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The watchers: Tales of Tomorrow on Television.

The object had for a moment opened to him the view of a wide and spacious and strange country ...

--H. G. Wells, "The Crystal Egg"

A MONSTROUS, DISFIGURED HAND THROWS A SWITCH. STREAKS OF ELECTRICITY buzz and zigzag across the television screen. Music from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet growls and builds, slowly, inexorably, to a cacophonous blast of sound. A voice intones: "Tales of Tomorrow!--Science Fiction Dramas that Explore the Unknown...." After a brief commercial, the episode begins....

The recent distribution on DVD format of Tales of Tomorrow, a "live" television broadcast science fiction anthology series from the early 1950s, is welcome news for scholars and enthusiasts of science fiction television. (1) Network commercial television was only a few years old when this legendary series premiered on the ABC television network on August 3, 1951. (2)

Tales of Tomorrow provided more than just a convenient post-war forum for contemporary anxieties about the political tensions of the Cold War--Russia had just exploded its first atomic bomb, North Korea was invading South Korea. A rash of UFO sightings was making headlines, and fears of a different kind of alien invasion ran rampant. This paper argues that, perhaps less obviously, but no less significantly, Tales of Tomorrow also fueled another kind of paranoia--anxieties over the newly emerging visual communications technologies that were creating a culture of surveillance that was extending into the living rooms of American homes. Television viewers were not only watching but being watched. This paper will examine how several representative episodes from 1951-1952--"The Lost Planet," "Blunder," "Verdict from Space," "Many Happy Returns," and "The Crystal Egg"--predicted and dramatized the sinister implications of that panoptic evolution. (3)

The Science Fiction "Eye"

Tales of Tomorrow appeared at a time when the immediate post-World War II general public was only vaguely aware of the developing patterns, modes, and implications of public and private surveillance. The hyper-vigilant gaze of the hidden, faceless, impersonal audio-visual technologies of our post-9/11 years had not yet been developed and implemented. Video and acoustic technologies of 1951 were relatively primitive, and their panoptic potentials were largely unremarked. Only science fiction and fantasy films seemed to be taking notice. (4) Television began to be used as a plot element in many cautionary films and tales. As commentator Paul Young puts it, beginning in the 1920s the cinema was "dreaming its [television] rival" by featuring television screens and broadcast transmissions in futuristic fantasies such as Metropolis (1927, directed by Fritz Lang), Just Imagine (1930), The Tunnel (1935), Modern Times (1935), Things to Come (1936), and many 1930s serials, notably The Phantom Empire (1936). (5) "Before becoming a fixture in American homes and a purveyor of its own brand of science fiction," writes J. P. Telotte, "television was itself, quite simply, an icon of science fiction [which] conditioned both its reception and that of the texts it offered audiences" (37). Not just a two-way communications device linked to a telephone, continues Young, television was regarded, more ominously, as an agent of surveillance and control, "a component in a panopticon culture" (42). (Oddly, a striking example of this, Maurice Elvey's High Treason [1929], is omitted in these studies. (6))

Three years before the debut of Tales of Tomorrow, the first fully scheduled television season was launched in 1948-1949. Live television began playing an intimate role in people's lives. Douglas Edwards's CBS Television News and entertainers like Arthur Godfrey were welcomed into the home as trusted members of the family. In 1950 an entire nation watched raptly the "breaking news" of the exposes of criminal activities conducted by the so-called "Kefauver Hearings." And, more to the purposes of this paper, the live television dramatic anthology format was inaugurated by the Kraft Television Theater on May 7, 1947. "[The] live dramatic anthologies--meaning that their stories, characters, and themes changed weekly," notes historian Gary Edgerton, "--were 'effective barometers of contemporary attitudes and values.' In their day, live teleplays 'assumed the major responsibility for exploring the social reality and domestic problems of a majority of Americans'" (89). Meanwhile, according to Edgerton, as the number of television sets rose from 1,200,000 to 15,000,000 and the percentage of homes with television increased from .4 percent to 34 percent, commercial television became embroiled in a debate between the forces of the "Hollywood telefilm"--programs made on film on the West Coast for subsequent televised broadcast in theaters--and the live broadcast, which drew primarily from the theatrical establishment in New York City and broadcast directly into the home (137). The issues were couched in terms of Hollywood/film vs. New York/live, Hollywood spectacle vs. theatrical naturalism, short-form vs. long-form programming. (7)

In particular, an anthology series of live half-hour programs like Tales of Tomorrow was designed to appeal to the presumed short interest spans of television viewers. (8) But within a few years, this notion would be radically reversed. Ironically, the series' home network, ABC, would lead the charge away from the short-form, live anthology drama series to the Hollywood-produced telefilm series of the late 1950s. In the eyes of many critics, writes William Boddy, "television's debt to the legitimate theater in distinction to the motion pictures was renounced, and with it television drama's allegiance to the aesthetics of theatrical naturalism" (2).

Friday Night Frights

The eighty-three episodes of Tales of Tomorrow ran for three years in Fridaynight prime-time slots until its last broadcast on June 12, 1953. Produced by Mort Abrahams and broadcast on ABC, it was television's first anthology science-fiction series for adults, predating by several years the syndicated Science Fiction Theatre (1955-1957), CBS's The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), and NBC's The Outer Limits (1963-1965). (9) However, except for a brief run of a few episodes on the USA Network in the early 1980s, they have not been seen for more than forty years. And the series has rated barely a mention in extant scholarship. (10)


Now, the availability of the kinescopes of this series fills a gap in our knowledge of the interface of science fiction and the fledgling medium of television. No longer were science fiction and science fantasy--collectively dubbed "scientifiction" in the 1920s (11)--confined to the pulp magazines, the radio airwaves, and the movie theaters. Now, for the first time, science fiction came directly into the home with the immediacy of live transmission and the graphic vividness of the visual text.

Tales of Tomorrow established the model for other science fiction and fantasy anthology series to come. Its half-hour weekly format consisted of freestanding stories, changing casts, commercial interruptions, and a concluding teaser for the following week's episode. Like an invited guest in the home, a friendly on-camera host introduced each show, hawked commercial products, and reappeared at the end with closing remarks. The scripts were provided by a post-war breed of young writers; and the performances by a stable of actors, veterans and newcomers alike, were drawn from the worlds of theater and film. Tales of Tomorrow stood out from them all, however, in several crucial aspects. Unlike Science Fiction Theater, which was filmed in color, hosted by Truman Bradley, and produced by Ivan Tors, Tales emphasized humanist issues rather than "hard" science fact and a weekly array of gadgets and gizmos (a kind of weekly fantasy "Mr. Wizard"). In contrast to the all-too-frequent sermonizings of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, Tales favored unvarnished, straightforward storytelling. And, in general, Tales avoided the gothic "monster of the week" tendency of the hour-long The Outer Limits. (12) Admittedly, its more primitive production values--the price it paid for being the first such series out of the gate--fell far short of the more sophisticated polish of its filmed successors. But its adolescent clumsiness was part of its charm--and, in some cases, lent it a raw sincerity and power.


Among Tales' cast members were familiar names--Lon Chaney, Jr., played Frankenstein's monster in "Frankenstein" (January 18, 1952); Boris Karloff was a time traveler in "Past Tense" (April 3, 1953); Nina Foch was the unhappy wife of an astronaut in "Bound Together" (March 7, 1952); Veronica Lake was the first woman to rocket into space in "Flight Overdue" (March 28, 1952); Lex Barker returned from an expedition to Alpha Centauri carrying a plague in "Red Dust" (May 2, 1952); and Sylvia Sidney has years of her life stolen by an extraterrestrial in "Time to Go" (April 18, 1952). And others, including James Dean ("The Evil Within," May 1, 1953), Paul Newman ("Ice from Space," August 8, 1952), Joanne Woodward ("The Bitter Storm," December 26, 1952), Eva Gabor ("The Invader," December 12, 1951), and Leslie Nielsen ("Appointment on Mars," June 27, 1952), appeared in their first professional screen roles.

Most of Tales' writers are iconic figures today, but at the time they were still relatively unknown outside the field, including Arthur C. Clarke ("All the Time in the World," June 13, 1952); Lewis Padgett ("What You Need," February 8, 1952); Theodore Sturgeon ("Verdict from Space," August 3, 1951); Stanley G. Weinbaum ("The Miraculous Serum," June 20, 1952); Frederic Pohl ("Many Happy Returns," October 24, 1952); Nelson Bond ("Test Flight," October 26, 1951); Cyril Kornbluth ("Little Black Bag," May 30, 1952); Frank De Felitta ("Fury of the Cocoon," March 6, 1953); and Fredric Brown ("Age of Peril," February 15, 1952).

While their forebears in the 1920s and 1930s--notably Hugo Gernsback, E. E. "Doc" Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Williamson, and others--had been preoccupied with science, rocketry, and the romance of the spaceways, this new breed was more interested in the psychological and philosophical aspects of their characters and topics. "The Monsters" (September 14, 1951) reversed the "invasion" motif and told of alien life forms searching for intelligent life on Earth; "The Dark Angel" (September 28, 1951) and "The Children's Room" (February 29, 1952) foretold the next stage of human evolution; "Search for the Flying Saucer" (November 9, 1951) touched on the doomed love of an alien for an Earth man; and "Sleep No More" (April 11, 1952) portrayed a scientist who could engineer dreams.

These stories did not only explore the outer space of the heavens but also the inner space of our fears and anxieties. The weird, bug-eyed monsters of the pulp fictions of the 1930s were replaced by a different kind of Other, the fear of unchecked technologies, alien races and ideologies, and our own darker natures and prejudices. Some episodes, as we shall see, forecast in unrelentingly grim fashion the end of the world.

"It's (A)live!"

Directly to the point here, interrelated with these subjects were the effects and implications of the live television transmission itself. Viewers at this time were encountering an audio-visual text utterly unlike anything they were accustomed to seeing on theater screens. They were watching an event in an ongoing, televisual present, rather than something safely embalmed in a filmic past tense. The cramped television studios lent a claustrophobic sense to the action. Lacking the budget, special effects, and feature-length formats of the theatrical film, the writers and crew had to exercise considerable ingenuity in reconfiguring the stories into a 23-minute, studiobound, "live" format containing an opening billboard, an introduction by the host, two commercial breaks, and a closing announcement. A sprinkling of musical cues, primitive special effects, and filmed inserts were deployed. The cumbersome complement of three television cameras registered the action primarily in close-ups and two-shots. Boom mikes dipped in and out of view, unwanted backstage noises banged and thumped, the pasteboard sets shook at a touch, the cameras wobbled, and the image went in and out of focus. Little rehearsal and preplanning were possible within the limitations of the weekly deadlines. This was always a problem for the razor-sharp timing necessary for the camera switching cues and the character blocking. As a consequence, the hazards were many, and the mishaps from these years have become the stuff of legend.13 Thus, the pro forma reality of each "live" broadcast couldn't be ignored.



Irving Robbin, Tales of Tomorrow's music director, has left this snapshot of the weekly procedures at Studio TV-1, ABC's largest New York studio:

Our studio was built in the old horse stables on East 66th Street. We all firmly believed that on the damp days, we could sense a whiff of the old smells! The show was studio-rehearsed and broadcast on the evening of the same day--Friday. Of course the cast and director worked all week from Monday on. On Thursday the tech crew showed up at the rehearsal hall to see what they had to do.... After the first studio run-through I was given notes by producer and director and made requested music changes.... Then we did dress rehearsal ... and went out for dinne.... [We] came back and went on the air..... George Whittaker was the audio man--very religious. Very often during a tough show the air in the control room would get blue, and in the midst of all the profanity George could be heard chanting, "Do not take the name of the Lord in vain." Allyn Edwards was the regular announcer. Jack Kelly spun the records for me. (Robbin)

But counterbalancing the inevitable enforced theatricality was the resulting sense of immediacy, of things happening now.... As pioneer television producer Fred Coe has noted, the very immediacy of a live broadcast commanded viewer attention in ways impossible in any other medium except radio: "[Live telecasts] are the only areas ... where you don't know how it's going to come out. You know it's happening--happening right there in front of you ... so you have to be interested" (qtd. in Wilk, 137). This sense of an ongoing present, as we shall see, greatly enhanced the thematic relevance of many episodes.

The Watchers

Several of these episodes demonstrate the effectiveness of these live transmissions. In the series premier episode, Theodore Sturgeon's "Verdict from Space" (August 3, 1951), an archaeologist discovers a cave which contains a recording/transmitter device that's been monitoring every cataclysmic event on Earth for more than a million years, including the recent detonation of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Alarmed, he destroys the machine. But it's too late. A message is now transmitted to the stars that Earth has become a threat. The skies suddenly fill with invading space ships. The television screen fades to black. The more susceptible viewers across America might not be blamed for casting an apprehensive glance or two outside their windows! (14)

Philip Wylie's "Blunder" (August 10, 1951), the first season's second episode, likewise frightened the wits out of its unsuspecting viewers. Prefiguring the climactic sequence of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, it features a scientist's experiments in the Antarctic with a new kind of fission. He hopes to unleash a power source of unlimited potential. Instead, a global holocaust ensues, and the episode ends with visions of mushroom clouds blanketing the Earth.

In Frederick Pohl's "Many Happy Returns" (October 24, 1952), a young boy is tinkering in the basement with a mysterious gadget. He tells his father (Gene Raymond) that it's a two-way transmitter that's been receiving transmissions from the moon from an alien creature named "Mr. White." The picture that White sends of himself reveals a gruesome, inhuman creature. The boy tells his dad that "Mr. White" is also communicating with other boys in the neighborhood in advance of his arrival on Earth. Horrified, the father springs into action. He rigs up a bundle of dynamite and transmits it back to the moon. Sure enough, a flare is subsequently spotted on the moon's surface. The creature has apparently blown himself up, and an invasion has been narrowly averted.

The "live" immediacy of these episodes enhanced their dramatic power. More to the point of this paper, however, they portended that Earth--that we--were being watched, that the television medium itself was a new kind of "alien" invader. Insinuated into the American home, its unwinking eye was watching and monitoring household activities. As Telotte notes, the popular imagination was beginning to conceptualize television not just as "a kind of ultimate communication device but also, more darkly, as a means of surveillance, a tool of deception, even a potentially deadly force" (38).

Even more striking examples of this emerging panoptic surveillance are Frank De Felitta's "The Lost Planet (The Window)," telecast on November 7, 1952, starring Rod Steiger, Frank Maxwell, and Virginia Vincent; and H. G. Wells's "The Crystal Egg," telecast on October 12, 1951, starring Thomas Mitchell. Both open with the familiar clutching hand, the dissonant blast of music, the streaks of electricity, the intoning voice, "Tales of Tomorrow...."

"The Lost Planet" is a story-within-a-story, an exercise in meta-television. The title "The Lost Planet" flashes on the screen. A scientist and his daughter are talking about an asteroid's collision course with Earth. Suddenly, static breaks up the image. Abruptly, another scene flashes into view. Three figures are seen through a window opening. They are drinking and arguing. Static distortion again. We are back on the soundstage of Tales of Tomorrow. The cast members of "The Lost Planet" stand around in confusion. The floor director and crew (all playing themselves) are thrown into disarray. What happened? As everyone talks at once, the static breaks up the image again. Once more we're looking through the window. The arguments between the man and the woman are intensifying. Looking on is the third man (Rod Steiger) who, after the husband leaves the room, surreptitiously embraces the woman. He consoles her evident distress with a plan.... Back to the television studio. The Kreisler sponsor appears, demanding they run a commercial. Cut to a Kreisler spokesperson, extolling Kreisler watchbands. The commercial is abruptly interrupted by more screen distortion. The two lovers are now plotting to murder the husband. Back to the studio. The floor crew conjecture that the disturbance might have been caused by a freak feedback from the ionized atmosphere. They are now monitoring events for clues to the location so they can alert the police. Perhaps they can issue a call to the TV viewers out there for help.? Another interruption. Too late. We see that the two lovers have thrown the husband out the window to his death. They embrace. But the woman is apprehensive. "I've felt all night that ... we're being watched," she says, turning her gaze directly at us. Back at the television studio, the police arrive. The floor director tells them that tomorrow they will discover a dead body. It is no accident.


The verismo of this story-within-a-story is cleverly maintained. The roles of cast and crew playing themselves and the inclusion of the commercial into the narrative flow nicely add to the conceit. It is only at the end of the credits that the announcer acknowledges this was an experimental show and thanks the ABC Network for its cooperation.

The highlight of the episode is that potent moment when the woman turns an accusing stare directly into the camera, directly at us. "I've felt all night that we're being watched," she says. Discomfited, we are complicit in the surveillance, voyeurs caught up in a futuristic panoptic culture where everyone watches everyone.

The broadcast transmission of "The Crystal Egg" requires a more extended examination. It may be regarded as the granddaddy of our contemporary allegories of the invasive and controlling consequences of our culture of surveillance, prefiguring films such as Coppola's The Conversation (1974), Wim Wenders's The End of Violence (1997), and Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998). Written in 1897, just prior to (and foreshadowing) the publication of The War of the Worlds a year later, "The Crystal Egg" came from a time when Wells was struggling to make a living for his family. Toiling away in the village of Woking, England, recalls his son, Anthony West, "He had to keep producing if he wasn't to let his little army of dependents down. He simply had to go on earning money" (232). "The Crystal Egg" presented a chilling vision of the planet Mars, with its red vegetation, twin moons, and shining canals, peopled by strange, hostile, tentacled creatures bent on the subjugation of Earth. (15) Indeed, the prophecies and horrors chronicled in "The Crystal Egg" echo some of the themes in many of his other stories. (16)

An anonymous narrator relates strange events in the life of one Mr. Cave, a shabby, unkempt, unhappy shopkeeper, a self-described "Naturalist and Dealer in Antiquities." In Cave's show window, tucked away among the elephant tusks, beads, a box of eyes, a flyblown ostrich egg, and an empty glass fish-tank, is a "mass of crystal, worked into the shape of an egg and brilliantly polished" (75). Two men come to the shop, anxious to buy it. Cave asks for five pounds, and the three men haggle for a moment, thinking it unduly expensive. Cave sticks to his price, despite his wife's objections. The men agree to come back two days later.

Upon their return, they find both the Egg and Mr. Cave have disappeared. Cave's wife and step-son are angry, since they had conspired to sell the Egg behind Cave's back. Unbeknownst to them, Cave has taken the Egg to the rooms of his friend, Mr. Jacoby Wace, an Assistant Demonstrator at St. Catherine's Westbourne Hospital. He apprises Wace of a singular aspect of the Egg: In a darkened room the object glows with a mysterious light from within. "[Cave] was surprised to find the light not steady, but writhing within the substance of the egg, as though that object was a hollow sphere of some luminous vapour" (80). Fascinated, Cave spends idle moments furtively gazing into it, trying to divine its contents. And then, one day, he sees something: "It came and went like a flash, but it gave him the impression that the object had for a moment opened to him the view of a wide and spacious and strange country.... It was a moving picture: that is to say, certain objects moved in it, but slowly in an orderly manner like real things.... It must, indeed, have been like looking through an oval glass at a view..." (81).

Cave describes the strange landscape as possessing reddish cliffs with numerous soaring birds, a vast range of buildings, curious trees, and a "wide and shining canal" (82). After a more prolonged gaze ... "Suddenly something flapped repeatedly across the vision, like the fluttering of a jeweled fan or the beating of a wing, and a face, or rather the upper part of a face with very large eyes, came as it were close to his own and as if on the other side of the crystal" (83). Now obsessed with the Egg, Cave is haunted by the sight of the birdlike creatures with their round heads with big eyes, broad silvery wings, and "two bunches of prehensile organs, like long tentacles, immediately under the mouth." And there are other creatures, more human-like--"clumsy bipeds"--who flee from the bird-like creatures and who occasionally are caught in their tentacles and. (the image fades at that point.)

Moreover, ringing the city are high towers upon which are mounted crystal-like objects resembling Cave's own Egg. When one of the creatures looks into the crystals--its eyes meet Cave's. He perceives "some peculiar relation of sympathy with another and exactly similar crystal in this other world, so that what was seen in the interior of the one in this world was, under suitable conditions, visible to an observer in the corresponding crystal in the other world; and vice versa" (85).

A two-way television transmission?

Wace deduces from Cave's description of the stars and the two moons, that this landscape and its creatures must belong to the planet Mars.

Later, Wace learns that Cave has been found dead and that the Egg has disappeared. His subsequent search for it is fruitless. No trace of the Egg is found.

At the end, Wace informs the story's narrator "that the terrestrial crystal must have been--possibly at some remote date--sent hither from that planet, in order to give the Martians a near view of our affairs. Possibly fellows to the crystals in the other masts are also on our globe. No theory of hallucination suffices for the facts" (89).

Before proceeding with Tales of Tomorrow's adaptation of "The Crystal Egg," it should be noted that at no other time and through no other medium of transmission could Wells's prophecy--and warning--of a televisual device that could monitor and control our daily lives be rendered so effectively. Surely it is no accident that this and other episodes of Tales of Tomorrow appeared at roughly the same time as other forecasts of an expanding culture of surveillance. To cite just a few familiar examples, there was the publication two years before of Jorge Luis Borges's short story, "The Aleph." Inspired by "The Crystal Egg," admits Borges, it described in words similar to Wells's a mysterious glass-like object, measuring only inches in diameter, where "all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist." Gazing upon it, the narrator reports, "[I] saw endless eyes, all very close, studying themselves as though in a mirror.... In that unbounded moment I saw millions of delightful and horrible acts; none amazed me so much as the fact that all occurred in the same point, without superposition and without transparency" (281-283). Also published in 1949, George Orwell's 1984 predicted the omniscient and omnipresent surveillance of the "telescreens" of Big Brother. Three years later Ray Bradbury's classic short story, "The Veldt," in The Illustrated Man, predicted a destructive video technology invading the home with murderous consequences.

But it's the live broadcast of "The Crystal Egg" that brings these visions to the reality of the home television set. Just as another Welles, Orson by name, had delivered to a nation's living rooms a Wellsian Martian invasion via a live radio transmission in 1938, now another invasion transpired in 1951--only this time, it came into the home through a much more powerful, uniquely graphic medium. Adapted by Mel Goldberg, directed by Charles S. Dubin, and starring Thomas Mitchell as "Professor Vanek" (a replacement for Mr. Wace), it is a remarkably close adaptation of Wells's original story.


Prologue: Closeup of a record spinning on a turntable. The voice of Professor Vanek issues from it. "There is involved the welfare of this country and perhaps the world...." In a chair, his back to us, sits an unidentified listener. The recorded voice, relates Vanek's story in flashback....

Cut to the curio shop of Mr. Cave. A stranger has come to the shop insistent on purchasing the Crystal Egg in the show window. His curiosity aroused as to why this object would be so interesting to the buyer, Cave stalls the purchaser and telephones his friend, Professor Vanek, a physicist and professor at Cambridge to take a look. Vanek agrees to inspect the object.

Cave leaves the object with Vanek. At first mildly interested, Vanek accidentally discovers that when the room is darkened the object glows with an inner light. As the hours pass, Vanek grows increasingly preoccupied with it as he gazes into its depths. He begins to think he sees inside a vision of a strange landscape. As the vision grows sharper, he consults his star charts: "There, close to the horizon was Saturn, in ascending aspect to Neptune. This was the answer. Through the crystal egg I was looking at a landscape on Mars."

And then comes the moment of the Great Discovery. "The Crystal became my life," Vanek intones. As he gazes into the depths of the object, a monstrous figure suddenly rears up in the foreground, a shuffling, tentacled form with one enormous eye. It draws closer and gazes intently at Vanek....

Cut to Title Card and Commercial

The next morning, Cave comes toVanek's door, retrieves the Egg, and flees.

Vanek pursues him to the shop, only to learn that Cave has been attacked in the night and the object has disappeared.

Vanek is now convinced that the Egg has been planted on Earth for some dreadful purpose. Someone, or some thing on Mars is watching Earth. Why? But nobody will believe Vanek's story. Fearing he is mad, he visits a newspaper editor friend. Others have "seen" things, he argues to the editor--Galileo with his telescope, Leeuwenhoek with his microscope--and they too have been deemed mad. Vanek fears now that what he sees is a dreadful prophecy: "They're watching us, they're watching us," Vanek keeps repeating. "The crystal must have been put there for that purpose. Can't you understand? It was mere chance that I stumbled over it that I saw Mars. That's unimportant. But through the crystal they see me! Night and day! Watching our unguarded moments. Watching for what? ... Somewhere in the world the crystal exists! Find it! Find the crystal. For through it they are watching us! Watching our every move."

But without the Egg to prove his story, Vanek is dismissed by the editor.

Epilogue: We return to the room seen in the prologue. Vanek's voice on the phonograph warns that if he suffers the same fate as Cave, this recording may be the only surviving evidence about the Egg and its sinister purpose. It is Earth's only warning. Two shots ring out. The recording reaches its end. A hand reaches out, grasps the disk, and breaks it into pieces. The camera angles downward, revealing Vanek's dead body at the feet of the stranger.

To be continued.

Back to the Future

Since the broadcast of "The Crystal Egg," our society and culture have moved away from the modest, personal social controls of relatively primitive audiovisual technologies to the "absolute visibility" of a vastly more sophisticated postmodern culture of everyday surveillance. (This evolution is reflected in a more recent television adaptation of "The Crystal Egg." (17)) Once apprehensive and fearful of that all-seeing eye--call it by its many names, "Aleph," Big Brother, Crystal Egg--we are now immersed in a visual culture dominated, writes historian Wheeler Winston Dixon, by "the reciprocal gaze of surveillance, admonition, guidance, instruction--whether relatively benign or a labor of panoptic control" (xiii). We are in danger of becoming entirely complicit in what sociologist William G. Staples calls a state of "permanent visibility" in which, in the name of security, we willingly leave our traces when we use credit cards and ATMs, when we submit to metal detectors in schools and airports, and when we surf the web. Orwell's Big Brother, once feared, is now the name of a hugely popular reality television series. And we find, as presciently expressed in Steven Soderbergh's film Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), that video technologies are no longer an unwelcome intrusion but a public forum wherein viewers and participants engage in a reciprocal relationship hitherto confined to the sanctity of the Church Confessional. Observation is no longer a menace, writes Peter Weibel: "In the field of surveillance the panoptic pleasures of exhibitionism and voyeurism, or scopophilia, unfold" (215). Foucault had predicted this when he said that under the weight of an "inspecting gaze," we would end up "interiorizing it" where we would become our own overseer, "each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against himself" (qtd. in Levin, 98).

Staples is alarmed. "Like those subjected to the gaze of the Panopticon," he warns, "we are increasingly 'awed to silence,' systematically manipulated and progressively unable to question private authority, challenge public officials, or engage in political dissent. We become, in essence, a 'docile' citizenry, 'disciplinary' subjects rather than democratic ones. Our homes will be increasingly 'hardwired' with new telecommunication links that offer corporations unprecedented access to our habits, buying preferences, and financial status" (157).

There is no doubting that, despite its relatively primitive aspect, Tales of Tomorrow once played its own modest role in provoking our anxieties about the sinister implications of an encroaching panoptic culture. In hindsight, if Professor Staples is correct, that alarm needs to be heeded now, more than ever. Our complicit acceptance and docile complacency needs to be reexamined and overturned. Maybe we didn't fully appreciate that fifty years ago, of course, as we lay sprawled, terrified, on the living room carpet before the Motorola and the onslaught of that awful cyclopean Martian Eye. But that tiny, ten-inch image seemed larger than life. We felt it was immediate. We understood it was now. We knew it was real. And it was happening in our space and in our time, just as Wells had predicted--not in the safe space of a movie theater, but in our home.

Now, half a century later, despite the distortions of the kinescope recordings and the clumsiness of the cameras and microphones, that message still speaks to viewers. Thanks to its availability on DVD, Tales of Tomorrow is no longer a warning we dimly remember from the distant past. It is now a timely reminder that, more than ever, we Watchers were--and are--being Watched.

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--. Personal interview. 14 Dec 2008.

Telotte, J. P., ed. The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2008.

Weibel, Peter. "Pleasure and the Panoptic Principle." Levin et al. 207-223.

Wells, H. G. Seven Science Fiction Novels of H. G. Wells. New York: Dover, 1934.

West, Anthony. H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life. New York: Random House, 1984.

Wilk, Max. The Golden Age of Television: Notes from the Survivors. New York: Delacorte, 1976.

Williams, Wade. Personal interview. 5 June 2007.

Yar, Majid, "Panoptic Power and the Pathologisation of Vision: Critical Reflections on the Foucauldian Thesis." Surveillance & Society 1.3 (2003): 254-271.

Young, Paul. The Cinema Dreams Its Rivals: Media Fantasy Films from Radio to the Internet. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP 2006.

Zicree, Marc Scott. The Twilight Zone Companion. New York: Bantam, 1982.


(1) At this writing, 41 kinescopes of the 83 episodes of Tales of Tomorrow are available in DVD format, licensed through Corinth Films and distributed by Image Entertainment. Another DVD is promised in the near future, which will contain another 20 episodes. The remaining 22 episodes appear to be lost.

In a memorandum dated September 18, 1957, producer George Foley, who owned the rights to the series, considered filming new versions of some of them for CBS or NBC, including "The Crystal Egg." The project never saw the light of day. Instead, the rights were acquired in 1980 by Wade Williams, a Kansas City-based entrepreneur. He had seen the series as a child growing up in Kansas City on a tiny 5-inch black-andwhite Philco television set. "The show had completely vanished by the time I got around to tracking it down," Williams recalls. "In 1976 I began buying film rights to television series, and I really wanted to find Tales of Tomorrow. I traced it back to the producer, George Foley, and he told me he owned the series but retired and had never succeeded in getting them broadcast again. I negotiated with him for the rights and I flew to New York where he met me in the offices of Starlog Magazine. He brought out boxes of the kinescopes. The negatives were gone, they had been destroyed by the filmmaker back in the 1950s for silver. The kinescopes were all we had. I got a lot of them, around 61, but some of the other episodes were missing. I brought them back to Kansas City. I got an early license with USA Network back in the early 1980s and showed some of them. I got lots of letters from some of the writers and directors. There were subsequent licenses, and we put a lot of them out on Englewood Entertainment. Some of the episodes were novelized by David Houston. After Mr. Foley died, by the way, they thought that maybe some of the missing episodes might be in the unfinished basement of his lake house. On a chance, I flew out there and met Mrs. Foley and retrieved some files of the company. In the basement I found the missing James Dean episode, among some others, but 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' episode and the second half of the two-part 20,000 Leagues under the Sea is still lost. It's a miracle that so many of the episodes still exist" (Williams, interview).

(2) In February 1940 the FCC voted to allow commercial broadcasting to begin in September of that year. RCA seized upon that ruling as the incentive for the commercial exploitation of the medium, promising in the New York daily press, "thrilling dramas and plays. Exciting boxing bouts. History making parades. Spot news events ... thrills, excitement, action..." (qtd. in Boddy, 33).

(3) I use the term "Panopticon" in its most general sense to refer to mechanisms of surveillance and power. Extrapolated in 1791 by the British utilitarian philosopher, economist, and jurist Jeremy Bentham, the Panopticon, or inspection house, was a central guard tower inside a prison, or reformatory, which allowed a constant view of the inmates. Positioned within the contexts of our modern world, the concept was developed in Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), originally published under the more apt title, Surveiller et punir. Since then, according to commentator Majid Yar, "Foucault's figure of the Panopticon has exercised considerable sway over the theoretical treatment of surveillance over the past decades" (256). However, Yar cautions that "lifting the panoptic model of disciplinary power from the institutional frame of confinement in which Foucault theorized it may limit its straightforward applicability to surveillance in the wider social arena" (256).

(4) Two historians of television and society, Professors William G. Staples, of the University of Kansas, and Gary Edgerton of Old Dominion University confirm in recent interviews with this writer that to date there has been only sparse scholarly research on the evolution of surveillance technologies during the dawn of the television age. They both agree that most of the attention given to these developments came from the science fiction and fantasy writers of the day. Hence, the importance of Tales of Tomorrow, which became a forum for their vision.

(5) For an absorbing, book-length discussion of film's "intermedia identity," see Paul Young.

(6) Based on a pacifist play by independent MP Noel Pemberton-Billing, its setting of a futuristic London and prediction of aerial warfare predated Things to Come. For a brief account of the film, see Jeffrey Richards, 24-25.

(7) John R. Kirkpatrick wrote in Variety in 1939, "I think the future of television is in the theater and not in the home.television will be the biggest boon to the theater that ever happened" (qtd. in Boddy, 22).

(8) Boddy reports that by the late 1940s, research reports were endorsing the "common belief that programs should be limited to thirty minutes in length [arguing] that television's intimacy precluded both feature films and full-length theatrical works." (67).

(9) Other "live" dramatic anthologies originating in the 1950-1952 time period included Escape, The Trap, The Web, Stage 13, Danger, The Gallery of Mme. Liu T'song. One of the most popular of these series was Lights Out, which had originated in 1947 and came to television in 1949-1952. Science fiction programming at this time targeted for children was largely derived from the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers series of the 1930s and included Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (1950-1955), Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949-1955), Space Patrol (1950-1955), Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers (1953-1954).

(10) For example, it receives a mere one-line mention in the most detailed extant study of "live" television in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Live Television Drama, 1946-1951: "Tales of Tomorrow made a respectable debut on ABC-TV, August 3, 1951, and ran for two seasons [sic] as an early science fiction program" (Hawes, 135). And in Keith M. Booker's Science Fiction Television, we learn only that "Tales of Tomorrow established a tradition of thoughtful, adult-oriented programming that many see as a direct predecessor to the Twilight Zone" (5-6). Even in Telotte's recent The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader, it is cited briefly in passing as one of several 1950s anthology series that "were celebrated by critics and science fiction authors for the faithfulness of their adaptations and the precision of their science" (57).

(11) Hugo Gernsback coined the term in 1926 to describe the contents of his magazine Amazing Stories. "By 'scientifiction' I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story--a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision" (qtd. in Gunn 120).

(12) Twilight Zone has received the lion's share of popular and scholarly attention. See Zicree, and Presnell and McGee. For an invaluable compendium about The Outer Limits, see Schow.

(13) A couple of amusing anecdotes suffice to make the point. Producer Sumner Locke Elliott recalls one of many "on-air disasters" during Philco Television Playhouse's "live" productions: "I remember one show with Kim Hunter. It was all done in flashback, the story began with an automobile accident in which she and the leading man were killed. We shot it in a mock-up of a car, and somebody up in the control booth gave the order to release the two actors so that they could get to their next scene too soon--the camera was still on them--and there, in front of the whole audience all over America the two 'dead' people got up and walked away from the accident" (qtd. in Wilk, 128). And George Schaefer, who directed many of the "live" broadcasts of the Hallmark Hall of Fame, remembers an incident during Maurice Evans's "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I" soliloquy from Hamlet. At Hamlet's words, "Now I am alone," a stagehand stepped into the set in full view of the audience, stared around a bit, and then walked off (21).

(14) Long before this 1951 episode, the plot device of the discovery of an Alien monitoring device was employed in Jack London's "The Red One." In this story, published posthumously in 1918, an explorer comes across in equatorial jungles a primitive race that worships a mysterious spherical red object imbedded deep in the earth. Before his death at the hands of the tribes peoples, the explorer realizes it has come from the stars and is somehow sentient. Of course, Arthur C. Clarke developed the idea in "The Sentinel," written in 1948 and first published in 1951 in the Avon Science Fiction and Fantasy Reader. When the mysterious pyramid found on the moon is smashed, a signal is sent out to extraterrestrial Watchers: "It was only a matter of time before we found the pyramid and forced it open. Now its signals have ceased, and those whose duty it is will be turning their minds upon Earth. Perhaps they wish to help our infant civilization. But they must be very, very old, and the old are often insanely jealous of the young" (149).

(15) "The Crystal Egg" was first published in Tales of Space and Time (1898). The opening words of War of the Worlds describe these nasty intentions: "No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own.they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.... Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us" (Wells, 309).

(16) Among Wells's short stories whose themes have become part of the fabric of modern science fiction are "Empire of the Ants," in which the ants threaten to conquer the world; "Flowering of the Strange Orchid," which deals with man-eating tentacled plants; "The New Accelerator," concerning a drug which can speed up the motions of men dozens of times; "The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes," about a man who could see through walls; "Aepyronis Island," in which the ancient eggs of extinct creatures hatch; "The Star," in which a wandering body from space almost collides with the earth; "The Crystal Egg," which is really an interplanetary television receiver; and "The Grisly Folk," a tale of prehistoric people. "His mind seemed a bottomless well of diverse and new--for his time--scientific ideas. One would be hard put to name another writer of science fiction who possessed his versatility" (Moskowitz, 136).

(17) The version for Hallmark Productions was one of six stories adapted for a series entitled The Infinite Worlds of H. G. Wells. It was released on August 5, 2001 and directed by Robert Young. Wells's story is considerably amplified. A framing device has Wells (Tom Ward) in 1946 examining artifacts from his past. Upon finding a Crystal Egg, he launches into a story....

Flashback to the late 1890s. A meteor crashes into the woods. A tramp finds the Crystal Egg in a long narrow trench. He sells it to Mr. Cave (Stephen Critchlow), a curios dealer. In spite of his wife's (Tilly Vosburgh) urgings to sell it, Cave grows increasingly fascinated by it. He discovers that when a ray of light hits it just so, it throws out a light. As he gazes into it, he perceives a barren landscape with pyramidlike architectural structures.and suddenly a form hurtles toward his gaze, a monstrous bug-eyed creature that threatens to devour him....

Cave brings the young Wells to his shop and shows him the Crystal Egg. Sure enough, as Wells gazes into it, the strange world again reveals itself, and the creature reappears. Only this time the monster seems to emerge out of the Egg, into the room, advancing hungrily toward him. Wells is saved when his girl friend opens the door, admitting more light, thus banishing the apparition. Left behind are trails of red dust.

Wells finds the vagrant who initially discovered the Egg. He is taken to the site. He learns that the man's dog had disappeared during the incident. Soon, Wells theorizes this Crystal Egg is really a doorway, a transporter between this world and the planet Mars, and that the dog must have been whisked away as a kind of earthly specimen.

Later one night Cave's shrewish wife is awakened by a noise below stairs. She finds that the Crystal Egg has burst out of the trunk where it was encased. She gazes into it ... is drawn into it ... and disappears.

The story ends when Wells visits Mr. Cave the next morning. Cave seems delighted that his wife has disappeared.

In the epilogue, we learn that Cave's wife is now imprisoned among countless other specimens on display on the Red Planet.
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Author:Tibbetts, John C.
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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