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The Impact of Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone

01/01/2006. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy The Twilight Zone in the USA - or Buy The Twilight Zone in the UK

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I was this past week on a panel discussing the television show The Twilight Zone, says Mark. It brought back a lot of good memories of the late 1950s and early 1960s when my life really was divided in two pieces: watching The Twilight Zone and waiting for the next Twilight Zone. I don't think that there is any television show that had the impact on me that that series did.

I was a kid who loved science fiction and fantasy. This show channelled me into adult written science fiction. The story is that maybe a year after it premiered my father returned from a business trip and brought back a book that had been left on the seat. It was Notions Unlimited by the late, great Robert Sheckley. My reaction was how terrific it was that you could find Twilight-Zone-like stores in books. It was a while before I looked at science fiction books and did not think of "The Twilight Zone".

I remember hot days in the summers of that time my mother would take my brother and me and friends to the swimming pool and we would sit in the back seat and sweat and talk excitedly about that really great episode of "The Twilight Zone" that we had just seen. And we discussed what were the best episodes. But it was more than a show that pleased just youngsters.

"The Twilight Zone" was a revolution for broadcast fantasy. More science fiction fans were getting their doses of fantasy from one television show than they had from all the other broadcast sources of fantasy combined. There had been several radio and television shows of science fiction before. Some of the most popular were those associated with Arch Oboler. They had low-grade science fiction ideas and were not very good writing. A typical Arch Oboler story would have a scientist is working on growth hormone and carelessly spilling his waste onto the ground.

Next thing you know he has giant worms attacking his house. His most famous story, I think, was "Chicken Heart" about a scientifically treated chicken heart that kept growing to monstrous size and was "in your town . . . on your street!" The series might have had a dubious charm but rarely good writing. Other series like "Quiet Please" occasionally had a well-told story, but it was mostly there for the ideas. On television besides programs like "Captain Video" and "Tom Corbett"--Westerns and crime stories set in space - there was some acceptable science fiction from "Science Fiction Theatre", a short-lived anthology series, but nothing that would be really engaging. The stories were on the level of having a surprise ending that that strange person in the story was actually an alien. We could say something similar about "One Step Beyond". "Tales of Tomorrow" should be mentioned also.

What was different about "The Twilight Zone" was Rod Serling. He was not a fantasist doing his best to write decent drama. He was a dramatist who wanted to do some fantasy stories. He had done several outstanding plays for live television and was considered a really good dramatist. His best remembered plays are probably "Patterns" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight," but only because they were adapted into films.

With "The Twilight Zone" this writer of great dialog was doing fantasy stories on a weekly basis. In the beginning the new "Twilight Zone" series had both good ideas and human drama, though the emphasis was actually more on the drama. Even my parents, who were never much for fantasy stories, watched the first season of "The Twilight Zone". I can only assume it was because of the quality of the writing.

"The Twilight Zone" would have decent actors and some soon-to-be stars: actors like Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Jean Marsh, Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, and Martin Landau as well as later familiar faces like William Shatner. There were also some extremely good character actors. I did not appreciate this at the time, but as the years roll by I am more impressed with the acting of Jack Klugman, most notably in "The Twilight Zone" episodes "A Passage for Trumpet" and "In Praise of Pip". He could play emotional pain as well as anybody I have ever seen. I did not appreciate his performances when I was eleven, but today they literally bring tears to my eyes. Other actors like Art Carney gave some of their best performances for Serling.

Where Serling ran into trouble were the requirements of a weekly anthology series. That is a very difficult regimen. From an early point he brought in writers like Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont to pinch-hit for his writing. Matheson just had his feet barely wet in dramatic fantasy with his script for The Incredible Shrinking Man. He had also written for some television Westerns before "The Twilight Zone". He contributed sixteen scripts to Serling's series. (Only Serling wrote more "The Twilight Zone" scripts.) This experience started a whole career for Matheson in fantasy drama. Matheson is another of my choices for under-appreciated creative people of fantasy.

Even with a stable of good writers and actors Serling could not keep up the standards the show really demanded. Eventually he had to go with lesser ideas and less talented writers. Some of the final season episodes are painful to watch. Most science fiction magazine editors reject Adam and Eve stories immediately. Serling accepted one. Some of the later shows were also very sloppy. In "The Bewitching Pool" the little girl's voice is done by the actress for part of the story and by all-too-recognizable cartoon voice June Foray the rest of the time.

"The Twilight Zone" borrowed a little from previous films and radio plays; some episodes were taken almost directly from DEAD OF NIGHT. It adapted a play by Lucille Fletcher that had been popular on the radio. But it virtually strip-mined ideas. For years afterward we saw one reworking of a " Twilight Zone" idea after another. Others film can be found that were made up in large part of ideas from "The Twilight Zone". Carnival Of Souls, Brides Of Dracula, Poltergeist, and several television movies re- use ideas that were probably taken from "The Twilight Zone". The series was a new fantasy idea every week.

I cannot think of anything I acquired during the period that "The Twilight Zone" was on that I value as much as the experience of looking forward to each new episode of "The Twilight Zone".

Mark Leeper

(c) Mark R. Leeper 2006

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