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A Dark and Scary Place
Although there are many, few anthologies have matched the impact established by Rod Serling's THE TWILIGHT ZONE in the late fifties and early sixties. It was an original and exciting project, tapping into a relatively new market for TV, and spawning many subsequent short story shows.
Serling was born December 25th, 1924 in New York. His first serious writing materialised in the form of regular articles contributed to the West Falls school paper, which he later edited in high school. After a distinguished term in the army, he entered Antioch University, Ohio, where he continued to write, drawing on his military experience. Here, he became manager of the radio station, and only the following year, 1949, won a consolation prize for his script, To Live a Dream, which gained him much recognition and considerably boosted his chosen career. Whilst working at WLW, Cincinnati, he broke into the realm of television with his first freelance scripts; these included twelve to THE STORM, a short story show screened by WKRC. Fully freelance from 1951, Serling continued to submit a number of successful scripts to various TV anthologies. However, between 1955 and 1957, his skill and popularity reached new heights when he received three coveted Emmys for Patterns, The Rack, and Requiem for a Heavyweight, all of which were soon after made into feature films. The latter drew on his prolific boxing experiences in the army, when he had considered a sporting career.
Weary of heavy-handed censorship, most emanating from industry sponsors, Rod Serling saw his escape in the form of his own science fiction fantasy anthology series - an idea with which he had been toying for some time.
The original pilot for THE TWILIGHT ZONE was, The Time Element, about someone undergoing a dream premonition of the Japanese Pearl Harbour bombing. This rewritten concept from his university days was rejected by CBS but placed with Desilu, the production company of comic couple Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, and shown as part of the Desilu Playhouse. The relative acclaim for this persuaded CBS to reconsider, and they commissioned a new pilot. The Happy Place, in which a society determines that automatic euthanasia is forced on its citizens at sixty, was dropped in favour of Where is Everybody?, depicting a character who can't uncover any other living person due to being the subject of a mind regenerating experiment, and the legend was born on 2nd October 1959.
The Bernard Herrmann signature music was heard for the first time on air - later to be adapted by Marius Constant - accompanied by the now familiar Serling monologues.
"You're travelling through another dimension.
A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind.
A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of the imagination.
Next stop, The Twilight Zone!"
Buck Houghton was brought in as regular producer for a first season of thirty-six thirty minute stories, the majority of which were filmed at MGM studios. By contractual agreement, all were written by Serling himself, with the exception of only nine. The creative contributions of Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont produced a favourable counterpoint to his own, with often darker examples. In fact, Matheson penned many of the classic stories. Season One won awards for Houghton, director John Brahm, and Serling (another Emmy, and a Hugo Award).
What helped THE TWILIGHT ZONE work so well for its viewing public was the strength in characterisation, which is highly unusual for only a half-hour show (although it did briefly increase to fifty-minutes in the fourth season). However, the programme made a point of revolving around the central player, and so was more interested in exploring the soul of the protagonist, than shocking the audience with weird revelations. Rod Serling investigated the human psyche: the borders between fantasy and reality, expressing the concept of personal interpretation regarding experience. Constantly playing down the science fiction element, he concentrated primarily on the ordinary character's mental and physical reactions to adverse conditions and very exceptional circumstances. In truth, these were people stories set in a SF background; in a similar manner to how the 1980's movie OUTLAND was HIGH NOON in space, and BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS was described as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.
The concept of walking into an alternative dimension also made the programme special; the idea of the surrealness of inexplicable dreams being represented on regular evening TV. It was as if we were being offered a unique insight into other people's unconscious nocturnal excursions.
SF was increasing in both material and stature within the medium of radio around this time - some had even made the transition to TV - considerably aiding the progression through acceptance of the genre.
The popularity of THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, coupled with several regular magazine serialisations published by Amazing Stories, Astounding, If, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and numerous others, proved there was a considerable enlightened audience for the outlandish, particularly in America. There was a nucleus of proficient SF novelists hard at work in the fifties too: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury (I Sing the Body Electric, Season Three), Harry Harrison and Piers Anthony, to name a few of my favourites. Perhaps the most notable, though, was Robert A. Heinlein. His early books, although targeting what was then regarded as a juvenile readership, were intelligently written, possessing the foresight to avoid condescension of the prospective reader. They were also extremely character driven, having the child or young adult of the plot experience the fantastic on an acceptable mundane level.
These examples must surely have influenced Rod Serling and his associates to produce quality philosophical and speculative fictional material for a weekly audience.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE ran for five seasons; 156 stories, most scripted by Serling himself. It was testament to the quality managed on such a tight schedule that the show ran for so long. It was without a sponsor from season three, due mainly to its unconventional format, and almost collapsed several times. An experiment to extend the running time in the fourth season proved ultimately unsuccessful; it quickly reverted to its original format, running for a final season. Serling, who had discovered his ideas to be drying-up, was not displeased when The Bewitchin' Pool, televised 19th June 1964, proved to be the final story.
Aside from occasional half-hearted appearances in certain ITV regions during the sixties, TTZ was finally seen by a wide viewing audience in Britain when BBC 2 screened a season of thirty-nine selected episodes in 1983. A worthy run was also transmitted on CHANNEL 4 in 1986.
There were several outstanding individual examples which received critical acclaim and are fondly remembered by viewers. In The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, the human condition of prejudice was explored. When there are strange occurrences in the neighbourhood, the residents accuse each other of being aliens, before the genuine articles reveal themselves.
In The Eye of the Beholder, the subject of failed plastic surgery is dispatched to live with other society pariahs. However, she is revealed to be attractive, proving that beauty is indeed relative. My personal favourites were: Time Enough at Last, depicting a short-sighted bank operative (excellently portrayed by Burgess Meredith) reading in the vault and thereby surviving an atomic explosion. Although there is no one else alive, he is delighted at having the local public library to himself; that is until he accidently destroys his glasses.
The other is Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, directed by Richard Donner (Superman / James Bond), which has a young William Shatner playing an aircraft passenger who sees through the window a gremlin creature wrecking a wing engine whilst in flight. None of the fellow travellers can corroborate his story, and he is finally carried away, hysterical, in a strait-jacket. But the physical evidence will speak for itself. Shatner also appeared in Season Two's Nick of Time, where his character became hooked on the announcements of a fortune telling machine.
The programme helped launch the careers of such familiar screen stars as, Burgess Meredith, Charles Bronson, Robert Redford, Roddy McDowall, James Coburn and Lee Marvin, to name but a few; whereas telefantasy viewers will surely recognise the names, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Jean Marsh and Martin Landau.
Serling made a regular return to American TV screens in 1969 with NIGHT GALLERY, a horror anthology which ran for three seasons with only moderate success. There was a satellite rerun broadcast on Sky around the time of its unification with BSB.
As well as the launch of The Twilight Zone magazine in 1981, a movie was finally born from its popularity, in 1983. The Prologue and first segment, Time Out- wherein a prejudiced individual finds himself in various compromising positions - were written and directed by John Landis (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON / TRADING PLACES). Kick the Can, in which elderly residents of a retirement home are shown how to recapture their lost youth, was directed by movie giant Steven Spielberg, and based on the Season Three story written by George Clayton Johnson. It's a Good Life was also based on a Season Three story, this time by Jerome Bixby and Rod Serling. A town lives in fear of a boy who has the uncanny ability to will anything to happen. This was directed by Joe Dante and contained some outstanding animation effects from Rob Bottin. Segment four, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, by Richard Matheson, was directed by George Miller, perhaps best known for his MAD MAX films. Music came curtesy of Gerry Goldsmith who also made contributions to the original series.
On the last day of production on Landis' segment, Time Out, actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children were killed when a helicopter - containing a film crew recording them as they fleed a burning Vietnamese village, just twenty feet above the ground crashed. Although everyone associated with the movie were devastated by the disaster, the movie was completed, albeit heavily edited, and delayed for release by six months to the summer of 1983.
A new original colour series emerged in 1985, containing music from rock legends The Grateful Dead, and ran for three seasons. Increased this time to one-hour stories, it featured adaptations of strong stories from many ground-breaking SF authors, such as Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Joe Haldeman, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Silverberg, Greg Bear, Roger Zelazny, and many other shining talents. There was even a select few adaptations of the original series stories.
It is reasonable to suggest that THE TWILIGHT ZONE's versatile storylines, complete with startling twists, gave rise to a multitude of subsequent anthologies, such as OUT OF THE UNKNOWN, TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED, TWIST IN THE TALE, and of course THE OUTER LIMITS, which seized the concept and arguably bettered it. However, the durability of THE TWILIGHT ZONE speaks for itself. Not a week passes without the series being broadcast somewhere in the western world, echoing those immortal words:
"There is a fifth dimension beyond what 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, science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of the imagination. It is an area which we call... The Twilight Zone"
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