S1, E7 “The Lonely”

When people talk about The Twilight Zone, they talk about the show’s incredible endings. Episodes like “Where is Everybody,” “Time Enough at Last” and “The Eye of the Beholder” have remarkable closing beats. The ending of the seventh, “The Lonely,” isn’t as earth shattering, which makes it a little bit easier to breakdown.

The episode starts with James Corry (Jack Warden) alone, “On an asteroid nine-million miles from the earth.” He was sent there three years ago after committing a murder that he argues was in self-defense. Allenby (John Dehner) is responsible for bringing Corry supplies, and early on he brings Corry a robot woman to keep him company. At first, Corry is hostile toward Alicia (Jean Marsh), but when he makes her cry he realizes that she has feelings to. The story climaxes with Allenby coming back, telling Corry that everyone being held on asteroids is being released, but there’s only room for “15 pounds of stuff.” Corry decides he would rather stay with Alicia than go back to the earth, but Allenby shoots her.

Rod Serling recites the monologue he wrote, “On a microscopic piece of sand that floats through space is a fragment of a man’s life left to rust as a place he lived in and the machines he’s used.” It’s a tragic ending. It forces the viewer, who is meant to see Alicia as human now, to see her reduced to a machine.

If Serling wanted it to be happy, all he would have needed to do was end the story earlier or later. He could’ve ended it in the moment that Corry and Alicia found happiness with one another. He could’ve had a happy ending if he decided to end the story later too. Imagine a scene where Corry reunites with his family. He’d still be sad that Alicia died, but his story could’ve been a happy one.

With the exception of the invincible (we are here to talk about speculative fiction after all), everyone dies. Because most stories don’t end with death, they can be made artificially happy, sad, ambiguous, or anything else. A happy ending is a high point, maybe the highest that the protagonist has ever experienced. The things that are happening around it don’t matter as much. For example, The Avengers ends with a post-credit scene of Cap and the gang assembled in a shawarma shop. They won the battle, but New York is in shambles—a happy ending in a sad situation. Titanic ends with Rose heartbroken over a man who died fifty years earlier but surrounded by the family she built since—a sad ending in a happy situation. Any story can illicit any emotion with its ending. You don’t need to manipulate what happens, only when you stop telling the story.

S1, E6 “Escape Clause”

“Escape Clause” is the second “deal with the devil” episode of The Twilight Zone, the first being “One for the Angels.” In this one Walter Bedeker (David Wayne), “a hypochondriac,” sells his soul to a devil called Cadwallader (Thomas Gomez) in exchange for indestructibility and a few thousand extra years to live. It’s a mediocre but fun episode, in part because of those names. Try saying them aloud. Bedeker. Cadwallader. A linguist could talk about how the stresses, how hard sounds follow soft ones to please the ear. I’m going to talk about how Rod Serling establishes a sense of wonder though.

It’s an underused technique in speculative fiction. More often, audiences are thrown in headfirst. But great movies—Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Black Panther—and books—Harry Potter, The Power, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac—make sure to give readers time to appreciate the new worlds in front of them. It can be beautiful or terrifying, but seeing the expansion of reality in a character’s sense of possibility stirs the same emotions in an audience.

In “Escape Clause,” Serling and director Mitchell Leisen start establishing a tone with the names. They’re fun to say, rhythmic. Cadwallader relishes words, stringing together phrases like “In fact, something less than minor. Insignificant. Infinitesimal. Microscopic. Teensy weensy” to describe a soul. Cadwallader is having fun with words, and the audience is being trained to have fun with him.

It continues after Bedeker has signed the contract. He immediately grab the steaming hot radiator. As the steam shoots up, he yells, “Behold the new Walter Bedecker!”

Later on, as he jumps in front of a train as though he’s diving into a pool. All of this is establishing a sense of wonder. He’s experimenting with his new powers, enjoying them, as audiences are learning the range of them.

The deals with cosmic entities always implode. It doesn’t work out so well for Bedeker. He quickly becomes bored being indestructible and decides to jump from the roof of his building. His wife Ethel (Virginia Christine) follows him up to stop him. She falls instead, and Bedeker decides it’s a good opportunity to, “give the electric chair a little whirlie.”

Ethel’s death isn’t particularly funny, and kills the tone of the episode. The wonder is gone as Bedeker flippantly tries to be executed in court, but his lawyer is good enough to get him life in prison instead. With everything fun about the episode gone, it’s a mercy to Walter and the viewer when Cadwallader allows him to exercise his escape clause. So died Walter Bedeker, “Beaten by the devil, his own boredom, and by the scheme of things.”

S1, E5 “Walking Distance”

There’s more than one way to introduce supernatural or otherwise fictional elements into a story. Frequently, The Twilight Zone parcels clues across the episode about what exactly separates the dimension the characters are in from the viewer’s reality. In the fifth episode of season one, “Walking Distance,” Rod Serling does just that.

The episode starts with Martin Sloan, an ad man from the big city, roaring into a small town’s gas station and laying on the horn to get the attendant’s attention. Sloan says he’s in no hurry after all of that, because he is human garbage—Don Draper without the swagger. The Twilight Zone gets away with having characters like Sloan—one- or two-dimensional instead of three, and imminently hateable—because viewers know that a punishment is coming in the next twenty minutes.

Sloan walks to the nearby town while his car is serviced and when he steps into the pharmacy, Serling gives us the first clue that things aren’t as they appear. Sloan recognizes the man behind the soda counter, who tells him, “I’ve got that kind of face.” It’s a great detail because there’s no reason for Sloan to recognize the man, but everyone falsely recognizes a stranger once in a while. Then Sloan waxes poetic about old Mr. Wilson, who used to sleep in the backroom before a heart attack killed him.

When Sloan walks out, the clerk who served him goes to the back room and tells Mr. Wilson, the man who died in Sloan’s story, that they need more chocolate syrup.

There are more obvious clues that Serling gives us as well. Sloan tells the clerk that, “It’s just as if I left yesterday.” Like in “Where is Everybody?,” (also directed by Robert Stevens) the character is saying exactly what’s happening. The other evidence is building a case that he’s right.

The next clue comes when Sloan starts questioning children about how they play marbles now on the street. It’s odd, and would surely get him arrested today. When he tells that little boy his name, the boy tells Sloan, “I know Martin Sloan and you’re not him.” Serling is hammering it home, stressing what’s happening so viewers will believe it.

Two minutes later, Sloan is telling a random woman about how he carved his name into the side of the bandstand. When he wistfully gazes at the bandstand he sees a boy carving a name into the bandstand and runs over. It turns out that the boy is carving, “Martin Sloan.” He’s found himself, twenty or thirty years younger.

If everything in the episode had been normal up to that point, it would be the kind of moment that bounced viewers out of the story. Most readers won’t go from 0 to 60 with magical elements. There needs to be some runway. The clues are so clear in “Walking Distance,” that when the older Sloan approaches his younger self, the audience already knows the older Sloan has slipped into the past. They’ve known since they saw Mr. Wilson sleeping in his chair in the back of the pharmacy, if not earlier.

If you’re telling a story with supernatural elements in a realistic world, your goal should be to parcel out information before the reveal so that the viewer knows enough about what’s coming that they aren’t thrown out of the story by the reveal. The hard part, and what makes The Twilight Zone so good, is having enough ramp while maintaining the surprise.

S1, E4 “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”

Technology is advancing on an exponential curve. Cell phones started getting popular in the ’80s, and them slipping their way into pop culture is an unending source of amusement. Watching a ‘roided up ass-kicker take out a phone bigger than his bicep would ruin most ’80s action movies if they weren’t so campy to begin with. The Twilight Zone doesn’t run into ’80s cell phone problem in its fourth episode though. Despite using cutting edge (for 1959) technology, Rod Serling’s “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” tells a timeless story by focusing on the emotions of its protagonist.

The episode starts with a “Picture of a woman looking at a picture.” Barbara Jean Trenton (Ida Lupino) is a movie star that the world has passed by. She’s set up a home projector, and each day she watches her own films. She’s frustrated with the way the world is now, lamenting the life she had. Having a home theater was a luxury then, but the piece of the story that’s aged well is that emotional core.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but there are days where I click through my old Facebook photos and think about how different my life was. There are high points—me, drunk out of my mind in a cowboy hat on a sunny day, hopping into the arms of my friend Kit—but the lows are missing. I posted more negative things then than I do now, but even then I kept most of my negative emotions private. Creatively, I keep looking at an interview I published in The Missouri Review, my only pro-publication, in 2013 and wondering if that was my peak. Serling didn’t know about Facebook or the eventual drying up of pro-rate magazines when he wrote that episode sixty years ago.

He couldn’t. The reason it still hits so hard is because while the technology is now hopelessly out of date, the emotions aren’t. And that’s the trick, if there is one, to writing something with staying power. If your stories are emotionally honest, they’ll connect with readers over centuries. The Odyssey and The Iliad are still read today. Shakespeare too. There is an emotional core to a great story that transcends, no matter what trappings surround it.

We could argue about whether or not “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” is a great story. We could argue about whether its portrayal of Barbra, the first female protagonist on The Twilight Zone is sexist, though I’d argue that Serling is painting a picture more similar to Amy Schumer’s “Last Fuckable Day” than a screed against women. I’d rather look back at my old photos though, and hope, that like Barbara, I might slip back into those sunny days.

S1, E3 “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”

The Twilight Zone makes a misstep with “Mr. Denton on Doomsday.” Al Denton is an alcoholic, a disaster drinker who’s willing to slurp from a broken bottle as the liquor tinkles out, not caring about the glass that might come with it. It ends much like James Frey’s fabricated autobiography A Million Little Pieces, with the protagonist kicking his addiction to the curb without help. Alcoholism, a disease which one of eight Americans suffers from, isn’t something people can easily walk away from, as Frey and “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” seem to believe. No one walks away unscathed.

If you’re going to write about something that affects other people’s live but not your own, do the research. This is something I talked about John Landis not doing enough for in “Beyond the Cabin in the Woods: The Twilight Zone Movie” too. If you want to write about identity issues, you may. Your characters can be a different race, a different gender, a different orientation, a different religion, a different anything than you. But you need to do the work to get it right. If you half ass it, you’re doing a great disservice to the people you’re misrepresenting. Don’t be that writer.

And before you go any further, ask yourself: What about me and my experiences qualifies me to write this character at this time? Make sure you have a good answer and that you’re spending time and money on traditionally underrepresented characters created by traditionally underrepresented characters.

Here are some resources for how to write from a point of view other than your own respectfully and realistically:

-“12 Fundamentals of Writing the Other” by Daniel José Older

-“Heroes and Heroin — Writing A Character Who has an Addiction” by Roz Morris

-“Writing With Color” (Blog)

-“Writing Gay Characters” by Megan Rose Gedris

– “Before You Write About a Trans Character, Read This” by Casey Plett

-“The Dos and Don’ts of Writing About the Disable” by Nicola Griffith

-“What to Consider When Writing Mental Illness” by Robert Wood

S1, E2 “One for the Angels”

“One for the Angels” isn’t a new idea, nor was it when this Twilight Zone episode  originally aired in 1959. Lou Bookman (Ed Wynn) makes a deal with Death (Murray Hamilton). Every storytelling tradition has variations on this theme, and most end with everything crashing. So if it’s so familiar, why keep telling this story?

In 1967, John Lennon sang “There’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung / Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game.” Lennon paraphrased that from the ever quotable Mark Twain, who wrote, “There is no such thing as a new idea.” If the secrets some beginning writers are trying to sniff out do exist, one of them is that good stories, speculative or otherwise, don’t come from original ideas. The premises and plots of stories are recycled constantly. More eloquently put, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” The Exorcist was based on a true story, and the hundreds of movies in the possession genre follow that blueprint beat for beat. Plot is well and good, but audiences come to stories for the characters.

Lou Bookman (Ed Wynn) is a relatable character. Rod Serling’s script and Robert Parrish’s directing start winning the audience over for Bookman from the first shot. He’s hawking a suitcase full of toys and ties. Parrish starts the show with a closeup of a toy robot though. It might be cheap, but he’s shoving a toy robot in the face of an audience who presumably loves scifi. From there, Bookman goes home where he gives free toys to the children who are eagerly waiting for him on the stoop of his building. It’s not a good business strategy, but for getting an audience to like a character, it works.

Rod Serling’s opening monologue also points out Mr. Death (Murray Hamilton) and who he’s come for, which is of course Lou Bookman. The episode needs this because a likable character isn’t enough, nor is it necessary. It’s more important for the protagonist to be in peril. This is especially true in speculative fiction, where the worlds tend to be more dangerous. Star Wars wouldn’t have succeeded if it followed Luke Skywalker as he stayed to help Uncle Owen for another season on the moisture farm.

The other way “One for the Angels” really makes the deal with Death feel original is how it characterizes Mr. Death. He’s not the grim reaper with a black cloak beckoning with his boney finger. In this Twilight Zone rendition, Mr. Death is a businessman, who’s interested in “efficiency.” He’s visibly annoyed that Bookman can’t figure out what’s happening soon, complaining that no one ever understands. Mr. Death as this big company hatchetman is more comical than scary, and when Bookman persuades Mr. Death not to take him because he’s never made a “pitch for the angels,” it feels like a big win. In large part, it feels so good because Mr. Death is so familiar as a representative of the major corporations strangling our country.

Of course, nothing works out the way Bookman wants it to. Mr. Death needs a life at midnight, whether it’s Bookman or neighborhood girl Maggie (Dana Dillway). But Mr. Death refuses to let Bookman take his spot back in line.

I’m hard-pressed to believe that a single viewer doesn’t know what’s coming, but Serling isn’t trying to trick anyone though. Good stories don’t need to trick their audiences. It’s fun to watch Lou Bookman pitch Mr. Death. Death’s hair is rumpled. He’s draped an armful of ties over his arm and he buys every spool of thread that Bookman has. It’s funny. It satisfies Bookman’s request to “make a pitch for the angels” better than the episode lets on, given that Death is frequently represented as an angel. And best of all, it seems like Mr. Death might be playing along because he’d rather spare the little girl. None of it is particularly original, and it doesn’t have to be. Neither do your stories if you write them well enough.  

S1, E1 “Where is Everybody?”

Let’s all ignore the metatextuality of thinking about what makes a first good episode in the first post of a new blog and talk about what makes the first episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where is Everybody?” such a good opener. The episode starts with Mike (Earl Holliman) walking into a quintessential, unnamed American town. It would be idyllic, except Mike can’t find anyone else. It’s great place to start The Twilight Zone because it does so many of the things the show would become famous for. It pulls back the veil of the American dream to let viewers see the darker nightmare underneath. It preys on the primordial fears of being alone and being watched.  It builds tension incrementally by having Mike find signs of other people closer and closer—a boiling kettle, then a smoldering cigar, and finally the projector of a movie theater turns on while he’s in the auditorium. For now, I’ll focus on what The Twilight Zone is still famous for: the twist.

As Mike has a climactic breakdown, the story backs up and shows us that Mike was right. He was being watched, and by a room of high-ranking military generals no less. It turns out that Mike is an astronaut, preparing for the isolation of a mission to the moon and that after 484 hours alone, his brain had constructed this fantasy world to escape into. The twist, penned by series creator Rod Serling and directed by Robert Stevens, has as much in common with Kishōtenketsu as it does with American storytelling, and it works well for two reasons.

The first, and the simpler one, is that for the first twenty minutes or so, the story was solidly in Mike’s point of view. The audience couldn’t know that he was in a sensory deprivation chamber because he didn’t it. The point of view changes when Mike becomes too overwhelmed. His story ends as  his emotions overcome his ability to think, ejecting the audience into a new point of view. To pull off any storytelling surprise, a writer needs absolute control of what audiences perceive, and telling stories in a close-third or a first person point of view allows that parcelling of information to feel more natural.

The second reason it works is because on multiple occasions, the show literally tells us what’s coming. Visually, Mike is wearing a jumper. It’s clear that he’s not a mechanic, so who he could be and what he could do is fairly limited. And then, Mike repeatedly tells himself that it’s a dream. There’s nothing withheld. Mike verbatim says that he’s dreaming, and somehow it’s still shocking when it turns out that he is. A good twist is one that an audience can predict but doesn’t. That’s why if you watch “Where is Everybody?” twice, it feels so different the second time. The episode doesn’t change, but you know where to look now.

The success of that twist is what makes this episode so good to start the show. When ordering stories for a collection or an anthology, you want to lead with the strongest story that captures what the flavor of the whole collection. In “Where is Everybody?” The Twilight Zone does just that.