Sept. 16, 2002
-- In the original pilot for The Twilight Zone
, writer Rod Serling came up with an interesting idea. What if a man from 1958 kept waking up in Hawaii on Dec. 6, 1941, the day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor? What if he tried to warn everybody of the coming disaster? And what if nobody listened?
"The Time Element" was written when Serling was still just in college, but it included many of the elements that later episodes of The Twilight Zone
would come to exemplify. Mind-bending twists, lonely or confused characters in unfamiliar surroundings, and maybe most importantly, internal commentary on the way these characters deal with the strange situations in which they find themselves. Serling rewrote his early script and sent it to CBS as a potential pilot, but the network tossed the concept onto the shelf.
For Morning Edition
, NPR's Lynn Neary
reports that this just wasn't the kind of story that the network knew how to handle. For Present at the Creation
, NPR's series on the origins of cultural icons, Neary looks at how Serling used a little ingenuity to sneak material like this past the censors -- managing to get under the skin of the American public while he did it.
After "The Time Element" finally aired on the Desilu Playhouse in 1958 and garnered an enormous viewer response, CBS ordered a new Twilight Zone
pilot. But this one, titled "The Happy Place," about a community that sends its elderly members off to the titular camp for extermination, didn't exactly score with executives either. So Serling sat down and hammered out a third version of the pilot. "Where Is Everybody?" concerned the mounting fears of a man who finds himself alone in a town inhabited by nobody.
"I remember," says Earl Holliman, who starred as that lonely protagonist, "walking into the jail and the door starts closing behind me and the water's running in the sink. I mean, I remember feeling a sense of the fear of not understanding, and what the hell is going on here?"
Even before he began work on The Twilight Zone
, Serling was a well-respected television writer with a flair for dramatic and topical scripts. He had won three Emmy awards for dramas such as Requiem for a Heavyweight
, but as his widow Carolyn recalls, he was interested in telling stories that reflected his views on the America he saw around him.
But he met some resistance from the networks. One of his pre-Twilight Zone
teleplays was based on the story of Emmett Till, a young black man lynched in the South. Sponsors balked at the idea of advertising alongside something so provocative, and the network revised the script before it could hit the air, turning the victim into an old man in the East.
Frustrated with the reaction of the network, Serling came up with a creative solution. Instead of tossing up issue-laden scripts like softballs that executives could easily hammer out of the park, he would fire his controversy under their radar, disguised as harmless fantasy.
"He had said, 'You know, you can put these words into the mouth of a Martian and get away with it,'" remembers Carolyn Serling. "If it was a Republican or Democrat they couldn't say it. I mean, he wanted to deal with the issues of the day. We're looking at bigotry, racism, prejudice, nuclear war, ethics, witch-hunts, loneliness. All of these things were verboten."
Serling knew he could use the more fantastic elements of science fiction to address the issues that plagued America without setting off alarm bells under the caps of cautious network executives. Even as he prepared to launch the series, Serling insisted that the new show -- as far as divisive content was concerned -- would be business as usual for the networks.
"Somebody asked me the other day if this means that I'm going to be a meek conformist," Serling said in an interview with Mike Wallace just before The Twilight Zone
hit the airwaves. "My answer is no. I'm acting the role of a tired non-conformist."
This was Serling's way of soothing a nervous -- and very powerful -- audience. But for Serling, ever the thoughtful writer, the particular phrasing of that response was telling. He was, in fact, creating the illusion of non-confrontation. And it worked.
"I think he's deliberately saying, 'I'm not going to do anything controversial,' so he would be allowed to be subversive in his writing in a subtle way," says Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion
. "Prior to that, science fiction shows on television were kid's stuff and they weren't a powerful tool of the author's voice."
All that changed once The Twilight Zone
was beamed to television sets across America. Over the course of five seasons and 156 episodes, Serling managed to tackle serious issues from ideals of beauty to paranoia and civil strife, from fear of death to the dangers of technology. And all within a relatively new medium that didn't even realize it was ready to address such themes. Unlikely? Impossible? It might seem like a minor miracle, but it actually happened. And all within the realm of The Twilight Zone
Listen to an Oct. 2, 1999, Weekend Edition
interview with Marc Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion
, on the TV show's 40th anniversary
Read a Present at the Creation
report on Star Trek
Search for more NPR reports on science fiction
The Fifth Dimension
is a comprehensive Twilight Zone
fan site that includes an episode guide, script archive, photo galleries and flubs.
Pete's Twilight Zone
, another fan site, offers episode and cast lists of the original series as well as the 1983 film, Twilight Zone: The Movie
The Rod Serling Memorial Foundation
features news, information, photos and memorabilia related to The Twilight Zone
Read about "The Time Element
," which aired on CBS on Nov. 25, 1958, and led to the creation of The Twilight Zone
series. See a clip
from "The Time Element."
Listen to sound clips
from The Twilight Zone
at the Rod Serling Sound Collection.
Read a biography of Rod Serling
Scour The Twilight Zone Archives
for behind-the-scenes photos and a Rod Serling family album.
Tour a site about Night Gallery
, another eerie series by Rod Serling.