A Critical History of Television's The Twilight Zone 1959-1964
by Don Presnell and Marty McGee
(McFarland, $39.95, 288 pages, hardback; December 1998.)
Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone is the television series that won't go away. Despite the fact that most of its 156 stories have, over the years, become clichéd at best and trite at worst, the show has had enough of a loyal core following to have kept it alive, first in syndication and then on the Sci-Fi Channel, virtually since it left the air in prime time more than a generation ago.
In 1998, the prestigious publisher McFarland & Company released A Critical History of The Twilight Zone, 1959-1964, further expanding its already comprehensive catalogue of expository media titles. And although most of McFarland's books contain a fair share of criticism and opinion, this is one of the few in their lineup to promote these qualities in its title. And, unfortunately, this is where it runs into a certain amount of trouble.
There are two criteria one generally uses when validating critical work. The first rests on the reputation and/or credentials of the author. The second, on the accuracy of the facts used to support the viewpoints presented. ACHOTTTZ only barely passes muster with the latter and fails entirely with the former.
McFarland has a long, solid history of publishing first-rate, library-quality research books. Strangely, they seem to be reticent when it comes to including author information within them. The McFarland name on the spine has always been all the validation needed to accept that which is written between the covers. This may be somewhat true with a research book, but a book of criticism is something else altogether. In the case of ACHOTTTZ, the reader should know something about the two gents whose opinions are the selling point of the book before he gives credence to them. Why, they could be a couple of staff writers assigned to widen McFarland's catalogue, for all we know. Should we care what they think? The authors say in their preface that the book was a labour of love for both of them. I have no reason to doubt that. But I'd still like to know something about them other than their names. It would go quite a way toward depilating the hair on the eyeball with which I read their book.
And a handsome, concise book it is. Between its black hardback covers, ACHOTTTZ is a trim 280 pages from preface through index. It's divided, essentially, into three sections. Part I is The History, an eighteen-page digest of events from the show's germination in Serling's mind through the fifth and final season and afterward. Part II is The Episodes, the guts of the work, in which the authors list each episode chronologically by original airdate along with the key production people and the cast (including members who were not listed in the credits). This is followed with a neat synopsis of each episode and a mix of criticism with secondary-source background information under the subheading "Notes and Commentary". The next section is Appendices, which features a needlessly rehashed chronological listing of episodes (they were already listed chronologically, in detail, in Part II), Writer Biographies (which mistakenly includes producer Buck Houghton, who never wrote an episode of The Twilight Zone) and summaries of writers, directors and principal actors by their Twilight Zone credits. The section I found most interesting featured the synopses of the unfilmed Twilight Zone stories, as well as Serling's "lost episodes".
But the real issue I have with this book can be found in its footnotes.
There are 205 of them, and 92 refer to Marc Scott Zicree's Twilight Zone Companion. And if you add the fourteen footnotes referring to Zicree's liner-note commentaries for the Twilight Zone Video Collection, it means that more than half of the source material for ACHOTTTZ was provided, unwittingly, by Zicree.
In the late 1970s, Zicree, then a young screenwriter of little note, took five years to research and write his award-winning book. It contains first-person interviews and extensive utilization of primary source materials from television studio archives and the collection of Serling's widow, Carol. To this day, it is considered to be the bible of Twilight Zone fandom. And it's still available for purchase in bookstores and on-line outlets. Most of the subject matter in ACHOTTTZ is already covered in similar format but in greater detail in Zicree's book. It readily becomes noticeable that Presnell and McGee attempted to satisfy their need for support research by repeatedly relying on Zicree and his sources. (And Zicree included a large share of criticism in The Twilight Zone Companion also, some of which Presnell and McGee seem to go out of their way to contradict, as in their flawed evaluation of the series pilot episode.) That Presnell and McGee quoted the research and opinions of Marc Scott Zicree 106 times makes one question whether their book even needed to be written in the first place.
That said, A Critical History of Television's The Twilight Zone remains an interesting, if only borderline-credible companion piece to Zicree's book. The opinions expressed by the authors are about as valid as any you might hear in a barroom discussion at a fan convention. But not much more than that.
The Twilight Zone won't be going away any time soon. In eight years, it will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary on television. Marc Scott Zicree will probably be instrumental in releasing a spiffed-up edition of The Twilight Zone Companion. Maybe McFarland will follow suit with ACHOTTTZ. But don't count on it. I understand it's already one of the titles listed in their 50% off sale.
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© Randy M Dannenfelser 7 April 2001