The Twilight Zone is an American television series which interweaves drama, fantasy, science fiction, suspense and horror to tell stories of everymen thrown into supernatural situations. Using science fiction as its veil it tackled important themes, such as war, government and racism, concluding each episode with a resounding moral or old adage. Rising to fame in the late fifties, and following other such series as Tales Of Tomorrow (1951- 3), and radio programs, The Weird Circle and Minus One, its five decade span came to include a feature film, comic book, radio series, and various spin offs. It’s the original series which I wish to focus our attention on here however, created by and invariably starring the legendary Rod Sterling.
Rod Sterling was an American television producer, screenwriter and playright famous for his range of on-screen, on air and published work which challenged a great many societal and political norms. An early social activist and public speaker, his exposure to suffering and fatality at the hands the war, most notably during his time in Leyte, (Phillipines) as a veteran, gave voice to a body of work which greatly challenged notions of life and death. Beginning with college radio, before moving on to a number odd jobs at radio stations across New York and Ohio, Rod quickly established a professional career in writing. Early radio works included Adventure Works, Leave It To Cathy and Our America. Believing radio to devoid him of any creative licence or artistic integrity, he made the leap to television. In his own words “Radio, in terms of … drama, dug its own grave. It had aimed downward, had become cheap and unbelievable, and had willingly settled for second best.”
His early days in television included writing testimonial ads for a comedy duo and scripts for a range of television anthology dramas. No stranger to rejection, Rod continually struggled to get his manscripts published, recalling “Writing is a demanding profession and a selfish one. And because it is selfish and demanding, because it is compulsive and exacting, I didn’t embrace it. I succumbed to it”. Moving between television stations, he wrote a number of shows which challenged power struggles, post war life and ultimately censorship. Many would argue that corporate censorhip was Sterling’s worst enemy, subject as his work was, to omission of political statements and ethnic identities by corporate sponsors. Importantly though, it’s this very censorship which lead to Sterling creating is very own television show. The Twilight Zone.
Premiering on CBS in 1959, The Twilight Zone represented a challenging new step for Sterling, an opportunity to seemingly escape censorship, by using the format of science fiction as a safety net to taking on big controversial topics. It’s precisely this approach that makes The Twilight Zone such a winning series for me- it is , for all intents and purposes, sci fi for non sci fi geeks and fantasy for the hard headed. Drawing on Sterling’s own personal experiences as a source of inspiration, its stories included themes like military life, boxing, gambling and family. The series ran for five successive seasons, alternating half hour/hour long episodes and drawing notable critical acclaim.
My favourite episodes include Death Head’s Revisited– which sees a former Nazi officer reunited with his demons at a concentration camp; The Four Of Us Are Dying, where a wise cracking con man using his morphing abilities to take on the identities of others to cause conflict; and Dead Man’s Shoes, which sees a discarded pair of loafers turn an ordinary beggar into a walking ghost. Perhaps the greatest attribute of the series is the inclusion of Sterling as on-screen narrator: suited and booted, cigarette in-hand, often appearing in episodes at the most random of moments, to warn us of an impending doom or unforeseen twist. Accompanying the mood evoking narration of each episode is a cacophonous jazz score (composed on many occasions by the legendary Bernard Hermann) and an expert use chiaroscuro: essentials if you will to any tale of the supernatural or macabre.
Subsequent re-makes of The Twilight Zone in the eighties and early noughties have lacked the subtlety and mystique of the original series, which some might say was due largely to Sterling’s untimely passing in 1975 at the mere age of 50. Needless to say his legacy lives on in what is arguably one of the most original and innovative anthology television series to ever grace our screens. From The Simpsons, to The X Files to Mad Men, The Twilight Zone remains a regular talking point in popular culture and continues to inform the war torn, conspiracy laden, fantasy driven world in which we live today.