Headroom

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Finished off disc 3 of Season 3 of The Twilight Zone — as good a place to start as any — with the legendary To Serve Man. Which is not as smart a piece of science fiction as ARRIVAL, I’d say. Just the question of translation is not as well handled. The earthlings have been working on alien Richard Kiel’s space book for some time, but all they’ve managed to translated is the title, To Serve Man. One would think that the word “to” might turn up somewhere in the body of the text as well as in the title, and that might help…

If you start describing the story to a modern human who hasn’t heard it or seen the Simpsons parody of it, at a certain point they will say “It’s a cook book, isn’t it?” and this certain point will occur long before you get to that revelation. Which I don’t mind: it just gives you an insight into a more innocent time.

Despite having smart SF scribe Damon Knight as its original author, the episode has a number of “innocent” moments. “What time is it?” demands the UFO abductee, only to be told that time is a meaningless concept in outer space. “What time is it ON EARTH?” he insists, oblivious to the fact that his question is stupid. It’s not one time on Earth. It’s not even one time in the USA. Nevertheless, the giant Richard Kiel alien says “It’s noon.” Maybe he’s just humouring the jerk.

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What was most striking was the fact that poor alien Richard Kiel has to stoop to come through the door — on his own spaceship! Wouldn’t it be built with him in mind. I can imagine poor Richard’s expression on viewing the set: even when they build a set just for my character, they don’t put in enough clearance.

Alien Richard Kiel has a big bulbous bald head, like many space aliens before and since, but what’s especially good about it is it looks like he’s wearing a chef’s hat inside his scalp. Combining astronomy and gastronomy.

The door thing made me think of MOONRAKER, where Richard Kiel as Jaws never seems to hit his head on any doorways, despite the fact that it’s NOT his spaceship and you’d think they’d want to keep costs down by ignoring the slender possibility of one of their passengers being seven feet tall. The spaceship makers could have saved a fortune and the filmmakers could have gotten quite a lot of value out of Big Richard banging his forehead on every door frame in the joint. I mean, it’s not like such business would be beneath the dignity of a late-period Roger Moore Bond film…

It also made me think of KING KONG, which has the opposite problem. The natives have built a wall, a great big beautiful Donald Trump wall, to keep Kong on his side of Skull Island (how old is Kong anyway?) The trouble is, in a fit of political correctness they have thoughtfully built into their wall a Kong-sized door, despite the fact that the one thing one guesses they would not want to happen is —

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Oh well…

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9 Responses to “Headroom”

  1. I am a huge TZ fan. I grew up watching it in syndication and credit (blame?) it in part for my left of centre politics, and way off centre view of humanity. I never did consider To Serve Man one of the greats even if its shocking twist has entered pop culture. I, too, found the “time on earth” thing amazingly hokey. I suppose it would have ruined the ending if Richard said “lunch time.”

    Of course, the low door is because TZ used the flying saucer from Forbidden Planet in every episode that featured aliens or space-faring humans.

  2. chris schneider Says:

    Funny, I was just watching this last night.

    I think it’s a mistake to think of “To Serve Man” apart from the episode’s Cold War context. For me, that’s the point of the stuff with the United Nations and the ambassadors. Should we believe in benign gifts selflessly given? No, this would seem to imply.

    Btw, I like the idea of Kiel telepathically “speaking” with the voice of Paul Frees. All space aliens sound like Paul Frees. It’s one of the rules.

  3. I’ve started watching these from episode 1. Your Bad Luck Blacky piece reminded me just how many of the opening episodes feature – basically – a deal with the devil: 3 out of 6 thus far.
    Then out of the blue Jean Marsh appears as a sexbot.

  4. As I believe I’ve mentioned here previously, Lloyd Bochner (who is the star of “To Serve Man’ — not Kiel) told me that of all the things he did in his long career, this “Twilight Zone” episode is the one people remembered and asked him about the most.

  5. Bochner is good in it — if the script didn’t make his character so dumb, he could have impressed even more.

    Since “cannibalism” was a stronger taboo then (banned under the Code) a story that used an SF premise to get around the censor would’ve had quite a punch back in the day, I imagine.

    The Cold War reading makes sense — as with so many 50s/60s scifi things.

    UFO exterior = stock shots from Earth Vs The Flying Saucers. Didn’t take long got that one to get pilfered. And the inside is a standing set from Forbidden Planet? That’s perfect!

  6. A small irony about “Forbidden Planet” doors being wrong for Kiel: In the movie, the scientist points out that the big, oddly-shaped doors of the abandoned city suggest the residents’ shape.

    Robby the Robot also turned up on TZ — but his head is replaced by what looks like a bucket, which suggests some hasty improvisation on the set.

  7. I like how the Forbidden Planet monster is basically Butch the bulldog from Tom & Jerry. Poor Robbie! His head did look kind of fragile. Probably somebody dropped it. “Quick! What can we use instead?”

  8. Robbie did turn up with original head intact on “Lost in Space”, doing “All About Eve” against the show’s resident robot. He also had a walk-on in a science fiction sketch on “The Red Skelton Show”. I wonder if MGM trademarked or copyrighted his design, or simply viewed the costume as a prop to be reused, rented or sold (Some of Willis O’Brien’s “spider pit” monsters for Kong turned up as random set dressing in a few RKO films).

  9. MGM certainly thought everything from Forbidden Planet was theirs to recycle, which displeased the composers who heard their electronic sounds repeatedly scavenged. And the costumes were reused ad infinitum in other, cheaper films.

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