Monday, April 11, 2011

Season 1 (1959-1960)

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 from the era of live television as a dramatist with deep humanistic concerns, writing for prestige dramatic anthology programs such as Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90.  By the time The Twilight Zone aired on October 2, 1959, Serling had been writing television scripts for nearly a decade, receiving an unprecedented 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 potentially risk his reputation by turning his efforts toward tales of fantasy, science fiction, and the supernatural, creative fields generally held in low regard by cultural critics.

     Serling gained a reputation as a writer willing 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 ripped apart, sanitized, and sewn back together again to appease corporate sponsors, he began to contemplate creating a fantasy program in an effort to alleviate such restrictions. With fantasy, Serling reasoned, he could get away with Martians and robots saying the controversial things which ordinary characters could not. Essentially, he desired to create a program where the writer was in control. He began by creating his own production company, Cayuga Productions, which eventually oversaw production on his new television experiment, The Twilight Zone.

     Before the creation of Cayuga Productions, Serling wrote two hour-long scripts in an attempt to entice CBS to take a chance on a fantasy anthology series. The first, "I Shot an Arrow Into the Air," about an alien encounter in a remote village, was rejected by the network. Serling later reworked the material into the third season Twilight Zone episode "The Gift," and reused the title for a completely different first season episode suggested by a story idea from Madelon Champion. Serling's second potential script, entitled "The Time Element," was purchased by CBS but the network passed on developing it into a series, or even filming it at all, and ultimately shelved it. Bert Granet, a producer at CBS on The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, and who later joined Rod Serling as producer on the fourth and fifth seasons of Twilight Zone, learned that Serling had sold a script to CBS but that the network shelved it. Eager to work with Serling's material, Granet dug the script out of the network archives and took it 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 on Arnaz's program to wide acclaim and enormous popularity. 

       "The Time Element" (read our review here) is a time travel story starring William Bendix and Martin Balsam and concerns a man who, by means of a recurring dream, travels backwards in time to the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The fantasy story was something fresh on television and its popularity among viewers of The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse attracted the attention of CBS, who backtracked and decided to allow Serling a shot at developing his own fantasy series. 
Earl Holliman in "Where Is Everybody?"

     William Self, an executive in program development at CBS, was assigned to film the pilot at Universal International Studios and Serling set to work developing a script. His first attempt, however, did not go over well. Serling turned in a script entitled "The Happy Place." It was a dark vision of a future in which citizens over the age of sixty are taken to idyllic retirement communities and systematically euthanized. William Self thought the story powerful but hardly something by which to sell a series to a network. He urged Serling to try again with something different. In response, Serling 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, the subject of an experiment in preparation for space flight. Hours spent 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 and potential sponsors to take a shot on the series. After the episode finished shooting, Serling brought it to New York and screened it for CBS and potential sponsors. They bought the series. 

     Although Serling urged pilot producer William Self to stay on-board as regular producer on the series, Self elected to continue his executive role within the network. Upon Self's recommendation, CBS hired Buck Houghton because, as Houghton later put it, "they wanted Rod to be working in tandem with somebody that they knew, instead of somebody that he knew."* William Self previously worked with Houghton when he hired Houghton as story editor during Self's stint as producer on Schlitz Playhouse of the Stars. Houghton never held a particular affinity for fantasy or science fiction but possessed a great eye for talent and excellent 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 Serling's vision was represented in everything done on the series. He and Serling hit it off immediately, on both a personal and professional level. Houghton was the steady balance to Serling's manic energy and the combination worked brilliantly for three seasons. 

      Together, Serling and Houghton began the task of acquiring material for the first season. 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, yielded zero usable material and was quickly shut down. Writers continued to send in unsolicited story material for the duration of the series, however, often resulting in baseless calls of plagiarism against Serling and the series. Serling decided instead to approach a small group of professional science fiction and fantasy writers, allowing the writers to read nine of Serling's 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 from 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 success and influence, was the first professional writer Rod Serling consulted. The two writers met in 1958 through a mutual friend, screenwriter John Gay. After a Writers Guild Awards banquet in early 1959, Serling informed Bradbury of his intention to develop a fantasy television series. Bradbury invited Serling to his home where he recommended to Serling many of the writers who later contributed to the series. Although Bradbury contributed only a single teleplay to the series, the third season's "I Sing the Body Electric," the series as a whole owes much to Bradbury's work. 

     Two writers Serling subsequently consulted were Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, both of whom developed under Bradbury's influence and mentorship. Both writers were well established in print and were quickly emerging in the film and television industries. They were suitably excited about the new market for their work and were impressed by Serling's 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. Together with Serling, these two writers and a small core of others who arrived later (George Clayton Johnson, Montgomery Pittman, Earl Hamner, Jr., Jerry Sohl) contributed the vast majority of material for the series. It was this tight-knit group of writers, many of whom were personal friends, that gave the series its unique style, balance of content, and consistent quality. For a revealing look at the production of the first season of The Twilight Zone from one of its writers, see Charles Beaumont's essay, "The Seeing I," from the December, 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The article was reprinted in Filmfax #75/76.  

     With these elements in place, the first season of The Twilight Zone was off and running. 

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 accompanied by a score from Bernard Herrmann. 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 five episodes, is darker in tone and opens with an image of a woman’s eye which fades into a picture of a setting sun. Serling’s dialogue here is 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.”

Used for "Mr. Denton on Doomsday," "Mr. Bevis," "The After-Hours," "The Mighty Casey," and "A World of His Own."

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

- Serling did not regularly appear on-screen as host until the second season.  During the first season he appeared on screen only in preview segments 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 (played by Keenan Wynn) imaginary creations. His opening narration is also noticeably different in the first season, particularly for the first dozen or so episodes. Unsure of the exact tone the show should take, he recites his monologues in 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)

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 (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)

--JP & BD

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.