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.’
Rod Serling’s introduction for The Twilight Zone was a unique way of marketing the show. Declaring the show’s lodging in the space-time continuum was the perfect way to approach its prime audience, that of 12-15-year-olds. “Children quickly picked up on the most basic plot elements—Martians, space or time travel, talking dummies or dolls, grotesque creatures and the like.” As writer Charles Beaumont theorized, this was probably because children are eager to test the scale of their imagination, whereas their “elders are inclined to fear it.” Reliance on the open-mindedness of a potential pre-pubescent audience proved extremely profitable in the long run for the show. Its emphasis on science fiction, the space age, and fantasy was further combined with a grueling production schedule that bested almost all other operational models then in existence, both in New York City and Hollywood.
The Twilight Zone was not American television’s first foray into anthology drama. Between 1947 and 1958 at least three anthologized series were regularly broadcast on television: Theatre Guild Television Theatre (1947-1948), Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse (1948-1955), and Westinghouse Studio One (1948-1958). Two apt genetic predecessors for a show like Serling’s were two cutting-edge CBS shows, broadcast in the early ‘60s. The Defenders (1961-1965) and East Side, West Side (1963) dealt with urban crime, capital punishment, civil rights, and feminism. The former told the story of a father-son law firm and their charged handling of controversial topics: conscientious objectors, neo-Nazism, pornography, and euthanasia. This period in TV history provided writers with unprecedented freedom. Networks did not hire screenwriters on a long-term basis, so writers could write a drama and license it to, say, Fred Coe’s Philco/Goodyear Playhouse, or write a comedy and license it to the appropriate series. By 1964, however, producers had realized that the operations for a show with a formula and set characters were far easier, and less expensive, than their anthologized cousins. Thus dawned the age of the producer: if a show had been contracted to air 39 episodes, the producer was responsible for character outlines, possible plots, and story parameters. If they were part of the show’s staff, writers now found themselves writing in answer to a proposal given them by their producer(s). And if they were not staff, writers were occasionally sent an idea for an episode by a producer and asked to fill in dialogue in response to a particular plot development. This system of production was also cost-effective: keeping the characters and setting the same, week to week, was much cheaper than regularly building new sets and designing costumes.
Serling was fully aware of this shift, since most of his early writing was a metaphor for his firm belief in the writer as king. His first work Patterns depicted a ruthless, profit-driven executive corrupting the ideals of a newly appointed, sensitive subordinate. The problems within a system originates, Patterns states with some force, in its focus on the bottom line. When he sat down to discuss a show called The Twilight Zone with CBS executive William Dozier in 1957, Serling said the series would be “science fiction, but not really science fiction.” Dozier, understandably confused, responded: “I can’t make any sense out of it this way. Why don’t you just write a script, a pilot script?”
The first submission was “The Time Element”, “a script where a bookie (William Bendix) confesses to a psychiatrist (Martin Balsam) that he dreams of going back in time to the bombing of Pearl Harbor—only he fears the dreams are real and he will one day die in the attack. Although the psychiatrist explains that dreams condense subconscious fears and cannot be real, he watches his patient fall asleep and then die while dreaming about Pearl Harbor. The episode ends with a stupefied psychiatrist discovering that the person he supposedly counseled died 15 years earlier during the attack on Pearl Harbor.”9 Dozier had just one impression upon reading this script, and he asked Serling to confirm it at their next meeting: The Twilight Zone would be an anthology series. The ambitious creator also wanted to write 90% of a season’s episodes. A worried Dozier tried, with his colleague Bill Self, to find other solutions. All on-air anthology show had larger rosters of writers, and “their formats were much more rigid than Serling’s plan to write something that was ‘science fiction, but not science fiction.’” Neither side could agree to a framework for both physical production and script submission, so CBS waited until Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse performed “The Time Element” on November 24, 1958. To the executives’ immense surprise, viewers loved it—letters poured in from across the country, filled with praise for this bold new form of television. Some viewers even said they hoped Mr. Serling would write more fantasy scripts. Realizing they might have a hit on their hands, CBS transitioned into full production. Serling had one last demand: he wanted to host the show. “He had always intended [the show] to have a narrator who offered moral commentary about the story at the beginning and end of the episode. If he performed this role, he argued, his reputation as a celebrated writer would generate continued audience interest in the series.” When CBS contacted advertising agency Young & Rubicam about a marketing strategy for their new show, Y&R expressed enthusiasm for Serling’s proposal. As a well-known public figure, with a distinct and unchanging physical appearance, Serling would anchor each episode. Whether the episode featured Main Street, Mars, leather-jacketed rebels or cone-headed aliens, Serling’s presence—pensive, seated either at a desk or leaning against a wall or bookshelves, a lit cigarette always in his hands, smoke curling toward the ceiling—would provide an intellectual introduction, and at the end of the half-hour, a wise summation.
The format for Serling’s appearance in each episode did vary, however, if only slightly. During the show’s first season, he only instead narrated the top of the half-hour via voiceover. Serling only came on-screen at the end of the episode, in order to preview next week’s story. What give Twilight Zone episodes an immersive atmosphere is the way Serling’s introductions are segued a few minutes into each episode, after the main character has been established.
“Serling’s commentaries were didactic…he spoke toughly, sometimes in curt sentences, sometimes in fragments.” At the start of the show’s second season, Y&R recommended that Serling introduce each episode, and he agreed but slightly altered his function: “[He] held onto the tough guy role as narrator but became a phantom-like presence within episodes. After characters finished their opening conversation, the camera would pan 180 degrees to reveal Serling in the room or set.” But the shots never, ever pictured narrator and characters together, so the audience could be sure that the story functioned independently.
Bill Self never received a series proposal. Serling fine-tuned narrative expectations for prospective staff writers. The ideal episode, according to new hire Richard Matheson, “started with a really smashing idea that hit you right in the first few seconds, then you played that out, and you had a little flip at the end.” This was the extent of the show’s rigidity: point A was this notion of the fantastic, and point B was a surprise ending, but the empty space in between was all for the writer.
But Serling’s determination to protect his show’s creative independence was his own undoing: he forced his talent agency to include in his contract with CBS that he would be responsible for 90% of each season’s output. Ashley-Steiner, Serling’s agency, “hired…producer Buck Houghton to co-produce”. And while both men’s contracts specified final cut approval, logging time with editors, and discussing production strategies with directors, Houghton quickly realized that the 90% stipulation in Serling’s contract could not possibly allow him time to perform a producer’s duties. Houghton once recounted: “As Rod found out that I knew what I was doing, he produced less and less.” But Serling, before drowning in the grueling task of churning out script after script, did pause to retain full control over script editing. If he hadn’t done so Houghton would’ve been able to demand rewrites, and even Serling, who valued creative cooperation and artistic merit in worthy contemporaries, wasn’t going to let that happen.”
The last production detail to slide into place was the question of output. Writing 90% of a season’s episodes was impossible; the average season lasted at the time for 39 episodes. Hoping to nip script production problems in the bud, Serling put out an open call for scripts during the show’s first season, thinking the dozen or so submissions would be enough to cull the wheat from the chaff. To his amazement and dismay, hundreds of scripts poured in, and the time crunch (over three dozen episodes had to be produced, top to bottom, in nine months) forced him to post hasty rejection letters to practically everyone, and hired Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont “to write four episodes a piece [sic] for the first season.” The Twilight Zone would go on to license writers for one-off episodes—George Clayton Johnson, Montgomery Pittman, Douglas Heyes among them—and Serling always took care to hire writers whose work he felt fit the show’s tone.
Serling’s brazen reappropriation of accepted industry practices for television production are both an aspirational model and a cautionary tale. The show’s success signaled a shift in viewer acceptance of hot-button topics. Audiences did not mind, and indeed welcomed, stories about the evils of racism, nuclear warfare, bigotry and violence from the serious, steady Mr. Serling. But the runaway determination of its creator went on to serve as a warning to all TV showrunners: in 1965 Serling sold the syndication rights of The Twilight Zone to CBS for $600,000. “By selling…[the show’s] syndication rights, [he] forfeited the potential to make Cayuga Productions a powerful independent production company. Because he had just barely broken even with The Twilight Zone profits at the time, he could no longer operate Cayuga Productions.” If Serling had paused to learn the business practices of being a writer-producer, perhaps The Twilight Zone could have been the first of many groundbreaking contributions to American television.
An analysis of The Twilight Zone is woefully incomplete without an examination of its subject matter. The audience was called upon to think beyond the immediacy of everyday ideas. Serling posed challenges to viewers with episodes like “People Are Alike All Over”, “The Jeopardy Room”, “The Fever”, and “The Four of Us Are Dying”. And among the many themes explored by Serling and his staff, fear is the narrative motivation behind some of the show’s best work, including “The Eye of the Beholder” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”.
An old woman (Gladys Cooper) lies, shivering but asleep, in a basement apartment. Her bed is surrounded by narrow vertical shadows, cast off a metal bedstead and various chairs. The camera pulls back to show a glassless window; a few boards have been nailed in carelessly. A shadow is visible, moving just beyond the hasty lumber. The woman struggles to her feet and creeps to the door. Suddenly, a shot rings out. A man (Robert Redford) has been hurt; he now lies at her door and asks for help. But the woman doesn’t believe him and leaves him to groan in the cold.
Fear of the unseen, the unwelcome, that which is different, drives The Twilight Zone. “Nothing in the Dark” is grounded in suspicion and dread. The old woman can’t fathom her death—she can’t imagine what it’s like on the other side—so she balks when anyone, from a contractor to the grocery boy, comes by, purportedly to help. When young Harold Beldon knocks on Wanda’s door and asks for medical attention, Wanda suspects it’s Death, coming to claim her after all these years. Fortunately, despite contact with the injured man, she lives, and begins to speak with him about her fears. When Beldon’s trick is revealed (he is the so-called “Mr. Death”), Wanda is angry. Unwillingly she gives her hand to Beldon, who says, “You see? No shock, no engulfment, no tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper.” “When will it happen?” she asks, tears running down her face. Beldon directs her gaze to her bed, where Wanda’s body lies peacefully. “You see?” he says. “We have already begun.” They seem to float as they walk out of the basement. The desire to keep death at bay is also at the heart of “The Hitchhiker”. Nan Adams (Inger Stevens) is driving cross-country and sees, at nearly every turn, a drab little man (Leonard Strong), asking for a ride. He lures Nan, almost fatally, to a railroad crossing, and beckons at every stop. She begins to hate her car, resent her trip, and beg for mercy from those she comes across. When Nan makes a call to her home in New York, she finds out her mother is in the hospital—due to a nervous breakdown after the death of her daughter. A strange peace surrounds her as she hangs up. She is aware of the stars in the Arizona desert, the vastness of the space around her. She’s been unsure as to her destination and whether she’ll ever arrive, but now, “for the first time, I think I know.” As she gets in her car, the hitchhiker is in her backseat, and knowingly says, “I think you’re going my way.”
The apprehension felt by both Nan and Wanda suggests the universality of fear. Neither can face the fact that the end is, inevitable, immune to youth or escape. Harold Beldon and the drab hitchhiker are not wrapped in the black shawls of death, but are döppelgangers of the Grim Reaper in his most inoffensive form. Both women are prisoners—Nan in her literal getaway car, afraid to stop or get out; Wanda resists in a self-made jail, the lines cast by chairs are “a visual reminder that this scared old woman is a prisoner of her refusal to confront and accept death.” As Serling himself says at the end of Wanda’s story, there is liberation in the fact “that there was nothing in the dark that wasn’t there when the light was on.”
The 1963 Bob Dylan song “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” makes light of the Red Scare:
I looked everywhere for them gol’-darned Reds
I got up in the mornin’ ’n’ looked under my bed
Looked in the sink, behind the door
couldn’t find any…
As the song continues, the narrator complains he’s run out of things to investigate, “so now I’m-a home/investigatin’ myself.” Dylan’s take is humorous because he doesn’t believe that communists are actually invading the lives of decent Americans in order to raise their numbers. (I wonder if he’s seen ‘The Americans’?) “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” written by Serling just three years before, decides to flip the communist threat upon its head. The argument here isn’t whether there is a Red Scare; it’s what a potential or existing Red Scare can do.
Several themes are at work here. Aside from basic fear of what might be causing all the chaos, there is a resurgence of suspicion. An innocuous activity on the part of Les Goodman (Barry Atwater)—staring up at the night sky—is called into question. Charlie Farnsworth (Jack Weston), ever the neighborhood judge, clarifies: “Any guy who’d spend his time looking up at the sky early in the morning, there’s something wrong with that kind of a person. Something that ain’t legitimate.” When Goodman pleads insomnia, the neighbors feel united – now there’s an enemy, someone to watch and fear. Steve Brand (Claude Akins) puts it best: “Let’s pick out every idiosyncrasy of every man, woman and child on this whole street. And then we might as well set up a kind of kangaroo court. Now, how about a firing squad at dawn, Charlie…?” It doesn’t take long for things to spiral out of control: Charlie accidentally shoots Pete Van Horn, thinking him to be a monster, so the crowd turns on him. The lights go on in the Weaver place, so the crowd turns to them next. Tommy, the boy with the comic book prophecies, is held up after that. In no time at all, friend is wielding rock and axe against friend, and what was once a neighborhood is now a petri dish of prejudice.
The prose of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is forceful and aggressive. Staccato, mostly one-syllable words are used to pinpoint guilt: “He never did come out to look at that thing…he always was an oddball.” Even the voice of reason—that of Steve Brand—holds anger: “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Now’s let’s not be a mob!” The interrogation of Les Goodman is excruciatingly grating, thanks to phrases like, “Well, maybe you’d better tell us!” and “How do you explain that?” and “What’s the idea, Les?” Proper credit is due to the acting, which is reflexively angry and judgmental in the best way possible. Barry Atwater’s performance as Les Goodman is particularly forceful; his commanding gestures and expressions make it clear he is a man who will do anything to protect his family. The music is also of note here: a dissonant harmony stemming from oboes and flutes sets the grim tone for the episode; invasive horns crescendo as the feet of the mob quicken.
There is, surprisingly, very little information about the aftermath of a watershed episode like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”. Various newspapers noted that it was to be broadcast, but there is no physical record of a review or an appraisal. Perhaps Serling was right when he wrote about the difficulties in being political on television in the late 1950’s; in the introduction to the paperback version of Patterns, he mentions his experiences in writing “The Arena,” a teleplay about Senators. “So, on the floor of the United States Senate (at least on Studio One), I was not permitted to have my Senators discuss any current or pressing problem. To talk of tariff was to align oneself with the Republicans; to talk of labor was to suggest control by the Democrats. To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited.” Perhaps this is why even the inimitable Jack Gould, television writer for The New York Times, kept his mouth shut after an episode of bravura television.
In the sign-off for “Maple Street”, Serling alludes to the prejudices which keep open conversation and differences at bay. They are, his voiceover intones, simply thoughts and attitudes which are to be “found only in the minds of men. …And a thoughtless search for a scapegoat can have a fallout all of its own, for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is, these things cannot be confined to The Twilight Zone.” These words would serve Serling well when he went on to write, a season later, “The Eye of the Beholder” and “The Obsolete Man”. The former deals with a fictional society’s mandate for unification under “a single purpose! …A single entity of peoples!” The latter explores euthanasia and collectivism. Both deal with the relationship between society and totalitarianism, and the risks this perilous affiliation poses to any society.
The plots are simple: a heavily bandaged, hospitalized woman in “Beholder” begs her doctor, of whom we are not afforded a single glimpse, to remove her wrappings so she may finally realize her dream of “looking like everyone else.” Burgess Meredith, in the first of his four star turns on The Twilight Zone, stars as a man condemned to death because his position as a librarian and his faith in god are considered obsolete by the state. Ms. Tyler of “Beholder” gets her wish, but not before she angrily rejects the state’s mandate: “Who is this State? Who makes all these rules and conditions and statutes for people who are different to stay away from the people who are normal? The State isn’t God, doctor!” Even the doctor is conflicted; in a moment of privacy with a nurse, he confides: “I’ve looked underneath those bandages. …I’ve seen that woman’s real face, Nurse. The face of a real self. It’s a good face…it’s a human face. …What is the dimensional difference between beauty and something repellent? …Why shouldn’t people be allowed to be different?” By highlighting both the plight of the patient and her doctor’s internal ethical struggle, Serling illuminates the difficulties posed by a totalitarian state to more than just the “victim,” that moral struggles become more widespread when the state installs absolute dictates regarding “glorious conformity.” And why does the doctor question himself? For it is he who is ugly – his face deformed, as though he has been wearing the mask of a pig for too long. Ms. Tyler is, in fact, a beauty, and eventually escapes the hospital with the handsome Mr. Smith, to an area secluded for their kind.
The question of difference echoes in the background of “The Obsolete Man” as well. Wordsworth (Meredith) has requested that he die via an assassin’s hand (but by his own instructions), and that his death be broadcast to the nation. As the über-powerful Chancellor enters Wordsworth’s chambers, the door behind him locks, and the latter informs the leader that a bomb has been set to go off in the room. He intends to show the nation how a spiritual man prepares for death. In the panicked last moments before the detonation, the Chancellor asks to be let go “in the name of God.” Wordsworth agrees, only because God was mentioned. Moments later, the bomb goes off, killing the librarian, but a much worse fate awaits the Chancellor, who is greeted with cries of hate. “You have disgraced the State. You have proven yourself a coward.
You have, therefore, no function.” He is summarily carried off and presumably disposed. Serling’s sign-off is brief: “Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man – that state is obsolete.” There is a touch of Joseph McCarthy in the Chancellor’s manner: blustery and angry, he is puffed up with the self-proclaimed knowledge that literature is a “narcotic” and that “the state has proven that there is no God.” (There are elements, too, of Ramsay, from Patterns in the Chancellor’s behavior – the same I’ll-be-damned gestures and expressions.) Serling, through Wordsworth, counters, “You can’t erase God with an edict!”
Serling’s tussle with communism is not a one-off. He took on the issue in several episodes. But never so clearly does he reject its principles than in “Beholder” and “Obsolete Man.” His own edict is in defense of writing, of opinions and differences. In “Maple Street” he warned viewers to be aware of each other’s prejudices and attitudes, but here Serling is making evident his hatred of those in power to make decisions against the wishes and rights of their own people. The last scene of “Obsolete Man” is malicious in its intent, made especially so by the crescendo-ing, livid hum by members of the state as they move to capture the Chancellor. Serling’s grim views of totalitarianism is as loud and brutal as the state’s stealthy growl.
All in all, none of this would exist without the exquisitely wired brain of Rod Serling. A man so finely attuned to the frequency of the times, Serling made it possible for whole generations of viewers – in America and abroad – to interpret and deal with fear. Unlike any TV show of its time, ‘The Twilight Zone‘ displayed a level of writerly dexterity that was impossible to find on, say, “Suspense” or even on dwindling programs like “Ford Theatre.” As time wears on, the show’s varied themes – democracy, alien invasion, the advancement of science – seem only too relevant in an increasingly fast-paced, tech-based world.
In the acknowledgments of her dissertation, Erin Cummings compares herself to the hero of “Time Enough At Last”: “Much like Henry Bemis…who laments the solitude of a decimated world as the sole survivor of nuclear war, the thing of it is, without Rod Serling’s ‘Twilight Zone,’ I’m not at all sure I’d want to be alive.” What better way to express admiration for that glorious fifth dimension?
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