Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Scary? Indeed!

Picture, if you will, a man in the 1950s who has established himself as one of the hottest names in television. A man who, in addition to his uncanny talent for writing television drama, was equally famous for his criticism of the medium’s limitations. With those abilities, some way it was fate that caused him to step over into The Twilight Zone.

Obviously, we’re speaking of Rod Serling. And it seems somewhat appropriate with today being election day to shed a little light on the other side of this man. It’s not widely known, but Rod was most vocal concerning the censorship practiced by sponsors and networks. "I was not permitted to have my Senators discuss any current or pressing problem," he said of his 1957 production The Arena, intended to be an involving look into contemporary politics. "To talk of tariff was to align oneself with the Republicans; to talk of labor was to suggest control by the Democrats. To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited."

Twilight Zone's writers used science fiction as a vehicle for social comment; networks and sponsors who had infamously censored all potentially "inflammatory" material from the then predominant live dramas were ignorant of the methods developed by writers such as Ray Bradbury for dealing with important issues through seemingly innocuous fantasy.

Frequent themes included nuclear war, mass hysteria, and McCarthyism, subjects that were strictly forbidden on more "serious" prime-time drama. Episodes such as "The Shelter" or "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" offered specific commentary on current events. Other stories, such as "The Masks" or "The Howling Man," operated around a central allegory, parable, or fable that reflected the characters' moral or philosophical choices.

Despite his esteem in the writing community, Serling found The Twilight Zone difficult to sell. Few critics felt that science fiction could transcend empty escapism and enter the realm of adult drama. In a September 22, 1959, interview with Serling, Mike Wallace asked a question illustrative of the times: "You're going to be, obviously, working so hard on The Twilight Zone that, in essence, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, you've given up on writing anything important for television, right?"

While Serling's appearances on the show became one of its most distinctive features, with his clipped delivery still widely imitated today, he was reportedly nervous about it and had to be persuaded to appear on camera. Serling often steps into the middle of the action and the characters remain seemingly oblivious to him, but on one notable occasion they are aware he's there: In the episode "A World of His Own," a writer with the power to alter his reality objects to Serling's unflattering narration, and promptly erases Serling from the show.

The top photo is one I shall remember always. It was late in the evening. My parents had already gone to bed, so I was all by myself in the living room. I remember this episode opened in a hospital room with a patient lying in bed, her head covered in gauze bandages. You could hear the doctors telling her that they tried their best to make the operation work, but they wouldn't know the outcome until they removed the bandages.

The story progressed with the girl telling everyone she was just tired of being ugly and wanted to be normal, like everyone else. Well, you can pretty well guess, or remember if you saw it, that when they removed her bandages and the viewer saw a beautiful face, it was surprising to hear the doctors apologize for not being able to make the surgery successful. Then the camera moved to the doctors and nurses for the first time. My heart nearly jumped out of my chest when I saw them. Yikes! Time for bed.

Today's video contains over nine minutes of a great pilot promo that Rod did back in 1956. It's quite interesting. I hope you take the time time watch it.


BoomerWithaView said...

Hi there. I just discovered your 50's site and think you have great content so far. It is a good idea for a blog.
My Boomer With a View site will be covering some 50's stuff in the next month or so and I invite you over for a look-see.

dabooklady said...

I loved Rod Sterling and I loved the ones that William Shatner played in. Especially the one on the airplane with the little guy that tore up the wing....I am a BB and love the 50s stuff great blog! found you from Bloggy Giveaways

Michael said...

Thanks Boomerwithaview and Dabooklady for visting and commenting. I'm pleased that you're enjoying the place.