The Twilight Zone is generally considered to be the first real "adult" science-fantasy anthology series to appear on American television, introducing the late 1950s TV audience to an entertaining and at the same time thought-provoking collection of human condition stories wrapped within fantastic themes. Although the series is usually labeled a science fiction program its true sphere was fantasy, embracing elements of the supernatural, the psychological, and "the almost-but-not-quite; the unbelievable told in terms that can be believed" (Rod Serling).
During the show's five-year, 155-episode run on CBS (1959-64) the program received three Emmy Awards (Rod Serling, twice, for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama, and George Clemens for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography), three World Science Fiction Convention Hugo Awards (for Dramatic Presentation: 1960, 1961, 1962), a Directors Guild Award (John Brahm), a Producers Guild Award (Buck Houghton for Best Produced Series), and the 1961 Unit Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations, among numerous other awards and presentations.
The brain-child of one of the most successful young playwrights of his time (with such "Golden Age" TV successes as "Patterns" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight"), Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone began life as a story called "The Time Element" which Serling had submitted to CBS, where it was produced as part of the Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse anthology. Although it was little more than a simple time-warp tale, starring William Bendix as a man who believes he goes back in time to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the TV presentation received an extraordinary amount of complementary mail and prompted CBS to commission a Twilight Zone pilot for a possible series. With his "Time Element" script already used, Serling prepared another story which would be the pilot episode for the series. "Where Is Everybody?" opened The Twilight Zone on 2 October 1959, and featured a riveting one-man performance by Earl Holliman as a psychologically stressed Air Force man who hallucinates that he is completely alone in a deserted but spookily "lived in" town while actually undergoing an isolation experiment. It was this hallucinatory human stress situation placed in a could-be science-fantasy landscape, complete with an O. Henry-type "snapper ending", that was to become the standard structure of The Twilight Zone. "Here's what The Twilight Zone is," explained Serling to TV Guide magazine in November 1959. "It's an anthology series, half hour in length, that delves into the odd, the bizarre, the unexpected. It probes into the dimension of imagination but with a concern for taste and for an adult audience too long considered to have IQs in negative figures."
Serling's contract with the network stipulated that he would write eighty per cent of the first season's scripts which would be produced under Serling's own Cayuga Productions banner. The prolific Serling, of course, ended up writing well over 50% of the entire show's teleplays during its five years on the air. This enormous output was for the most part supported by two other writers of distinction in the science-fantasy genre: Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Matheson's literary and screenplay work before and during the series ran parallel to that of Beaumont; not suprisingly, since they were personal friends and often script-writing collaborators during their early days in television. Matheson's early writing had included the short story collection, Born of Man and Woman, and a novel, I Am Legend (both published 1954), and later the screenplays for The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957; from his own novel), House of Usher (1960), and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). Beaumont's work included similar science fiction and horror-fantasy writings, with the short story collections Shadow Play (published 1957) and Yonder (1958) as well as screenplays for Premature Burial (1962) and The Haunted Palace (1963) alongside others in a similar vein. Their individual scripts for The Twilight Zone were perhaps the nearest in style and story flavor to Serling's own work. George Clayton Johnson was another young writer who, emerging from Beaumont's circle of writer friends, produced some outstanding scripts for the series, including the crackling life-or-death bet story "A Game of Pool", featuring excellent performances from Jack Klugman and Jonathan Winters. Earl Hamner Jr., later to be creator and narrator of the long-running The Waltons, supplied eight scripts to the series, most of which featured good-natured rural folk and duplicitous city slickers. The renowned science fiction author Ray Bradbury was asked by Serling to contribute to the series before the show had even started but due to the richness of Bradbury's written work, he contributed only one script, "I Sing the Body Electric", based on his own short story.
As an anthology focusing on the "dimension of imagination" and using parable and suggestion as basic techniques, The Twilight Zone favored only a dozen or so story themes. For instance, the most recurring theme appeared to be Time, involving time warps and accidental journeys through time: a W.W.I flier lands at a modern jet air base (Matheson's "The Last Flight"), a man finds himself back in 1865 and tries to prevent the assassination of President Lincoln (Serling's "Back There"), three soldiers on National Guard maneuvers in Montana find themselves back in 1876 at the Little Big Horn (Serling's "The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms"). Another theme explored The Confrontation with Death/The Dead: a girl keeps seeing the same hitchhiker on the road ahead, beckoning her toward a fatal accident (Serling's "The Hitchhiker", from Lucille Fletcher's radio play), an aged recluse, fearing a meeting with Death, reluctantly helps a wounded policeman on her doorstep and cares for him overnight before she realizes that he is Death, coming to claim her (Johnson's "Nothing in the Dark"). Expected science fiction motifs regarding Aliens and Alien Contact, both benevolent and hostile, provide another story arena: a timid little fellow accustomed to being used as a
doormat by his fellow man is endowed with super-human strength by a visiting scientist from Mars (Serling's "Mr. Dingle, the Strong"), visiting aliens promise to show the people of earth how to end the misery of war, pestilence and famine until a code clerk finally deciphers their master manual for earth and discovers a cook book (Serling's "To Serve Man", from a Damon Knight story). Other themes common to the series were Robots, with Matheson's excellent "Steel" a standout; The Devil, Beaumont's "The Howling Man"; Nostalgia, Serling's "Walking Distance" and "A Stop at Willoughby"; Machines, Serling's "The Fever"; Angels, Serling's poetic "A Passage for Trumpet"; and "Premonitions/Dreams/Sleep," Beaumont's "Perchance to Dream". The general tone of many Twilight Zone stories was cautionary, that man can never be too sure of anything that appears real or otherwise.
In 1983 Warner Brothers, Steven Spielberg and John Landis produced Twilight Zone the Movie, a four segment tribute to the original series presenting pieces directed by Landis (also written by Landis), Spielberg (written by George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Josh Rogan, based on the original 1962 episode "Kick the Can"), Joe Dante (written by Matheson, based on the original 1961 episode "It's a Good Life"), and George Miller (written by Matheson from his own story and original 1963 episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"). From 1985 onwards CBS Entertainment produced a new series of The Twilight Zone. Honored science fiction scribe Harlan Ellison acted as creative consultant under executive producer Philip DeGuere; the series is particularly noted for the participating name directors, such as Wes Craven, William Friedkin, and Joe Dante. In more recent times, Twilight Zone: Rod Serling's Lost Classics presented a 2-hour TV movie based on two unproduced works discovered by the late writer's widow and literary executor, Carol Serling: Robert Markowitz directed both "The Theater" (scripted by Matheson from Serling's original story) and "Where the Dead Are" (from a completed Serling script).
With its subtext of escape from reality, a nostalgia for more simple times, but generally a hunger for other-worldly adventures, it seems appropriate that the original The Twilight Zone series appeared at about the right time to take viewers away, albeit briefly, from the contemporary real-life fears of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and, eventually, the tragic events of Dallas. That The Twilight Zone, directly or indirectly, inspired such later fantasy and SF anthologies as Thriller (1960-62), with its dark Val Lewtonesque atmosphere, and, following that, the superb The Outer Limits (1963-64), a delicious tribute to 1950s science fiction cinema when it was at its most imaginative, remain testimony to both Rod Serling and his Twilight Zone's spirit of poetry and principle.
HOST Rod Serling (1959-1965)
NARRATORS Charles Aidman (1985-1987) Robin Ward (1987-1988)
PRODUCERS Rod Serling, Buck Houghton, William Froug, Herbert Hirschman
PROGRAMMING HISTORY 134 Half-hour Episodes; 17 One-hour Episodes
CBS October 1959-September 1962 Friday 10:10:30 January 1963-September 1963 Thursday 9:00-10:00 September 1961-September 1964 Friday 9:30-10:00 May 1965-September 1965 Sunday 9:00-10:00 September 1985-April 1986 Friday 8:00-9:00 June 1986-September 1986 Friday 8:00-9:00 September 1986-October 1986 Saturday 10:00-11:00 December 1986 Thursday 8:00-8:30 July 1987 Friday 10:00-11:00 1987-1988 First Run Syndication
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