This month marks the 50th anniversary of The Twilight Zone, CBS’s successful sci-fi/fantasy series that ran from 1959 to 1964, going off the air. On June 19, the 156th episode aired, “The Bewitchin’ Pool”, written by Earl Hamner. The occasion is a good moment to raise the question: why has such a series stood the test of time so well?
As decades have passed, a number of critical analyses of the series have been published, perhaps the two best being The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (1983) and Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone by Douglas Brode and Carol Serling (2009). Based on his own comments after the end of the series, it doesn’t appear that Rod Serling expected the show to have a long duration. Serling had produced 92 of the 156 scripts himself. The other two most prolific contributors were Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Of his own writing, he said he’d produced something things that were “adequate” for the moment, but nothing that could be called classic. As is often the case with great writers, Serling sold himself short.
1. The genius of Rod Serling
In the late 1950s, when Twilight Zone originally aired, television was still a very new form of entertainment. Science fiction was by that time a respectable genre, though not to the same extent that it is today. Serling, a progressive in many respects—he was a pacifist and was an ardent supporter of the Civil Rights movement—wanted to write something “important” for television, something a cut above so much of what was standard fare on the networks at the time.
With censorship being what it was in the 50s, Serling eventually learned he couldn’t explicitly say anything and everything he wanted to, if he was crafting a story which advocated for social change. Much like C.S. Lewis had done two decades earlier in his Space Trilogy, Serling learned he could use science fiction as a means of “disguising” his message so that it would be above suspicion, yet still have an impact on the way people view society.
Serling wasn’t interested in mere shock value, or scaring viewers for the sake of scaring them (although some of his scripts are genuinely frightening). He wanted to say something substantive about human nature. Because human nature hasn’t changed that much, the show is still as “relevant” today as it was five decades ago. As Douglas Brode said in his 2009 essay, “Why Should We Take Rod Serling Seriously?”: “While watching, we come to better understand not just America at a past point of transition but America itself. Then and now. Not only who we were but who we are today—and what we may yet become.”
2. Why Christians can appreciate Rod Serling
Though ethnically Jewish, Serling’s religious affiliation was Unitarian. A basically Judeo-Christian worldview is in the background of many of Serling’s most memorable episodes. A sense of justice—that man’s inhumanity to man would eventually be recompensed—runs through his scripts.
A good example is “Judgment Night”, which aired during the first season. In this episode, a German military captain who commanded a torpedo to be fired at a boat carrying civilians is punished in the after life by being forced to ride the ghost of the ship—as it is shot down and sinks to the bottom—every night for eternity. At one point, the character scoffs at a warning of judgment—he condescendingly calls his companion “religious”, as if that meant having a low IQ.
In the 3rd season episode, “Deaths Head Revisited”, he tackles the immensely difficult subject of the Holocaust, showing the insanity of exterminating people based on their race. In the 4th season, he again dealt with Nazism, this time in a script called “He’s Alive.”
In “Probe 7 Over and Out”, a lone astronaut, Adam Cook, has escaped his planet before it was obliterated by nuclear war. Now on a new and strange planet, the astronaut meets a woman, and she too is the lone survivor of her planet after war has wiped out the population. In the end, viewers are informed the woman is named Eve Norda. They decide to name their new home “Earth”.
In “The Obsolete Man”, a librarian is about to be executed by the state simply because they have deemed him and his profession obsolete to their society. The condemned man spends his last minutes alive reading the psalms. The God-fearing victim is portrayed sympathetically, while the fascist state is portrayed as merciless. In Serling’s worldview, people have inherent value, and individuals are of more important than states or governments.
In “The Gift”, Serling tells the story of an alien sent to earth with a gift, but before he even has a chance to give it, the earthlings, assuming the alien must be dangerous, kill him. After it’s too late, the people of earth are made aware that the gift, had they been willing to receive it, was a book containing the way to find a cure for any and every form of cancer. The parallel between the alien and Christ—both benevolent visitors from another world, both bearing gifts, both misunderstood and killed by the people of the earth—are very apparent.
As these examples show, Serling’s writing, if not Christian per se, is certainly representative of a Judeo-Christian worldview. Science-fiction as a genre has produced numerous classics from a secular/irreligious perspective (consider the writings of H.G. Wells, for instance). Serling was different though. As Douglas Brode said, “Week after week for nearly five years, Rod Serling and company assured us that miracles (for the Judeo-Christian mind)… aren’t forced out of existence by science—at least not for the open-minded, the truly liberal in the best sense of the term.”
3. The enduring legacy of The Twilight Zone
Douglas Brode said, “The significance of Zone resides in its appeal not only to young people of the late 1950s and early 1960s but to each new generation that rediscovers it—and more incredibly, spots something of themselves in Rod’s world… No writer of his time possessed a greater imagination. And none turned out anything that comes close to his body of work in terms of lasting importance.”
If you have never given this series a chance, Jackson Presbyterian Examiner would highly encourage you to do. ME-TV in Jackson airs Twilight Zone Monday through Friday night at 10 p.m. Next month, on July 4 the SyFy Channel will air its annual 24 hour Twilight Zone marathon. For those looking to own the series for themselves, Barnes and Noble in the Renaissance Shopping Center (1000 Highland Colony Pkwy, Ridgeland, MS 39157) carries all of the seasons. For more information about the series, go to www.cbs.com/shows/the_twilight_zone/.