic ability, they can make him see whatever they want him to see.  They allow him to see the truth — he has targeted a spacecraft with an American flag on it.   He is outraged, but they tell him the ship is “full of the military and politicians — the ones who started the war.”  Unfortunately he can’t just target the front of the ship because you know the politicians would be in first class.

He tries to stop the satellite, but Sarah sabotages the computer.  She says the ship is bringing nuclear weapons back and that can not be allowed.  The laser fires, destroying the ship and its 1,000 passengers.  Congratulations to TZ for going dark.

Wracked with guilt, Foreman sits on the porch and looks at the stars.  As a kid, he had gone into engineering hoping one day to go out there.  Now he feels unworthy.  The remote viewer offers to show him the universe.  He declines, but she does a quick mind-meld [1] and gives him a fly-by of Saturn.  The hell with the 1,000 people he killed five minutes ago, he excitedly decides to explore the galaxy from the front porch.

There was such a good premise here, but it was somewhat squandered.  Once again the squishiness of the 1980s TZ is at fault.  Much of the issue in this case is the totally inappropriate score.  This could have been a suspenseful, gut-wrenching episode. Think of the elements: Waking up after 324 years, a completely changed society, your life & career are obsolete, humans have harnessed spiritual powers, a killer asteroid, then the betrayal, then the crushing guilt of murdering 1,000 people, and the finally the ability to live his childhood dream of exploring the cosmos.  The episode just lacks an edge that I can imagine if it had been made in the 1960s.  For example, Foreman has a monologue that is greatly undercut by the score.  I can imagine Serling writing a monologue for that section — with no score — that would have nailed it.

The 1980s version just tries to be too nice.  I could have done without Fore-man’s exploration of the cosmos.  Ending on him as distraught as Nancy Pelosi at the SOTU speech would have been fine.  And, frankly, part of the problem is Charles Aidman’s narration. I’ve heard him praised in commentaries and in articles, but he’s too dang avuncular.  This isn’t a guy who would have left William Benteen behind.

Serling, in both his clenched-jaw speech and in his appearance had an edgy, slightly menacing vibe.  The black suits and skinny ties are even now are associated with Tarrantino-esque psychopaths — I think that is partially due to Serling.  Plus, he had a butt going half the time and he had the virtue of being the creator — he was The Twilight Zone — and that gave him even greater gravitas.

An OK episode that could have been great.

Post-Post:

  • [1] Appropriate as I believe this actress was was driving the ship when baby Spock was found on the Genesis planet in Star Trek III.  It seems to have dropped out of streaming, so I could be wrong.
  • Scott Wilson would do more time on a farm later as Herschel on The Walking Dead.  He’ll always be Scott Crossfield to me, though.

Twilight Zone – Welcome to Winfield (02/07/86)

Matt is in critical condition.  He senses death coming, and I mean literal death on two legs.  He pulls himself up, ripping numerous tubes from numerous orifices.  When Death reaches Matt’s room, all he finds is an empty bed; Matt and girlfriend Lori have sped off.  And good for them — shouldn’t Mr. Death only show up when a person is about to die?  If Matt was able to get up, lose the tubes, make it to the car, and take a road-trip, Mr. Death was a tad pre-mature.

Lori turns down the dirt road to the titular Winfield with Matt shivering in the back seat. She soon arrives at a town that seems stuck in the 19th century.  Finally, three weeks later, Death takes the same turn off the main road.  To be fair, there was probably some low hanging fruit at the hospital keeping him busy — that’s like the Dollar Store to Mr. Death.

A couple of yokels are playing horseshoes when Death’s white Mercedes rolls into town. One of them says, “What do you think that is?”  Oddly the whole town saw Lori & Matt’s car three weeks earlier and seemed to get the whole car-thing.  The crowd is a little taken aback as am I — white is a terrible color for a Mercedes.

One of the hayseeds lets it slip — and by “let’s it slip”, I mean proudly exclaims — that he is 150 years old. Shafting another actor out of a speaking role, he also exposits that Matt is hiding out in town. Death calls his predecessor Chin Du Long for some advice. The townsfolk hope they can strike a deal with the new Mr. Death as they did with “The Chinaman.”

One of the hicks tells Death that Chin allowed them to live because “they wasn’t herting anyone.”  OK, he correctly pronounced it hurting, but I assume it was misspelled in his mind.  This raises a few questions.  Did Chin come to town to kill all of them at the same time?  Did a possum fall into the well?  Did he grant them immortality, or did they already have it?  What was the aforementioned deal?  What did Chin get out of it other than a racist nickname?

Matt gallantly gives himself up to save the town, but Death says he might have to take everyone.  His predecessor Chin was “too sentimental in an inscrutable kind of way.” You know, like all Chinese people.  Death tries to get Chin on the phone, but he is unavailable. Death says, “I don’t care if he’s dining with Mao, I want him on the line.” Because who else would a Chinese dude sit with at the cafeteria having only 10 billion dead souls to choose from.  And wouldn’t Mao be in Hell, anyway?

The mayor steps up and offers to sacrifice the town for the boy.  They are all over 100 years old, but Matt is just starting out.  Matt won’t hear of it. All three factions yell at Death to take them, me being the third.  Death inexplicably changes his mind and lets everyone live “for another century or so.”  He gets into his Mercedes and zooms into the sky like Doc Brown — although his rear window still shows him at ground level.

There’s a lot to like here, and any complaints were mostly to fill space.  The one small weakness is the ending — I would have really liked some motivation for Death’s change of heart.  The frontier street has a solid feel to it, and the score is appropriately banjo-y and twangy.  Matt and Lori [1] don’t have much gravitas, but the episode is well-carried by Death and the Mayor.  I initially thought Gerritt Graham was miscast as Death, but he won me over.  Henry Gibson as the Mayor was interesting as always.  Despite being great character actors, neither ever seemed to be appreciated by Hollywood.  I suspect Gibson was undervalued because of his work on Laugh-In.  That’s what did-in Nixon, as I recall.

Post-Post:

  • [1] Congratulations to JoAnn Willette on surviving that really awful 1980s hairdo.
  • Classic TZ Legacy:  Numerous embodiments of death.  I guess.  I can only think of two.  I’ll say this for them, it took more than an upset stomach for them to show up.

Twilight Zone – To See the Invisible Man (01/31/86)

Mitchell Chaplin has been found guilty of the crime of coldness — not opening up his emotions to his fellow citizens.  Frankly, with Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil, reality TV and dumb-bell bloggers, today I would give him a medal; but clearly this is meant to be a dystopia. [1]  Witnesses have described him as cold and uncaring, so he is sentenced to one year of invisibility.  Holy smoke do I love this premise — please don’t turn it into another sappy Hallmark segment!

The state puts a mark on his forehead which renders him invisible.  Because of his coldness, he defiantly exclaims, “This is nothing to me!”  Outside, a man is looking at some papers and walks into him.  Once he sees the mark, he disregards Chaplain.

It took me a while — in fact, stupidly, way past this point — to realize the invisibles are not literally invisible.  I had to delete a lot of, frankly, Nobel Prize-caliber bon mots.  When people see the mark, they are just required to ignore the markee.

Chaplain goes to a cafeteria.  He orders the roast, but the server can’t “see” him. Chaplin decides to make this a self-serve line as he leaps over the counter, steals the server’s hat, and begins serving himself.  When Chaplain sits down at a family’s table, their kid finally does acknowledge him.  His mother admonishes him.  Maybe this was when I realized he wasn’t truly invisible.

Later, he goes “shopping” at a liquor store.  As usual, government regulation has screwed small merchants who must watch their merchandise walk out the door with these misanthropes.  He encounters another invisible with the same mark.  There is a uncomfortable moment when they seem desperate to communicate, but do not when they see a drone monitoring them.  This is a busy location — he sees 3 women come out of a women’s spa and they completely ignore him.  I feel your pain, pal.

On the other hand — women’s spa! He goes in and heads for the sauna. Sadly this was not on Showtime because he finds 6 women naked in a Jacuzzi and many others sitting around in towels.

This is even more dickish than it seems as he is not literally invisible. Despite the dictates of the state, these women subtly acknowledge his presence.  It is not a cartoonish hysteria, but a quiet silence and humiliation as they group together and speak softly, supporting each other.  This is genuinely effective stuff.  I might never watch Porky’s every week the same way again.  Even Chaplain is ashamed of his violation, and backs out of the door.

After 105 days of this desolation, Chaplain finally communicates with someone.  A blind man in the cafeteria sits at his table and begins talking.  A waitress busts him and tells the blind man that he is an invisible.  There must be some stiff penalty because the blind man is very shaken and quickly leaves the table.

At the 6 month point, he goes to a comedy club.  The comedian immediately shuns him as an invisible.  That must be some brutal punishment for just acknowledging invisibles. Would he be tortured?  He leaves the club and sees an invisible woman.  He begs her to talk to him, but she refuses to risk lengthening her sentence.  Chaplain finally breaks down in tears.

At day 229, he is walking at night and sees a couple of guys stealing a car.  They ignore him when they see the invisibility mark — that law they seem to respect.  Boy, what could the punishment be for “seeing” him? Water-boarding?  I’ll bet it’s water-boarding.  The thugs steal the car, spin around and purposely pursue Chaplain to run him down.  Being an invisible, the hospital will not treat him.

Day 365 — the state comes and removes the invisibility mark. Chaplain is a changed man.  He is friendly and caring with his co-workers, even the homely ones.  Apparently the state also requires that you are re-hired after your sentence.

As he is leaving work, the same invisible woman from before, still under her sentence, approaches him.  She begs him for simple acknowledgement.  They have constructed this very well, and it is heart-breaking.  As she is pleading, however, I started thinking the actress really wasn’t selling the scene — it had the potential to be devastating.  This was curious; why wouldn’t she . . . then my heart kind of sank.

They just couldn’t let the story go where it wanted to go.  This could have been a masterpiece ending.  But no, TZ again retreated to the Lifetime-Hallmark industrial complex.  Rather than getting a gut-wrenching performance from the actress [2], and rather than allowing that Chaplain still had some basic human flaws (i.e. there was no magic solution), and rather than allowing that the bad guys sometimes win . . . it ends with a big ol’ hug.

Even worse, this undermines the entire premise.  The drones monitoring her issue a warning for him to back off, or at least get a room.  A warning?  That’s what has people scared to death of even making eye-contact?  A warning?  That’s your dystopia?

Still, the rest of the segment is so good, it gets a solid A.

Post-Post:

  • [1] How is dystopia still not in spellcheck?  Did we learn nothing from Hunger Games?  Except to not make the head of a reality show the president.  So yeah, nothing.
  • [2] I saw a slightly similar scene done right on the great underrated series Nowhere Man 20 years ago, and it still gives me chills to think about it.
  • Classic TZ Connection:  Superficially similar to The Silence and A Kind of Stopwatch for the theme of isolation.
  • Tortured Connection:  The previous segment was written by Ray Bradbury who wrote I Sing the Body Electric for the 1960s TZ.  This segment was directed by Noel Black who directed a TV movie based on I Sing the Body Electric.
  • Rainbow Connection.