Monday, April 11, 2011

Season 1

There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. . .    

       The Twilight Zone seemed an odd creation for a writer like Rod Serling. Serling emerged out of the era of live television as a dramatist with deep humanistic concerns, writing scripts for prestige dramatic anthology programs such as Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90.  By the time The Twilight Zone went on the air in October of 1959, Serling had been writing television scripts for nearly a decade and had received three Emmy Awards for his work. It seemed curious, therefore, that a writer at the top of his field as a dramatist would want to risk his reputation by turning his efforts toward fantasy and science fiction, fields then, as now, in low regard by cultural critics, but especially by those of the 1950’s.

     In the world of dramatic television, Serling gained a reputation as a writer willing and able to tackle pressing social and political issues and as a writer vehemently opposed to censorship. After witnessing several of his more controversial scripts for Playhouse 90 being ripped apart, sanitized, and sewn back together again to appease the concerns of wary corporate sponsors, he began to contemplate creating a fantasy program in an effort to alleviate such restrictions. With fantasy, Serling correctly theorized, he could get away with Martians and robots saying the controversial things which ordinary characters could not. He essentially wanted to create a program where the writer was in control of the script. In response, he created his own production company, Cayuga Productions, which would oversee the production of The Twilight Zone.

     Immediately before the creation of Cayuga Productions, Serling wrote an hour-long script titled “The Time Element” and pitched it to CBS as a pilot episode of a fantasy anthology series. CBS bought the script but passed on developing it into a series, or even filming it at all, and shelved the script. Bert Granet, a producer at CBS on  The Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse, and who would later join Rod Serling on the fourth season of Twilight Zone, got word that Serling sold a script to CBS but that the network shelved it. Eager to work with Serling, Granet took the script to Desi Arnaz, the host and creative entity behind The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. Arnaz loved the script but the corporate sponsor of the series was not as high on the project and both Granet and Arnaz fought hard to get it made. Eventually, the sponsor relented and  “The Time Element” was produced to wide acclaim and enormous popularity among viewers of the series. 

       "The Time Element" is a time travel story starring William Bendix and Martin Balsam about a man who returns to the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor through a recurring dream. He is unable to get anyone to listen to his warnings and dies while lost in time. The fantasy story was something fresh on television and its popularity among viewers gained the attention of CBS, who backtracked and decided to allow Serling a shot at developing his own fantasy series. CBS executive William Self was assigned to film the pilot at Universal International and Serling set to work developing a script. The first script he developed was titled "The Happy Place" and was a dark, dystopian vision of the future in which citizens over the age of sixty are taken to idyllic retirement homes where they are euthanized. William Self thought the story powerful but hardly something to sell a series to a network. He urged Serling to try again with something different. In response, Serling sat down and wrote “Where is Everybody?” about a young amnesiac who wanders into a town with no residents but with a feeling of being watched. It is revealed at the end of the tale that the young man is in an isolation chamber in preparation for space flight. The time alone has caused his mind to hallucinate the entire experience. This story, with its gripping narrative, realistic setting, and clever twist, was the perfect vehicle to convince the network executives and potential corporate sponsors to take a shot on the series. After the episode finished shooting, Serling brought it to New York and screened it for network executives at CBS and for potential sponsors. They bought the series. 

     Although Serling urged pilot producer William Self to stay on-board as regular producer of the series, Self declined and elected to continue his executive role within the network. Upon Self's recommendation, CBS hired producer Buck Houghton because, as Houghton said, "they wanted Rod to be working in tandem with somebody that they knew, instead of somebody that he knew."* Houghton never held a particular affinity for fantasy or science fiction but had a great eye for talent and great taste in story material. Houghton also recognized that the series worked best by adhering to Serling's vision, and that the producer's job would be to see that such a vision was represented in everything done for the series. He and Serling hit it off immediately, on both a personal and, more importantly to the series, a professional level. Houghton was the steady balance to Serling's manic energy and the combination worked brilliantly for three seasons. Together, they began the arduous task of acquiring material for the first season. After a disastrous open call for unsolicited story ideas, a move perhaps owing to Serling's own professional breakthrough on the Dr. Christian radio series, a program sustained by open submission competitions. Whatever the motivation, the call for story ideas yielded zero usable material and was quickly shut down. Would-be writers would continue to send in unsolicited story material for the series duration, however, often resulting in endless calls of plagiarism against Serling and the series. Serling decided instead to approach a small group of professional science fiction writers, allowing the writers to read samples from Serling's projected first season scripts and hosting a screening of the pilot film. There was a great deal of anticipation in the professional science fiction community about the prospect of a fantasy program spearheaded by the finest dramatist of his generation. There was an equal amount of anticipation circulating around the professional acting community. Actor John Anderson, who appeared in four Twilight Zone episodes, recalled that "Rod Serling already had a tremendous track record on TV, and Twilight Zone was highly touted before it even premiered."**

Ray Bradbury, then at the height of his fame and influence, was the first professional science fiction writer that Rod Serling consulted upon beginning the journey to bring The Twilight Zone to the small screen. The two decorated writers met during a Writer's Guild award banquet in 1959 whereupon Serling informed Bradbury of his intention to develop a fantasy television series. Bradbury invited Serling over to his home where he would introduce Serling to many of the writers that would come to contribute to the series. Although Bradbury contributed only a single original teleplay to the series, the third season's rather disastrous production of "I Sing the Body Electric," the series as a whole owes much to Bradbury's work.*** Though Bradbury submitted two additional scripts to Serling and producer Buck Houghton, one of which was purchased but never green lit for production, the scripts were deemed economically unfeasible. Marc Scott Zicree, author of the indispensable The Twilight Zone Companion, gives additional details about Bradbury's involvement with the show and the alleged feud between Bradbury and Rod Serling in this video.

     Two of the writers Serling subsequently consulted upon Bradbury's recommendation were Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, both Bradbury proteges. Both writers were well established in print and were quickly emerging in the film and television industries. The two writers were suitably excited about the new market for their work and were impressed by Serling's unwavering dedication to the writer and to the integrity of the writer's work. Beaumont and Matheson immediately began contributing to the series by selling their short fiction to Serling and by contributing original material, all on a freelance basis.**** These three writers and a small core of others who arrived later (George Clayton Johnson, Montgomery Pittman, Earl Hamner, Jr., Jerry Sohl) would contribute the vast majority of material for the series. It was this tight-knit group of writers that gave the series its unique style and exceptional balance of content. For a revealing look at the production of the first season of The Twilight Zone from one of its principle writers, see Charles Beaumont's essay, "The Seeing I," in the December, 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (Mercury Press, Robert P. Mills, ed.), reprinted in Filmfax #75/76.  

First Season Crew:
Creator/Executive Producer/Lead Writer: Rod Serling
Producer: Buck Houghton
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens, a.s.c.
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Art Directors: George W. Davis & William Ferrari
Film Editor: Joseph Gluck, a.c.e.
Assistant Director: Edward Denault
Casting: Mildred Gusse
Sound: Franklin Milton & Jean Valentino
Set Decorators: Henry Grace & Rudy Butler
Special Make-up Effects: William Tuttle
Main Title Theme: Bernard Herrmann 

- The opening title for episodes in the first season alternated between two different animated sequences, each with a score by Bernard Hermann. The primary opening is a dreamlike sequence with the following narration by Rod Serling:

“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.”

The other opening, used in only a handful of episodes, is darker in tone and opens with a strange image of a woman’s eye which fades into a picture of a setting sun. Serling’s dialogue here is a briefer:

“You are about to enter another dimension.  A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind.  A journey into a wondrous land of imagination.  Next stop, the Twilight Zone.”

It was not until the second season that Serling and producers decided to replace Hermann’s scores with Marius Constant’s famous opening theme.

- Once the series was picked up by CBS, William Self, who produced the pilot episode, left the show for an executive position at the network. On Self’s recommendation, Serling asked Buck Houghton, who had been Serling’s script editor on Playhouse 90, to take over as producer.

- Serling did not appear as on-screen host during an episode until the second season.  During the first season he appeared on screen only in the preview trailers of the episodes. The memorable exception is the season one finale, “A World of His Own,” where Serling appears on screen at the end of the episode as one of Gregory West’s imaginary creations. His opening narration is also noticebly different in the first season, particularly the first dozen or so episodes. Not sure of the exact tone the show should take, he recites his monologues with almost a whisper, and many do not end with the famous "in the Twilight Zone" catch phrase.

*"Buck Houghton: Ghosts of Twilight Zone Past," interview by Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier. Starlog, issue 115 (2/87)
**"Life in The Twilight Zone" by Mark Phillips. Starlog, issue 216 (7/95)
***Two episodes in particular strongly echo the work of Ray Bradbury, both written by writers who developed professional careers under his guidance. Charles Beaumont's first season episode, "Elegy," based on his previously published short story, one written under Bradbury's tutelage, strongly echoes Bradbury's famous 1948 story, "Mars is Heaven!" Likewise, George Clayton Johnson's third season episode, "Nothing in the Dark," is a virtual reworking of Bradbury's 1960 short story, "Death and the Maiden." 
*****Perhaps owing to the continued freelance relationship between Beaumont and Matheson to the show, as early as 1960, Beaumont was attempting to sell an anthology series titled Out There to networks using original material written for the proposal by Beaumont, Matheson, Clayton Johnson, Jerry Sohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Bloch, and Ray Russell. Some years later, Matheson, Johnson, Sohl, and Sturgeon would come together again in an attempt to sell an anthology series titled A Touch of Strange to ABC executive Micheal Eisner, who turned it down. 

Grateful acknowledgement to: 

-The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (2nd edition, Silman-James, 1992)

-"The Incredible Scripting Man: Richard Matheson Reflects on His Screen Career" by Matthew R. Bradley (from: The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson, edited by Stanley Wiater, Matthew R. Bradley, and Paul Stuve. Citadel Press, 2009). 

-The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury by Sam Weller (William Morrow, 2005)

--Brian Durant and Jordan Prejean

1 comment:

  1. An incredible first Season.

    What show can even begin to match what was done at this time?

    If one questions if there has been an artistic decline in this country just look at this show and the intelligence brought to it, the questions it asks.

    Nevertheless it's excellence will always be something to aim for.