On this day in 1959, American TV audiences embarked on a trip to a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. This first journey to the middle ground between light and shadow was a powerful voyage we still haven't forgotten. It was the first time we caught a glimpse of The Twilight Zone.
Rod Serling's black-and-white masterpiece defies neat categorization. It's science fiction, to be sure. But like the best and most nuanced sci-fi, it bleeds into discussions of morality, reflections on mankind, and a skeptical view of humanity's technological advancements. The very first episode, "Where Is Everybody," hit on all of these themes, exactly 55 years ago tonight.
If you've been awake and watching the
SciFi SyFy network during any of the 4th of July or New Years Twilight Zone marathons of the past dozen-plus years, you already know how this plot goes. If you haven't seen it, I ain't gonna ruin it for you with a ham-fisted synopsis. Either way, you'll do well to watch it again.
Over its five seasons and 156 episodes, Twilight Zone featured scripts written by dozens of brilliant minds—including Ray Bradbury, whose "I Sing the Body Electric" went from script to short story, the reverse of the usual route. But the show will always be inextricably associated with Serling, whose opening and closing monologues serve as the only comforting constant across a universe of self-supporting stories. These aren't mere episodes; they're teleplays.
Serling's flat, wide-mouthed Southern Tier accent, his boxer's physique, and his ever-present cigarette are as much hallmarks of the Twilight Zone as the stories—some bleak, some morose, some heartwarming, some darkly (or brightly) hilarious, all of them piercing and thought provoking in a way no half-hour TV show has a right to be. Serling didn't rely on Halloween spookiness; he couldn't lean on anything approaching the term "special effects"; he didn't have the luxury of multiple episodes to develop a character. Despite these limits—perhaps thanks to them—his writing flourished.
Rod Serling died in central New York State in 1975, fifty years and ninety miles from where he was born. His life was as compact and as varied as the half-hour microcosmic masterpieces he produced. But his journey ran to the far reaches of imagination, orbiting the dark side of the shining modern era, marking waypoints that we still visit more than half a century later. Thankfully, he took us all along for the ride.