Friday, September 17, 2010

Tales of Tomorrow (Season 2, partial)


Tales of Tomorrow is an anthology series that ran for two seasons, from August 1951 to June 1953, and produced eighty-five episodes (forty-five during the first season and forty in the second). It is widely considered that the show was the first science fiction series produced for television. Like most series at the time it was filmed live, so episodes are filled with a variety of obvious errors: actors screw up lines, shadows of equipment appear on-screen, background noise like coughing get captured in the microphone, and so forth. Among my favourites is a camera pan that accidentally nabs a clear shot of the second camera.

Early television was a combination of stage play and radio drama, yet Tales of Tomorrow proved at times to be quite innovative. Overly dramatic like most early television, the overacting, lofty music scores and over-written scripts can test the patience of contemporary audiences. Yet often the melodramatic elements were so well fused that even by today's standards certain episodes stand out with their superior quality and high innovation. As for the science, well, in season one Leslie Nielsen and Brian Keith breathe easily on Mars, and any unexplained phenomena is the result of nuclear testing. Socially, aliens are essentially Russians in disguise and the thwarting of extraterrestrial forces is really just an allegory for common Americans (often with British accents) succeeding in thwarting some evil Soviet threat. While it is noble that scientists who create technological or medicinal wonders merely for profit are punished, some characters end up in truly tragic circumstances that today's sponsors would never allow contemporary television to resort to. Everything must end happily so that sponsors can endorse their products to a smiling audience rather than one that is depressed and unwilling to fall for clever marketing, something Alfred Hitchcock often had to battle with while working on his own television program.

And there were sponsors for Tales of Tomorrow, though some episodes were oddly without that I wonder how they were financed; was the show that popular? The main sponsor in season two was Kreisler watchbands. I am impressed with Kreisler for seemingly allowing the producers and writers to create original fare, and the must-watch episode "The Window" is the result of allowing the creative forces to produce something incredibly unique that is so rare in television. The Kreisler ad was was built into the unusual episode, and had Kreisler been the only sponsor perhaps there might have been some more variety among the individual plot points, and the show would likely have been titled Kreisler Presents Tales of Tomorrow.

Tales of Tomorrow is improperly titled. These are not, as implied, stories about the future (though one announcer does make that claim during a unique half-time intermission), but stories about average contemporary people; though many of the characters are brilliant scientists, their common desires ground them rather than elevate them, for despite their genius they live simple lives and are driven by everyday goals, usually financial stability, but occasionally fame or world peace. The episodes place character at the forefront, and deal with relationships amid the greedy pursuit of financial gain or the noble pursuit for world peace (usually thwarted by a competitor's greedy pursuit of financial gain). The science is at times incidental, and sometimes there is no science but fantasy, as in "The Ghost Writer." Most episodes hold some element of scientific discovery that, in the bulk of episodes, enables people to pursue their wants, good or evil. Other episodes feature aliens or machines that threaten the lives of a varied group, but even these often include some scientific discovery, such as "Many Happy Returns."

The show is also a great record of the on-screen beginnings of a good many actors. Rod Steiger, Everett Sloane, the already legendary Boris Karloff and even James Dean all get to play scientists. Joanne Woodward, Mercedes McCambridge, Virginia Vincent and other female leads get to play wives and daughters. And Leslie Nielsen kept playing spineless downtrodden writers and thieves; a very good dramatic actor in his youth.

The episodes discussed here are from the DVD Tales of Tomorrow, Collection 3.

All episodes are directed by Don Medford and produced by Mort Abrahams. Many can be watched at the Internet Archive.

"Youth on Tap" (episode 4). Written by Lorna Kenney; starring Robert Alda. (The ad for Kreisler watchbands is directed to those who own one of those popular new round wrist watches. It is entertaining, especially in its odd opening segue from the presenter's flatly-pressed suit to his round arm: "Speaking about round objects...") A scientist (Harry Townes) offers an out-of-work truck driver (Alda) a thousand dollars for a pint of his blood. The audience learns quickly (though trucker Alda is slow on the uptake) that the generous doctor is actually stealing his youth. Like most Tales of Tomorrow, this one offers no surprises, but the building is quite tight. Unfortunately it falls apart when Alda tries to defend the scientist from a previous victim who is suddenly deemed the "mad" character for wanting vengeance on the man who stole his youth, and essentially his life. The performances are fine but there is something stiff about Alda, and his delivery is also odd, a little over-righteous and a lot over-dramatic. 5/10

"The Horn" (episode 6). Written by Alan Nelson; starring Franchot Tone. Kreisler proves its watchbands are water proof by submerging one in a fish tank. The episode itself is very short, so short that the ads are extended and Alan Edwards appears at the end for C.H. Masland & Sons for yet another ad. This is followed by over two minutes of propaganda for the American Armed Forces. As for the episode: a man builds a new musical instrument that transmits ultrasonic vibrations to the listener's nervous system and makes him feel exactly what the player is feeling. It features a humanitarian scientist, a love interest and an evil competitor. Nothing of note, except for one line: when the evil competitor steps outside onto the balcony and threatens to drop what is essentially a brass horn, he warns "It'll smash like a ripe cantaloupe." Another episode that proves that horrible men meet an early demise and that the world is not yet prepared for the benevolence of scientific progress. 5/10

"Many Happy Returns" (episode 8; also known as "Invaders at Ground Zero"). Story by Raymond Z. Gallum, adapted by David Karp and written by sci-fi great Frederik Pohl; starring Gene Raymond. I quite liked this silly bit of nonsense. The drama is high and the kid looks a little... off, but it all adds to the silliness. The set itself is great, with a home quite elaborately detailed for a live staging. We get to see all sorts of shadows, especially during the later basement scenes, as equipment and people step between light and action. A boy has built an instrument having followed instructions from the moon and his father is convinced that the moon being is bent on harming the earth. [Here comes a spoiler:] The father sends some dynamite to the moon creature and local astrologers studying the moon witness an explosion. Now, there is never any proof offered that the creature means to harm, and while he does at one point prevent the boy from speaking it is of course possible that he has other motives for not letting humans know what he is up to. For instance, as learned in "The Horn," perhaps humans are not prepared to learn what this alien has to offer. And we'll never know, since daddy quickly blew the poor creature to smithereens. 7/10

"The Window" (episode 10; 7 November 1952). Story by Enid Maud Dinnis, teleplay by Frank de Felitta; starring Rod Steiger, Virginia Vincent as well as the production team, from producer Mort Abrahams and director Don Medford, to chief engineer Merle Worster and a fine performance by floor manager Jim Walsh. "The Window" is a unique episode and an example of the possibilities of television and, more importantly, of the benefits of breaking from a tightly defined mold. The episode begins in the usual Tales of Tomorrow manner, with a Kreisler ad followed by opening titles (this time for an episode titled "The Lost Planet") and after a minute or less of dialogue the picture breaks and takes us to a realistic scene of a domestic squabble through an open window. The episode then follows the crew of Tales as they first try to figure out how to salvage the time slot, interview their chief engineer to understand what might be happening, until they finally realize that a murder is about to be committed and decide to intervene. What is truly tremendous is that for a live presentation this episode was superbly executed, with the stage hands doing a great job being themselves (I particularly liked Jim Walsh, especially when he refuses to do an on-air apology when things first break down). Even the half-time Kreisler ad is thrown in amid the havoc, and audiences get to see the backdrop of the studio filming, with people walking in front of the camera as staff try to improvise an episode. Director Don Medford appears only off-camera (which is too bad) but does a decent job at calling out camera directions and helping with the telephone. Performances in the tight window space are also strong, with Rod Steiger looming large as the murderous lover. The end of the lengthy credits has the narrator state: "We hope you have found it an exciting and different television experience." Yes, even by today's standards the episode is truly exciting. I am pleased that sponsor Kreisler agreed (or at least did not prevent) this from being produced. 10/10

"The Fatal Flower" (episode 15). Written by Frank De Felitta; starring Victor Jory and Don Hanmer (credited as Hamner). Oh boy! Where do I begin with this one other than to say it is among the most retarded things I have ever witnessed on TV. It deals with two American botanists conducting experiments in a Brazilian facility. The acting is over-the-top, complete with crazed laughter and unintentionally comical glances (maybe it was supposed to be funny & I just missed the point), the idea is silly and the script ridiculous. Perhaps it's the combination of these elements that make this such an enjoyable episode. The episode seems to have a number of unrelated items which is kind of neat: a hybrid carnivorous plant, two conflicting scientific personalities and a mysterious letter. Of course these elements are all tossed in simply to bring the episode to its evident conclusion. One neat effect is the fact that I could not predict which of the characters at the end of the episode would get eaten by the plant (I am not revealing anything; that someone will be consumed is obvious as soon as the man-eating plant is mentioned). I also liked the original concept of the letter. The young, apprentice botanist is so bored that he purchases an unread letter from the other for the exorbitant fee of $10 (this is 1952), and then toys with the original owner about its content. The episode is book-ended by two ludicrous facets: the beginning is difficult to watch because of Hanmer's annoying performance, and the end is difficult to stomach because of one line: "While man fiddles around with his petty problems, the vegetables are on the move." Once again: "Oh boy!" 6/10

"The Bitter Storm" (episode 17). Written by Armand Aulicino; starring some unknown actors along with Joanne Woodward in one of her first filmed roles. This one presumes that the New Testament is history, and then has people preaching during the onslaught of a massive storm rather than fleeing the island. This is the Christmas episode and I suppose miracles should happen, however idiotic they may be. The science involves a machine that captures every sound that has ever been made on this earth, and evidently only plays back those of historical relevance, ignoring the other billions of sounds that have been made since the planet's creation. 2/10

"Another Chance" (episode 24). Written by Frank De Felitta; starring Leslie Nielsen and Virginia Vincent (who we saw in "The Window"). It was nice to watch an episode without the requisite Kreisler ad, though we were urged to wake our children the following morning for hours of TV entertainment. At the end of his rope, all around loser Harold Mason desperately seeks the help from a newspaper ad that reads simply: "I AM SURE I CAN HELP YOU!" The help consists of sending Mason back in time seven years, removing bits of his memory and allowing him to start afresh. Finely acted with an over-dramatic seriousness, Leslie Nielsen is almost unrecognizable here. (Incidentally, with at least six episodes to his credit, Nielsen appeared more often in Tales of Tomorrow than any other actor.) The music is also overdone, but the exaggerations suit the drama well, and though we have an idea as to how this will end, it still holds one final surprise. Notice that Nielsen wears a wedding band, and when he is sent back seven years to before he was married the band is still on his finger. 8/10

"The Great Silence" (episode 25). Written by Frank De Felitta, story by Jeffery Farnol; starring Burgess Meredith and Lilia Skala. A strange mist causes people to lose the power of speech. Though the US government (fairly simple-minded here) believes it is the result of recent H-bomb experiments, and that the haze will soon dissipate. A simple and illiterate "mountain man" discovers, however, that the mist is being fed into the atmosphere by a strange, mouthless alien near his home. The episode is more comedic than paranoid, though the cold war is heavily apparent in its influence. The comedy is flat, even for 1953 standards, as there is much filler gesticulating, as Meredith tries to describe to one person after another what has happened. The alien, though obviously a man in costume, is well conceived and quite creepy as Meredith first spies him through the porthole of his ship. I think it's those "gloves" that make his arms look stunted. 5/10

"The Fury of the Cocoon" (episode 32). Written by Frank De Felitta; and starring some unknowns, such as Cameron Prud'Homme who has appeared in at least four episodes, and a finely exaggerated performance by German character actor Peter Capell. Incredible nonsense, and not just the title. Some scientists investigate a meteorite crash site deep in some generic jungle and, while sweating profusely and glaring feverishly at one another, discover that the meteorite brought with it giant invisible insects. Almost an oxymoron, as these insects are about two feet tall, yet we can more clearly see a mosquito in the distance as they are, indeed, invisible. Moreover, these over-sized invisible insects appear to have a liking for human blood. After some insanities (and I mean the overtly dramatic acting and idiotic plotting) the hero of our story inadvertently stumbles on the one thing that can kill these insects... you guessed it: insecticide. The cabin they are hiding in just happens to have a crateful. What is truly odd about this episode is the introduction and half-time pitch. There is no sponsor here, just some guy telling us about the show. "Some persons contend that the drama of every day life remains constant, and will remain so forever. I wonder... Perhaps together we can find a clue to the answer on tonight's Tale of Tomorrow." A clue to the answer of the dramas of every day life? I'm not sure what he means, but if every day life involves giant invisible insects from outer space, then there is an answer, and it is insecticide. (Perhaps they were fishing for a new sponsor.) I have decided to carry a canister with me from this day forward. 3/10

"Read to Me, Herr Doktor" (episode 28). Written by Alvin Sapinsley; starring Mercedes McCambridge and Everett Sloane. A retired professor enjoys his time being read to by an android, while his daughter worries that he has grown too close to the machine. Suddenly the android awakens, believing itself to be a man, and demands that the professor not rest until he completes him/it. Predictable and dated, it is also quite cheesy, though nonetheless somewhat enjoyable. This episode is populated by a known cast, Academy Award winner McCambridge (for the 1949 film All the King's Men) and Sloane, whose first roles were in the masterpieces Citizen Kane, Journey into Fear and The Lady from Shanghai. Beside them is an odd-looking machine, a tall man with what appears to be a paper bag on his head. Yes, the 1953 live television department did one helluva job here, and perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this episode is watching the suited actor move around, his mouth at times clearly visible through the cellophane window covering it. While Sloane is fine portraying a man much older than the actor, McCambridge's sharp voice and sharper delivery is at times grating, and the studio camera is not terribly flattering, with some shots strangely making her appear older than she is. 6/10

"Ghost Writer" (episode 29). Written by Mann Rubin; starring Leslie Nielsen (again), Gaby Rogers and Murray Matheson. In this very well acted and finely directed episode, Nielsen is aspiring writer Bert, wrought with guilt as his wife earns the bread while he struggles to get published. He responds to an ad against his faithful and incredibly devoted wife's wishes, and visits famous writer Lee Morton who is looking for someone to finish some stories. At five hundred dollars a story (imagine, in 1953), Bert readily agrees. When he discovers that the story plots are greater than just fiction, Bert must choose between setting his pride aside and doing right, or ignoring his wife's wishes in order to earn some easy cash. This is as far as I will go, though I am tempted to discuss the end and that neat little final line. Morton is played particularly well with a suave, almost playful gleam by long-time character actor Murray Matheson (he was The Clown in the innovating and shocking Twilight Zone episode "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" as well as appearing in many other popular shows, and along with other TZ alumnae in Twilight Zone: The Movie). Nielsen has another great turn as a hapless and luckless weak-willed man. It is too bad his career has been relegated to the embarrassingly unfunny series of spoof movies. A superior episode. 9/10

"The Evil Within" (episode 35). Written by Manya Starr; starring Margaret Phillips, Rod Steiger (again) and James Dean. A scientist discovers a serum that brings out the evil in people. When the fridge at the lab breaks down he brings the vials home, and (surprise) his neglected wife accidentally consumes some. We learn in this episode that what evil people like is jazz music and pretty shiny earrings. The scientist then stares at his wife until she snaps out of it, which is fine because that hard stare from Rod Steiger would get me to snap out of anything. Silly episode highlighted by fine acting: James Dean does a good job at being good looking and serious in a pair of dark glasses as the assistant Ralph, while Steiger is always a pleasure to watch, but it is Margaret Phillips who steals the show, rolling her Rs and giggling as evil humans are want to do. On this set Steiger lumbers around as though he was the only one on-stage; I don't mean he steals the show but that he just doesn't seem to always notice that anyone is around him. Of course this impression might just be coming from that immense size and voice, that hulking presence, though it is more evident here than in his film roles. The sad thing about this episode is the opportunity for self-centered Dr. Peter to change his ways and fess up to his selfishness is lost as he merely stares at poor wife Anne. Early television did not at all favour women. 6/10

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