How a War-Weary Vet Created ‘The Twilight Zone’

No television show exerted more influence on the state of American science fiction than The Twilight Zone, the little morality plays of a former Army private.

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A strange mix of dramatic styles, one part satiric morality play, one part science-fiction ghost story, The Twilight Zone challenged the sensibilities of both hardened skeptics and true believers. It was never a huge hit, but its stories resonated with an American public tenuously relearning moral ambiguity.

Creator Rod Serling was compelled by the need “not to just entertain but to enlighten.” He wrote 93 of the series’ 156 episodes over the course of its five-season run, which began on CBS in 1959. Most modern shows take an average of 7 seasons to produce as many episodes.

Serling, a veteran of World War II, used the show, and his writing, to deal with the untreated psychological trauma he suffered during his enlistment in the U.S. military. Rather than the glamorized affair the war was to become in subsequent retellings, Serling was intimately acquainted with the horrors of America’s attempt to reclaim its Pacific colonies. Almost half of the author’s comrades were killed fighting in the Philippines. Serling's best friend, a Pvt. Melvin Levy of Brooklyn, was decapitated in front of the future screenwriter by a "biscuit bomb," a food crate intended to nourish the life of the man it killed.

Serling closed out the war living in the horror of occupied Japan where the American treatment of women, children, and the elderly contributed to the nightmares that plagued the author for the rest of his life. The towns that were not obliterated by the atomic bombs, or burned by American’s firebombing raids, were deeply scarred by famine. The U.S. naval blockade around Japan in the waning days of World War 2 was actually called Operation Starvation.

Several Twilight Zone scripts would return to the subject of survivor’s guilt (“King Nine Will Not Return,” “The Thirty-Fathom Grave”) or long simmering military resentment (“The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms,” “The Encounter”).

But many of the classic Twilight Zone episodes focused on the post-war horrors of World War, specifically the twin threats of nuclear armament and the rise of the American secret police. The series two most famous episodes, “Time Enough At Last” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” explicitly treat on these issues. In the former, a bookish misanthrope survives and cheers a planet destroying nuclear attack, because it will give him time to read all the books his day to day responsibilities always prevented, but is thwarted when his glasses break. In the latter, suburban residents turn against their neighbors when strange events, like the lights going out at all the houses except one, make them doubt their safety from an embedded threat.

Both “Time Enough at Last” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” broadcast in the show’s first season in 1959. The themes are treated more specifically in later episodes as budgets and allegories wore thin. Third season episode “The Shelter” examines the literal collapse of a social network when an air raid detects possible incoming nuclear missiles during a suburban dinner party and the hosts won’t let their friends into the family bomb shelter. The fourth season episode, “He’s Alive” demonstrates the ubiquity of fascist politics and follows the rise of a laughable bully (played by Dennis Hopper and egged on by the ghost of Hitler) from ignored crank to ethnic murderer on America’s urban streets.

The concerns were ever present on the minds of Americans during The Twilight Zone’s original broadcast run. The year the series debuted, the American military took over custody of the nation’s nuclear arsenal which constituted between 20 and 25,000 total weapons distributed at bases worldwide. By the time the show finished its run, arrests for non-violent drug crimes, mandatory minimum sentences, and aggressive militarized policing had become the national norm.

Season 3’s “The Shelter” aired two months after President Kennedy said, “In the event of an attack, the lives of those families which are not hit in a nuclear blast and fire can still be saved—if they can be warned to take shelter and if that shelter is available” when the Department of Defense and the president were both fully aware the existing and planned shelters were inadequate against the nuclear weapons. Meanwhile the warning systems to alert citizens of an incoming attack were poorly maintained and highly vulnerable to sabotage or disruption.

Despite Rod Serling’s best efforts, the show was never a huge success, losing in the ratings against its contemporary competition: Bonanza, Rawhide, and The Bell Telephone Hour. Then as now, the majority of Americans had little interest in examining the nuclear sword of Damocles their fear had wrought. The year after The Twilight Zone’s cancellation, Serling wrote a modern update to A Christmas Carol so subversive it was broadcast only once, then informally banned from television until it popped up on cable in 2012 on Turner Classic Movies. The dangerous, anti-American course of action the show suggests: cooperating with the United Nations.

As a prolific and early entry in the cannon of television drama, The Twilight Zone never fully disappeared from the airwaves. In the year of its cancellation, ABC launched The Outer Limits, which would run for two seasons and carry on The Twilight Zone’s fascination with moral ambiguity and the macabre. And as the go-go optimism of the 1960s bled into the paranoid Nixonian hellscape of the 1970s, rerun episodes of the show experienced something of a revival.

Although there is some doubt as to where the trend originated, the inexpensive rebroadcast possibilities, combined with the burgeoning visual nostalgia market and the need to fill ever expanding TV schedules, created an environment in which local network affiliates started showing Twilight Zone marathons on major holidays in the early 1980s. The ScyFy Network shows marathons of the series on New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July.

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The trend led to a resurgence of anthology television, and renewed interest in The Twilight Zone. Having long ago sold syndication rights back to the network, Serling’s family retained merchandising rights and begin publication of a Twilight Zone magazine in 1981. In 1983, a movie was released with four segments from the classic series remade with modern production techniques where an on set helicopter accident led to the death of Blackboard Jungle actor Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen.

By the middle of the decade, NBC ordered two new anthology series: Amazing Stories from executive producer Steven Spielberg (who had directed a segment in the Twilight Zone movie) and an updated version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents for Burt Reynolds once wrote an episode starring Martin Sheen and Marilu Henner. On rival CBS, which had been the original home of The Twilight Zone, the long running Murder, She Wrote premiered in 1984. The network, having already turned down several revival offers, finally relented and ordered a full season to begin airing in 1985.

Although Serling wrote a little over 60 percent of the original series’ episodes, the rest were created by a veritable who’s who of ‘50s and ‘60s television and science fiction. Other contributing writers on the original series included Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and Earl Hamner, Jr.

The 1980s series followed in that tradition with episodes from Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, and Anne Collins. Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin got his first staff writing job on the new series after penning an episode of HBO anthology series The Hitchhiker, which first aired in 1983.

Christy Marx was one of the writers recruited to participate in The Twilight Zone’s resurrection. After working on Saturday morning cartoon fare such as Spider-Man and G.I. Joe Marx created the series Jem, one of the highest rated animated shows in the late 1980s.When Jem went off the air in 1988, Marx reached out to fellow early Internet adopter J. Michael Straczynski, whom she knew through an animation Bulletin Board System.

Marx's episode almost never aired, a 155 day writers’ strike in 1988 almost derailed the last season. Among the issues fought for by striking writers: Residuals for syndicated rebroadcasts of television shows. The episode was titled “Cat and Mouse” and it follows in the pattern of classic Serlingesque plot twists.

“The original [Twilight Zone] was one of those shows that had a powerful impact on me, along with the original Star Trek,” Marx tells me. “[The Twilight Zone] was filled with superb writing and thoughtful, substantive ideas. Serling was subversive. He was able to touch upon topics and tell stories that were hard to do in that time period, but he could get away with it because of the [science fiction] and fantasy elements. There were the wonderful twist endings that became classics.”

Based on the folk story “The Dundee Cat,” Marx’s episode has Dallas veteran Pamela Bellwood playing a pharmacy employee with a non-existent romantic life who loves reading romance novels. When she is visited by a nocturnal, shape-shifting were-cat, Bellwood’s character and the man (played by Canadian heartthrob Page Fletcher) begin a relationship. Like all romance in The Twilight Zone, it ends well for neither party, but especially bad for the man. Already cursed for his romantic indiscretions to live as a cat during the day, Bellwood’s Andie takes an extra measure of revenge when she catches Fletcher’s Guillaume with another woman.

“I’m not in favor of anyone using gratuitous violence against anyone as a method of storytelling, but the key word here is gratuitous,” she says. “Gratuitous means ‘lacking good reason.’ If the violence has a purpose and a function in the service of telling the story or expressing the theme, if it belongs there, then it should be evaluated as an integral part of the story. Violence for the sake of shock value or titillation or half-assed motivation makes violence trivial, which I find disgusting.”

Marx praises the original series’ artistic style. “There was moody, expressive photography,” she says. “And look at the tremendous acting talent he put into the episodes. They had everything that makes storytelling universal and powerful.”

The original Twilight Zone is renowned for the acting careers it revived or jump started. William Shatner appears in several episodes, including the Richard Matheson classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Robert Duvall lists the series among his earliest guest spots on television, as do Burt Reynolds (“The Bard”) and Carol Burnett (“Cavender Is Coming”). Meanwhile, the 1980s series featured guest performances by Bruce Willis (just post-Moonlighting/pre-Die Hard) and a pre-Wonder Years/Princess Bride Fred Savage.

The (revived) Twilight Zone finished its run in 1989, and the same year Fox’s COPS began broadcasting. The polar opposite of Serling’s introspective storytelling, it is considered among the earliest reality shows, and unquestioningly reaffirms the power of the militarized police state. The same year, HBO’s critically acclaimed Tales from the Crypt took up the anthology mantle.

The Twilight Zone would see another incarnation at the dawn of the 21st century, with Forest Whitaker as host. But debuting as it did in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks and birth of the war on terror, it barely lasted a season before disappearing again. Anthology television itself is in something of a decline, while shows like American Horror Story, Fargo, and True Detective have received well-deserved praise, the number of anthology series is down across U.S. television. There were over 200 created for the small screen in the 1950s. In the first four years of this decade, fewer than 20.

And so one of the many imaginary worlds they created and inhabited could not exist without the twisted imagination of a war weary writer from upstate New York trying to make sense of the “vast nothingness that is the beginning and the dust that is always the end” of The Twilight Zone.

Image Entertainment, an RLJ Entertainment (NASDAQ: RLJE) brand, announces the release of The Twilight Zone: The 5th Dimension Limited Edition Box Set. For the first time ever, Rod Serling’s groundbreaking Original Series (1959-1964) and the classic 1980s Series (1985-1989) are together in one limited edition box set. With only 7,500 sets created, this limited edition 41-DVD box set is available on November 11, 2014 for an SRP of $349.98.

In addition to the two beloved series (225 episodes combined), and more than 20 hours of bonus features listed below, The Twilight Zone: The 5th Dimension Limited Edition Box Set contains one of four possible collectible 1960s Twilight Zone comic books. Limited Edition packaging features 3D black and white lenticulars and a serialized number on each of the box sets.