Rod Serling was a hot young screenwriter. He needed something to do. Along comes an idea about science fiction, and he ran with it. The result is terrific, though it did not do him as much good as it should have.
|This is William Shatner at his best: "Terror at 20,000 Feet."|
The magic of 'Twilight Zone" is that Serling was there at the beginning of each episode, telling you his story. It was like the Alfred Hitchcock show, but with a more interesting science-fiction premise. Everybody loves a good ghost story, but this series was like a weekly O. Henry collection, always with a twist at the end.
Serling had just the right look - intense, a bit nervous, edgy - for his role. The funny thing is that he looked more effective in stark black and white than he did in color (see "Night Gallery," also a fine show, with Serling not looking as intense, or nervous, or edgy).
|A man who likes to talk, a magic stopwatch.....|
Many themes were hammered over and over and over. Yes, we get it already, things are not always what they seem and we should not take things for granted. Greediness WILL get you in the end (hint: never accept an offer to have three free wishes granted!). Doing bad things will come back to haunt you (especially if you are a former U-Boat captain). Gambling is Bad. So is War. And bosses (was there a single nice boss in the entire series?). And really, really pretty girls. Don't ever wish to just be left alone! Basically, the series said that any attempt to circumvent the norms of 1950s suburbia can be full of all sorts of unpleasant surprises.
|Probably the most famous episode, or in the top two: "To Serve Man."|
While it appeals to all ages, the writing was very adult and intelligent. Sometimes, episodes that you don't appreciate at one point in your life will later suddenly make complete sense. When you are a kid, seeing young Billy Mumy controlling parents, making people disappear and yet having everyone tell him how "good, that's real good" everything he does is seems kind of silly. But what if someday you get thrust into a situation where someone in your life has an utterly spoiled little brat who can't be disciplined and to whom everybody caters to avoid his raging scenes, and your hands are tied and all you can do is watch in horror as the little monster ruins lives....
|You don't need to use gimmicks to get a funky feel.|
One of the interesting facts about the show is that aspects of Serling's own history could have formed a chilling episode. Brilliant screenwriter does television show that exceeds all expectations and makes him a star, but then, full of his own talent and ability, he sells the rights for a song thinking he can just start over and do it again. He winds up almost forgotten at his untimely death teaching at an upstate NY college. Not unlike the tale of the aging plutocrat who gives it all up to the Devil in order to start over in 1910 Indiana but finds that lightning doesn't always strike twice....
|One of my favorite episodes, that is Jack Warden, marooned on a deserted world with one companion.|
Some episodes are dated time-wasters and can be ignored. But many are true classics. Achieving heights of quality is so rare on television that any time it happens it should be treasured, no matter how much dreck surrounded it. Twilight Zone broke new ground and lives on, not least as a great ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando.
|This is from William Shatner's OTHER classic "Twilight Zone" episode. Check out those tailfins! And that car was just an average car on the street in those days.|
Particular moments that stand out: astronaut Roddy McDowall finding out that, indeed, people are the same all over. A woman running toward a line of people waiting for transport that includes her friend, screaming, "It's a cookbook!" And aging convict Jack Warden having to make a terrible decision for love. At its best, the show is not preachy or political, but sincerely human.
|Burgess Meredith.: always be careful what you wish for....|
So, throw out what seems like dozens of "man transported into alternate reality and his life comes apart until and unless he figures out how to return home" episodes and some of the sappier early-1960s-liberalism ones. Instead, focus on the treasures such as "Nightmare at 20,000 feet" and the other classic but little-known William Shatner episode (I'll let you find it yourself, it's definitely worth the trouble). That leaves the best that television can offer. And, given the multitude of other television shows that once were popular but now seem just campy ("Get Smart," anyone?), that is quite an achievement. That's good, Rod, that's real good.