Richard Matheson's The Twilight Zone Scripts, Volume One
edited by Stanley Wiater
(Edge, $16.95, 391 pages, paperback; 2001.)
I've long held that television scripts are to novelettes and short stories as rock lyrics are to poetry -- that is to say, they're not. Neither is written for a reader's eye; rather, they are created expressly for performance, for presentation to an audience, to be acted or sung. And, therefore, to be interpreted and enriched by intervening artists such as actors and directors, singers and musicians, among many others. So it is that scriptwriting, with all due apologies to the ghost of a certain Mr Shakespeare, is only one segment of a highly collaborative artform.
Having said that, I must admit I enjoyed reading Edge Books's Richard Matheson's The Twilight Zone Scripts Volume One, edited by Stanley Wiater.
You might think I'm contradicting myself, but I'm not. If you happen to find a shovel with an unusually sharp edge to its scoop, then go ahead and hack down a tree or two with it, if that suits your fancy. If you find a script that reads particularly well, then go ahead and enjoy it.
And I'm here to report that each and every script in this collection is an enjoyable read.
They are the first eight of Matheson's fourteen TZ teleplays, presented here in chronological order. (One assumes that, because two of his later scripts were written for the hour-long incarnation of the show -- and, as such, are twice as long as the others -- Matheson's next volume of six will be in balance with this one.) First up is The Last Flight, the eerie story of a World War One fighter pilot who, in an act of cowardice, abandons a comrade under attack; and, in doing so, inadvertently flies through a time portal and lands in a modern-day US air base in France. It is followed by A World of Difference, in which we witness businessman Arthur Curtis's discovery that his life to this point has only been a role he's playing in a movie. Then comes A World of His Own, the wry tale of a screenwriter who can create real, live characters simply by describing them on a sheet of paper in his typewriter. (Remember typewriters?) Next is Nick of Time, a commentary about the destructiveness of superstition; and four others.
After The Last Flight, Matheson seemed to become preoccupied with man's control over his own life. In A World of Difference the main character appears to have lost control due to unexplainable outside forces, whereas the ultimate villain is revealed to be his own mind. In A World of His Own we meet a screenwriter already in absolute control over his life, with pleasure and serenity the product of his own imagination. (A writer's fantasy? You bet!) And in Nick of Time a newly married corporate tiger on the fast track has given up control to a fortune-telling machine, only to snatch it back in the end with lots of help from his new bride.
That Richard Matheson is one of our most gifted fantasy writers is a given. His I Am Legend, Hell House and The Shrinking Man (from which he adapted the screenplay for the award-winning motion picture The Incredible Shrinking Man) are revered classics among horror and science-fiction readers. It is wonderful to discover that his scripts engage with nearly the same intensity as do his novels and short stories. The secret is in his stage directions. They are detailed with succinctly illuminating descriptions of gestures, expressions and implied motivations. From The Last Flight:
As Decker and Wilson approach, a WAAF stops dead in her tracks to gape. They bypass her, Decker smiling nervously at her, Wilson frowning as he shoves open the door for the Britisher.
The responses of the three unique characters to each other are expressed in a tight thirty-three words, clearly satisfying the reader as well as the television professional. Since its function is to satisfy only the latter, Matheson's script rises above its objective to take on the duality of a captivating short story in addition to a usable blueprint for a fast-paced, half-hour drama.
Perhaps the book's most intriguing entry is The Invaders, the tale of a hag recluse "visited" by miniature "aliens" who ultimately reveal themselves to be an American space expeditionary force. What makes this script so interesting is that it has no dialogue, save for a few lines spoken at the very end by the astronaut leader. The voiceover prologue and epilogue are the only other spoken lines in the drama. The rest consists solely of stage and acting directions and information, including the hag's thoughts and, indirectly, her motivations. Strangely, because dialogue has been replaced by an abundance of technical instruction, the story's continuity is repeatedly interrupted. The irony here is that the story with the least amount of dialogue reads most like a script.
Rod Serling wrote the vast majority of the scripts for The Twilight Zone, the first television series he created. We learn in editor Stanley Wiater's prologue interview with Matheson that, although Serling used the show as a sounding board for social commentary, Matheson felt no such constraint:
Rod was very deep into that, and said so in his public commentary ... I don't think I wrote any episodes that had any kind of social commentary in them ... Chuck [Beaumont, Matheson's friend and fellow TZ scriptwriter] and I were the entertainment gadflies. The story was what mattered.
Also from the prologue, Matheson reveals his formula for success in writing for The Twilight Zone:
For one thing ... I wrote stories that tried to grab the reader immediately. Which fit into the Twilight Zone pattern of having that little teaser at the beginning. Our stories usually had a surprise ending. If not, they had an ironic ending that was still completely appropriate for Twilight Zone.
The epilogue contains Matheson's complaints about the treatment of his only contribution to The Twilight Zone series revival of the eighties, an adaptation of his short story "Button, Button". ("I thought they did an abominable job [with it].") Also, how The Doll, his unused script for the original TZ, became an episode of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories television anthology. ("It turned out great! My recollection is that John Lithgow won an Emmy for his role.")
And this leads me to my only complaint about the book. There isn't enough prologue and epilogue in it. Barely over four pages of the former and only three of the latter. We are teased in Matheson's acknowledgment with, "I want to thank my interviewer Stanley Wiater..." and further tantalized in the Editor's Bio with: "[Wiater] has interviewed more horror and dark suspense authors and filmmakers than any other contemporary writer." Well, he should have included more of his Matheson interview in this book. Granted, there's a page and a half introduction to each of the eight scripts, with author recollections that are insightful as well as instructive. But a total of less than twenty pages of interview material seems sadly inadequate for a book of Matheson's scripts.
What it does, though, is whet my appetite for the next one. According to the back cover of Volume 1, Volume 2 is due out in May 2002. I look forward to digging into more of Matheson's scripts, but, just as much, his thoughts and memories about them. And his philosophy on script writing, such as: "I've always had this problem -- I don't know if it's only a problem of mine -- but when I write a script, I see it precisely in my head."
And that is why Richard Matheson's scripts read so well. He visualizes his stories in the mind of a creative artist and then puts them to paper with the blended skills of an award-winning novelist and screenwriter. The result is a script that reads like a story, rather than a set of stage directions with dialogue. And that's why readers of fantasy stories, as well as fans of The Twilight Zone television series, will enjoy this book.
My personal beliefs about the purpose of television scripts be damned!
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© Randy M Dannenfelser 21 July 2001