“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 is synonymous with fantasy, horror and the paranormal. He built a career on looking through a lens that brought us fear, surprise and a fast-beating heart.
Serling wrote for radio and film, but television was his medium of choice. Serling discovered his unique voice, both literally and figuratively, as he found a way into the American psyche, and with his measured delivery, he brought his stories of psychological intrigue into viewer’s homes.
In the 1950’s, Serling wrote for television in what is called the “Golden Age”. Television was divided into sitcoms, and dramatic programs resembled 30 and 60 minute stage plays. The shows he wrote for were often deep in character and tension, something Serling could sink his teeth into. He wrote for many of the classic anthology series of the era. He also wrote the occasional television film and even sold some feature film scripts.
Serling did not write light comedy, his subject matter usually contained a “message” or social commentary on human behavior. When he did venture into comedy it was very dark and incidental to his stories. His television and feature films also had very serious themes at their core. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) was a television film about a failed boxer. Seven Days in May (1964) was about a military coup in America. The Doomsday Flight (1968) was about an airliner with a bomb onboard, a precursor to airline problems of the future. Planet of the Apes (1968) was based on the novel, with Serling co-writing the adaption. Who evolved most, man or apes?
The Twilight Zone
More than 50 years later, and often imitated, The Twilight Zone (1959-64), still resonates with fear and torment. The show has never stopped airing on television. It has fed the imagination and nightmares of generations, often airing at late night when we are most vulnerable to what we can’t see in the dark and when our defenses are penetrable.
There are Twilight Zone episodes that most of us remember. Just the mention of the episode will instantly bring back the shock or fear induced even so many years later.
Here are my top five episodes:
“Where is Everybody?” – The very first episode of the series. A man (Earl Holliman) lands in a small town where there are no people. Eerie and full of paranoia.
“It’s a Good Life” – A boy (Billy Mumy) can read the thoughts of others and can punish them if he wants, which he does.
“Living Doll” – Telly Savalas experiences his stepdaughter’s talking doll, who doesn’t like him very much. His wife says it is his imagination. Yet, is the doll responsible for his “accidental” death?
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” – William Shatner is on a flight and sees a monster on the
wing, trying to destroy the plane. He is unable to get anyone to believe him and grows more manic until he has to be subdued. Was there really a monster?
“To Serve Man” – Aliens (Richard Kiel) are offering to help man. Serving them as in help, or serving them as in serving them up as the feast?
Serling sold the rights to The Twilight Zone after production ceased on the series. Little did he know the legacy of the series would have on pop culture in years to come. At the end of the 1960’s, Serling was approached about another anthology series which turned out to be Night Gallery.
Night Gallery veered toward the supernatural or the macabre, and the scripts were often based on short stories by H.P. Lovecraft and others. Serling was the on-air host, introducing each story in the episode, referring to a painting or piece of sculpture that inspired the story. Serling had much less creative control over the series, which he grew to regret. He wrote about a third of the stories and by the end of the third season his interest waned and his frustration increased.
Night Gallery, for an hour-long show, looks like it was financed by loose change found in a sofa. Granted, they attracted some big names for each program, but Universal, one of the biggest production factories in the world, didn’t offer much in the form of budget. If you listen to the behind-the-scenes feature on the series, the producers and directors were always struggling with the limited budget. That forced them to get creative with the sets, make-up and special effects to achieve the mood and textures of the scripts.
An anthology series, even linked by Serling’s personality, was a difficult trick in the 1970’s. Audiences were more sophisticated now and more challenging for writers. At the end of season three the series was cancelled.
Some of the best Night Gallery episodes:
“Green Fingers” – An industrialist tries in vane to buy the property of an old woman
(Elsa Lancaster) who won’t sell and leave her garden. She meets with deadly results and comes back to haunt the person responsible for her death.
“The Late Mr. Peddington” – A woman shops for a funeral for her deceased husband, but is he really deceased?
“Camera Obscura” – An unusual telescope reveals a terrifying reality that a heartless man finds himself in the middle of. Very nice production work.
“The Messiah on Mott Street” – An elderly man (Edward G. Robinson), helped by a disbelieving doctor, awaits a visit from the messiah.
“The Painted Mirror” – Zsa Zsa Gabor follows her dog through the mirror into an inviting fantasy-land with a frightening result.
“Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture” – An intense and terrifying lecture by Professor Peabody (Carl Reiner). You won’t believe your eyes.
“The Tune in Dan’s Cafe” – A couple visit a somewhat deserted cafe where the jukebox only plays one song, which has a murderous story. Mysterious and a twisty plot.
“The Diary” – Patty Duke as a gossip columnist who receives a diary that writes its own events before they happen.
Serling died in 1975 at age 50. A heavy smoker, he suffered a series of heart attacks and his last one came after open-heart surgery. His daughter, Anne Serling, wrote a book about life with him, and how he was always working, always writing, the stress of television production deadlines with trying to raise a family, were pressures he internalized.
Anne Serling estimated that he wrote more than 250 scripts during his career. She said that his war experiences in the Philippines, where he witnessed devastating casualties, including three wounds himself, haunted him the rest of his life. “What I vividly recall is my dad having nightmares, and in the morning I would ask him what happened, and he would say he dreamed the Japanese were coming at him,” she said in an interview with USA Today.
“When people saw this black-and-white image walking across the MGM soundstage (during his Twilight Zone introduction) with a cigarette and the tight lips and that serious expression, you wouldn’t have known that he was very self-deprecating and extremely hilarious.”
Aside, from the hundreds of hours of entertainment, what would his legacy be? “I hear from people in their 20s and early 30s who, because of my dad, became writers,” his daughter says. “That would have also deeply touched him.”
Rod Serling was a unique storyteller. He found a portal into our our imagination and consciousness, stroking our fears and tickling our intellect, at the same time.
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