After The Incredible Shrinking Man, the Hugos gave no award in 1959 (though there were three nominees). In 1960, the category was renamed from “outstanding movie” to “best dramatic presentation” and the award went to the brainchild of writer Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone, an anthology show of odd tales that generally fit into the categories of sci-fi or horror. The show also won in 1961 and 1962, and was nominated in 1963 (though no award was given in that year). Later, Hugo would reward individual episodes of tv series, but it seems that these awards were given to the show’s entire body of work in those years.
I hadn’t seen a lot of episodes of The Twilight Zone (though I watched about thirty or so of the reputed best for this blog post). I know this is sacrilege for a classic sci-fi fan, but I’ve never really been into short stories. That’s why I’m skipping some important Hugo categories here (novella, novelette, short story). In my opinion, there’s generally not enough time to develop a really engrossing world or compelling characters that you can get attached to. And, I often feel like I’m waiting for a punchline.
All of these critiques apply to anthology shows as well.
Better episodes avoid the “punchline” problem – like “Walking Distance,” where a man inexplicably travels back in time to recapture lost childhood. The story isn’t about what’s happening, but how the character feels about it.
But, an episode like “Eye of the Beholder,” is not only totally beholden to its surprise ending to succeed, but pretty much everyone already knows that ending. Still, it wasn’t hard to sit through these episodes because they have such high production values and incredible visuals, not to mention some fine performances by a wide array of great actors and actresses. For these reasons, I could enjoy an episode like “Time Enough at Last,” the classic about a bookworm who wants more time to himself to read and gets his wish. Even though I knew the ironic conclusion, I could still delight in Burgess Meredith’s brilliant work as the central character.
If you’ve seen The Simpsons Halloween Special, you know the “punchline” of “To Serve Man,” (turns out that aliens love puns) but it’s still a wonderfully written and produced piece of vintage television and excellent science fiction.
I think I liked the show best when it veered into the delightfully weird and stayed there. Case in point: “The Invaders,” an almost completely dialogue-free affair in which a rural woman fights off tiny aliens with kitchen knives. I won’t spoil the twist.
As I see it, the show has three major problems that cripple some episodes. There’s the aforementioned issue of being too dependent on the punchline. Furthermore, some episodes seem really stretched – a wonderful idea that would work very well as a six or seven minute short film often gets padded out to 25 minutes (I’d actually say that “Eye of the Beholder” suffers from this problem). Finally, some episodes have ideas that are just too big to work with the show’s shoestring budget and primitive special effects (“Little People”).
To sum up, a lot of episodes are one-note throwaways, but a select few are really worthy of their classic status, and this show certainly revolutionized science fiction on television. It’s easy to see why it won three years in a row (nor did the film industry offer up much competition, based on the losing nominees).
My top ten (of the episodes I watched from the winning first three seasons):
1. The Invaders (mentioned above)
2. Walking Distance (a man takes a quick walk to his hometown and ends up visiting his childhood)
3. And When the Sky Was Opened (the survivors of a crashed experimental space plane begin to disappear)
4. A World of His Own (A playwright can make his characters literally come to life)
5. Time Enough at Last (a bookish fellow survives a nuclear war then heads to the local library)
6. It’s a Good Life (a young boy who controls reality holds a rural town hostage to his immature whims)
7. Eye of the Beholder (a disfigured woman is an outcast in a dictatorship obsessed with conformity)
8. Kick the Can (an old man tries to flee his nursing home – and old age – by playing a child’s game)
9. Nick of Time (a newlywed - William Shatner! - becomes obsessed with a vague fortune telling device)
10. To Serve Man (aliens have come to aid humanity, but one man doubts their motives)Grade: A for all of the above episodes.