1 9 5 9 – 1 9 6 5 (USA)
156 x 30/60 minute episodes
1 9 8 5 – 1 9 8 7 (USA/UK)
17 x 60 minute episodes
Rod Serling introduced (and wrote 89 episodes) eerie and well-constructed weekly dramas in this series – generally considered to be the first “adult” science-fantasy anthology series to appear on American television – set in a monochrome world beyond fact or fiction.
Almost every episode had a surprise twist at the end, and the series was destined to become a cult classic. Serling’s original opening narration to the show set the scene perfectly:
“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area we call – The Twilight Zone”.
He managed to encompass the surreal feel of this anthology in a few short moments, and the trance-inducing “dee dee dee dee” theme has since become shorthand for eerie ambiguity.
With its subtext of escape from reality, a nostalgia for more simple times, but generally a hunger for other-worldly adventures, it seems appropriate that the original Twilight Zone series appeared at about the right time to take viewers away, albeit briefly, from the contemporary real-life fears of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and, eventually, the tragic events of Dallas.
After three successful seasons in the traditional half-hour format, The Twilight Zone expanded to a full hour in January 1963. The hour-long episodes were not as well-liked, and the show reverted to a half-hour for its final season.
Its format made it an expensive show to produce. Since each episode was a one-off, the producers were denied the economic benefits of standing sets and a regular cast.
Many famous actors and actresses made guest appearances on the show, but the story was always the true star.
The Twilight Zone favoured only a dozen or so story themes. For instance, the most recurring theme appeared to be time, involving time warps and accidental journeys through time – a WWI flier lands at a modern jet airbase (“The Last Flight”); a man finds himself back in 1865 and tries to prevent the assassination of President Lincoln (“Back There”); three soldiers on National Guard manoeuvres in Montana find themselves back in 1876 at the Little Big Horn (“The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms”), and so on.
Another theme explored the confrontation with death/the dead: a girl keeps seeing the same hitchhiker on the road ahead, beckoning her toward a fatal accident (“The Hitchhiker”); an aged recluse, fearing a meeting with Death, reluctantly helps a wounded policeman on her doorstep and cares for him overnight before she realises that he is Death, coming to claim her (“Nothing in the Dark”).
Expected science fiction motifs regarding aliens and alien contact (both benevolent and hostile) provided another story arena: a timid little fellow accustomed to being used as a doormat by his fellow man is endowed with super-human strength by a visiting scientist from Mars (“Mr Dingle, the Strong”); and visiting aliens promise to show the people of the earth how to end the misery of war, pestilence and famine until a code clerk finally deciphers their master manual for earth and discovers it’s a cookbook (“To Serve Man”).
The general tone of many Twilight Zone stories was cautionary, that man can never be too sure of anything that appears real or otherwise.
Some other memorable examples of The Twilight Zone include:
“Escape Clause” starring David Wayne as a hypochondriac who, to escape his dependence on pills and fear of his environment, makes a pact with the Devil.
In exchange for his soul, he wins immortality. Filled with self-assurance, he kills a man expecting to be sentenced to death (which is, of course, impossible for him) in the electric chair. Instead of a death sentence, he receives life imprisonment – much worse for someone who is immortal.
“Time Enough At Last” starred Burgess Meredith (pictured) as a bank teller who can never find enough time to read. One day at lunchtime, while tucked away in the bank’s underground vault reading a book, there is a nuclear attack that kills everybody outside. Now he has all the time in the world to read. A happy ending – until he breaks his spectacles!
“Eye of the Beholder” had Donna Douglas as a young woman born with a horrible facial deformity who has just undergone her last possible operation to try and make her less hideous. Her head is bandaged up, and all the doctors and nurses are dimly seen standing in the shadows around her bed.
The bandages are removed, and there she is – beautiful (to us) and hideous to everyone else! Only then do we see the faces of the doctors and nurses, who are pig-like and grotesque.
She lives in a world where our “beauty” is considered horribly ugly. At the end of the show, she is led away to her society’s equivalent of a leper colony.
In 1983 Warner Brothers, Steven Spielberg and John Landis produced Twilight Zone: The Movie, a four-segment tribute to the original series presenting pieces directed by Landis, Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller.
From 1985 onwards, CBS Entertainment produced a new series of The Twilight Zone. Honoured science fiction scribe Harlan Ellison acted as creative consultant under executive producer Philip DeGuere (although Ellison quit when the network refused to air “Nackles,” a dark Christmas tale).
The series is particularly noted for the participating name directors, such as Wes Craven, William Friedkin, and Joe Dante.
The new version ran in an hour-long format, with two or three stories in each episode. It still had the same mix of sci-fi, fantasy, whimsy and the occult, but it was definitely a different show. It was now in colour, the special effects were more elaborate, and although some of the original episodes were redone, most of the stories were new.
Standout episodes included Wes Craven’s “A Little Peace and Quiet”, where a harried American housewife (Melinda Dillon) found she could freeze time courtesy of a pendant she dug up in her garden.
In a harrowing climax, it is revealed that Soviet nukes had entered US airspace.
The terrified woman freezes time, leaves her house and goes outside, where she sees a Soviet ICBM frozen in the air with its nose down, moments from impact. She is left with a no-win choice – to unfreeze time and die instantly or live eternally alone in a silent world.
Rod Serling died in 1975, aged just 50.