Category Archives: On Film and Television

My views on the movies and programs that I either love or love to hate.

Top Ten Twilight Zone Episodes

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Rod Serling’s seminal sci-fi series that exists somewhere “between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.”

One of the main reasons The Twilight Zone has such staying power is its dramatic writing, shocking plot twists, and Kafkaesque terror.

While it’s true some of the episodes don’t hold up as well as others, I’d like to take a look at ten of the more favorable episodes—-the ones I make it a point to catch whenever there’s a marathon on:

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“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

William “Captain Kirk” Shatner stars in what might be the most famous and revered of all Twilight Zone episodes. He plays a man traveling aboard a commercial flight with his wife. When he spots a “gremlin” on the wing, he tries to alert the crew and other passengers to the potential danger lurking just outside his window seat. However, our clever Gremlin makes sure to duck out of view every time someone else peers through the glass, leaving Shatner to look foolish and delusional (a fact compounded by the knowledge that his character had a severe nervous breakdown on a plane months earlier… ). In typical Twilight Zone fashion, the final shot is the stinger. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was revisited in Twilight Zone: The Movie, starring John Lithgow in the famous role.

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“To Serve Man”

In this episode, which debuted back in 1962, mankind has seemingly found a benevolent alien savior in the form of the Kanamits — a race of towering space travelers who are all too willing to help Earth eradicate the problems of hunger and war. Their personal manifesto, a book entitled To Serve Man, isn’t a guide for peace. It’s a cookbook with recipes to turn humans into a tasty main course.

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“It’s a Good Life”

The fantasy of every child — to have unlimited power against grown-ups — is made horrifyingly real in 1961′s “It’s a Good Life.” Bill Mumy plays six-year-old Anthony Freemont, a boy with incredible psychic powers who holds everyone around him hostage. It’s sort of like Game of Thrones, if little King Joffrey could simply think you out of existence for displeasing him. The adults tiptoe around the kid, but it never really matters, because he’s six, and six-year-olds aren’t particularly rational in the first place. That ever-present sense of menace exuded from the adorable face of Mumy is what makes things work. Like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the episode was remade for the Twilight Zone movie. It also got a sequel in the 2002 Twilight Zone revival series, entitled “It’s Still a Good Life,” wherein Anthony is now a grown-up and his daughter has inherited his abilities. Bill Mumy and Chloris Leachman reprise their original roles, and Mumy’s real-life daughter serves as the story’s new tyrant.

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“Time Enough at Last”

“Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment, Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself… without anyone.”

And so begins what is perhaps the most beloved of all Twilight Zone episodes, 1959′s “Time Enough at Last.” In many ways, this first season ep is the epitome of everything The Twilight Zone stands for. A poor, put-upon man (Burgess Meredith, in his first of several appearances in the series) finds things finally going his way, only to watch the inherent cruelness of the universe twist everything in a terrible manner, usurping his moment of victory. Rod Serling sure loved to kick the audience in the gut, and this particular blow is one of the series’ most unforgettable.

Meredith stars as Henry Bemis — a man who just wants to get away from the everyday world and bury his nose in a good book. Henry gets his wish when the rest of humanity is wiped out in a nuclear attack. He discovers an untouched library — a place where he can read in peace for the rest of his existence. Thrilled with his discovery, Bemis settles in. As he gets ready to crack open his first book, he breaks his glasses. Virtually blind, Bemis is now stuck in a world with all the time and books he could ever want and no way to enjoy them. This unhappy twist ending would become a common feature during the show’s run, but this one always stood out as particularly cruel. Perhaps it’s because so many of us can relate to it.

Serling himself listed “Time Enough at Last” amongst his favorite episodes of the series.

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“The Eye of the Beholder”

Odds are, if you saw 1962′s “Eye of the Beholder” as a child (originally titled “The Private World of Darkness”), it terrified you for weeks. A young woman undergoes surgery to improve her appearance and look like everyone else. She spends most of the episode swathed in head bandages as shadowy doctors and nurses talk around her. When the wraps are removed, the doctors proclaim the procedure a complete failure — but the audience sees the lovely Donna Douglas and wonders how this can be. It all becomes clear when the doctors and nurses are revealed (one of the most memorable Twilight Zone reveals of all time).

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“Living Doll”

Given that so many people find dolls unsettling and creepy, it’s a bit of a surprise that it took Twilight Zone five seasons to tell the story of “Living Doll.”

A pre-Kojack Telly Savalas isn’t a fan of his stepdaughter’s new “Talky Tina” doll, especially after she starts telling him she’s going to kill him. What follows is a twisted domestic drama powered by the machinations of an evil toy. It’s a trope that would be revisited in countless horror tales over the years — from Friday the 13th: The Series, to The X-Files, to the Child’s Play movies. Serling and company’s take on the material is still amongst the best.

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“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”

The best episodes of Twilight Zone were often the ones that buried a moral or bit of social commentary in their sci-fi and horror narratives — and few were more poignant than 1960′s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Much like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, this is another tale that asks the viewers to decide who the real monsters are: the alien invaders or their very own friends and neighbors?

“Monsters” features a smart script that finds the residents of the titular Maple Street in a panic when they conclude an alien invasion is afoot. Rather than team up to combat the terror from beyond the stars, they succumb to paranoia and vigilante-like behavior, leading their invaders to conclude that the best way to destroy mankind is to let us do the deed ourselves.

Rod Serling, who wrote the episode, summed it up best in the closing narration:

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, and prejudices — to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill. And suspicion can destroy. And a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own – for the children… and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is… that these things cannot be confined… to the Twilight Zone.”

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“The Invaders”

Season two episode “The Invaders” — which finds Agnes Moorehead in her pre-Bewitched days taking on tiny alien beings who accost her at her isolated farmhouse — may not be the deepest episode in the Twilight Zone canon, but it is another of those entries everyone remembers because of the twist ending. Twilight Zone was skilled at many things, but Serling and his team really were masters at finding a way to lull viewers into thinking they knew what was happening only to pull the rug out from under them in the last few minutes of the story.

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“Walking Distance”

People often think of The Twilight Zone as a show mostly interested in horror and sci-fi stories, but Rod Serling was not above telling a more grounded tale — one with a wistful tone tinged with nostalgia. “Walking Distance” is perhaps the greatest example of Serling’s ability to move beyond the confines of traditional genre fare.

A tale about a man revisiting his childhood (literally), “Walking Distance” is memorable for its melancholic tone and (somewhat) unsatisfying conclusion (some viewers are disappointed that there’s no twist or neat and tidy resolution at the end of the show — something that makes it seem for more powerful to us). It’s not the typical Twilight Zone story, but it still stands as one of the best tales in the series’ long run and one of Serling’s finest moments.

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“Five Characters in Search of an Exit”

It sounds like the start of a bad joke: an army major wakes up in a metal cylinder and meets a hobo, a ballet dancer, a bagpiper, and a clown. Things are never quite as they seem in The Twilight Zone, and there aren’t a lot of laughs to be found in this premise.

Instead, these five characters trapped in a strange tube seek to not only escape, but also figure out where they are. The results are as surprising as you’d expect given the history of the show. This was season three’s Christmas episode, but hardly filled with mirth and good cheer. It did inspire Vincenzo Natali’s cult classic film Cube, and director Lamont Johnson revisited the story in, of all places, a season two episode of Felicity – something so bizarre it could have come directly from The Twilight Zone on its own.

Every Picture Tells A Story, Though Not Always A Good One

It’s easy to put the boots to M. Night Shyamalan whenever he debuts a new film, but the fact of the matter is as long as Lady In The Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender exist, After Earth will never be considered his worst film.

The story, conceived by Will Smith while he was watching an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive, was originally meant to tell the tale of a father and son crashing their car in some remote region, and the son having to venture into rough terrain to get rescue for his father. Will later changed it to:

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A crash landing leaves Kitai Raige and his father Cypher stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after events forced humanity’s escape. With Cypher injured, Kitai must embark on a perilous journey to signal for help.

It’s a simple story, which is what you should strive for when creating fiction. So, why doesn’t it work (apart from the wooden acting and bizarre futuristic southern military accents)? What storytelling lessons can you learn from After Earth?

1. When good exposition goes bad – Avoiding exposition is nigh-impossible when dealing with science fiction set in the future. In the case of After Earth, the audience needs to be brought up to speed on why humans fled the planet one thousand years ago, as well as being introduced to the new homeworld, Nova Prime. And that’s where it should end. Everything else the audience needs to know should be introduced organically. The one thing you should not use your opening expository scene for is telegraphing the solution for the climax of the story. It’s lazy and a cheat.

2. The protagonist/antagonist relationship – Even with coming of age stories, which After Earth is—–well, that and a motivational speech dressed up as a sci-fi actioner—–the strength and audience interest lies in the conflict found in the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. The reason After Earth doesn’t ring true isn’t because the protagonist, Kitai, is weak—possessing a weakness that must be overcome is exactly what any good story needs.

The first problem is the antagonist. The thing that combats Kitai in the film is nature—which is filled with its fair share of animal and insect nasties (plus one blast from Kitai’s past, conveniently placed to help him arc properly)—but it doesn’t oppose him. There isn’t one beast that stalks him with animal cunning and outflanks him at every turn, with the ultimate goal of turning him into a tasty morsel. The wilderness isn’t planting snares and death traps in his path to prevent him from reaching his destination.

Not that either of those scenarios are particularly original or great, but something else is needed than to have Kitai stumble and bumble his way through unfamiliar and dangerous terrain. I would have been more invested if he actively tried to outwit the environment and was constantly met with defeat. At least then he would have gained some insight. We learn from mistakes.

Which is the problem I had with the resolution. At the all is lost stage, Kitai suddenly masters the gimmick that allows him to prevail in the end. Without obtaining the wisdom or acquiring the experience to properly do so. And again, it’s a cheat and lazy storytelling.

3. Telegraphing – Some writers mistake this with foreshadowing—the act of dropping hints about certain plot developments that will come to be later in the story. The difference between them? Telegraphing is giving away too much, too soon, thereby ruining the suspense, or the impact of the event.

Before using foreshadowing, have a good think. Is it necessary to heighten the tension? It can be difficult knowing which side of the line you’re on, so if you’re attempting to foreshadow, you should ask yourself if there’s any chance the audience can predict what you’re hinting at? If the answer is yes, take a good look around. You’re standing in telegraph territory. Try a subtler approach.

4. Flashbacks – It’s amazing how many screenwriters still get this wrong by thinking flashback sequences serve the purpose of filling in plot holes in the past. A well-constructed flashback should always move the story forward. Always. If your flashback doesn’t accomplish this, you need to rework your story and find a way to introduce whatever bit of information is missing from your plot.

In After Earth, we have dueling flashback sequences, one set belonging to Cypher which explains his estrangement from his son and the other set telegraphing Kitai’s final obstacle. Nether of these string-of-past-event-sequences impact the present day story, nor do they escalate the conflict. The just provide information that could have be delivered during the Act 1 set-up.

Naturally, there are other problems I had with this film, but delving into them would reveal too many spoilers, so I’ll just end the post here. If you happen to see the film and want to discuss it, feel free to comment below or drop me a line.

Sally forth and be writeful.

If You Can’t Blind Them With Brilliance…

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Fair warning: Thar be mild spoilers ahead, so if you plan on seeing Star Trek Into Darkness and wish to go in fresh, turn back now.

Let me begin by saying I didn’t have high expectations for this film, so I wasn’t disappointed at how much I really didn’t like it. Wasn’t a fan of the the first film either. Truth to tell, I’m not big on reboots or reimaginings in general.And that’s all this is. A poor reboot of the far superior film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Don’t mistake my meaning, this isn’t a bash on J.J. Abrams. The man does what he’s paid to do. He puts asses in seats, like a professional carnival huckster. He’s under no obligation to provide a solid, well thought out plot or three dimensional characters. It’s all about bang for the buck, which this movie has in spades. It meets its quota of fisticuffs, phaser fights, explosions, space battles, and winks and nods to the original series to appease actual fans of the franchise. Abrams certainly knows his way around a popcorn movie, living by the old adage, “If you can’t blind them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”

But instead of dissecting Into Darkness (enough fan sites are doing that already), I’d rather talk about what made Wrath of Khan work. It’s one of two films that I can think of off the top of my head that has a near perfect set up. The other is the first Back To The Future film.

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Wrath of Khan begins with the Star Fleet Academy final exam, The Kobayashi Maru, a no-win scenario simulation designed to test the character of cadets before unleashing them into the harsh realities of interplanetary relations. Kirk is now an admiral relegated to training cadets after giving up his starship command. It’s his birthday, so he’s feeling old. His life lacks adventure, so he feels put out to pasture. He has no family, so he feels alone in the universe. The man is miserable, making him the perfect character in desperate need of an arc.

Come to find out Kirk is the only cadet to beat The Kobayashi Maru, but he did it by rigging the test. He cheated because he doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario. And that’s what the entire film is, Kirk’s Kobayashi Maru. An adversary emerges from his past, hellbent on revenge for being stranded on planet that turns hostile. He’s reunited with an old flame and discovers he has a son. And he’s pitted in a battle of wits against a far superior opponent. Even in his most desperate hour, Kirk is enjoying this. It’s what he was born to do. The only thing he’s ever been good at.

And finally, he’s forced to face The Kobayashi Maru consequences. He’s encountered his no-win scenario. He’s at the end of his tether, with no more cards left to play. He’s not only put himself in the line of fire, but his crew and new found family as well. They’re dead. Or they would have been, had Spock not sacrificed himself, quoting the Charles Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities (a present he gives to Kirk on his birthday), “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few“.

Kirk finally faces devastating loss, the death of his closest friend, but as he mourns, he witnesses the creation of a world, has reconnected with a family he never knew he had, and is once again in command of a starship. At the beginning of the film, he was feeling old, but as the film wraps, he stares at the Genesis Planet and tells Carol Marcus that he “Feels young.”

That’s a proper character arc.

And you won’t find any of that in Into Darkness. It’s a poor photocopy that lacks the richness of history, the depth of character, or a plot that can bear the weight of scrutiny.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Of Our Hue Filmworks: The Maconheiro Preview Clips

The Tale of The Maconheiro:

Preview clip starring Steph Van Vlack, Pedro Rezende, Charlotte Grant, Julia Giolzetti, and Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys. Written & Directed by Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys. Copyright 2008-2013 Of Our Hue Filmworks. All Rights Reserved.

Deborah and Verity meeting:

Preview clip starring Monica Hammond and Charlotte Grant. Written & Directed by Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys. Copyright 2008-2013 Of Our Hue Filmworks. All Rights Reserved.

Steve’s crib:

Preview clip starring Monica Hammond, Daniel Petsche, Elizabeth Sawyer and Chris Van Kirk. Written & Directed by Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys. Copyright 2008-2013 Of Our Hue Filmworks. All Rights Reserved.