“[I]f you have the temerity to try to dramatize a theme that involves any particular social controversy currently extant, then you’re in deep trouble…a racial theme, for example…I think it’s criminal that we’re not permitted to make dramatic note of social evils as they exist, of controversial themes as they are inherent in our society.”
-Rod Serling to Mike Wallace, September 22, 1959.
Rod Serling had question marks in his eyes and he added one over everything he saw and was told. The 1950s was an excellent decade for questioning for those who had witnessed the implosion of Europe, the explosion of Hiroshima and the rise of American’s Greatest Generation. Nothing and everything seemed possible of humans, the world they lived in and the earth they lived on.
In 1951, “when television was just a baby” as Mike Wallace (himself just a baby) reminsced eons later in 1959, a newly-married, 27 year old Serling made the balls-of-steel decision to leave the security of his staff writer job for a Cincinatti television station (“a particularly dreamless occupation” in his words) to become a freelance television writer. He had thrown down in “the battle of the writer to be his own man”, as Wallace put it. On October 2, 1959, after gaining some critical and commercial success with previous scripts and progressing from 40 rejection slips to three Emmy Awarrds, Serling’s series – The Twilight Zone – debuted on CBS where it aired for five seasons.
Of 156 episodes, Serling wrote 92. The eloquence of his metaphysical mission – to challenge the fundamental assumptions about time, space, morality and human nature that govern our world view – was unfurled like a battle standard in the opening to the first series:
“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 which we call the Twilight Zone.”
Serling maintained creative control over the series and he was uncompromising. He managed to rise above “the pit of man’s fears” while avoiding angering the censor and sponsors by using the show’s science fiction format as a cover to call bullshit on racism, moral panic, McCarthyism and nuclear war.
Other writers for the series included Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont and Jerry Sohl. Some episodes were adaptations of classic stories by such writers like Ambrose Bierce, John Collier and Damon Knight.
Somewhere between Sagan and Hitchcock, Serling’s Twilight Zone was consistently intelligent, socially conscious and interesting TV. He understood the notion of consequences inherent in the theory of relativity – the idea that when we are looking out at the future, we are looking back at the past. He understood the vital role of questioning all received wisdom. And in each of the episodes he managed to remind us how, in a place “as vast as space and as timeless as infinity” we are simultaneously the most significant and the most insignificant things in the universe.
It’s not often that I find myself wishing I lived in 1959. But every time I watch the Twilight Zone I do. I wish I could have sat in the dark watching the TV (itself a recent marvel) and been held in pure wonder at this new fifth dimension, tangible proof of the Drake Equation: anything is possible, but only if you first believe that anything is possible.
Where is everybody?
Third from the Sun
The Monsters are due on Maple Street