Welcome back to the graveyard. But today, we’re venturing past the cemetery gates into someplace new. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of a mind. A world between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his imagination. Today, we examine the television classic that is Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.
Rod Serling grew up as a fan of pulp magazines. But as an adult, he was fascinated by stories about heavier topics- society, racism, government, and human nature itself. Prior to the creation of Zone, Serling was already a major television name, having written several dramas, but also criticizing the limitations TV forced upon him (such as not being to discuss current events in his political drama The Arena). Eventually, Serling was able to produce a special called The Time Element, which dealt with a man’s dreams of time travel becoming real. The special was well received, and Serling was able to work out a deal with CBS to create an anthology series. Serling himself hosted each episode, and wrote or adapted most of the stories, which in general were science fiction, but usually functioned on commentary on humanity and the issues of the day. Fueled by tales from sci-fi writers like Ray Bradbury, George Mattheson, and Charles Beaumont, the original series ran for five seasons, producing 156 episodes, two reboot series, and a film.
What Writers Can Learn- Short Story Writing, Commentary
One of the reasons Twilight Zone has lasted for so long is that it is an endless generator of stories. Being an anthology, each episode brought in new characters, new plots and new devolpments. While this obviously made the writers constantly seek out new material, it also meant they weren’t bound by any rules concerning continuity, and could do what they wanted each week. Not only did this allow for them to bring various authors to contribute, it also let them take different scenarios and topics, all while staying under the umbrella of the Zone. So for writers interested in short stories, this is of one of TV’s best examples of different stories that can function as a whole- the basis of all great short story collections.
However, the stories themselves are what gives Twilight Zone its staying power. As mentioned before, Serling had an interest in stories with consequences, and his show proved that even the best sci-fi and horror could still have a point for readers. There are countless examples of Serling’s messages, but for the sake of brevity, we will list a few classics.
- The Monsters are on Maple Street- a neighborhood block is cut off from the town, and as the power blinks on and off, neighbors accuse and turn on each other. But it is all a plot by aliens, to show how easily humans panic and how simple it will be to divide and conquer.
- It’s a Good Life- a town is terrorized by a monster- a freckle faced eight year old boy, with the power to read minds and force unspeakable horrors onto anyone he chooses.
- One For The Angels- a less then stellar salesman manages to outwit Death, but when another is chosen to take his place, he has to make the sale of a lifetime to take his spot back.
- Death’s Head Revisited- a former SS officer returns to Dachau to recall his ‘glory days.’ But he is tormented and killed by the ghosts of the inmates.
- Four O’Clock- a paranoid man claims to have built a device that will shrink the evil of the world to nothing. But at the chime of the hour, only the man vanishes.
- The Changing of the Guard- an elderly English professor is forced into retirement, and feeling his life had no meaning, decides to kill himself. But he is visited by the spirits of former students, who assure him that his lessons made them into better men.
- He’s Alive- the leader of a small neo-Nazi group is visited by a shadow that shows him how to enthrall a crowd. The leader thinks himself invincible, but he is shot by the police after committing murder- and the familiar, mustached shadow leaves to find another candidate.
There are several more episodes of the original Twilight Zone to look through for inspiration, running the full range of moral science fiction. Those interested in more modern tellings would do well to examine the show’s underrated 1980’s revival (though the late 2000’s revival is generally inferior for fans). Serling’s work can also be seen on the similar minded Night Gallery which focused on horror and fantasy with Serling again acting as host and script contributor. So enter into the Zone but remember the graveyard will still be here next week for one last tale.