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.