Wednesday, May 9, 2007

1.1 "Where is Everybody?"

Season 1, Episode 1

Directed by: Robert Stevens
Written by: Rod Serling

For a show as dripping with allegorical sociopolitical commentary as The Twilight Zone, the premiere episode couldn't have a more germane introduction. "The place is here. The time is now," declares Rod Serling, narrating in his unmistakable inflection—coming from the jaw through clenched-teeth—setting the stage not only for this particular episode but for the entire series that would follow.

A presumable drifter wanders into a roadside diner, but nobody's there. The obvious question, as the title implies, is "where are they?" The juke's a-swingin' and the coffee's percolating, but not a soul is in sight to make this guy his eggs. However, the more important and not as obvious question, at least not at first, is, "who is this guy?" Not even he knows the answer to that, though as the episode unfolds he comes to remember more and more small fragments. "I'm in the Air Force!" he shouts, running through the abandoned streets of the town up the road, proudly screaming his revelation loud enough to wake the dead. Unfortunately, not a soul stirs nor appears.

Where is Everybody? is a declaration of intentions, of sorts, for Rod Serling, as it tells the story of a man trying to "find himself". As well, it explores the fear of confinement, not only in a simplistic claustrophobic sense but rather in a figurative sense—the fear of being "stuck in a rut"; our nameless hero is almost locked inside of a phone booth, until he breaks it open, and the door of a prison cell nearly closes on him while he inspects its interior—these threatening entrapments come across as expressions of Serling's fear of writing copy for The Kraft Television Theater for the rest of his life. Serling must have been aware of his own talent and the fact that he had "something to say", and the script for this episode lets the world know he won't be stopped by sponsor censorship, that by getting his own show he is liberated to say what he wants, even if no one is there to listen.

The episode addresses, then, the fear of the artist, particularly the writer, of being a recluse and secluse. But, more to the point, Where is Everybody? expertly taps into the primal, universal fear of loneliness, the human need for companionship that even modern science, for all its advances, is powerless to overcome; they can put a man in space, but they cannot conquer the despair of human solitude! The episode's most frightening aspect, and it is a scary episode, is the abandoned landscape itself, a depopulated town that takes on the force of a nightmare. After all, the abundance of nothingness implies the iminence of something, and waiting around for it to arrive, if it will ever arrive at all, is unbearably tense even at the abbreviated length of a television program. It works, because the key to cinematic horror, which applies to television as well, has always been recognizing that the audience is more afraid of their own imaginations than any image that could be made to stand-in. (This could be traced as far back as Poe, in literature, and I'm sure even farther: "here I opened wide the door/Darkness there, and nothing more.") The episodemakers increase the tension by implying that our hero is being watched: a smoldering cigar rests in the jail's ashtray and the faucet is running—just like the roadside diner, it seems to have been abandoned only moments before our hero arrived. A large eye on the window of an optometrist's shop drives this point home. Is someone watching? They sure are, and the audience itself it gleefully implicated in the terror unfolding on its television set as a legend of the airwaves is born.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 43 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs. Also on the same company's "Treasures of the Twilight Zone, Vol. 1".


Clayton L. Whitw said...

I really like this idea, Henry. Zone was an exceptional TV series, and the episodes hold up very well today, and between Netflix and the Sci/Fi channel, you can pretty much catch it anytime of day. Keep up the good work, pal.

Elani said...

Good for people to know.