With ominous opening monologues, mind-bending special effects (for the time, anyway) and totally unexpected-twist endings, Twilight Zone captured the attention and imagination of America at the end of one of the most influential and change-inspiring decades of the century. During the fifties, Americans experienced vast changes not only in our country's position in the world, but also in our own culture -- and one of the leading vehicles for this change was television. In a time when situation comedies and game shows dominated the air waves, Rod Serling's science fiction anthology program stood out as an example not only of the artistic potential of television in terms of writing and special effects, but also of the power television had as social commentary and a thought-provoking medium.
Seeing television's potential not just as a circus for the masses, but as an opportunity to challenge the conscious, penetrate the subconscious, and make people think without realizing it, Serling used this new window on America to showcase the prominent issues of the time, as well as to reflect Americans' fears of the consequences of some of our actions. The Cold War, the Bomb, space travel, aliens, technology -- even morality in general -- are all themes that appear frequently in Twilight Zone. What sets The Twilight Zone apart, however, is the way in which these topics were presented. In a time of Communist witch-hunts and finger-pointing, it was difficult to present objectively the flaws in American culture without putting oneself at risk. So, Serling disguised his social commentary as science fiction; he hid the shocking facts behind even more shocking fantasy. Radical in its own time and still admired and emulated today, The Twilight Zone set the standard for thoughtful television and inspired a generation to think differently about the changes it was witnessing.
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 we call the 'Twilight Zone.'
With these words, and some famously eerie music, Rod Serling ushered America into The Twilight Zone. The show aired for five seasons from 1959 to 1964, and although this is a little after the fifties, many of the fears and anxieties prominent in the show had their basis in events originating during that decade. There were 156 episodes of The Twilight Zone, and an amazing 92 of them were written by Serling himself. The show, which aired on CBS, was considered to be the first adult science-fiction anthology on television. Serling once described the show for TV Guide in this way: "It's an anthology series, half hour in length, that delves into the odd, the bizarre, the unexpected. It probes into the dimension of imagination but with a concern for taste and for an adult audience too long considered to have IQs in negative figures."
As an anthology, each episode dealt with a different storyline and different characters; one did not need to watch all the episodes to understand what was happening in any one. There were some constant features, however - every episode opened with a monologue that provided basic background information and hinted at the mysteries to come, and each show ended with a monologue that, like a closing argument to a jury about to vote on its own fate, summarized the events of the story and made a point about the underlying themes of the episode. These monologues were performed by Rod Serling himself in his authoritative, teacher-with-a-sense-of-impending-doom voice. In addition to the eerie mood-setting opening, the show became extremely well known for its plot twists - each story would end by revealing some sort of shocking, unpredictable, totally unexpected secret to the viewer, often a secret that completely altered the meaning of the story and hinted at the message Serling was trying to get across - a message that, if stated more directly, would have been preachy if not unpopular and politically incorrect.
A key example of such a plot twist is evident in the show's pilot episode, which quickly set the tone for the 155 stories to follow. Titled "Where is Everybody?", the pilot aired on October 2, 1959. The story followed a man as he wandered around a seemingly deserted town. Although he (and the viewer) saw no one, objects would appear to have been moved by someone else, and telephones would ring only for there to be no one there when our hero answered. Eventually, the man is driven insane by the loneliness and the puzzling events, and collapses while frantically pushing the crossing button on a stoplight. The twist is that the man is actually an astronaut in training for a solitary flight - he has been living in solitary confinement for days, and the entire town was merely a hallucination he was experiencing. The crossing button, as it turns out, is a panic button in the solitary confinement chamber.
The originality of the show earned it a great deal of attention from critics, writers, and actors at the time. It was critically acclaimed and, although it was never a ratings winner, it had a large cult following and was especially popular with teenage viewers. Additionally, the show won three Emmy Awards - one in each of the show's first two seasons for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama, and one for George Clemens in Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography. Other notable awards the show won in its five year run include a Directors Guild Award, a Producers Guild Award, and three World Science Fiction Convention Hugo Awards. Well-known and soon to be famous actors flocked to the show because of its reputation for providing meaningful roles, due mostly to its outstanding writing. Stars such as William Shatner, Burgess Meredith, Ron Howard, and Agnes Moorehead among others all appeared on episodes of the show; some, such as Burgess Meredith, even had roles written specifically for them.
The Twilight Zone was a great deal more than a simple science fiction television show. It was a spotlight on American society in the middle of the century, showcasing our fears and criticizing our flaws, tricking us into examining our lives, selves, and society. From aspects of the Cold War such as the bomb and space travel, to seemingly ridiculous fears of Martians, and even to difficult social ills like prejudice, The Twilight Zone is a window into a time when American society was changing drastically. It remains to this day an example of the power of television, as well as proof that television not only can be intelligent but also can be a tool for changing our society. Rod Serling's masterpiece is the ultimate reflection of a time when, in the minds of many, the real world itself began to look and feel increasingly like a place out of a writer's fevered imagination.