Late 1950s/early 1960s American television broadcasting remains associated with the celebration of traditional values and the provision of wholesome family entertainment – nothing too daring or threatening which might offend commercial or Establishment interests. Rod Serling, a successful script-writer for radio and television plays, had become frustrated by over-bearing network control and the demands of sponsors, and was in search of his own project. As creator of The Twilight Zone, which initially ran from 1959 to 1964, he achieved that ambition. Within the constraints of the time – and in appearance, he conformed to the clean-cut image of his era – Serling crafted a truly pioneering series of half-hour stand-alone episodes, ranging freely across science fiction and fantasy themes. Many episodes were written or adapted by Serling himself, but he was also able to utilise the talents of authors Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, who constituted an informal writing team, later supplemented by George Clayton Johnson. They were able to draw on a wealth of as yet unfilmed science fiction material – notably short stories – for the scripts; among the well-established authors to make a one-off contribution was Ray Bradbury (‘I sing the body electric’). The show also featured many young actors in the formative stages of their careers who went on to greater fame, including Dennis Hopper, Donald Pleasance, Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds, in addition to both Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner, pre-Star Trek.
By Serling’s own admission, the quality of episodes was variable – some betray the limitations of a demanding shooting schedule, the expectations of a mainstream audience and technical restrictions which are apparent in the effects and often in the sets, but at its best it transcended those constraints. There was considerable ingenuity and originality in episodes such as ‘Five characters in search of an exit’, whose protagonists know neither where, nor who, they are. Not only did this episode echo Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play, Six characters in search of an author, it also prefigured the plot of the 1997 film Cube. Investigations on the nature of reality were a frequent topic, memorably tackled in ‘A World of Difference’, whose central character finds he is living in a script – or else the script has become his life. ‘Person or persons unknown’ has parallels with Philip K. Dick’s later novel, Flow my tears, the policeman said, in its depiction of an alternate reality where the central character awakes in familiar surroundings, only to find that no-one recognises him. The Twilight Zone reflects Serling’s personal belief in science fiction as a vehicle to explore contemporary issues, with recurring representations of Cold War anxieties and meditations on the widespread fear of imminent nuclear attack and the aftermath of disaster, in episodes such as ‘Time enough at last’ and ‘The shelter’. As an avowed liberal, Serling used other episodes to promote civil rights and attack the lingering anti-Communist paranoia in the wake of Senator McCarthy’s ‘witch-hunt’ and the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which led directly to the blacklisting and exile from Hollywood of actors, directors and writers, for their supposed support for the Soviet Union and Communism.
The series’ distinctive title music was initially provided by Bernard Herrmann, a composer who had scored Orson Welles’s acclaimed Citizen Kane as well as being a regular collaborator with director Alfred Hitchcock (North by Northwest, Psycho, Vertigo). Herrmann was already familiar with science fiction themes (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Journey to the Center of the Earth), and later provided soundtracks for several of Ray Harryhausen’s films (including Jason and the Argonauts, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad). In his article, ‘Music in the Twilight Zone’, James Wierzbicki states that Herrmann’s atmospheric music “played a significant role in literally selling The Twilight Zone to sponsors”; certainly having a composer of such stature would have helped to establish the show’s credentials at the outset. From the second series French avant-garde composer Marius Constant took over theme music duties, and his eerie title became the one most strongly associated with the programme. Much of the show’s incidental music consisted of previously recorded ‘stock cues’ drawn from the CBS library, a far more economical process than commissioning original music throughout; once an initial fee was paid to the composer, subsequent use was royalty-free. Lud Gluskin was in charge of music for all CBS television shows at that period and as such, Wierzbicki notes, “had a substantial influence on music and the role it played in The Twilight Zone”, whilst producer Buck Houghton was responsible for the precise placement of sounds within each episode.
After the cancellation of The Twilight Zone in 1964, Serling drifted into Hollywood hack-work, producing scripts and screenplays to order, unable to fully recapture his own vision. His name was later associated with Night Gallery, a less successful attempt at a science fiction television series, but with much-reduced creative input from him. By this time, he had become thoroughly frustrated with the limitations of the format, and its ever-present commercial constraints. The major networks still retained significant control over American television in the early 1970s, and the artistic freedom and independence which Serling and others craved remained many years distant. An articulate and highly intelligent man, always prepared to challenge conventions and to innovate, Serling made a conscious decision to “shy away from the year 2500”, being more interested in “what happens Thursday, not in the next century”, aligning him with subsequent visionary writers of the ‘near future’, such as J.G. Ballard and William Gibson. Rod Serling died in 1975, aged only 50, but his legacy lives on – forever synonymous with his name, The Twilight Zone has become ingrained in popular culture, the title itself used as an almost universal shorthand signifying the uncanny or the unknown. He would surely have wanted it this way.