“It has often been said that the episodes of The Twilight Zone are parables – short allegorical stories designed to illustrate or teach some truth or moral lesson.”
-Anne Serling (from the Introduction to Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone)
I first heard of The Twilight Zone in the mid-seventies. I was watching a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Dan Aykroyd that I did not understand, so I asked one of my older cousins what it was about. He explained to me that they were spoofing a 60’s black & white sci-fi TV series that usually featured some sort of ironic twist in the end.
The next time I heard about the show was when my obnoxious, chubby, balding, blowhard, windbag 6th Grade teacher would refer to pertinent episodes as a way of illustrating lessons.
It wasn’t until CJOH in Ottawa started broadcasting reruns at midnight in the mid-eighties that I finally had a chance to enter the “middle ground between light and shadow.” And I quickly became a fan. With its imagination and great storytelling, its parade of great established actors and soon-to-be famous stars (like Robert Redford and William Shatner), and its “crisp” dialogue it was unlike any other TV show before or since; so ingrained into our popular culture it has been parodied and copied countless times. One such episode, “People Are Alike All Over” featuring Roddy McDowall as a neurotic, cowardly astronaut (wait…y’know when I think about it multiple times in The Twilight Zone astronauts are depicted as unprofessional, malcontented, or just plain selfishly evil…don’t they know how to screen potential space explorers in the TZ?), was actually ripped off for Star Trek’s first pilot “The Cage” (it even featured the same actress, Susan Oliver).
What I liked most about The Twilight Zone is how the best ones were like Aesopian fables with a strong, timeless moral attached. Author, journalist, television critic and Twilight Zone devotee Mark Dawidziak also saw them the same way, and that is the subject of his new book Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone.
In his book Dawidziak recounts 50 (or 51, depending on how you count) important lessons we could all learn from the classic TV series, each citing one or more episodes and often including a few words from others like Twilight Zone regular, the late Jack Klugman or writer/producer/director Chris Carter. He includes a useful mini-bio of the show’s creator and host Rod Serling, and an introduction by Serling’s daughter Anne.
I could not wait to start reading Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone and while the idea behind it was solid, unfortunately, the book at times is not. It contains numerous redundancies and with every chapter structured the same way, it soon becomes tiresome. Dawidziak also leans heavily on lines from the likes of Mark Twain and William Shakespeare that seem more like filler material than anything substantial (someone should have told him this is supposed to be and original work, not a book of quotations). I would rather have read what Dawidziak had to say in his own words; his own insights and observations do have merit and are worthy, like on page 60 when he brings a fresh angle on the episode “Time Enough at Last” that had never occurred to me before. When he does use his own words the author knows what he is talking about and delivers a number of good points.
The book is often smart and makes me nostalgic for the old show (not the soulless 80’s remake or the way-missed-the-mark movie that preceded it) and hopefully Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone will prompt a new audience to visit the “dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity,” (I fear millennials will not have the patience for a low-definition, colourless mono TV series with cheesy special effects hosted by a diminutive smoker), and I believe fans of The Twilight Zone will enjoy reading it.
In this insane world where powerful leaders blatantly lie and cyber-bullies hide in anonymous shadows inflicting senseless pain on innocent others, we could use some lessons on morality. Hey TV producers, how about more shows with morals, eh? Oh, where are you, Rod Serling? We need you now more than ever!