From “Dust” to the Zone
Few Twilight Zone fans have seen “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” a live teleplay written by Rod Serling that aired on June 19, 1958. But if it weren’t for that show, the Zone might never have existed.
Specifically, it was the frustrating experience of trying to get it on the air intact that helped convince Serling that allegory, not straight drama, might be a better way to get his points across.
“A Town Has Turned to Dust” was based on the case of Emmett Till, a black teenager tortured and murdered by a group of white thugs in 1955 Mississippi. His offense: allegedly making some off-color remarks to a white female shop-keeper. Till was hunted down, beaten, shot and thrown in a river. This heinous crime shocked the nation, and led Serling to dramatize the events in “A Town Has Turned to Dust” for Playhouse 90.
But as Marc Scott Zicree and other biographers have noted, the show’s sponsors were nervous about offending certain customers, especially in the South. They pored over the script, demanding numerous changes (many of them quite petty). It morphed from a story about homicidal prejudice in the present-day Deep South, to one about a white murdering a Mexican in a U.S. southwest town in the 1870s.
“By the time the censors had gotten to it, my script had turned to dust,” the understandably irritated author later commented. “They chopped it up like a room full of butchers at work on a steer.”
As a result of experiences such as this (“Dust” wasn’t the only one, unfortunately), Serling wisely changed tactics. Network pressure and sponsor meddling was making it almost impossible for him to say anything meaningful in a straight dramatic setting. A series with a sci-fi/fantasy twist, on the other hand, would open up new story possibilities — and allow Serling’s social jabs to fly under the radar of nervous sponsors.
“On The Twilight Zone, I knew I could get away with Martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t,” he said. And a TV legend was born.
“A Town Has Turned to Dust”, unfortunately, is commercially unavailable. But here are two excerpts:
And the entire teleplay can be watched here:
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