In 1959 a new Science Fiction TV series aired. This new series was quite unlike anything else airing at that time. The series bravely tackled the big issues of the day – racism, fear of others, individuality, conformity, hatred and war etc. These often controversial issues and topics were able to get on the air via this series in the guise of Sci-Fi.
The series also examined what it even means to be human. The series reflected the unpleasant truth about the horrific things that humanity is capable of. The series is scary, moving, shocking, powerful and very thought provoking. The series stands up very well when viewed today, and not only that, but it more than retains its impact and ability to make the audience think. That series is The Twilight Zone.
“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into The Twilight Zone!” Rod Serling’s opening narration for seasons 4 and 5.
I love this series. Growing up I had heard and read a lot about this series, but I had only ever actually seen a handful of episodes from it. That all changed a couple of years ago. I treated myself to the complete series on Blu-ray(the episodes are beautifully cleaned up and look like they could have been made today). It is now one of my favourite series.
In addition to it being one of greatest Science Fiction series ever made, I also think that The Twilight Zone is the most human TV series that has ever been made. This series so perfectly captures just what it means to be human.
The series shows us our weaknesses, our strengths, our desire to better ourselves or to change a situation we don’t like. The Twilight Zone reflects humanity back to us, by showing us the best and worst of ourselves right there on that TV screen. The series also contains some very moving performances and scenarios which have the ability to really touch the viewers heart.
I especially love the episodes where we in the audience are made to think what we would do if we were in a particular characters shoes. Who among us wouldn’t love to be able to go back and offer advice and support to our younger selves? Well, by watching Gig Young in Walking Distance we can feel like we have done so. By watching No Time Like The Past, we can see that the good intentions in trying to change terrible historical events may not be possible or even advisable.
The Twilight Zone series was created by Rod Serling. Rod was an American WW2 veteran who despised hatred, war, bigotry and cruelty. He poured his heart and soul into this series and it shows on screen. He not only created the series, but he also produced it and wrote many of the episodes.
The series first came into being with a script written by Serling, called The Time Element. This unofficial pilot episode for the series was first aired on the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, on the 24th of November, 1958.
Martin Balsam(who would go on to guest star in the official series)and William Bendix were the stars.
This pilot episode focuses on a man who claims to be able to travel back in time to Pearl Harbor, just before the horrific attack there on the 7th of December, 1941. This episode really sets the tone for the series that we know and love today. This episode is included as an extra with the Blu-ray boxset.
The official series aired a year later, on the 2nd of October, 1959. The first episode of the official series was called Where Is Everybody? This episode finds a man (Earl Holliman) discovering an abandoned town and not remembering who he is.
The series would continue on the air until 1964. The series is primarily classed as Science Fiction, featuring many stories of time travel, alien invaders and alien worlds.
I like many of the time travel and alien focused episodes, but my personal favourite episodes are the creepy ones; episodes such as The Grave, Thirty- Fathom Grave, The Hitch-Hiker(the first episode that I ever saw), Deaths-head Revisited and The Howling Man.
The powerful performances and different weekly settings ensured that Serling’s series became very popular with audiences. The series real claim to fame though was the twist ending to each episode.
These endings are the series trademark, and these twists often leave us reassessing the previous 25 minutes that we have been watching.
I love that no matter how many times I watch the episodes that those twists still retain their shock factor, even when I know full well what’s coming next they still work.
It is a credit to Serling and his superb regular writing staff of Charles Beumont, George Clayton Johnson and Richard Matheson, that the series is still as powerful and impactful today as it was when it first aired. Many other famous writers including Ray Bradbury took turns writing scripts for the series.
The scripts are real quality too and they are very good character pieces. They really knew how to write back then and how to put so much into a simple 25 minute episode.
You just don’t see anthology series like this any more. You also seldom get script writing of this quality anymore, which is a real shame I think.
I also like how you never know where you’ll end up next in this series from episode to episode. One episode could be set on an alien world, another set in the old west, and another in the present(50’s and 60’s).
Serling’s series also bravely tackled the big issues of his day and the morality tales still pack quite a punch, while sadly making you see that in some ways not much has changed since the series aired. Humans are still intent on killing one another, there is still racism, and there is still fear of other cultures etc. When will we wake up and accept that we are all the same under the skin? We are born, and one day we will all die. Why do we have to spend our lives being hateful and violent? It’s madness. I think that Rod Serling would despair of the state of the world if he were alive today.
I can also think of no other series where the creator became such an integral part of their own series(not even Alfred Hitchcock on his anthology series.) Serling is the heart and soul of the series I think.
He provides the voice over narration for all episodes and he filmed intros and outros to the episodes. The face of Serling is as much a part of the series as the famous theme tune and the twists.
In the Blu-ray boxset, Serling’s intros and outros are included for all the episodes. I really enjoy watching those and seeing Rod introduce each episode.
I consider the first three seasons to be the best in terms of quality. I am also in the minority of fans who actually quite likes season 4 too(locks self in sealed vault to escape onslaught of season 4 hate 😉 ). While I will agree with the season 4 critics that the format change from 25 minutes to 50 was a mistake, I do strongly disagree that the episodes found here are the weakest of the series.
Some of my favourites from season 4 are The Thirty-Fathom Grave, On Thursday We Leave For Home, Miniature(one of the most moving of all the episodes, and featuring a memorable performance by a young Robert Duvall),The New Exhibit, Jess-Belle and Printer’s Devil.
I actually think that season 5 is the worst of the series. So many of the episodes in this are terrible(what went wrong with the writing here?)or bear too strong a resemblance to earlier episodes. There are a few gems to be found though such as In Praise of Pip, Nightmare at 20,000 feet(perhaps the best known of all the episodes), An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, The Masks, Living Doll, Night Call and Stopover in a Quiet Town.
Throughout the series there are many fan favourite episodes: Time Enough At Last, Five Characters In Search Of An Exit, The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street(although I personally think this one would have worked better as a paranoia story without the alien involvement which we later discover), Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, The After Hours, And When The Sky Was Opened, The Invaders, In Praise Of Pip, Walking Distance, It’s A Good Life, The Silence, The Masks, A Stop At Willoughby and The Odyssey of Flight 33.
There are also somewhat lesser appreciated episodes to enjoy: The Last Flight, Nick of Time, People Are Alike All Over, One For The Angels, Printer’s Devil, The Hunt, The Passersby, I Am The Night,Color Me Black, The Sixteen Millimetre Shrine, I Shot An Arrow Into The Air(surely the origins of Serling’s film The Planet of the Apes?), Judgement Night, The Obsolete Man, Passage For Trumpet and Mirror Image.
I also love how many big film stars feature in this series. I envy classic era audiences who got to tune in weekly not knowing who would appear next. A handful of these stars made more than one appearance on the series: Jack Klugman(superb in several deeply moving episodes), Burgess Meredith, William Shatner, Martin Balsam etc. I think the quality of the work is evident given the amount of film stars who agreed to guest star in these episodes.
The series also features one of the most instantly recognisable themes in TV history. Chances are if you’ve never seen an episode, you’ll have heard that intro tune at some point in your life. The original theme tune for the series was composed by Bernard Herrmann, this theme can be heard in season 1. As much as I do love the later theme, Herrmann’s theme is very eerie and mysterious and I love it very much indeed because it’s so atmospheric. The theme that we all know today didn’t make its debut until season 2, that iconic later Zone theme was composed by Marius Constant.
I suppose there is also the big question as to just what exactly The Twilight Zone is and what it means? I take it that it is a phrase that perfectly sums up the weird and unexplainable events in life, be it our current life or in a time back in the past or forward in the future. I have often found myself saying “I can’t believe this, it’s like I’m in The Twilight Zone”, when faced with bizarre or horrible situations in my life.
My ten favourite episodes are: The Passersby(featuring a heart wrenching performance by Joanne Linville, as a woman left in deep emotional distress following the American Civil War), Walking Distance, The Last Flight, The Grave, Printer’s Devil, The Odyssey of Flight 33, The Changing of the Guard, In Praise of Pip, The Howling Man and One For The Angels.
Similar series to this which I like are One Step Beyond and Thriller. I have also seen Rod Serling’s later series called Night Gallery; this is a much darker series than The Twilight Zone and I highly recommend it to horror fans.
Please share your thoughts on the series. What are your favourite episodes?
Never seen an episode? What are you waiting for? The Zone awaits you. Just make sure you get a return ticket though, because you wouldn’t want to get stuck there. Would you?