Monday, 18 January 2021

Hugo Cinema Club: 1960 Gets In The Zone

This blog post is the third in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  
Rod Serling believed
that his work would be
forgotten. Six decades
later, it most certainly
has not. 
(Image via NYTimes)


There is a long and storied tradition of the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation being presented in absentia. In fact, the winner being in attendance for the ceremony has by and large been the exception, rather than the rule.

In 1960, for example, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling seems to have been mostly unaware of the award until some two weeks later when a delegation of California-based fans who had just returned from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania visited the CBS offices to hand him a three-pound chrome rocketship on September 22.

The fans — including Bjo and John Trimble, Rick Sneary and Forrest J. Ackerman — were greeted warmly by the television legend, who had also earned his fourth Emmy that summer.

“[Serling] seemed sort of interested and taken by the idea,” Sneary wrote of the award presentation. “But he did not seem at all aware of fandom.”

The show had come close to cancellation just a few months earlier, so the critical praise, the multiple awards, and the resulting second season came as a vindication to the 35-year-old writer-producer.

Interviewed a decade later at Ithaca College about his preoccupations as a writer, Rod Serling talked about his “hunger to be young again, a desperate yearning to go back to where I came from.” This theme was overwhelmingly evident in his Hugo-winning first season of The Twilight Zone.

Whether it’s Gig Young walking through time to visit his childhood in “Walking Distance” (S1E5), or Ida Lupino obsessing over the movies of her youth in “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” (S1E4), there is an undercurrent of nostalgia that pervades the work.

But interestingly, that nostalgia exists as a counterpoint to the modernity of the series. Watching The Twilight Zone alongside the other four works on that year’s Hugo shortlist, it becomes increasingly clear how far ahead of his time Twilight Zone-creator Rod Serling was. The scripts have a sprightly pace, they’re elegantly constructed parables with very little wasted time, and usually have satisfying narrative arcs. Comparing these episodes to those of Men Into Space (the other full TV season on the ballot) it feels hard to believe that the shows were airing in the same decade, let alone the same year.

There were only 12 episodes of Twilight Zone that were aired in 1959, and therefore eligible for
"Time Enough At Last," possibly
the most iconic episode of the
original Twilight Zone aired
on Nov. 20, 1959. 
(Image via shelf-awareness.com)
consideration in 1960. What is revelatory is realizing how many of those first twelve episodes of Twilight Zone are classics that are well-remembered today. Right from the pilot episode “Where Is Everybody”, the show plays with perception and keeps the viewer off balance. The very next episode, you’ve got a first-rate performance by Ed Wynn in a moralistic parable “One For The Angels” (S1E2) that regularly appears on lists of the great Twilight Zone episodes. Unforgettably, “Time Enough At Last” (S1E8) casts a long enough shadow over pop culture that it has been referenced by Modern Family, Powerpuff Girls, Walking Dead, Family Guy, and multiple times on the Simpsons. Previous Hugo-winner Richard Matheson's deft touch is evident on several of these. 

A few episodes are duds such as “The Lonely” (S1E7), and given the fact that the series was airing in the 1950s, there is a bit too much focus on heteronormative white male lead characters. The Twilight Zone is far from perfect, but it’s clearly the best work on the ballot in 1959.

Other shortlisted works

Allowed to nominate television programs for the first time, Hugo nominators almost entirely ignored the big screen, creating a shortlist with two full seasons, two individual episodes, and one theatrically released movie.

Of the other Hugo-shortlisted works, The World, The Flesh, And The Devil is the stand-out. A post-
Harry Belafonte is objectively
incredible in The World, The
Flesh & The Devil. 
(Image via NostalgiaCentral)

apocalyptic film terrific cast, the movie is notable for having a surprisingly progressive subtext on race. The black protagonist Ralph Burton (played by Harry Belafonte) survives a nuclear attack, and eventually ends up in a violent love triangle with a white man and white woman. The ending — which seems to indicate that they’ve resolved their differences, and are forming a polyamorous triad — is especially surprising considering the movie is seven decades old. The acting is stellar. It’s worth noting that this may be the first Hugo-shortlisted work with a non-white human protagonist.

The full first season of the short-lived TV show Men Into Space made its only appearance on the ballot. Given that it aired two years before Yuri Gagarin made his trip into orbit, the series gets a surprisingly large amount right about spaceflight, including the fact that it’s often very boring. Every time the writers of Men Into Space have a choice between telling an interesting story or providing stilted explanations of engineering, they opt for the latter. Although the series is deeply propagandistic (the end credits seem to list the involvement of every U.S. military office involved in spaceflight) it is refreshingly conciliatory towards the Soviet space program. Several major plot points involve co-operation with the Russians for the greater good of humanity. But by-and-large the series is of only historical interest, rather than something any of us would recommend to modern viewers looking for entertainment.

Murder and the Android, a television movie based on Alfred Bester’s Fondly Farenheit, has the distinction of being the most inaccessible of all professionally released Hugo-shortlisted works. The only extant copy resides in Los Angeles at the Paley Centre For Media, and for reasons ascribed to copyright (and perhaps more accurately copyright chill related to fair use) can only be viewed by those visiting the centre in person. Because of this, it is the one dramatic presentation that the authors of this blog have not watched. But critics of the time were extremely impressed by it, with Frederick Pohl describing it as “almost the only first-rate television play on a science fiction theme.” Perhaps one day, when its copyright term has finally expired, it will become widely available again.

Finally, the ballot included a TV movie adaptation of Henry James’ Turn Of The Screw. Although it was lauded at the time in the mainstream press, and featured Ingrid Bergman in the lead role, for the most part it feels listless and lifeless. Several scenes are melodramatic to the point of being excruciating to watch, but this may be a result of changing attitudes towards more naturalistic acting in the seven decades since the release of the movie. Still, we are glad that Turn Of The Screw didn’t win the Hugo.

With the benefit of hindsight, it would be hard to argue that Hugo voters got it wrong with Best Dramatic Presentation in 1960. The Twilight Zone has the most enduring value work on the shortlist, and it isn’t even close.

Addendum On The Evolving Hugo Rules
The Hugo Banquet at Pittcon.
(Image via Calisphere)


When The Twilight Zone won its first Hugo in 1960, the Hugo Awards remained informal in organization and format. Categories were ad-hoc, the physical trophy had yet to be standardized, nominations and voting eligibility were inconsistent. 

Late at night on September 4, after the Hugo Awards banquet in the grand ballroom of the Penn-Sheraton Hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a WSFS business meeting run by L. Sprague de Camp oversaw what is possibly the most significant overhaul of the Hugo Awards that ever occurred. The rocketship trophy that Ben Jackson had designed became the permanent standard, eligibility for nominating and voting on the Hugos became officially linked to membership in the Worldcon, and a committee led by Dirce Archer was struck to establish permanent awards categories.

Prior to 1960, there had never been a category called “Best Dramatic Presentation.” The previous two occasions on which dramatic works had been honoured, they’d been honoured with Hugos for “Best SF or Fantasy Movie” or “Outstanding Movie,” and the categories explicitly excluded television programs. With the standardization of categories later that year, the name “Best Dramatic Presentation” was here to stay.

In many ways, the 1960 Hugos were the last of the early Hugos, with a new chapter for the awards starting in 1961.


1 comment:

  1. I love The World, The Flesh, And The Devil; I wish more modern fans had seen it. And yeah, that ending!

    ReplyDelete