From 1959 to 1964, Rod Serling hosted half-hour tales that melded sci-fi, mystery and morality tales, usually with a twist. It would prove to be some of the most creative and influential television ever made. His show, The Twilight Zone, was described by horror writer Stephen King in the early 1980s as being “damn near immortal… For me and those of my generation, it was like a thunderclap of revelation, opening a million entrancing possibilities.”
The impact of The Twilight Zone is vast and continues right up to today. The recent film Real Steel was actually based on the 1963 Twilight Zone episode “Steel”, starring Lee Marvin. The Final Destination film series — part five came out last year — owes a huge debt to the TZ episode called “Twenty Two”, in which a couple get off a plane before take-off after having a vision of it crashing. In the episode “A World of Difference,” a businessman realises that he’s actually just an actor playing a role on a TV series; a story not a million miles from a later (and underrated) film, The Truman Show. The list is extensive.
Meanwhile, on television, TZ’s influence has always been felt strongly, with too many shows to list. But worth seeking out is the surprisingly excellent teen series Eerie Indiana, which borrowed heavily, as well as some of the stand-alone episodes of The X-Files throughout the ’90s. And this year began with British filmmaker Charlie Brooker creating Black Mirror — a trio of dystopian stories based on futuristic technology that he credited to the likes of TZ and British series Tales of the Unexpected.
Far from being blatantly ripped off, the show provided a jumping-off point for ideas; which was a fair exchange seeing as The Twilight Zone itself borrowed from earlier science fiction and radio plays. The key innovation, however, was that it used the medium of television to present fantastical ideas to an audience who hadn’t seen anything like that before. In the year it debuted, the most popular programmes were cowboy series like Gunsmoke and Wagon Train. And, this being the late ’50s, Sterling was able to present allegorical tales about prejudice, race, political issues and other themes that would have been censored by television stations not wishing to upset their conservative advertisers.
Now it seems that a slew of new sci-fi/ what-if?/mystery series are launched every year, all able to trace their lineage back to the late ’50s and Serling’s series. Serling was even digitally resurrected in 2005. An episode of the series Medium (filmed partially in 3-D) opened with him introducing the show and telling viewers when to put on 3-D glasses. This was done by manipulating old footage of him, with new dialogue spoken by an impersonator. And the plot of the episode involved paintings coming to life, a nod to both The Twilight Zone and his later series Night Gallery.
Series five — out this month — completes the set of BluRay releases and includes arguably the show’s most famous episode. An airplane passenger (played by William Shatner) sees a creature on the wing damaging the engine, but nobody believes him. It’s been parodied and referenced many times since, but the original did for nervous fliers what Jaws did for swimming in the sea. There’s also “Living Doll” which depicts an abusive man (played by Telly Savalas) driven mad by his daughter’s doll, which at one point utters the line, “My name is Talky Tina and I’m going to kill you.” It’s a clear forerunner of the 1988 horror Child’s Play with the killer doll Chucky. The Twilight Zone has dated remarkably well, with themes that are still relevant today. And for standalone stories of the weird and wonderful, there has been little to touch it since.
For Esquire Magazine, February 2012