The Twilight Zone

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The Twilight Zone

Created by the visionary writer Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone proved both a landmark of televised science fiction and a powerful touchstone in America's pop cultural consciousness. The black-and-white anthology series, which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1964, generated lukewarm ratings at the time but has grown in public estimation over time. Over the course of its five-year network run, The Twilight Zone explored themes never before examined on television. It exposed the talents of a generation of talented character players, like Jack Klugman, William Shatner, and Robert Duvall, who would go on to become household names for subsequent portrayals. It also cemented the legacy of its creator, at the time known principally as the author of socially concerned live dramas.

Serling created The Twilight Zone to serve as a forum for his commentary about technology, conformity, discrimination, and a whole host of other issues. Frustrated by his inability to explore these topics in mainstream dramas in the face of censorship by network executives and skittish advertisers, he hoped that the show's science fiction anthology format might allow him to introduce a little liberal orthodoxy to viewers without alarming the suits. But if Serling was in it for the advocacy, the show's other creative collaborators consistently pulled it back into the realm of traditional fantasy. This dialectic proved good for all parties concerned.

The Twilight Zone premiered on October 2, 1959. Its introductory episode, "Where Is Everybody," established the tone and creative parameters of the series. In it, a young man in Air Force garb finds himself in a seemingly deserted town. After increasingly frantic attempts to locate its inhabitants, he breaks down in despair. Only at the end is it revealed that the man is an astronaut being subjected to an experiment in an isolation booth, and that the proceedings have been an hallucination. In countless subsequent installments, The Twilight Zone would rely on this same formula of an ordinary human being suddenly beset by extraordinary circumstances. Quite frequently, there was an unexpected twist at the denouement that cast the strange events in a new or supernatural light. To provide context and codify the cosmic significance of the events, Serling himself provided opening and closing narration, usually on camera in an immaculate Kuppenheimer suit.

To supply these dark melodramas from week to week, The Twilight Zone relied upon a stable of writers seasoned in the macabre arts of science fiction and fantasy. Along with Serling, short story veterans Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont formed a creative troika that was responsible for much of the series' high-quality teleplays. Matheson's scripts tended toward more hard-science content, like the classic "Little Girl Lost," about a child who vanishes through her bedroom wall into another dimension. Beaumont crafted some of the show's more horrific installments, like the gothic gem "The Howling Man," in which a traveler in Europe happens upon the devil being kept locked up in a cell in a monastery. Other important contributors to the series included George Clayton Johnson; Montgomery Pittman; Earl Hamner, Jr.; Reginald Rose; and Ray Bradbury, who eventually wrote for the show as well.

But it was the workaholic Serling who took on the bulk of the creative burden. All told, Serling would write 92 of the 156 broadcast episodes, more than one-third of the total. His influence over the show was especially keen during the first three seasons, when he personally penned some of the program's signature installments. "Eye of the Beholder" addressed people's perceptions of beauty, through the eyes of a bandaged and "disfigured" young woman whom viewers see revealed in a shocking climax. "Mirror Image" explored the nature of identity when a woman waiting in a bus station is suddenly confronted by her exact double. And the chilling "The Obsolete Man" touched on Cold War themes in relating the last days of a librarian of the future condemned to death for defending the utility of books.

Episodes like these allowed Serling to fulfill his vision of commenting on existential and political themes without incurring the wrath of advertisers and network executives. But the show's social concern also emboldened Serling to write all too pontifically at times, a problem that was exacerbated by his heavy workload. Too many of his episodes seem written in a rush of sanctimony, with long, windy speechifying from the central characters on the major issues of the day. Even the many gems could not spare the program from lukewarm public interest. The Twilight Zone was never a hit in the ratings and was in danger of cancellation by CBS almost from the start. At the end of the third season, the network elected to expand the show to an hour in hopes that that might change its fortunes. But the quality of the scripts suffered, with many seeming interminably padded at the new running time. After a desultory fifth season, during which most of the series best creative talent left, the axe finally fell.

The Twilight Zone may have ended in 1964, but its influence continued to grow. Many of the show's writers, like Richard Matheson, took their talents to the big screen. Others continued to work in television. Earl Hamner, Jr., who wrote several episodes for The Twilight Zone set in the rural backwoods, went on to create The Waltons, the long-running cornpone drama on CBS. Fittingly, Serling remained the busiest of all. He co-wrote the screenplay for Planet of the Apes in 1968, among other theatrical ventures. He also released a series of short story adaptations of his classic Twilight Zone teleplays. But Serling's talents remained best suited for the small screen. He hosted a very Twilight Zone -like anthology series, Night Gallery, from 1970 to 1972, but network interference eventually drove him out of the medium altogether. He died following complications from open heart surgery on June 28, 1975.

Long after its network run had ended, The Twilight Zone remained a staple of syndicated reruns nationwide. Often aired late at night, it gave the creeps to a whole new generation of insomniacs who had not been around for the initial airings. The show's appeal was so broad that in 1977, Saturday Night Live could do a parody of it (with Dan Aykroyd doing a dead-on Serling) that had the audience howling with recognition. Serling's widow even launched a Twilight Zone magazine featuring new fiction in the series tradition. The time seemed ripe for a major revival of the franchise.

But all did not work out as planned. In 1982, a Twilight Zone movie was released to much anticipation. In keeping with the spirit of the series, producer Steven Spielberg had opted for an anthology format, comprised of three remakes of classic Twilight Zone installments and a fourth, all-new story. Up and coming directors Joe Dante (The Howling), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), and George Miller (The Road Warrior) were brought in to helm three of the segments, with Spielberg handling the fourth. Despite all that talent, however, and the best efforts of screenwriter Richard Matheson, the result was a tepid mishmash that bombed at the box office. Each of the three remakes was markedly inferior to the original, while Landis' segment, the lone original story, was a sanctimonious misfire, dismissed by the show's aficionados as an unintentional parody of Serling. The fact that actor Vic Morrow was beheaded during filming did little to enhance the picture's public relations cachet, and embroiled Landis in a career-threatening lawsuit.

Somewhat more successful—artistically, if not commercially—was a new Twilight Zone television series, launched in 1985 on CBS. The new show boasted a stellar lineup of creative talent, from Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Harlan Ellison on the writers' side to directors like William Friedkin, Joe Dante, and John Milius. Actor Charles Aidman, who had appeared in two original Twilight Zone episodes, assumed Serling's post as narrator/moral contextualizer. A number of top-flight episodes were produced, like Ellison's brilliant "Paladin of the Lost Hour," that recaptured the spirit of the old series. But budget cuts, network interference, and low ratings eventually took their toll, and the series was mothballed for good in 1989.

Four decades after its network debut, The Twilight Zone continued to intrigue both the general public and fans of the science fiction/fantasy genre. The phrase "Twilight Zone kind of feeling" has entered the popular lexicon as a term for the series' quintessentially eerie sensation of otherworldly alienation. Marathon airings of the nearly 40-year-old episodes generated powerhouse ratings for local syndicated stations well into the 1990s, making the syndication package a prized possession within the broadcast industry. In 1996, cable's Sci-Fi Channel secured exclusive rights to air reruns of the original series—albeit in a truncated form allowing for additional commercial time, something of which Serling would most assuredly not approve. Nevertheless, its viability into a second millennium ensured that Serling and his unique vision would remain a permanent marker on America's pop cultural landscape.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Presnell, Don, and Marty McGee. A Critical History of Television's The Twilight Zone, 1959-1964. New York, McFarland & Company, 1998.

Zicree, Marc Scott. The Twilight Zone Companion. New York, Bantam, 1989.

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The Twilight Zone

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