Sunday, September 13, 2020

Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval (1995).

Lately, I've had time to reflect.  This seems to have been something of a gradual process.  After giving a few genre matters a lot of thought, my mind seems to have started out on a process of some kind.  My thoughts keep turning back to the Horror genre, though perhaps not in what's expected as the usual way in which the genre gets practiced today.  For some reason, in particular, I find myself going elsewhere.  I keep thinking about some of the old pioneers who helped give the Horror field the kind of shape and definition as we know it today.  I seem to be coming back to a concept I've mentioned once or twice before.  There are moments in history where the minds of several differing artists can nonetheless find themselves beginning to combine or coalesce into a series of mutually sustaining creatives groups.  These artistic formations seem to come about largely as a response to elements going on in the cultural zeitgeist of the times in which the artists find themselves.  It's happened once before in the Renaissance when scribbling fellows like John Donne, Ben Jonson, Chris Marlowe, and Bill from Stratford, England went on to make up a collection representing the high point of early modern literature.

The phenomena has repeated itself in various ways throughout the years since then.  The rise of the Modernist Movement in the early years of the 20th century may still be regarded as the most memorable forms this process can take.  For some reason, nobody has taken the time to look at other examples of this same experience.  I can think of at least two other times this happened in the field of American letters.  Author Peter S. Beagle, for instance, recalled being accepted for a Wallace Stegner Fellowship college grant that sent him packing to the shores of the West Coast to attend Stanford University.  What stands out about his time as a college student, aside from coming of age in the 60s, was the contents of the English class he had to attend.  It was less the course itself, and more the students Beagle found himself surrounded by.  When one considers the nature of these students, perhaps it makes better sense to speak of the talent involved in that long ago classroom.

According to Beagle's own account, it was "An amazing gang.  I admit that at times I felt completely overwhelmed.  There was Larry McMurtry, the first friend I made there, known now for Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show...He was only a couple of years older than I was, and really talented.  He wrote most of Leaving Cheyenne during our sessions.  There was a 25 year-old Ken Kesey, at that point working on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  There was Judith Rascoe, who was the niece or great-niece of a very influential critic named Burton Rascoe; Judith went on to write stories and some very good screenplays.  There was a Scottish guy named Robin MacDonald, whose wife, Joanna Ostrow, was Bronx Jewish like me.  Robin was the one with the fellowship, but Joanna turned out to be the real writer.  She would sit in on the class and years later, after the class was long over, she published an excellent novel called In the Highlands Since Time Immemorial.  There was Chris Koch, an Australian writer whose best-known work over here is probably The Year of Living Dangerously (The Last Unicorn, Deluxe Edition, 251)".

What's interesting to note about Beagle's experience is the way it sheds light on the phenomena of artists getting drawn together in order to create a series of landmark works.  What's interesting to note, however, is the idea or at least suggestion that a sense of group interaction is part of what makes such creativity possible in the first place.  It may sound speculative, however I'm willing to go out on a limb and maintain that the same creative clustering that formed the Renaissance writers and the Modernists was also at work for a brief time in that simple Stanford classroom.  If it all sounds haphazard, then it begs the question of why any conscious planning of these events is necessary at all?  I know there are authors or individuals who often can't go through a single day without trying to plan ahead.  The difference is that for the most part, what history reveals is that each creative voice starts out in isolation, then there's a connecting period where various voices are allowed to establish various form of contact with each other.  This is followed by a situation where inspiration, criticism, and feedback occur.  This moment, for however long it lasts, is often when the most competent voices are able to create their best work.  It is just possible, for instance, that Shakespeare would never have perfected his craft so well without the encouragement and criticism of Marlowe to spur him on.

The reason for highlighting that Stanford Class Collective is because of the way Beagle sort of helps link up one group of writers with another.  I've written about this second cast of characters before.  Together, they form of a collective known as the California Sorcerers.  I think Christopher Conlon still provides the best summary of this particular group, and their artistic achievements.  "For these men were, from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, part of a close-knit brotherhood of writers centered in the Los Angeles area that came to dominate not only printed SF and fantasy, but movies and TV as well as scripting between them many of the period’s best-known films (including most of the Roger Corman / Edgar Allan Poe movies), along with classic segments of Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond, and virtually every episode of The Twilight Zone. At its peak this association of creative artists also included, among others, Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Jerry Sohl, Ray Russell, and Harlan Ellison. These outstandingly gifted men were collectively referred to by several names, including “The Southern California School of Writers” and “The Green Hand” (after the Mafia’s “Black Hand”). But they were most commonly called, simply, “The Group (web)".  It's not much of an exaggeration to say this is the group responsible for our sense of the Modern Fantastic in arts and letters.

I'd like to take another look at one of their number.  The one I'm focused in on this time is a fella named Rodman Edward Serling.  He's lucky in that I don't think he needs much of an introduction.  If you know about The Twilight Zone, you might still have a rough idea of who he is.  He's that cool, creepy guy introducing everything to us.  Fair enough, yet where did he come from?  How many people know the host didn't emerge out of nowhere from the ether, and instead represents something of an American anomaly.  He was a Jewish New Yorker who was born and raised in an almost idyllic small town.  Apparently they still still had those back in 1924.  That's just one element many people don't know about him.  There are a lot of other facts worth uncovering.  Part of the reason for telling it has to do with questions of definition.  I've had some time to do a lot of thinking about the nature of Horror fiction.

After reading and looking around long enough, my mind seems to want to lay out a lot of things, so that modern audiences can gain a sense of bearings in the genre.  Part of that means helping to gain a realization of where all the best bad dreams come from.  In order to do that, sometimes it helps learning where certain tropes and ideas come from.  That's where shows like the Zone and guys like Serling come in.  For better or worse (and I'm more than inclined toward the former category), the host of the 5th Dimension is one of those sorts who helped shape and mold both Horror, Fantasy, and even a bit of Sci-Fi into what they are today.  How and why he did it are the real questions worth asking.  If you can provide at least part of the answer to either of them, then you're closer to understanding the works of art that help define a culture.  That's why it's gratifying to know that at  some point in the mid-90s, PBS devoted a slot of their time to what, at this writing, seems to remain the only full-length biography of the man who unlocked a door with the key of imagination, and found beyond it another dimension.  It was called Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval, the reasons for looking into it go as follows.

Early Influences and the Shaping of a Writer's Mind.

When it comes Serling's formative, early years, one almost has to bring up the related figure of Ray Bradbury again.  The reason for that is because in some ways, while having different personalities, backgrounds, and upbringings, there is a very remarkable sense of overlap in how they grew up and what molded their imaginations.  For starters, they were both small town boys.  For Bradbury it was Waukeghan, Illinois.  Serling had Binghamton, NY.  I've never seen Waukeghan as it was during the young 1900s.  However Bradbury has put so much of his own childhood into his fictional Green Town that its almost enough to get a sense of what it must have been like.  It's the sort of place where all the major businesses are placed next to each to create the kind of Norman Rockwell setup whose very reality makes it seem almost unreal.  The ironic part is that the documentary does show footage of Serling's actual small community of Binghamton.  What's remarkable about it is that it looks like just the kind of place you expect to find in a Bradbury story.  Either that or else Main Street USA was uprooted from Disneyland and placed in an out of the way suburb up north.  The fact that such places exist leads me to the phrase American Storybook as best term to describe what these places used to be like. 

"Everybody has a home town", Serling is quoted in the documentary, "Binghamton was mine.  In the strangely brittle, terribly sensitive make up of a human being, there is a need for a place to hang a hat, or a kind of geographical womb to crawl back into.  Or maybe just a place that's familiar, because that's where you grew up".  "Upstate New York," declares the film's narration on Serling's beginnings, "circa 1924.  Born on Christmas day, a suitable start for a charmed childhood.  His mother dotes a bit, but gives him room enough to be himself.  His father, a butcher by trade, but a dreamer by inclination, gives his son a rare gift, the belief that he can do anything.  He likes being at the center, and almost always is.  People are drawn to him, to his remarkable blend of humility and self-confidence.  It is a childhood with few disappointments.  A safe place.  The depression hardly touches this gentle, idyllic world.  He soaks up the New Deal aspirations of his parents, and the mythic images of small town America.  He will carry these things forever, revisiting them on the page like faded photographs in an old wallet.  Afternoons at the movies with his brother, and summer nights spent listening to the radio.  His imagination flourishes, his horizons expand beyond the familiar boundaries of Binghamton; beyond the innocence of childhood".

It all sounds like the ideal setup for the development of a writer's mind.  The one regret is that this is about as far as the documentary goes in terms of Serling's early gestation process.  In doing so it, leaves us with a number of very important questions.  Perhaps they can all be framed in the following all-encompassing manner.  What did he read?  What films did he watch?  Which ones stayed with him the most?  Those are the kinds of questions that need to be asked if you want to figure out where the talent comes from.  Part of is a combination of things.  It's not enough just to have a vivid imagination.  Most of us tend to start out with one almost as a matter of natural necessity.  What seems to mark out the genuine artist from the rest is not just that they have an imagination, they find some way of tapping directly into it, and keeping it alive while the rest of us find various excuses for letting it rot as we get older.  It is perhaps the most key process in the entirety of the individual's artistic development.  One that's so important that I'm willing to make an admission.  Finding out how all the giants did it probably won't make everyone into a writer.  That seems like too much of an impossibility.  However, solving or figuring out the process by which guys like Serling or Bradbury were able to grab the reigns of imagination and find a way to steer their own interacting courses through it is perhaps the closest the criticism and history of the arts has to a Rosetta Stone.

Finding out how Serling went about it is something of a challenge.  Part of the reason why is a frustrating shortage of biographical sources.  The sad fact is there are precious few biographies of the creator of The Twilight Zone out there, and some of them either never give enough detail, or don't pay attention to the one's that matter.  Most of these bios are anxious to get the early stuff out of the way and make a beeline to the moment when Rod steps on front of the camera for first time as a TV host.  I suppose there's a sense in which all that's understandable.  Meanwhile, however, the question of where do the stories come from, anyway, remains unanswered.  If you leave that question hanging, you're not approaching the subject matter in the right frame of mind.  It's a fault of which the PBS documentary is not guilty by way of providing a bit more detail on Serling's development in certain respects.  In that sense, it can be said to be doing its job.  I just wish they'd taken a bit more time to ask what drew him to works of Science Fiction and Horror.

It' an unfortunate thing to have to admit.  It also doesn't change the truth as far as I can see.  The sad fact is all the reliable information that has been dug up in regard to the complex and interrelated nature of Serling's early artistic influences has literally been summed up in the contents of a short blog post.  Terence E. Hanley has done scholars and Zone fans a favor by taking all he was able to dig up on the kind of entertainment Serling devoured in his formative years, and placed it all in one neat reference point.  The sad thing is if this is all they info we've got, then someone was asleep at the wheel.  We've let a lot of important information slip through the cracks of time.  This makes the task of understanding the growth of a writer's mind a bit harder than it ought to be.  Still, the favor remains, and I can only hope Hanley's blog and this entry in particular never goes anywhere soon.

As Hanley lays it out, his own experience with the weird fiction genre led him to ask a very simple question: "Was Rod Serling a reader of Weird Tales in his youth? It took me awhile to find the answer.  I started with a biography, Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in the Twilight Zone by Joel Engel (1989).  The book lacks an index, so I had two choices: read it or page through it.  I paged through it and finally came to this: So what attracted Rod Serling, the writer, to the world of the fantastic?  Bob Serling says that his brother told him "The Twilight Zone" sprang from his frequent insomniac nights, when his active imagination--fed by his lifelong love of horror films, his war experiences, and the stories of such writers as Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and H.P. Lovecraft--contrived fantastical plots that seemed plausible in the predawn. Carol Serling says that her husband "wanted to believe" in the unseen, but had no direct experiences himself. (p. 103)

"Although Robert Heinlein contributed to Weird Tales, he was more closely associated with Astounding Science-Fiction. Ray Bradbury had twenty-five stories printed in Weird Tales beginning with the November 1942 issue. It's likely that if he read Ray Bradbury, Serling also read Weird Tales. However, in pretty rapid order, Rod Serling turned eighteen (on December 25, 1942), graduated from high school (in late January 1943), was inducted into the army (the next day), and boarded a bus for Fort Niagara (on February 3). In other words, he got exactly one chance to read a story by Ray Bradbury in Weird Tales before reaching draft age. But Bob Serling mentioned H.P. Lovecraft, too, and though Lovecraft's works were reprinted here and there after his death in 1937, his name is inextricably linked with the magazine Weird Tales. 

"Still no proof.  Next I found The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (1982). The index in that book is scanty. That meant more page-by-page searching--but not much. Here's Bob Serling again on page 3: We were fairly close as kids . . . . The two of us used to read Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories, Weird Tales--all of the pulps.  With that, we can put Rod Serling with Ward Cleaver on the list of famous readers of Weird Tales (web)".  

Toss in a flock of seagulls, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is probably about all she ever freaking wrote on the subject!  It doesn't say much of anything good when this is as far as we can get with how Serling's creativity developed.  At least we've got something to go on, however meager it is.  It places Serling as part of a type or category of reader.  A list of his reading material seems to situate him in a familiar category.  He tends to come off as one of a legion of growing genre fans at the start of the 20th century.  It was an earlier version of the fandom subculture, a phenomenon which seems to be fragmenting as of this writing, and might even be coming not so much to an end as settling into a kind of minority status.  Whether this state of affairs is permanent or temporary remains to be seen.

In Serling's day it was still in its early growth phase.  The numbers amounted to perhaps just a handful across the Country.  Forrest Ackerman and his friends had yet to hold the first fan convention.  The contents of Serling's reading material shows the artist's mind growing up under, and being influenced by, all the familiar tropes.  Hanley looks for signs of his being drawn to Lovecraftian fiction.  I can see how there might be a such an influence on display in episodes like And When the Sky was Opened.  However, that seems to have been a Richard Matheson episode, so its hard to get a fix on the matter.  If I had to take the closest thing to an informed guess.  I'd have to so with the idea that perhaps the writer to leave the biggest impact on the young Serling was none other than Ray Bradbury.  Of all the popular genre authors out there to choose from, Bradbury is the one who tends to find the most echoes in Serling's work.  In making this statement, it is at least possible to say we can gain a more or less fixed idea of how Serling's imagination was shaped and molded.

Serling's War Experiences.  

There is one other element in the creation of Serling's art that has an importance second only to those of his childhood.  It's something the American Masters documentary takes great care to highlight, and its one of the strengths of the whole piece that it is able to suggest a lot while saying only a little.  It's to the filmmakers credit that they are able to handle this element with the necessary tact and skill that they did.  Perhaps a lot of it is down to the fact that they knew they were dealing with a very serious subject matter.  Like everyone else, the advent of the Second World War saw the young Serling drafted into the military.  Unlike a lot of artistic types, Rod seemed eager to earn not just his stripes, but rather wings.  When he got his notice, one of the first things he did was volunteer for a slot in a parachute division.  

Robert Serling reports that he was "absolutely stunned when I heard (Rod) enlisted in the paratroopers.  I think he just wanted to prove himself, as he did all of his life".  This seems to be another moment where Serling's experience plays out almost as if it were conforming to a pattern audiences have either seen or read about elsewhere in a book.  One of his school teachers, Helen Foley, gives a hint as to what kind of pattern we're dealing with when a newly uniformed Serling presented himself to her, and all she could think was what a shame to send that kind of innocence off to face the horrors that were waiting for him.  One of the things I've learned from watching this documentary is just where Serling got the sort of creative drive to pen the stories he's now famous for.  What I now realize after watching the documentary is that a lot, if not all of it came from the War.  It comes from Serling being sent into the slaughterhouse of the Pacific Theater and getting the chance to witness man's own worst impulses on display.  

Serling himself sums it up pretty good.  "We were men whose minds and bodies had been attacked by two formidable opponents.  One was hunger, which gnawed at our stomachs.  The other was fear, that gnawed at our morale.  We had come off as fresh initiates in the art of war, and were now dirty, postgraduate men, taught wisdom by the impatient teacher that is conflict".  "He had terrible nightmares," Serling's brother admits.  "He didn't just have war experiences, they were branded into his hide, and soul, and his mind.  And I think (it, sic) produced some of the finest writing he ever did".  Serling then says something that I think is not just revealing.  It's also uncanny in its very familiarity.  We've been here before.  He writes, "I was traumatized into writing by war events.  By going through a war in a combat situation and feeling the desperate need for some sort of therapy.  Get it out of my gut, write it down.  This is the way it began for me".

Compare the above statement with another in a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien during the same conflict.  "I think also that  you are suffering from suppressed 'writing'...I think if you could begin to write, and find your own mode, or even (for a start) imitate mine, you would find it a great relief.  I  sense amongst all your pains (some merely physical) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering.  In my case it generated Morgoth (78)".  Soon enough, it helped generated the entire secondary world known as Middle Earth.  In Serling's case, the ultimate result, or at least the one we still recall him by, was the Zone.  Tolkien may have been writing just for his own son, who was in the Air Force at the time.  His words, however, seem to act not just as guidance, but also a form of commentary on Serling's own situation.

I have said that the growth of Serling's life as an artist seemed familiar.  The reason for that is becomes a bit more apparent when we bring in another famous writer, each of whom has undergone a similar experience.  First there is a starting period, in which it's all the young artist's mind can do to figure out just what it wants to be.  Then the scene shifts.  A crisis is introduced, and the struggle then becomes one in which the artist must figure out if he even has anything worthy to say.  What seems to be happening in all this is that both writers are struggling with an imagination in search of some sort of statement that, as Tolkien observes, finds the meaning or pattern of the events that have just occurred.  In which case it could be said that Serling's creative output, like that of Tolkien, can be said to act in part as a memorial of some sort.  The other half, in the meantime, is focused on trying to figure out what can be learned from such a conflict, what forces created it in ordinary civilian life, and above all how do you avoid it ever happening again?

At the same time, Serling's own life seems to have been a part of that same familiar pattern.  It's interesting to find that it's one he shares with a writer of Tolkien's caliber. It is an aspect of his career that may be worth examining further up and in at some later date.  For now, perhaps it's enough to note that we are lucky enough to even be able to see and recognize the familiar pattern of Serling's formative years.  There may be a sense in which it can be called a modern version of the kind of Romantic setup like those established by poets such as Wordsworth.  There is a moment of innocence, followed by a grueling experience which, somehow, is able to serve as a kind of forge, or generator of works of art.  It's a very interesting process, though perhaps one to be avoided.  One hopes that it doesn't have to take war to create all the best kinds of art.  Either way, what matters next is the use Serling put his imagination to, and the historical medium in which it all took place.    

The Golden Age of Television.

The familiar artistic pattern of Serling's life continues with his decommission from the army at the end of the War.  Like Tolkien, Serling found himself coming to a world that was changed and shaped by the conflict in which he had taken part.  This is also one point at which there is something like a minor deviation in the pattern.  When Tolkien returned to Britain at the end of the Great War, it was to a country that was diminished in several ways.  Serling, by contrast, seems to have won the luck of the draw.  America had the good fortune to experience what was known as the Post-War Boom in all its walks of life.  This included an increase (for a time, at least) in a relative material prosperity, as well as the advent of the now Baby Boomer generation.  The pattern becomes more identical with that of others from here on.  Like Tolkien, Serling found himself thrust into a kind of premature elder statesman role.  He saw what his efforts had helped the country to achieve.  At the same time, the War, and the lessons it taught him remained.  It had given Serling that particular turn of mind that finds it difficult to just sit back and acquiesce.  His conscience seemed to remain just a bit too uneasy with things as they were.  A lot of it might have had to do with the way the previous conflict had shaken things up in the country.

Two things seemed to have been happening at once in households all across the Country.  On the one hand, everyone was desperate to get back to things as usual.  At the same time, the pot had been stirred.  Things and ideas had begun to stir in the back of the collective American psyche.  Perhaps Stephen King described the phenomenon best when he tried to find the words to describe the mental mindset of not just his own upbringing, but also that of his whole generation.  As King observes in his non-fiction book, Danse Macabre, "We were fertile ground for the seeds of terror, we war babies; we had been raised in a strange circus atmosphere of paranoia, patriotism, and national hubris.  We were told that we were the greatest nation on earth and that any...outlaw who tried to draw down on us in that great saloon of international politics would discover who the fastest gun in the West was...but we were also told exactly what to keep in our fallout shelter and how long we would have to stay in there after we won that war.  We had more to eat than any nation in the history of the world, but there were traces of Strontium-90 in  our milk from nuclear testing (9)".

King sees both himself and his peers perched on a tightrope between that same paranoia and what he calls the "Pioneer Spirit".  It is just possible that the constant clash between these two opposing principles might have been enough to generate a third factor into the mix.  We might call it an Ethical Drive, if you want.  It was the growing sense (nascent at first during most of the 50s, before exploding into genuine historical action with the commencement of the 60s) that the situation itself was (in the long run) untenable, and something had to be done to make things better.  This seems like a good enough description of the entire social mood that Serling encountered when he left the theater of war, and stepped once more back onto the normal public stage.  It was this same atmosphere that found its way into his work.  This was nowhere more apparent than in New York, where Serling eventually made his way after establishing his name.

One of the unusual perks of a post-war society that it often provides the perfect crucible for the fomenting and flourishing of a culture's creative talents.  When Serling made his big break into television, he seems to have hit the ground running in an industry that was just starting to stretch its legs, and get an idea of just what it could do.  This idea may have been a bit more sophisticated back then.  In one sense it's useless to talk about the production quality of early television.  This is for the simple reason that, in the strictest sense, there was and is no visual flair to be had.  The cameras can move, but if you pay attention long enough, you soon realize if they try anything fancy they might just knock the entire set clean over.  If you try to make a modern action sequence in that environment, all that can happen is that you've either unplugged the camera, or all the microphones get caught in the shot.  John Frankenheimer is correct when he observes, "We were the old days!"

In other words, none of the old TV shows can give a modern viewer what they may crave the most (if they can even afford to pay attention, which most of us cannot, at least not if you want to keep afloat).  There's no diversion to distract from one's surroundings.  All they could afford back then is one measly little camera and the actors all packed into the frame like sardines on a set that looks more like a stage than cinema verite.  This may be an intolerable situation for a modern viewer.  However, I find that there's a lot to be said for it.  For one thing, with little visual flair to be had, that left the artists with ultimately just one resource, the writing, and whether or not it was good enough to put in front of a camera.  It seems to be the defining feature of that early phase of television.  With a lack of visual quality, the audiences attention was automatically pulled toward the art of the words.  This makes those early TV dramas something of a welcome pace from the current norm.  It is also perhpas something of a carry-over from a much earlier literary tradition.  The first major writers for the medium all shared one thing in common.  A lot of them came from the theater stage, and all of them seemed to have had this high degree of literacy.  Guys like Paddy Chayefsky, Fielder Cook, Sidney Lumet, and Arthur Miller perhaps knew something of the popular dramatic tradition before they knew anything about visuals.  The irony is how it seems to have served them all well.

What separates them from the current script room crop we have now is just how far that sense of literacy was able to carry things.  To give a good idea of what kind of writers they were, I suppose you'd have to point to someone like John Updike.  These were TV grunts who nonetheless were familiar with the latest output by Norman Mailer, or Saul Bellow.  Some of them may have had a familiarity with the emerging scene of Beat Poetry.  It was because of being well read in a lot of these major literary fields (Both Renaissance and Modernist) that sometimes a lot of these old shows have a way of sneaking up on you with their language.  It's a bit more refined, somehow, more there if you can dig it.  It's an open question whether any of it deserves to be called realistic, in the strictest sense.  Most working class people in real life will never find a way to talk like their fictional counterparts up on the small screen.  This was true even back in the day, when all of it was new.  Some may try to argue that it just comes off as boring and pretentious.  However, I've seen enough of it to make me believe that it has its value, and even a staying power.  Like any creative endeavor, these shows were all one big game of target practice.  If you missed the goal, you flopped big.  If you could manage to hit the mark, on the other hand, you might have just created something worth watching.

That's the case with a lot of Serling's early efforts.  Teleplays like Patterns are interesting in how they are a glimpse of the world of Mad Men as it was all happening in real time, during the actual era in which it was set.  Serling calls it a story about "morality's shay side of the street".  In doing so, I think he might have anticipated the kind of programming we're more familiar with in an age of The Wire, and Breaking Bad.  It's possible to marvel at how naive we were back then.  However, think about it.  If some guy back then was already calling out the kind of shenanigans that have made Don Draper almost a modern day trope, then I'd have to say the seeds planted are a lot more observant and prescient than perhaps we give the writers back then credit for.

In addition to this, even back then, Serling's work also displayed those trademark touches that would make him famous later on.  The best example can be found in a half-hour story called "Nightmare at Ground Zero", featuring Ozzy Whitehead as a builder of mannequins whose having a bad time of it in the middle of a Nevada bomb test site.  The majority of the episode is the protagonist losing his mind, surrounded by his dolls, while the clock for the bomb drop is running down.  Now that sounds just like the Serling we all know and love, by gosh!

What made Rod begin the slow transition into more of this material was his frustration with the kind of  imposed by the TV networks.  I've said the War was a major shaping force in his creative output.  That meant Serling's creative drive was often fueled by the need to write the kind of stories that held up a mirror to society which would put its finger on all of its troubled pressure points.  For instance, he wrote this one teleplay, A Town has Turned to Dust.  It was always meant to be a straight-up dramatization of the lynching of Emmett Till.  "By the time the networks had got through with it, my script had turned to dust", Serling recalled.  It was a form of repetition within the pattern.  Serling would try and pen a script that reflected on America's social ills.  The network would send it back as un-filmable.  The trouble was Serling's war experiences left him with a psychological need to get these themes off his chest.  His whole career seems to have been one, continuous, fascinating mixture of idealism and compulsion.  It explains the constant presence of social critique in his work.

The major trouble, as Rod soon discovered, is that it is not the business of a television network to allow either (a) a chance for the artist to exorcise both personal and social issues, or (b) have any real kind of inherent mandate that would allow for a genuine expression of art.  It was a constant uphill battle that slowly began to weigh the writer down.  So in desperation, with little other recourse, and in a medium in which the public taste was beginning to shift toward a preference for more popular fair, Serling turned back to his first influences.  I'm not sure I've ever been told the exact details on how or why he decided to come up with the concept of TV anthology devoted to Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and/or Horror.  It's always presented as just something that occurred to him.  If that's the case, then its our good fortune that Serling could never manage to lose touch, or to shake off that childhood love for things that go bump in the night.  Again, like Tolkien, he couldn't seem to avoid the lure and charm of the fantastic.

Entering the Zone.

There's an irony to pop-culture.  Once you're in it, everybody goes around saying how it was always an inevitability.  If Rod Serling hadn't come along, this form of logic goes, it would have been necessary to invent the his greatest creation anyway.  The lesson that history teaches is that it isn't so cut and dried.  When the Serling first pitched the idea that has now placed his name on the map forever, all he got for his troubles was incredulity, at best.  "It was a show no one wanted to buy," he tells us.  "I wanted to do it for years, but they said no, no, no.  Fantasy in any form is out, and irony".  The closest thing I've ever been able to find to a critical consensus about the creation of The Twilight Zone is that Rod must have hit on the realization that it was possible to say anything and all he could ever want about the social ills he felt were plaguing America, and he could get away with all of it as long as he remembered to couch it in the genre trappings of the uncanny and imaginary.  It was also kind of the perfect format that would allow him to get his own demons off his chest.  It's an idea that the documentary buys into.

Serling's initial response on getting the green light for his surreal concept was to act like the kid whose won the golden ticket to the candy factory.  "For the first time in television," he said, "a writer will have the opportunity to let his imagination take him wherever he wants to.  The sky is no longer the limit".  That didn't mean it wasn't a hassle every now and then.  "Once CBS started seeing the footage of these episodes," according to Mark Scott Zicree, "they said what on earth is this?!  This is not what we had in mind.  And this is where Buck Houghton was very useful as a producer, because Buck basically said to the executives at CBS, this is what you ordered, this what you've got, live with it"!  "CBS had some reservations about giving Rod Serling too much power," as Houghton tells it.  "Here's this outspoken, sharp little guy, came out from New York with all that reputation".  Zicree continues, "For (Serling, sic) to say I want to do something with robots, and aliens, and outer space, and fantasy, and ghosts!  He was risking throwing away his credibility within that medium".

Still, Serling didn't seem to let any of that pressure deter him.  When he set his mind to something, especially if he felt had something important to say on the matter, then his usual line of approach seems to have been to just plow ahead, reputations be damned.  Whether or not he was a man on a mission, he seems to have taken solace in the conviction that he was doing the most important thing any writer can achieve.  He was telling the truth.

Things and Ideas of the 5th Dimension.

This is perhaps the most difficult part to discuss.  Part of the reason for that is just how all-encompassing the main subject matter happens to be.  How can you sum up a phenomenon like The Twilight Zone in just a few simple words?  I'm not sure it can be done, not without risking the complexity and heft of the thing.  The best course of action I can find is to try and make do with a very basic beginners description of what any newcomer can expect to find in this particular dimension.  From that perspective, I think it makes sense to say that the show itself was made up of several individual, and interactive elements.  We've already discussed one of those elements at great length.  As Serling himself admitted, the fantastic genres provided an ideal outlet for his social concerns.  One of the chief examples of this element on the show comes from The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.  In it, a local every town neighborhood is cut off from the rest of the world, and tempers begin to flare as everyone starts to loose their grip on reality.  It's one of the neater little sermons Serling liked to toss onto the airwaves.  In this case, the concern was with the question of how easy it is for ordinary human beings to descend into an unthinking, bloodthirsty mob.

Serling would revisit similar ideas over the course of the series run.  The most notable I can think of off the top of my head are episodes like Eye of the Beholder, The Obsolete Man, and a somewhat quirky take by the title of The Little People, in which the lesson seems to be that size isn't a good marker of either strength, or wisdom.  I'm not sure it makes sense to believe this was all that Serling had to say, or all that he knew how to write however.  It's true the War had turned Serling into a driven writer, yet even with the weight of that conflict on his conscience, Rod still knew of other tales to tell.  More than that, he had a knack for finding just the writers to build them.  That's where the Zone Collaborators come into the picture.  Along with them comes all the other elements of the show itself.

In many ways, the  series is one of those products that were ultimately blessed by the talent of its writer's room.  It's not the kind of phenomenon that happens often, so when it does occur, the result is usually something of a keepsake.  Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows was just one example.  The Zone seems to be another.  Aside from Serling, there at least three others who helped shape the voice of the 5th Dimension.  They were Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, and Richard Matheson.  Beaumont is a figure I've already talked about at some length, though he's mainly remembered today, if at all, for his work on this show.  His particular skill was being able to unearth the horrific or nightmarish in the midst of the mundane.  The best example of this I know has to do with the episode Perchance to Dream.  Or rather it has to do with the inspiration for that episode.  Writer William F. Nolan recalled an incident in Marc Scott Zicree's Zone Companion where he and Beaumont were enjoying a carnival late at night.

They decided to take in the fun house, except there was this creepy looking, leather-jacketed kid lounging around outside.  Something about the kid must have set Beaumont off, because once they got inside, he started to ask Nolan if he supposed the loafer outside might be a killer?  The reason he asked is because both men noticed the kid was carrying a switchblade, for some reason. Beaumont couldn't stop worrying/obsessing over it.  It got to the point where the entire scene around them began to freak them out.  There they were having to make their way through the fun house, and wondering if maybe the creep from outside was going to pop out from behind the scenes and have their guts for garters.  The end of the whole affair was anti-climactic, as they left the fun house and found the kid right where they left him, and never did either party ever meet again, The End (80).  However, the perhaps the whole account does tell us something about Beaumont's strengths as a writer.  His talent seemed to lie in the mostly straightforward horror aspect of the show.

Beaumont is the one responsible for such classics as the aforementioned Perchance to Dream, Shadow Play, and The Howling Man.  Like Serling, Beaumont seemed to have a knack for inject little bits of social commentary into his work.  I suppose the real difference between the two lies in the question of how its applied.  Beaumont's concerns always seem more personal and existential.  That's not to say Rod didn't think on a similar wave-length.  It's more that Beaumont's stories always seem to go toward more inner-directed problems.  His focus tends to zero in on questions of character and flaws.  Some good examples are In His Image, where a man slowly learns that he has no real lifeOr else there's Shadow Play, where the protagonist's obsessions cause him to have the same recurring nightmare about death row.  In this sense, I think Beaumont helps us recognize another facet of the Zone's success, the way grappled with, and confronted the dilemmas of living in the post-war 20th century.  He showcased individuals cut off from something vital, and of how this affected their lives.

George Clayton Johnson, on the other hand, tended to handle some of the shows more light-hearted fair.  Where Beaumont liked to focus on the nightmarish aspects of the American Dream, Johnson often featured characters who a given a glimpse of the whimsical side of the Dimension.  He wasn't averse to treading into more serious territory.  I think offerings like Nothing in the Dark, and A Game of Pool stand as two of the best episodes in the series.  It's just that even in the former, the focus is less on horror, on more on what can only be described as a sense of wonder.  The biggest marker of Johnson's style might be Kick the Can, where a group of characters manage to create their own makeshift fountain of youth.  It's stories like these make me think Johnson is essentially the light contrast with Beaumont's dark.  Though it should be noted that even the latter writer was not without a sense of whimsy.  A sample of Beaumont in a lighter frame of mind can be seen in The Prime Mover.

The final ingredient comes in the form of Richard Matheson.  In some ways, this is a guy who deserves an article all of his own.  There are a number of very good reasons for that.  Among other things, Matheson is the author responsible for not just helping to keep the Horror genre alive during a brief slough period, he's also another name that helped define a lot the format's parameters going forward.  In this sense, he's similar to Bradbury in that they were both able to discover a lot of the modern voices and language for the fantastic.  A lot of how he did all that can be seen through his work for shows like the Zone.  It's a very rich legacy, and the real problem is that a lot of scholarly voices out there claim that the man responsible for it all is almost unsung.  In his introduction to a tribute volume dedicated to the writer, Stanley Wiater comments that Matheson "may be the most influential fantasy writer in the world whose name is not recognized by most people, although when asked, they invariably know his work.  They certainly don't recognize him on the street, nor do they usually recognize him (as they might with Stephen King or Dean Koontz) as a "brand name" author (xiii)".

It's a genuine shame to think that such a state of affairs could be true.  If that's the case, then it's a problem that wants a remedy, and fast.  For the moment, all that can be done is to start with a very basic run-through of his contributions to Serling's project.  Of all the writers for The Twilight Zone, Matheson seems to be the one responsible for a lot of the shows most iconic images.  In other words, if anyone reading this has like a favorite picture from the show, or fond memories of certain stories, odds are even enough that Matheson could have been the one behind it.  This is not to diminish the work of the others mentioned above, however.  They all made their individual contributions, and each one of them counts.  In Matheson's case, these efforts included such classics as Nick of Time, Little Girl Lost, The Invaders, and also something to do with Captain Kirk going total bonkers berserk on an airplane.  It think it was called something like Nightmare At 20,000 Feet.

In some ways, perhaps its helps to make sense of Matheson's scripts for the series by looking at them as televised short stories.  It's not as far fetched as it sounds.  In fact, there are several episodes, such as When the Sky was Opened, The Last Flight, and even the aforementioned Little Girl scenario that originally started out as just words in a printed pulp magazine.  In that case I'd argue it's a mistake to view these entries as non-literary.  So far as I can tell, those episodes have a very definite literate quality.  This vantage point serves a particular purpose, as it helps the viewer get a proper read on just what Matheson was up to in his Zone output.

I remember something Matheson had to say about one of his short stories.  He was talking about Duel, a later project that also started out on the printed page.  He claimed it was the last short story he ever wrote.  "I wrote short stories and novelettes for a period of about twenty years," Matheson recalled.  "Duel was the last one.  I didn't realize it, but, the theme of my stories is one man against insuperable odds.  I have repeated it over, and over, and over again.  I didn't know it at the time.  And by the time I wrote Duel, I did know it.  And I thought, well, this is it.  This is the ultimate of one man facing some terrible opposition.  So I stopped writing short stories, and I never wrote any more (web)".

It's one of those statement that I can't help thinking is more important than it sounds.  Matheson makes a point that the idea of a main character facing off against fantastic odds is the theme for all of his short stories.  It isn't too much of a stretch in my mind to believe the same concept applies to the work he did for Serling.  In that sense, perhaps the correct way to view all of Matheson's Zone scripts is that they don't just serve as a continuation of his short story theme.  They also function, in a way, as like this kind of summation for the efforts of everyone else on the show.  Guys like Beaumont and Johnson keep our focus on a fantastic or horrific occurrence that is in some sense otherworldly.  Matheson takes the same approach and then asks us to consider how this will shape or effect his protagonists.  He seems more focused on a traditional notion of the question of character, and how it is shaped and molded within a fantasized framework.  The result seems to be an output that almost helps tie up everything in a neat little bow for viewers.

If we take each of these contributions together, what we get is a series of talents coming together to help build up a very intriguing imaginary map.  All writing relies on the use of a secondary world in order to do its job properly.  I guess the question I'm trying to ask here is whether or not it makes sense if we view each episode of Serling's show as comprising one, single, imaginative universe?  Or should each entry be considered stand-alone?  While it's tempting to want to put all the eggs into a single basket, my gut instinct tells me that ultimately, it just won't do.  The whole thing makes more sense if each element is allowed to be its own thing.  Still, even though the map Serling and his cohorts have given us is fragmented, perhaps there is still some sense in which it can be said that they have given audience a new imaginary landscape.  It's very old now, though it was ground breaking at the time it first went on the air.

I think some of the best words I've read about the landscape uncovered by Serling and Company aren't mine.  They belong to Horror writer T.E.D. Klein.  In his intro to a collection of short stories by Serling, Klein described the nature of Serling's secondary map.  He calls it "a world of "what if?" where wishes come true (sometimes horribly), where illusion reigns and magic really works (but only so long as you believe), where little guys are blessed with the strength of titans, where miraculous machines spell our salvation - or our doom - and where the most frightening monsters of all turn out to be ourselves.  It's also a world whose coordinates are ever-so-slightly askew; where, on the railroad line between Stamford and Westport, you'll find a town called Willoughby that isn't on the map; where a transatlantic jumbo jet is liable to arrive at the right destination but in the wrong year...but then, the Twilight Zone has always enjoyed its own unique geography (11-12)".

In essence, the map that Serling, Matheson, Beaumont, Johnson, and yes, even Bradbury have given us is a very odd looking chart of the continental United States.  The contours of the land are the same, yet the individual features are what make it unique.  It's a version of the Country that is haunted by all the familiar trappings of ancient myth, as much as by its own guilty past.  Some may wonder if we've stumbled into Lovecraft Country, however that doesn't quite seem to apply in this particular territory.  It's a place where the horrific can happen.  Yet the payout always manages to be different from the kind of results the writer from Providence would dish out.  The geography of the Zone is rough, it's true.  However, it can also have a sense of fair play, albiet in its own warped and weird way.  There's just something about it.  It can never quite pull off being a world of mere grays or even total pitch black.  There's a shared idea of cosmic forces at work, at least of some kind.  However, in this case, it's a universe that can sometimes know an experience of both the benign, and maybe even the sublime.  It's a very odd country, a veritable Weirdsville USA.  That said, I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it interesting.


The nature of Serling's own twilight years are one of those interesting cases where a lot of what it means seems to depend on how you choose to look at it.  There are several cases to be made, and I suppose its to the documentary's credit that it remains neutral for the most part on the whole matter.  Granted, there were times when Serling had his moments of self-doubt.  For a brief span of time, after he shut up shop on the very dimension he helped put on the map, he seems to have suffered a crisis of self-confidence.  I suppose there's nothing too out of the ordinary about it, at least as far as the arts are concerned.  It could be that he intuited that with the Zone, he didn't paint himself into a corner, so much as hit his peak perhaps a bit too early than he meant to.  It has to be admitted that the show remains the biggest highlight of all his creations.  It sort of begs the question of how do you even improve on an act that's almost impossible to follow up on?

The fact that Serling never quite managed to top it kind of speaks volumes about how well he was able to reach all the possible creative heights he had in him.  Even if that's the case, though, I'm still not sure that's enough reason to call the rest of his life a failure.  Serling spent his remaining years keeping what appears to be a steady enough hand in the game.  He's responsible for the original Planet of the Apes (1968), as well as a minor gem of political intrigue called Seven Days in May (1964).  Beyond all this, however, there was perhaps a bigger sea change going on.  At one point, Serling admitted that as he got older, the need to write seemed, maybe not to lessen, so much as not become a nagging urgency or obsession.  It's in these moments where I think it helps to recall what spurred on most of his creative efforts.  If the trauma suffered during his war service is a vital component of the engine that drove all of Serling's major stories onto the small screen, then the fact that he soon didn't feel as great a need to get it all out of his system can be taken as a positive sign.  It could just be that Serling was able to find some way of coming to terms with the most difficult experience of his entire life.  In that sense, I guess you could say he was a bit more than lucky.  Either way, that's about where things finish out.

When it comes to reviewing the finished product as a whole, there is a bit of irony involved.  For whatever reason, there really doesn't seem to be any other major non-fiction documentary out there that tackles the subject of The Twilight Zone and its creator in such detail of depth like this one.  I don't know whether that creates any kind of bias in its favor or not.  All I can say for sure is that I regard it as not just a winner, but also something of an essential.  It is able to accomplish two goals at once.  It brings up the subject of one of the most influential TV series in the history of the medium, and it does so in a way that gives the audience the most full and cogent idea of where it all came from, and why.  It does this all with a narrative skill that makes the whole thing seamless.

The viewer is able to follow one biographical or thematic strand as it flows smooth and neat into another.  A lot of that is down to just how well Serling was able and willing to set his own innermost thoughts down on paper, and share them with all the world.  This allows the filmmakers to tell his story in a way that almost seems effortless and artful all at once.  The way it does this is by talking a bit about a biographical fact of Serling's life, often with direct quotes from the writer himself, and then we cut to a scene from one of his TV dramas, where the same thought is given a greater sense of weight as more flesh gets put on its bones.  As a result, the audience is granted a three-dimensional idea of the man, the thoughts that drove him, and how they were all utilized in a creative way.  It has to be one of the most successful documentaries I've ever watched.

What makes it sort of neat is that this isn't the first time I've seen it.  I first caught the PBS feature way back during its original mid-90s broadcast.  That was sort of a unique experience, because back then, there was no immediate release to either home video or DVD.  That meant I sort of had to live with it for the longest time as a series of snapshots and images in the memory.  I could recall what I had seen, yet never in quite as much detail as I would have liked.  That's why it was so damn gratifying to discover that at long last, after all these years, PBS had done Serling fans everywhere a favor by transcribing the whole thing onto digital disc.  Now, anyone who wants can still get it online.  I think the real value of this documentary is that way it has of preserving its subject for posterity.  By being the sole retrospective on the block, it's made itself the more or less one-stop resource for anything to do with the 5th Dimension.

It also helps the viewer realize where a lot of the stuff they might like about Sci-Fi and Horror come from. I think it says a lot about how the popular taste can shift if you fight long enough to broadcast an inspired idea to the masses.  It isn't too much to say we have guys like Serling to thank for the surge in popularity and awareness of all the fantastic genres in the contemporary landscape.  This also shows that such victories are hard won, and if you wish to keep it, you must always prove the worth of the concept.  By and large, I think Serling can be counted as a success in that regard.  The real task seems to be left up to the fans to learn how to keep that victory and its memory alive.  Right now, a film like Submitted for Your Approval seems like a real good place to start.

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