8 Ways The Twilight Zone Influenced Modern TV and Film

The Twilight Zone casts a long shadow over today’s film and TV. We salute the legacy left by Rod Serling’s seminal series…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

“Damn near immortal” is how Stephen King described The Twilight Zone in his 1981 study of creepy fiction Danse Macabre, and who could argue with that. Like any decent horror monster, Rod Serling’s 1960s anthology series keeps coming back from the grave. Only last week it was announced that CBS is planning to resurrect its award-winning show once again. The new series will be the latest of several revivals over the decades, including an upcoming stage production set to enjoy its world premiere at London’s Almeida Theatre this December.

The Twilight Zone doesn’t just keep returning in its own right, it also lives on through the mark it left behind on culture. It lives and breathes in every Treehouse Of Horror episode on The Simpsons, every twist in an M. Night Shyamalan film, and every perceptive sci-fi story with a moral conscience.

With technological advances currently giving us ever more reason for anxiety, and fear of the other being brayed through presidential addresses and splashed over poisonous headlines, now feels like the perfect time for the return of a series that, through its enduring legacy, never really left us.

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Here are just a few ways The Twilight Zone inspired the TV and film of today…

Cerebral, adult sci-fi

The assumption that sci-fi TV equals bleeping robots, tin-foil-wrapped space-rays and kitsch adventurers battling tentacled aliens is long dead, but it took The Twilight Zone to land the first blows. Serling launched his CBS series at a time when the names most commonly associated with science-fiction on television were Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. The Twilight Zone demonstrated that television could tell out-of-this-world stories every bit as meaningful and intelligent as those being written by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

By aiming its stories at a literate, adult audience, and using the genre to pose complex moral questions, Serling blazed a trail for smart sci-fi television to follow. Today, dramas like Westworld, the revived Battlestar Galactica, or Alex Garland’s 2015 film Ex Machina are the subjects of lengthy essays on their philosophical and existential themes. Rod Serling’s work made TV audiences and broadcasters take sci-fi seriously.

Social and political allegory

In her 2013 memoir, daughter Anne Serling recalls her father’s words: “A Martian can say things that a Republican or Democrat can’t.” It’s a neat introduction to his use of metaphor and allegory in the post-war US. Serling’s thoughtful morals and liberal values were disseminated through the disguise of sci-fi and horror fantasy. Story after story, The Twilight Zone urged caution and empathy. It’s for that reason that episodes like The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street find their way into the classrooms of American middle schools. Serling’s messages of tolerance and acceptance are vital, and perhaps depressingly, just as relevant now as then.

One sci-fi series in particular that followed The Twilight Zone would go on to break boundaries and spread similar messages about social justice and acceptance: Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. In 1975, Roddenberry performed a eulogy at Rod Serling’s funeral, at which he praised Serling’s “deep affection for humanity” and “determination to enlarge our horizons by giving us a better understanding of ourselves.” Enlarging our horizons was a job performed by both men. As new episodes of Star Trek: Discovery arrive weekly, more than fifty years after Roddenberry’s space exploration show first aired, it’s worth considering the work Serling’s series did in paving the way.

Twist endings

Eye Of The Beholder, The Midnight Sun, I Shot An Arrow Into The Air… all regarded as Twilight Zone classics, and all proud owners of a twist ending. Work the numbers and the rug-pull finish was actually relatively uncommon over the 150-plus original episodes of The Twilight Zone, but it’s an association indivisible from the show. That moment in an episode where everything we’ve been led to believe is revealed to be a lie while the truth was hiding in plain sight all along feels like the essence of The Twilight Zone.

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The power of those early Twilight Zone twists certainly wasn’t lost on the future filmmakers and writers watching at home. Would M. Night Shyamalan, whose work is famous for its earth-shaking surprise endings, be the same filmmaker without Rod Serling’s series? Would JJ Abrams, who has repeatedly cited Serling’s influence on his work, have made Lost or Fringe or 10 Cloverfield Lane had he not first been a Twilight Zone fan?

Anthology format

Though not the first TV show to use the ‘new week, new story’ anthology format, The Twilight Zone eclipsed its precursors to become the most commonly used shorthand for non-serialized drama. When Black Mirror first arrived in 2011, nobody described it as a new Tales Of Tomorrow or Science-Fiction Theatre; Charlie Brooker’s tech-anxious series was, rightly, hailed as a modern-day Twilight Zone.

From a broadcaster’s perspective, anthology drama presents risk. Standing sets save money, and recurring characters and ongoing storylines with ‘tune in next week’ cliff-hangers are a hook for viewers. Doing away with all that and pinning your hopes on the power of storytelling and atmosphere to attract an audience takes courage and faith. Perhaps that’s why some of the best television of recent years has come from anthology shows; just to get on screen, these series have to be twice as good as serialised dramas to begin with. Two homegrown examples are the aforementioned Black Mirror, and the excellent Inside No. 9, both responsible for some of TV’s boldest, most memorable storytelling in years.

Reassured by proof that modern audiences will respond to the format, broadcasters now seem less nervous about taking up the anthology challenge. US networks keen to boast their own Black Mirror-style show have made Dimension 404, Channel Zero, and Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams in recent years, while CBBC in the UK has just launched Twilight Zone-inspired children’s anthology Creeped Out.

Horror cinema has long been wise to the attractions of the anthology. With varying success, the V/H/S and The ABCs Of Death films showcase the format’s potential for creative variety by engaging the services of multiple writers and directors under one umbrella.

World cinema too, has its own entries in the anthology list (there’s a strong anthology tradition in Indian cinema, though you’d be hard pushed to lay responsibility for that at the feet of The Twilight Zone). Recently, 2015’s European co-production Tale Of Tales combined a collection of fairy stories, while Damián Szifron, the director of Oscar-nominated 2014 Argentinian comedy Wild Tales, cites Serling’s show as a key influence.

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Tech anxiety

The anthology format aside, Black Mirror’s keenest point of comparison with The Twilight Zone is a shared anxiety about future tech. Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker is always keen to stress that his show isn’t about technology being bad, it’s about people not being emotionally equipped to cope with its capabilities and the increasingly central role it plays in our lives. As Serling concludes at the end of The Brain Center At Whipple’s, after a powerful rallying cry against mechanisation and capitalist diminishment of workers’ humanity, “Too often man becomes clever instead of becoming wise. He becomes inventive, but not thoughtful.”

Man is threatening to “create himself right out of existence”, said Rod Serling in 1964, a hugely prescient sentiment not only expressed today in Black Mirror, but also Humans, Westworld and countless modern AI dramas.

Theme music

Perhaps only Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho theme or John Williams’ Imperial March from Star Wars are as instantly recognisable and widely imitated as Marius Constant’s dee-dee-dee-dee opening theme for The Twilight Zone. Alongside the door-in-space, floating eyeball, mirror, clock and mannequin (all symbols recurrent in the artwork of the Surrealists, as explored in Arlen Schumer’s 1991 book Visions Of The Twilight Zone), it’s music that creeps under your skin.

Since then, any TV show seeking to leave the same impression has turned to the same ominous style. From Mark Snow’s echoing opening music for The X-Files to the pizzicato introducing R.L Stine’s Goosebumps, another horror anthology, composers can’t get The Twilight Zone’s sinister notes out of their heads.

Inspiring famous Twilight Zone fans

Any attempt to list the creatives working today who cite the influence of The Twilight Zone, or those whose work shows clear inspiration from its tone, themes, or (see below) plots, would be incomplete by its nature. We’ve mentioned JJ Abrams, who describes his Cloverfield shared-universe idea as inspired by Serling’s show. We’ve also mentioned Gene Roddenberry, Stephen King, M. Night Shyamalan, Charlie Brooker… add to those names directors Tim Burton and Duncan Jones, the various creators of Doctor Who and countless spooky children’s shows from The Real Ghostbusters to Are You Afraid Of The Dark? Perhaps less obviously, Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner (reportedly working on an anthology series of his own for Amazon) calls The Twilight Zone his favorite show of all time. And among those working in Hollywood today, he’s by no means alone.

Borrowed plots

To list just a few: Planet Of The Apes (I Shot An Arrow Into The Air), Poltergeist (Little Girl Lost) The Truman Show (Special Service), The Sixth Sense (An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge), Final Destination (Twenty Two)… not to mention the many, many TV episodes that are remakes of Twilight Zone episodes in all but title. Go on, see how many you can name in the comments below.

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The world premiere stage adaptation of The Twilight Zone runs at London’s Almeida Theatre from the 5th of December 2017 to the 27th of January 2018. More information and tickets are available here.