The Dimension of Imagination: Impact of The Twilight Zone

On October 2, 1959, Americans watching TV on CBS at 10 PM were introduced to a new show that “lies between the pit of a 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.”  And thus began America’s love affair with The Twilight Zone. Judging from the show’s numerous appearances today in syndication, including the annual New Year’s Eve Syfy channel marathon, and availability through home video and streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, the love affair continues. The show’s influence is still apparent today but back in 1959, there had been no other show like it on American television. Sure, there had been anthology shows before, such as Playhouse 90, and even those that dealt with science fiction and the fantastic, such as Science Fiction Theatre, Days of Tomorrow, and One Step Beyond. But no other show on television had reflected the time period into which it was born as did The Twilight Zone.

The Twilight Zone arrived at a time when television was promoting the idea of 1950’s innocence, despite a decade that had included the Korean War, McCarthyism and the Cold War, with its fear of Communism and the atomic bomb. For the most part, television shows of that period gave its audience stories that were predictable and safe, presenting a world into which people could escape their personal troubles and fears. But America was also transitioning into the turbulent 1960’s and its decade of unrest and protest over a new war in Vietnam, a fight for civil rights, and an interest by the younger generation in exploring new ways to approach drugs and sex and to question government. The fact was, no other show before it had challenged our sense of innocence and safety the way The Twilight Zone did. But  Rod Serling, who wrote the majority of the series’ 156 episodes, was smart enough to know he couldn’t talk too openly about taboo subjects such as racism, extremism, xenophobia, war, and violence without getting into trouble. So, as many genre authors, such as Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury (who wrote a few scripts for the show, only one of which was produced), had done in novels and short stories, Serling used science fiction and fantasy to tell his stories and challenge his TV audience. In a sense, by working in these genres, he made it “safe” for the television audience of the late fifties-early sixties to seriously explore uncomfortable, difficult issues.

The Place Is Here. The Time Is Now.

This was apparent with the very first episode, titled, “Where is Everybody?” as the audience watched a solitary man walk down a country road while Serling himself intoned, “The place is here. The time is now. And that journey into the shadows that we’re about to watch could be our journey.” Serling wanted us to know right off the bat that he wasn’t interested in viewers watching from a distance. He wanted to draw them in, to make viewers understand that, despite the often otherworldly settings of the show’s episodes, his characters’ struggles were their struggles as well.

The premiere episode showed us a man walking into town – where he found food cooking on a grill and a cigar still smoking in an ashtray, heard a jukebox play music, and a phone ring; yet he could not find any people. The story seemed to reflect the already growing sense of isolation people were feeling in the society of the day. But the episode also dealt with the fear of science and the unknown when it was revealed at the end that this man’s hallucinations were caused by his being kept in an isolation room for several days as part of his training to travel into space. The end seemed to suggest that the greatest fear of all, whether experienced on Earth or in the future unknown of space, was loneliness. Fear of the unknown and isolation would be a common theme in future The Twilight Zone episodes.

Journey into the Shadows

While Serling wrote close to two thirds of the show’s episodes, many big names in the field contributed scripts as well. These included Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, George Clayton Johnson and Charles Beaumont, among others. Scripts were also adapted from short stories by writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Damon Knight and Lewis Padget. Together, the writers on the show created a canon of stories that covered themes ranging from loss of identity, the affects of nuclear war, fear of science, superstition, oppression, alienation, and the destruction of family and the American dream, all of which emulated the anxieties people faced as the fifties retreated in the rear-view mirror of their lives and they barreled their way into the sixties.

Examples of these themes were apparent in many of the show’s episodes during its five-year run. For example, fear of nuclear war was addressed in “The Shelter,” in which a report of a bomb on its way from another country sends a group of friends into a vicious battle over who gets to wait it out in the only available shelter. By the time the report turned out to be a false alarm, their prejudices, fears and hatred had been exposed for each of them to see, forever affecting their friendship and showing that the type of destruction caused by war, or even the threat of war, is much more than physical. The Twilight Zone also became the first television program to actually show the physical destruction caused by a nuclear war in the classic episode “Time Enough at Last,” with the audience following the only survivor as he picked his way through the ruins.

The Pit of Man’s Fears

Elements of the effects of McCarthyism could certainly be found in an episode like “The Shelter,” but was even more on display in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which neighbors gradually turned against each other after seeing what might have been a meteor pass overhead, followed by all power, including telephone and automobiles, being cut off. Fearing that an alien invasion was imminent, and that some of their neighbors might actually be aliens placed in the neighborhood ahead of time to prepare for the incursion, these people begin to scapegoat each other, citing their differences as evil because they were against the norm until one neighbor is dead and the rest have turned into a raving, chaotic mob. It is only then that the audience learned that this had all been set up by actual aliens, showing how easy it was to defeat the human race by turning them with their prejudices against each other.

Fear of alienation, isolation and loss of identity were certainly apparent in “Person and Persons Unknown” and “And When the Sky Opened.” Both stories focused on characters whose very sense of reality and identity had been greatly altered. In the first, a man woke up to find that no one, including his wife, co-workers and friends, knew who he was, a dark twist on the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which the main character got to see what the world would have been like without him.  And in “Sky Opened,” three astronauts back from a trip into space, during which they had been out of contact for twenty-four hours, found their very existence being gradually wiped out, as if they weren’t supposed to come home, but had accidentally “slipped through,” and now that mistake was being corrected. Alienation and loss of identity was also the subject of “The Obsolete Man,” in which a man living in an Orwellian state is sentenced to death for being irrelevant to society. His job?  A librarian.

Fear of change was explored in suburban nightmares such as “It’s a Good Life,” in which an entire community had been forced to obey the whims of a vicious six-year-old boy who can use his mind to change, create and destroy whatever he wants. One can see how this classic episode mirrored society’s fear of a rebellious younger generation of the emerging sixties.

The Summit of His Knowledge

The Twilight Zone also dealt with the aftereffects of war, World War II in particular, in one of its darkest episodes, called “Death’s-Head Revisited.” In this story, a former Nazi officer returned, years after the war, to the remnants of the concentration camp, Dachau, where he was a commander, to relive what he remembered as the good old days. But he ended up facing the ghosts of the prisoners he tortured and killed and was forced to pay dearly for his crimes. The dangers of living too much in the past, of not embracing the future, mirroring, perhaps, the fears of people who fought against the tumult of the sixties by trying to cling to the myth of the “innocent” fifties, was explored in a number of The Twilight Zone episodes, but, maybe, no more beautifully than in the haunting “Walking Distance.” In this one a man looking to get away from his harried life ended up twenty-five years in the past, in the town in which he grew up, and where he desperately tried to relive the memories of his childhood, only to find that he couldn’t. That, in fact, if he did, only pain would result, both for him and his younger self. It’s one of the show’s most haunting episodes.

As Vast as Space

Finally, with the United States involved in the space race during the sixties, The Twilight Zone dealt with the fear of the unknown space exploration could bring. One found this in the show’s very first episode, the aforementioned “Where is Everybody?” But, perhaps the sense of dread inherit in wondering what might be “out there” was no more clearly expressed than in the classic “To Serve Man,” in which the arrival of what were thought to be benevolent aliens from another world come to serve mankind by ridding them of the world’s problems, turned out to be aliens planning “to serve man” as food.

As Timeless as Infinity

It is a credit to the show’s writers that, as pertinent as their stories were to the late fifties-early sixties, the show has as much relevance to today’s world. In fact, it can be argued that few television shows have influenced the television landscape as much as The Twilight Zone has, and still does. Certainly, it opened up the medium in such a way that it could explore darker, more complex issues while allowing the television audience itself to grow up, as it were, and be more open to exploring mature themes in other TV programs.

While other anthology shows have sprung up over the years since The Twilight Zone ended its initial five-year run, including Rod Serling’s own Night Gallery, which ran from 1969-1973, and less successful attempts at a new The Twilight Zone that ran from 1985-1989 and from 2002-2003. But, perhaps, no such show has captured the time period into which it was born (such as the original The Twilight Zone did) as has the British show Black Mirror, whose three seasons of episodes are available through various streaming services, such as Netflix by setting its stories in our current technological environment. I will look at Black Mirror and how it reflects today’s digital world in another article.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Entertainment Earth, Inc. its owners, officers, employees, affiliates, subsidiaries, partners, vendors, customers or licensors.



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