Friday, January 19, 2018

The Urban, the Ex-Urban, and the Twilight Zone Between: Part III

A giant hand reaches down to snatch a two urbanites trapped in a vacant small town in “A Stopover in a Quiet Town”. (The Twilight Zone)
And now for the stunning conclusion...

Part three of a three part essay looking at the perception and representation of urban and ex-urban space on television during the late-1950s. Particularly during the five season run of the seminal science-fiction/fantasy prime-time television show The Twilight Zone. If you did not see the episodes when they were originally aired, or you missed the yearly SyFy New Year's marathon, know that this essay contains spoilers.

Read "Part I" and "Part II"

In a handful of episodes urbanites are placed in ex-urban situations, some willing and others not, and a dire cost is paid for their leaving the city.  In more than one of these episodes Bachelard's concept of “eulogized space” space is explored.[i]  This concept describes the, often unrealistic, positive memories of spaces from one's past.  In these episodes disenfranchised city professionals long for the perceived peace of small towns. 

In “The Fear” a overworked writer retreats to a small cabin outside of a village, only to be terrorized by a giant alien.[ii]  She is trapped in the cabin with a local police officer, as they are cut off from any help from the outside world.  In “A Stop at Willoughby” a television marketing executive longs for the simpler life he dreams of every evening as he dozes on the commuter train home.[iii]  When he decides to try and escape to this imagined place by getting off the train in his dream, which stops in a 19th century small town, he throws himself off of the real commuter train to his death.  Taking a slightly different approach to this concept, “Ring-a-Ding Girl” has a young movie star return to her home town after having a disturbing premonition.[iv]  Throughout the episode she is criticized by some of the townspeople for what they see as a big city ego.  In the end though, she comes out as clever and selfless.  By tricking people into going into a high school auditorium to see her, she saves hundreds of the townspeople who would have otherwise been killed by a plane that crashes into the town.  Once again, this voyage into the ex-urban comes at a price, and in a cruel super natural twist she loses her own life in that same plane crash.  In other episodes in which characters find themselves in the ex-urban, the situation has similarly hopeless narratives.  In episodes such as “Come Walk with Me” or “Nick of Time,” characters become trapped in rural or small town settings because of superstitious conditions coming true,[v] [vi] perhaps an easy poke at a stereotype of ex-urban education, or lack thereof.  

The giant hand belongs to a young girl, who has turned the couple in to playthings. (The Twilight Zone)
In “A Stopover in a Quiet Town” a young New York couple wake up after a night of partying in the suburbs to find themselves in a seemingly abandoned small town.[vii]  It is eventually revealed that they have been abducted to live out the rest of their lives as the pets of a race of giant aliens.  Before this fact is made clear to the characters, they wander the town, cursing small town life.  At one point they guess that the reason no one is around is because they are all in church another jab at the perceived superstitious nature of ex-urban people.  Once again, in each of these cases the ex-urban stands in for a prison, the punishment for doubting or rejecting the merits of their home city.

Over the course of 156 episodes running from 1959-1964, the Twilight Zone touched on many of the social and cultural issues of the time.  Race, class, beauty, death, and greed, to name a few, all had their episodes.  In many instances these themes would be set into contexts so fantastic that the impact of the episode would be specific to the commentary, and in these cases, viewers could more easily absolve themselves from critique through dismissal of the fantasy of the story.  In the episodes, as discussed in this paper, in which the setting was the normative world, this dismissal becomes much more difficult.  Not only do many of these episodes, either directly or indirectly, deal with all of these themes, they also turn a mirror on the viewers' way of life.  The episodes that specifically use urban and ex-urban conditions touched on  the very real discussion of the time concerning the American way of life.  

This commentary, both explicitly and implicitly, takes the viewers to the places of their own lives, and shows them how little would have to change for their world to be pulled in to disarray.  When used normatively, the settings of these episodes work as a steady reminder of a particular way of life.  When the setting is forcefully changed or juxtaposed, and the character is taken out of their chosen element, the idiosyncratic traits of both their normal setting and the inherited  setting are flushed out.  The effect, often attempted but rarely duplicated, sets the Twilight Zone apart as one the the most memorable examples of spatial story telling.  But perhaps this should not be surprising for a show whose title is the description of such an evocative place.     

[i]     Bachelard  describes “Eulogized Space” as that which those “seek to determine the human value of the sorts of space that may be grasped, that may be defended against adverse force.” This plays itself out in many episodes of the Twilight Zone. Often to the result of disillusion has the myth of a place of safety is shattered.   Bachelard, Gaston, and M. Jolas. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon, 1994. Print. pg.XXXV
[ii]    Serling, Rod. "The Fear." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 29 May 1964. Television.
[iii]  Serling, Rod. "A Stop at Willoughby." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 6 May 1960. Television.
[iv]   Hamner, Earl, Jr. "Ring-a-Ding Girl." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 27 Dec. 1964. Television.
[v]   In “Come Wonder With Me” a folk singer travels to a rural area to try and find his next hit song.  His general disrespect for the people of the area eventually leads to him being killed as is foretold by the very song he hoped to turn into a hit back in the city.
      Wilson, Anthony. "Come Wander With Me" The Twilight Zone. CBS. 22 May 1964. Television.
[vi]   “Nick of Time” takes place in a small Ohio town.  The Characters, a young white couple from St.Louis, become trapped by fear as the husband (played by a young William Shatner) becomes obsessed with a fortune telling coin machine in the local diner.  As the couple finally is able to pull themselves away from the machine and leave the town, we are shown another aging couple coming into the diner, presumably trapped by superstition for years in the small town. 
      Mathison, Richard. "Nick of Time." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 18 Nov. 1960. Television.
[vii] Hamner, Earl, Jr. "Stopover in a Quiet Town." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 24 Apr. 1964. Television.