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

Serling, only in his 40s when episode 156 aired, was never to replicate his accomplishments. Creative opportunities in the years that followed withered in the shadow of his own success. Night Gallery, an anthology of the supernatural and macabre, ran for three seasons with Serling as host – or curator – and though he saw it as a natural successor to The Twilight Zone, creative disputes helped ensure that its impact in a more crowded market was limited. 

By its close in 1973, Night Gallery was notable chiefly for the directorial debut of Steven Spielberg and one of Joan Crawford’s final screen roles. He found the patience for a screenplay soon after The Twilight Zone, adapting Pierre Boulle’s novel Planet of the Apes for the big screen. His draft was substantially re-written by Michael Wilson, responsible in large part for the dialogue, though not for the film’s iconic closing image. The shock reveal of the Statue of Liberty was a classic twist, straight out of the Zone, and impressed itself on the minds of a generation of movie-goers. 

His subsequent career path ran in underwhelming parallel to the less tasteful aspects of an industry that, with only a few highbrow exceptions such as M*A*S*H, was essentially becoming America’s marketplace. He sat as president of the Television Academy, perhaps conveniently for the execs who passed on his pitches. He railed against the industry’s failure to fulfil its creative potential, much to the Academy’s embarrassment. He later wondered aloud how meaningful drama might ever develop ‘when every fifteen minutes the proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper.’ 

Still, he joined the dance himself. Offered no end of paycheques for voice-overs and commercials, he almost always accepted with ‘no thought to its effect or ramifications.’ It was work – he was never too proud to see it any other way – and though he remained financially comfortable, there came a cost. Advertising and ever more frequent appearances on entertainment shows marooned him in a zone of his own unwitting design, kept alive in the public consciousness even as his critics proclaimed his creative death. Frequent bouts of depression and self-doubt were to plague his remaining years. When Serling died aged 50 following complications after open-heart surgery in 1975, he was slated to co-host a variety show called Keep on Truckin’, alongside a popular puppet named ‘Madame’. The Six Million Dollar Man and Happy Days topped the ratings.

It’s difficult to conceive of such a fate for a modern TV creator of comparable influence, though it sounds uncomfortably like a promising storyline for an anthology show. For so long as subscription remains the business model for high-end content, the disruption of advertising no longer applies. The creatives have been set free – they have their own space, at least. Difficult, too, to forget Serling’s struggle and wonder how he might have fared in such an environment. His cautionary tales were crafted at a time of precarious balance, at the height of the Cold War when paranoia stalked America. That balance, underwritten by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, seems almost enviable now, as the world’s powers dance to a multipolar tune. Within the space of two years, we’ve moved from a global pandemic to the foothills of global conflict without making any real inroads into the crisis that dwarfs them all. Welcome to the ‘permacrisis’ – no shortage of material for a contemporary Twilight Zone. We’re living in it.   

Serling was wrong about the future of The Twilight Zone. He doubted his own legacy, but he needn’t have. The show that made his name lives on, having most recently returned in a third reboot produced and hosted by Jordan Peele. It’s a more vivid iteration than those that preceded it, but despite occasional highlights it labours in the shadow of its own past, straight-jacketed by its reverence for the original show, as evidenced by its first episode ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet’ – an homage to the 1963 episode ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ which does little more for the legend than up the altitude. 

Serling himself appeared – as himself, fully realised in CGI and approved of by his widow Carol – in an episode called ‘Blurryman’ in which an out-of-focus figure that stalks the preceding episodes is revealed to be none other than the creator himself. It’s a moment of unabashed fan worship that might have gained a little mystique had he not come quite so sharply into focus, and we can only guess what he himself might have made of such an indulgence. The conscientious writer, up with the lark at his keyboard, might have disdained it – the showman, you suspect, would have been delighted.  

The only way to step away from the original, it seems, is to create another show entirely. The X-Files clearly owes a debt but the true heir to the Zone is Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, a more flexible beast for a time of endlessly multiplying anxieties. Brooker has always been unstinting in his praise for Serling, recognising the sleight of hand that allowed issues that mattered to be piped into America’s living rooms. He knows the value of ‘good little campfire stories’ even as the TV industry periodically forgets. 

The lasting influence of his work would doubtless have flattered him, and a date in the calendar set aside as National Twilight Zone Day – May 11th – would have tickled him. But for a writer of conscience, his true legacy endures in the form of the Rod Serling Award for Advancing Social Justice through Popular Media, established by Ithaca College in 2016. Its inaugural recipient was David Simon who, like Serling, took a turn from journalism into creative writing and went on to produce The Wire, Treme, The Deuce and We Own This City

Simon never detoured beyond the streets. None of his shows led us into parallel dimensions, each was complex and assured portraits of American urban decline – anathema, then, to the gatekeepers and sponsors who stymied Serling and nudged him towards the twilight. There, somewhere ‘between science and superstition’ he found ‘the dimension of the imagination’, and if his outlook on what he found there was essentially pragmatic, then we have cause to be grateful. The fantastical has flourished to an industrial extent, and if it seems at times primed only to sate the craven appetite of fandom, then Serling can remind us still that it serves not only as a simple distraction but as a mirror to the real.