Friday, October 2, 2009

The Twilight Zone Turns Fifty

It was fifty years ago tonight, on October 2, 1959, that a show debuted which was like nothing which had ever aired on television before. It was an anthology show which featured tales of a fantastic nature (science fiction, fantasy, horror--sometimes all three at once in a single episode). These tales all had one thing in common--they all took place in  a "...  fifth dimension -- as vast as space and as timeless as infinity...the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition ...," The Twilight Zone.

The Twilight Zone was the creation Rod Serling, at the time one of the most highly regarded writers in television. As of 1959 he had already won four Emmy awards for his writing. Unfortunately, with Serling's success often came frustration. His scripts were often subject to censorship, either by the network or by sponsors. His 1958 teleplay for Playhouse 90, "A Town Has Turned to Dust," had been based on the real life murder of Emmett Till and was set in the modern day South. Because of concerns of offending Southern viewers, it was moved to the American West of the 1870's. Reportedly, in one of Serling's teleplays the Ford Motor Company, which sponsored the show, requested that the Chrysler Building be removed from the New York Skyline. Such battles with the networks and sponsors convinced Serling that he would be better off creating and producing his own show. What is more, Serling found a way around such censorship battles in the genre of fantasy. At the time fantasy was largely ignored by networks and sponsors alike, who could not conceive a serious message being delivered through the genre. Serling had already worked in the fantastic genres, both in radio and on television. An episode he wrote for Suspense, that was later adapted for Playhouse 90, "Nightmare at Ground Zero," bordered on science fiction, dealing as it did with an artist who creates mannequins for nuclear test sites. His first script for Playhouse 90 was an adaptation of Pat Frank's Forbidden Area.

A large influence on The Twilight Zone was one of Rod Serling's favourite radio shows from his youth, Lights Out. Lights Out was a horror anthology created by Wyllis Cooper in 1933. Lights Out was originally hosted by Cooper, and later Arch Oboler when he took over the show. It also had its own stylised introduction and closing. Like Serling would later, Oboler often dealt with political or social issues through the format of a fantasy series. Lights Out was very much like The Twilight Zone, save that it was exclusively a horror anthology series, while The Twilight Zone delved into fantasy and science fiction more often than horror.

It was in 1958 that Rod Serling met with CBS executive William Dozier (best known as the producer of the Sixties Batman series) and pitched the idea for a fantasy anthology series. Dozier was interested enough in the idea to order a pilot script. That script was "The Time Element," the story of a man from 1948, who awakes in Pearl Harbour on December 6, 1941 with the knowledge of the impending attack from the Japanese. While Dozier liked the script, he also realised that hour long anthology series were on their way out. He asked Serling if he could make his series only half an hour. Serling produced another script, which would run a half hour, "The Happy Place." CBS did not particularly care for "The Happy Place" and as a result plans for the series were shelved.

It was about the same time that Bert Granet, producer of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, stumbled upon the script for "The Time Element." He bought the script and it aired as an episode of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse  on November 4, 1958. It garnered the series its highest ratings ever. It was because of the success of "The Time Element" that CBS finally gave The Twilight Zone the green light, with one caveat--the show needed a host or narrator. Although he conducted a talent search, Rod Serling eventually found himself in the position of narrator--originally  providing narration off screen and later appearing on screen.

Here it must be pointed out that Rod Serling did not coin the term "twilight zone." In fact, it was used as early as the 19th Century, by William Jennings Bryan nonetheless. Rod Serling himself admitted that he later learned that it was a United States Air Force term referring to that time when a plane is approaching the ground and its pilot cannot see the horizon.

It was on October 2, 1959 that The Twilight Zone debuted. It's first episode was "Where is Everybody," in which Earl Holliman finds himself alone in a deserted town that seems to have been lived in all the same. "Where is Everybody" set the tone for the rest of the series, complete with a twist ending. "Where is Everybody" was written by Rod Serling. In fact, his contract with CBS stipulated that he would write eighty percent of the show's first season. What is more, The Twilight Zone was produced by Serling's own Cayuga Productions. Of course, Rod Serling was hardly the only writer on the show, even if he ultimately wrote fifty percent of the show's scripts in its five seasons.

In fact, some of the shows most famous episodes were written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Richard Matheson was already an established writer of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, having already written the classic novel I Am Legend. He already had a screenplay to his credit (The Incredible Shrinking Man) and had written teleplays for such shows as Studio 57 and Wanted Dead or Alive  Among the episodes which Matheson wrote for The Twilight Zone was "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," in which William Shatner sees a gremlin while aboard a plane. Charles Beaumont was also an established writer of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. With Jerry Sohl he co-wrote one of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone, in which a doll named Talky Tina takes a serious dislike to her owner's stepfather. Among others who wrote episodes for the series were George Clayton Johnson (co-writer of Logan's Run), Earl Hamner (creator of The Waltons), sci-fi and fanstasy writer Jerry Sohl, fantasist Ray Bradbury, and Reginald Rose.

The ratings for that first episode of The Twilight Zone were fairly low. It aired opposite another new show on ABC, The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor, and Gillette Cavalcade of Sports on NBC. Fortunately, word of mouth would soon spread about the strange new anthology series on CBS. As the weeks past, ratings for The Twilight Zone grew. The show would never have exceedingly high ratings, for most of its run hovering in a 19 to 20 Nielsen, but that was enough to keep it on the air.

Unfortunately, the nature of The Twilight Zone and its middling ratings also meant that it was hard for the series to keep sponsors. Kimberly-Clark sponsored its first season, then dropped out. From then on The Twilight Zone changed sponsors frequently. Colgate-Palmolive sponsored the show for a time, as did General Foods and Liggett-Myers. There were points in the show's run where it was literally without a sponsor.

 Indeed, The Twilight Zone would be late in finding a sponsor in its fourth season. As a result its place in the prime time schedule was taken by an hour long sitcom, Fair Exchange. The show's staff was so certain that this was the end that producer Buck Houghton took a position with Four Star Productions while Rod Serling took a teaching position at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. As it turned out, however, Fair Exchange performed very poorly in the ratings. It was in November 1963 that CBS made a deal for an hour long version of The Twilight Zone, which would replace Fair Exchange at mid-season. The show's crew was nervous about this expansion to an hour, particularly Rod Serling. There was serious concern whether the show could retain its flavour. Buck Houghton, who had been the show's line producer from the beginning, was replaced by Herbert Hirschman (who had previously worked on both Perry Mason and Dr. Kildare). Hirschman would take an offer from NBC to produce the series Espionage. He was then replaced by Bert Granet, the producer who had bought "The Time Element" for Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse.

For its fifth season, The Twilight Zone returned to its familiar, half hour format. Bert Granet left the show to be replaced by William Froug. In hindsight, Froug may not have been the best choice for a producer. He effectively drove George Clayton Johnson away from the show when he hired another writer to rewrite one of Johnson's scripts. He also shelved a number of scripts which had been bought when Granet was producer. As it was, the fifth season would be the last for The Twilight Zone. CBS determined that The Twilight Zone was not receiving high enough ratings to warrant its budget and cancelled the show.

ABC expressed some interest in picking up the show, although it would have to be under a new name, Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves. One  reason for the new name was that CBS co-owned The Twilight Zone and hence co-owned the rights to its name. Another reason was that ABC wanted to turn The Twilight Zone into a horror anthology. Rod Serling had little interest in ABC's proposal, although he would eventually create his own supernatural anthology, Night Gallery, in the late Sixties.

After five years and 156 episodes, The Twilight Zone had left its mark on television. The anthology series was critically acclaimed in its first season. It won two Emmy Awards and was nominated for three more. And there was little reason it should not be so well regarded. The Twilight Zone featured some of the best writing of any series of the time, often dealing with such issues as racism, McCarthyism, the Cold War, and so on, all under the heading of "fantasy." The show left viewers with some of the most memorable episodes of any series: aliens arrive on Earth under the guise of "serving" man ("To Serve Man"); a young woman undergoes plastic surgery so she can look like everyone else ("Eye of the Beholder"); a street in a small town is convinced that an alien invasion is imminent ("The Monsters are Due on Maple Street"); and many others.

The Twilight Zone would prove to be one of the most successful shows in syndication. As a result, the show would live on in different formats and would even be revived. In 1981 The Twilight Zone magazine was founded. It ran until 1989. In 1983 a feature film based on the series was released, adapting the episodes "Kick the Can," "It's a Good Life," and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." In 1985 CBS revived the series. This incarnation of The Twilight Zone lasted two seasons before the network fired its original production team. Under a new production team it lasted one more season. In 1994, CBS aired a television movie of two Richard Matheson adaptations of Rod Serling short stories under the name Twilight Zone: Rod Serling's Lost Classics (even though both stories were written after the show had been cancelled). In 2002 The Twilight Zone was revived once more, this time on UPN. It only lasted one season. That same year, a radio show based on the series began production.  It  has adapted several episodes of the original show to a radio format.

There can be little doubt that The Twilight Zone is the most famous anthology series of all time. It has also had more impact on Anglo-American pop culture than any other anthology series. Even people who have never seen the show not only know of it, but are even familiar with some of its episodes. It is one of those shows, alongside I Love Lucy and Star Trek and only a few others, which has infiltrated pop culture to such a degree that its theme music, its host (Rod Serling), and elements of its episodes are immediately recognisable. It is doubtful it will ever be forgotten.


Holte Ender said...

I didn't see "Twilight Zone" until the mid-70s, I immediately fell in love with the show. No wonder I liked it so much, the wonderful, creative writers you mentioned. What talents they were.

Jason's Psyche said...

We cover a lot of background info about the Twilight Zone writers in our documentary about the life of Charles Beaumont. You can check out the trailer on our website:

Jim Marquis said...

Good piece, Merc. Serling was not only a creative genius but a real force for good in his own way.

Terence Towles Canote said...

As I was too young, I didn't see The Twilight Zone in its first run, but caught it in the late Sixties or early Seventies in rerun. I still love that show. Along with Alfred Hitchcock Presents, I think it was the last gasp of the great anthology shows.

Thanks for the kind words, J. I do think Rod Serling did do some good. He covered some pretty big issues in his teleplays for anthology shows, and when censorship got in the way he used The Twilight Zone as a means to still address those issues.

Thaks for the link, Jason. I've always been fascinated by Charles Beaumont. It is so tragic that he didn't live longer. He was one of the best writers of his time.