Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Season Five (1963-1964)

"You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension, a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into . . . The Twilight Zone." 

When CBS renewed Twilight Zone for a fifth season in 1963, the first order of business was to return the series to a half-hour format. The hour-long experiment of the fourth season was roundly considered a failure by those involved, as well as by many viewers. The series hoped to find stability by reverting to the format that worked so well before.  

Unfortunately, instability defined the fifth season as much as transition had defined the fourth. The result was the most uneven season in terms of quality, containing some of the finest episodes as well as many of the absolute worst, including a dreadful five-episode run to conclude the season, and the series, with a whimper, not with a bang.  

A number of factors worked against the series during the fifth season. Series creator Rod Serling was, by his own admission, burned-out and creatively exhausted, judging himself unable even to distinguish good work from bad. Serling tended to be his own harshest critic, however, and his comments proved too severe in retrospect, as he produced some fine work for the fifth season. “In Praise of Pip,” “The Masks,” and “The Jeopardy Room,” in particular, stand with much of the best from prior seasons.  

The show’s next most prolific writer, Charles Beaumont, suffered from a mysterious, mentally and physically debilitating illness that made writing increasingly difficult, and finally impossible. Beaumont managed to write only a single script for the fifth season, and this ultimately went unproduced. “Gentlemen, Be Seated” was adapted from Beaumont’s 1960 story, but the script was shelved by the show’s final producer, William Froug.

Science fiction novelist and scriptwriter Jerry Sohl, a close friend to Beaumont, stepped in during the fourth season to write “The New Exhibit” under Beaumont’s name. Sohl continued in this capacity during the fifth season for the episodes “Living Doll” and “Queen of the Nile.” Sohl produced two additional scripts for the fifth season, “Pattern for Doomsday,” from a story developed with Beaumont, and “Who Am I?” which was set to be Sohl’s first on-screen credit on the series. Alas, both scripts went unproduced after they were also shelved by the show’s final producer. 

Another among Charles Beaumont’s close friends and collaborators was novelist and scriptwriter John Tomerlin, who adapted Beaumont’s 1952 story, “The Beautiful People,” for the excellent fifth season episode, “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” Not at all discounting the fact that he was suffering from the effects of a horrific disease that took his life in 1967 at the young age of 38, it is nice to see Charles Beaumont, an important part of the show's success, represented during the fifth season through the efforts of his friends and collaborators.

The unstable nature of the fifth season was reflected in the work of the show’s other writers, as well. George Clayton Johnson saw his fifth season script, “Tick of Time,” adapted from his story, “The Grandfather Clock,” heavily tampered with by producer William Froug. Froug brought in another writer, Richard De Roy, to rewrite the script. De Roy made numerous changes, retitled the work “Ninety Years without Slumbering,” and left Johnson with only a story credit, which Johnson accepted using a pseudonym to indicate the degree to which the work had been altered. Johnson, who provided so many memorable moments on the series, effectively walked away from the series following this debacle concerning his final script.  

Earl Hamner, Jr. penned five episodes for the fifth season, his highest single-season output, including the unforgettable “Stopover in a Quiet Town” and the final broadcast episode, “The Bewitchin’ Pool.” Richard Matheson enjoyed arguably his finest season of work, adapting his short stories for such memorable episodes as “Steel,” “Night Call,” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Unfortunately, Matheson also saw one of his scripts, “The Doll,” shelved by the show’s final producer. 

A pleasant addition to the writing roster was Henry Slesar, whose stories were adapted for the fifth season episodes, “The Old Man in the Cave” and “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross.” Slesar was a prolific author of science fiction and mystery stories known for his association with Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  

The largest seismic shift during the fifth season resulted from the departure of producer Bert Granet midway through production. At the time of his exit, Granet completed production on thirteen episodes of the fifth season, with several more in development. Granet’s replacement was William Froug, a scriptwriter and producer remembered today as a producer on Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched. 

Although the genial Froug got along well with Rod Serling, and always fondly remembered his time on Twilight Zone, the series suffered under his watch and experienced a downturn in quality. The largest contributing factor to this was that Froug, wishing to begin fresh on the series, discarded several of the scripts that Bert Granet had in development at the time of his leaving. This meant that scripts by Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Jerry Sohl, and, most intriguingly, Arch Oboler went unproduced on the series. Compounding the problem was that Froug brought in outside writers who, to put it mildly, did not produce work as compelling as that of the show’s core writers. 

Fortunately, the fifth season was graced with a diverse array of talents behind the camera. Ida Lupino, director of Rod Serling’s “The Masks,” became the only female director of an episode, as well as the only person to appear in one episode (“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”) and direct another. Veteran film director Jacques Tourneur, a master of atmospheric horror and film noir, turned Richard Matheson’s “Night Call” into one of the most understated and exceptional episodes of the season, if not the series. The fifth season saw talented directors new to the series, such as Don Siegel and Richard Donner, alongside several veterans from the series, some of whom went all the way back to the first season, bringing the series around full-circle.

The fifth season proved to be the final run for Rod Serling’s groundbreaking fantasy series. It is a season highlighted by Robby the Robot, Mickey Rooney, Talky Tina, Mardi Gras masks, spy games, an Academy Award-winning French short film, and memorable final appearances from such familiar faces as Jack Klugman, Gladys Cooper, Martin Landau, John Anderson, Bill Mumy, Ed Wynn, Lee Marvin, John Dehner, Don Gordon, William Shatner, and several more.  

So, let us take that first step on a final journey into that wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. It begins just up ahead, with a vintage offering from Rod Serling.   


-Grateful acknowledgement to The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (Silman-James, 1989; second ed.) 

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