The Twilight Zone: Static

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959

I heard you on my wireless back in ’52,
lying awake intent at tuning in on you.
If I was young, it didn’t stop you coming through…
Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star…

Human beings have a complicated history with technology.  It’s there to improve our lives and make things better but perhaps it advances beyond our ability to adjust. Just as we’re getting used to one technology, another is arriving to take its place.  Video “killed” the radio star because radio fell out of fashion once television came out and began to enter people’s homes.  How long before TikTok kills the TV star?   Maybe not as long as Disney has Marvel and Star Wars, but heaven forbid the day when Disney folds because they might be creating the only things everyone is still talking about together.

In some ways, I felt like the protagonist in Static and I’m a technologist; I work in IT for a living!  But I see people unable to watch TV these days without having their heads down in their phones.  I often criticize my son for watching TV without looking up from his phone because he’s missing the vision part of the television experience.  My mother, who just spent time dog-sitting for my sister, told me today about something she saw when she watched TV; it was a trope that I see often enough but it was new to her because she doesn’t know how to actually watch TV.   Then there’s the whole connection to the phone thing.  The amount of times I’ve gone out to lunch with people who sit down and immediately break out their phones, unable to spend time with the people they are sitting with… it blows my mind!   But does that make me a man stuck in the past, unable to move into the modern era like Mr. Lindsey? Does it mean that I’m trying to hold on to old, dying ways?

This is a story written by Charles Beaumont and I could relate to Mr. Lindsey from start to finish, unlike so many of Serling’s recent characters.  It’s terrifying to think the human species is losing its ability to commune with one another in person, as I illustrate above.  Here’s a fact: I give a colleague a lift to work and our mornings are spent in silence because she’s too tired to talk, but is very able to open the phone and send messages!  I challenge you, dear reader, to observe the people around you when you’re out.  But am I just unwilling to grow, or acknowledge that times change?  I feel like there’s a difference if basic human connection is lost!

Bear in mind, Static was broadcast in 1961;  50 years later and we’re still doing the same thing.  Lindsey lives in a boarding house with a half dozen other people and they stare at their television screens without speaking to one another; today it’s with our phones.  A shared television experience is rarely shared.  Ironically, I wrote this on the very night I watched a show with my wife, son, sister-in-law, mother-in-law, and father-in-law: my sister-in-law had plans so she had the best excuse but she did spend the time looking at her phone, not the television.  My father-in-law did the same but spoke to my mother-in-law as if the show weren’t even on.  Don’t misunderstand me: he wasn’t into the show, but it illustrates the very point Mr. Lindsey is trying to make in Static.  He’s raging against the lack of bonds that exist between the very people he lives with.   And that’s not to say television (or movies) are the best way to communicate with one another – in fact, what my Father-in-law was doing was probably the most bonding being done in the room at that time as he looked at photos with his wife and shared thoughts on them.  When I was younger, my friends and I started our nights at the movie theater, then spent the next 6+ hours hanging out, often talking about the shared movie experience, but life takes us down other paths and at best, you meet once a week with your friends on Zoom calls to chat.  Hopefully no one is trying to “multitask” while looking at other things and then asking about the very thing you’ve just answered because they were not paying attention!  But that’s what makes Static meaningful.  It still resonates.

Maybe we just have to get used to the fact that people are going to adapt differently to different levels of technology and that’s just what’s always going to happen.  My son will be correcting his son for being in his holodeck while people are trying to communicate with him on the phone.  We have to come to terms with that.  Pining for the old days won’t change what is.  In fact, maybe it’s the wrong thing to do anyway.  Even a good life will have regrets and Lindsey is no stranger to it.  Then again, who is?  I’ve been very happy with the path my life has taken but that doesn’t change that I have regrets.  So why not just accept that there will always be times where we could have chosen better and learn from those events and move on?

Static was an interesting episode because I could relate to it on many levels.  If there was one thing that I questioned it was the necessity for the junkyard scene.  It fluffed the story out by only a minute or two, but it didn’t really add anything.  It didn’t change how Lindsey goes back to his youth.  It’s an uncommonly happy ending for a change … or is it?  It means he was never able to find happiness in the life he chose and that’s a remarkably sad thing.  He seems to get a second change: I’ll take that as a good thing but was it real or was it how he wished his life had gone and the reality is that there is a sad old man sitting in his room, longing for a bygone past?  Could that be me one day?  You?

So to end on a happier note, we go back to the scene in the junkyard… wouldn’t it have been better if we got to hear a wheezing, groaning noise as Lindsay left.  Maybe we see the radio there but no sign of him.  Yes, that’s a far better ending.  We all know what sounds best in a junkyard, even in The Twilight Zone.  ML

The view from across the pond:

Television is bad for you. That seems to be the message for much of this episode of The Twilight Zone, and it’s a brave moral for the 56th episode of a popular show, churning out an episode a week for more than half the year at the time. Ed Lindsay (Dean Jagger) is living in a boardinghouse, and he seems to be the only one with an active mind. The other residents spend their time gawping at a screen, and are so keen to get back to it that they cut their dinner time short. Ed is unimpressed with them.

“Mr Bragg, who watches television until his brain turns into oatmeal and his eyes roll down his face into his beer.”

The shows on offer are indeed pretty mindless, so maybe it’s more of a comment on the quality of television in general at the time, with TZ a notable exception. The residents seems to be particularly enjoying an advertisement for cigarettes that smell sweet, featuring a young lady rolling around in the grass. Ed longs for the glory days of radio, which I supposed would have been considered the years between the two wars, and he is presumably wearing some seriously rose-tinted spectacles, unless they didn’t have tedious advertisements on radio as well (they certainly do on some of our radio stations here). But he’s also one of those old people who think that modern music is all just noise, something that happens with every generation. His unpleasant noise is the next generation’s glory days of music, and so on.

Assuming he’s not insane, the supernatural element here is a radio that broadcasts shows from 1935, but will only do that when nobody apart from Ed is in the room. That makes it a bit difficult for him to make the case to the other residents that radio was superior to television, and he is forced into a solitary enjoyment of those old shows he loves, rather than being able to share them with his friends. So maybe here we come to the true message of the episode: it’s the company that matters. Ed’s longing for the past is all about missed opportunities. He’s stuck in a boardinghouse with some other oldies, and he sees what might have been. By the end of the episode he has a second chance at an unrequited love, and importantly he is the object of that love. Vinnie (Carmen Mathews) never lost touch with her emotions, while Ed forgot to love, ironically considering he thought he was the only one whose brains hadn’t been turned to oatmeal by the idiot box. It wasn’t actually the television causing his frustrations with life at all.

In fact, this is a heavily ironic episode. Note how Ed lives by the principle that he never throws away “anything that’s worth keeping”, and yet he threw away his relationship with Vinnie. Instead, he has hoarded old junk. Luckily, one of those old pieces of junk allows him to realise that he has indeed thrown something away that was not just worth keeping, but fundamental to his happiness in life. The other residents, whom he dismisses as oatmeal-brained idiots, actually turn out to be a lot more than that. Take the Professor for example. He’s a good friend, taking the time to go and look at the old radio in Ed’s room, being tactful and gentle about the possibility that Ed might simply be imagining the old shows, rather than dismissive, and sharing his nostalgia for the old music. Nobody even reacts angrily when Ed gets up and starts flicking through the television channels. Ed’s actually living with a decent bunch of people, and he doesn’t realise how lucky he is. Writer Charles Beaumont is a little unclear with that message, or indeed any conclusion he might have wished us to draw from this episode, as is often the case with The Twilight Zone. We are left to wonder if Ed was right to live in the past or not. The ending would seem to suggest that he was, but could just as easily be a picture of a man descending into a delusion. All I know is I want a time travelling device like that, but please let it be a television that plays shows from the 60s. Give me those missing episodes of Doctor Who to watch, and I’ll happily go and live in the Twilight Zone…   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Prime Mover

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, The Twilight Zone and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Twilight Zone: Static

  1. scifimike70 says:

    The quality of television, certainly the TV classics that we each grew up with, as we reflect via our Junkyard reviews, and how it influences our lives for better or worse indeed makes an interesting anthology story. When I think of how much television I watched in the last century, just to escape so much pain in my life, and how less of it I tend to watch now, I realize how my social skills have improved a great deal. Speaking as an Aspergian, that’s quite a triumph. But it’s enough to make me think about how out of touch with reality we’ve become because of television. For a time like today when old paradigms are clearly in need of being relinquished, or when much better values from our past that we’ve lost can now be rediscovered, it’s great that a Twilight Zone episode like Static can still hold up in time to reach the Junkyard. Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. epaddon says:

    Beaumont, while credited, actually got a ghostwriter Ocee Ritch to do the script for this episode because he was spreading himself thin with projects at the time.

    The voice of the announcer on the TV extolling the product “GREEN” is Bob Crane of “Hogan’s Heroes” fame. At the time he was a popular radio DJ in Los Angeles before starting his acting career.

    I admit the theme of the episode is something I relate to in that I am now in my early 50s and I feel totally alienated from today’s popular culture and I find that even my other passions like sports have been corrupted. I yearn for the vanished realm of the past when for me, the programs were better and baseball was fun to follow because for me, the present isn’t creating anything new of significance.

    The only thing I could never figure out is how can two people live in the SAME rooming house for over 20 years? We never learned what Ed did for a living, and I find it hard to believe he didn’t have a job that would have allowed him some chances for upward mobility in the post-war period.

    Liked by 2 people

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