The Twilight Zone: Lessons in Storytelling

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 28, 2017

The Twilight Zone is the classic science fiction television show that ran five seasons on CBS from 1959-1964 producing 156 black and white episodes. Because each episode was a standalone story, the series makes a great laboratory for dissecting storytelling. The overall quality of TZ writing is very high, with many memorable episodes, but it’s also true the show had its clunkers.

I recently bought The Twilight Zone:  The Complete Series Blu-ray on Amazon for $64.99, but that price changes almost daily and can run much higher. I also snagged a copy of The Twilight Zone Companion Second Edition by Marc Scott Zicree. However, you can stream The Twilight Zone on CBS All Access, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. (Netflix and Amazon only have four seasons.) And Wikipedia has a list of all the shows with links to essays on each. Each episode entry on Wikipedia often provides more information than the book I bought, but that volume makes a handy companion to keep by my TV recliner. I bought the Blu-ray set because of the glowing reviews about pristine transfers and all the extras.

Modern television fans (meaning young folks) might prefer studying Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad for their exceptionally high-quality storytelling and addictiveness. But those stories are so huge and complex that I can’t grasp their bigger structures. I figured I’d be better off analyzing tiny 22-minute tales. This coincides with my rediscovery of short story reading. I’ve been listening to The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick and Untouched by Human Hands by Robert Sheckley and I’m amazed at how dramatic and compelling their stories were from their early career in the 1950s, doing so much with so little.

Nothing in the Dark

Last night I watched two TZ episodes, “Nothing in the Dark” which featured Gladys Cooper as an old woman afraid of dying, and Robert Redford playing a beat cop that gets shot on her doorstep. The story was told with one set and three actors. What amazed me was how much was conveyed without putting it into the dialog. The old woman wouldn’t leave her basement apartment in a condemned tenement because she feared meeting Mr. Death. Watching makes you imagine her life and how she lived. In one scene, she sits on the edge of a dirty bathtub and you question how often she bathes. Cooper’s face is old and wrinkled, and you wonder just how long she’s evaded death.

And of course, we learn her fear of death is unfounded, not because Robert Redford isn’t Mr. Death trying to trick her, but because her death is peaceful. This is one of the episodes of The Twilight Zone that stuck in my memory, but I only remembered Robert Redford being shot, lying in the snow in his dark police uniform. However, I’m not sure when I first saw it. My family often watched TZ together in the late 1950s and early 1960s and I’m positive I remember some shows from when I was young. But I think I first saw this one in the 1970s as a rerun.

A Quality of Mercy - Salmi and Stockwell

The second episode I watched was “A Quality of Mercy” about a squad of American soldiers on August 6, 1945, the day before the first A-bomb was dropped. Again, the set was sparse, with just a handful of actors, mainly Dean Stockwell and Albert Salmi. (It did have a couple short vivid scenes with Leonard Nimoy without his Mr. Spock ears.) Salmi is the wise sergeant that’s war weary, leading squad of men that’s tired of killing and being killed. This comes across amazingly well via limited dialog and acting expressions. Their short scenes recall so many war movies that their cliché lines feel like intensely distilled encryptions of dozens of great war movies. The plot of the story involves a green officer, Lieutenant Katell played by Stockwell, wanting to get into the fighting before the war is over. The fantasy of the show begins when he drops his field glasses. After picking them up we see Dean Stockwell made up as Lieutenant Yamuri with a squad of Japanese soldiers attacking the same position now held by Americans. The show’s title comes from The Merchant of Venice, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes” by William Shakespeare.

Both shows might feel like slight nothings to the average 21st-century television watcher. 30-minute television is only used for sitcoms today. We need an hour for drama, and we’ve become so addicted to continuing story dramas that we binge on them hour after hour. So it might be hard to take seriously anything that begins and ends so swiftly.

Do we need all those hours to tell a good story with a soulful insight? Wouldn’t Ernest Hemingway have written the seven-volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire in one-volume of about 400 pages? I can’t finish Proust’s epic work, but I do find a few paragraphs now and then worth contemplation. The Twilight Zone isn’t Proust or even Hemingway, but it is as good as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction or Galaxy was back in the 1950s. I believe The Twilight Zone captures the Happy Days decade more faithfully than any show from its era. That’s because it took 156 different snapshots. I suppose if I had access to other anthologies shows of the time I’d give them the same credit.

I’m not the only one remembering The Twilight Zone:




6 thoughts on “The Twilight Zone: Lessons in Storytelling”

  1. I loved THE TWILIGHT ZONE as a kid growing up in the 1960s. Later, I learned many of my favorite episodes were based on SF stories published in magazines. How about the episode–“The Invaders”–that had no dialogue! Agnes Moorhead was brilliant! But I can’t imagine such a demanding TV show being broadcast today.

  2. Those people who watch the “Game of Thrones” series, will undoubtedly read the books, but I wonder how many of them will read George Martin’s less famous stuff, unless they are already fans of his books.I haven’t read the books or seen the tv series, but I have read his “Ferve Dream” and “Dying of the Light”, the first novel being far superior I think.The more obscure works will be ignored in favour of the more commercialised and longer books.

  3. Nothing in the dark is one of my favorites, and that’s because of Gladys Cooper’s performance. When was the last time Robert Redford was just another handsome face playing second fiddle to the star? Reminds me of Vanessa Redgrave’s performance at the end of Atonement. I remember both those performances like I watched them yesterday.

    1. Another fascinating aspect of The Twilight Zone is everyone’s favorite episode. So many different ones show up in everyone’s memories. Also, the show is a treasure for guest appearances by legendary older movie actors, and for the early sightings of young performers that became famous later.

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