The Wayback Machine: The Twilight Zone (1959)





With discussions (again) surfacing of a Twilight Zone movie – and the shivers up my back come from anyone who remembers what happened in the real world when the last such homage to Rod Serling’s fabled franchise was filmed for the big screen – your humble M.E. thought he would fire up the ol’ Wayback Machine and head back to 1959 (I was one) to take a gander at the brilliant mind that is Serling and his most famous work.

I have always heard that as a boy Serling was a fan of pulp fiction stories and as an adult, he sought topics with themes such as racism, government, war, society and human nature in general. Well, the writer decided to combine these two interests as a way to broach these subjects on television at a time when such issues were not commonly addressed.

Throughout the 1950s, Serling established himself as one of the more popular names in television. He was as famous for writing televised drama as he was for criticizing the medium’s limitations. His most vocal complaints concerned censorship, which was frequently practiced by sponsors and networks.

“I was not permitted to have my senators discuss any current or pressing problem,” he said of his 1957 production The Arena, intended to be an involving look into contemporary politics. “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.”

In 1959, The Twilight Zone came to CBS. The series was produced by Cayuga Productions Inc., a production company owned and named by Serling. It reflects his background in CentralNew YorkStateand is named after Cayuga Lake, on which CornellUniversityis located.

Twilight Zone’s writers frequently used science fiction as a vehicle for social comment; networks and sponsors who had censored all potentially “inflammatory” material from the then-predominant live dramas were ignorant of the methods developed by writers such as Ray Bradbury for dealing with important issues through seemingly innocuous fantasy. Frequent themes include nuclear war, mass hysteria and McCarthyism, subjects that were strictly forbidden on more “serious” prime-time drama.

Episodes such as “The Shelter” or “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” offered specific commentary on current events. Other stories, such as “The Masks” or “The Howling Man,” dealt with a central allegory, parable or fable that reflected the characters’ moral or philosophical choices.

Despite his esteem in the writing community, Serling found The Twilight Zone difficult to sell. Few critics felt that science fiction could transcend empty escapism and enter the realm of adult drama. In a September 22, 1959, interview with Serling, Mike Wallace asked a question illustrative of the times: “…[Y]ou’re going to be, obviously, working so hard on The Twilight Zone that, in essence, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?”

While Serling’s appearances on the show became one of its most distinctive features, with his clipped delivery still widely imitated today, he was reportedly nervous about it and had to be persuaded to appear on camera. Serling often steps into the middle of the action while the characters remain seemingly oblivious to him, but on one notable occasion they are aware he’s there!

In the episode “A World of His Own,” a writer with the power to alter his reality objects to Serling’s narration, and promptly erases Serling from the show. Hilarious and imaginative!

The original series contains 156 episodes. Unlike seasons one through three, season four (1962–1963) consists of one-hour episodes. Season five returned to the half-hour format.

Everyone has their favorite episode of Twilight Zone, and I was glad to hear in our E-I-C’s earlier report that this new Twilight Zone movie will not feature “episodes” like the previous film, but feature one total story.

Here is hoping the push keeps up to bring this new gem (we are praying) to the silver screen.