The Five Themes of the Twilight Zone

five-themes-titleThough crafted by many writers, directors and actors of different sensibilities, The Twilight Zone was ultimately united under one—creator/head writer/host Rod Serling’s—vision. Indeed, all the other Twilight Zone writers’ works fall under a set of recurring themes of Serling’s, a syllabus of The Twilight Zone’ s greatest episodes, selected and herein “submitted for your approval...”


“It was the ‘twilight zone’ of the American culture.
It was not English or Japanese or German or anything.
It’s our Twilight Zone.”
— Richard Matheson, 1989

“The Twilight Zone doesn’t only belong to a brief but distinctive epoch in our recent past—it could almost provide that period with a name,” wrote Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman in 1990. “The Twilight Zone defined the shadowy transition between the Fabulous Fifties and the Psychedelic Sixties. The show’s span encompassed the birth of the Space Race, the flowering of the Civil Rights Movement, and the life and death of the New the aspirin-ad angst music, op art patterns and beatnik bongos of the series’ celebrated credit sequence suggest, this historical twilight zone was a time of affluence and anxiety, of suave hysteria with a continual backbeat of crisis.” As author Jonathan (For tress of Solitude) Lethem, writing about Serling on the online magazine Gadfly in 1999 noted, “Just the titles of his best episodes read like a found poem of All-American dread: Where Is Everybody? Walking Distance. People Are Alike All Over. Time Enough At Last. The Obsolete Man. Eye of the Beholder. Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room. The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. The After Hours...”

Rod Serling’s acute ability to identify both primal and post-war American fears and crises, then build stories around them, set in commonplace surroundings—a psycho-American Gothic of sorts—was perhaps the single factor most responsible for the success and longevity of The Twilight Zone.

In “Third From the Sun” and “The Shelter,” Serling zeroed in on the greatest postwar fear, the threat of nuclear war, with the latter depicting suburban neighbors at a dinner party who, after hearing a radio warning that bombing was imminent, degenerate, Lord of The Flies - like, into a raging mob clawing each other over access to the lone fallout shelter—the host’s. This wasn’t your father’s suburban sitcom: “Rarely has any television program dared to present human nature in such an ugly, revealing light,” observed Stephen King in his Danse Macabre.

While both episodes well-predated the October ’62 Cuban Missile Crisis, “Third. . . ” uncannily captured the same armageddon zeitgeist in the nuclear air, as when the teenage daughter of the scientist protagonist (Fritz Weaver, who’s plotting with his test-pilot neighbor to leave the planet with their families before the bombs drop) anxiously murmurs, “Everyone I’ve talked to lately, they’ve been noticing it; that something’s wrong; that something’s in the air; that something’s going to happen—and everybody’s afraid...”

Based on Matheson’s short story, “Third. . . ” also offered a prescient description of what the military-industrial complex would (ironically?) call M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction): “Talk is 48 hours...48 hours, we’ll have them aloft...then whoosh, up, over and whammo! There goes the enemy! Obliterated—finished. And what are they doing in the meantime? Probably retaliating the best way they can. It’s a waste of time, let me tell you. We get the first licks, so they can’t do much...instead of losing 50 million people, we lose only 35...” The episode’s out-of-left-field twist-ending, in which the planet being emigrated to turns out to be earth, third from our sun, King noted, “...marks the point at which many occasional (Twilight Zone) tuners-in became addicts.”

Matheson’s “Little Girl Lost” and Serling’s “It’s a Good Life” (based on a short story by Jerome Bixby) both toy with the destruction of the nuclear family. In the former episode, the little girl in question disappears through a dimensional warp in her bedroom wall, her disembodied voice echoing throughout the split-level home (elaborated by Spielberg into Poltergeist in 1982); in the latter (remade cartoonishly absurdist by director Joe Dante for ‘83’s Twilight Zone: The Movie ), a little boy with supernatural powers (future Lost in Space star Billy Mumy) physically and emotionally cripples the adults around him—surely every parent’s nightmare.

The grotesquery of Nixon-lookalike Don Keefer turned into a life-sized jack-in-the-box is still one of the greatest nightmare-inducers The Twilight Zone ever created.

Recurring nightmares that seem more real than awakened reality are the stuff of Serling’s “Twenty-Two” (based on an anecdote in Bennett Cerf’s Famous Ghost Stories ) and Charles Beaumont’s “Perchance to Dream” (the first of his two definitive Twilight Zone episodes on the nature of dreams; the other, “Shadow Play, ” is in the theme “A Question of Identity”).

The circus and roller coaster dream sequences in “Perchance. . . ” (“It was the kind of place you see only in nightmares—everything warped and twisted out of shape—but it was real, too”), and the initial descent into Room #22, the hospital morgue, are among the most visceral Twilight Zone scenes ever filmed (“Twenty-Two” ’ s even more, as it was shot on videotape, one of six 1960-1 episodes taped in a cost-cutting experiment that produced shows of somewhat negligible quality).

Both episodes feature women in peculiarly powerful, secondary roles that remain mysteriously memorable and utterly modern in tone. In “Perchance. . . , ” Suzanne Lloyd plays the mesmerizing “Maya, the Cat-Girl,” a raven-haired, leopard-skin-clad vixen who tempts Richard Conte’s latent libido—in his nightmare—by dancing an overtly sexual tarantella (especially for ‘59 TV) at the Tunnel of Love, beckoning Conte inside with “...her’s...eyes!” In “Twenty-Two,” Arline Sax is the morgue nurse who recites her malevolent mantra, “Room for one more, honey, ” with a Mona Lisa-like smile and devilish demeanor that is both strangely alluring and utterly repellent — a true Angel of Death.

As do so many Twilight Zones , these episodes suggest the great post-war panacea, modern psychiatry, as a cure-all for their protagonists’ delusions—treatment that fails William Shatner as a recovering mental patient who thinks he sees a gremlin on an airplane wing in Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, ” also remade in Twilight Zone: The Movie by director George (Road Warrior ) Miller, with Shatner’s role reprised by a manic John Lithgow. When Shatner yanks open the window curtain to reveal, pressed against the glass, the full face of the gremlin, the degree of audience identification with his startled reaction more than compensates for the relatively poor costume and makeup of the gremlin itself (which Matheson has never forgiven).

Shatner’s other pre-Star Trek appearance, “Nick of Time” (also written by Matheson), has him again portraying a man struggling to regain control of his life, this time from the grip of a dreary small-town luncheonette’s demonic fortune-telling machine.

Superstition also plays a role in Beaumont’s “The Jungle,” about a particular dread of every New Yorker: crossing Central Park at night! The episode’s grisly final scene ranks as one of The Twilight Zone’s most surreal juxtapositions.

Another urban nightmare—allowing a stranger into your apartment—is the focus of George Clayton Johnson’s third-season “Nothing in the Dark” (though it’s primarily remembered for the co-starring of the unknown Robert Redford), while Serling’s first-season “The Hitch- Hiker ” (based on a radio play by Lucille Fletcher, of the classic “Sorry, Wrong Number”) plays on the fear of picking one up.

Both shows utilize the shopworn character device of “Mr. Death,” but with redeeming Twilight Zone fillips. The young Redford’s matinee idol looks, a harbinger to come, played off perfectly against preconceptions formed by previous Twilight Zone Mr. Deaths—like the one in “The Hitch-Hiker . ” There, a “drab, little nothing of a man” played off against ‘60s beauty Inger Stevens, in the first of her two nuanced Twilight Zone performances (the other, “The Lateness of The Hour,” is in “A Question of Identity”).

The Swedish-born Stevens had “...a sadness hidden in that pretty face” (Bruce Springsteen, “Candy’s Room”), her sorrowful eyes betraying her failed suicide in 1959, while foreshadowing her unfortunate, successful attempt in 1970— which gives “The Hitch-Hiker,” in which we, and Stevens’ character, come to realize she has been dead all along (shades of Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense), a melancholy subtext, much like Douglas Trumbull’s Bra in storm had in 1983, released not long after the sudden death of star Natalie Wood.

In addition to giving young actors like Redford mainstream exposure, Serling also featured a startling number of independent women like Stevens in dramatic starring roles on The Twilight Zone, unheard of at a time when most women pictured on American television were either housewives or comediennes (or, in the case of Lucille Ball, both).

On a par with Steven’s “Hitch-Hiker ” performance is Anne Francis’ in “The After Hours,” because her casting, as a woman who turns out to be a mannequin, is perfect— she actually looks like a human Barbie doll (which, like The Twilight Zone, debuted in 1959 and became an American pop icon overnight, acknowledged as an influence on the plethora of TZ mannequin/doll/dummy episodes by Barbie Bazaar magazine, in its June 2003 issue: “The reason that Twilight Zone still amazes us is the wonder that underlies episodes like ‘The After Hour s , ’ that recall childhood fantasies of dolls and toys coming to life when no one is watching.”) And childhood nightmares, too—witness the whispering of the store mannequins, en masse, “Marsha, come off it!” to a frantic Francis.

“The After Hours ” is one of Serling’s most accessible Twilight Zones—for who has never been afraid of being locked in a department store at night? By tapping into such deep-seated American neuroses, Serling mirrored the anxieties and apprehensions of his audience, as this excerpt from the episode’s closing narration testifies: "Just how normal are we? Just who are the people we nod our hellos to as we pass on the street?"


“The place is here...the time is now...and the journey into the shadows 
that we’re about to watch could be our journey...”
—Rod Serling’s opening narration to 
The Twilight Zone’s pilot episode, “Where is Everybody?,” October 2, 1959

The first words spoken by Rod Serling at the beginning of The Twilight Zone’s first episode not only introduced the concept to an unsuspecting 1959 television audience, but ushered them into what would become “The Sixties,” a question of identity for America itself. Lethem, again: “What Serling created, above all else, was a homegrown vernacular of alienation, identity slippage and paranoia, and he did it right when it most needed doing, when his audience was starved for a vocabulary to express their uneasiness—and he did it on weekly television.”

In “Where is Everybody?,” an amnesiac played by Earl Holliman wanders through a strangely deserted town and decries, “I’ve looked and I haven’t seen anybody a round…maybe they’re all asleep or something, but literally, there hasn’t been a soul,” Serling himself observing the sleeping giant that was America in the Cold War conformity of the Eisenhower Fifties?

A few episodes after “Where is Everybody? ” aired, Serling’s adaptation of a Richard Matheson story, “And When the Sky Was Opened, ” also used the space race as a vehicle to explore the nature of identity—conflating the loss of it with the loss of one’s actual, corporeal self. Following a crash landing back on earth, we watch as, one by one, the three surviving astronauts literally disappear into thin air.

Originally, lead actor Rod Taylor’s disappearing scene “was written as a very painful experience, but I decided to make it a very euphoric experience,” recalled director Douglas Heyes in Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion. “Instead of playing it for terror or agony—everything had been fear up till then, fear of disappearing, fear of the unknown and so forth—I said to Rod Taylor, ‘Let’s play this as if this is the most marvelous thing that’s ever happened.’” Taylor’s ability to fulfill Heyes’ direction so convincingly is just one example of what became a standard on The Twilight Zone: performances so intense and driven that you can see the belief of the unbelievable on actors’ faces, from the sweat naturally beading on their brows to the absolutely crazed look in their eyes.

An actor who believes he is the man he plays discovers, in Matheson’s first-season episode “A World of Difference,” “How thin a line separates that which we assume to be real with that manufactured inside of a mind?,” presaging the later-Sixties psychedelic reaction to life being like a movie, while raising age-old questions about destiny and pre-destiny, about man’s free will in a benevolent or malevolent universe. An ur-Twilight Zone episode, with actor Howard Duff giving one of those stark-ravingly believable performances.

Similar to Richard Long’s in “Person or Persons Unknown, ” Charles Beaumont’s sister episode to “...Difference,” which posits the paradox, “What would you do if, all of a sudden, everybody started telling you, you weren’t you?”—Beaumont’s take on Serling’s worst fear of all, “...the fear of the unknown working on you,” as Serling once described, “which you cannot share with others.”

Though convicted murderer Dennis Weaver (in one of the epitomes of these tense Twilight Zone performances) tries to share his recurring nightmare of electrocution to his fellow death-row inmates in the aptly-titled “Shadow Play” (the second of Beaumont’s two great Twilight Zone episodes about the nature of dreams), beseeching anyone who’ll listen that they, too, are all part of his dream, it is to no avail—he is condemned to walk the last mile every night.

Writer/Director Cameron Crowe was so beholden to “Shadow Play” that he had it playing on the Jumbotron in a totally deserted Times Square (save for a panicked Tom Cruise) during the opening scene of his 2001 film Vanilla Sky (itself a remake of a ’97 Spanish film, Open Your Eyes ), which deals with similar themes acted out in the twilight zone between dream and reality, as Beaumont concluded: “We exist, of course, but how? In what way? As we believe, as flesh and blood human beings?”

In “A World of His Own, ” Matheson’s lighter-hearted sister episode to his own “A World of Difference, ”a writer brings his characters to flesh and blood life, exclaiming to his disbelieving wife, “Fictional characters come alive! They come alive so vividly that they make decisions of their own! A playwright may have worked out some kind of move for them, but they refuse to do it! They become so strong that sometimes they take over the whole story!” The last episode of the landmark first season, “A World. . . ” was based on Serling himself, who similarly dictated his scripts into a tape recorder, and featured his first on-screen Twilight Zone appearance—but at the end of the episode (Serling’s now iconically-familiar on-screen introductions began with The Twilight Zone’ s second season in the fall of ‘60).

The concept of characters coming alive is taken to an ironic, horrific extreme in Serling’s “The Dummy, ” based on an unpublished story by Lee Polk, unarguably the archetypal version of every ventriloquist’s nightmare, easily besting the films that bookend it, Dead of Night (1945) and Magic (1978), as well as the darkhorse TV candidate, Alfred Hitchcock Presents ’ “The Glass Eye” (1957)

Though Cliff Robertson provided one of his two great Twilight Zone star turns (see “A Hundred Yards Over The Rim” in the theme “The Time Element”) as the ventriloquist Jerry Etherson, it is the giddy, grating voice of the dummy, Willy (voiced by Robertson himself), berating Robertson relentlessly—“ Jerry, you stupid jerk!”—that gives “The Dummy” its creepy power. Not to slight its ending, of course, when Robertson and the dummy switch places—for real, yet another surreal Twilight Zone juxtaposition that burns itself into your brain forever.

Dummies, doppelgangers, duplicates—The Twilight Zone was rife with them. Serling’s “Mirror Image” is concerned with “…different planes of existence, about two parallel worlds that exist side by side; and each of us has a counterpart in this world, and sometimes…this counterpart comes into our world…” Taking place in a nondescript bus station, peopled by drab figures immobile in the stark Americana like an Edward Hopper painting brought to life, “Mirror Image” is the most Hitchkockian of Twilight Zones—the suspense as palpable as the rain that beats down throughout the episode.

Vera Miles, who would go on to co-star in Hitchcock’s Psycho, gives the female equivalent of the intense Twilight Zone performance, dominated by male leads in this essay, her eyes glazing over as she unravels before our eyes to co-star Martin Milner (who would gain ‘60s TV fame as one-half of the Adam 12 duo in 1968.

“Mirror Image” would also be an apropos title for Serling’s “The Masks,” because, to the four characters wearing them, they mirrored not their carefully coifed external appearances, but their shallow, insensitive, grotesque inner selves. The only Twilight Zone episode directed by a woman, the actress Ida Lupino (star of the first-season “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shr ne” ), “The Masks” takes us to New Orleans during the Mardi Gras, where family members are gathered around their dying patriarch with feigned concern. In keeping with the carnival atmosphere, he forces them to wear the grotesque masks he has selected for them— the “opposite” of the way they see themselves—if they want their estimable inheritances; of course, “be careful what you wish for” was one of The Twilight Zone’ s most reliable rubrics. “You’re caricatures , ” the old man gasps at his miserable masked offspring with his last breath. As they doff their masks, they realize, to their (and our) utter horror, he was right: their faces have been permanently misshapen into the masks they were wearing: their true faces. “Without your masks , you’re caricatures!”


“Where are we? What are we? Who are we?” cry out the “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” Serling’s adaptation of Marvin Petal’s “The Depository,” an allusion to both the title of Pirandello’s famous play, Six Characters in Search of an Author and the one-set existentialist tract No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre (in which “Hell is other people”), with a soupcon of Eugene Ionesco’s Theater of the Absurd. Trapped in an absurdist, circular conundrum—literally—the five characters’ answers become metaphors for the nature of identity and existence, making this existential and surreal story, with the tense interplay between Billy (later William) Windom’s macho “Major” and Murray Matheson’s effeminate “Clown” adding a subtextual, sexual frisson to this, the most didactic, and dialectic, episode of The Twilight Zone—or any series in television history—and the blueprint, along with most of the episodes in “A Question of Identity,” for the similarly themed Patrick McGoohan ‘60s-centric TV series The Prisoner and the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy.

“Five Characters...”’s surprise ending segues right into Jerry Sohl’s “Living Doll,” where Telly Savalas’ stepfather, in an ahead-of-its-time portrait of a precarious second marriage (when TV projected only secure nuclear families), grapples with such a thing, voiced by the legendary June Foray (of Rocky the Squirrel and a thousand and one other cartoon characters): “ I’m Talky Tina and I’m going to kill you!” Based on Mattel’s “Chatty Cathy” doll of the era, Tina’s malevolent mischievousness eventually crossgendered into the Chucky film franchise.

Sevalas’ gradual belief in Talky Tina’s truth is akin to Inger Stevens’ dawning acceptance of her own true nature in Serling’s “The Lateness of the Hour,” the second of Stevens’ two superb Twilight Zone performances, and the first TZ episode of six to be videotaped. Though uneven in quality, “The Lateness...,” due to Stevens’ compelling presence, manages to rise above most of them.

“The Lonely, ” by Serling, is Jack Warden, a convict serving his life sentence in solitary on a remote prison planet, who, in a gesture of compassion by the authorities, is given a female robotic companion, played by Jean Marsh (later of the British TV hit Upstairs , Downstairs ). Though Warden loses himself in her life-likeness, in the end, he is left alone, bitterly questioning his own—human—identity: “Reality’s what I need because what is there left that I can believe in? The desert and the wind? The silence? Or myself?”


“ I shot an arrow into the air
It landed I know not where
Nursery rhyme for the Age of Space”
—Rod Serling, “I Shot An Arrow Into the Air,” 1960

Rod Serling’s attitude toward the Space Race of The Sixties was evident in The Twilight Zone’ s science fiction episodes: space ships usually never reach their destinations, or crash land if they do. By failing to solve our moral and ethical problems here on earth, Serling implied in episodes like “ I Shot an Ar row Into the Air ” and “People Are Alike All Over , ” we’ll never get to where we want to go—anticipating the platform of all antispace advocates since. The chain of compromises and human failings that led to the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster proved the relevancy of Serling’s warnings.

As “promised” to Mike Wallace, Serling utilized the science fiction genre as a front for his more personal, serious themes (much as Roddenberry would later do in Sta r Trek) in episodes like “People. . . , ” writing against prejudice and racism on earth/America thinly disguised as a plea for interplanetary understanding, when an astronaut, crash-landed on Mars, speaks, with his dying breath, Serling’s best poetic dialogue:

”People are alike all over
I’m sure that when God made human beings
He developed them from a fixed formula
As long as they’ve got minds and heart s
That means they have souls
That makes them people
And people are alike”

His surviving astronaut partner does find out, to his chagrin, that people, whether on earth or other planets, were indeed alike, in their capacity for evil as well as good.

Serling perceived that the benign quest into space nevertheless carried with it the destructive imperialist desire to invade and conquer. This need to subjugate others brings on the downfall and comeuppance of a delusional, demagogic astronaut who lords over a race of microscopic, earth-like aliens in “The Little People, ” as well as the leader of stranded space colonists in “On Thur sda y We Leave for Home” (Serling’s best one-hour episode from the Spring 1963 season), who finds that, upon rescue from years of isolation, he can’t navigate freedom better than captivity; though a leader, he can’t let his people go. Left alone in a cave, deluded, thinking he’s still addressing his flock that has long departed, the actor James Whitmore recites some of Serling’s most beautiful lines, as much about his character remembering his home planet as it was Serling nostalgically recalling his childhood in Binghamton:

”I remember the earth
I remember it as a place of color
I remember that in the autumn the leaves changed
Turned different colors
Red, orange, gold
I remember streams of water that f owed down hill sides
And the water was sparkling and clear
I remember clouds in the sky
White billowy things
Floated like ships, like sails
And I remember night skies like endless black velvet
Night was a quiet time when the earth went to sleep
Kind of like a cover that it pulled over it self
It was a darkness that felt like a cool hand just brushed back tired eyes
And there was snow on the winter nights, gossamer stuff
Floated down and covered the earth
Made it all white and cool
And it was good then
It was right ”

The supersized sun scorching the desert planet colonists in “On Thursday. . . ” was reminiscent of Serling’s “The Midnight Sun” from The Twilight Zone’ s previous season, transplanted to New York City and set to boiling—literally. As the earth has inexplicably shifted in orbit and is gradually approaching the sun, two female neighbors struggle to survive against the inevitable doom staring at them through their apartment windows. “The Midnight Sun” is yet another female-centric script by Serling; that the younger woman (the fine actress Lois Nettleton) happens to be an artist, attempting to make sense of their predicament through painting, adds an unexpected, modernist touch. The episode’s ending—in which we come to find that yes, it was all a dream, but the earth has indeed changed its orbit: it’s moving away from the sun—plays like a defacto adaptation of the renowned EC comics of the early ‘50s: tight morality plays that climax in abrupt reversals in perspective.

Richard Matheson’s episode with this device turns the tables on “The Invader's” by making them “the little people.” Agnes Moorehead’s dialogueless, mimetic performance as a farmwoman terrorized by tiny, mysterious figures, is a tour de force—according to director Doug Heyes, she had actually studied with the legendary mime Marcel Marceau years earlier.

Matheson later remade the episode as “Amelia,” part of a 1975 made-for-TV movie, Trilogy of Terror, starring Karen Black (fresh from her star turn in the film sequel Airport ’75) being chased around her New York City apartment by a truly frightening, knife-wielding “Zuni fetish doll.”

Matheson’s best one-hour effort, “Death Ship,” though similar to the Ray Bradbury story, “Mars is Heaven,” is still ur-Twilight Zone—it viscerally visualizes one of the most surreal, creepiest conundrums imaginable: confronting one’s own dead body. As one of three astronauts doing just that, Ross Martin (later of the cult ‘60s TV show The Wild, Wild West), during a very vivid hallucination placing him back on earth, greets his young daughter—who, in reality, had died years before. His utter joy upon seeing her alive again is Ross’ hat into the ring of raw, riveting Twilight Zone performances.

The notion that “the invaders,” by the very definition of the term, could be anything but benign, is found in the ironically-titled “To Serve Man, ” to wit: “As a race we’re unaccustomed to charity; brutality is a far more universal language to us than an expression of friendship form outer space.” Written by Serling from a short story by Damon Knight, “To Serve Man” is one of the best-remembered Twilight Zone episodes for its supreme punch-line ending; its reverberations would echo years later in the ‘80s NBC sci-fi TV series (and current ABC remake) V, while giant-sized actor Richard Kiel, the alien “Kanamit”—a pun on “cannibal”— went on to ‘70s pseudo-stardom as the villainous “Jaws” in a few of the Roger Moore James Bond films.

Serling’s first-season “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” also details aliens’ deceptive manipulations of earthmen’s fear and greed to further their conquest. The forerunner of Serling’s third-season “The Shelter ” (see “Suburban Nightmares”), “The Monsters . . . ” too unravels once-friendly neighbors into an animalistic mob, following mysterious blackouts of electricity on their block. The sun falls and the episode becomes a kind of proto-Night of The Living Dead as they metaphorically eat each other alive—an equally-scabrous indictment of paranoid McCarthyism, the epitome of the “we have met the enemy and they are us” approach: “They pick the mos t dangerous enemy they can find, and it’ s themselves , ” Serling concludes, and speaking for the invading aliens as well as the Twilight Zone viewing audience, “All we need to do is s it back and watch.”


“Clocks are made by men; God creates time”
—Richard deRoy, from Rod Serling’s closing narration to
“Ninety Yea r s Without Slumber ing, ” 1963

The time element was a cornerstone of The Twilight Zone, a dimension Serling described as “timeless as infinity.”

“The Time Element” was a precursor to The Twilight Zone, an episode of Desilu Pla yhous e’ s 1958 season that Serling, by then a triple-Emmy Award-winning television playwright, expanded from his own radio play. The hour-long drama, about a man (veteran actor William Bendix) who believes he has gone back in time to the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor, received more mail than any other Pla yhous e that year, prompting CBS to commission a pilot for what became The Twilight Zone. Once in The Zone, Serling & Co. would continue to explore time and its discontents.

A strong case can be made for Serling’s first-season “Walking Distance” being not only the best time-travel episode of the series, but the best episode of The Twilight Zone, period. Everything about it is literally note-perfect, from Serling’s beautifully-worded script, full of an aching, nostalgic longing for his own childhood...

“I had been living in a dead run
And one day I knew I had to come back here
I had to come back and get on a merry-go-round
And eat cotton candy
And listen to band concerts
I had to stop and breathe and close my eyes and smell and listen” Gig Young’s sensitive performance as Serling’s stand-in, photographed for posterity by Twilight Zone Director of Photography George T. Clemens in a series of arresting, character-revealing close-ups; from the subtle direction by Robert Stevens (whose only other Twilight Zone was “Where is Everybody? ” ), featuring a special effects-free through-the-looking-glass entry back in time and an incredibly stylized carousel climax, to Bernard Herrmann’s truly haunting score, a wistful whine of strings that underscores all the yearning and melancholy associated with the futile quest to recapture youth. “Walking Distance” has subsequently become the benchmark against which a ll such time-travel television shows and films—Back to the Future, Big, Peggy Sue Gets Married, The Time Traveler’s Wife—are measured. But never bettered.

“The Trouble With Templeton” was TV writer-producer (Dr . Kilda ire, Police Story) E. Jack Neuman’s single Twilight Zone episode—but a classic. Aging stage actor Booth Templeton goes back in time 33 years—“Yesterday and its memories is what he wants,” Serling narrates—and is startled to see his longed-for wife and best friend in a speakeasy actors’ hangout—“And yesterday is what he’ll get,” Serling warns. What follows is one of The Twilight Zone’ s most stunningly written, staged, lit and choreographed sequences, in which we find out that everyone in the speakeasy had been “acting” for Templeton, turning what had been a somewhat sentimental exercise (perhaps Neuman’s take on “Walking Distance” ? ) into something more tragic and true.

“Escape Clause” is Serling’s contribution to the Faustian soul-selling-to-the-devil genre, in this case in exchange for immortality. As usual, the seller gets less than he bargained for: “Immortality—what’s the good of it? There isn’t any kicks, any excitement!” bemoans David Wayne in a manic performance that, along with the devilish irony of Serling’s ending, makes this the best of the more lighthearted Twilight Zone episodes.

Playing off the ubiquity of the TV westerns that glutted the era’s primetime schedules, Serling’s “A Hundred Ya rds Over the Rim” transports its protagonist (Cliff Robertson) forward in time to confront the modern frontier. Another example, like “Walking Distance, ” of time travel without special effects, as Robertson simply goes over a rim in the desert and through time.

The leader of the “Rip Van Winkle” gang, Oscar Beregi, does a second Twilight Zone star turn as a leader of a different gang, a Nazi concentration-camp commandant come to revisit an old haunt, Dachau, in Serling’s polemical “Death’s-Head Revisited.” Airing in November ’61, months after the trial began in Israel of the Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann (but a month before he was sentenced to death), Serling puts his proxy- Eichmann through trial by Twilight Zone , delivering cathartic release by driving Beregi’s SS Captain insane with hallucinatory visions of the striped-pajama’d, skeletal ghosts of the prisoners he slaughtered years before.

Just like the 1959 episode “Time Enough at Last” (see the theme “Obsolete Man”) was America’s first televised look at The Day After the bombs drop, “Dea th’ s -Head. . . ” must have been, for many, their first exposure in primetime TV to a Holocaust-themed dramatization (the film version of The Dia ry of Anne Frank preceded it by two years, the novel The Pawnbroker came out the same year, the Sidney Lumet film of it, starring Rod Steiger, four years away). A prime example of a subject Serling could never have gotten through intact in the ‘50s, but was able to in The Twilight Zone.

Returning to the suspended animation device, “The Long Mor row” is a sequel of sorts to The Twilight Zone’s pilot episode; the isolation tank-testing that the astronaut-in training hallucinates through in “Where is Everybody?” was intended to prepare him for isolation in deep space—“the long morrow.” This episode’s spaceman embarks on his journey, but not before he lets affairs of the heart cloud his mission, and, as usual in The Twilight Zone, things don’t turn out as planned.

Teetering on the edge of soap opera, this is another beautifully-worded script by Serling, evidenced in this interior monologue describing the state of suspended animation: “It’s not just the long deep sleep that comes when the fear has left…the cold is felt…the slipping away of feeling is noted and succumbed to. The mind functions…time is distorted, jumbled, telescoped, accordioned&helip;but there is a sense of time, even so…” Even bad makeup doesn’t ruin the poignant sorrow of the episode’s climax.

Which, with the age, and gender, of the couples’ roles reversed, is similar in pathos to that of Serling’s “The Trade- Ins , ” a cousin to the Twilight Zone episode “Number Twelve Looks Jus t Like You” (in “Obsolete Man”) about an elderly couple who may have the opportunity to trade in their old bodies for young ones—if they can afford it.

An offbeat addition to “The Time Element” is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a short French film adaptation of an 1886 Ambrose Bierce short story that won first prize at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, bought and repackaged as a Twilight Zone episode to bring the final ’63-64 season in under budget. A terse tale of a Civil War Confederate spy’s last moments before—and after—his execution, “An Occurrence...” both hews to the Twilight Zone twist-ending formula and forecasts the 1990 film Jacob’ s Ladder, which transferred the setting to the Vietnam War. Exposure as a Twilight Zone episode enabled “An Occurrence...” to win an Oscar in 1964, fitting tribute to one of the many past masters who helped shape Serling’s timeless classic.


“ I am a human being! I exist!
And if I speak one thought aloud,
That thought lives!”
—Rod Serling, “The Obsolete Man,” 1961

Invariably, when Rod Serling’s name is brought up, The Twilight Zone comes to mind a lot faster and more often than “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “Patterns,” or any of his other live dramas from the Golden Age of Television; yet many of the themes Serling would later clothe in fantasy and illusion in The Twilight Zone were first explored in those ‘50s teleplays. His most recurring theme—alienation of the individual through bigotry, prejudice, racism, and corporate and technological oppression—was that of the “Obsolete Man.”

Serling’s breakthrough, the Emmy-winning “Patterns ” (1955), was a Death of a Salesman -inspired indictment of grey-flannelled Babbitry, with new kid on the corporate block Richard Kiley knocking heads with CEO Everett Sloane over over-the-hill exec Ed Begley, the “obsolete man” in this story.

Serling returned to this milieu years later in The Twilight Zone with “A Stop at Willoughby,” starring James Daly as a harried adman tired of the rat race, pummeled by his boss’ daily harangue, “This is a push business! A push-push-push business! Push and drive! All the way! All the time! Right on down the line!” Daly’s response, feebly admitted to his ultra-materialist shrew of a wife, would become a familiar refrain of the Sixties’ counterculture:

“Some people aren’ t built for competition.
Or big pretentious houses they can’ t afford.
Or rich communities they don’ t feel comfortable in.
Or country clubs they wear a round their neck like a badge of status.”

Seeking refuge in “Willoughby,” a turn-of-the-century haven that exists only in his mind, Daly steps off his train—to his death. “Turn on, tune in, and drop out,” indeed.

Another sensitive outcast was bookworm Henry Bemis, played by Burgess Meredith, in Serling’s “Time Enough at Last. ” His obsession, like Daly’s, for quietude far from the maddening crowd, saves his life when he sequesters himself alone in a bank vault to read, leaving him the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust (the first fictional visualization of the aftermath of an atomic bomb on American television, and one of the all-time greatest set designs in TV history); it also figures in his downfall. The abrupt, downbeat tone of the ending—Meredith accidentally breaking his glasses, remarkably pessimistic even for Serling (though it was an adapted from a short story by LynnVenable) —accounts for the high esteem this episode is held in today.

Happy endings were not usually Twilight Zone’s forte, especially in the works of Serling’s other writers. Like Richard Matheson’s “Steel, ” in which newly-minted movie star Lee Marvin (‘62’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ) is the titular manager of a robotic prizefighter (the year is 1974; boxing by humans had been abolished in ’68) who must pose as one because of technical difficulties with his mechanical charge. Steel, a former prizefighter, fights against both his robot’s obsolescence and his own, thinking he still has the right stuff to beat “The Maynard Flash,” his android opponent—man versus machine in Matheson’s métier.

Against the vehement advice of his partner trainer, Steel steps into the ring, ghastly and garish in makeup meant to make Marvin’s already grim visage even more mechanical looking—but to no avail, as he is promptly beaten bloody in a bout staged wonderfully well, particularly the almost-humanlike movements of the robot, terrifying in its relentless, Terminator -like onslaught. If there were ever to be prizefighting robots who resembled humans, they'd definitely look much like the way longtime Twilight Zone makeup man William Tuttle conceived them, poker faces of synthetic flesh with eyes as dead and black as a shark’s, riding that perfect line between fantasy and reality that The Twilight Zone, of course, traveled best.

From boxing to billiards we go, to George Clayton Johnson’s “A Game of Pool, ” which poses the question: can there be obsolescence in victory as well as defeat? Coincidentally airing less than three weeks after the strikingly similar film The Hus tler debuted (9/25/61), with Paul Newman playing the titular hero against Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats, “ . . .Pool” pits Jack Klugman (tied with Burgess Meredith for most Twilight Zone appearances, four), against the great comedian and entertainer Jonathan Winters as “Fats Brown.”

Winters plays Brown with a dignity belying his jovial girth, a reserved resignation borne from years of having to face off against upstarts like Jesse Cardiff (Klugman), just as a wild west gunslinger had to draw against any cock of the walk. Cardiff does finally beat Brown, but finds winning isn’t everything; it is indeed—as he’ll spend the rest of eternity learning—the only thing.

Johnson got the chance to remake this episode for one of the recent Twilight Zone syndicated television incarnations, based on his original script, in which the supernatural ending of the ’61 episode is eliminated, and Cardiff, rather than go to that great pool room in the sky, instead loses to Brown and lives to play again. Like a ll the Twilight Zone remakes over the years, it is unarguable that the original episode remains, forever, the better.

In the tale whose title inspired this theme, “The Obsolete Man” by Serling, Burgess Meredith somewhat reprises his “Time Enough. . . ” Bemis role more seriously, this time as a librarian in the near future, aptly-named Wordsworth, who is condemned to death by the fascistic Chancellor of “The State,” fellow Twilight Zone alum Fritz Weaver (“Third from the Sun” ), with the utterly memorable monotone mantra, “YOU-ARE-OBSOLETE.” Against outsized German Expressionist sets, “The Obsolete Man” suggests Kafka’s The Trial (though it predates Orson Welles’ ’62 film adaptation by a year) as might’ve been rewritten by Ayn Rand. If a little strident, the episode’s nevertheless the best expression of Serling’s Orwellian worldview:

“History teaches us a great deal. We had predecessor s who had the
beginnings of the right idea : Hitler , of course; Stalin, too. But their error
was not one of excess—it was simply not going far enough. Too many
undesirables were left a round, and undesirables eventually form a core of
resistance. Old people, for example, clutch at the past and won’t accept
the new. The sick, the maimed, and the deformed—they fasten onto the
healthy body and damage it. So we eliminate them. They can perform no 
useful function for The State, so we put an end to them.”

Serling makes the political personal when, in a rare mid -episode Twilight Zone twist, Wordsworth turns the tables on The State and forces an eleventh-hour sudden-death stalemate with The Chancellor, live on State-run television—reality TV years ahead of its time.

Climaxing in the most stagelike mise-en-scene of any Twilight Zone, The State’s two-dozen drones surround the now-obsolete Chancellor, to the sound of the B-side of their “OBSOLETE” chant, a buzzing drone that increases in intensity until, in a bizarre (even for The Twilight Zone ) bacchanalia, they pounce on the pleading man and—beat him? Eat him?

The episode’s closing narration, atypically delivered on-camera by Serling, also achieves relevancy in light of subsequent events in global politics, from Tiananmen Square to the fall of the Berlin Wall to the streets of Tehran:

"Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth,
the dignity, the rights of man—that state is obsolete.”

Obsolete, maybe, but until then, still in power, clamping down on all those who refuse to conform—even to standards of physical beauty. The sister episodes “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” (written by John Tomerlin) and Serling’s “Eye of The Beholder ” share this theme.

“Number Twelve. . . ” boasts a number of touches that illuminate much more beyond the confines of the story’s setting, a futuristic hospital where patients cheerfully undergo “The Transformation” into vacuous lookalikes (prefiguring The Stepford Wives, the book and the movie, by a decade): naming the doomed heroine “Marilyn” (Monroe died a year and a half earlier) and her girlfriend, a proto-Valley Girl, “Val” (who recites the State anthem, “Life is pretty/Life is fun/ I am a ll/And a ll is one!” ); Val’s recreational drug of choice, “Instant Smile”; the casting of the real-life Supermodel of the day (1963),

Suzy Parker, as Val’s mother; the suggestion, when mom’s maid is condescended to—despite her same Parker supermodel looks—that class differences will always trump physical differences; the original mid-program commercial for “Thrill” dish detergent that (coincidentally?) offers women “a new pair of hands”; and Serling’s concluding, clairvoyant voiceover: “Portrait of a young lady in love—with her s elf. Improbable? Perhaps. But in an age of plastic surgery, body building and an infinity of cosmetics, let us hesitate to say impossible.”/p>

In “Eye of The Beholder,” Serling takes the age-old adage about beauty and gives it such a thorough Twilight Zone treatment that it remains the series’ quintessential episode. When it was originally telecast in 1960, chances are the bandaged Janet Tyler (another strong Serling female lead), considered hideously ugly and threatened with segregation with those of “her own kind” if her (eleventh!) plastic surgery failed, was seen as Serling’s poster child for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement; but since then, the generic hospital setting and talk of quarantining those “similarly afflicted” reeks of AIDS-era ignorance, while the rant by the “Leader” about conforming to society’s norms not only parallels Serling’s own struggles with the censors, but foretells the culture wars waged ever since:

“It is essential in this society that we not only have a norm, but that we
conform to that norm! Conformity we must worship and hold sacred!
Conformity is the key to survival!”

The script is a hallmark of Serling’s style: strong on theme, poetic dialogue, morality, and suspense, capped by a truly unforgettable ending. The deft direction by Douglas Heyes and stunning camerawork by George T. Clemens, meant to obscure the doctors’ and nurses’ pig-like faces (the masterworks of William Tuttle) until the end, are nothing if not artistically audacious. And Maxine Stuart, playing the bandaged Tyler (the revealed Tyler was Donna Douglas, soon to be Elly May Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies ), had to act with her hand gestures and voice only—and created a performance for the ages.

“Eye of the Beholder,” Serling’s message of tolerance and compassion, finally reveals that we are all Janet Tylers beneath our bandages, faceless and invisible to a society that would prefer nothing more than to render our individuality…obsolete.

“These men wrote about life. And about the dignity of the human spirit. And about love” —John Tomerlin, “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” 1964.
“The strange and wondrous mysticism That is a simple act of living” —Rod Serling, “Mr. Bevis,” 1960.

The Twilight Zone is a legacy that continues to teach, entertain, and inspire; it is a measure of that legacy that Rod Serling was able to surmount the obstacles inherent in a commercial medium like television to touch more peoples’ imaginations with more ideas of lasting impact than any American (television?) writer of our time.

“As long as people talk about you, you’re not really dead. As long as they speak your name, you continue. A legend doesn’t die just because the man does” —George Clayton Johnson, “A Game of Pool,” 1961.

Dedicated to Rod Serling