“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and 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.” – Rod Serling
by Peter Fernandez
The Twilight Zone (1959-65) was a groundbreaking, prime time television anthology of thought-provoking half-hour episodes. Sustained by bold tales of science fiction, horror, and fantasy, many installments were expedient social and political commentary.
For example, in Lynn Venable’s “Time Enough at Last,” a meek bank clerk/bookworm survives a nuclear holocaust because he was reading in his lunch space, the basement vault. The lone survivor stumbles across his ex-town to find that he is well provided with the super- market’s dented canned goods, and most of the library’s books. But, his spectacles break.
In Damon Knight’s iconic sci-fi short story, “To Serve Man,” ‘peaceful’ aliens visit Earth with a cryptic book. The government has managed to decode, so far, only its title: To Serve Man. Time passes and the visitors’ advanced technology brings an end to war, disease and famine. Naturally, curious Earthlings wish to visit this advanced world, and as diplomats, journalists and scientists are processed/weighed for the flight by the extraterrestrials, the feds are still attempting to decipher that darn book. At the flying saucer’s departure gate, Girl Friday shouts to her studly government boss: “It’s a cookbook! Don’t get on, Michael! It’s a cookbook!” Too late, but lending a brand new meaning to flying saucers.
With variety shows, drama, comedy, and westerns, 1950’s television was about family programming, and there were still only three major networks, CBS, ABC and NBC. In 1959, The Twilight Zone was about to change how the American audience was going to view the world.
Rod Serling, the prolific architect to this iconic CBS series, wrote 92 of its 156 episodes. These well-crafted dramas soon became a cultural phenomenon as diverse characters
portrayed by A-List actors would once a week be confronted by the absurd and the fantastic.
Serling, the heavy-smoking, ex-Army light-weight boxer with a quizzical Mona Lisa-esque beam bookended each episode through a clipped syllabic delivery between seemingly clenched teeth. He would become the iconic narrator that countless baby boomers would not forget, and to this day, Bernard Herrmann’s Twilight Zone theme music is considered synonymous with anything considered weird.
Serling reflects our American town, city and farm right back at us, with all of the daily routines, struggles and dreams, but interrupts our conventional existence with a non–sequitur, or some other incomprehensible act, say, accidental time travel. For instance, three 1963 National Guardsmen on training maneuvers beside the Little Bighorn River are inexplicably sent back to June 25, 1875.
With aspirations of becoming a radio journalist, Private Serling would first need to perform before a hostile Japanese audience in WW II’s Pacific Theater. As a member of the 11th Airborne, the Syracuse, New York native would see combat in the Philippines, earning a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. In the jungle, Serling’s best friend, Corporal Melvin Levy, joked about the fog of war and how you never could tell when or what type of plane would drop supplies. The footsore platoon was at ease beneath a palm tree laughing at Levy, the troop comedian, right up to the moment he was killed by an errant crate of GI allocations dropped by either a Piper Cub or an L-5.
“He (Serling) didn’t know whether to laugh through his tears or cry through his laughter,” writes Joe Engel in his Serling biography, The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in the Twilight Zone. “Here was final confirmation that death is waiting around every corner and that God or good or righteousness or fairness has no say in who lives or dies -not in war, at least, and perhaps not in peace either.”
The preposterous complexities of life and death contributed mightily to Serling’s storytelling, as he manufactured bizarre and enchanting stories with the help of Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, etc. Leavened with creative sensibilities, and groomed by life experience, his meteoric rise to success earned him six Emmy Awards, as he opened countless minds to the living world of imagination. His 1962 teleplay, Requiem for a Heavyweight, is also a drama classic.
Remember the jaw-dropping conclusion to 1967’s The Planet of the Apes? Serling was co-writer.
In 1975, his life was cut short two days after suffering a heart attack while mowing his lawn. He was 50.
The author is a Washington County resident.