The Genius of Early TV Transformations: Twilight Zone to Star Trek

Movie metamorphosis has been around 100 years. TV transitions have thus hit half a century. But how has it been going for the small screen?

Den of Geek recently celebrated the anniversary of movie transformations with a list of some favorites, all classics. Monster metamorphosis wasn’t merely made in the movies, mon frères, television got in some transformations of their own. Twilight Zone, Outer Limits and Star Trek, science fiction TV’s holy trinity, were pioneers in the area as well. TV had its own particular camera tricks that transformed the art into something all its own.

The art of TV transformations would reach its zenith in the comedies like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie where they were done in a blink of an eye, or a twitch of the nose. Don’t mock comedy’s effect on the art of movie transformations. The transitions in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein are as good, or better, as any filmic transition at the time. Compare Larry Talbot’s werewolf transformation to any done even a few years after, or the animation of Bela Lugosi into a bat for that matter.

The Twilight Zone, produced and often written by Rod Serling, was one of the earliest science fiction shows on television. They weren’t working with a big budget, although one of their sponsors, Ford Motors, was able to transform the entire New York City skyline just to erase the Chrysler Building. The Twilight Zone dealt with transformation by pulling the camera or using cutaways between transitions, like in the episode “The Howling Man,” when Robin Hughes turned into the devil.

In what may be the most famous Twilight Zone episode, “It’s a Good Life,” Anthony, played by future Will Robinson Billy Mumy, turns Dan Hollis (Don Keefer) into a jack-in-the-box with his head bopping back and forth in the middle before he’s banished to the cornfield. It’s one of the scariest scenes ever shot for the series. There is no actual on-camera transformation, but it’s a good scene. A very good scene. I like that they didn’t use any effects. It’s better that they leave it up to the imagination. Right Anthony?

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The audience never sees the elderly residents of  Sunnyvale Rest Home become young again, in the episode “Kick the Can.” We never see the flawed beauty of 18-year-old Marilyn Cuberle transform into the newly stylish flavor of the month on “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” when she undergoes the Transformation, but the art of television, coming right into people’s living rooms, allowed audiences a safe haven to imagine.

The Outer Limits also had its limits. In the 1964 episode “ZZZZZ,” written by Meyer Dolinsky and directed by John Brahm, Regina is a queen bee. Most of the time she looks human, enough to get herself a job as a lab assistant, but she drops her guise when she’s eating. She gets caught morphing into a giant bee through the eyes of the lab-keeper’s wife Francesca Fields (Marsha Hunt). The transformation is merely a dissolve from Regina’s head to a bee’s head, but the episode itself is worth watching for the unbridled sexual energy of Johanna Frank, the queen bee looking for a mate, with mating dance and everything.

Likewise in “The Architects of Fear,” Robert Culp got a procedure to make himself look like an alien in order to scare the world into peace. The actual alien costume in the show may be the best an ET ever looked on the small screen, but the transformation happened where we couldn’t get a good look at it.

When David Crow put out the call for celluloid transformations, I threw on William Shatner’s classic psychedelic album The Transformed Man for inspiration. William Shatner was a Twilight Zone and Outer Limits veteran by the time he replaced Jeffrey Hunter’s Captain Pike on Gene Rodenbury’s “Wagon Train to the stars.” The former King of Kings battled a transforming alien in his one time out. “The Cage” featured several on-screen transformations all leading up to Susan Oliver, as Vina the stranded human who didn’t come with easy assembly instructions, metamorphosing into the broken shell of a person she really was.

William Shatner, the actor, Captain Kirk and T.J. Hooker, never really transformed in his films. He didn’t grow eight legs in Kingdom of the Spiders. Shatner got to get it on with a succubus in Incubus, but he doesn’t turn into the goat who wins the day. His eyes leaked in The Devil’s Rain, but he didn’t grow horns and pointy ears.

For pointy ears, Shatner had to wait until he helmed the Starship Enterprise. Jealous that his first officer was acting like a sailor on leave with a Romulan officer, Kirk arched his eyebrows and got his ears bobbed. But this was merely cosmetic. No drastic plastic for a Starfleet skipper. His second in command, the dedicated thespian Leonard Nimoy, would go on to transform weekly as Parris, the man of a thousand faces on Mission: Impossible. Nimoy, the famed author of I Am Not Spock, is rumored, as of now, of using his cosmetic prowess to also be Scotty, Sulu, and on one occasion at cast party, Yeoman Rand. Shatner didn’t really transform until his gender bending turn as Dr. Janice Lester in Star Trek’s final episode, “Turnabout Intruder.”

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Shatner’s transformation was all girdles and fingernails, not even press-on nails. They weren’t even painted, it was just the way he held them and checked them out, seeing if his phaser could be set on polish. It was purely an acting alteration. His metamorphosis had more to do with attitude than biology. Shatner’s game, this gave the actor an excuse to suck in his stomach as he threw out his chest to act tits first, but he comes across at times like the old queens on Barney Miller, only funnier.

As Lester, Shatner is thrilled by his newfound strength, tossing around his old lover like a rag doll, carrying the body with James Kirk trapped inside it with him wherever he goes. Hospital gurney, who needs one when you have Lester Kirk to carry the wounded? The episode missed an opportunity for further suspense when both Lester and Kirk stood on the same pod in the transporter. Two people, who have just had their consciousnesses scrambled, have their atoms scrambled into a million pieces and reassembled miles away. David Cronenberg’s The Fly was built on the premise that two beings being beamed just across the room would get their DNA tangled. Add to that the fact that they’ve already swapped souls and you have a potential supernatural thriller in the icy cold of space.

The actual transformation is about as low-tech as you can get. The images of Kirk and Dr. Lester lifted and superimposed on each other with a pink hue. It is a spiritual transformation enacted by a kind of astral projection machine. The machine itself looks like it’s made of stone, like some ancient temple relic.

The last episode of the storied series transformed the prime objective from being a forward thinking, liberally hopeful view of future equality into a shamble of mixed messages. “Turnabout Intruder” isn’t offensive because of its reactionary anti-feminist premise, that women can’t captain a starship because they are hysterical bundles of hormones who come apart at the seams at the first sign of betrayal. It is offensive because it broke so many Federation rules. Star Trek had already established that gender equality was around the corner. Romulans and other civilizations had women commanders, planetary leaders and renowned minds. But beyond that, all of Lester’s decisions as Captain were so obviously outside the rule books and no one was able to stop her.

Doctor McCoy’s authority is usurped. Dr. Arthur Coleman seems to be left in charge of the medical bay. Spock seems to use the nerve pinch willy nilly, there are obviously better ways to deal with this kind of intrusion than knocking out all the security guards. It’s very un-Spock like. Fascinating, but illogical.

Sandra Smith does a very good Captain Kirk, but without the pauses because Shatner’s own pauses didn’t leave left enough running time, while William Shatner does a more than passable … William Shatner. Promise. His tsks tsks and frantic pouting come across like his later comic turn in Showtime with Eddie Murphy and Robert De Niro. 

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Star Trek opened with a transformation episode. The sexy green Orion slave girl in “The Cage,” which was retrofitted as “The Menagerie,” actually looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and her captors/mentors grew fangs when choked. The series continued monster transformations straight away with the Salt Monster. “The Man Trap” was one of the first episodes ever filmed. The salt monster transformation was very low-budget. The cameras merely projected a different face to whoever was most salient at the time. The witch in the episode “Catspaw,” turned into a cat as well as whatever woman in the universe Kirk might desire, but all the changes were done off-camera.

Television has made great strides in monster metamorphosis, but will always lag behind big-screen magic. Television has the advantage of a smaller screen to hide the flubs and sputters of melding the effects. It also benefits from beaming right into living rooms across the country. When TV first came to the nation’s households, the transformations may well have been imagined as happening on the wall next to the set. The very intimacy of home viewing allowed the imagination to fill in the cracks in the makeup.