“Mr. Serling had his troubles over script censor-ship… but where other dramatists either capitulate or retire, he manages to achieve a great deal through the subtlety of his approach. What he might do with no shackles could be most exciting.” – New York Times on Rod Serling’s “The Time Element”, Nov. 25, 1958
“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”
– The opening words of “The Twilight Zone”, Season 1, 1959 – ’60.
“The Twilight Zone” had its premiere on today’s date, October 2, in 1959. Within its confines, that of a science fiction/fantasy anthology series, Rod Serling, the show’s creator and main writer found enormous freedom. He could comment on virtually any issue, any current event or public figure, any facet of the human condition, and basically get away with it at a time when sponsors were notoriously frightened of any controversial subject. The result was as the Times predicted it would be.. “most exciting.”
Rod Serling: the Creator of “The Twilight Zone”
Rod Serling was born on Dec. 25.. yes that’s right Christmas Day, in 1924. He went into the Army during World War II, serving as a Paratrooper in the South Pacific. During his time in the military, Serling took up boxing. Although he never went very far in the sport, both that and his war time experiences (he was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart) gave him experiences which would show up in his television scripts. After the war and college, he tried writing television scripts, starting out right here in Cincinnati, Ohio at WLW Radio. Eventually he wound up in New York as a sought-after writer of serious dramatic scripts. His “Requiem For a Heavyweight” for the show “Playhouse 90” was a critical and a commercial success, but his script for “The Time Element” about a man having dreams about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor who winds up transporting in time back to that event was viewed skeptically by network sponsors. Eventually it was aired and brought both the critical reviews quoted above, but the interest of CBS Network leaders in an idea he had.
Entering “The Zone”….
Serling had found himself growing increasingly frustrated with the frequent changes and edits to his scripts which had been forced by the TV Networks and their sponsors for commercial reasons. And he was particularly upset by changes in content to his script for “Noon On Doomsday”, which closely followed the events of the murder of Emmit Till in Mississippi. Even to mention such subjects as race relations, let alone deal with them seriously was poison in the minds of most TV exec.s and sponsors. He felt that writing a show, an anthology series using such science fiction staples as robots, space aliens, and various fantasy settings such as futuristic civilizations and time travel would give him the freedom to touch on more serious and controversial topics. As he would later say: “I found that it was alright to have Martians saying things Democrats could never say”
The Premiere on 10/2/59:
And so it was that on that Friday night that TV viewers had their choice: “The Gillette Sports Cavalcade” on NBC, “The Detectives” on ABC, or an odd sort of offering on CBS. As Serling biographer Gordon F. Sander put it: “The 18 million viewers who tuned in to the unorthodox new program heard a sinuous off-camera voice ‘a fifth dimension.. as vast as space, and timeless as infinity..’ ” And this was set to a kind of strange and mysterious sounding set of musical chords which one usually heard with mystery, or horror films. This was the original theme music of the great film composer Bernard Herrmann. And all of this was super-imposed on an artist’s drawing of a kind of desolate moonscape leading to stars in space. And this lead to a story about a man, an air force pilot as it turns out, who seems to be alone in an urban setting that is devoid of any people. The man, played by the actor Earl Holliman, becomes more and more unsettled as he tries in vein to find someone, while all the time, he has the feeling that he is being watched. Eventually he winds up in a drug store wherein he sees a display of paperback books entitled “The Last Man on Earth”. This pretty much drives him off the edge. It turns out that he is really an astronaut in training named Mike Ferris, and all of this has been an hallucination put into his mind to see if he could stand the isolation of being alone in a small spacecraft for the duration of a trip to the moon.
A Critical Success, But a Ratings Yawn at First
The critical reaction was very positive. Cecil Smith of the Los Angeles Times declared it to be “the finest weekly series on television.” Jack Gould of the New York Times said that Serling had no peers in the writing of television drama. Later that year, Charles Beaumont was particularly effusive:
” Old stuff? Of course. I thought so at the time, and I think so now. But there was one element in the story which kept me from my customary bitterness. The element was quality. Quality shone on every page. It shone in the dialogue and in the scene set-ups. And because of this, the story seemed fresh and new and powerful.”
The ratings however proved to be another matter. The show never did prove to be a great hit in the ratings, but it did develop its own loyal following, especially among younger viewers. Buck Houghton (above), one of the shows Producers said that this came as a surprise. “We never thought of that. I don’t think CBS did, either; it was on at ten o’clock. We got a lot of nasty notes from parents saying ‘You’re keeping the kids up!’ “
“The Twilight Zone”: A Classic of TV History
The show, of course went on to become a classic. It tackled a wide array of topics, such as nuclear war, racial intolerance, political terror, the savagery of war, corruption, plus a wide variety of social topics. The intolerance of “outsiders”, the increasing mechanization of society, were just a sampling of scenarios that came under the microscope of TV drama. The show went on for five seasons and 157 episodes, 91 of which were written by Rod Serling himself. It had performances by some fo the finest actors of its and future days: Burgess Meredith, Robert Redford, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Agnes Moorehead, Joan Blondell, Mariette Hartley, Elizabeth Montogomery, and two future Star
Trekkers, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. Some of the finest film composers of Hollywood were featured in the Zone. Bernard Herrmann as stated composed scores for many episodes. His was the first theme of the program. The strange and iconic electric guitar theme so closely associated with the show was written by avante guarde composer Marius Constant and utilized from the second season onward. Others such as Jerry Goldsmith, and Franz Waxman wrote music for the Zone.
Everyone has favorite episodes. Serling himself pointed out “Time Enough At Last” (Burgess Meredith as a bookworm who loses his glasses just when he has all the time he needs to read), and “The Invaders” (Agnes Moorehead as an old woman who finds herself beset by small invaders) as being two of his favorites. One of mine is the one where a town gathered to witness a hanging finds itself cloaked in darkness, and Ivan Dixon as the preacher steps forward to tell them the darkness is caused by all of their hate. Billy Mummy as the kid who get’s all of his wishes fulfilled (“You’re a BAD MAN! You’re a VERY BAD man!!”).
Do YOU have a favorite episode of “The Twilight Zone”?
Please write in to me at: email@example.com and tell me about it… if you don’t recall the name of the episode, or who was in it just describe it as best you can remember it. I will certainly publish any answers I receive right here!! Tell us all your favorite trip into “The Zone”!
“Serling – the Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man,” by Gordon F. Sander, Penguin Group, New York, 1992.