The Twilight Zone was a groundbreaking television show that premiered in the late 50s. While the show has been rebooted repeatedly, the series impact was in its newness and that is a feature that can never be reclaimed. Once an idea is out there, the magic can’t be bottled again. But the show has a reputation and we are drawn to it. It’s easy to see why. I mean, heck, my cousin and I would stay up during the summers of our youth until 1am just to be able to watch this amazing series; right after classic Star Trek! And yet, I am still not sure if I’ve seen them all. But this one, I knew I had. The first episode, Where is Everybody, catches hold and doesn’t let go. It’s an episode that never leaves you; at least, it’s never far from my mind and maybe that’s because it represents a personal terror.
The story introduces us to Mike Ferris, a man who has no memory of who he is as he wanders about an empty town. I have to say, I love a little town. Here in NJ, towns like that are few and far between, having mostly been built up to strip malls and chains the likes of which you find everywhere. But when my wife and I can find a little town, we make it a point to spend hours there; trying restaurants we’ve never heard of, buying from homemade ice cream shops, or browsing the books of a local bookseller that isn’t Barnes and Noble. We found one recently with just the perfect mix of those small bookshops, antique furniture, candy and ice cream shops, restaurants… and not one of them was a big name store. I’m ready to go back even though it is about an hour away from our home! But as much as I don’t love a crowd, to be totally empty would be horrifying. Some of the beauty is the busyness of the shops, frequented by townsfolk who don’t go for the lure of the big corporate stores. Mike goes from place to place and finds no one. Oh, there’s a hint that people were there: a lit cigar, a percolating coffee pot… but try as he might, he is utterly alone.
I’m an extrovert. I get energy by being around people. A good friend of mine says this episode would be heaven… I think it would be hell. It chills me to the core. Unsurprisingly, Mike seems to be in my camp; maybe it’s in the name. Where I think he and I differ is that he’s a man of contradictions. Oh, the episode creates logic to his odd behavior in the end, and I credit Rod Serling for his writing, but there were moments that I wondered about our friend. He starts off by walking into a café where a jukebox of unusual size is playing loudly. He lowers it before it turns itself off. Moments later, he’s depressed that there’s no noise and starts loudly bellowing, claiming he’d like there to be a noise. “A little noise please!” Where he also seems to be contradicting himself is when he meets “the girl”. Having been asking for someone to talk to, the girl turns out to be a mannequin, to which he says he has a “secret yen for the quiet type!” Do you want to talk to someone, or don’t you? And did he really not know how to open a telephone booth door?
As I said, the story does clarify his inconsistencies and it does it well. Our friend had been in an experiment to see how he would do in complete isolation in preparation for a trip to the moon. But therein lies a different problem. They say he was in there for 484 hours (nearly 21 days). I don’t know if that really would be “a trip to the moon, several orbits, and return” but I did wonder after all that… Did he not eat? Drink? Go to the loo? I mean, electrodes may have graphed everything but that must have been one ripe SOB when they opened the door. It would have added such an incredible level of comedy to have them open the door and stagger back! But the best part of the experiment is that it was not some evil plan, but a test of human endurance in preparation for space travel. One of the generals makes a comment that they can sustain a man in these situations in all respects except one: the need for companionship. I heartily agree.
As a starting episode to the series, it’s a great one. It also haunts me anytime I go somewhere and no one is around. The filming of this story was fantastic too. Oh, sure, it relied on one cheap trick that doesn’t make a lot of sense, when he ran into a mirror – did he not see himself coming? But overall, it’s such a strong episode that I can’t fault even the sneaky mirror moment. For instance, I loved that he finds the book “The Last Man on Earth”; though whether it was real book or not, I don’t know. I was reminded of Matheson’s I am Legend, which was made into a movie with Vincent Price called The Last Man on Earth, but there’s no indication that this is related. The filming is also great because it captured the absolute silence of the place perfectly. We don’t get that often, thanks to ambient sounds. As I type this, crickets are chirruping outside my window. The low hum of distant cars pierce the night. But once in a while, you go somewhere, and it’s silent and you see not a soul. And I worry; is it possible that I will find myself in an experiment like this? That would be hell! Or perhaps, I need to think of it differently. I guess it would be The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
There is a sixth dimension beyond that which is known to man. Of course, everyone knows about the fifth, don’t they. Amusingly, this was changed when somebody pointed out to Rod Serling that we don’t know about the fifth, let alone the sixth, but also the opening narration was subsequently replaced with the Serling version instead of the rather insipid Westbrook Van Voorhis narration. His lack of availability for later episodes was a blessing in disguise.
Once we get into the story, this is great stuff. Mike is wandering around a town, and can’t find anyone else to talk to. We don’t know his name at that stage, but I’ll use it here to make my blogging life a bit easier. A good choice of name, Mike, for a mysterious character. In my experience, people with that name are often shrouded in mystery.
The ordeal Mike faces is really scary. There is something troubling about a completely deserted town in broad daylight. The wrongness of it is striking. Adding to the impact is the impression that people have literally just left a minute ago, wherever he goes. In the diner there’s a kettle on the boil, and in the police station there’s a lit cigarette. None of the shop doors are locked. Water is left running in the sink in a prison cell. It had me guessing as to whether Mike is somehow out of phase with the rest of the world, or even dead. Life seems to be somehow carrying on as usual, despite the lack of people. A phone rings, lights come on at night and a film starts playing in the cinema. Those events make it feel like somebody is behind all this, toying with him.
The episode is packed full of interesting symbolism: the broken clocks to indicate Mike’s broken grasp of how much time has passed while he has been alone; the shop window dummy to emphasise the lack of real human contact and the fakery of the whole construct; the mirror to reflect Mike’s lost identity… and that moment of Mike running into a mirror and breaking it not only very effectively made me jump out of my skin, but also indicates Mike starting to break free of the delusion.
When he does, we get to the part of the episode that slightly disappoints. It’s just a variation on the old “All Just a Dream” trope, which always runs the risk of annoying the viewer, and the explanation is all very prosaic and hasn’t dated well. It’s all a load of hand-wringing about the danger of a man being alone in space, which is a strange kind of worry to have because you easily overcome the problem by sending more than one person, although I do understand there is still an element of isolation; nothing like being trapped in a small box on your own for weeks though.
The big reveal is very cleverly foreshadowed. Mike keeps feeling like he is being watched, which of course he is, and there is a strong focus on getting trapped, first in the phone box, and later when the prison cell door nearly closes on him, which would of course be a horrendous scenario with nobody else in town. He also must understand what’s going on, deep down on some level, because he instinctively knows what button to press to get himself out of there.
I wonder what impression contemporary viewers came away with after watching this, the first ever episode of The Twilight Zone. I’ve never watched the whole lot in order, but I’ve seen quite a lot of the most famous episodes, so I know that the lack of sci-fi or fantasy in this one is fairly atypical of the series, but people at the time must surely have assumed that rational explanations at the end were going to be the pattern, or perhaps even a series of dreams and delusions. The narration does describe the Twilight Zone as “the dimension of imagination”, after all. Mercifully they would have been mistaken in that assumption. There is far more to the Zone than just mental flights of fancy. This is going to be quite a journey… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: One for the Angels