21 February 2007 | phantom_tollbooth
A Dimension of Mind
The concept of 'The Twilight Zone' grabbed me immediately. Rather than a simple collection of supernatural tales designed to give us the willies, Rod Serling set out to utilise the often underrated medium of Science Fiction and Fantasy to put forward his social commentary on mankind. Serling's early straight drama scripts had been cut to shreds by the networks whose main concerns were keeping the sponsors happy and not offending potential viewers. This came at the price of quality entertainment and, despite the worthy targets of the scripts, it was more important for the bosses to ensure their funding was secure than it was to produce socially conscious programmes. However, by using a genre that was generally considered to hold little creative value, Serling managed to slip plenty of subversive social and political satire past the censors without them picking up on it. This was the sort of materiel that, in the 1950s, would never have made it to the screen unveiled. It exposed corruption in authority figures, it exposed the sort of weaknesses inherent in mankind that American networks are still so unwilling to portray in their country's citizens. By adding in a supernatural element Serling could suddenly comment on whatever he wanted. To the networks it was a sci-fi show, a bunch of far fetched stories about unusual people. In actuality, it was about all of us. Often the supernatural element figured far less heavily in the story than the social element. Serling's wonderfully melodramatic, wordy scripts focused squarely on his characters rather than just utilising them as two dimensional pawns overwhelmed by the story. People, their thoughts, choices, behavioural patterns and emotions were the story.
Just as compelling was the nature of the twilight zone itself. Although Serling offers us a long spiel at the beginning of each show describing the zone, it is purposefully vague so as to not erase the mystery. All we know is that entering the twilight zone causes things to take a turn for the unusual but in exactly what way is impossible to tell until you're in the thick of it. This is because the nature of the zone is so elusive. Sometimes it is a God like force which metes out justice or teaches characters a lesson. However, the zone's sense of justice is often distinctly skewed. Although corrupt, violent, generally unpleasant people get their comeuppance in the zone more often than not, being a good, honest, benevolent person is no guarantee that you won't end up with the rough end of the stick. This is what makes The Twilight Zone such a fascinating watch. You don't know what sort of mood the zone will be in from episode to episode. Sometimes it takes active control, rewarding the good and punishing the bad; sometimes it takes a step back after having set things in motion and simply observes the outcome; sometimes, in what often prove to be some of the best episodes, the zone unleashes its sick sense of humour on an unsuspecting innocent (the most notable example of this being 'Time Enough At Last'). It's even possible for the zone to contradict itself, such as the back to back episodes 'The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine' and 'Walking Distance', which offer two very different outcomes for characters who long to return to their pasts.
More than ably assisting Serling are several other regular writers, most notably Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson. These two writers turned in many of the very finest episodes of the series and proved to be more consistently reliable than Serling (although, to be fair to Serling, they did not contribute nearly as many scripts to the show as he did). Less inclined to lapse into broad, cartoonish comedy or over-sentimentality, Matheson and Beaumont turned in some of the most famous episodes ("Nightmare at 20,000 Feet") and some of the most undervalued ("Perchance to Dream"). Matheson was to be admired for his taut plotting, strong characterisation and convincing dialogue while Beaumont frequently came up with the most intriguing ("Miniature", "Passage on the Lady Anne") and plain horrific ("Long Live Walter Jameson", "Perchance to Dream", "The New Exhibits") concepts.
Of course, as is the case with virtually every anthology show, some episodes of The Twilight Zone were better than others while some were just downright awful (check out the likes of "The Mighty Casey", "The Whole Truth" or "Mr Dingle, The Strong" for just a few examples) but when it got it right, the result was frequently magical. These beautifully made stories in gorgeous, crisp black and white, continue to thrill, delight and disturb me with each viewing. Rod Serling's mysterious but lovable humanitarian host is a hard man to refuse and when he asks me to step into the twilight zone with him, I rarely refuse.