Each week throughout its five-year run between 1959 and 1964, a television series called The Twilight Zone lured its audiences into an alternate universe. It was a dimension in which the everyday intersected with the exceptional; a realm comprised of narrative concerns spanning from time and space travel to domestic strife, tales of redemption to musings on Faustian corruption—often featuring a surprise ending that shocked the audience. Appearing at the close of an era in entertainment now known as the golden age of television, the series was filmed in black-and-white on the back lots of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, and featured future stars (including Robert Redford and Robert Duvall) and character actors alike. The show also utilized the talents of writers like Charles Beaumont, Earl Hamner, Jr., and Richard Matheson, as well as direction from cinematic figures like Mitchell Leisen, Don Siegel, and Jacques Tourneur. In the title sequence of each episode, an unseen narrator would stake out the conceptual territory of the show: “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 voice belonged to Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone.
In this uncanny dimension that continually shifted between times and spaces, the everyday and the extraordinary, Serling existed as the single constant: the intoning voice that would guide the spectator into this parallel universe and comment on the proceedings as the story closed; the suited figure, often seen with cigarette in hand, who would appear in the mise-en-scène of the episodes to offer a prologue, no matter the incongruity of the setting. Off the screen, in a more quotidian reality, Serling's vision defined the direction of The Twilight Zone: He wrote 92 of the 156 episodes and used the series as a forum through which to explore enduring questions of identity and morality, as well as contemporary issues like race relations, the threat of nuclear war, and the relationship between the human and mechanical in the modern age.
In an attempt to explain the appeal of the anthology series, Serling remarked that it “is about people—about human beings involved in extraordinary circumstances, in strange problems of their own or fate's making” (Presnell and McGee 1998, 16). Challenging strictures of censorship and conventions of popular entertainment to explore these “strange problems” of the human experience, Serling framed often-controversial topics within the fantastic otherness of the Twilight Zone, recognizable to and yet removed from the viewer; and at the same time, he infused the domestic viewing-space of television with the possibilities of an alternate reality that continue to resonate in contemporary culture.
Commenting on The Twilight Zone, series writer George Clayton Johnson—who crafted hallmark episodes like “Nothing in the Dark” (1962) and “Kick the Can” (1962)—described its narratives as “realistic fantasies about seemingly average people on average streets … each of whose lives would be filled by some extraordinary magical factor” (Presnell 1998, 27). Serling's creation of the series itself, however, derived from the constellation of more concrete cultural and personal factors. Though now synonymous with notions of the otherworldly, Serling in fact began his writing career as one of the original “angry young men” chronicling contemporary mores in teleplays for television's golden-age; but by the end of the 1950s, commercial demands and censorship constraints led him to pursue a more allegorical style in the alternate universes of The Twilight Zone. Yet even in moving from the realist perspective that defined his early dramatic work to the uncanny envisioning of the series, Serling maintained a concern with both philosophical and topical questions of existence—often controversial, and consistently provoking the audience's contemplation. Ultimately, Serling's identity as a writer evolved from his determination to, as he declared, “menace the public's conscience” (Brode and Serling 2009, xviii).
Born on Christmas Day in 1924, Serling would go on to serve as a combat paratrooper in World War II, receiving a Purple Heart. (Serling's brother, novelist Robert, has remarked that a number of the scripts for The Twilight Zone, as well as its often-nightmarish sensibilities, “reflected the experiences he had and what he saw” in combat [Stanyard 2007, 142].) Following the war, Serling attended Antioch College in Ohio. There, he developed an interest in creative writing that led him to become a scriptwriter for radio dramas and subsequently explore the nascent mediascape of television in the early 1950s. Far from the reality-show material so dominant in today's entertainment industry, the early days of television produced live, one-hour dramatic works that focused on utterly adult issues like alcoholism, social (in)justice, and the struggle of the individual in modern society. Indeed, writers like Paddy Chayefsky, J. P. Miller, and Reginald Rose contributed teleplays—including, respectively, Marty (1953), Days of Wine and Roses (1958), and Twelve Angry Men (1954)—that were later made into acclaimed feature films (Brode and Serling 2009, xv). Anthology series like Kraft Television Theater, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Studio One, and Playhouse 90 broadcast these prestige productions, even as the sponsors of the shows often modified the plays’ content in order to avoid associating their products with controversial topics (Hunt 2009, 8–9). Yet what in retrospect formed the first “golden age” for television actually began in a more amorphous form; as producer Fielder Cook remarked, “We had no rules, so we in effect created the medium ourselves” (Brode and Serling 2009, xxiii).
Throughout the 1950s, Serling joined Chayefsky, Miller, and Rose in the creation of intense, topical teleplays so acclaimed that Ayn Rand described him as a figure “dramatizing controversial journalistic issues of the moment, never taking sides, conspicuously avoiding value-judgments, writing about ordinary people” (Hunt, 7). In 1955, Serling wrote “Patterns,” a teleplay that examined the effects of corporate ruthlessness on an “everyman” businessman; and in 1956, he presented “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” a poignant account of a punch-drunk fighter. Both works brought Serling critical and commercial success, as well as Emmy Awards for writing achievement; as he remarked of life after the broadcast of “Patterns,” “One minute after the show went off the air my phone started to ring. It's been ringing ever since” (Zicree 1982, 10). Yet Serling struggled with the interference of television sponsors and the censorship strictures they enforced. In 1956, following their interventions in his scripts “The Arena” and “Noon on Doomsday,” which addressed, respectively, political corruption and racism, Serling found himself at odds with the modus operandi of the industry itself. As he declared in a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace, “I think it's criminal that we're not permitted to make dramatic note of social evils as they exist, of controversial themes as they are inherent in our society” (Hunt, 20).
Critic Lester H. Hunt perceives Serling's dissatisfaction with the commercial constraints of live drama productions—which were themselves losing popularity—as the definitive juncture that impelled the writer from the realism of his early teleplays toward the science fiction/fantasy of The Twilight Zone. In his pursuit of creative control and authentic expression, Serling found that this generic context allowed for an allegorical engagement with the “controversial themes” that inspired him. As producer Dick Berg has observed, “Within the parameters of [Serling's] own store, such as he enjoyed on The Twilight Zone, he could do anything he wanted … and fit it within the framework. So it became a natural habitat for him creatively” (Zicree 1982, 15). Indeed, Hunt also perceives here Serling's assumption of a broader philosophical identity, one that allowed him to engage with “general ideas and principles” of existence rather than only the particular topical issues that dominated the realist teleplays (22). Likening it to the surprise endings, or “snappers,” that characterized many of the Zone's episodes, Hunt describes Serling's transition as “unpredictable and yet somehow logical after the fact” (8)—an evolution, that is, from “angry young man” of 1950s drama to philosopher of “the dimension of imagination.”
What unites the early work of Serling as a pioneer in television's golden age with his later role as creator of The Twilight Zone, then, is an overarching concern with the human experience—regardless of controversy or commercial interest. As Serling's widow, Carol, remarked upon the 50th anniversary of the series, the show endures as “a thinly veiled call to public consciousness” (Brode and Serling 2009, xiv). The second-season episode “Eye of the Beholder” (1960), for example, meditates on the pervasive demands of social conformity; while “The Big Tall Wish” (Season 1, 1960) broke racial barriers by featuring an African American cast in a tale of childhood and faith in miracles. A particularly striking instance of this appeal to the audience may be found in the 1960 episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Written by Serling for the first season of the series, the show recounts the hysteria that builds in a small-town neighborhood after a large blast of light and roaring sound from an unidentified source leaves the houses without electricity. After a child compares the happenings to a science fiction story he has read, the neighbors begin to believe a spaceship has landed. They band together as a mob, accusing random families of being monsters from outer space. As the violence increases and a neighbor is shot and killed, the camera pans back to reveal a long shot of the pandemonium—viewed, in quintessential snapper tradition, by two Martians. Noting a pattern that indicates that humans will simply destroy each other, one alien remarks, “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it's themselves.”
Carl Plantinga has termed these surprise endings “frame shifters,” or conclusions that “dramatically and decisively alter the spectator's frame of reference … [They] involve a surprise … of knowledge or understanding” (2009, 51–52). Indeed, Serling utilizes the momentum of this narrative shift to extend the “frame” of social commentary even further, remarking in his closing narration, “There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men … And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.” Nor, in fact, were they confined to the narrative world of Maple Street: Douglas Brode points out that the neighborhood scapegoating eerily parallels the machinations of the “Red Scare” that panicked a nation earlier in the 1950s and inspired the paranoid villainy of the House Un-American Activities Committee (2009, 168). In this “call to public consciousness,” to recall Carol Serling's words, Rod Serling unsettles familiar elements—a sunny street in summer, a gathering of middle-class families, even the popular science fiction tales the child fatally recounts to his neighbors—to reveal the corrosive fear and mistrust that often underlie everyday life. If fantastic rather than realist, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” provides a reflection of existence that demands consideration.
Serling once observed that “television is an intimate medium. It is most meaningful and most effective when you keep in mind that the closer you get to people and the more vertical you probe, the better your drama” (Wolfe 1997, 17). Certainly with its ethos of exploring more deeply, or “vertically,” the triumphs and tragedies of human nature, the creative coordinates of The Twilight Zone exceeded those determined by the science fiction/fantasy model, and ultimately even the medium of television itself. Indeed, Thomas E. Wartenberg has commented on the series’ ability to blur the boundaries between reality and the narrative realm, citing Serling's appearance in the mise en scène of the episodes as a presence signaling “the interpenetration of real and fictional persons and things” (2009, 134); and J. P. Telotte argues that the show's incorporation of cinematic techniques presaged the “convergence aesthetic” so defining to today's networked visual culture (2011, 22, 33). Rather than demarcate The Twilight Zone from the reality it revised and reflected, or categorize the modes of its storytelling, Serling's concept exalted the interweaving of these elements.
In his study of the horror tradition in popular culture, Stephen King muses on the enigmatic qualities of The Twilight Zone: “Of all the dramatic programs which have ever run on American TV, it's the one which comes closest to defying any overall analysis” (1981, 269). Citing the series’ fluency in comedy, fantasy, “cop” stories, western narratives, and, of course, science fiction, King concludes that Serling's show simply “was its own thing” that “generated a kind of existential weirdness” (269, 271). For just as its stories challenged the time-space continuum in moving between past, present, and future, or the Earth and outer space, the series came “closer” to universal experience in distancing itself from the demands of narrative tradition. There is, in this way, an elusive element to The Twilight Zone—an uncanny nexus between genres and, moreover, the everyday and the otherworldly that, as King stated, resists categorization. Episodes engaging with aliens and other outer-space phenomena—including “People Are Alike All Over” (1960), “The Invaders” (1961), and “To Serve Man” (1962)—offer “frame shifters” that throw this nexus into relief; yet especially reflective of the series’ essential ambiguities are shows concerning the relationship between the human and the mechanical.
As Susan L. Feagin has noted, throughout the series, objects like robots, mannequins, and even ventriloquists’ dummies “appear to be … more lifelike, even human, than humans themselves” (2009, 106)—a blurring of boundaries between the animate and inanimate that inspired episodes like “The Lonely” (1959), “I Sing the Body Electric” (1962), and “Steel” (1963). These shows, among others, shift between a more contemplative and an overtly dystopic envisioning of automation in the modern age; and epitomizing this trope of the intertwining between the human and inanimate is second-season offering “The Lateness of the Hour” (1960). It is a meditation on nature and design that suggests, according to Serling's introduction, that “the product of man's talent and genius can walk amongst us untouched by the normal ravages of time … [and] that perfection is relative.” In this episode, Jana (played by Inger Stevens), the daughter of a wealthy inventor, rebels against her parents’ insulated world and the staff of robots created to attend to their every wish. Virtually indestructible and implanted with a memory that grants them an artificial biography, the robots—and her parents’ dependence upon them—enrage Jana. She convinces her father to destroy his creations and liberate the family; but immediately thereafter, Jana learns that she herself is a robot crafted to be a daughter. Though Jana is traumatized, her father determines to maintain her existence—not as a devoted daughter, but as a faithful servant assuming the manufactured identity of her predecessor.
The snapper here reveals not only a twist ending but the grim irony of the narrative: The being who fought with such integrity for independence from her parents’ lives is only a machine; and though Jana eventually despairs over her presumed “inability” to feel love or pain—the very sensibilities that have defined her character—it is finally her human creators who demonstrate an emotional deficiency. In their resistance to an outside world filled with war, poverty, and prejudice, the doctor and his wife have constructed their own twilight zone of militant complacency; they have, as Serling states in his final comments, “made comfort a life's work.” Illustrating The Twilight Zone's sheer “existential weirdness,” recalling King's terms, “The Lateness of the Hour” incorporates elements of science fiction, Gothic narratives, and even dark humor in a teleplay that challenges narrative categorizations and condemns spiritual atrophy. Ultimately, with its exploration of characters in “vertical” depth, the episode speaks to the series’ greater contention that humanity, like the perfection referenced in the prologue, is relative.
In 1964, The Twilight Zone reached the conclusion of its television run. Even before the end of the series, the intensity of the production schedule had overtaxed Serling; and in an effort to refocus his creative energies, he balanced his responsibilities to the show with a teaching sabbatical at Antioch College. Serling also contributed to cinematic projects, writing the script for John Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May (1964) and the science fiction classic Planet of the Apes (Schaffner 1968). In 1970, he returned to television with Night Gallery, an anthology series that featured the writer introducing horror tales inspired by paintings in a macabre gallery. Though the show ran for three years, television executives limited Serling's influence; and in protest, he relinquished any personal or creative investment in the project. In 1975, Serling died in an untimely fashion after open-heart surgery that followed a heart attack. He was just 50 years old.
The Twilight Zone, however, has never passed from cultural consciousness. In 1983, Steven Spielberg produced Twilight Zone: The Movie; and two television revivals of the series were produced between 1985–1989 and 2002–2003. Cable networks have run marathons of the original episodes throughout the years; and since 2008, publishers Walker and Co. have collaborated with the Savannah College of Art and Design on a series of graphic novels based on Serling-penned episodes. For a series so concerned with the fluidity between temporal modes, there is a poetic aptness to The Twilight Zone's ability to generate both a retrospective appreciation and new works of art. Indeed, the show continually engaged with the intersection of the past and present moment, as exemplified by shows like “Walking Distance” (1959), “A Hundred Yards over the Rim” (1961), and “The Incredible World of Horace Ford” (1963); and Serling himself considered one such episode, “A Stop at Willoughby” (1960), one of his favorites (Stanyard 2007, 137).
As a beleaguered executive commutes by train between his unhappy home and the “push-push-push” tensions of his job, he catches glimpses of an idyllic, turn-of-the-century town called Willoughby. Drawn to this halcyon site, he finally gets off the train at the stop—only for the snapper ending to reveal that he has, in fact, died and been taken away by the Willoughby and Son Funeral Home. Serling considers the situation in his epilogue: “Willoughby—maybe it's wishful thinking nestled in a hidden part of a man's mind; or maybe it's the last stop in the vast design of things … Whatever it is, it comes with sunlight and serenity, and is a part of the Twilight Zone.” Though few of the series’ episodes offered worlds of sunlight and serenity, Willoughby stands as a microcosm quintessential to the greater dimension of The Twilight Zone itself. In his crafting of this spatiotemporal nexus between dream and reality, Serling made manifest the potential for redemption or desolation that abides within each being; the myriad possibilities that lead to the past or future, an idyllic town or planet in outer space. Appealing to the audience's social conscience and metaphysical impulse both in the golden-age of television and today's modes of syndication, Serling sought to prove that the experience of the individual—robot or human, Martian or ghost—is, like the Twilight Zone itself, as vast as space and timeless as infinity.
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