The Twilight Zone (1959-64)
Despite the wealth of new television shows that are currently available, a few month ago I chose to revisit The Twilight Zone. In the past I have watched occasional iconic episodes during late night re-runs, but I have never really applied myself to the show. Up to now, I have mainly been familiar with this iconic show through the books that I’ve read. So, in March I started watching season one and was immediately hooked. Contemporary TV shows are often frenetic, densely plotted and at times over long. The Twilight Zone frequently manages to make it’s point in just twenty-five minutes, with strong performances and intelligent dialogue. Yes, there are aspects of the show that are dated. The production values are sometimes constrained by the budget and the special effects are not always that special. The shows gender politics are very much of the time. But all five seasons feature a cavalcade of fine actors, some already established at the time and others who would go onto greater things. Many of the episodes have bespoke scores written by the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith. But at its core The Twilight Zone stands out because of the superb writing of its creator Rod Serling.
The Twilight Zone frequently uses the medium of tales of suspense, science fiction and the paranormal to explore perennial themes of prejudice, love, war, and the social issues of US society at the time. Sometimes the stories are stark, hard hitting and challenging. Other times they can be whimsical, subtle or paternal in tone. The show's signature twist endings often made the stories all the more memorable. Many of the tropes and common place plot devices that we now take for granted or even satirise, hail from Serling’s trail blazing show. This was ground breaking television at the time. Aside from Serling, who wrote or adapted over half of the total episodes, The Twilight Zone features the work of such authors as Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, Earl Hamner, Jr., George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Reginald Rose, and Jerry Sohl. Many episodes also featured contemporary adaptations of classic stories by such writers as Ambrose Bierce, Jerome Bixby, Damon Knight, John Collier, and Lewis Padgett.
Over the course of five seasons these writers frequently used the medium of science fiction and broader fantasy as a means for social commentary. This proved quite beneficial as the otherwise censorial network executives and more importantly sponsors often failed to see the “message” in such fantastic material. Hence, The Twilight Zone includes stories about nuclear war, McCarthyism, and mass hysteria. Such material if referenced in a more traditional dramatic fashion would more than likely have been watered down or simply rejected. Key episodes such as "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" and "I Am the Night—Color Me Black" offered direct commentary on prevailing social issues and were not afraid to contradict the establishment status quo. Other stories, such as "The Masks", "I Dream of Genie", or "Mr. Denton on Doomsday" were allegorical in nature and pondered moral and philosophical conundrums through modern day fables. The spectre of World War II still looms large in many episodes, with cautionary tales about the need to remain ever vigilant against extremism and fascism. One episode “He’s Alive” has become worryingly relevant again.
Despite running for five seasons, The Twilight Zone was not an easy sell and an immediate runaway success. The ratings were good but there was still a great deal of critical prejudice against the show, simply because science fiction was a marginalised genre. Many critics as well as studio executives did not feel the medium could offer any narrative depth beyond escapism and certainly did not see it as a means of providing adult drama. The conceit of Serling's appearances on the show to introduce each story, eventually became one of its most original and distinct features. But at the time some saw this an indulgence or a distraction. It was not Serling’s idea to do this initially and he was quite reticent take up this role in front of the cameras. Yet his concise, direct delivery and distillation of the impending plot has become iconic and is still widely imitated today. Serling’s narrations and the breaking of the “fourth wall” were an innovative device and he appeared on all episodes. However, in the episode "A World of His Own", Keenan Wynn plays a writer with the power to alter his reality. He overhears and objects to Serling's narration, promptly removing him from the proceedings.
To date, I have watched the first two seasons of The Twilight Zone and am currently halfway through the third. Season one and two I’ve watched on DVD and the shows are in their syndicated format. That is to say, they do not include the sponsorship messages given by Rod Serling at the end of each episode, along with his preview of the next instalment. However, the Blu-ray boxset of the entire series (via which I’m currently viewing season three) includes the commercial break title card midway through each show, along with the aforementioned sponsorship messages and preview preamble. There are occasionally additional advertisements for charities and such like after the end credits, along with trailers for Gunsmoke with James Arness. The Blu-ray release has been lovingly restored from the original 35mm negatives and look crisp and clear. Many of the episodes that are deemed “classic” have multiple commentary tracks by cast members, writers and film historians. This release is certainly the best way to watch The Twilight Zone.
It’s hard to write anything about The Twilight Zone without referencing certain episodes. But as this has been done many times before, by far more keen-sighted critics and writers, I will simply mention those that I’ve personally enjoyed. "The Invaders" written by Richard Matheson is a tense tale of a woman living in a remote cabin, terrorised by tiny alien invaders. As ever there’s a clever sting in the tail. "It's a Good Life" stars Billy Mumy as a child devoid of a moral compass, who has the ability to will anything into or out of existence. He subsequently holds sway over a rural farming community. Interestingly, this was the episode that Joe Dante chose to remake for Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983. "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" intelligently documents how a suburban community quickly turns on itself during what appears to be an alien invasion. Claude Akins give a credible performance, but it is Rod Serling’s script that is the real star in this story. I also have a soft spot for the bitter sweet "Time Enough at Last", starring the great Burgess Meredith as a hen-pecked husband who just wants to be left alone to read. The final pay-off still has the power both to raise a wry smile and a pang of sadness. I’d also recommend "Long-Distance Call" about a child who speaks to their dead Grandma on a toy telephone. You can also see a young Richard Kiel as the alien Kanamit ambassador in "To Serve Man". After sharing their technology, along with curing disease and famine, human flock to join an exchange program and visit the Kanamit homeworld. But there’s a dark secret contained within a book left my the Kanamit ambassador. The ending is the stuff on TV legends.
The Twilight Zone had an unprecedented influence on movies, television and pop culture in the years after its original broadcast. Many of it’s twist endings, iconic lines of dialogue and premises have become internet memes and are lovingly referenced in other shows. The theme tune, by Marius Constant, has itself has entered common parlance and become a signifier of the weird, odd and baroque. Just hum the first few bars of the intro music and most people with quickly guess that something off kilter has occurred. Such is the standing of Rod Serling’s show. So, if you enjoy portmanteau movies or dark TV show such as Black Mirror, then why not checkout the series that started it all. You’ll frequently find a wealth of great character actors, such as Lee Marvin, Lee Van Cleef, Vera Miles, Cloris Leachman, Dennis Hopper, Carol Burnett and Robert Duvall. And at twenty-five minutes an episode (apart from season four when they decided to double the length) these make ideal late-night viewing, often providing a bizarre or curious tale to ponder before sleep. Assuming that you’ll get any after some episodes.