The Twilight Zone first debuted on CBS in October 2, 1959, and ended on June 19, 1964, with 156 episodes in all. Not every episode was a winner, and there were varying degrees of greatness for many Twilight Zone installments, but the show’s lasting impact after half a century is still remarkable.
The show is remembered for its many great elements: the strong moral lessons of the show, the skillful storytelling, the zappers at the end, the wonderful, moody cinematography, Rod Serling’s speeches that bookended every episode, and so much more. Today, let's go in depth into why we still love The Twilight Zone and which of those elements resonated strongest with us as truly effective storytelling.
Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling first got into the entertainment business writing for radio, breaking into television in the early fifties. Serling came into prominence for writing the drama “Patterns,” which aired on the Kraft Television Theater, and “Requiem For a Heavyweight,” which aired on Playhouse 90 and swept the Emmys. Serling came up in the golden age of television, when the medium featured incredible writers and directors like Paddy Chayefsky (Network), and John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate).
But soon television started appealing more and more to the lowest common denominator, earning the nickname “the idiot box.” Serling kept writing stories with a social conscience, but they were routinely shredded by the censors. He finally realized that sci-fi and fantasy could be the Trojan horse to get his messages through.
“Rod was forever getting into trouble because he wanted to call a spade a spade,” says George Clayton Johnson, who wrote the Twilight Zone episodes Nothing in the Dark and Kick the Can. “They were forever stopping him for the pettiest of reasons, which made him even more of a little David against a bunch of Goliaths.”
As Anne Serling, Rod’s daughter, tells us, “My father did an interview with Mike Wallace right before The Twilight Zone came out, and he was apprehensive about revealing too much about the show. He knew he was using it as a vehicle to get these messages out, and slip it under the radar. They never knew what hit them! Another one of my father’s quotes was the writer’s job was to menace the public’s conscience.”
“Everybody thought that Rod was taking a big step backward with The Twilight Zone after he won these Emmys,” Johnson continues. “Now he was off doing these little science fiction things. Is he selling out? No. He had been shaping the idea of doing half-hour science fiction stories, because that way he could escape some of the worst aspects of censorship. If you want to talk about racism in the south, just make them aliens and that’s okay.” Serling himself even said, “On The Twilight Zone, I knew I could get away with martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.”
“On The Twilight Zone, I knew I could get away with martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.”
Rod Serling has been considered the original show runner, and he would probably be very pleased that today’s television writing has gotten better than movies. Anne Serling tells us, “I think my father would have been impressed that television has come around, and that people can write what they want. The Newsroom is a show he really would have liked, same with Mad Men. I also think he’d be pretty horrified by some of the crap that’s out there, like Honey Boo Boo. He would have been horrified!”
Although Serling was the driving force behind The Twilight Zone, and wrote many classic episodes, he also put together a great team of writers like Johnson, Richard Matheson (Duel, I Am Legend), Charles Beaumont, and more.
It’s been said that The Twilight Zone was geared towards the writer, more than many shows were at the time, and as Anne Serling says, “Obviously one of the reasons the show was so successful. There were such terrific writers on that show, and it was a pretty seamless team.”
As far as recounting the great episodes of The Twilight Zone, it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few, but here are some that have always stood out. The very first Twilight Zone episode, “Where Is Everybody,” had actor Earl Holliman finding himself completely alone in the world, but he’s really training to be an astronaut, and is cracking up from being in an isolation chamber for three weeks.
Both “Walking Distance,” and “A Stop at Willoughby” centered around one of Serling’s favorite themes, the wish to go back to your childhood. “Time Enough At Last,” where Burgess Meredith plays a bookworm who survives a nuclear holocaust, has a heartbreaking twist ending, one of the best of the series, while “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is another great sci-fi allegory for prejudice and post-McCarthy paranoia.
Billy Mumy played one of the best evil children ever in the episode “It’s a Good Life.” “The Dummy,” starring Cliff Robertson, is one of the freakiest ventriloquist horror stories ever. The dummy’s voice as he torments Robertson is especially chilling, as is June Foray’s sweet Talky Tina voice in another all time TZ classic, “Living Doll.” (“My name is Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you…”) “Eye of the Beholder” makes a great statement about physical beauty and conformity that still rings true today, and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is one of the all time great Twilight Zone episodes, written by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend).
The Twilight Zone is a master lesson in effective writing because it would set up an intriguing premise, get you involved in the characters, then pull the rug out from under you, all in twenty-three minutes without commercials. The classic twist endings were part of the structure of the show. “You had your teaser, which introduced, hopefully, an intriguing premise,” Matheson said. “You had your first act curtain, which was the cliffhanger, and then you had your ending, which hopefully had the twist or surprise.”
Matheson also added that the key to a great twist ending, like we often saw on The Twilight Zone, was, “You can’t just tell a regular story, then suddenly tack on what you think is a surprise ending. It has to be based on what has gone before. There has to be a logic to it.” The half-hour time limit also served the show well, because when The Twilight Zone tried to expand to an hour, the format didn't resonate with viewers.
One of the rules was only one miracle per show.
There were other dictates on The Twilight Zone that kept the show from being over-indulgent. One of the rules was only one miracle per show. “A girl couldn’t read minds and levitate objects too,” Johnson says. “Also, The Twilight Zone had to have plain people in plain circumstances because we can put plain sets together. If you start asking for a pasha’s temple, we’ve haven’t got the set.”
Another element that you would assume would date the show, but actually made it timeless, is its wonderful black and white cinematography, which was shot by George T. Clemens. “That kind of lighting was inspired by German expressionism, and all that was coordinated by one set of eyes,” Johnson continues. “We were lucky to get George.”
Many fans don’t realize that like Star Trek, The Twilight Zone achieved its popularity in re-runs, and like Star Trek, the fans would write in to the network, begging them not to cancel the show. As Matheson recalled, “It was touch and go whether it was going to be renewed each season.” (While Star Trek barely made it to three seasons, The Twilight Zone completed five.)
“I don’t think anybody knows ahead of time that they’re working on something immortal,” Matheson says. “If they did, they’d probably become so self-conscious, their work would probably turn into junk. The Twilight Zone is dated, and yet it still holds up in today’s world. And here it is, from 1959, and it’s still showing.”
Anne Serling feels that if her father were alive today, he’d probably be very surprised he’s still remembered and revered after all this time. “He didn’t think his writing would stand the test of time,” she says. “He thought it was ‘momentarily adequate.’ So many people have told me what impact my father had on them in one way or another, and it’s so gratifying to hear. I think he would probably want to be remembered for more than The Twilight Zone, because he wrote a lot more than The Twilight Zone, but I think the fact that he’s been remembered after all this time would blow him away.”