In ‘The Twilight Zone’

So ‘The Twilight Zone’ opens, solemnly making it clear that you, the viewer, are not in Kansas anymore.
| Sep 26, 2018 | 7 comments |

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 …

So The Twilight Zone opens, solemnly making it clear that you, the viewer, are not in Kansas anymore. Debuting on CBS in 1959, The Twilight Zone was not the first sci-fi TV show, but it was, perhaps, the first fully respectable one. In its own day, it worked. Perhaps more surprisingly, it works in our day, too.

The very conception of The Twilight Zone brings with it a disability. Twilight Zone is that rare bird, an anthology show. It is, essentially, Astounding Stories translated into the medium of television – an amalgam of short stories with no connective tissue between them. The stories share little, not even necessarily a universe; they share only the somber tones of Rod Serling’s narration. A new cast of characters is presented on the stage and then ushered off every episode, and this tends to a chilling effect. Attachment between viewers and characters can’t be developed to any real power when the characters are so ephemeral. You can’t begin any TZ episode with a sense of who the characters are, or any particular affection for them; they’re all strangers to you, after all.

The Twilight Zone‘s reliance on the short-story form leads it into other hazards. Like so many of the short stories published in science fiction magazines, Twilight Zone often depends on the twist at the end. The savvy viewer knows this and frequently spends the episode looking for the trick. Whether this decreases enjoyment by detaching one from the story or increases enjoyment by turning it into a game hinges on the individual viewer. The more serious effect is that when the story is about the twist, the twist is not always enough to sustain the story. In some Twilight Zone episodes, the story is stretched thin over the required twenty-five minutes, going in circles because it’s too soon to go to the end. And though it is only natural for victims of the Twilight Zone to wander around confused, you sometimes wish they were quicker in the uptake. (“Face it,” you want to say to the man who jumped in front of a truck before the scene cut and now wonders why nobody seems able to see him. “You’re dead.”)

And for all this, The Twilight Zone works. With all its limitations it has a liberty that it fully, skillfully exploits. When all characters are one-shot characters, anything can happen to them, and it often does. The fatality rate among Twilight Zone protagonists is high. Because the show doesn’t have to resume next week where it leaves off this week, it is free to go in directions and to extents that would prove impossible for more conventional shows. It indulges ideas that could not fit into a universe less fluid and shadowy than the Twilight Zone. The show shuffles among subgenres: science fiction, folk lore, moral fables, horror – anything that might be called the fifth dimension.

The Twilight Zone is a serious show: often philosophical, moralistic to its core. Some episodes are written around morals; others have their lessons attached in the closing narration. Religion is unusually present in The Twilight Zone. A handful of episodes traffic in ideas of devils, angels, and hell, but far more notable is the repeated, reverent invocation of God’s name. (God’s name, in this era of television, was not abused, but it was generally ignored.) The Twilight Zone wants to tell you stories, but it is also quite conscious, sometimes, of the desire to tell you an idea, and maybe even a life lesson.

There is good reason why The Twilight Zone is a rare bird. It sacrifices the history and emotional connection of the well-done serial, and that is no small loss. At times it’s a little bleak, or a little overwrought, or a little stretched. But it holds a persistent fascination, fueled by a serious and sprawling creativity. It is good to venture into the Twilight Zone, where the normal rules are always suspended, and let the ride take you where it will.

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Jeff Miller
Guest

Thank you for posting. I’m almost finished watching the entire series. Only two episodes left! I also recently posted a memory on Facebook of having visited Rod Serling’s grave and driving by his childhood home and park that inspired some of his episodes. He was an amazing author, and that’s how I think of him–as an author and World War 2 vet. Although he was a great producer and host, what made TZ work was that he was a brilliant writer and he hired brilliant writers.

Travis Perry
Editor

I love the Twilight Zone! Not every story comes across as well as others, as you noted, but some are really amazing. Twists at the end are a convention of many short stories (but of course not all), and I’ve greatly enjoyed some of the Twilight Zone’s finales, which frequently do things conventional stories wouldn’t date to do, as you noted.

The Twilight Zone and science fiction short stories are part of the reason I love the anthology as a means of packaging tales. I think they can easily be better than novels–though by succeeding for different reasons than novels.

Also worth mentioning is The Outer Limits, likewise an anthology show. Also amazing, though not nearly as reverent towards God as TWZ.

Thanks for posting on this!

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

I think “anthologies” were the typical way of doing TV at the time. Daytime TV did the continuing soap operas, but not nighttime TV. But the different cast of characters for each Twilight Zone story was new. That’s why you learned that if someone was to die in Star Trek, it wouldn’t be Captain Kirk or any of the other regulars. Had to be a Red Shirt. I think a cop show, Hill Street Blues, changed all that. They tried to put a real soap opera on nighttime TV—Peyton Place. It had moderate success and led to a few others. But TV with stories resembling novels and even novel series as opposed to short stories had to develop.

I enjoyed you thoughts on this, Shannon.

Becky

Travis Perry
Editor

Becky, while stories tended to be more “stand alone” in general, as you mentioned, what the Twilight Zone did was unique at the time. While each episode might be thought of a short story in other series, the Twilight Zone wrote with many short story conventions other series didn’t really use, including the infamous twist at the end.

Actually, the Twilight Zone has been seldom matched, not just then but ever. Basing a series on independent short stories is rarely done.

Hans Erdman
Guest

Rod Serling was a friend of my father’s. I had the privilege of meeting and talking with him on several occasions, including one memorable flight in the rear compartment of a crowded Convair 440 flying from NYC to Ithaca. He patiently answered all of my 9-year-old’s questions about the Twilight Zone, and I answered all of his about my New York Mets. (Still a fan.) I still have his autograph, on the program from Shea Stadium, “Any friend of Casey Stengal’s is a friend of mine. Rod Serling”
He also came and addressed both my high school senior English class (My teacher was his next-door neighbor) and Ithaca College freshman English class. (His daughter was in the class.) He remembered me on both occasions. Talk about someone who was truly a “writer’s writer.” The man was an inspiration.

Travis Perry
Editor

Wow! Very impressive!

PhiLiP SchMidT
Guest
PhiLiP SchMidT

Goodness gracious me, Hans!
Can you recollect any gems from that high school address, all these years later?

PhiL >^•_•^<