Make TV Scare Again: gimme that old time television!

Television can be both blessing and curse for storytelling. The blessing is the longer form that allows for more involved stories. The curse is a narrative beholden to episodic structure and uncertain series endings. Although anthologies forego the blessing, they easily avoid the curse with their fun-sized approach storytelling. The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, and Night Gallery are some of the earliest and best examples of television storytelling, and they often live squarely in the genre of horror. So to start out a week of television recommendations, here are a couple of specific episodes we recommend.

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Tom Chick: “The Man Who Was Never Born,” The Outer Limits
“To save your own child, would you press a button that would destroy all the children of another land?”

Martin Landau asked this question in a 1963 episode of The Outer Limits called “The Man Who Was Never Born.” It was a question with unique relevance when the episode aired, one year to the day after the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. Although the episode isn’t specifically about nuclear annihilation (or “hydrogen war”, as one of the characters calls it), it is about annihilation. Personal annihilation. The enormity of non-existence.


As you might infer from the title, this Outer Limits episode is in the same category as The Terminator. Anyone traveling back in time would have no compunction about killing Hitler himself, right? But what about Hitler’s unwitting mother? Pre-emptive pre-conception abortions are easy for robots who don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. They’re no so easy for compassionate well-read people who put frogs back in ponds and fondly pet a little figure of a dog in an old lady’s house. That’s who Martin Landau is in this Outer Limits episode. It’s fascinating watching him this early in his career. He looks so creepy, which is why he’s memorable as a villainous henchman in North by Northwest. But he’s got such an obvious intelligence. He’s one of those actors who knows how to visibly think. Hitchcock once told Landau “you have a circus going on inside you”. It shows. And as you can see in “The Man Who Was Never Born”, there’s a undeniable, well, niceness about him.

The writer and director of “The Man Who Was Never Born” continued on to undistinguished careers in television, but you might recognize the cinematographer’s name. Conrad Hall, who shot several episodes of Outer Limits, makes his mark on “The Man Who Was Never Born”. He includes some sly gimmicks to show that while the audience sees one thing, the characters are seeing something entirely else. He also plays with reflections, lighting tricks, and topsy-turvy camera angles. There’s even a trippy half-screen dissolve based on the same manic eyes that will be featured in Landau’s Ed Wood performance 30 years later.

Whereas a lot of the cinematography in these old anthologies is merely workaday, here you see Conrad Hall flexing the talent that will eventually shine in Day of the Locust, Marathon Man, American Beauty, and Road to Perdition.

You also see the difference between the compact and often rigidly structured half-hour episodes of anthologies like Twilight Zone. The Outer Limits takes a full hour to tell its stories. This gives them more room to breathe, more time to ponder, more space for the actors. This is important because “The Man Who Was Never Born” isn’t just about a twist. Don’t expect any “it’s a cookbook!” revelations. This is a story about a moral dilemma. What would Martin Landau do? WWMLD? And when the end comes, it’s not so much a “whoa, that happened!” as a “yep, that happened”.

You can watch “The Man Who Was Never Born” on Hulu.

Chris Hornbostel: “The Thirty Fathom Grave,” The Twilight Zone
Here’s a thing to do: go to Netflix or Amazon Prime and pull up The Twilight Zone main pages. Have a look at the episode list. Notice anything missing? Yep, no season four. It goes seasons one through three, and then five. When we decided to recommend an episode from anthology-style, strange stories early television series, I didn’t want to recommend the same Twilight Zone episodes that everyone recommends. I think I hit the motherlode in that elusive season four, too. Not only do I want to recommend a single episode, I also want to talk about that oddly missing season for a moment, because I think it stands as one of early television’s great lost treasures.

There’s a reasonable chance that unless you’re a hardcore Twilight Zone fan, you’ve never even seen a single episode from this season, and there’s a good reason for that. This story starts with the end of season three for the show. Ratings for The Twilight Zone were always shaky, and by that spring in 1962 sponsors were pulling out. CBS canceled the show–and the half hour show that ran behind it–replacing both in the time slot with a terrible one-hour drama series. That new show tanked right from the outset the next fall, and the network approached series creator Rod Serling about bringing back Twilight Zone (no “The” this time) as a January replacement.

There’s reason to think this came as a shock to Serling. He’d accepted a teaching position at Antioch College and was hoping to enjoy some time away from Hollywood. To further his consternation, CBS needed this mid-season version of Twilight Zone to run for a full hour to fill the time slot. Serling ended up being only partially present for season four, relying heavily on series writers like Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and Jerry Sohl. Season four is also unique in Twilight Zone annals for only having 18 episodes (other seasons have between 29 and 36). After season four show was renewed for a fifth series, with the half-hour time format restored.

When the show went into syndication in the 1970s, interested local TV channels discovered a pretty big scheduling problem. There are 138 episodes of the show that run in a half-hour time slot. There are 18 that fill an hour. What resulted is that most local television stations would buy everything except season four so the show could be fit into a thirty minute scheduling slot. Syndication and licensing packages of the show began to exclude season four episodes entirely, which explains why you can’t find these episodes on some streaming services.

To make these 18 episodes even more of a black sheep in the Twilight Zone family, Serling during his lifetime had little good to say about them. He and his crew of writers, directors, and production people had the half-hour show format down cold. They felt uncomfortable trying to write (or worse stretch) stories into the new timeframe. Worse, the season seemed to drain Serling. A notorious workaholic, he spent much of that year trying to split his time teaching while also handling some show duties.

And to be sure, there are a few clunkers in season four. But there are also many fantastic, little-seen gems and I recommend checking them out. Perhaps my favorite of the season is “The Thirty Fathom Grave.” As you might guess by the title, the story is nautical in nature. A US Navy destroyer patrolling in the South Pacific runs across a mysterious anomaly. There’s nothing to be seen at first, but everyone on the ship can hear a repetitive clanging noise. A ship’s officer suffers a complete breakdown. The captain decides he’d better investigate.

“Thirty Fathom Grave” is a gloriously spooky ghost story, one of the most traditionally scary episodes the series ever came up with. It uses its fairly unique setting quite well and creates terrific moments of tension and unease. It’s also one of the most expensive episodes in the history of the show.The ship setting is a real decommissioned naval vessel, and the underwater scenes don’t look bad at all for 1960s television. This is a very well-made, tightly plotted Twilight Zone episode that makes the perfect companion for a night of playing Oxenfree.

You can watch Thirty Fathom Grave on Hulu.

Tomorrow: trick-or-treat eye candy
Wait, why are you guys writing about really old TV shows?