Even if you’ve never seen an episode of The Twilight Zone, it may feel as though you have. This is due to the fact that, although it wasn’t the first television anthology series, it was certainly the most influential. Subsequent TV shows such as The Outer Limits, Star Trek, The X Files, Lost, Fringe and many more owe a huge debt to it. Also, films like Planet Of The Apes, Child’s Play, The Truman Show, Final Destination, Poltergeist and Donnie Darko (amongst others), all lifted their ideas straight from individual Twilight Zone episodes.
And then there was the influence it exerted on people like Steven Spielberg, Stephen King and Gene Roddenberry and much of their subsequent work. Suffice to say that many of the popular culture staples that we take for granted today may not have turned out in quite the same way had it not been for The Twilight Zone.
The show was the creation of Rod Serling, who wrote twenty-eight of the thirty-six episodes included here in season 1, and it’s his take on human nature (and, in particular, the American psyche at the time) that makes many of these tales so watchable. Each individual tale conforms to the same basic template, opening with a piece of Serling narration that is as iconic now as it was classy and timeless then:
“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.”
It’s an introduction that sets the expectation bar high before we meet an average all American man (or woman) and follow them on a journey that can take us just about anywhere, that can take place at any time, and in which almost anything can happen. Each episode diverges along vastly differing paths and it’s one of the strengths of the series that its stories are so diverse.
In order to appreciate the episodes to their fullest, it’s best not to know too much about them, but issues such as racial prejudice, political corruption, societal conventions and the cold war are all examined and explored under the guise of stories bedecked in the garb of science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes they’re comedies, sometimes they’re dramas. Frequently they’re psychological horror. As you might expect, the quality varies from episode to episode, but at its best, season 1 of The Twilight Zone is original, unpredictable and compulsive viewing.
Standouts are numerous and include I Shot An Arrow Into The Air, which tells the storyof a group of astronauts landing on an asteroid and fighting for survival. This is one of many episodes that explores how man can become a very different beast when placed in circumstances he can not comprehend (it also includes one of the most well remembered Twilight Zone twists).
Then there’s Time Enough At Last, where Burgess Meredith plays the solitary survivor of a nuclear blast who loves to read, but has always been hampered in his attempts to do so by other people. (It’s a story that includes one of the biggest ‘doh!’ moments of any finale to be found in season 1.)
And then there’s The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street, an episode liberally dosed with lashings of Cold War paranoia, as residents of a suburban street begin to turn on each other when they suspect their neighbours of being alien invaders. This story, in particular, is redolent of some of the great alien invader movies of the 1950s such as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and It Came From Outer Space, wherepeople’s physical appearance should not be taken at face value and the familiar is not to be trusted. It’s an obvious commentary on much of mainstream America’s concerns about the growth of Communism throughout this era and exposes brilliantly the destructive tendencies of an America obsessed with the notion of ‘reds under the bed’. What’s more, in its examination of perceived threats from without, it is still as relevant today as it was then.
In fact, apart from being entertaining dramas in their own right, much of The Twilight Zone can be seen as a fascinating commentary on a country that was experiencing considerable change, both at home and abroad.
The United States of the late 1950s was a country very much concerned with the burgeoning conflict in Vietnam, feeding fears of further threats from the Soviet Union. There were also huge social changes being brought about in the civil rights movement, and the open sores left by the communist witch hunts of both Senator Joe McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities had yet to heal.
Set against this backdrop, it’s easy to infer from much of season 1 that Serling was examining the fears and concerns of a viewing public that could feel many of the old certainties slipping from its grasp. A new American identity was emerging, but many were as yet unsure of what that identity would be.
And no theme dominates the first season of The Twilight Zone more than this one, as again and again characters struggle to come to terms with a reality that they do not understand and in which they’re not the person they believed themselves to be.
So, there are tales of people unable to move forward because of the pull of the past (Walking Distance, for instance, where a man visits his childhood and meets his teenage self in an idyll he doesn’t want to leave, and Nightmare As A Child, where a woman is compelled to remember secrets she’d buried as a result of the promptings of a strange little girl).
Then there are tales of people deluding themselves that they’re leading ordinary lives, only to have their blinkers removed by some very creepy characters (The Hitch Hiker where a woman sees the same man by the side of the road over and over again no matter how far and fast she drives, and The After Hours, where a woman awakens in an empty department store with only some very lifelike mannequins for company).
But perhaps the most powerful of these is And When The Sky Was Opened, in which three astronauts thought lost, return to Earth as heroes, only for one of them to disappear soon after their return. The episode focuses on the terror and confusion of Colonel Clegg Forbes, as he is the only person who can remember his vanished colleague, with everything, including news reports and medical records at odds with his version of reality. It’s a thought provoking look at what happens to heroes when they return home from wars and is oddly prescient in its prediction of how America would soon treat its soldiers on their return from Vietnam.
But in case I’m giving the impression it’s all doom and gloom, be assured that it isn’t. Most of The Twilight Zone episodes in season 1 are highly entertaining, with some excellent comedic episodes. Examples include Escape Clause, the story of a hypochondriac who sells his soul to the Devil for eternal life (but soon gets bored) and A Nice Place To Visit, the tale of a gangster who dies in a shootout and wakes up in the afterlife where he is soon granted everything his heart desires. And even the darker episodes can be viewed primarily as first rate thrillers, with extra layers of subtext there for those who choose to look for them.
If The Twilight Zone is familiar because of its TV legacy, you only need to watch a handful of the stories that make up season 1 to notice that it’s also familiar in that each of the episodes look very much like the mainstream cinematic output of the time. Partly this owes much to the high standards of production design, but it’s also due to the fact that this season features a range of talent who, if they weren’t already, would later become recognised as mainstays of the film industry. Some of the episodes feature scores by Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith, scripts from Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont and performances from the likes of Kevin McCarthy (Invasion Of The Body Snatchers), Jack Warden (12 Angry Men), Martin Landau (North By Northwest) and Vera Miles (Psycho). So, The Twilight Zone is a TV series wed very much to the cinema of the era.
But for all that I’ve banged on about the familiarity of The Twilight Zone, it should be emphasised how original and fresh much of it still seems today. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself about ten minutes ahead in terms of working out where the story is going, and there’s the odd bit of exposition that is reminiscent of the psychologist’s monologue at the end of Psycho (i.e. completely unnecessary). But it’s rare to find a programme capable of delivering a perfect and complete story satisfactorily in less than half an hour, and this is exactly what much of season 1 delivers. This is due in part to the consistent brilliance of Rod Serling and others in scripting episodes that rely on situation to draw you in and intrigue you, with little to no time available in which to grab you with characterisation. For this reason alone, they deserve to be seen by anybody who has an interest in the history, potential and development of the art of television drama.
But fundamentally, these episodes stand quite simply as examples of classic television, of a TV series that has lost very little of its ability to provoke, disturb, amuse and entertain in the fifty-two years since it first aired. Rod Serling once set out his vision for television thus:
“The exciting thing about our medium is its potential, the fact that it doesn’t have to be imitative. What it can produce in terms of novelty and ingenuity has barely been scratched. We want to prove that television, even in its half-hour form, can be both commercial and worthwhile. This is a medium that can spread out, delve deep, probe fully and reach out experimentally to whole new concepts. The horizons of what it can do and where it can go stretch out beyond vision.”
With The Twilight Zone he went a long way to achieving much of that vision.
Roughly half of the episodes feature either commentaries from the actors appearing in them and/or isolated scores from the episode (and let me tell you, it’s never a bad thing to listen to a Bernard Herrmann score).
One of the highlights is the Rod Serling lecture that plays over the Walking Distance episode, which provides an insight into the demands Serling made on himself as a writer. Throughout, he highlights the problems he has with the story and the script, making it something that became almost unwatchable for him.
There are further Serling lectures accompanying And When The Sky Was Opened, Where is Everybody and The Mighty Casey, which should be required listening for anybody with aspirations to become a script writer for television.
Also commentaries from actors including Martin Landau, Kevin McCarthy, and Martin Milner highlight how big a deal it was for actors to appear in the series and get to work with Rod Serling, even at this early stage in the formation of The Twilight Zone.
However, because these commentaries invariably feature only one participant, they can sometimes lose momentum and often go a little quiet without a co-commentator to work with. There are, however, interviews in lieu of commentaries, and some of these work much better. (There’s a good one with I Am Legend author, Richard Matheson, on season finale, A World Of His Own).
The bonus material on disc 6 includes the pilot of Where Is Everybody, an edition of a Rod Serling hosted panel show called The Liar’s Club, awards footage of Serling receiving his two Emmys for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Drama’, a Serling blooper, Twilight Zone billboards and a photo gallery.
The lack of any sort of overview or documentary on The Twilight Zone is a disappointment, but there’s some small compensation in the form of a handsome PDF reproduction of a Twilight Zone comic.
The Twilight Zone Season One is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.