(art by Aireen Arellano - to view larger version, click here)
SHOW: The Twilight Zone
EPISODE: “The Invaders”
FIRST AIRED: Jan. 27, 1961
Submitted for your disapproval, an unspoken rule, a blasphemous observation, a cold hard dose of reality-shaking truth: half of The Twilight Zone’s episodes were just not very good.
Of course, the classics are the classics are the classics: “Where Is Everybody?” “The Midnight Sun,” and “The After Hours” live on as witty and memorable forays into the darkest corners of the human condition. But for every “Eye of the Beholder,” the writers served up a pile of other episodes that remain forgotten for a reason.
In looking at the lackluster1983 movie, the 1985 or 2002 TV reboots, or countless attempts to translate the Twilight Zone format to niche audiences (VH1 mounted a supernatural music anthology series in 2001 called Strange Frequency), one might wonder why no one can seem to replicate The Twilight Zone’s creative success. It may have something to do with the fact that the progenitor series had a middling success rate itself.
Rod Serling and company were anything but hacks. They were brilliant, daring dreamers who swung for the fences weekly. But the very nature of an anthology series nullifies the most reliable rules of thumb that writers follow to engage a television audience. Familiar characters, settings, and themes aren’t at the forefront. Ideas take center stage. Suggestions. Offerings.
This is what most if not all Twilight Zone episodes were: not taut stories but provocative “What if?” prompts meant to do nothing more than propose a devilish idea and pin it with a neat little twist. Many of these episodes weren’t fully formed works of fiction. They were narrative zygotes.
All of this makes Season Two’s perennial classic, “The Invaders” that much more thrilling: in a five-season collection of hit-or-miss episodes that lacked resolution, meaty character arcs, or (let’s face it) good old-fashioned logic, this macabre tale of man vs. monster really does have it all.
Agnes Moorehead plays a woman living in a rural desert-nowhere place, “untouched by progress,” as Serling’s characteristically succinct narration phrases it. Her only lot in life seems to involve figuring out what to cook for dinner. As she prepares her meal over a rustic wood-burning stove, she seems content with simplicity. She wants for nothing.
Then a UFO lands on her roof and it all goes to shit town. Two tiny beasts emerge from the flying saucer and terrorize her with sonic waves that disorient her and somehow give her warts. She locks herself in her cabin. She defends herself with the barest of weapons: an oar, a lantern, a rusty blade. Despite their diminutive scale, the tiny alien men seem to have the advantage over her. They burrow in through walls and openings like clever little bastard spiders and even manage to carry the woman’s giant knife and stab her with it a few times. But even in this out-of-the-way place untouched by progress, the universal rule still holds: don’t get in between a foodie and her dinner.
Poor, simple, and defenseless Agnes Moorehead has had enough of these tiny bipedal critters. The rage gear in her brain snaps. She burns one of the aliens alive, and with bloodcurdling ferocity in her eyes, she takes an axe and hacks up their spaceship like she’s confronting them on a talk show. Then she hacks the remaining alien to death. And then she sighs and retreats into her cabin.
There’s also a delicious twist ending to this story. If you don’t know it, we won’t spoil it here, but definitely watch this episode on DVD or Netflix or 2 A.M. some night on the SyFy Channel. It’s pretty terrific.
It’s terrific because it’s one of the more artistically ambitious episodes of The Twilight Zone. Filmed with nearly zero dialogue and one person, “The Invaders” is the equivalent of a circus freak in a medium dominated by dialogue and character interaction. Needless to say, the two tiny aliens are mere puppets (and hokey ones at that), so Agnes Moorehead does all the heavy lifting here. Twilight Zone’s protagonists varied from tired stock figures to compelling figures. The unnamed woman of “The Invaders” stands at the pinnacle of the latter.
Moorehead’s performance is visceral and sympathetic. Every fearful cower and wince of pain bleeds onto the celluloid, and of course, not enough can be said for the cathartic climax in which she brutally butchers her antagonists. The scene is nothing short of watching a victor stand her ground and lose her soul all in one vertiginous rush. When character development comes off as so immediate and primal, it’s a moment to savor, especially in a show where the Idea reigns supreme.
Nonetheless, the trademark Twilight Zone Ideas in this episode are plentiful. This simply told tale of man vs. monster comes packed with infinite interpretations and applications. Witnessing a battle between a big victim and tiny villains underscores the notion that no matter how much one might excuse herself from the complications of the world, it’s all but impossible to live a life without confrontation. Whether we’re running around the house trying to fend off a mouse or millipede, running for our lives from criminal encroachers, or even just running from harbingers of pesky modern technology, eventually we all must face our invaders. Meanwhile, the twist ending questions man’s innate desire to vanquish and conquer, a desire that often remains unchecked despite the prices we might pay in the process.
Several Twilight Zone fans count “The Invaders” as the show’s piece de resistance, and for good reason. Like most episodes, it offers a cornucopia of sci-fi philosophizing. The atmosphere is killer: the barren vistas and shadowy cabin walls make for the moodiest of battlegrounds. The score by Jerry Goldsmith plucks at the mounting fear in our character, and, rounding out her absorbing performance, Agnes Moorehead’s childlike screams and whimpers highlight her ascension from helpless victim to unforgiving brute. Yes, the tiny aliens look like toys, but the story and production otherwise is so full and rich that, frankly, the puppetry is worth forgiving.
It’s not just anthology series that are notoriously difficult to pull off. It’s the nature of the short story in any medium. In a limited amount of minutes, pages, or illustrated panels, how can a writer introduce a character, make us care about her plight, immerse us in an atmosphere, and then resolve the whole setup in such a way that leaves us considering the world around us in a new light? Like the ax-wielding protagonist of “The Invaders” might tell us, simplicity is best, mystery is key, unflinching observation is vital, and sneaking up on your opponent – not to mention your audience – is usually the best approach. Life and literary lessons to be learned… in The Twilight Zone.
~ C.J. Arellano
About the Art: This week’s artwork portrays the climax of “The Invaders.” I took compositional cues from Cold War Soviet posters and textural cues from the episode. Our protagonist’s primal rage in the climax is so powerful, desperate, and energetic, and those emotions are expressed here through the dynamic, diagonal line from the blade of her ax down through the folds of her dress, and the flow of motion of her hair. My original plan was to keep her confined within the box I created, but while working on the artwork, I realized it made more sense for her to be bursting out of the confines of the box, much how she bursts out of the confines of her fear, albeit in a murderous and horrific way. I kept the brightest part of the artwork focused on her face. Look at how frightening her face is! I think this sums up the episode wonderfully: The frightened become the frightening. ~ Aireen Arellano