RAMBLIN’ ROWS (OF TEXT) and ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY

Figure 1 – Aurora Nominee Pin

I’m pleased and humbled to announce that this column was again nominated for a Canadian Aurora Award. Anyone who is a Canadian citizen living anywhere in the world, or anyone who lives in Canada, can vote for the Auroras, although voting doesn’t begin until July 15 and ends September 2nd of this year. You have to join the Canadian SF & Fantasy Ass’n (CSFFA), which costs $10 Canadian for a year’s membership (January through December). As voting gets closer, I will be reminding people to join and/or vote. I hope that doesn’t bother those who can’t join or vote. Voting in the Auroras is by what they used to call the Australian vote, where you indicate your preference by giving the nominees a “1” or “2” or whatever. I would be very happy if “third time’s the charm,” y’know! (Just sayin’, as they say.)

Figure 2 – Balticon sign Photo ©2002 by Ernest Lilly

Balticon 51 took place on the weekend of May 26-29; I’m sorry I wasn’t there, as it sounds like it was a good one. However, as reported on the Heinlein Forum (thanks to Will Hamilton and Nancy Liebovitz for sharing) on Facebook, there was a panel called “Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov: Are the Big Three still Relevant?” with Betsey Wilcox, John Tilden, and Herb Gilliland. From the same group: “Near the end of the panel a woman identified herself as a librarian and said that young people were telling her they have trouble reading these because of the language. She said she couldn’t understand what they meant, and most of us agreed with her, with the exception of some idioms that aren’t currently in wide use. Then every person in the room under 30 pretty much spoke at once and said that the language in books from this era is rough for them. I don’t notice it, but apparently it’s a thing…. So one of the reasons young people aren’t reading the classics is because the language is a barrier for them. I’d love to get details from them and do a panel just on this.”

If this is true, it’s a crying shame; Heinlein’s “juveniles” (YA in today’s parlance) were an introduction to SF for thousands of young people. Does this mean we need more education for the young’uns, or that the present educational system is failing them? It’s definitely something we need to think about…

What can we do about it? I am reminded of a Facebook post I received this week from someone whose name wasn’t familiar to me, telling me that what he read of my last column was quite interesting and that he’d learned the names of two authors to look for (Matthew Hughes and “Mark Phillips”); but he said he didn’t read the whole column (I assume he means straight through). He has, he said, ADHD, and like Mozart’s symphonies, there were just “too many words.” (There’s a Facebook phrase for that; when you see a very long—for FB, “long” is here defined as “anything over a paragraph”—post that you’d like to comment on, but don’t want to spend time on, you just pop in a “TLDR” and you’re all set. What’s TLDR, you ask? “Too Long, Didn’t Read.” I responded that as long as he got something out of it, I guessed my job was done; jumping around is yet another way to read. I do worry, though, that we’re not doing a very good job of promoting the written word. Will the tweet be the preferred length of the future, with Shakespeare reduced to a series of 127-character tweets; as one person on the Heinlein Forum saying “2B or nt 2B?”

Figure 3 – Night Gallery

Speaking of relevant, how many of you have read Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday? There is a bit in the latter part of the book, where Friday complains that her boss (whom we know as “Kettle Belly” Baldwin) is trying to turn her into “The World’s Foremost Authority” on everything—and then digresses about the late “Professor” Irwin Corey, a comedian who was billed as just that—by giving her unlimited access to every knowledge database in her world’s version of the internet. She was asked to research some silly datum about the effect of women’s hemlines in France on the world price of gold (for example), and doing so led her so far afield that she ended up having to learn economic theory and so on and so on.

In 1983, when the book was published, that was a pipe dream. Most people didn’t have personal computers (though they were beginning to appear everywhere), and I can say from personal experience that a 25-megabyte hard drive “Hard Card” to add to an IBM PC cost about $2000 US, so the idea of being able to follow your ideas on the computer to wherever they might lead was brilliant but unobtainable. Not so today; terabyte-sized hard drives are under $100 Canadian, and with a fast internet connection, there is very little one cannot research to within an inch of its life. (Amazing, isn’t it? That was only 34 years ago!) And the reason I bring this up is that I was idly breezing through the IMDB episode guide for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (Figure 3), when I came upon a listing for an episode I don’t remember seeing before, but I really, really wanted to see. (It was a long chain of events that led me to the IMDB—if you’re not familiar with the Internet Movie Database, and you like movies or TV, you should become so—listing for that show; too long to detail here, and probably TLDR for you!)

Figure 4 – Silent Snow excerpt by Tom Wright

But the point I’m trying to make is that I found a dramatization of Conrad Aiken’s classic story, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” on Night Gallery, and it surprised me. You see, despite my respect for Rod Serling as both writer and producer, I was never terribly fond of Night Gallery. It was, to my mind, a “poor cousin” of The Twilight Zone which, despite being over fifty years old now, remains a high-water mark for television science fiction and fantasy. Yes, some of the sets and costumes—and even ideas—are terribly dated by today’s standards. But Serling managed to convince TV executives to show, and audiences to watch, science fiction and fantasy as serious subjects worthy of rumination and discussion, rather than just “that crazy Buck Rogers stuff,” good only for kids and viewers of Captain Video and other made-for-kids TV fare. (I’m not going to get into a discussion of whether Captain Video is a worthwhile thing for adults to watch; I’m sure it, like Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, has its adherents.) For five years Serling hosted this groundbreaking series, and wrote many of the episodes himself; that’s not to say they were all great SF or great TV, but many of them were memorable.

So when Night Gallery was announced, I waited for it with bated breath; but alas! it was disappointing—many of the stories were trite, badly written and, frankly, not up to what many of us considered “Serling Standards.” (Of course, by then, we were undergoing Serling deprivation and might have judged the show more harshly than it deserved. Maybe.) So, long story short, over the last few days I’ve watched a few Night Gallery episodes, and have a few comments. The one I was specifically looking for, as stated above, is a classic American short story that might be about a boy with a fixation on snow who (as the episode blurb has it) “enters a fantasy world of snow” or… it could be about a young man with mental health issues who slowly descends into an autistic world of his own making. The story itself is available in many places; for example, here. It is lyrical, well-written, and just ambiguous enough to support differing opinions on its meaning.

The episode (Season 2, episode 5; Oct. 20, 1971) stars Radames Pera, the same young actor who—later—played young Kwai Chang Caine in the David Carradine TV series Kung Fu. It is filmed, more or less, with sensitivity and respect for its origins; and it was narrated by Orson Welles. Figure 4 is an excerpt from Tom Wright’s painting; I was unable to locate a full version in time for this column. (Tom Wright did all the paintings for Night Gallery; oddly enough—see Figure 5—there is a Chinese artist named Tian Wen who is selling hand-painted versions of many of them on eBay. I won’t provide a link; I’m not sure just how legal or moral it is for him or her to do this.) In order to get to this, which was the second of a two-painting episode, I had to sit through an interminable teleplay about werewolves: “The Phantom Farmhouse,” badly acted by David McCallum of Man From U.N.C.L.E. fame and David Carradine of the aforementioned Kung Fu. It was badly written, badly acted, and tedious as well as obvious. But “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” was well enough written, acted and narrated to make the tedium of the first half go away.

Figure 5 – Tian Wen Night Gallery ‘Lone Survivor’

That success led me to another episode (Season 1, episode 3—Dec. 20, 1970) with three segments; one was terrific, one was okay, and the third one—written by Rod Serling himself—was absolutely dreadful. The first one was very Alfred Hitchcockian; it was called “Room With A View,” and was written by Hal Dresner; starring Joseph Wiseman, Diane Keaton—pre-Annie Hall—and Angel Tompkins. A somewhat obvious little tale of betrayal and revenge, notable mostly for Keaton’s overacting, but still kind of cute.

Figure 6 – Burgess Meredith and Chill Wills in Night Gallery

Segment #2, “The Little Black Bag,” was based on a famous story by Cyril M. Kornbluth, with a teleplay by Rod Serling. I don’t know how familiar you all are with this story (here’s an html link), but I think the adaptation—the story was modified to fit a 20-minute segment, and changed to exclude a nurse and include another alcoholic—was terrific. The stars—two of the industry’s absolute best character actors, both at the top of their game, were Burgess Meredith and Chill Wills (mostly better known for Westerns). Briefly, someone is experimenting in the year 2090 with time travel, and for lack of anything better to use as a test subject, throws an old medical bag in the hopper and it gets sent back to 1970 (in the episode, anyway).

Here’s the thing about Kornbluth’s future: I think the Marching Morons are alive and well. This bag is packed full of futuristic stuff that is miles beyond anything we have today, even, and set up so that the stupidest person can use it to cure darned near anything without harming the patient accidentally. (It’s also hooked to a central computer that seems to operate over a very long time span!) Anyway, two hopeless alcoholics in an alley find the bag and it reminds one that he used to be a doctor (Meredith). He uses the bag to cure a very ill girl and decides to use this bag to confound the medical profession. His “partner,” however, sees millions of dollars in their future. You can guess the rest (or just read the story). It was beautifully acted and well handled, even the modifications. The third story, also written by Rod Serling, was so bad I guessed it about halfway through. I won’t go any farther with this description. My take on Night Gallery is that if you are extremely choosy, you can enjoy around a quarter or fewer of the episodes. My overall rating for Night Gallery? I’d say 3 thingamajigs: ¤¤¤

Comments? Questions? Arguments, even? I’m open to anything you have to say, or want to discuss. You can comment here, on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. You are all welcome to talk/write at or to me. Please don’t feel you have to agree with me to comment, either; my opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!

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One thought on "RAMBLIN’ ROWS (OF TEXT) and ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY"

  1. congrats once again!

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