Back when television used to go to bed at night, it wasn’t uncommon to find one’s self being claimed by the sandman before actually making it up the stairs. Being abruptly jolted from this momentary slumber would spark a degree of disorientation when the last recollection was of sitting on the sofa tuned in to the final programme of the evening. The unnerving sight of a TV screen suddenly blank or displaying that abstract fuzzy chaos that television insiders called ‘snow’ would be enhanced by the piercing drone of a high pitched tone that seemed to slice through the head via one ear to the other like a sonic laser beam. I remember this once happening to me around 30 years back and I experienced a fleeting sensation that the programme I’d been watching before dozing off was still on and that this shock to the system was actually a trick being played by it to deliberately unsettle me. The programme in question had been ‘The Twilight Zone’, and I couldn’t be entirely sure Rod Serling wasn’t going to reappear after a few moments to inform me the disorientation was merely another example of life in the strange neighbourhood he was our guide to.
Of all the vintage shows that have provided me with downtime interior escapism over the past twelve months, perhaps none have been more perfectly attuned to these oh-so strange times than ‘The Twilight Zone’. Arguably the finest anthology series TV has ever produced, ‘The Twilight Zone’ remains the benchmark for intelligent, thought-provoking storytelling with a surreal, disturbing twist that has echoed throughout other examples of the genre ever since; everything from ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ to ‘Black Mirror’ owes it a huge debt. Although originally airing in the US from 1959 to 1964, like most insomniacs on this side of the pond it became a must-see show during the early years of Channel 4, when it would usually bring the curtain down on the schedule after midnight – or so memory tells me. One of the joys of the series was that the viewer never knew what he or she was going to get, for the range of the stories could veer from the whimsically bizarre to the downright nightmarish – and it was the latter that always sent you to bed with the story stubbornly lingering in the room.
Urbane, cool-as-f**k Rod Serling, the perma-smoking host of the show, visually belonged to that generation of immediate post-war American males for whom Hugh Hefner or the Rat Pack were sartorial role models, yet he also embodied the socially-conscious intellectual artist whose drive to highlight the fault-lines of society was informed by formative years living through the Great Depression. After a psychologically-damaging albeit character-shaping WWII fighting the Japanese in the Philippines, Serling initially established his reputation as one of the ‘Angry Young Men’ operating in the creatively-fertile medium of the television play; like Dennis Potter after him, Serling chose the small screen as his stage and consequently reached a far wider audience than any Broadway scribe such as Arthur Miller could ever dream of.
With the ramifications of the McCarthy era still ricocheting through the arts, the now-abandoned genre of the live television play illuminated American TV in its groundbreaking early years, bringing a level of emotional intensity to television that commercial considerations gradually ironed out; indeed, it took until the innovative original programming of HBO revitalised the dormant medium in the 1990s before such risk-taking techniques resurfaced. However, after a period in which his attempts to address America’s most outstanding problems via his art were increasingly frustrated by battles with networks, sponsors and censors, Serling eventually realised he could get away with commenting on the state of the nation by wrapping his message in the deceptive dressing of fantasy. Therefore, he relocated from New York to LA and created ‘The Twilight Zone’.
Sometimes subtly and sometimes less so – quality could vary, yes, but there were 156 episodes, after all – the pressing issues of the day were regularly dealt with on ‘The Twilight Zone’, but it wasn’t simply a relentless polemic; one of the alluring – and enduring – facets of the series was that, the slightly creaky ‘outer space’ episodes aside, it usually opened in a recognisable everyday world and then slowly took one step away from it, placing the picture at a distorted angle from which anything was possible. Part of the appeal of ‘The Twilight Zone’ was that some of the stories just posed the ‘What would happen if..?’ question, as in what would happen if we really could go back in time, or what would happen if we could suddenly hear the thoughts of the people we came into contact with, or what would happen if we woke up one day and everyone we knew suddenly no longer knew us, or what would happen if the life we were living was actually revealed to be nothing more than a scripted TV series – and this was a good forty years before ‘The Truman Show’.
Although he assembled a gifted team of writers around him, Serling’s role as creator and host was overshadowed by his creative contribution to the series, penning or co-writing a staggering 92 episodes of the 156, a phenomenal work-rate by anybody’s standards and one that gradually took its toll on him. And as it began to garner critical appreciation and awards, the series provided a useful entry point for many eventual household names, with the likes of Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, William Shatner, Robert Duvall, Elizabeth Montgomery, Martin Landau and numerous others gaining early breaks; it also offered intriguing roles to established stars such as Mickey Rooney as well as giving actors at the end of their careers one last chance to shine – Buster Keaton features in one especially memorable episode that serves as a touching tribute to the silent era.
At its best, the series provoked thought, placing the viewer in the shoes of the characters who found themselves in situations many have pondered on. One of the plentiful extras included with the DVD box-set that has provided me with late night entertainment over the past couple of months (and I can only watch it late at night) is a segment from the early 70s in which Serling discusses his craft with writing students; he admits to having a recurring fascination with revisiting or recapturing his lost youth, something that surfaces in several memorable ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes in which the irretrievable idyll is briefly grasped by characters who are alone in their realisation that they have reconnected with something those around them are oblivious to. Maybe these particular instalments speak to a certain age group and one has to get there to get it, but I’ve found revisiting ‘The Twilight Zone’ at a moment in time when the norm has been subverted to an unprecedented degree a highly prescient exercise. In some respects, the series may be very much rooted in time and place, yet many of the themes it tackled remain relevant and appear to grow more relevant the further away we travel from its original production.
Reduced to its earworm theme tune as a clichéd byword for ‘weird’ within popular culture over the last few decades, ‘The Twilight Zone’ when viewed afresh in its entirety offers a far more significant insight into both a reminder of what mainstream television was once capable of and what the medium’s archive still has to tell us about who we were, who we are and who we could be. I’ve found it the perfect reminder that sometimes the most telling comment on the here and now can often be found in something that appeared long before we actually arrived in the here and now. Messrs Huxley, Orwell and McGoohan would surely back me up on that one.
© The Editor