The Twilight Zone: Supernatural Television Masterpiece

Rod Serling and Inger Stevens. Stevens starred in The Twilight Zone episode "The Hitchhiker."

Rod Serling and Inger Stevens. Stevens starred in The Twilight Zone episode “The Hitchhiker.”

 

It was the late 50s, and the Golden Age of live television drama was drawing to an end. The use of videotaping provided increased opportunities for special effects, but also ended the spontaneity of the popular live dramas. Vietnam made its shocking appearance on the nightly news and the television viewing audience seemed to change. They wanted action and adventure, just as before, but they also desired a distraction from the painful reality of their world.

This is precisely what Rod Serling provided with his stories.  By the late 1950s, Serling was already a veteran of anthology television and had a keen sense of the needs of his audience, which he proved with one of the most highly-acclaimed science fiction anthologies ever created for television–The Twilight Zone. He questioned reality. He questioned dreams. He introduced the viewing audience to the supernatural, to possibilities that were beyond scientific understanding, and he asked: “What if…?” It was genius.

Supernatural Themes and Unexplainable Circumstances

The Twilight Zone set the standard for explorations into the odd and unexplainable world of supernatural television in the late 1950s and early 60s. Serling’s stories focused on many popular 1950s fiction themes, including space travel, aliens, and ghosts, but they often had more serious underlying themes, such as the effects of alcoholism and mental illness. His ability to please his audience was undeniable. His stories won three Emmys and numerous other awards.

The original version of The Twilight Zone ran from 1959 to 1964 with 155 episodes. Some biographers include the first Desilu Productions show for a total of 156. It was an instant hit–apparently, Americans love strange, odd, unexplainable circumstances and as fans of the writings of Rod Serling know very well, anything can happen in the “Twilight Zone.”

In spite of the ongoing argument against time travel, Serling seemed particularly fond of the subject and was capable of skillfully, briefly, suspending the disbelief of his audience long enough to convince them that time travel is possible. For instance, in the 1960 production of “The Last Flight” a pilot lands his 1917 biplane at a modern Air Force base and slowly, gradually, realizes there is a reason he is there, and a reason he must return to 1917. In “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” Cliff Robertson plays a pioneer in 1847 who suddenly finds himself in 1961 New Mexico searching for a cure for his son’s illness. In the 1962 production of “Kick the Can” a group of friends living in a senior’s home discover a way to return to their childhood. Each of these shows has that magic ingredient that attracts and holds the attention of the viewing audience from beginning to end, leaving them with a sense that they have just experienced something quite strange and impossible to explain. That magic ingredient is the writing of Rod Serling.

Perfect Timing

In addition to his skill and choice of topics, there was another reason why Serling’s stories were so popular–his writing was familiar. Rod Serling wrote for many anthology programs during the 1950s, including Kraft TheatreThe U.S. Steel Hour; and Playhouse 90. Most anthology serials in the early 50s were filmed live, but Serling introduced The Twilight Zone at just the right time when television was moving toward filmed anthologies. This gave Serling more freedom with his set designs.

It also allowed him a bit more freedom with plot. As with most television writers, Serling was tired of the influence of the sponsors on theme and plot and filming shows in advance gave him the opportunity to explore themes of fantasy, experiences that might happen “in another dimension,” ideas that sponsors really could not argue as being unrealistic because the entire idea was to take a different look at what is considered “real.”

The idea for The Twilight Zone began in 1957 as Serling became increasingly annoyed by changes sponsors insisted on making to his Playhouse 90 scripts. Serling was so frustrated he finally quit his writing position and shocked the world of television with the announcement that he intended to write and produce his own fantasy show.

Of course, they could not have been too shocked. If there was any writer in the business at that time who knew television, it was Serling. According to Michael Winship’s Television, Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” the second script Serling wrote for Playhouse 90, is still considered the best television program ever written.

When The Twilight Zone was still in the dream stage, a show without a script, Serling decided to revise a story he wrote for a Cincinnati radio station years before and approached CBS, but the script was rejected. Instead, it aired as an episode on Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, another anthology series produced by husband and wife team Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. The show was “The Time Element,” and starred William Bendix. According to Cult TV, that one episode generated more viewer response than any other aired that season and once again attracted the attention of CBS. After three attempted scripts, CBS decided to pick up the show in February of 1959 and The Twilight Zone pilot “Where is Everybody” aired on October 2, 1959.

 

Rod Serling, creator and writer of The Twilight Zone supernatural anthology and Night Gallery.

Rod Serling, creator and writer of The Twilight Zone supernatural anthology and Night Gallery.

 

Anatomy of a Ground-Breaking Anthology

The Twilight Zone generally begins with a visual introduction to the theme of the supernatural, weird, some force beyond current scientific understanding or acceptance, with spooky background images and occasionally an appearance by Serling, or more often a voice-over of Serling introducing the show.

There is actually a wide variety of introductions. The 1960s show “The Hitchhiker,” stars Inger Stevens as Nan Adams, a cross-country traveler troubled by a persistent hitchhiker. The show begins with, “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man and is timeless as infinity as it exists in 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 show was filmed at the MGM studios, using standard sets and the back lot. It was close enough to the city to provide use of New York street scenes, but also had forest and lake settings. However, the setting was undoubtedly far less important than the plot itself.

The shows are also known for having “that one line,” the line that pulls the story together as the characters, and the audience, realize at the same time what the story is about. For instance, in the 1960s performance “A Passage for Trumpet,” an intriguing show with an underlying theme of the afterlife and subtle discussion of angels starring Jack Klugman as Joey Crown. Crown has lost his career as a professional trumpet player due to his alcoholism, but he has not lost his love for music. In a final act of desperation he steps in front of a truck. It is unclear if this is an act of suicide or desperate confusion, but when he rises from the street the confusion takes center stage as no one seems to be able to see or hear him.

Joey hears music coming from a nearby nightclub. He wanders inside and finds a man playing the trumpet. The man mysteriously knows Joey’s name. He offers to let Joey play a song on his trumpet. Joey begins to play, then pauses to ask how the man knows his name. “Am I dead? Are you a ghost?” Joey asks. The man laughs and shakes his head. “Oh I’m not dead,” the stranger replies. “And neither are you, Joey.” The man explains that the other people who did not speak to Joey on the street are ghosts and just don’t know it, that sometimes, “to make it easier, we let them go on in a life that they’re familiar with.”

Joey is still confused and wants answers. The stranger explains that Joey is in limbo, a shadow, then he asks Joey a very important question: Which does he prefer, his life, or limbo? The man is clearly offering Joey the chance to return to his former life, which Joey readily accepts. As the man is leaving, Joey shouts, “Hey Mister, I didn’t get your name!” The man turns around. “My name?” he asks. “Call me Gabe. Short for Gabriel.” That is the line that pulls the story together. “Call me Gabe.” Joey has just had a conversation with the Angel Gabriel, and Gabriel has given Joey a second chance at life.

Serling again appears in the conclusion, generally in a voice-over that summarizes the moral of the story in a way that is often quite poetic. In “A Passage for Trumpet,” for instance, Serling says, “Joey Crown who makes music, and who discovered something about life, that it can be rich and rewarding and full of beauty, just like the music he played, if a person would only pause to look, and to listen. Joey Crown, who got his clue in the Twilight Zone.”

What’s in a Name?

The name of the show also holds an interesting bit of trivia. Apparently, Rod Serling believed he invented the term “The Twilight Zone,” but later learned that Air Force pilots used the same phrase when describing the moment when their planes were descending and the pilot was no long able to see the horizon, an apt metaphor.

Serling also mistakenly believed there were five dimensions and often referred to a mysterious “sixth dimension” in his show until someone respectfully informed him (most likely the same Air Force pilot) that there are only four dimensions used to determine a object’s location in space–width, height, depth, and time.

Early Star Appearances

The Twilight Zone was not popular with sponsors. Many of them complained that they “didn’t get it” and some would call the studio on a regular basis, insisting on an explanation of the show that aired the night before. The show was, however, popular with actors. In addition to the already named Jack Klugman and Inger Stevens, other famous actors made appearances on the early shows, such as Roddy McDowell; Dick York and Elizabeth Montgomery who later appeared as husband and wife on Bewitched, and Agnew Moorehead who played Montgomery’s mother; William Shatner who also broke ground in the science fiction field and now has his own Star Trek fan club; Art Carney; Claude Akins; Earl Holliman who starred in the pilot show and later became famous as Lt. Bill Crowley in Police Woman; Cliff Robertson; and even Robert Redford, who made numerous appearances in television anthologies before breaking into film.

Legacy

The list of stars goes on, along with the popularity of the show. It’s been 53 years since the show first aired and the reruns are as popular with fans today as they were in the beginning due to the creative imagination, the genius, of Rod Serling. There were attempts to revive the show in the 1980s, and again in 2002, which still appear as reruns on occassion, but these shows, although attempting to remain true to the original, lacked the critical ingredient present in the early version: the writing of Rod Serling.

Sources:

  • Blake, John. The Twilight Zone Companion.
  • Javna, John. Cult TV: A Viewer’s Guide to the Shows America Can’t Live Without! St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Winship, Michael. Television. Random House. New York: 1988.

 

The Outer Limits: Science Fiction for Monster Fans!

Purported UFO. Photo taken in New Jersey, 2008. Space, aliens, and UFOs were the major focus of the revived version of The Outer Limits.

Purported UFO. Photo taken in New Jersey, 2008. Space, aliens, and UFOs were the major focus of the revived version of The Outer Limits.

 

It’s time for me to admit the truth: I am a cult fan of The Outer Limits. I watched it as a child and love it just as much, if not more, as an adult. For some odd reason, the show was not popular with sponsors, but children of the 60s loved it. Monsters, aliens, UFOs–The Outer Limits had it all, including a young audience eager to meet the show’s monster-of-the-week.

Monsters were popular in the 60s–trust me, I was there. Children of the 60s were raised on black and white versions of Frankenstein, Dracula, and a very young Michael Landon who revealed to the world in 1957 that he was a teenage werewolf. We hid beneath our desks at school during bomb drills. We understood the fear of the unknown. The creator of The Outer Limits also knew that fear, and he knew how to use it.

The Outer Limits premiered on ABC on September 16, 1963. It was an anthology show. Each episode was referred to as a separate “play” and often based on short stories or novellas. The Outer Limits lasted two years and never ranked in the top 25 shows, but like Star Trek, which ran for three years and never ranked in the top 25, The Outer Limits became a part of cult television history.

Every week, The Outer Limits brought a new, freaky creature into the living rooms of America. It didn’t matter if they were insects, reptilian, alien, or humans replicated through time travel, Americans loved their freaky creatures. In fact, according to John Javna’s Cult TV, writers were specifically instructed to include in each play, “one splendid, staggering, shuddering effect that induces awe, wonder, tolerable terror, or even merely conversation and argument.” (Future articles on this blog will discuss the specifics of the monster in each play and what it represents.)

Leslie Stevens and the Show’s Conception

The Outer Limits was the creation of child prodigy Leslie Stevens who sold his first screenplay to Orson Welles when he was 15 years old. Stevens wrote most of the early episodes with Joseph Stephano, who was also the screenwriter of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Stevens referred to the monsters on the show as “bears.” As he explained, during the Vaudeville years (1880s-1930s) when a performance was going badly and the audience was bored, the stage director would send out a comedian dressed as a bear. Thus Stevens referred to his monsters as “bears.” The monsters, or bears, were important to the show, but not as important as the metaphor, the life lesson they represented.  Monsters were cool, but The Outer Limits had something even better–monsters with a message.

The show was conceived by Stevens in 1961 as a science fiction show, a show that would inspire awe in the audience as they explored the mysteries of the universe. Stevens proposed the show to television promoter Dan Melnick, who agreed to promote the show as long as Stevens could guarantee each show had a monster to meet the demands of children in the 60s. The show also had to be low on the horror scale and high on the science fiction aspects.

The original title was Please Stand by, which was eventually replaced, but this phrase was incorporated into the famous introduction. Why? Because America was staggering beneath the stress of the Cuban Missile Crisis and ABC thought the title “Please Stand By” might inspire another Orson-Wellesian-panic with listeners jumping from windows during the broadcast of “War of the Worlds” because they feared the planet was taken over by aliens.

The Monsters

The original monsters were not particularly impressive due to budget constraints–$10,000 to $40,000 is an awfully tight budget when creating a believable beast from space–and some of the creatures are downright funny. In the 1964 play “Specimen: Unknown,” written by Stephen Lord and directed by Gerd Oswald, a member of a team of astronaut scientists find mushroom-shaped organisms attached to their space station. The organism, exposed to light, becomes a flower, which emits deadly spores. Naturally, when the space team returns to earth for help they accidentally bring the spores with them. This episode had the highest Nielsen rating in the first season, and ironically, the terrifying deadly spores were made from…puffed wheat.

Many fans of the show believe the most ridiculous monster appeared in the play “The Duplicate Man,” which aired on December 19, 1964. In this show, academic researcher Henderson James convinces Captain Karl Emmet to smuggle a Megasoid to Earth. The Megasoid must be brought to earth illegally because it is a dangerous killer. At one point the Megasoid escapes and hides among the stuffed animals at a zoo exhibit. This disguise was easily accomplished because the terrifying beast was actually a man dressed in a flimsy gorilla costume made from velour and a recycled bird mask, with the recording of a growling German shepherd for his voice.

One of the audience favorites in the monster category was the Chromoite in the play “The Mice,” which aired on January 6, 1964. I am watching this show as I write. In this show, a scientific mission to exchange a human for an alien is exposed as a secret alien plan to invade earth. The opening scene shows a lovely young woman walking through the woods. She hears what sounds like bees to me, and of course decides to step off the path and investigate in her tight skirt and high-heeled shoes. She sees a monster, the Chromoite monster, which resembles a flabby Portuguese man-of-war. She runs to a nearby building and the beast rises to follow–clearly, it is a man in a costume.  When it enters the building, it appears to be as tall as the ceiling. It has shiny legs, crab claws, and several mouths dripping with drool. Yummy.

The monsters were not supposed to be horrifying according to the contemporary definition of horror. The monsters are metaphors, generally representing the folly of humankind, or humans trying to play God, or conversely, the instinctive fear of technology.

The premiere episode aired on September 16, 1963, and was titled “The Galaxy Being.” In this play, Cliff Robertson stars as Allan Maxwell, a radio station engineer who makes contact with an alien creature, the show’s first “monster.” The alien is accidentally transported to earth. The monster in this show represents our fear of the unknown as local residents and authorities react to the presence of the monster with hysteria and violence.

The Voices of The Outer Limits

The voices of the monsters were generally the voice of singer Robert Johnson. Listen closely–does it sound familiar? Johnson’s voice was so captivating that he was hired by Bruce Geller, creator of the original Mission Impossible series, as the tape recorder voice. “This tape will self-destruct…”

When Stevens conceived the show he did not want The Outer Limits to appear to be competing with Rod Serling’s popular The Twilight Zone, so he did not want a speaker who appeared out of nowhere to introduce the show. Instead, his introduction appropriately came through a computer-like “control” voice.

The control voice introduces the show with: “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to — The Outer Limits.”

Following the commercial break, the control voice introduces the characters and the play. At the end of the show, the control voice states, “We now return control of your television set to you, until next week at the same time, when the Control Voice will take you to…The Outer Limits.”

The Outer Limits Revived

The Outer Limits was revived in 1995 and ran another seven years, until 2002, on the Sci Fi Channel. Later episodes of The Outer Limits brought the humans-playing-God theme home in a more solid, meaningful way that seemed to resonate with viewers entering a new millennium.  Both versions of the show are also highly atmospheric. The first versions, in black and white, are eerie, very much “out of this world,” often with rain, dark clouds, intensely atmospheric.

The later versions focus more on the science fiction, and the atmosphere in these shows are high-tech. In 1999, Frankenstein’s monster became a computer, a space ship, a time travel machine. This blog will explore important episodes from both the early and later plays, their monsters, and the metaphors. Please stand by…

Resources:

  • Javna, James. Cult TV: A Viewer’s Guide to the Shows America Can’t Live Without!. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Schow, David J., Frentzen, Jeffrey. The Official Outer Limits Companion. Ace Books. New York: 1986.
  • “Specimen Unknown.” The Outer Limits. First aired February 4, 1964. Season 1, Episode 22. Dir. Gerd Oswald. Players: Stephen McNally, Richard Jaeckel, Russell Johnson. Running time: 52 min.
  • “The Galaxy Being.” The Outer Limits. First aired September 16, 1963. Season 1, Episode 1. Dir. Leslie Stevens. Players: Lee Philips, Jacqueline Scott, Cliff Robertson.
  • “The Duplicate Man.” The Outer Limits. First aired December 19, 1964. Season 2, Episode 13. Dir. Gerd Oswald. Players: Ron Randell, Constance Towers.
  • “The Mice.” The Outer Limits. First aired January 6, 1964. Season 1, Episode 15. Dir. Alan Crosland, Jr. Players: Henry Silva, Diana Sands, Michael Higgins, Francis De Sales, Ron Foster.
  • Winship, Michael. Television: Companion to the PBS Series. Random House. New York: 1988.