In October 1959, writer Rod Serling unveiled a television series that he hoped would bring to the airwaves the most thought-provoking stories and the highest-quality acting that the medium had yet seen. Sixty years later, his Twilight Zone remains one of the most popular shows ever made and a fixture of American culture. Revived several times—most recently, in a series on CBS All Access—the original Twilight Zone has never been equaled. Next month, fans will have an opportunity to experience it in a new way during an anniversary celebration in which six of the most famous episodes, and a new documentary about its creator, will play in theaters nationwide.
Born in upstate New York in 1924, Serling began writing for radio while in high school. When World War II erupted, he joined the army and served in the Philippines, where he was wounded and awarded a Bronze Star. His wartime experiences haunted him forever afterward. “I was bitter about everything and at loose ends when I got out of the service,” he said. “I turned to writing to get it off my chest.”1
He attended Antioch College after returning home and began writing professionally in 1950. From then until his premature death in 1975, Serling was constantly at work, producing a mind-boggling number of radio and television scripts. His “Patterns,” a 1955 episode of Kraft Television Theater, attracted nationwide attention; and a year later, his “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” for TV’s Playhouse 90, won six Emmys and the very first Peabody Award. He wrote ten other episodes of Playhouse 90, in addition to dozens of scripts for other series before launching The Twilight Zone in 1959. He would write almost 100 of its 156 episodes. He also recruited skilled young dramatists, including Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, and Jerry Sohl, to compose startling original stories or adapt classic science-fiction tales for the show.
The writing quality of the series brought it such prestige that top-notch actors personally asked Serling to cast them in episodes. That combination of talents resulted in some timeless works that articulate essential values and confront both characters and viewers with critical choices. Not every episode was successful—some were just gimmicky—and the philosophic views articulated sometimes were objectionable. Yet Twilight Zone’s best installments expressed important ideas in strikingly original ways. “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” for instance—one of the half-dozen episodes that will be shown in the anniversary marathon—examines how paranoia can destroy society. Serling shows us a neighborhood suffering what seems to be a hysterical mass delusion about an imminent alien invasion—only to reveal that the aliens are real and are using that same hysteria as a tool of conquest.
“Monsters” became Serling’s most popular Twilight Zone script, but it wasn’t his best. In fact, two other Serling-penned episodes to be included in the big-screen marathon provide better examples of his dramatic skill. “Eye of the Beholder” imagines a totalitarian world in which ugliness is mandated by the state, and beauty is a persecuted aberration. And in “Walking Distance,” a middle-aged advertising executive, depressed about work and missing the good old days, goes for a walk and accidentally travels back in time to his own childhood. At first he’s enraptured by the sweetness of his former hometown—until his father, realizing who he is, counsels him against romanticizing the past. “You’ve been looking behind you,” he says. “Try looking ahead.”
“Walking Distance” eventually led to a permanent breach between Serling and science-fiction legend Ray Bradbury, whose stories were among the principal inspirations for Twilight Zone. Although Bradbury himself wrote only one episode, he was a mentor to Beaumont and Johnson, and Serling considered him a personal friend. But similarities between “Walking Distance” and Bradbury’s stories “Black Ferris” and “The Playground” drew allegations of plagiarism, including from Bradbury himself. Eventually, the two men stopped speaking.
The accusation was unfair, not only because the plots were dissimilar, but because Serling’s story rejects romantic nostalgia in a manner contrary to the spirit of Bradbury’s stories—many of which articulated reactionary, even Luddite, attitudes. Bradbury’s influence on Serling was profound, but Serling’s work typically voiced an earnest idealism wholly alien to Bradbury, whose writing often was deeply misanthropic. Serling could sometimes be cynical, too, but his sense of life was rooted in a belief that humanity could triumph over its challenges. “In any quest for magic,” he wrote in a story adapted from his screenplay “Dust,” “it might be wise first to check the human spirit.”2
This November, viewers can experience once more Serling’s quest for that spirit in The Twilight Zone.
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1. Anne Serling, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling (New York: Citadel Press, 2013), 60.
2. Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone: The Complete Stories (New York: TV Books, 1986), 286.