Early Television History Critical Research Report
Ready Camera One
“Snapped Into The Zone”
Thunder cracks. Lights flash. A man on an airplane thumps his hands against his forehead warding off the overwhelming feelings of insanity. A warped face swollen in shadow leers in from outside the tiny window of an airplane… Chuckling to herself, my mother, Christi, describes a story I’ve heard many a time,
“I remember the monkey on the airplane wing [laughs]. No, that episode… let’s see if I can put this in a nutshell. That episode was about a man who was just released from a mental institution. And he was going home on an airplane and he saw this image on the airplane wing and it would come and go and it turned out to be a rather ugly monkey. And the whole thing seemed to be about a question of what were his fears and what was reality. And it seemed to be that he was hallucinating and that he was in fact not cured from his mental illness. But in the end, when they took him away in a straight jacket it turned out that the monkey really was on the wing. But to me, when I look back at that, it was just this interesting experience of someone who was supposedly ill and what things were fearful to him and what things were in reality and it was just another one of the very curious episodes that they had.”
As far back as I can remember, my mother has told me dark tales of strange happenings in a magical fifth dimension. Her eyes always widen, her brows always rise, and she always laughs in excitement as she revisits past days of her childhood spent watching the first influential science fiction/fantasy television anthology, The Twilight Zone. Now, as a young adult studying early film history, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to further explore the show I grew up hearing so much about… the show that influenced my mother so much, she still talks of it almost forty years after she originally watched it. How did the producers, writers, actors, and directors create such an eerily convincing, and critical world? As an aspiring filmmaker and television producer, The Twilight Zone is an excellent program to research to learn simple production and screenwriting techniques for my own art.
In such a tumultuous time as the late 1950s into the 1960s, television was paramount in providing both a world to escape to and a trigger of critical thought for young people. Children and teens tend to live in a bubble, usually somewhat sheltered by their elders and less tied down by responsibilities, but they are not impervious to the overwhelming confusion of political, social and moral conflicts. Intellectual stimulation of the younger generation is imperative to societal growth, therefore, providing a means for children to explore these conflicts of war, racism, and political unrest in a meaningful and fun manner is essential. In the days of Ozzie and Harriet, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Have Gun-Will Travel, and Lawrence Welk, The Twilight Zone stood out as a zenith of sociopolitical critique and fantastical mystery in a sea of overzealous, shallow television programs. Through thoughtful story telling, a compelling format, a simplistic and artistic production style, and a passionate cast and crew, Rod Serling created an unusually high quality anthology television program called The Twilight Zone, which captured the imagination and inspired intelligence not only in the older generation to which it was geared, but also the young generation of baby boomers who took solace and wisdom from the show.
To begin this research report, I interviewed my mother and father, Christine Russell and Joel Templeton, both in their mid fifties. After hearing about “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (again), I asked Christi if she remembered learning anything from the show (she was eight or nine when The Twilight Zone first aired in 1959),
“At the time I didn’t think I was learning anything. That never came up. It was entertainment. But I loved it, you know I loved the show, and in retrospect when I wonder, ‘why did I love the show?’ I have some ideas about that. And for one I think that it was so unusual; there was nothing else like that going on. And unusual in terms of the subject matter that it was- it wasn’t really sci-fi but it was fiction that questioned reality, questioned it in philosophical terms, and in moral terms. And they were just short little stories that were quirky. And so it was just totally interesting to me.”
After my inquiry into the rest of the family’s opinion of the show, Christi explained that her father was mostly interested in westerns and her mother was usually in the kitchen when the show was on. On the other hand, she did remember her siblings loving the show and playing hide and seek in the dark after the show to scare each other. When I asked if the concepts had been confusing to her as a child, she replied,
“Nope. I just remember being completely drawn in, and then just full of wonder… Anyways, a lot of these stories, they just seemed to pose these really strange dilemmas or strange situations… and then there was always a really quirky twist at the end. And mostly they were just very thought-provoking, because it was about the human experience and how people react to situations. And I think there was philosophy involved, and moral questions.”
Even though the show seemed to contain adult content, the simple, focused format was not beyond the comprehension of a young person.
Finally, I asked, “Do you feel like it influenced you in a long-term fashion? For the long run?” Christi replied,
“Yeah, yeah, I do…. See, my parents were pretty busy, just in the day-to-day survival, and there were five children, and- blue collar workers and stuff, and I don’t think there was much discussion about things- about life and experience. And this is sort of like the first sophisticated examination of- more of a look at how people respond to things and it was more nuanced and so it was totally thought-provoking… And I’m still attracted to things like that- I like to question and examine things in depth. And I think it was the first experience that I had that was like that. Yeah, that’s pretty big. I honestly can’t remember before that. You know, watching Bonanza just wasn’t the same. You know, these lame-o westerns, which there were a lot of…. It [The Twilight Zone] was very imaginative. Really, really imaginative. And I think that it affected me in the long run because I loved it and I think it made me more inquisitive and that I probably wanted to have more of that.”
My father’s interview took a different course than I expected. Joel was about eleven or twelve when he first saw the show, and when I asked, “Are there some specific images that stand out to you?” he replied, “No, it’s more general feel I had for it. I didn’t really care for it. I would watch it because there wasn’t anything better at the time.” Surprised, I inquired further into his dislike of the show. “Why? Because the general feel I got was that contemplating large moral or philosophical questions always led to a dreary conclusion. They were always dreary, and sometimes quite horrible… I hoped for other ways to think about big issues that always didn’t lead to disaster.” I also asked Joel if he thought it influenced him in any way, and while he didn’t quite answer the question, he did make an excellent point about the exceptionality of the show, “I have to look at it in the context of the other shows that were on at the time. And I don’t know if you know any of those shows, like Amos and Andy, Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, September Bride, The Lawrence Welk Show … we’re talking you know, about… as deep as you can’t be… So you could argue that it was definitely- it started to change the nature of television- I still didn’t like it, but definitely it was significant for it’s time.”
To fully comprehend the impetus of the show I must give a brief account of Rod Serling’s life before entering “The Zone.” As the creator, narrator, primary writer and owner of Cayuga Production Company (The Twilight Zone’s production company), Rod poured an exorbitant amount of time, energy and care in to the production of the show. Born in 1924, Rod grew up in Binghamton, New York, a town particularly attractive to Eastern European immigrants due to a progressively philanthropic shoe factory called Endicott Johnson Company. Going to public school with the children of these immigrant factory workers taught the young, bright and impressionable Rod to accept others’ lifestyles and cultures. A bipartisan man, Rod’s father Samuel enhanced Rod’s socially diverse childhood with lessons on civil rights and the opportunities of the American government and lifestyle, helping the young boy gain perspective on his relatively well-off home life.
As well as a culturally diverse schooling experience, Rod also gained an open perspective on religion by living in a household of Jewish heritage and secular lifestyle that happened to celebrate Christmas. “I don’t choose my friends for their religion; I choose them for the kind of people they are,” Samuel told his sons. “I’m not a good Jew, but I think I’m a good person. If you want to be very religious, that’s up to you. My own philosophy is, I take people for what they are, not where they go to pray. I have friends who are Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, what have you. And I love them all.” It only made sense that later in life, Rod classified himself as Unitarian.
Nostalgia for simpler times and a wonderful childhood is a common theme in Rod’s Twilight Zone episodes “A stop at Willoughby”, “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”, and “Walking Distance”. The day after graduating high school in 1943, Rod was drafted into the army and eventually worked as a paratrooper in the Philippines. Shortly before Rod’s return to the US, Samuel Serling died of heart failure at fifty-two, and unable to support herself, Rod’s mother moved in with her sister in Schenectady. In his three years of duty, Rod’s bubble of his youth popped. “The gentle memories of his childhood contradicted the war’s bitterness and his father’s sudden death, making Binghamton seem all the more like a storybook land, and he expressed that mythic sense often through his later work (Engel, pg. 65).”
After graduating from Antioch College with a degree in creative writing, Rod soon found he had talent for writing copious amounts quickly- the ideal ability for a screenwriter. Over seven years of writing for television, Rod formed a strong opinion against censorship. Extremely vocal in his disapproval of strict networks and sponsors, Serling wrote an introductory essay called “About Writing For Television” for his book of short stories called “Patterns,” published in 1957. This essay particularly critiques the decimation of two of his most potent teleplays, “The Arena” (a political story which takes place on the floor of the US Senate) and “Noon on Doomsday” (a close following of the Emmitt Till Case) by several groups of sponsors. In an interview with Mike Wallace, Serling states, “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 (Hunt, pg. 20).”
Rod learned the hard way (grieving the loss of his two teleplays) to take his writing from a realistic journalist’s approach to a philosophical, abstract approach. “I stay in television because I think it’s possible to perform a function of providing adult, meaningful, exciting, challenging drama without dealing in controversy necessarily (Hunt, pg. 20).” He figured writing about contemporary issues through allegories or generalities was better than saying nothing at all. “As an attempt to evade censorship, The Twilight Zone strategy proved to be a great success. It is a curious fact but undeniably true that the same racists and segregationists will write angry letters and organize boycotts if you produce a realistic show that depicts the lynching of Emmet Till as a despicable atrocity, will be completely indifferent to a fantastic, allegorical show that says that all lynchings are despicable atrocities (Hunt, pg. 22).”
As an anthology, The Twilight Zone’s format was particularly important since it couldn’t rely on familiar characters or a continuous plot to keep kids coming back every week. The characteristic look and feel of The Twilight Zone consisted of many elements, two of which were a consistent producer (Buck Houghton produced every episode of the first season, except the pilot) and cinematographer (George T. Clemens manned the camera in 117 episodes). A third element, the time limit of 25 minutes, was particularly important in forcing the writers to keep each episode simple and to the point. In the fourth season, the show’s episode length was drawn out to one hour, and Buck Houghton left the show rather than work with this format, “I told them that ‘Twilight Zone’ is based on a willing suspension of disbelief. You can’t ask people to do it for an hour. You can say, ‘There’s this fellow who can walk through walls,’ and about thirty minutes later people say, ‘What else you got?’ ‘Twilight Zones’ work best as a two-sentence anecdote, not something that you say, ‘And then.’ You never say, ‘And then (Engel, pg. 232)’”
The consistent narration by Rod (both on and off screen) gave viewers a single character to latch on to and associate with the show. His face and voice grew to represent the world of wonderment and mystery in which anything was possible. “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.” This opening described the original meaning of the phrase “twilight zone” (a place between fantasy and reality) and placed the audience in an open-minded position. Rod’s charming and authoritative presence comforted youth as well as provided them with a sense of trust… trust in him, and trust in the story. “He seemed so sympathetic, so accessible, so much like the godlike character who controlled the magical happenings of ‘The Twilight Zone’ that much of the public targeted him as the man who could and would solve their problems (Engel, pg 211).”
Another essential consistency was the narrative format of each episode. This familiar format made the viewers form expectations and desires about the development of the story and characters, which kept them guessing and forming lines of connection. Part of the beauty of the show was its ability to suddenly break these expectations. Within the first third of the story, the narrative hook (in the case of The Twilight Zone, the narrative twist) is thrown in to capture curiosity and catch the viewer off guard. At the end of the 25 minutes, the surprise ending (called the “snapper” by Rod) leaves the viewer shocked and wanting more. The closed endings typically used by narratives relieve the desires of the viewers and wrap up the story line, ending much of the critical thinking caused by the story. The surprise ending, however, allows for more multiplicity and thwarts expectations, causing further thought after the end of the show. Some viewers may be bothered by the unsettled feelings caused by a surprise ending, but others enjoy the feeling of knowing more than the character, or being in a safer situation than that of the story.
Carl Plantinga discusses several types of surprise endings in an essay called “Surprise Endings and Spectator Imagination” included in the collection Philosophy in the Twilight Zone. The first type is “surprise of prospect” or “surprise of understanding”. A prime example of “surprise of prospect” is the episode “Time Enough at Last” in which the main character Henry finds himself the last man on earth after a nuclear bomb goes off and celebrates because he finally has time to read. He then has his hopes smashed when his glasses fall to the ground and break. Suddenly, his prospects are indeed bleak. In “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” you will find an example of “surprise in understanding”. In the last scene, Mr. Denton , who has been miserable most his life because he is constantly challenged by gun slingers and is honor bound to kill them all finds himself face to face with a young boy and drinks a magic tonic to help his aim. He then sees the boy drinking the exact same tonic, and when they fire, the two men shoot each other on their draw hands, meaning neither will ever shoot again. Our new understanding is that the peddler who gives Mr. Denton the tonic is actually doing him the best favor of his life by relieving him of his duty to accept every challenge he is given.
In some episodes of The Twilight Zone, the ambiguous plot is suddenly clarified or your frame of reference as a viewer is suddenly shifted. In “Eye of the Beholder” a woman lies in a hospital bed, her face completely concealed by bandages. She has undergone eleven surgeries in the attempt of improving her supposedly hideous appearance. When the doctor removes the bandages, he is horrified that the surgery has failed again, but to our dismay, the woman is absolutely beautiful. Suddenly, the camera reveals the doctor’s and nurses’ faces (having been carefully concealed by camera tricks throughout the whole episode) which are hideously disfigured. In this alternate world, any human we would deem normal looking would be considered horrifically ugly. The viewer’s frame of reference is completely flipped and they are left to chew on the thought that ugliness is completely subjective.
Though many writers wrote for The Twilight Zone over the years, a select few wrote more often than others and helped keep the continuity flowing. The main contributing writers, including Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson and Ray Bradbury (only wrote one episode, but proved very influential to Serling) were also members of the Southern California Group of Writers. “The Group” intended to raise the quality of television, specifically fantasy and science fiction, via good writing. Because of a low budget, The Twilight Zone could not afford to use elaborate special effects, but as it was considered an honor to work on the show, good writers were not hard to come by. Most episodes were driven by the dialogue and narration instead of action, engaging viewers more in the critical plot and encouraging intellectual thought. Rod valued the writing behind the show so much that when asked about directors’ fidelity to the script Serling told Beaumont to write his scripts exactly as he saw them, making no compromise. “To cement the fact that Serling was serious about not compromising the art, Beaumont found, when visiting the set during filming, sure enough, the episode was shot exactly as he had written it. ‘Nothing was changed.’ Beaumont said. ‘Not one line. Not one word.’ Beacause Serling respected their work, his writers respected him in turn (Stanyard, pg. 20).”
To keep the writing of each episode as similar as possible, Serling and Houghton set high standards for storytelling with a set of stylistic guidelines:
“Find an interesting character, or a group, at a moment in crisis in life, and get there quickly; then lay on some magic. That magic must be devilishly appropriate and capable of providing a whiplash kickback a t the tag. The character(s) must be ordinary and average and modern, and the problem facing him (her, them) must be commonplace. The Twilight Zone always struck people as identifiable as to whom it was about, and the story hang-ups as resonant as their own fears, dreams, and wishes. Allow only one miracle or special talent or imaginative circumstance per episode. More than one and the audience grows impatient with your calls on their credibility. The story must be impossible in the real world. A request at some point to suspend disbelief is a trademark of the series. Mere scare tactics will not fill the bill. A clever bit of advanced scientific hardware is not enough to support a story. The Twilight Zone was not a sci-fi show (Stanyard, pg. 28).”
Shot in the back lots of MGM studios, The Twilight Zone made excellent use of this plethora of old sets and scenery. Most episodes worked well logistically and stylistically because the writers would often visit the lots and write stories to fit a set that inspired them.
In writing this paper, I viewed the entire first season of The Twilight Zone, and a few of the more renowned episodes further along. I found the episode “Third from the Sun” particularly pertinent to my paper. Originally, Richard Matheson wrote this story about a bomb engineer who high-jacks a space craft to fly his family and friends to another planet in fear of an atomic war in the form of a short story but then adapted it to television. In classic Twilight Zone style, Rod sets the scene in the beginning narration as a typical night in a typical American neighborhood to bring the story into the viewer’s home… He then adds eerie foreshadowing to set the atmosphere of fear, “Quitting time at the plant. Time for supper now. Time for families. Time for a cool drink on a porch. Time for the quiet rustle of leaf-laden trees that screen out the moon. And underneath it all, behind the eyes of the men, hanging invisible over the summer night, is a horror without words. For this is the stillness before storm. This is the eve of the end.”
This episode particularly evokes the fear of atomic war in the 1950s and early 1960s as well as the question of an individual’s responsibility to take a step out of their comfort zone and do something to help the world. In this situation, the scientist claims, “I’m just a cog in a wheel” and illuminates the typical lack of initiative of factory workers or persons with steady incomes. The only reason these potent jabs at American sedentary lifestyle were let be by sponsors is because of the surprise ending, which places this story in the context of an alien world. As the two families escape off the doomed planet, the scientists mention that the planet they are now headed towards is the third planet from the sun…
The Twilight Zone is truly an exemplary piece of early television history. Using simple and artistic set design, quality story telling, a consistent format and surprise endings, this television program caught the attention of a generation in need of support. “Institutionalized practices such as regular air raid and atomic and thermonuclear bomb drills in public schools exacerbated and legitimized fears about an imminent nuclear holocaust. A future of perpetual war, social disintegration and famine seemed distressingly likely to many Americans, a scenario made all the more real by the intensely graphic nature of the television news coverage of the war during the 1960s (Hodges, pg. 175).” In times of conflict, a simple thing like an episode of The Twilight Zone can make a world of difference. Be it that one extra concept to chew on, or the comforting voice of Rod Serling drawing you in for an adventure, The Twilight Zone helped balance out the years between 1959 and 1964, especially for the children so caught up in the imaginative journey. “The science fiction television series of the 1960s struck a deep chord in audiences of this period not because they revealed a new world but because they reminded audiences of their own world and dramatized the complex conflicts raging throughout society in simple, allegorical terms (Hodges, pg. 181).”