Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Power Rankings!: Twilight Zone Episodes Featuring Star Trek Actors

I believe I've made it pretty clear over the years that I am a huge"Twilight Zone" fan. Aside from the writing, acting, filmmaking, etc. one of the great supplemental joys of watching the show is all the interesting guest stars you get to see. Since the show was a strict anthology series with every episode featuring a completely different story and set of characters, the large list of actors who found themselves in the zone range from young future icons (Robert Redford, Carol Burnett, Burt Reynolds), old Hollywood stars (Buster Keaton, Joseph Schildkraut), BURGESS MOTHER FUCKING MEREDITH, and every quality contemporary character actor in-between.

Of the varied group of actors to have appeared on the show I've always found it interesting to see future main cast members of another highly influential 1960's science fiction series, "Star Trek", finding themselves crossing over into the Twilight Zone. While Shatner's two appearances on the show are by far the most well known, future Enterprise crew members Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, and James Doohan have been part of some (mostly) choice episodes. How would I rank all five of these episodes based on my personal opinion as a fan?

Well, I'm glad you asked:

5. "A Quality of Mercy"
I said that not all the Star Trek cast featuring episodes would be home runs and this is one is the unfortunate odd man out. The story takes place during the waining days of World War II in the Pacific where a platoon of war weary American soldiers are laying siege to a cave of starved Japanese soldiers. The hawkish, newly promoted, asshole Lieutenant (played by Dean Stockwell) wants to show no mercy to the enemy and orders a full assault on the cave much to the anger of the platoon. Before the assault is carried out, the Lieutenant suddenly finds himself as a Japanese soldier in 1942 in an exact reverse of the previous situation (OMG!), laying siege to a cave of starving Americans, which gives him a new perspective.

The whole thing comes off about as simplistic and preachy as it sounds. The performances and production are still pretty good (although the "Japanese" makeup job on Stockwell is pretty flimsy) but there are no real surprises here. As for Leonard Nimoy, he's in it for like 30 seconds as one of the American soldiers and has about one line of dialog; also quite weak. Additionally, aside from being an average episode at best, it's also indirectly responsible for the deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors since they were killed filming a remake of the episode for the ill-fated "Twilight Zone: The Movie" in 1983.

4. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"
I already gave my two cents on this classic "Twilight Zone" episode in a blog post few years ago.
"What more can I say about this episode that most already don't know. If you somehow have no idea what this episode is about, by all means watch it before someone ruins the entire story for you. A sharp looking William Shatner plays the mentally fragile airplane passenger desperately trying to stop a mysterious monster from downing the plane while struggling to find someone who believes him. This episode might be better known to you many as that Simpson's Treehouse of Horror segment "Terror at 5 1/2 Feet". While it has lost some of its power, the tense, claustrophobic directing of a young Richard Donner and Shatner's going mental performance still make it a keeper."
The Shat may have plenty of criticisms about his idiosyncratic acting style, but he is one of the all time masters of playing crazy.

3. "Valley of the Shadow"
I have also visited the "Valley of the Shadow" in a previous post.
"A young man accidentally stumbles across a town where its inhabitants possess scientific knowledge that is light years headed of our own time. This is one of the few hour long Twilight Zone episodes I like. This is not a real famous episode or anything and the main plot itself is fairly flat, but I just dug the soliloquies the town leaders give about how screwed up modern civilization is. The Twilight Zone was always good at waving its finger at modern times, in an entertaining way."
I didn't bother to mention James Doohan's role in the episode back then because well, I didn't even notice him. He plays some random guy in the town that does some exposition and we never see again. I probably watched this episode three or four times before I even noticed that he was in it. As a fan of mainly the "Star Trek" movies, I've grown up with lovable fat, white haired, mustachioed Scotty as opposed to the younger version.

2. "The Encounter"
The setup of the "The Encounter" involves a bigoted World War II veteran and a young assimilated Japanese-American hired to help him clean his attic finding themselves trapped there by some mysterious force. Forced together in this tense, hot, cramped space surrounded by the veteran's old WWII items (including a samurai sword that he took from a dead solider) the two start to go crazy, not unlike that Simpsons episode where Homer and Mr. Burns got stuck in a mountain cabin, leading to a pretty shocking conclusion.

It would ostensibly appear by the premise that the episode would touch upon similar themes of compassion and empathy as "A Quality of Mercy", but it really gets more interesting and complicated then that. The theme of the episode is really an exploration of guilt and the inability to escape the ghosts of the past, figuratively and (since this is the "Twilight Zone") somewhat literally, with both sides coming off as never completely being good or bad. It's a really well made bottle episode carried by the excellent, increasingly sweaty performances of George Takei and Neville Brand (who was a real life war hero). I can't imagine there were too many opportunities for an Asian actor to have such a featured role on a major prime time program in 1964. In an unfortunately note, it is almost impossible to find this episode rerun on syndication since it has received complaints in the past about the racial epithets and characterizations in the story (sort of like how it's difficult to catch the infamous "Puerto Rican Day" episode of "Seinfeld")

1. "Nick of Time"
"Nick of Time" has slowly grown on my over the years to become one of my all time top 10 episodes. One of the things I like about it, is it's a well known episode but isn't doesn't have quite have the level of fame (and number of parodies) as episodes like "Time Enough At Last" or "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", which kind of makes it feel more "mine" like an great album track from your favorite band. If you don't know, the story is a simple one about a young couple on their honeymoon who stop at a random town dinner while their car is being fixed. The husband eventually discovers that the novelty fortune telling machine at their table can magically answer all their questions (in yes or no, maybe later, 8 ball form). However he becomes obsessed with the machine's ability and finds himself unable to leave the dinner and continue his life without its guidance.

As someone who is always anxious about the future, this show really does hit close to home. It is a timeless, life affirming, message of living for today and not being paralyzed by the future told in the Zone's uniquely dark manner. It also has one of the more surprisingly satisfying and positive (well, sort of positive) endings of the series. As for Shatner, it is similar to his other performance as he is an anxious man that's gradually being driven mad, but this is a more subtle and subdued type of madness for him. I also have to give props to the "mystic seer" machine itself which was a really well designed prop piece and gave off a creeping malevolence that made the story work (and is available as a replica bobblehead on Amazon if anyone is looking for a present for my birthday this weekend).

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