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Remembering 'The Twilight Zone'

Published July 27. 2013 09:03AM

"There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone."Rod Serling

How many of you remember that opening that introduced the world to the fantasy genius of Rod Serling?

The Twilight Zone" must be one of my favorite series of all time bar none. I cannot really think of an episode of this watershed series that is weak or bad. Most of these episodes are quite outstanding as they explored themes as timeless as humanity and many as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

The Twilight Zone appeared in 1959 after a script Serling pitched to Desilu Productions appeared on an episode of Desilu Playhouse. In that teleplay, a man time travels back to Hawaii in 1941 to warn the Navy about the imminent attack on Pearl Harbor.

The success of the episode was enough to launch Serling's dream anthology series the Twilight Zone. His vision was a series that would allow him to write about controversial subjects and his perspectives without being offensive. By setting these themes in the science fiction genre and using fantasy as a buffer, Serling was certain that he would have more freedom to explore these issues in that context and he was correct.

The show premiered to rave reviews on October 2, 1959 and Serling became the major writer of the series for two seasons penning 48 of the 65 episodes. In later seasons, he reduced his writing load to focus more on producing the series. Each episode in those first seasons were a half hour long and ran on CBS.

The other major writers besides Serling in those first two seasons as well as throughout the series were Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson. By the end of the series this core team of writers penned 127 episodes of the 156 episode run.

Unfortunately, disease robbed us of Beaumont's talents far too early as he died at the age of 38 from a brain disease that later researchers attributed to a combination of Alzheimer's disease and Pick's disease. He left behind a body of work besides the Twilight Zone episodes that included dozens of short stories, anthologies and film scripts. Matheson's work is much more well known having only died a month ago at the age of 87. His body of work not only included episodes of Serling's series, but many of the Edgar Allen Poe film script adaptations that were produced by Roger Corman in the 1960's, scores of short stories, novels and anthologies and teleplays for many well-known series including "Star Trek", "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" and "The Night Stalker".

By the third season, other writers joined as Beaumont's health failed and Serling's output decreased. To help with the scripts, other writers were introduced one of whom was Earl Hamner, Jr. Hamner's name should be familiar to anyone old enough to remember 1970's television shows.

While he wrote several episodes of the Zone, Hamner is best known for the show based on his family memories in Virginia where he still resides. That endearing show "The Waltons" made stars of Richard Thomas and Michael Learned among others. In the fourth season, the episode length increased to an hour before being reduced once again for the final season.

The show finally left the air in 1964 after being cancelled in late January. The last episode was called "The Bewitchin' Pool" and was fittingly co-written by Hamner and Serling. While the show's original run left the air that year, it has endured in popular culture ever since spawning two revival series and a motion picture. It also probably inspired generations of writers since its premiere all those years ago.

The series even won two Emmy Awards and was nominated for two others in its run. Both wins were Writing Achievements in Drama and were won by Serling himself. The show can be seen currently on the SyFy channel and usually are run in marathons on major holidays.

Almost everyone who has watched Twilight Zone has favorite episodes, but I did find an official list from TIME magazine of their top ten shows. They include "Living Doll" which had the chilling Talking Tina doll, "Walking Distance" which is about a man whose car breaks down near his boyhood town and "It's a Good Life" about a boy with strange mental powers.

Also on their list is "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" which is a study of human fear; the chilling "Hitchhiker" about a woman and her ride, and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," one of the most famous episodes featuring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner.

Nearing the top of their episode list is "The Invaders" which is an episode with no dialogue, "To Serve Man" a missive about caution and "The Eye of the Beholder" in which things are definitely not what they seem.

Topping their list though is one of my favorite episodes as well, "Time Enough at Last." Any book lover would enjoy this exploration of what it might be like to be able to read unfettered by obligations. Unfortunately, there is an ironic wrinkle in the main character's plans that totally throw them awry.

Everyone has their favorite episodes of this watershed series and next week, I will share some of mine which may not match TIME's but I think they are excellent none the less. Write and tell me some of yours.

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