After all the hoopla and excitement about The Twilight Zone filming an episode of season two in Ashcroft earlier this year, my fear was that the episode itself would end up being a let-down. Reviews of the season one episodes had been mixed; many were considerably longer than the half-hour running times of most of the original episodes, and critics generally agreed that with TZ, less is more: longer episodes allowed for more flab. It was also noted that there was a tendency for many of the new episodes to be less like their spiritual predecessors, and more like the recent (and TZ-influenced) series Black Mirror, with its emphasis on the perils of technology.
It was therefore reassuring to see that the episode of TZ filmed here — “A Small Town” — clocked in at a relatively brisk 35 minutes, which allows enough time to get in, establish the plot and characters, tell the story, and get out again without overstaying its welcome. And the story itself was a welcome throwback to classic Zone episodes: use the same script, but film it in black-and-white, and it would fit very well into the original series.
No spoilers, but the plot is a simple one. The beloved mayor of the small town of Littleton has died unexpectedly while in office, and the town’s finance officer, being next in line of succession, has stepped into the role until an election can be held. That the mayor, Conley, is a schmuck is established early on, when he has a brief discussion with the former mayor’s grieving widower and has no idea who the man is.
The widower has moved into the attic of the town’s church, where he discovers an amazingly detailed scale model of Littleton’s downtown. It doesn’t take him long to realize that any changes he makes to the model happen to the town as well, so he sets about making a series of improvements. He’s pleased with the results, but less pleased when he learns that the townsfolk are crediting Conley with the improvements, and that Conley — realizing this helps his election bid — is only too happy to take the credit.
I won’t say more, but the episode builds to a satisfying conclusion, touching along the way on a number of themes that the series’ original creator, Rod Serling, returned to many times: the appeal of small towns; herd mentality; the propensity of people to turn on others when they’re frightened; and a seemingly magical device that can be used for good or ill, and what use it will ultimately be put to.
And then, of course, there’s the setting, which is obviously and recognizably Ashcroft. Some CGI trickery has been used to add a second storey to the ReMax building, and the Central Café has magically moved a block south from where it actually is, but other than that, anyone familiar with the town will be able to spend a pleasant half-hour or so picking out familiar buildings. Interior scenes were shot at OK Stop, the Central, and Zion United, while the buildings on or near the block of 4th Street between Railway and Brink are prominently featured (it was good to see the Journal building — masquerading as the home of the Littleton Standard — get a lot of screen time).
There’s also the pleasure of spotting familiar faces in the background, as many locals were used as extras. I must confess that I spent my first viewing of the episode looking to see if any of the shots I’d been in made it into the finished product. The answer is yes, and it was a bit jarring to see myself (however briefly) on screen.
But there I am, and along with Ashcroft I am now a tiny part of an iconic television series that I’ve loved for several decades. It sounds like a Twilight Zone episode: what happens when an ordinary person gets an up close, personal look at something they’ve long admired? Is it a dream come true, or a nightmare? In this case, there’s definitely a happy ending.