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.

rod serling mic

“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.

Shatner Dust

The teleplay stars a young William Shatner, who would go on to star in two memorable Twilight Zone episodes.

“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: 

For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on TwitterFacebook or Pinterest. You can also sign up for email notifications of future posts by clicking “follow” in the upper left-hand side of this page. Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Hard-working, hard-playing fan of all pop culture, especially the Twilight Zone. Which led to a Twitter page. And then to a blog. And then to ... stay tuned. Yes, that's a picture of Rod Serling, not me. You can find the real me under the "Your Host" tab on my blog, along with biographical details that, while 100 percent accurate, sound kind of boastful and braggy. Sorry.

Posted on 06/20/2011, in Rod Serling, Teleplays and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. This sounds like such an interesting piece. I’ll have to find a way to watch it. You’d think that a pirate such as myself would already have unearthed it somewhere. :)

    • You would, yes! :) Too bad I have to settle for my bootleg DVD, but a Serling fanatic like me has to do SOMETHING to view the master’s work.

      I wish I knew why more of his teleplays aren’t commercially available. They are just as full as TZ is of his wonderful dialogue and storylines.

  2. Dale M. Haskell

    The entire program can now be found on YouTube!

  3. Gregory S. McNeill

    I would love to see an updated version that remains faithfully true to Mr. Serling’s original vision and not be concerned with censorship.

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