“It’s an adaptation of what has been called one of the most terrifying modern fantasies ever written.” — Rod Serling on “It’s a Good Life”
One key to being a good editor is knowing what to change — and what to leave alone. Change for the sake of change is a rookie mistake.
Rod Serling knew that well. When he bought the rights to a story for use on The Twilight Zone, he did exactly what was necessary to make it work for television. No more, no less.
Sometimes — as with “And When the Sky Was Opened” and “The Four of Us Are Dying” — that meant making some pretty drastic changes. Other times — with, say, “To Serve Man” — he presented the written story a bit more faithfully.
In the case of Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life”, it was more than a bit. Bixby had already provided a very visual story, so Serling transferred much of what we find on the page to the screen.
But he did make a few interesting changes. Read the rest of this entry
Rod Serling’s scripts were nearly always so smooth, even poetic, that it’s easy to assume they just came out of his head that way. But no. Like any good writer, he edited himself — sometimes quite extensively.
I don’t mean he simply cut lines. He would also reword certain passages, often more than once. That way, he wound up with a polished product he could be proud of — one that, we can see with the benefit of hindsight, has a timeless appeal.
Consider his closing introduction to one of the most iconic episodes, “To Serve Man”. The final product goes like this:
The recollections of one Michael Chambers with appropriate flashbacks and soliloquy. Or more simply stated, the evolution of man, the cycle of going from dust to dessert, the metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup. It’s tonight’s bill of fare … on the Twilight Zone.
“Because there was no regular, recurring cast, he was, in essence, the star of the show.” — Billy Mumy on Rod Serling
Billy has a point. Anthologies differ from other TV series in one important way: Every episode offers us an entirely new story, with a new cast. The only continuity is the quality of the series itself.
The Twilight Zone had that in spades, obviously. But it had something else: Rod Serling, on screen. Hinting at what we’d see in the episode ahead, then returning at the end (at least vocally) to offer some wry comment about what we had witnessed.
I don’t know about you, but his presence is one of my favorite things about the series. “I think it was a major factor in the success of the show,” William Self, the producer of “Where is Everybody?” once said of Serling’s narrations. Read the rest of this entry
The Twilight Zone has a pretty straightforward moral code. The evil are punished. The proud are humbled. The good are rewarded. The forgotten are remembered.
True, there are some exceptions. “Time Enough at Last,” for example, appears to be a prime instance of Fate punishing an innocent. The earthlings in “To Serve Man” did nothing to merit becoming “an ingredient in someone’s soup.” But by and large, you deserve the ending you get.
And then there’s “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”.
It’s the earliest example in TZ of someone yearning for the past. It aired just before “Walking Distance”, which explored this theme so beautifully that it inevitably overshone its predecessor.
But Shrine‘s problem isn’t merely standing in the shadow of “Walking Distance”. I think this episode fails to really resonate with fans because the main character, Barbara Jean Trenton (played by the amazing Ida Lupino, who would later direct TZ’s “The Masks”), is a hard figure to sympathize with.
The usual criticism of Twilight Zone‘s 4th season is familiar to most fans: Stretching the series from a half-hour to an hour meant bloat. Something was lost. Suddenly more added up to less.
Sure, the series still brought us the elements of fantasy that had served it so well throughout the first three seasons: time travel, space travel, horror, and loads of irony. But the extra length mean the writers inevitably drifted more toward drama. Instead of snap, there was sag.
But hey, we’re still talking about the amazing Twilight Zone. And we continued getting stories from Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson. So we may have been denied the classic Zone formula, but we weren’t exactly getting junk.
Freed from the need to sprint to the finish line, the writers had room to explore their themes a bit more deeply. This meant padding at times, but on other occasions, it gave the material a chance to breathe and draw us more deeply into the world of the story. Read the rest of this entry
The Twilight Zone, as every fan knows, is home to many wild settings that exist only in our imaginations. But one of the most magical is very real: the carousel in Rod Serling’s hometown of Binghamton, NY.
No, the much-beloved episode “Walking Distance” wasn’t actually filmed there, but this is the very carousel that Rod rode as a child. His nostalgia for that simple ride led him to feature a carousel rather prominently in the conclusion to that bittersweet story.
The carousel (which you can read more about at this link) still works. It even got a facelift in 2011 that included some TZ-inspired artwork by Cortland T. Hull in the panels above the horses. Here they are, snapped by yours truly on a visit to Binghamton. Can you recognize all the episodes? (Click any pic to enlarge it.) Read the rest of this entry
My disappointment over Syfy ditching the July 4th marathon was, I’m happy to say, fairly short-lived. On July 5, I hit the road for “Serling Fest 2018” in Rod’s hometown of Binghamton, New York.
It was a first for me. I’d never been there before.
Surprised? I don’t blame you. Considering how long I’ve been fanning publicly over Serling’s work (starting when I set up my Twitter page in September 2010), you’d think I’d have visited long before now. But the timing or the money (or both!) was never right — until now.
It was a long drive (four hours one-way), but well worth it. It’s one thing to read about Serling’s childhood experiences, or to view pics online. It’s another to walk the streets he did and reflect on the fact that you’re in the very spot where, for all intents and purposes, The Twilight Zone was born.
This isn’t the Twilight Zone marathon blog post I thought I’d be writing.
I was sure I’d be continuing my late-June tradition of publishing the schedule for the Syfy channel’s July 4 line-up of TZ episodes. But we recently learned they won’t be airing a marathon that day – unless you’re counting their replacement: an all-day slate of “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies.
YOU ARE KIDDING ME WITH THIS, RIGHT??!! Only the second 4th of July I’ve had off in 14 years. I had a whole day of popcorn and Twilight Zone planned. I may cry. I know I can find it other places, but it’s not the same.
— Joanna Bown (@joannabown101) June 22, 2018
Hey, I enjoy some Elm Street action at times. But I think even Freddy Krueger would admit the real horror here is leaving people without their biannual fifth-dimensional fix.
I am a huge, HUGE Nightmare on Elm Street fan, and yet could not be more disappointed to hear about this.
— Ryan Anderson (@everrpa) June 21, 2018
It’s true that this isn’t unprecedented. In 2011, Syfy ran a Greatest American Hero marathon over the Fourth. Granted, that’s more thematically appropriate, but you mess with TZ fans at your peril. They complained – mightily – and TZ returned in 2012. Read the rest of this entry
The first time I saw “The Comedian,” I was astonished.
I knew it was one of a trio of works from the early days of live television drama that had earned Rod Serling his first three Emmys. But that was it. An avid Twilight Zone fan, I had watched the live version of “Patterns” (January 12, 1955), then “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (October 11, 1956), and immediately saw themes in these beautiful plays that would later emerge on his signature series.
Then I watched “The Comedian”.
Think Mickey Rooney is on fire in Twilight Zone‘s “The Last Night of a Jockey”? That episode plays like the warm-up act for his off-the-hook performance in “The Comedian” (February 14, 1957). Rooney is Sammy Hogarth, an old-school comic in the style of Milton Berle. He stages big TV specials packed with skits, monologues and musical numbers — and he makes life for his staff and family a living hell. Read the rest of this entry
With graduation season in full swing, it seems an ideal time to share these illuminating passages from Rod Serling’s May 13, 1972 commencement address to New York’s Ithaca College:
Commencement means beginning. Those robes you now sweat under will soon be replaced by lab aprons, business suits, and whatever are the working uniforms of your chosen profession. And some of those professions will prove to be back-breaking impossibilities.
For some of you, the frustrations are only beginning. For all of you, the world society beyond this campus is going to prove tough, competitive, demanding, unforgiving of error, and full of rebuttals to the things you most earnestly believe.
So first – and most important – cherish what you believe. Don’t job off one single value judgment because it swims upstream against what appears to be a majority. Respect your own logic, your own sense of morality. Death and taxes may be the only absolutes. It’s for you to conjure up the modus operandi of how you live, act, react and hammer out a code of ethics. Read the rest of this entry