Dark Realms Magazine - Issue 6
The Twilight Zone: Television's Original Twisted Tales
"There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and 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."
With invocations such as that, millions of television viewers in the years 1959 to 1964 were transported from their comfortable, predictable existence to a netherworld of chaos and irony that stretched the limits of television further than ever before. Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone broke new creative ground on any number of levels, and it was one of those rare TV programs that made a permanent mark on our collective psyche. To this day, people who have never seen an episode of the series still have heard the phrase "the twilight zone" and have a general conception of what it represents.
The Twilight Zone is that place where, beneath the placid, normal surface of things, the lesser known forces of the universe are forever conspiring against us. It is the place where sinister slot machines whisper your name and infect you with the gambling bug, where people you think you know turn out to be robots, where deals with the Devil turn out to have unforeseen and devastating loopholes. Serling claimed that the show's name came from a little-known Air Force term for when a plane loses sight of the horizon line during a particular moment of its descent, and it is a fitting description for the plight of the characters in Serling's world. Having lost sight of the horizon in their own lives, they wander about disoriented in a suddenly strange land, unsure of their bearings.
Serling's inspiration for The Twilight Zone was borne out of his mounting frustration as a TV playwright. In the early 1950s, Serling began to make a name for himself as a prolific scriptwriter for shows like Hallmark Hall of Fame and Kraft Television Theater. His career reached artistic high-water marks in 1955 with "Patterns," a quietly powerful Kraft Television drama about an over-the-hill businessman faced with the prospect of losing his job, and "Requiem For a Heavyweight," a 1956 Playhouse 90 offering with Jack Palance as a boxer on the downslope of his career. Both shows won numerous Emmys; both seemed to demonstrate that TV could offer much more than cowboy shows and situation comedies.
But as the themes and issues of his teleplays grew more daring, his producers and sponsors grew more conservative and cautious. Offending or disturbing the TV audience wasn't good for business, so scripts concerning such issues as racism or intoleration like "Noon on Doomsday" and "A Town Has Turned to Dust" were vivisected until every potentially controversial element was removed. His original scripts were simply too realistic, too hard-hitting.
If Serling wasn't going to be allowed to tackle important issues in a realistic venue, then perhaps he could do so in an unrealistic one, much in the manner of ancient fables or myths which drove home timeless truths without singling out a specific people or historical situation. This notion motivated his pitch to CBS in 1959 for a weekly half-hour science fiction anthology program to be called The Twilight Zone.
A SHOW UNLIKE ANY OTHER
The Twilight Zone often afforded Serling the opportunity to indulge his moralistic tendencies. In the episode "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," a neighborhood power outage attributed to an alien invasion provokes mass hysteria and reveals suburbia's violent, xenophobic dark side. In "The Rip Van Winkle Caper," backstabbing gold thieves ingeniously escape into the distant future—where, unfortunately, gold proves to be utterly worthless.
Many episodes, however, were not thinly disguised morality plays. Most simply demonstrated the eerie intrusion of the unreal into everyday life. Case in point: "A World of Difference," in which a businessman going about his normal day hears someone shout "Cut!" and realizes, to his horror, that his entire life is actually a movie production. This was nearly forty years before Jim Carrey's The Truman Show.
In the classic Richard Matheson-penned "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," a nervous airline passenger (portrayed by William Shatner) is the only witness to a gremlin's sabotage of the plane. A burned-out businessman literally takes a stroll back in time to meet his childhood self in the nostalgic "Walking Distance." And in "The Changing of the Guard," a disillusioned, retiring teacher (Donald Pleasance of Halloween fame) is visited by the ghosts of his former students who tell him that he has made a difference in their lives. Unnerving stories such as "Living Doll" and "It's a Good Life" utilized a little girl's doll and a six year old boy to create menacing characters.
Throughout five highly-rated seasons the series explored a vast array of unsettling topics and delivered storylines involving monsters, witchcraft and aliens from outer-space. The show's famous 'twist ending' episodes, though, are undoubtedly the ones people remember most and helped make The Twilight Zone a cultural phenomenon. When Burgess Meredith survives a nuclear holocaust in "Time Enough At Last," he has indeed finally found time to indulge in his cherished hobby of reading— that is, until he breaks his glasses, rendering him virtually blind. It is perhaps the most famous episode of the series, and it highlights one of the Zone's dominant themes: that the universe will inevitably have the last, ironic laugh at your expense.
The series is also memorable for the incredibly wide spectrum of past and future stars who appeared before the camera, such as Robert Duvall, Mickey Rooney, Buster Keaton, Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Burgess Meredith and Roddy McDowall. But the true stars were writers like Serling, Richard Matheson (revered and cited as a major influence by Stephen King), and Charles Beaumont who expanded the possibilities of TV storytelling.
Though Rod Serling died in 1975, long after The Twilight Zone and his subsequent horror series Night Gallery were cancelled, the Zone stayed very much in the public consciousness. In 1982, producer Steven Spielberg helped adapt a quartet of tales for The Twilight Zone's big screen incarnation, but the film was forever tainted by the horrific deaths of Vic Morrow and two children who were accidentally killed during filming. The remake of "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," was a creepy and intense retelling of the original tale, and shone as the film's only gem. Due to a dismal choice of storylines and a lackluster production effort, Twilight Zone, The Movie did little to capture the spirit of the original series.
In the mid 1980s, a new Twilight Zone series appeared on TV, with writers like Harlan Ellison providing the tales. But though the new series was compelling and well-written, it didn't have the same impact as the original. By the 1980s, popular culture had evolved into a shocking carnival of edgy music, relaxed morality and daring attitudes, and The Twilight Zone no longer had the power to unnerve people as it had back in the more straightlaced, naive years of 1959 to 1964.
Thanks to CBS and Image Entertainment, the original episodes of The Twilight Zone are now available on DVD, and they form a rich, landmark library of the eerie and fantastic unlikely to be surpassed.