- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

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.”

- Rod Serling

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — On a Friday night in October 1959, Americans be gan slipping into a dimension of imagination as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. They’ve never really returned.

“The Twilight Zone,” first submitted for the public’s approval by a reluctant CBS, has resonated with viewers from generation to generation with memorable stories carrying universal messages about society’s ills and the human condition.

Like the time-space warps that anchored so many of the show’s plots, Rod Serling’s veiled commentary remains as soul-baring today as it did a half century ago - and the show’s popularity endures in multiple facets of American pop culture.

“I’m interested in the escapist ideas, the psychological nature of the stories,” says Lauren Chizinski of Houston, a first-year graduate student in sculpting at Syracuse University who is among two dozen students taking a class on the show and its 50th anniversary.

“The Twilight Zone” has been exulted in media such as pinball and video games and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride at Disney theme parks.

The original show - which ran just five seasons, 1959 to ‘64 - led to a feature film by Steven Spielberg and John Landis in 1983. Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company reportedly is planning to bring an adaptation based on several episodes to the silver screen.

It also resulted in short-lived television series in the 1980s and in 2002 and has been the subject of scores of books, Web sites, blogs, comic books, magazines and a radio series. It even has inspired music from the Grateful Dead, Rush, Golden Earring and Michael Jackson.

“Even people who have never seen ‘The Twilight Zone’ know about it,” says Doug Brode, who is teaching the Serling class at Syracuse and teamed with Serling’s widow to write “Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone: The 50th Anniversary Tribute.”

With quality writing, acting and production, “The Twilight Zone” pioneered a genre, says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

“The whole idea of ‘The Twilight Zone’ jumped off the television screen and became a catchphrase, a buzzword for something much beyond the TV show itself,” Mr. Thompson adds. “When you say Twilight Zone, it’s its own genre. ‘The X-Files’ was working in ‘The Twilight Zone’ genre.”

Its signature theme song (by avant-garde Romanian-born French composer Marius Constant) even became part of popular language, enabling people to describe unusual or inexplicable moments with a simple “doo-doo-doo-doo,” Mr. Thompson says.

CBS has no plans to observe the show’s 50th anniversary, says spokesman Chris Ender. The show has enjoyed nearly uninterrupted popularity through television syndication and DVD releases and is under license to air in 30 countries, he says.

The Syfy Channel regularly broadcasts “The Twilight Zone” and plans a 15-show marathon on Friday.

Anniversary observances are planned in Binghamton, N.Y., where Serling grew up and went to high school; at Ithaca College in New York, where he taught from 1967 until his death in 1975 and where his archives are kept; and at Antioch College in Ohio, where Serling was a student, met his wife, Carol, and later taught.

“I don’t think he would have thought in a million years that ‘Twilight Zone’ would be having an important 50th birthday or that it would still be on,” says Carol Serling, who will attend the celebrations in Ithaca and Binghamton.

“Through parable and suggestion, he could make points that he couldn’t make on straight television because there were too many sacred cows and sponsors and people who said you couldn’t do that,” she says, referring to the networks’ reluctance to deal with contemporary issues in its prime-time programming.

One hundred fifty-six episodes were filmed for the original series; Serling wrote 92 of them. Other contributors included Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, two deans of science-fiction writing.

In a time on television when suburbia was idealized in popular shows such as “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Make Room for Daddy,” Serling offered a mixture of fantasy, science fiction, suspense, horror - and the show’s trademark macabre or unexpected twist.

Serling already had earned acclaim for his television writing (“Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “Patterns”) but found himself fighting CBS to get “The Twilight Zone” on the air. He had repeated conflicts with network censors throughout his career.

In 1958, CBS bought Serling’s teleplay “The Time Element,” which he hoped would be the pilot to his weekly series. The story was about a bartender who keeps waking up in Pearl Harbor knowing the Japanese will be attacking the next day but unable to convince anyone he’s telling the truth.

CBS shelved the series after buying it, however, because the studio didn’t think there was much commercial value in science fiction. Bert Granet, producer of the weekly CBS anthology series “Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse,” stumbled on the script and wanted it. He bought it for $10,000.

The story aired on Nov. 24, 1958, and became the Westinghouse series’ biggest hit, garnering more audience reaction than any previous episodes. CBS finally decided to take a chance on Serling’s series.

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