Search this blog and The Mike's favorite blogs!

May 16, 2011

Midnight in the Twilight Zone - Changing of the Guard

It's been well more than a year since FMWL spent a Midnight in the Twilight Zone. Not sure why I abandoned this feature, because I freakin' love The Twilight Zone.  It's like the best thing to ever happen to TV, except for maybe Sports Night.  Thankfully, a good friend of FMWL - Andre Dumas of The Horror Digest - got me thinkin' about The Zone again yesterday.  And, with the help of Instant Netflix, I decided to go out and find an episode of The Twilight Zone I hadn't seen before. Which brings us to the final episode of the series' third season: Changing of the Guard.
"Professor Ellis Fowler. A gentle, bookish, guide to the young. Who is about to discover that life still has certain surprises, and that the campus of the Rock Springs School for Boys lies in a direct path to another institution - commonly referred to as The Twilight Zone."

First of all, I will admit that the main reason I chose this episode was the fact that the lead is played by Donald Pleasence.  We don't talk about it enough, but Donald Pleasence is completely the most underrated genre icon of his era.  While the likes of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing - all among the all-time greats - were showing up in Victorian horrors by Roger Corman or Hammer Films consistently, the 218(!) film and TV appearances of Pleasence seem to have been slightly overlooked by the cult film fanatic.  Well before his famous turn as Dr. Loomis in Halloween - a role he only got because Lee turned it down - Pleasence was appearing in sci-fi films (Fantastic Voyage, THX 1138), big budget action films (The Great Escape, You Only Live Twice), cult flicks (Roman Polanski's Cul-de-sac), and even a few horror films (former Midnight Movie of the Week pick Raw Meat).  Alas, Pleasence's name has rarely been recognized alongside those names - even though Price, Cushing, and Lee never made their way to The Twilight Zone.  I think it's about time we change that, don't you? This dude belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Awesomeness, I say.
In Changing of the Guard, Pleasence plays Professor Ellis Fowler, mentioned by Mr. Serling in the opening, a stodgy old teacher who finds himself forced into retirement days before Christmas.  The dejected professor, lost without his pulpit, begins to consider suicide as he stands at a statue which honors Horace Mann - recognized as the father of modern education - and bears the inscription shown above: Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.  As Professor Fowler laments that he has won no victory and that his words have been lost on the youth he interacts with, a funny thing happens.  The ghosts of several of his fallen students appear before him, with a message from beyond the grave.

With a Christmas setting and a plot that sounds similar in tone to It's a Wonderful Life (despite the fact it originally aired at the beginning of June), you might guess that this is not your average Twilight Zone episode.  You'd be right.  Changing of the Guard offers no dark and sinister twist and in fact ends up with one of the series' more charming finales.  (Note from The Mike: As the final episode of the series' third season, this truly did represent a "changing of the guard". Season 4 broke from the series' tradition, replacing the normal 30 minute format with 18 one hour long episodes.)

While the tone certainly doesn't match much of the series, I found it quite rewarding on a personal level.  Though I am not a teacher in the strictest sense of the word, my real world job also consists of trying to mold young minds for the better, and I could relate very well with Professor Fowler's lamentation that he has failed in his endeavors.  It becomes difficult to see the positive aspects of the day to day grind, especially when you only have a certain amount of time working with a young mind, and educators don't often get a chance to see whether or not their efforts have paid off.  
Yet Changing of the Guard works as a good reminder that even the smallest thing - even a memorable quotation - might be all it takes to change the course of a youngster's life.  Pleasence sells the message well in his own way, and his reactions to the apparitions before him do more than enough to make the episode feel authentic despite its cliche plot.  While we've certainly come to expect the macabre from this series, this episode is a nice change of pace that reminds us that there are people out there who are waiting to inspire us - and that a few of them even reside in The Twilight Zone.

No comments: