- Note, this page is about the television series and its two revivals. For other uses of The Twilight Zone see The Twilight Zone (disambiguation)
The Twilight Zone is the name of a television series created (and often written by) its narrator and host Rod Serling. Each episode was an individual fantasy or science fiction story, often concluding with an eerie or unexpected twist. A popular success, it introduced many Americans to serious science fiction ideas while still managing to attract overwhelmingly positive critical attention. The success of this original series led to the creation of two revival series, a feature film and various other spin-offs that would span five decades.
Writers for The Twilight Zone included leading genre authorities such as Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Jerry Sohl, George Clayton Johnson, Earl Hamner Jr., Reginald Rose and Ray Bradbury. Many episodes featured adaptations of classic stories by such writers as Ambrose Bierce, Lewis Padgett, Jerome Bixby and Damon Knight. Episodes featured some of Hollywood's biggest celebrities, including Charles Bronson, Carol Burnett, Robert Duvall, a very young Ronnie Howard, Buster Keaton, Jack Klugman, Lee Marvin, Burgess Meredith, Elizabeth Montgomery, Agnes Moorehead, Suzy Parker, Robert Redford, Don Rickles, Mickey Rooney, William Shatner and Dick York. Rod Serling himself provided narration as well as on camera introductions to many episodes.
The Time Element (1958)
In 1957, CBS purchased a teleplay that writer Rod Serling hoped to produce as the pilot of a weekly anthology series. The Twilight Zone: The Time Element marked Serling’s first entry in the field of science-fiction.
A time travel fantasy of sorts, the story involved a man visiting a therapist with complaints of a recurring dream in which he imagines waking up in Honolulu just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. "I wake up in a hotel room in Honolulu and it's 1941, but I mean I really wake up and it's really 1941," he tells his therapist, having concluded that these are not mere dreams; he is actually travelling through time. Taking advantage of the situation he bets on all the winning horses, all the right teams and, eventually, tries unsuccessfully to warn others - anyone: the newspaper, the military, anyone - that the Japanese are planning a surprise attack.
With this script Serling drafted the fundamental elements that would distinguish the series still to come: a science-fiction/fantasy theme, opening and closing narration and use of a trick ending. But what would prove popular with audiences and critics in 1959 did not meet network standards in 1957. “The Time Element” was purchased only to be shelved indefinitely, talks of making The Twilight Zone a series had ended.
This is where things stood when Bert Granet , the new producer for Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse discovered “The Time Element” in CBS’ vaults while searching for an original Serling script to add prestige to his show. “The Time Element” debuted on November 24, 1958 to an overwhelmingly delighted audience of television viewers and critics alike. “The humor and sincerity of Mr. Serling's dialogue made 'The Time Element' consistently entertaining,” offered Jack Gould of the New York Times as over six thousand letters of praise flooded Granet’s offices. Convinced that a series based on such stories could succeed, CBS again began talks with Serling about the possibilities of producing The Twilight Zone. Where Is Everybody? was accepted as the pilot episode, and the project was officially announced to the public in early 1959.
Original series (1959-1964)
- Main article: The Twilight Zone (original series)
Throughout the 1950s, Rod Serling had established himself as one of the hottest names in television, equally famous for his success in writing televised drama as he was for criticizing the medium's limitations. His most vocal complaints concerned the censorship frequently practiced by sponsors and networks. "I was not permitted to have my Senators discuss any current or pressing problem," he said of his 1957 production "The Arena", intended to be an involving look into contemporary politics. "To talk of tariff was to align oneself with the Republicans; to talk of labor was to suggest control by the Democrats. To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited... In retrospect, I probably would have had a much more adult play had I made it science fiction, put it in the year 2057, and peopled the Senate with robots. That would probably have been more reasonable and no less dramatically incisive."
This is precisely the thesis he intended to prove when, in 1959, he set out to create a weekly television series that, while featuring stories peopled by robots, aliens and other fantastical beings would seek to offer dramatically incisive and involving looks into contemporary politics.
Twilight Zone’s writers frequently used science-fiction as a metaphor for social comment; networks and sponsors who had infamously censored all potentially "inflammatory” material from the then predominant live dramas were ignorant of the methods developed by writers such as Ray Bradbury for dealing with important issues through seemingly innocuous fantasy. Frequent themes include nuclear war, mass hysteria and McCarthyism, subjects that were strictly verboten on more "serious" prime-time drama. Episodes such as The Shelter or The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street offered specific commentary on current events while other stories (such as The Masks or The Howling Man) operated around a central allegory, parable, or fable that reflected the characters' moral or philosophical choices.
Despite his esteem in the writing community, Serling found The Twilight Zone a hard sell. Few critics felt that science-fiction could transcend empty escapism and enter the realm of adult drama. In a September 22, 1959 interview with Serling, Mike Wallace asked a question illustrative of the times: "..[Y]ou're going to be, obviously, working so hard on The Twilight Zone that, in essence, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, you've given up on writing anything important for television, right?"
Serling himself would later admit that to go "from writing an occassional drama for Playhouse 90, a distinguished and certainly important series to creating and writing a weekly, thirty-minute television film was like Stan Musial leaving St. Louis to coach third base in an American Legion little league." Ultimately The Twilight Zone would triumph over such skepticism, its five seasons winning over a relatively small but devoted audience that included many of the critics who had scoffed at the show's premise.
First Revival (1985-1988)
- Main article: The New Twilight Zone
It was Serling's decision to sell his share of the series back to the network that eventually allowed for a Twilight Zone revival. As an in-house production, CBS stood to earn more money producing The Twilight Zone than it could by purchasing a new series produced by an outside company. Even so, the network was slow to consider a revival, shooting down offers from the original production team of Rod Serling and Buck Houghton and later from American film-maker Francis Ford Coppola. Their hesitation stemmed from concerns familiar to the original series: Twilight Zone had never been the break-away hit CBS wanted, why should they expect it to do better in a second run?
The answers to this question began to surface in the early 1980s as a new generation of writers and directors emerged from the very teenagers who formed the core of Twilight Zone's original audience. First came The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree, an in-depth look into the history of the series that won critical accolade, a 1983 nomination for the American Book Award and a place on best-seller lists across the nation. Also encouraging were the new numbers from Nielsen and the box office alike. "We were looking at the success of the [original series] in syndication and the enormous popularity of the Steven Spielberg films," said CBS program chief Harvey Shepard. "Many of them [such as E.T. or Poltergeist] deal with elements of the show. Perhaps the public is ready for it again."
Despite lukewarm response to Twilight Zone: The Movie, Spielberg's theatrical homage to the original series, CBS gave The New Twilight Zone a greenlight in 1984 under the supervision of Carla Singer, then Vice President of Drama Development. "Twilight Zone was a series I always liked as a kid," said Singer, "...and at that point it sounded like an interesting challenge for me personally." These sentiments were seconded by a number of young filmmakers eager to make their mark on a series which had proved influential to their life and work -people like writers Harlan Ellison, J. Michael Straczynski, George R. R. Martin and Rockne S. O'Bannon and directors Wes Craven and William Friedkin. Casts featured such stars as Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Martin Landau, Jonathan Frakes and Fred Savage. New theme music was composed by Jerry Garcia and performed by The Grateful Dead. Filling in for Serling as narrator and host was Charles Aidman , himself the star of two classic Twilight Zone episodes. The New Twilight Zone ran for two seasons on CBS. An additional season was produced in 1988 to "pad" the series' syndication package.
Rod Serling's Lost Classics (1994)
In the early 1990s, Richard Matheson and Carol Serling produced an outline for a two-hour made-for-TV movie which would feature Matheson adaptations of three yet-unfilmed Rod Serling short stories. Outlines for such a production were rejected by CBS until early 1994, when the widow Serling discovered a complete shooting script (“Where the Dead Are”) authored by her late husband while rummaging through their garage. Serling showed the forgotten script to producers Michael O’Hara and Laurence Horowitz, who were significantly impressed by it. "I had a pile of scripts, which I usually procrastinate about reading. But I read this one right away and, after 30 pages, called my partner and said, 'I love it,'” recalled O’Hara. “This is pure imagination, a period piece, literate - some might say wordy. If Rod Serling's name weren't on it, it wouldn't have a chance at getting made."
Eager to capitalize on Serling’s celebrity status as a writer, CBS packaged “Where the Dead Are” with Matheson’s adaptation of “The Theatre”, debuting a two-hour feature the night of May 19, 1994 under the name Twilight Zone:Rod Serling’s Lost Classics. The title represents a misnomer, as both stories were conceived long after Twilight Zone’s cancellation. Written just months before Serling’s death, “Where the Dead Are” starred Jack Palance as a 19th century doctor who stumbles upon a mad scientist’s medical experiments with immortality. “The Theatre” starred Amy Irving and Gary Cole as a couple who visits a movie-plex only to discover that the feature presentation is their own lives. James Earl Jones provided opening and closing narrations.
Critical response was mixed. Gannett News Service described it as “taut and stylish, a reminder of what can happen when fine actors are given great words.” USA Today was less impressed, even suggesting that Carol Serling “should have left these two unproduced mediocrities in the garage where she found them.” Ultimately ratings proved insufficient to justify a proposed sequel featuring three Matheson-adapted scripts.
Second Revival (2002-2003)
In 2002 a second revival was attempted by UPN, with narration provided by Forest Whitaker. It was cancelled after two seasons.
- The original series title "The Twilight Zone" was translated to french "La quatrième dimension" (the fourth dimension). The first revival series (1985-88) became "La cinquieme dimension" (the fifth dimension), and was aired on french TV channel "la Cinq" (the five). The second revival series (2002) was translated to "La treizieme dimension" (the thirteenth dimension), and was aired on french cable channel "13ème rue" (13th street).
- Serling's image can be seen in the opening credits of both revival series. In the 1980s version, he appears as a ghostly image just before the title comes on screen, while he can be seen among other images during the opening credits of the 2002 version.
- Ellsion, Harlan: "The Deadly "Nackles" Affair". The Twilight Zone Magazine, February 1987
- Graham, Jefferson: "The Twilight Zone Returns". The Twilight Zone Magazine, April 1985.
- Hughes, Mike: "TV or Not TV". Gannett News Service, May 19, 1994.
- Roush, Matt: "Serling 'Classics' From an Uninspired Clone Zone". USA Today, May 19, 1994.
- Sander, Gordon F.:Serling: The Rise And Twilight of Television's Last Angry Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.
- Slate, Libby: "Serling's 'Dead' Comes to Life on CBS". The Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1994.
- Zicree, Marc Scott: The Twilight Zone Companion. Sillman-James Press, 1982 (second edition)