Rod Serling (1959 | Wikipedia, public domain
Rod Serling (1959 | CBS photo by Gabor Rona | Wikipedia, public domain

Rod Serling, ‘The Twilight Zone’ and the Things Only Martians Could Say

To menace the American public’s conscience was Rod Serling’s proverbial contractual obligation in ‘The Twilight Zone’ and the questions posed were essentially of a civic nature.

The Twilight Zone
Rod Serling

In 1966, Rodman Edward Serling‘s take on the future of The Twilight Zone was simple. It didn’t have one. The show had run its course two years earlier with the broadcast of its 156th episode – ‘The Bewitchin’ Pool’ – and, as far as its creator was concerned, was destined to moulder in the vaults.  Serling cashed in on his considerable stake in the show, turned his back, and never quite moved on.  Conservative estimates of its subsequent earnings range in the hundreds of millions of dollars – as his wife Ann was later to observe with understandable regret – but somehow you wonder how much that bothered him. 

Serling came to television as a visionary. It was a medium he did much to foster in its early years, but like many, he was never to foresee syndication, the money-making machine that re-shaped the industry in the 1970s. A hard-working sceptic and flag-saluting liberal who became American TV’s counterpart to the ‘angry young men’ across the Atlantic before he ever entered the Zone, he may never have achieved greatness, but would surely have been heartened by the enduring resonance of his work.

When Serling first invited us to a ‘fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man’, the parallel worlds he escorted us to were conspicuously fantastical. His Everymen were lone travellers, negotiating the ‘middle ground, between light and shadow’. In the first season alone, broadcast in 1959, a man comes to realise he’s the last human on Earth. Another is dying of loneliness on a far-flung asteroid  A burnt-out ad exec longs for home and the innocence of boyhood but can’t find a way to either. A bookish bank teller yearns for all the time in the world and finds it only to be robbed by fate.  

And those were just the tales of paranoia and chronic isolation. Serling, along with chief writers Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, frequently explored the madness of crowds; the mob mentality that twitched at the curtains of suburban America. The spectre of fascism informed the plots of several episodes as did, of course, the alien. 

His unworldly visions, originally aired by CBS on Friday nights from 1959 to 1964, could be whimsical and even knockabout. They were certainly hokey on occasion, but the most resonant drew their power from the unsettling proximity of the unknown. At 10 o’clock EST on a Friday night, the fundamentals of natural law gave way in black and white, a rip in the fabric of day-to-day life. Serling intuited that science fiction and fantasy could serve themes that hit home, an insight that sprang from his own experience and served him well.  He knew better than most the chaos that lies beneath the surface of the commonplace – that we register the disruption of death and disease like bolts from the blue, felt with all the force of the supernatural. For the creator of The Twilight Zone, the unreal was always just a step away.

Serling’s outlook and the dramatic themes in which he immersed himself were shaped by the trauma of combat. As a young Jewish paratrooper barely out of college, he had first to contend with an acute personal disappointment when a non-European posting denied him his war of choice. The chance to take on Hitler direct was gone. Cast instead into the Pacific theatre, he joined a regiment that suffered a 50% kill rate as it advanced block-by-block on 17,000 Japanese troops fighting to the last in Manila.  

In the Philippines and later Japan, death was a constant, and his avoidance of it was often miraculous. Even within the context of a war of attrition nearing an apocalyptic climax, his encounters with death seemed unpredictable and other-worldly, touched with an element of fortune bordering on the paranormal. In Manila, he survived a shrapnel burst that took the lives of three comrades who stood directly alongside him. He later led the service for friend and fellow Jewish private Melvin Levy – decapitated while delivering an impromptu stand-up routine by a food crate dropped from the sky.

A troublesome knee and occasional tumbles down the stairs were the physical legacy of war for Serling. Flashbacks, night terrors, and an enduring bitterness in a world yet to pathologise post-traumatic stress were the true cost. The loss of his beloved father, news he received by telegram, came as he completed his tour of duty with the occupation forces in Japan. His request to attend the funeral was denied and the trauma compounded. There was no way home. Little wonder that a sense of nostalgia and loss is pervasive in many Twilight Zone episodes written by Serling himself, most notably throughout ‘Walking Distance’, in which an account exec straight out of Mad Men encounters his 11-year-old self.  

He was hard on himself when, years later, he rubbished the internal logic of the plot. Many found it his most affecting tale, and it was certainly his most personal. The carousel of the climactic scene, in which its protagonist is urged by his lost father to look to the future, was closely modelled on that of Serling’s hometown of Binghampton, New York. Serling’s daughter Anne identified his sentimental streak in her biography As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling (2021), and surely knew its origins. Her father’s transition to adulthood was no rite of passage but a violent rupture, a traumatic break from his past.  

The war also provided. Taking full advantage of the federal G.I. Bill of 1944 to reboot his education, he enrolled at Antioch College and set into a writing career that began in campus radio. The rage he carried from the conflict, for so long a barrier, now propelled him. By his own admission, he was ‘traumatised into writing by war’ and what began as ‘a kind of compulsion’ grew from ‘a terrible need for some sort of therapy.’ His early successes as American television’s foremost proponent of social realism were rooted in a strong moral conviction and three Emmys were the reward for works that were the clear expression of a committed social conscience.  

And yet the hard-working realist turned to the unreal. TV was young, and Serling got in from the ground floor up. In a rush and, according to some, lacking the patience required to nurture feature-length scripts for Hollywood, he hitched himself instead to the burgeoning potential of the small screen. Here was an ideal space for writer and viewer alike; an intimate interface, inclined towards the interior and the close-up rather than the expanse of the wide shot, a tight canvas on which to paint the human condition in ‘all the grays that make up character’. Serling, it seems, was intent on bringing theatre into the home. Early endeavours in New York’s anthology programming were character-driven, and each tackled contemporary mores. All brought stellar success for their writer.  

Patterns was broadcast live on ‘Kraft Television Theatre’ in early 1955. Centred around the dehumanising effects of big business, it has the distinction of being the first TV show in broadcast history to be repeated – literally, as shows were yet to be archived and cast and crew were required to reassemble before airing all over again. In the following year came Requiem for a Heavyweight, in which a fading prize-fighter battled himself and his corrupt sport. In 1957 Serling adapted Ernest Lehman’s short story The Comedian. All three earned Emmys. Patterns, along with another Serling effort The Rack would later be adapted for film by, one assumes, more patient temperaments than his.   

But Serling was soon frustrated – if unsurprised – by the baked-in limitations of an emerging industry. By the late 1950s radio drama had been effectively neutered by advertising and TV was to prove no exception. Repeatedly impeded by the sponsors – money men for whom even a passing reference to contemporary issues was bad for business – Serling recalled the comics he’d read on active service and sought new creative avenues to bypass what amounted to creative censorship. Social realism gave way to the alternate realities of The Twilight Zone and folded within them, below the radar of sponsors who saw the show as bubble gum for the teenagers tip-toeing downstairs to their parents’ TV sets after dark, were the themes that still burned in Serling. ‘I found that it was all right to have Martians saying things Democrats and Republicans could never say,’ he observed – correctly, as it turned out.

The anthology show remained the prime TV format and Serling knew it would marry well with science fiction. Without a recurring cast and overarching storyline, a multiplicity of themes might unspool freely over time.  ut he now found himself something a novitiate, with little more than fond memories of comics to work with. A stranger in a strange land, he sought the advice of a young Ray Bradbury. The poet of the American summer plied him with books, urging him to hire their writers. Serling did so and Matheson and Beaumont went on to become stalwart writers in the Zone. 

Yet Bradbury was only ever to contribute a single episode, ‘I Sing the Body Electric!’, the sole collaboration of a relationship that soon soured. Bradbury remained generous, and never made a legal case, but came to realise in time that Serling ‘wrote too much too soon… and forgot what he was digesting.’ The inference was clear: plagiarism, albeit unconscious. Bradbury had the nose of a purist and while he detected an acquisitive hunger for stories, he saw no true instinct for the fantastical. Serling, practical and ambitious, and with the diligence to match, had found his vehicle. Neither harboured any bitterness but their friendship was never resumed. Both laid the foundations for the genre’s future success.   

Serling’s tone could be didactic, and he was later to teach at Ithaca College in upstate New York. But if the audience were ever a class to him, they would at least be challenged. For this writer, menacing the public’s conscience was a contractual obligation and the questions posed were essentially of a civic nature. The relationship between the state and the individual was a touchstone, and controlling governments dominated the denizens of more than one episode.

Fear was the overarching theme. Fear of the unknown but fear, too, of being oneself; a dread that drove his characters into personal cul-de-sacs of psychotic nostalgia, to greed, murder, suicide, or just the everyday cowardice of conformity and complicity. For Serling, hope lay in our humanity and our future depended on our capacity to recognise it and be guided by it. To this end, he used his presence in the show to help foster in his audience a healthy scepticism. His early voice-over intros alone were frequently worth tuning in for; carefully crafted highlights in themselves.  

In ‘Judgment Night’, a wartime tale of a U-boat commander’s moral reckoning with clear echoes of The Flying Dutchman, he describes the fear onboard a hunted passenger ship ‘like the throbbing strokes of engine pistons, each like a heartbeat, parcelling out every hour into breathless minutes of watching, waiting and dreading.’ In later seasons Serling adopted the hip visual presence he gifted to posterity and acquired a wry, alliterative style, in keeping with the physically assured former army boxer who had written his way into some very sharp suits. At once laconic and tightly-wound, his consonants were thrown like play punches through clenched teeth. More than an assured host, he punctuated the show; underscoring instalments with tight epilogues that prompted us always to question and trust our better instincts. In the parallel worlds of his imagination, he urged viewers to look beyond the veil, to catch a glimpse of the precarious nature of existence – just as he had – and perhaps even resolve to lead better lives.