“The Twilight Zone” was often directed with great artistry, but like most fine television series, it was a writer’s show. Struggling in a medium still regarded as lowbrow, head writer Rod Serling did much to bring credibility to T.V. writing. In the brief teasers he’d film to set up the following week’s show, Serling often gave featured credit to the writer. His very appearance in these pieces and his famed introductions at the head of most episodes highlighted the starring roles writers played in “The Twilight Zone”. Serling chose some of the very best sci-fi and fantasy authors to assist him in realizing his series.
From the series’ very beginning, Richard Matheson was among the most prolific “Twilight Zone” contributors. His involvement was a true coup considering the impressive bibliography he’d been building since the start of the ‘50s: the tremendously influential apocalyptic horror novel I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, the short stories “Death Ship”, “Little Girl Lost”, “Long Distance Call” and “Steel”, all of which he’d adapt for “The Twilight Zone”. Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was a rare moment of greatness in the series’ uneven final season. Charles Beaumont would do the same for his short classics such as “The Man Who Made Himself” (adapted as “In His Image”), “Perchance to Dream”, “The Howling Man”, and “The Devil, You Say?” (adapted as “Printer’s Devil”), while also contributing such first-rate original scripts as “Long Live Walter Jameson” and “Miniature”. Having also devised the story that would become “Living Doll”, Beaumont was responsible for some of the series’ most frightening pieces. George Clayton Johnson’s scripts and stories were fewer, but the humanity of “A Penny for Your Thoughts”, “Nothing in the Dark”, “Kick the Can”, “The Prime Mover”, and “A Game of Pool” has earned him a place among the most memorable authors who’ve passed through “The Twilight Zone”.
Serling’s work with one of his favorite genre writers didn’t go quite as smoothly as his collaborations with Matheson, Beaumont, and Johnson. He admired Ray Bradbury enough to pay tribute to the author with sly references in “Walking Distance”, “A Stop at Willoughby”, and “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up”, but the men’s working relationship was troubled. Serling wanted Bradbury to contribute scripts from the show’s conception. Bradbury was excited by that prospect. Once the series went into production, Bradbury began accusing Serling of plagiarism in private, citing “Walking Distance” among those he found a bit too Bradbury-esque. Serling later rejected Bradbury’s elaborate first script, “Here There Be Tygers”, for budgetary reasons. “A Miracle of Rare Device” met a similar fate. In the end, only the author’s “I Sing the Body Electric” made it to “The Twilight Zone”, only achieving that after two years of revisions and polite criticisms from Serling. Bradbury’s tale of a robotic grandmother was sweet enough, but failed to capture the heart or awe of the series’ classics. The writer’s stay in the Zone ended there.
Serling and his gang also adapted several stories by outside writers that achieved their greatest renown as locations in “The Twilight Zone”: Lynn Venable’s “Time Enough at Last”, Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life”, Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man”. Ironically, Serling’s love of prose and talent for screenwriting never translated to success as a writer of short stories or novels outside the television universe he created.
Much of the “Twilight Zone” magic radiates from the deep sense of nostalgia in so many of Rod Serling’s scripts. Rarely was this feeling more palpable than in the series’ fifth episode. In “Walking Distance”, a harried ad man steps through a time portal and returns to his childhood hometown where band concerts are still a summertime staple and the neighborhood carousel still spins. The fictional town of Homewood in “Walking Distance” is a thinly veiled stand-in for Serling’s own hometown of Binghamton. No doubt the hectic schedule of running and writing “The Twilight Zone” left him longing for the laziness of that burg in Broome County, New York. Further inspiration struck when he noticed how similar the back lot at MGM was to his boyhood stomping ground. The carousel is a particularly telling touch as Broome County’s signature landmarks are its six antique merry-go-rounds.
There is an undercurrent of bitterness to Serling’s portrayals of Binghamton. In “Walking Distance”, Martin Sloan learns the dangers of going home again when his time-traversing trip leaves the carousel damaged and himself with a permanent limp. “A Stop at Willoughby” ends in greater tragedy when Gart Williams, yet another put-upon ad exec, escapes to the fantastical, Binghamton-inspired town of Willoughby by leaping from a speeding train to his death. In “Mirror Image”, a woman is taken out of commission by her doppelgänger at a bus station near Binghamton. The residents of the “Carousel Capital of the World” took none of this personally. There are now numerous Rod Serling tributes in the town. His name appears on a star on the Binghamton Sidewalk of Stars. Several plaques are erected in his honor, including one outside the carousel— colloquially known as “The Walking Distance Carousel”—near his old home in the Binghamton Valley.
“Twilight Zone” tie-ins started showing up in print before the series completed its first season. Serling had actually struck a deal with Bantam Books for three “TZ” anthologies before the series even aired. The first installment appeared in April 1960. Stories from the Twilight Zone was precisely what it advertised: literary adaptations of such episodes as “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, “Walking Distance”, and “The Fever” written by Serling, himself. More Stories from the Twilight Zone (1961) and New Stories from the Twilight Zone (1962) followed, but if fans wanted to explore tales outside of those televised, they could take a look at Western Publishing’s Twilight Zone comic books. Launched in the spring of 1961 (and continued on the Gold Key imprint in ’62), the series survived some 95 issues and nearly 20 years beyond the show’s demise. The Twilight Zone comic featured completely original stories and artwork by luminaries such as Russ Jones of Creepy, Jerry Robinson, who co-created Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker and sidekick Robin, and Frank Miller, who published his very first comic art in Twilight Zone issues 84 and 85.
In July 1994, tourists got their first chance to personally enter the fifth dimension when The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened in Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) in Orlando, Florida. The ride’s creators screened each episode of the series twice, bolstering themselves with the background to pack subtle references to nearly two-dozen episodes into the experience. As the daring queue up in the lobby of “Hollywood Tower Hotel,” they pass through a library adorned with “Twilight Zone” memorabilia and watch a television on which a Rod Serling impersonator narrates the establishment’s vague history. From there, riders take an elevator to the top of the hotel, witnessing ghostly and celestial special effects along the way. Once at the pent house, they take a herky-jerky plummet 170 feet to the ground. Computerized to provide a random series of falls and lifts, the Tower of Terror promises riders “Never the Same Fear Twice!” and the janitorial staff an equal variety of vomit-cleaning scenarios.
The best “Twilight Zone” writers established distinctive voices that made their work identifiable to hardcore fans (Serling’s scripts can always be recognized by his cynicism and purple dialogue). Few fashioned as particular a style as Earl Hamner, Jr.. Describing his Virginia family as “backwoods folk” in Martin Grams, Jr.’s, The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic, Hamner brought a countrified sensibility to several of his eight “Twilight Zone” scripts. His first, season three’s “The Hunt”, stars Arthur Hunnicut as a hillbilly stereotype who sidesteps the gates of hell when his hound dog Rip is denied entry. Hamner made more impressive use of his background when writing season four’s “Jess-Belle”, the finest hour-long episode and one of the finest of the entire series. As the heartsick title character, Anne Francis casts a love spell on former beau Billy Ben (James Best) with the help of fun-loving, elder-witch Granny Hart (the fabulous Jeannette Nolan). Hamner’s script is a magical cauldron of romance, rich characterizations, horror worthy of a Universal monster movie, and clever—even poetic—wordplay. The writer is also responsible for the final episode to air in the original “Twilight Zone” run. “The Bewitchin’ Pool” took ample inspiration from To Kill a Mockingbird and Charles Laughton’s southern-Gothic masterpiece The Night of the Hunter. Hamner saw his 1961 novel Spencer’s Mountain adapted into a feature film starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara in 1963. Nine years later, he’d develop that book about a family in Depression-era Virginia—a subject close to his own experiences— into the long-running series “The Waltons”.
Rod Serling’s first paid writing gigs were in radio, but he had his eye on television as early as 1951. The following year he submitted his first science fiction script to “Tales of Tomorrow”. The ABC anthology series rejected his proposals for “The Oath” and “A Gift for a Metal Monster”. His first major T.V. splash did not occur until 1955. More terrestrial than these failed submissions, Patterns addressed the dehumanizing nature of the corporate world the writer would often explore in his “Twilight Zone” scripts. In 1956, Requiem for a Heavyweight solidified Serling’s reputation for good, though his social conscience was at odds with the T.V. sponsor’s demands for uncontroversial material. Serling publically claimed he’d be moving from serious, topical dramas to seemingly frivolous science fiction because he’d lost his desire to battle the sponsor. Privately, he realized the fantastical genre would allow him to secret social messages in stories about time travel, robots, and aliens, because no one took such stuff seriously. Thus, “The Twilight Zone” was born, but not without experiencing some false starts.
Serling’s first pilot script was shelved when negotiations with James Daly— the only actor he wanted for the lead role— fell through (Serling would get his way some time later when Daly starred in “A Stop at Willoughby” toward the end of the first season). His next pilot script ran into problems more common to the type he’d suffer throughout his series’ run. “I Shot an Arrow into the Air” received several edits from the network censor, which took issue with his use of “damn”, “hell”, “crazy”, and “God”. The script would not be filmed as the series’ pilot, but he would revise it as “The Gift” in season three. A completely different story titled “I Shot an Arrow into the Air” aired in the first season.
Serling again clashed with the censors over his third pilot attempt. Once more his use of profanity created problems for “The Happy Place”. Even more troublesome to the network was its dicey portrayal of a government death camp for senior citizens. Despite several attempts to revise the script, “The Happy Place” would never be a location in “The Twilight Zone”.
Next up was “The Time Element, a tale of perceived time travel centering on the Pearl Harbor attack. CBS finally accepted the script, but only for inclusion in Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse series. Fortunately, the teleplay was a hit and ended up serving the purpose Serling originally intended when CBS green-lit “The Twilight Zone” on its strength.
Those envious of the Twilight Zone’s often-perplexed denizens have had ample opportunities to share their puzzlement. The first of several “Zone”-inspired games materialized in 1964. After a fellow passenger on a return flight from Europe informed Serling of Ideal’s board game, he commenced planning legal action. He relented after learning the toy company had, indeed, secured rights to the property. Serling had long since passed into the Twilight Zone when Amiga released a text/graphic video game based on the series in 1988. The Holy Grail of “Twilight Zone” games did not appear until 1993 when Midway produced an elaborately designed pinball machine festooned with references to “Time Enough at Last”, “Living Doll”, “The Brain Center at Whipple’s”, “The Invaders”, and several other classics. The machine recreated both Marius Constant’s famed show theme and Golden Earring’s hit song “Twilight Zone” from 1982. In 2007, Disney refurbished the beloved board game Clue as a tie-in to its theme-park ride The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
Further testifying to the eternal popularity of “The Twilight Zone”, Legacy Interactive is currently collaborating with CBS Consumer Products and Spark Plug Games on a new video game for early 2012 release. According to the official press announcement, “gamers will take on the role of a struggling actor who finds himself trapped as a recurring character in multiple episodes of a TV show, from which he can’t escape before uncovering his role in each storyline. Players will encounter adventure style quests in which they set in motion key events through their actions within the game. In addition, as they find bits of the script in hidden object scenes across all the episodes, they learn more about the bizarre circumstances of their never-ending acting gig.”
From conception Rod Serling intended “The Twilight Zone” to be an hour-long series. In 1958, he told The New York Times, “I don’t like half-hour shows. There isn’t enough time to tell a story.” Nevertheless, CBS insisted the half-hour format would be more complimentary to his series. Serling went along with the new format, even halving his first hour-long script, “A Stop at Willoughby”, for the debut season. Although “The Twilight Zone” continued successfully as a 30-minute program for its first three seasons, Serling still itched to expand. That prospect threatened to disappear when CBS bumped “The Zone” from its schedule when the show failed to find a sponsor in time for season four. Long-time producer Buck Houghton scrambled to find a new job, and soon found one with Four Star, the production company responsible for such programs as “The Rifleman” and “The Dick Powell Show”. Meanwhile, CBS renewed its lease on “The Twilight Zone”, and Serling decided to greet Houghton’s exit as a fresh start for his series. CBS finally agreed to the hour-long format, which would go into effect in the coming season. Ironically, Serling soon admitted the 60-minute “Twilight Zone” for which he so lobbied didn’t really work. The series had gained much power from its half-hour format: lean stories packing shocking twists delivered before the viewer had a chance to lose interest. The longer “Zones” often felt padded and tended to meander to the detriment of their ninth-inning twists. The best of these shows—“Jess-Belle”, “Printer’s Devil”, “Miniature”, “Death Ship”, “The New Exhibit”—were the ones that least relied on twists, and consequently, felt the least like “The Twilight Zone”. Other potentially great episodes—“On Thursday We Leave for Home”, “The Thirty-Fathom Grave”, “He’s Alive”, “The Incredible World of Horace Ford”—were severely diluted by their bloated running times. As quoted in The Twilight Zone Companion, Serling felt the fourth season shows “lacked the excitement and punch of the shorter dramas.” After its brief, 18-episode run of hour-long shows, “The Twilight Zone” returned to a half hour for its fifth and final season.
Episodes from the first season’s “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” to the final one’s “I Am Night—Color Me Black” made clear Rod Serling’s interest in social issues. As early as junior high school, he was displaying the interest in activism and charity he’d inherited from his mother. The editorials he wrote for his school paper were unusually heated for such a young man. The messages he hid in his sci-fi and fantasy scripts for “The Twilight Zone” continued to reflect his passion for left-wing politics. In Serling’s worldview, violence inevitably left a trail of losers that contrasted James Arness’s heroic gun slinging on “Gunsmoke” (a show often advertised within “The Twilight Zone”) sharply. Two marksmen disable each other’s trigger fingers simultaneously in “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”. A passive bookworm, who manages to survive a nuclear holocaust, still suffers ironic permanent damage in “Time Enough at Last”. “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” is a rather brilliant depiction of Joseph McCarthy’s paranoid madness; “The Shelter” a disturbing one of the psychological toll of the nuclear age. Hardest hitting of all was “Death’s Head Revisited”, an angry, uncompromising look at anti-Semitism written during the trial of holocaust-architect Adolf Eichmann. Serling was always at his best when keeping his messages relatively subtle, as evidenced by unfortunately heavy-handed pieces such as “I Am Night—Color Me Black”, in which racism and mob violence creates a black cloud that engulfs the world literally. Yet his efforts were almost always admirable and often pioneering: “Time Enough at Last” being the first American T.V. program to portray the A-bomb’s horrifying effects and “In Praise of Pip” being the first to mention the still-mounting Vietnam War.
Jack Benny’s tight-fisted alter-ego started visiting American homes when “The Canada Dry Program” debuted on NBC radio in mid-1932. Successfully making the transition to T.V. in 1949, Benny’s antics continued to delight audiences on his intermittently aired “Jack Benny Program”. By 1960, the comedy show was airing weekly and popular enough to lure a certain popular T.V. writer into Benny’s artificial living room. On January 15, 1963, Rod Serling made his debut as the interloping Mr. Zone. The jokes are corny and Eddie Anderson’s Rochester is a character that has not aged well for obvious reasons, but the sketch makes clever use of the common “Twilight Zone” theme of lost identity.
Rod Serling’s career was a constant tug-of-war between artistic integrity and the business realities of his chosen medium. In Gordon F. Sander’s Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Young Man, publicist Owen Comora recalled how his client “went on a talk show in Pittsburgh, and he started complaining about how impossible it was to put on a meaningful drama when it was interrupted every twelve minutes by dancing rabbits with toilet paper.” No doubt the reference was not lost on the suits at t.p. peddlers Kimberly Clark, which sponsored “The Twilight Zone” during its first season. Serling maintained a low opinion of advertising, as evidenced by his portrayal of the profession as cut-throat and dehumanizing in “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby”. That advertisers had veto right over “Twilight Zone” scripts certainly aggravated the writer.
Serling reacted with expected bitterness when the Liggett & Myers tobacco company succeeded in having him hawk their cigarettes following the “next week” teasers at the ends of several episodes in the second season.
Serling soon found himself seduced into taking an even more active role in advertising. For a $3,000 fee, he agreed to film a series of commercials for the Schlitz beer company in 1962. The decision would come back to haunt him at that year’s Emmy awards. Framing his appearance as an award presenter was three of his Schlitz ads. Despite that embarrassing experience, Serling continued paying the bills with advertising gigs after “Twilight Zone”, resulting in some of the least dignified moments in his on-screen career:
When “The Twilight Zone” ended its original run, it lived on for generations of fans new and old in syndication. Most stations refrained from airing season four’s hour-long episodes because of time constraints. Four episodes from season five were taken out of commission for other reasons. Least controversial was “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Robert Enrico made his adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s story independent of “The Twilight Zone” in 1963. The same month it won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, Serling viewed Enrico’s film and arranged for a special airing of an edited version on “The Twilight Zone”. As the short was not Serling’s property, it was left out of the syndication package. So were “A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain” and “Sounds and Silences”, but these episodes missed syndication because of plagiarism allegations. Censorship issues are behind the rarity of “The Encounter”, which received enough accusations of racism against Asians to keep it packed in the vaults. The syndicated stations with the wherewithal to run the hour-long shows were denied “Miniature”, another victim of plagiarism charges. That fine episode starring Robert Duvall was finally televised for the first time in more than two decades during a 1984 “Twilight Zone” special. The dollhouse sequences were colorized for the occasion, and can be viewed on the latest “Twilight Zone” DVDs. So can these other long lost episodes.
Along with its steady stream of A-list genre writers, “The Twilight Zone” distinguished itself with its high-caliber acting talent. The series not only boasted the best of television’s new guard (Anne Francis, William Shatner, Jack Klugman, Inger Stevens, Warren Oates,), but it also snared its share of actors who’d first distinguished themselves in the movies. Yesteryear stars Buster Keaton and Ida Lupino (who’d be the only woman to direct an episode: “The Masks”) both appeared in tributes to their cinematic eras, while Mercury Theater member Agnes Moorehead battled tiny invaders. Future stars such as Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper, and Cloris Leachman also listed Serling’s series on their résumés. The definitive “Twilight Zone” denizen was accomplished on the big and small screens, as well as the stage.
Burgess Meredith made his breakthrough in 1939, starring opposite Lon Chaney, Jr., in Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of Of Mice and Men. From there he became a movie fixture through the ‘40s (That Uncertain Feeling, The Diary of a Chambermaid) before crossing over to T.V. in the ‘50s with parts on the proto-“Zone” anthologies “Lights Out” and “Tales of Tomorrow”. Meredith made his most indelible impression on the tube in the eighth episode of “The Twilight Zone”. As bookworm Henry Bemis, Meredith amused and saddened viewers in “Time Enough at Last”. Meredith returned to that middle ground between shadow and substance three more times. In “Mr. Dingle the Strong” he played a vacuum-schlub who develops super-human strength after getting zapped by a two-headed alien. In “The Obsolete Man” he was a mild-mannered librarian (is there any other kind?) who outsmarts the totalitarian dictator who sentences him to death. Meredith’s finest recurrence occurred in the fourth season, in which he was freed from nebbishy typecasting to play the ultimate villain when he starred as a charming Lucifer in “Printer’s Devil”. Proving his chops on the wicked side of the fence may have inspired producer William Dozier to cast Meredith as The Penguin.
For TV fanatics, Meredith earned his place in the pop-culture pantheon with his role as Batman’s nemesis and his multiple appearances on “The Twilight Zone”, but his career hardly ended with those ‘60s T.V. faves. He was back to support Serling with two roles on “Night Gallery” in the early ‘70s. He took significant roles in feature films such as The Day of the Locust, Rocky, (both of which earned him Oscar nominations), and Clash of the Titans. In 1974, he earned a Tony nomination for directing Ulysses in Nighttown. Despite all those successes, Meredith remained so deeply associated with “The Twilight Zone” that he was chosen to take Serling’s place as narrator for the 1983 film based on the series.
After “The Twilight Zone”, Rod Serling longed to stretch out with an atypically non-violent western series starring Lloyd Bridges called “The Loner”. CBS were not as excited about such a break from gun-slinging convention as Serling and nixed the series halfway through its first season. He also lamented the on-going association between the “Serling” brand name and tales of the supernatural. “Witches, Warlocks, and Werewolves” croaked in the planning stages when he balked at CBS’s fixation on horror (the writer suggested the anthology series be titled “Weird, Wild, and Wondrous”, but was shot down by the station brass).
Before long, Serling was done with CBS for good, though not with his fated spook stories. In the autumn of 1969, NBC began airing “Night Gallery”, a series that seemed to be the exact thing Serling wanted to avoid with “Witches, Warlocks, and Werewolves”. “Night Gallery” tended to be more horrific than “The Twilight Zone”, though it often mirrored that earlier anthology’s twist endings. The format was different too, packing multiple stories and short comedic segments into its first two seasons. Season three moved to a half-hour format more in keeping with the majority of “The Twilight Zone”. The show also served as a stage for numerous actors well remembered for their appearances in “The Zone”, including Burgess Meredith, Jeanette Nolan, Suzy Parker, Agnes Moorehead, Roddy McDowall, and George MacReady. Aside from its stars and stories of severed fingers and killer dolls (sound familiar?), “Night Gallery” is best remembered for its two segments directed by young Steven Spielberg. Serling, however, wanted nothing more than to forget “Night Gallery”, embarrassed by its E.C.-style horror stories and frustrated by his slipping grip on the series. Although he’d earn an Emmy nomination for his script “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar”, he did not mourn the show’s demise after its third season.
As iconic as any other aspect of “The Twilight Zone”, the series’ opening segments set the tone for all the uncanny events to follow with elliptical words and unusual images. The season one shows started with the haunting strains of Bernard Herrmann’s harp (see Score below), a descent through a misty sky to a barren, Dali-esque landscape, over a creepy cave, and up to twilight as Serling intones:
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.
By the end of the first season, the opening segment switched to two versions of the same image: a close up of a woman’s long-lashed eye and a horizon-traversing black bar:
Season two combined the original misty sky with the black bar, while adding the memorably shattering title font, Marius Constant’s chilling guitar riff, and a simplified introduction from Serling:
You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead — your next stop… the Twilight Zone.
Season three spiraled into the imagination with a striped cone drifting through space and a slightly abridged version of Serling’s season two speech:
The opening’s elaborate next incarnation was so wonderfully conceived it remained in use for seasons four and five. A door spins through starry space. We pass through to hear the shocking sound of a smashing window, to see a disembodied eye gaze back at us, to fix our minds on Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence formula, to move among things and ideas, a long-haired artist’s doll and a long-pendulumed clock, leaving no doubt about it: we’ve cross over into… The Twilight Zone.
Nearly 20 years after one of his favorite T.V. shows went off the air, Steven Spielberg and John Landis co-conspired to bring back “The Twilight Zone” as a feature portmanteau. Narrated by “Zone” regular Burgess Meredith, Twilight Zone: The Movie is an uneven assortment of classic episodes interpreted by Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller. The original segment directed by Landis was the motion picture’s most controversial, and not because of its tepid, ham-fisted look at a racist who receives his just desserts. Poor decisions on the part of the director and his pyrotechnical crew resulted in the deaths of actors Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, the latter two being underage girls whose work in the film violated child-labor laws. That tragedy overwhelmed a movie that wasn’t quite up to the standards of the series that inspired it. Landis’s “Time Out” was certainly the weakest, while Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” was schmaltzy and ineffectual. The best pieces belonged to Dante and Miller. Dante took “It’s a Good Life” into decidedly un-“Twilight Zone”-like territory by tacking on an unsatisfying sweet ending and transforming Anthony Fremont’s home into a phantasmagoria of weird designs and crazy cartoon creatures. Still, the bizarre punishments Anthony dreams up are consistently interesting, and at times, rather terrifying (he saves a particularly grotesque one for his chatter-box sister). Even better is Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, which gains much tension from John Lithgow’s frenzied performance and an effectively scary redesign for the gremlin. Landis even redeemed himself for his lousy “Time Out” with a terrific prologue in which Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd reminisce about “The Twilight Zone” before Aykroyd decides to show Brooks “something really scary.”
“The Twilight Zone” nearly passed into the Twilight Zone when it had trouble finding a sponsor between its third and fourth seasons. The show then hung on for two more seasons before CBS sent it to the Happy Place. On March 30, 1964, Rod Serling received official notice from the network that “The Twilight Zone” would be calling it quits. As quoted in Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic, Serling said “The Twilight Zone” “just got booted off for reasons totally unknown to me.” Those reasons remain unknown to this day, although theories abound. Producer William Froug hypothesized to Marc Scott Zicree that CBS president Jim Aubrey was simply “sick of the show” and felt “it was too far over budget and the ratings weren’t good enough,” though Zicree refutes those claims in The Twilight Zone Companion. Serling chalked the cancellation up to its increasingly “aged look” and CBS’s desire to preoccupy “themselves with comedy.” Telling Daily Variety that “he decided to cancel the network,” Serling shopped “The Twilight Zone” to NBC, then ABC. Although the latter network was interested in picking it up as “Witches, Warlocks, and Werewolves” since CBS owned the rights to the original title, Serling could not agree with ABC on its tone and content (see Night Gallery above). “The Twilight Zone” had now reached the official end of its original run, though the concept was more dormant than dead…
…On June 28, 1975, Rod Serling died of a heart attack at the age of 50. Although its creator was gone, “The Twilight Zone” was destined to return from the grave. While the original series would persist in syndication throughout the decades to come, numerous revivals attempted to re-imagine the series for each new generation of potential Zoners. The first of these occurred on the big screen in 1983 (see motion Picture above). Two years later, Serling’s old nemesis CBS brought the anthology back to its origin medium. The new “Twilight Zone” debuted on September 27, 1985, as a series of hour-long shows containing two segments. The very first episode exemplified the attraction of the project by boasting prestigious contributions from writer Harlan Ellison, actor Bruce Willis, and director Wes Craven, as well as new theme music by The Grateful Dead. The show would continue to draw celebrity directors (William Friedkin, Robert Downey, Joe Dante) and actors (Helen Mirren, Elliot Gould, Janet Leigh). Original “Twilight Zone” writers, such as Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, contributed scripts. Other shows were adapted from the work of such big names as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Stephen King. Despite that roster of talent, the renewed interest in the show sparked by Twilight Zone: The Movie, and renewed interest in creepy anthologies with series such as “Tales from the Darkside” and “Amazing Stories”, the new “Twilight Zone” was unable to maintain altitude. Like the original series, it met a good deal of resistance from network censors, particularly with “Nackles”, an episode in which a racist gets what’s coming to him at the hands of an African-African Santa Claus. After a third season of half-hour episodes, the new “Twilight Zone” went the way of the old one.
Barely a lull passed before “The Twilight Zone” was back as a comic book series published by NOW Comics and featuring more writing from Harlan Ellison. In 1994, two unproduced Serling concepts were given overdue realization in a T.V. movie called Twilight Zone: Rod Serling’s Lost Classics. It featured Richard Matheson’s adaptation of “The Theater”, in which Amy Irving sees her own future acted out in a stage production, and Serling’s 1968 script “Where the Dead Are”, in which Jack Palance revives the dead. “The Twilight Zone” would return as an anthology series yet again in 2002. With Forest Whitaker serving as narrator, the UPN’s latest revival lasted just one season, proving yet again that Serling’s magic was most difficult to recapture.
The dissonant, four-note guitar riff that kicked off seasons two through five of “The Twilight Zone” are enough to send shivers rushing down many viewers’ spines. That’s because music played such an integral role in establishing the series’ aura of eerie menace. Prior to that piece by French avant-garde composer Marius Constant, frequent Alfred Hitchcock-collaborator Bernard Herrmann supplied the theme. Though evocative, Hermann’s harp and flute-dominated piece was hardly hummable. Alternate themes by Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes, Chinatown, etc.) and Leith Stevens were used for episodes toward the end of season one. Starting with season two, a medley of Constant’s “Etrange No. 3” and “Milieu No. 2” edited by Eugene Feldman was established as the series’ permanent—and best remembered— theme. Within the show, Feldman assembled snatches from CBS’s stock music library for certain episodes, while others received original scores by Hermann, Stevens, Goldsmith, Leonard Rosenman (Rebel without a Cause, Fantastic Voyage), Franz Waxman (Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard, Rear Window), and many others.
For “Simpsons” maniacs, “Treehouse of Horror” is a Halloween tradition on a par with bobbing for apples and trick-or-treating. The long-running cartoon’s annual portmanteau breaks even further from reality than usual to re-imagine miserly Mr. Burns as Count Dracula, drop Homer’s less-than-adequate brain into a hulking robot, have Lisa and Bart squelch an army of zombies by reciting condom brand names, and perpetrate a host of other hilarious horrors. During the series’ earliest seasons, loving “Twilight Zone” parodies were a “Treehouse of Horror” staple. In the first installment, the Simpson family is abducted by tentacled aliens (who would reappear for each year’s Halloween show) with an agenda not quite as nefarious as that of the Kanamits in “To Serve Man”. “Treehouse of Horror II” foisted the supernatural powers of Anthony Fremont from “It’s a Good Life” on little brat Bart, who uses his abilities to transform his dad into a jack-in-the-box and family cat Snowball II into a creature reminiscent of Daffy Duck in the “Duck Amuck” cartoon. In “Treehouse of Horror III”, a Krusty the Clown doll accidentally set to “evil” stalks Homer in homage to “Living Doll”. The following year’s “Nightmare at 5 ½ Feet” riffs on Richard Matheson to set a gremlin loose on Bart’s runaway school bus. With that year’s “Night Gallery”-inspired wraparound segment, the “Simpsons” writing staff must have been a little Serling-ed out, hence the absence of a “Twilight Zone” homage in “Treehouse of Horror V” (although that season would see an homage to “The Shelter” in its “Bart’s Comet” episode). But never fear—or better yet, fear—because number VI not only featured a spoof of “Little Girl Lost”, but also broke out of the “Simpsons” dimension to present Homer in 3D… then in the real world, with its non-cartoon people and erotic cakes. As “The Simpsons” began losing comedic steam in its eighth season, it also started winding down its “Twilight Zone” parodies. “Treehouse of Horror VII” contains one of the last with its rendition of “The Little People” in which Lisa creates a society of tiny people who worship her like the god we always surmised she was.
We all sat in rapt terror as those doctors undid Janet Tyler’s bandages. When her surgeon cried, “No change! No change at all!” we knew we were in for an image of abject hideousness. But… wait, isn’t that gorgeous Donna Douglas? Huh? Then… whap!… our T.V. screens were overtaken by the asymmetrical, piggish faces of the doctors who’d deemed Janet so ugly she needed plastic surgery. All this in the name of repeating that hoary message “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but what we most remember about that classic “Twilight Zone” is the repugnant faces of Janet’s doctors. At a time when television censors were terribly concerned about anything potentially horrifying, the number of scary creatures and disturbing images that slipped onto “The Twilight Zone” was unprecedented. Long before a number of ABC’s affiliate stations blacked out the goofy looking alien “bear” in the “Architects of Fear” episode of “The Outer Limits”, CBS assaulted viewers with those pig doctors, the disturbingly emotionless kanamits in “To Serve Man”, and the horrific man-puppet in “The Dummy”. Later there would be the bizarre gremlin in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and those disfigured faces in “The Masks”. Most of these hideous sights are the work of make-up wizard William Tuttle, who also supplied the morlocks in George Pal’s classic 1960 version of The Time Machine.
While most of the hideous faces skulking through “The Twilight Zone” belonged to the evil, the show often presented complex concepts of beauty and ugliness. The ugly doctors in “Eye of the Beholder” are not monsters—though their government is a totalitarian regime demanding conformity. The aliens’ concepts of beauty are as arbitrary as ours, and presenting a shapely young blonde as anything but ideal on early ‘60s T.V. was a true anomaly. “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” further scrutinized contemporary attitudes about plastic surgery and beauty ideals, and it is revealing that Collin Wilcox, the episode’s ostensible ugly duckling, really isn’t ugly at all. Yet, because she may not be as attractive as Suzy Parker and Richard Long, plastic surgery is deemed necessary. The results are a society of identical people without an individual thought among them. In “The Twilight Zone”, nothing is uglier than the loss of oneself.
“The Twilight Zone” entered its second season drawing big ratings, but CBS remained concerned about the expense of producing the show. Not only did the network cut the number of episodes down from season one’s 36 to 29, but it also insisted Serling get acquainted with video. Unlike 35mm film, videotape provided a relatively cheap, fast way to shoot shows. As he did regarding so many of CBS’s requests, Serling objected, and not without good reason. Video lacks film stock’s richness, depth, and clarity. Video cameras were limited to studio sets, so location shooting went out the window. Videotape was notoriously difficult to edit. A show as dependent on atmosphere as “The Twilight Zone” would certainly suffer on video. Of course, dollars were the deciding factor, and CBS stood to save thousands by shooting a few episodes on video per season. Season two would feature six, with more likely to follow.
The experiment might have been a financial boon, but it was an artistic failure. Several great scripts—the nightmarish “Twenty-Two” and “The Lateness of the Hour”, the holiday classic “Night of the Meek”, the macabre “Long Distance Call”—looked absolutely terrible on tape (the mediocre “The Whole Truth” and “Static” weren’t big losses). When the series came up for renewal in December of 1960, Serling handed CBS an ultimatum: if it wanted to continue airing his hit program, the network would have to forget about videotape. Fortunately, Serling was the victor in this particular skirmish.
Throughout most of season one, Rod Serling’s presence in “The Twilight Zone” was limited to his disembodied narration and brief appearances in the “next week on ‘The Twilight Zone’” teasers. For the final episode of the season, “A World of His Own”, Richard Matheson wrote a clever cameo for Serling, in which Keenan Wynn uses his enchanted Dictaphone to conjure the writer into his living room. Serling’s performance so impressed journalist Mark Nichols that he wrote a piece in Cornonet Magazine suggesting the show’s creator take more personal trips into the Twilight Zone. In season two, Nichols’s brainwave came into being when Rod Serling took his rightful place as on-screen host. Serling admitted he was uncomfortable in front of the camera initially, but that awkwardness lent a certain intensity to his presence. His famed walk ons were reminiscent of the similar roles John Newland of “One Step Beyond”, Boris Karloff of “Thriller”, and Alfred Hitchcock played in their own anthology series. Unlike those hosts, Serling often appeared on set, spinning around in a leather chair to introduce “Back There” or stepping out from behind the nurse’s station to be the only face we see in the first nineteen minutes of “Eye of the Beholder”. As his other commitments increased and his interest in the series waned before the fourth season, Serling stopped popping up in unexpected places, opting to bulk film his introductions in front of a blank wall. Regardless of where he stood, Rod Serling was always a magnetic— and charmingly awkward— tour guide to the fifth dimension.
Aside from rare exceptions such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, extraterrestrials tended to be depicted as malicious, “foreign” conquerors in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Interest in E.T.s grew as U.F.O. sightings grew frequent in the wake of pilot Kenneth Arnold’s much-publicized in-flight encounter in 1947 and the alleged alien-craft crash in Roswell, New Mexico, of the same year. As portrayed in the popular science-fiction chillers of the 1950s, aliens blitzed the Earth (War of the Worlds), stole identities (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and wreaked havoc aboard an American rocket ship (It! The Terror from Beyond Space). As it did with so many other subjects, “The Twilight Zone” tended to take a more nuanced stance on little green men. Yes, the show was as guilty as others of presenting extraterrestrials as hostile invaders. The man-eating Kanamits of “To Serve Man” were among those memorably terrifying “Twilight Zone” aliens; the manipulators of “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” were among the most cynical and insidious. Yet, the latter episode’s true villains are its easily led humans, who unwittingly execute the aliens’ Earth-conquering scheme through their own paranoia and distrust. Richard Matheson turned the tables on us humans in “The Invaders”, in which the bad guys turn out to be unexpectedly familiar. Rod Serling was able to find the humor in spacemen in “Mr. Dingle the Strong”, “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby”, and the series’ greatest comedic episode, “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” Charles Beaumont’s charming third season episode “The Fugitive” portrayed an alien as utterly benevolent, possibly inspiring “Zone”-addict Steven Spielberg to create the most famous E.T. of all.
Like an army of cheeky little O. Henrys, the “Twilight Zone” writing staff loved to yank the rug out from under us with clever twist endings. The power-packed final moments of “To Serve Man”, “The Midnight Sun”, “The After Hours”, and so many others haunted viewers long after 10:30 on Friday night. Many of these twists have passed into the collective consciousness so thoroughly that people who’ve never seen a single episode of “The Twilight Zone” still know:
• To Serve Man… it’s a cookbook!
• Henry Bemis is gonna break his glasses just when he has time enough at last to read everything he wants!
• The cleaning lady is gonna free Satan!
• The guy who had that lady committed to an insane asylum because she kept seeing her doppelgängeris gonna see his own doppelgänger!
• The dummy is gonna become the ventriloquist and the ventriloquist is gonna become the dummy!
• The good-looking people are ugly and the ugly people are good looking!
• The lady who keeps seeing mannequins come to life is actually a mannequin herself!
• The Earth is actually moving away from the sun!
• The tiny invaders are actually U.S. astronauts on a planet of giants!
• The neo-Nazi’s mentor is actually Hitler!
• The gremlin is actually a gremlin!
• The hitchhiker was actually dead all along!
• It was Earth all along!
Oh, by the way, spoiler alert.
Rod Serling may have wanted to get away from creatures, other worlds, and twists when “The Twilight Zone” went off the air, but some of his most mind-blowing creatures, other worlds, and twists still laid in wait for us. Without a doubt, Serling’s biggest post-“Zone” impact on pop culture was his loose 1968 adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planète des singes. Serling’s special effects and futuristic props-heavy script proved too costly to Fox Studio, which hardly anticipated what a blockbuster the film would be. So screenwriter Michael Wilson was brought in to rejigger the adventures of Bright Eyes, Cornelius, Dr. Zaius, Zira, and the other inhabitants of Monkey Land. Serling was disappointed that another project slipped out of his grasp, though one hopes he appreciated Wilson’s retention of the very “Twilight Zone”-esque twist that concluded Boulle’s book and Serling’s original script.
Oh, by the way, it was Earth all along.
Among the numerous sources I used to research this piece, by far the most valuable were Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion, Martin Grams, Jr.’s, The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic, and Gordon F. Sander’s Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television's Last Angry Man. No “Twilight Zone” junkie should be without these three stellar books.