‘The Twilight Zone’ originally ran (in flickering black and white naturally) from 1959-1964. For many of the original audience, Rod Serling’s twist-happy morality tales were their first introduction to science fiction. Whilst ‘Twilight Zone’ took some cues from earlier 50s genre works like ‘Tales of Tomorrow’! and ‘Dimension X’, it came at its themes in a notably different way. ‘The Twilight Zone didn’t feature slavering bug-eyed monsters shooting lasers at oddly hunky scientists or scantily clad girls screaming in the cold grip of killer robots, but instead took a rather more unnervingly sociological take on the genre. Hot-button topics like nuclear war, cosmetic surgery or racism were spun into pressure-cooker tension machines where the mask of science fiction was used to interrogate issues that would normally be deemed too divisive to even mention on television, let alone interrogate.
This combination of social examination and the still box-fresh thrills of Science Fiction were a massive critical and commercial hit. The original five year run had a similar effect on television programming as the monolith in 2001:A Space Odyssey had on prehistoric man. If ‘The Sopranos’ is the father of the current age of so-called Peak TV than the ‘Twilight Zone’ is something like the missing link. Its genetic fingerprints are so deeply embedded in audio-visual culture that it’s difficult to understand the show in context, as nearly all of its strengths have been copied and adapted to such a widespread extent that if anything it feels derivative rather than revolutionary. The current theatrical version of the’ Twilight Zone’ therefore has a difficult line to walk for modern audiences; do you slavishly recreate the 50s original or do you attempt something new to evoke that cutting edge which has become so dulled by repetition?
‘The Twilight Zone’ at the Ambassador’s plays it safe with option 1, taking 8 stories from the original run of episodes and dramatising them without much of a sense of rhyme or reason. Whilst there’s a funny running gag of characters whipping out cigarettes and launching into Sterling-esque sum-up narration, often seemingly against their own will, there’s not really much connective tissue to tie all these vignettes together. As a result whilst some of the stories are perfectly satisfying on their own terms, it’s hard to escape the question of what all this is really for. Whilst the stories interrupt each other ala Cloud Atlas, the strongest moments in the show comes from one of the few stories that stands entirely on it’s own. Taking its cues from an episode dating back to the Cuban missile crisis, the ripped from decades old-headlines story sees a nuclear attack turn a neighbourhood on itself, in order to justify who should and shouldn’t get to survive in the only nuclear bunker reachable. Soon a sort of kangaroo court is assembled, where the panicked families savagely attempt to earn their survival by virtue of their place in America’s social [read ‘racial’] pecking order. The piece feels modern, insive and queasily familiar to the current cultural conversation. It feels a full length play could have been made of this, but all too soon its over and we’re back to alien invasions, hellish dreamscapes and cursed astronauts.
Luckily the set is something of a marvel, Lynchian black and white stripes zigzag hypnotically against rolling eyeballs and flickering tv sets. It’s not the 50s but some kind of psychedelic nightmare of that decade and it crucially sells the atmosphere. As a result this greatest hits, carnival version of the Twilight Zone could not be described as particularly and is in fact really rather enjoyable moment to moment. There are fun twists and the actors all perform well in admittedly two-dimensional roles but even with the cleverest staging in the world it would still come across as somehow empty. The original Twilight Zone looked at the future through a dark mirror, this adaptation just sniggers at the past.
The Twilight Zone
The Ambassador’s Theare
Tickets from 19.50