29 June 2009

Movie review: Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight

Today on Black Gate, I review a straight-to-video animated fantasy film that has managed to slip most people’s attention. And with very good reason. Even though it’s based on a hugely popular novel series, which is based on the enormously brand-recognizable Dungeons & Dragons franchise, Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight seems to strive for anonymity and achieves it grandly.

By the gods of light, this movie is awful. I even read the novel before to make sure I was playing fair with it. And I still thought it was awful. In fact, Dragonlance fans will probably dislike it even more than the average fantasy fan who stumbles on it.

Read the sordid details here. Warned you have been.

25 June 2009

Twilight Zone: The Big Tall Wish

The following Season One episode of The Twilight Zone deserves attention for two special reasons.
Episode #27: The Big Tall Wish
Directed by Ron Winston. Written by Rod Serling. Starring Ivan Dixon, Steven Perry, Kim Hamilton.

“In this corner of the universe, a prizefighter named Bolie Jackson, one hundred eighty-three pounds and an hour and a half away from a comeback at St. Nick’s Arena. Mr. Bolie Jackson, who, by the standards of his profession is an aging, over-the-hill relic of what was, and who now sees a reflection of a man who has left too many pieces of his youth in too many stadiums for too many years before too many screaming people. Mr. Bolie Jackson, who might do well to look for some gentle magic in the hard-surfaced glass that stares back at him.”

The first reason for turning my attention toward “The Big Tall Wish” is that Jerry Goldsmith fellow did the music. I’m not going to turn down an opportunity to talk about one the best scores written for Zone, and from the composer starting to emerge as one the major forces in film music. The same year that “The Big Tall Wish” premiered on TV was also the year the Goldsmith composed his first great film score, for Studs Lonigan. The harmonica-based score for this Zone episode has much in common with Studs Lonigan’s music, and also looks forward to two other sentimental and intimate Goldsmith scores of the 1960s, The Lilies of the Fields and A Patch of Blue. Goldsmith’s accompaniment here adds an aching beauty to Serling’s words and the top-notch performances.

22 June 2009

Book review: A Fine and Private Place

A Fine and Private Place
Peter S. Beagle (Viking, 1960)

On Black Gate today, I present a review of one of the finest “first novels” ever from a fantasy author. Not only that, but the author was nineteen years old at the time he wrote it. Considering how much awareness A Fine and Private Place shows of death and aging, that’s pretty mind-blasting. Peter S. Beagle had incredible abilities from a young age. He would go on to write one of my favorite of all fantasy novels, The Last Unicorn.

And, thankfully, he’s still around and still writing. And A Fine and Private Place is remains in print, almost fifty years after first publication!

Read the full review here.

20 June 2009

Twilight Zone: Long Live Walter Jameson

I’ve spent time discussing Richard Matheson, and now I turn the spotlight on another one of The Twilight Zone’s great scribes, Charles Beaumont.
Episode #24: Long Live Walter Jameson
Directed by Tony Leader. Written by Charles Beaumont. Starring Kevin McCarthy, Edgar Stehil, Estelle Winwood, Dody Heath.

“You’re looking at Act One, Scene One, of a nightmare, not restricted to witching hours or dark, rainswept nights. Professor Walter Jameson, popular beyond words, who talks of the past as if it were the present, who conjures up the dead as if they were alive.”

Charles Beaumont had already written two episodes for The Twilight Zone before “Long Live Walter Jameson” was broadcast: “Perchance to Dream” and “Elegy”. Good episodes, but neither among the great excursions into the fifth dimension. “Perchance to Dream” was actually the first Zone episode to air with a script from someone other than Rod Serling. Ahead of Beaumont were a number of other classic episodes: “The Howling Man,” “In His Image,” “Printer’s Devil,” “The Jungle,” and the beautiful “The Fugitive.” “Long Live Walter Jameson” is one of Beaumont’s best episodes—and unfortunately ended up reflecting his own life.

The aging Professor Samuel Kittridge—possibly a reference to famous Shakespeare scholar and Harvard Professor George Lyman Kittredge—has been friends with History Professor Walter Jameson for twelve years, and the younger professor is about to marry Kittridge’s attractive daughter Susanna. But Prof. Kittridge wants to get something off his chest regarding his future son-in-law. He’s noticed that Jameson seems to have aged not a single year during the last dozen. His history lectures sound as is he were describing scenes he actually witnessed. And there’s a Civil War photo that bears an uncanny resemblance to a man who claims he’s only forty-four years old.

H. P. Lovecraft is “Under the Pyramids”

I was recently reading a book that had a chapter about the myth of “Mystical Egypt”; that is, the fictional vision of ancient Egypt that European writers and scholars developed during the centuries before the decipherment of hieroglyphics allowed a more realistic view of the time period. But even if Egyptology is far ahead of where it was in the 18th century, the mystical—and often dark fantasy—view of the land of the Pharaohs still has incredible potency in Western culture.

With these thoughts rollicking through my head, I picked up an H. P. Lovecraft short story I hadn’t read since the Old Kingdom: “Under the Pyramids” (currently available in the Penguin Classics anthology The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories). It was one of the first Lovecraft stories I read when I first discovered the author, reading it under its alternate title of “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs.” Written in early 1924, when the author’s stories were starting to find a regular outlet in the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales, “Under the Pyramids” is arguably the best fiction piece that Lovecraft had written up to that time. Appropriately enough, this was the first story of his that really impressed me as a young reader. At the time I first read it, I had yet to experience any of the classic “Mythos” tales—the DelRey collection I owned mostly had early stories, not the best way to get an introduction to HPL—so “Under the Pyramids” came as a minor revelation. Lovecraft pours on a verbose nightmare-scape of ancient horrors in a deluge, showing hints of what was to come in his mature tales.

“Under the Pyramids” wasn’t initially published under Lovecraft’s name. He ghostwrote the story for magician Harry Houdini, who had suggested to Weird Tales a story about an experience he had in Egypt where Arabs tied him up and left him in one of the temples. The story wasn’t true, but that meant Lovecraft, who got the assignment for $100 to craft the the story into something publishable, could do whatever he wanted with the “Egyptian horror” concept. And he did. While moving to New York and getting married, he found time to hash out an intense subterranean journey through the Mystical Myth of the Land of the Nile.

There’s plenty that’s actually wrong with the story, principally the dull tourism around Egypt circa 1910 before the horrors start. Lovecraft depended on travel guidebooks to write this part of the story… and it feels like it. The pseudo-Houdini of the story putters around Cairo and takes in the sights. The ghostwriter drops a few hints of a sinister secret history of Egypt centered around the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh and pyramid-builder Khaf-Ra, which Lovecraft spells “Khephren” in the Hellenistic style. But it still seems to take a full cycle of the Nile before the travelogue ceases and Houdini gets plunged into a Lovecraftian adjective nightmare.

Choosing to watch a fist-fight at night atop the Great Pyramid (seriously!), Houdini ends up ambushed and bound by the Bedouins who wish to see if this magician can really measure up to their local magic. They dump him down a burial shaft, and at this point the story shifts in a dream-state where the narrator no longer feels sure of reality. Lovecraft finds solid ground in the terrors Houdini finds in the impossibly deep chambers beneath the pyramids where he witnesses the terrifying origins of the Egyptian religion.

Europe and America were Egypt-crazed at this time: the finding of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb happened only two years earlier. “Under the Pyramids” is a very heady brew of the Western amazement at Ancient Egypt, as well as its misconceptions of Egypt’s culture. This is a Gothic Egypt that never was, impossibly “other” and ancient beyond anything that a European could understand. Despite its flaws, the story remains quite wonderful both as a stylistic exercise (you do need to have a taste for Lovecraft’s ornamental style, however) and as a cultural footprint showing how the Western world of 1924 saw the Pharoahs and their history. For example, the story mentions Nitokris a few times, murderous queen of the sixth dynasty, as an historical figure connected to the pyramids. Nitokris almost certainly never existed—but she was an important part of the myths gathered around the pyramids.

“Under the Pyraminds” would lead to more Egyptian elements peeking into Lovecraft’s later work, such as his references to “the Black Pharaoh” Nephren-Ka in the 1935 short story “The Haunter of the Dark.” Robert Bloch, future author of Psycho, would make Lovecraft’s view of Egypt specifically his own in some of his early short stories, such as “The Faceless God,” “The Brood of Bubastis,” “The Secret of Sebek,” and “Fane of the Black Pharaoh.” The latter is one of my favorite Bloch stories, and had an influence on my novel The Realm of the Raven.

16 June 2009

Kelly’s Coffee & Fudge & Ouverdue Fees

Today at Black Gate, I ponder some of the changes to North American libraries as they confront an age of digital research. Specifically, I ponder a recent trip to the Beverly Hilly Public library (one of the most beautiful modern public libraries I’ve seen) and the discovery of a commercial coffee shop sitting where the Periodicals Room used to be.

Read more about it here.

15 June 2009

Twilight Zone: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street

Guess who’s due on Maple Street? One of the most acclaimed episodes on The Twilight Zone!
Episode #22: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street
Directed by Ronald Winston. Written by Rod Serling. Starring Claude Akins, Barry Atwater, Jack Weston.

“Maple Street, U.S.A. Late Summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children, and the bell of an ice-cream vendor. At the sound of the roar and a flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 p.m. on Maple Street. . . . This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple Street, in the last calm and reflective moments before the monsters came.”

If I had to select a favorite episode of the first season of The Twilight Zone, I’d pick “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” In fact, I think I just did. If I had to select a favorite episode from the entire run of the show, I couldn’t do it—but “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” would make the short list. It’s Zone in full social-commentary mode, but it strikes the right balance of message with genuine terror, great performances, and solid direction. And the message remains potent today, long after the original inspiration for it has settled into the history books.

10 June 2009

Twilight Zone: The Last Flight

We are now at the halfway point of the first season of The Twilight Zone, and so let’s all put our hands together and give a bit Muppet greeting to—in his first solo writing gig for the show—Mr. Richard Matheson! Yeaaaaaah! (This must be done with a Kermit the Frog voice.)
Episode #18: The Last Flight
Directed by William Claxton. Written by Richard Matheson. Starring Kenneth Haigh, Simon Scott, Alexander Scourby, Robert Warwick, Jack Perkins.

“Witness Flight Lieutenant William Terrance Decker, Royal Flying Corps, returning from a patrol somewhere over France. The year is 1917. The problem is that the Lieutenant is hopelessly lost. Lieutenant Decker will soon discover that a man can be lost not only in terms of maps and miles, but also in time. And time, in this case, can be measured in eternities.”

After Rod Serling, Richard Matheson is the author most associated with The Twilight Zone. Matheson had a tremendous affect on horror, fantasy, and science fiction, and not just from his considerable work on Zone. His stories have appeared on many anthology programs, and Stephen King considers him one of the strongest influences on his own writing. Matheson’s short story “Duel” became Steven Spielberg’s first film. Matheson’s most famous literary work is I Am Legend, perhaps the finest vampire novel ever written, and which has so far appeared on the big screen in three different versions—none of which has gotten the story right. His other popular novels include Hell House (filmed as the excellent The Legend of Hell House), What Dreams May Come (made into a film with Robin Williams), and Bid Time Return (adapted to film as Somewhere in Time).

In other words, Matheson is a pretty important speculative-fiction writer.

09 June 2009

Twilight Zone: The Hitch-Hiker

I believe you’re going my way. Heh-heh, follow me over to one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes.
Episode #16: The Hitch-Hiker
Directed by Alvin Ganzer. Written by Rod Serling from a radio play by Lucille Fletcher. Starring Inger Stevens, Adam Williams, Leonard Strong.

“Her name is Nan Adams. She’s twenty-seven years old. Her occupation: buyer at a New York department store, at present on vacation, driving cross-country to Los Angeles, California, from Manhattan.”

She also gets to do her own voiceover, giving Mr. Serling some competition. Sometimes Nan Adams (Inger Stevens) goes a bit melodramatic with her external thoughts, but that’s the only complaint I can lodge against this, one of the finest Twilight Zone episodes of the first season. It’s certainly one of the scariest in the show’s history.

The “Phantom Hitch-Hiker” urban legend was already well-known when this episode, and the early 1940s radio-play on which Serling based his script, was released (hell, it predates the invention of the automobile) but I think this is the best examination of this peculiar piece of folklore. What makes the show interesting is how it manages to flip roles into a genuine surprise.

Our young Nan Adams, after having a roadside accident in Malibu Pennsylvania near the start of her cross-country trip, starts seeing a strange “gray man” (Leonard Strong) hitch-hiking on the side of the road. Hitch-hiking everywhere. Somehow staying ahead of her. Understandably, Nan begins to change into a paranoid mess which transfers to the audience as she tries to outrun the inevitable nature of this mystery man.

The episode contains almost continual tension, and the moment where Nan gets her car caught on the railroad tracks with a train bearing down on her is the equal of many sequences in Hitchcock films. Speaking of Hitchcock, Nan’s desperate run through empty landscapes (all Malibu, by the way; I’ve driven that road many times) feels similar to Psycho… but this can only be coincidence, as Psycho was days away from the completion of principle photography when “The Hitch-Hiker” was first broadcast on 22 January 1960.

The shock finale is perfect, even if astute viewers may have already guessed it from a few hints dropped along the way. It recalls the less-explicable events in “And When the Sky Was Opened” and the later Final Destination series. An episode filled with fear concludes on a note of peace… maybe not the peace most of us would like, but peace nonetheless.

A bleak coincidence about this episode: beautiful actress Inger Stevens, who co-starred with Clint Eastwood in Hang ‘Em High, died in 1970 from a prescription drug overdose at the tragically young age of thirty-six .

Listen carefully to the voice on the other end of the fatalistic phone call: It’s Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty and Madame Leota from the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland! (a.k.a. voice-actress Eleanor Audley.)

Seventh Sanctum and Randomness

Normally, I get verbose on my posts over at Black Gate. But I’ve had a busy week, the crunch comes down on the last day, and I don’t have time for a long amble through my usual obscura. Today’s entry is short enough that I’m going to just cross-post the whole ding-dang thing here as well: a dash through with a link to one of my favorite “writing experiment” sites.

Seventh Sanctum is a website of randomness. It contains an array of “generators” that can create instant character names, evil organizations, magic weapons, and super-powers. The bulk of the site consists of anime- and RPG-slanted generators, most of which were coded as a “lark,” in the words of the site’s creator. “Roll up a bunch of results. Use them. Make a ton of money. Or use them in a fanfic or an RPG.”

However, I’ve gotten a lot of writing practice ideas from the category of generators under the heading “Writing.” A general heading that covers a number of great randomizers that can hatch up story settings, themes, and “what-if” scenarios. For example, today on Writing Challenges (my favorite of the generators), I pulled out this confluences of different elements for a strange tale: “The story ends during a war. During the story, an organization begins recruiting. The story must have a lost soul in it. The story must involve some oil at the end.” That was enough to keep me scribbling in my composition notebook for at least an hour; and even if I develop a story that doesn’t contain any of those elements, battering the ideas about always develops something of interest I can use later. One of my favorite short stories I wrote in the last year emerged from using Seventh Sanctum’s What-if-Inator. The finished work had almost nothing to do with the original “what-if” from the site, but I probably wouldn’t have started the journey without the push.

Any writer could get a few decent exercises from Seventh Sanctum—maybe even a the start of something more serious—and you can always waste some time with the Humorous Fantasy Classes generator. (I like the “Stripper-Lancer” and “Valkyrie Salesman.” Both might work in a Risus campaign.)

Cross-posted at Black Gate.

Twilight Zone: The Four of Us Are Dying

Today’s Twilight Zone episode is brought to you by the Greater Jerry Goldsmith Appreciation Society.
Episode #13: The Four of Us Are Dying
Directed by John Brahm. Written by Rod Serling from a story by George Clayton Johnson. Starring Harry Townes, Phillip Pine, Don Gordon, Ross Martin, Beverly Garland.

“His name is Arch Hammer. He’s thirty-six years old. He’s been a salesman, a dispatcher, a truck driver, a con man, a bookie, and a part-time bartender. This is a cheap man, a nickle-and-dime man, with a cheapness that goes past the suit and the shirt; a cheapness of mind, a cheapness of taste, a tawdry little shine on the seat of his conscience, and a dark-room squint at a world whose sunlight has never gotten through to him. But Mr. Hammer has a talent, discovered at a very early age. This much he does have: he can make his face change; he can twitch a muscle, move a jaw, concentrate on the cast of his eyes, and he can change his face. He can change it into anything he wants. Mr. Archie Hammer, jack-of-all-trades, has checked in at $3.80 a night, with two bags, some newspaper clippinngs, a most odd talent, and a master plan to destroy some lives.”

Rod neatly sums up the basis for this episode, so I’ll get right to my point: Jerry Goldsmith.

05 June 2009

Twilight Zone: And When the Sky Was Opened

Amnesia strikes The Twilight Zone for third time in the first season, and the second time in a row! And the name “Richard Matheson” makes its first appearance in the credits.
Episode #11: And When the Sky Was Opened
Directed by Douglas Heyes. Written by Rod Serling from a short story by Richard Matheson. Starring Rod Taylor, Charles Aidman, Jim Hutton.

“Her name: X-20. Her type: an experimental interceptor. Recent history: a crash landing in the Mojave Desert after a thirty-one hour flight nine hundred miles into space. Incidental data: the ship, with the men who flew her, disappeared from the radar screen for twenty-four hours.”

Selective amnesia presents a serious problem in The Twilight Zone, such as in the previous episode, “Judgment Night.” In this installment of “Amnesia Theater,” it appears to Col. Clegg Forbes (Taylor) that the rest of the world has picked up collective forgetfulness. It’s the sort of blanket-amnesia that appears in Cornell Woolrich’s classic novel Phantom Lady: one man convinced of the existence of a person who everyone else claims is just a figment of his imagination.

In Woolrich’s case, he had to come up with a rational explanation for the “Phantom Lady” (and had to do back-flips for twenty pages to make it sound convincing). But Serling, working loosely from Matheson’s 1953 story “Disappearing Act,” doesn’t need any sort of common-sense explanation for why Forbes is the only man who remembers that there was a third pilot, Col. Ed Harrington (Charles Aidman), on their space flight. Forbes recalls Harrington vanishing in a bar, after the man mentioned that he had a bizarre feeling that he’s not supposed to be there at all. Not only does no one else recall a Col. Harrington, including the third pilot, Maj. William Gart (Jim Hutton), but all physical evidence of the colonel has vanished, with newspaper headlines changing and Harrington’s smashed beer glass cleaning itself up.

Forbes starts to think he’s cracking up, and Rod Taylor goes too far to the mat with his performance—probably the weakest element of the episode. I got tired of hearing Taylor screaming “HARRRINGTON!” repeatedly.

Spoilers: “And When the Sky Was Opened” doesn’t provide a reason for the disappearances—and eventually all three pilots and their craft vanish out of reality and memory—but this remaining mystery is what makes the episode memorable. One possible explanation is that none of the men were supposed to survive the crash of the X-20, and the timeline is correcting itself. However, since the X-20 also vanishes, this explanation doesn’t make sense. If they were supposed to die in the crash, then they should turn into dead bodies and people should remember them, but claim that they never survived the crash, despite what Forbes recalls. The “wiped from memory and collaborative evidence erased” doesn’t match with them dying in a failed landing. This explanation also doesn’t take into account the mystery twenty-four hours when the X-20 went off the radar. What happened then? Something made the mistake of letting these men go, and has started to fix its mistake, as in the 2004 movie The Forgotten (which has many striking similarities to this episode, now that I think of it). So what is this something? I have no idea. But it’s enjoyable to wonder about it, and therefore I’m willing to give this episode the benefit of the doubt despite repeated sweaty screams of “HARRRRRINGTON!”

Trivia: Actor Charles Aidman would later star in a classic Twilight Zone episode, “Little Girl Lost.” But his great legacy in Zone history is as Rod Serling’s replacement as narrator in the mid-1980s revival of the show. The older Aidman’s voice sounds freakishly like Serling’s.

03 June 2009

TV Batman’s perpetual DVD delay

I like to provide an occasional update on the ongoing saga of whether we will see a DVD release of the classic 1960s Batman television show any time in the near future.

It looked like there was some hope back in the early months of this year, due to the combat between Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox over the rights to the Watchmen film. Some speculation had bounced around the corridors of cyberspace that Fox was using the Batman rights (the company owns the broadcast rights to the show, but not the character) as part of the bargaining.

Well maybe. And maybe not. In the wake of the Watchmen war—which Fox eventually won—it seems that ‘60s Batman was not an integral part of the package, and we still stand a long way from getting to the digital Batcave.

Even if Fox gains the DVD rights, or gives (I mean, sells) the broadcast rights to Warner Bros., numerous other legal issues trammel a release. There are clearance issues for some of the guest-appearances in the show of other copyrighted characters—such as folks from Hogan’s Heroes and The Green Hornet. The rights to the show’s Batmobile may belong to George Barris, the designer. There also is some sort of three-way disagreement between the show’s original production company, ABC, and Fox—and all this may need resolving before we even get to the Fox/WB fracas.

A similar legal nightmare, this one involving music rights, has held up season releases of another popular show with high DVD demand: The Wonder Years. I care not a fig for that show, but it bears watching its legal struggle to get to disc to see how this will reflect on the constant Bat-fight to get what is perhaps the most anticipated TV show DVD release in history…

At the nearest, I think we still have two years before seeing a Bat-DVD collection. At the outside, perhaps we never will… and everybody will lose.

To everyone involved in this situation: Burgess Meredith deserves better from you!

02 June 2009

Movie review: The People That Time Forgot

Some months back, I reviewed the novel The Land That Time Forgot for Black Gate. I followed up with a review of the film version (or at least a version of the first third of the novel).

Your time of waiting for a review of the sequel film, The People That Time Forgot, has at last come to an end, as today I offer you my take on the 1977 film from Amicus productions, starring Patrick Wayne (son of John) and the delectable Sarah Douglas (Ursa from Superman and Superman II). Enjoy it with your favorite rubber dinosaurs—although there are far fewer in this installment than in the 1975 one. And no Nazi submarines, sorry to say.

Read the full review here.

I still have to tackle Amicus’s other Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation, 1976’s At the Earth’s Core. Be assured, it will arrive one day.

And it would be nice if the fourth of producer John Dark’s science-fantasy movies, the “Edgar Rich Burroughs in Spirit” film Warlords of Atlantis.

01 June 2009

Twilight Zone: Time Enough at Last

Submitted for your approval: arguably the most famous episode of The Twilight Zone. If you only remember a single episode of the show, or are asked to name one off the top of your head, it’s this one.
Episode #8: Time Enough at Last
Directed by John Brahm. Written by Rod Serling from a short story by Lyn Venable. Starring Burgess Meredith.

“Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself, without anyone.”

Eight episodes in and we’ve arrived at the show’s most famous half-hour. Amazing that Serling and company managed to keep the quality so high over another four and three-quarters seasons!

This is “the one with the nuclear holocaust and the prescription glasses.” Burgess Meredith plays Mr. Henry Bemis, a anti-social little fellow with eyeglasses the thickness of a submarine hull who only wants the time to read. His obnoxious wife won’t let him read at home (even going so far as to scribble across every single page of his book of poetry—is this woman OCD?) and when he tries to sneak reading time in at his dreary job at the bank, his boss threatens to fire him.

For the first half of the episode, the action plays like a depressing sitcom: funny from overstatement, but pathetic. Then Rod Serling waves the Twilight Zone magic wand, and a hydrogen bomb wipes out the entire world in only moments. But Mr. Bemis was reading in the bank vault and survives.

There’s a line in a sketch segment of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that confronts the “upside” of the End of the World: “Factor out the unfathomable human loss, and a fellow could really get a lot done.” That observation is a sly reference to this episode (and the sketch ends with a direct reference to it); what if the world ended, and it benefited you? That’s the situation in which Henry Bemis finds himself when he emerges into the post-apocalyptic wasteland. As he wanders the wreckage—well executed on a TV budget, although the inconsistency of what was destroyed and what wasn’t is head-scratching—he feels the depression we might expect if were the last person on earth. But suddenly . . . the Public Library! And mounds of books survived! (Why? I don’t know. I don’t care.) Bemis now at last has the only thing he ever wanted: all the time in the world to read, read, read.

Then the Universe Plays a Cruel Trick.

We could argue the message of the episode, since it seems to throw so many possible ones out there for our consideration. “Be careful what you wish for.” “Try to relate to people in your life more.” “Our culture is losing touch with the printed page.” “Nuclear war is bad.” And, of course, “Buy an extra pair of glasses, idiot.”

But what makes the episode work is the primal emotional punch to the gut it applies. Is Bemis’s fate a humorous tragedy or a plain tragic tragedy? Does it really matter? The weight of the loneliness of one man deprived of the only thing he ever wanted because of a simple slip, and left adrift in forever, is devastating. The strange “magic” of how the story came about—which doesn’t make the least bit of sense if examined—serves only to deliver a tale of the defeat of a simple human desire.

Although there’s a great script and fine technical work here, it’s Burgess Meredith who truly makes this episode one of the masterpieces of dramatic TV. Meredith had a long career in movies and television, and in everything he did he brought an indefinable spark. He could play comedy, villainy, heavy drama—his versatility is astonishing. Just look at his three most famous roles: the Penguin in Batman, Mick in Rocky, and Mr. Bemis here. Bemis is an excellent example of Meredith playing comedy and tragedy at once. His performance is a marvel, from his nebbish goofiness, to his fits of futile anger, to his moment of near suicide, to his joy at discovering himself surrounded by books, to his final cry of “It’s not fair!”

I have a personal connection to Burgess Meredith. He was the first actor whose name I knew as a child, from a combination of Batman, Rocky, and Clash of the Titans. And I got to meet him in person, about eighteen months before his death in 1997. I was working in a video store during the summer of my last year in college. During one nondescript afternoon shift, one of the other clerks dashed up to me and said, “Hey, Burgess Meredith is in the store!” I looked and quickly located him: a bent, short old man in blue sweats walking around with two young women, whom I learned were his granddaughters.

And, my lucky day, he walked up to my station to check out his videos. He reached up and deposited them on the counter, saying in that distinctive gravely (but wavering and low) voice, “I’d like to rent these, please.” I checked his videos out with shaky hands; I really wanted to say something to him, but what?

He started to walk out of the store with his granddaughters, and had to walk right beside the open section of my station. I had to do something. I reached down and tapped him on the shoulder. “Excuse me, sir—”

One of his granddaughters looked at him and said, “Granddad, that man would like to say something to you.” He turned around and looked up at me—I swear I could see those coke-bottle glasses from this episode—and I finally had to blurt out something.

“Sir, I just want to tell you that I grew up watching your work. Twilight Zone and Rocky and Batman.”

He paused for a moment, thinking. (He was dying from Alzheimer’s.) Then he said, slowly, as a smile crossed his face: “Ah yes . . . Batman! Thank you, young man.” And he patted my arm and walked out of the store.

I’ve met quite a few famous people in my life—I live in West L.A. and have worked in the film business—but that was the most incredible celebrity encounter of my life. Just a short moment, but I’ll never forget it. I met Burgess Meredith.

Uhm, so what was I talking about? Oh yeah, “Time Enough at Last.” Is it the best episode of the show? “No,” I would argue. There are a few I could name that I prefer. But the episode’s power is undeniable, and it speaks to people fifty years later without any lessening of that power. And Burgess Meredith left us with one of the most indelible performances in TV history.

“The best laid plans of mice and men and Henry Bemis, the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis in the Twilight Zone.”