My View from South Hill
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
A slender, dark and classically handsome man stands alone in front of the camera, cigarette smoke curling into the air beside him. He speaks with a resonant voice and a precise diction that cannot be traced to any particular part of the country. "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."
We are in no place we have ever experienced in person. But when we hear those words, we know we are in The Twilight Zone.
This past weekend Ithaca College sponsored a conference to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the broadcast of the first Twilight Zone episode, in October 1959. The conference focused on Rod Serling, creator of the show and author of 92 of its 156 episodes. Serling is a native son of the Finger Lakes region, and taught at Ithaca College’s Park School of Communications for eight years after the series ended. His archive of scripts and screenplays is housed at Ithaca College, and his widow Carol Serling is to this day active in the College as an Honorary Trustee. We also enjoy the loan of five of Serling’s six Emmy awards, kept in a Park School display case that sends chills up my spine every time I walk past.
Before The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling was already famous and much-honored as the author of such teleplays as Requiem for a Heavyweight. His decision to write and produce a half hour science fiction TV show raised eyebrows among his serious author friends. Former colleague George Clayton Johnson, who wrote eight Twilight Zone episodes, explained at the conference that Serling “wrote realistically in the mode of the theater, but was gifted enough to add one touch of unreality. That one touch enabled the viewer to accept the entire story and to see a familiar situation in a whole new light.”
Johnson was referring to Serling’s strong moral beliefs particularly on inequality, bigotry, racism, and corporate or societal efforts to control the human spirit. Serling had battled censorship of his TV scripts earlier in his career, but found that the parables of The Twilight Zone could be aired without interference. His daughter Jodi, speaking at the conference, said that when she was 11 she asked her dad what The Twilight Zone was about. “Grown up fairy tales,” Serling replied, “The mysteries of life that they don’t teach you in school.”
The conference included the screening of a number of Twilight Zone episodes, including my favorite, "It's a Good Life," in which a young boy reduces the adults around him to cowering sycophants through his mental powers to make them vanish, or to turn them into a mindless vegetable or a jack-in-the-box. As entertainment, the episode capitalizes on the contrast between the innocent self-absorption of the boy and the terrifying powers he wields. As a moral lesson, the story reminds us why it is important to have parents who tell us to eat our vegetables and do other things that are good for us, and who can make it stick. Seeing the episode again last week, I realized this lesson applies also to the responsibilities of authority in the workplace. We owe each other a commitment to the common good. Any authority or power we might have should never be exercised for personal reasons. But we need to exercise our authority, rather than abdicate it, for the good of all.
Why do we celebrate The Twilight Zone fifty years later? I am struck by the contrast with the Brady Bunch, which is coincidentally being celebrated on its fortieth anniversary. Reminisces of the Brady Bunch are pure nostalgia, reminders of when one was young and it felt like you were growing up with that family. It is safe to say that there will be no Brady Bunch revival in another forty years, but The Twilight Zone will still viewed and discussed for generations to come. Its episodes have a timeless character, both because of their focus on the human condition and because they were (usually) set neither in the present day nor in some literal projection of the future. They were instead placed in settings invented entirely for their potential to provoke thought. The very phrase "Twilight Zone" has entered our everyday vocabulary to describe a realm "as vast as space and as timeless as infinity," as Serling reminded us each week.
How remarkable that Rod Serling found a way to set forth ideas in moral philosophy and problems in social practice, all within the confines of the 30 minute network broadcast! How extraordinary that he achieved this in the first decade of the television era! And how unfortunate that no one since then has managed to duplicate his feat.
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