The Twilight Zone is an American television anthology series created by Rod Serling. Each episode (156 in the original series) is a mixture of self-contained fantasy, science fiction, or horror , often concluding with a macabre or unexpected twist.
A popular and critical success, it introduced many Americans to serious science fiction and abstract ideas through television and also through a wide variety of Twilight Zone literature.
The success of this original series led to the creation of two revival series (a cult hit series that ran for several seasons on CBS and in syndication in the 1980s, and a short-lived UPN series that ran early in the new millennium), a feature film, a radio series, a comic book, a magazine and various other spin-offs that would span five decades.
Writers for The Twilight Zone included leading genre authorities such as Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Jerry Sohl, George Clayton Johnson, Earl Hamner, Jr., Reginald Rose, Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury. Many episodes also featured adaptations of classic stories by such writers as Ambrose Bierce, Lewis Padgett, Jerome Bixby and Damon Knight.
The story is a time travel fantasy of sorts, involving a man named Peter Jensen (William Bendix) visiting a psychoanalyst, Dr. Gillespie (Martin Balsam), with complaints of a recurring dream in which he imagines waking up in Honolulu just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. "I wake up in a hotel room in Honolulu, and it's 1941, but I mean I really wake up and it's really 1941," he explains, concluding that these are not mere dreams; he actually is travelling through time. However, Dr. Gillespie insists that time travel is impossible given the nature of temporal paradoxes. During his dream, taking advantage of the situation, he bets on all the winning horses, all the right teams and, eventually, tries unsuccessfully to warn others — the newspaper, the military, anyone — that the Japanese are planning a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. His warnings are seen as crazed ravings, and are either ignored or met with physical violence, as he is punched out by an engineer who works on the USS Arizona, after insisting that it will be sunk on December 7th. Jensen's dream always ends as the Japanese bombers fly overhead on the morning of December 7th, prompting him to yell out "I told you! Why wouldn't anybody listen to me?". Jensen finally discloses to Dr. Gillespie that he was actually in Honolulu on December 7th, 1941. While on the couch, Jensen falls asleep once again, only this time, Japanese planes flying overhead shoot inside the windows of his room and he is killed. When the camera cuts back to the doctor's office, the couch Jensen was lying on is now empty, and Dr. Gillespie looks around, confused. Although Jensen had smoked earlier, the ashtray is empty. He looks in his appointment book and finds he had no appointments scheduled for this day. Gillespie goes to a bar and finds Jensen's picture on the wall. The bartender said that Jensen tended bar there, but was killed in Pearl Harbor.
With this script, Serling drafted the fundamental elements that would distinguish the series still to come: a science-fiction/fantasy theme, opening and closing narration, and an ending with a twist. But what would prove popular with audiences and critics in 1959 did not meet network standards in 1957. "The Time Element" was purchased only to be shelved indefinitely, and talks of making The Twilight Zone a television series ended.
This is where things stood when Bert Granet, the new producer for Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse discovered "The Time Element" in CBS' vaults while searching for an original Serling script to add prestige to his show. "The Time Element" debuted on November 24, 1958, to an overwhelmingly delighted audience of television viewers and critics alike. "The humor and sincerity of Mr. Serling's dialogue made 'The Time Element' consistently entertaining," offered Jack Gould of The New York Times. Over six thousand letters of praise flooded Granet's offices. Convinced that a series based on such stories could succeed, CBS again began talks with Serling about the possibilities of producing The Twilight Zone. "Where Is Everybody?" was accepted as the pilot episode and the project was officially announced to the public in early 1959. "The Time Element" is rarely aired on television and it is available only in an Italian DVD box set titled "Ai confini della realtà — I tesori perduti."
Throughout the 1950s, Rod Serling had established himself as one of the hottest names in television, equally famous for his success in writing televised drama as he was for criticizing the medium's limitations. His most vocal complaints concerned the censorship frequently 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 frequently 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 include 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: "...[Y]ou'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.
It was Serling's decision to sell his share of the series back to the network that eventually allowed for a Twilight Zone revival. As an in-house production, CBS stood to earn more money producing The Twilight Zone than it could by purchasing a new series produced by an outside company. Even so, the network was slow to consider a revival, shooting down offers from the original production team of Rod Serling and Buck Houghton and later from American filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. Their hesitation stemmed from concerns familiar to the original series: Twilight Zone had never been the breakaway hit CBS wanted, why should they expect it to do better in a second run?
The answers to this question began to surface in the early 1980s, as a new generation of writers and directors emerged from the very teenagers who formed the core of Twilight Zone's original audience. First came The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree, an in-depth look into the history of the series that won critical accolade, a 1983 nomination for the American Book Award and a place on best-seller lists across the nation. Also encouraging were the new numbers from Nielsen and the box office alike.
Despite lukewarm response to Twilight Zone: The Movie, John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller's theatrical homage to the original series, CBS gave The New Twilight Zone a greenlight in 1984 under the supervision of Carla Singer, then Vice President of Drama Development. While the show didn't match the enduring popularity of the original, it did develop its own cult following and some episodes — including the love story "Her Pilgrim Soul" and J. Michael Straczynski's "Dream Me a Life" — were widely acclaimed. In a tribute to the original series, the teaser at the beginning of the show has a brief wavy glimpse of Rod Serling.
Eager to capitalize on Serling's celebrity status as a writer, CBS packaged "Where the Dead Are" with Matheson's adaptation of "The Theatre," debuting as a two-hour feature on the night of May 19, 1994, under the name Twilight Zone: Rod Serling's Lost Classics. The title represents a misnomer, as both stories were conceived long after Twilight Zone's cancellation. Written just months before Serling's death, "Where the Dead Are" starred Patrick Bergin as a 19th century doctor who stumbles upon a mad scientist's medical experiments with immortality. "The Theatre" starred Amy Irving and Gary Cole as a couple who visit a cineplex, only to discover that the feature presentation is their own lives. James Earl Jones provided opening and closing narrations.
Critical response was mixed. Gannett News Service described it as "taut and stylish, a reminder of what can happen when fine actors are given great words." USA Today was less impressed, even suggesting that Carol Serling "should have left these two unproduced mediocrities in the garage where she found them." Ultimately ratings proved insufficient to justify a proposed sequel featuring three Matheson-adapted scripts.
Noteworthy episodes featured Jason Alexander as Death wanting to retire from harvesting souls, Lou Diamond Phillips as a swimming pool cleaner being shot repeatedly in his dreams, Susanna Thompson as a woman whose stated wish results in an "upgrading" of her family, Usher as a policeman being bothered by telephone calls from beyond the grave, and Katherine Heigl playing nanny to an infant Adolf Hitler.
The series also includes remakes and updates of stories presented in the original Twilight Zone television series, including the famous "The Eye of the Beholder". One of the updates, "The Monsters Are On Maple Street", is a modernized version of the classic episode similarly called "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street". The original show was about the paranoia surrounding a neighbourhood-wide blackout. In the course of the episode, somebody suggests an alien invasion being the cause of the blackouts, and that one of the neighbours may be an alien. The anti-alien hysteria is an allegory for the anti-communist paranoia of the time, and the 2003 remake, starring Andrew McCarthy, replaces aliens with terrorists. The show also contains a follow-up episode to the events of the original episode "It's a Good Life". Bill Mumy returned to play the adult version of Anthony, the demonic child he had played in the original story, with Mumy's daughter, Liliana, appearing as Anthony's daughter, a more benevolent but even more powerful child. Cloris Leachman also returned as Anthony's mother. Mumy went on to serve as screenwriter for other episodes in the revival.
The Twilight Zone revival series tended to address contemporary issues head-on; i.e. terrorism, racism, gender roles, and sexuality.
Other guest stars include, but not limited to: Jessica Simpson, Christopher Titus, Eriq La Salle, Jason Bateman, Method Man, Linda Cardellini, Jaime Pressly, Jeremy Sisto, Molly Sims, Portia de Rossi, Christopher McDonald, Jeremy Piven, Ethan Embry, Shannon Elizabeth, Jonathan Jackson, Amber Tamblyn, Dylan Walsh and Elizabeth Berkley.
The film remade three classic episodes of the original series and included one original story. John Landis directed the prologue and the first segment, Steven Spielberg directed the second, Joe Dante the third, and George Miller directed the final segment.
The Landis-directed episode is possibly best known for the helicopter accident that resulted in the deaths of Morrow and two child actors during filming.
Leonardo DiCaprio, a fan of The Twilight Zone, is planning to make a new movie with Warner Bros.. However, unlike the first film, which was an anthology feature, it will be a big-budget, SFX-laden continuous story possibly based on classic episodes of the series such as "The Eye of the Beholder", "To Serve Man" or any of the 92 scripts written by Rod Serling, to which Warner Bros. owns the rights.
Several of the stories would be reprinted in their Mystery Comics Digest, which mentioned the title on the covers. A wide range of artists worked on the title, including Jack Sparling, Reed Crandall, Lee Elias, George Evans, Russ Jones, Joe Orlando, Jerry Robinson, Mike Sekowsky, Dan Spiegle, Frank Thorne and Alex Toth.
In 1990, NOW Comics published a new comic series with using the title logo from the 1985 revival. The publisher made great efforts to sign established sci-fi/fantasy writers, including Harlan Ellison, adapting his story "Crazy as a Soup Sandwich."
In 2005 4 Letter Entertainment produced Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up? in Los Angeles.