Fifth-Dimensional Finishes

The Twilight Zone is famous for its twist endings. But for me, the real cherry on top of our inter-dimensional sundaes is Rod Serling’s closing narrations.

Surprisingly, some critics deride them as unnecessary. How dense are we, right? Can’t we figure out the lesson without having it spelled out by an omniscient referee? Perhaps, but that’s not the point.

Rod Serling - The Obsolete Man1

The conclusions aren’t there because we’re slow. They serve an important purpose. Sometimes they tie up loose ends, sometimes they lay on a little irony, and sometimes they make a wry comment on the proceedings.

In short, they’re there to make the stories more enjoyable. Hearing Serling introduce and wrap up each episode, with his trademark voice and poetic language, is the perfect framing device. I’m convinced the show wouldn’t be as beloved without them.

Indeed, they feature some of his finest writing. Some are stirring …

The Chancellor — the late Chancellor — was only partly correct. He was obsolete. 6 (4)But so was the State, the entity he worshipped. Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man — that state is obsolete. A case to be filed under ‘M’ for mankind … in the Twilight Zone.

— “The Obsolete Man”

Some are wistful …

Martin Sloan, age 36, vice president in charge of media. Successful in most things, but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives: trying to go home again. And also like all men, perhaps there’ll be an occasion, 7 (3)maybe a summer night sometime, when he’ll look up from what he’s doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past. And perhaps across his mind there’ll flit a little errant wish, that a man might not have to become old, never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he’ll smile then too because he’ll know it is just an errant wish, some wisp of memory not too important really, some laughing ghosts that cross a man’s mind, that are a part of … the Twilight Zone.

— “Walking Distance

Some are cautionary …

The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found 11 (5)only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own — for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined … to the Twilight Zone.

— “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street

And some serve as painful but necessary reminders …

There is an answer to the doctor’s question. All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes — all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time deathshead revisited2when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God’s Earth.

— “Deaths-Head Revisited”

The ones I’ve quoted here are atypical, though, in at least one respect: length. Most of the time, Serling’s “outros” were much briefer — perhaps only a sentence or two.

Sometimes, of course, that’s all that was needed. Take the conclusion to “The Hitch-Hiker”: “Nan Adams, age 27. She was driving to California, to Los Angeles. She didn’t make it. There was a detour … through the Twilight Zone.” It’s perfect. Nothing more needs to be said.

But other times, Serling had to streamline what he’d written because the episode was running long. Many of the short conclusions were actually much longer in their original form.
Some of them don’t really suffer for being trimmed, but others? Well, this is Serling. Let’s just say it’s a shame the time constraints of network TV forced him to edit himself.

9 (6)

Look at “The Grave“, which stars Lee Marvin as an Old West gunfighter bedeviled by an outlaw seeking vengence from the Great Beyond. Serling ends it this way:

Final comment: you take this with a grain of salt or a shovelful of earth, as shadows or substance, we leave it up to you. And for any further research check under ‘G’ for ghosts … in the Twilight Zone.

Now look at Serling’s original:

Legend, folk tale, or just an apocryphal old wives’ tale passed down from one naive generation to the next — that’s all possible. But death, just as life itself, has little pockets of mystery. Little caves of unexplored depths19 and uninhabited basements too dark to distinguish what is shadow and what is substance. This one we leave up to you. Does a marker on a mound of earth mean the end? Maybe the answer is in one of the caves, holes or basements of the world. Or maybe it’s one that can only be found … in the Twilight Zone.

There’s no question that the shorter, final version is a nice one. The alliteration, the juxtaposition of “grain” and “shovelful,” the suggestion we look under a certain letter to learn more (one of his favorite rhetorical flourishes) … all elicit the usual smile from the audience.

Rod Serling - The Obsolete Man2

And sure, the original may lack the conciseness of the final version. But I can’t help but miss the phrasing about “little pockets of mystery,” the bit about the “little caves,” and his intriguing question about exactly what that “marker on a mound of earth” means.

Are they essential? No. But these touches are pure Serling, and — uber-fan that I am — I wish they had made the final cut.

File them under “M” … for missing treasure.

***

Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on TwitterFacebook or PinterestYou can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. WordPress members can also hit “follow” at the top 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 09/26/2014, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I’m so happy to finally see this post published, Boss. You’ve written over 100 posts, and this is without a doubt one of my favourites.

    I love Serling’s closing narrations. In many ways, they’re my favourite part of nearly every episode. As you said, you don’t “need” them, but my goodness, the episodes are so much better with them.

    Your selections here are perfect too. You already know that the “Deaths-Head Revisited” outro is a personal favourite of mine. Serling’s end narration is the poignant and final punctuation on what was already a powerful piece of writing. Necessary? Well, no. And yet, I’d argue “yes”. He’s driving the point home, and it’s just so brilliant that it brings tears to my eyes every single time I hear it.

    The others you’ve highlighted are wonderful too. I’ve always liked the end narration from “The After Hours” and “The Shelter” too. And of course “The Masks”!

    We talked about that original “The Grave” outro last year when you were writing another post, and reading it again here? I can’t believe they didn’t MAKE room for it in the episode. It’s delicious. That’s the only word for it.

    You did a fantastic job on this post, my friend. Thank you for shining some much needed light on the often overlooked writing that I’d argue is some of Serling’s best.

    • Thanks, GF! I’ve been meaning to do a post like this for some time now. It never fails to impress me how the ending narrations bring a smile to my face. They make the best TZs even better, and they somehow elevate even the ones that are just okay.

      So when I came across the reworked outro for “The Grave”, I knew I’d found a good “excuse” to cover this aspect of the series. As I told you when I was writing this post, Serling edited many other outros down because the ep was running over. Some were merely shortened, but others sound quite different. And I was intrigued by how much he had redone the outro for “The Grave”.

      I felt that it NEEDED to be highlighted. And that’s what led to this post.

      Thanks, as always, for your encouragement and positive feedback, GF. I plan to do a follow-up post with one that spotlights other rewritten outros. More “delicious” examples to come! :)

  2. I wonder if Serling was in any way influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s intros and epilogues on Hitch’s TV show, which came a few years before The Twilight Zone.Those monologues were of course written to create the director’s ‘persona,’ of macabre dry wit and sly suggestion (with often a little dig at the sponsor). But Hitchcock did often end with an ironic comment on the story (such as whether a crime-committing character received his comeuppance or not) that might have given the viewers distance from a show, allowing them to think about it, even if just briefly, AS a story, a dramatization, and not as mere entertainment or a conventional reflection of everyday life. In that sense, these little monologues are almost post-modern in effect, by creating this ironic distance between viewer and show.

    Serling may have used his monologue for similar reasons, because he knew he was trying something different at that time on TV – his shows were to be interpreted allegorically, as representations of contemporary dilemmas facing modern man. By coming on camera at beginning and end, Serling was breaking the ‘4th wall’ of drama and getting audiences to view his shows more intellectually. Most of us are watching these shows so many years later and by now we probably take such techniques for granted, which may be why Serling’s monologues look old-fashioned. But perhaps we should think of it in terms of what TV was like for late-50s/early-60s viewers, for whom Serling’s on-camera talks may have come across as a new way of watching drama – not as slice-of-life reality, but as symbolic morality tales for us to keep thinking about once the show was over.

    • Oh, I’m sure that Serling was indeed influenced by Hitchcock’s intros and outros. The latter had a marvelously dry wit and sense of humor that rarely surfaced when Serling did his, of course, but otherwise they’re very similar.

      You’re right about these intros and outros appearing old-fashioned today, but I think they were well-suited to a classier age when TV was still relatively new. There was still a sense of showmanship and style alive then, which today is sadly lacking.

      There are some fun and flashy shows out there, to be sure, but I would argue that they aren’t as entertaining as when Hitchcock and Serling introduced us to their wonderful tales. Alas.

  3. We are of one mind on this one Paul. I love those endings. I love his voice, his body language, even the cigarette. He handled this segments like an acting role but with a fatherly tone. When I first watched these, I was a child and he was a teacher. Even if I had figured out the message, it was so good to find out that I was right. As an adult, I have a great respect for him doing these. Where so many networks and companies disclaim any relation to any message (re of implied) Serling stood there and took ownership of the message. Thanks for touch in an important topic and for doing it so well. You picked great examples.

    • “Serling stood there and took ownership of the message” – That’s a fantastic point, Dan!

    • Thanks, Dan. You’re right, there IS almost a child-teacher aspect to the intros and outros. We become almost like kids again, sitting down cross-legged (or perhaps in bed with the covers pulled up around as!) as we hang on every word. That may be one reason that we enjoy Serling’s narrations so much — they mimic the way most of us first encounter great stories. Good insight!

  4. “Surprisingly, some critics deride them as unnecessary.” — Really? Which critics? I can’t imagine. Like you, I have always considered them integral to the telling of the tales. The Zone just wouldn’t be the Zone without them! (That’s one reason the 1983 film falls a little flat, ultimately – Burgess Meredith is there with a setup for each segment, but no wrap-up.)

    This is a fantastic post, Paul. I especially like how you model moving beyond saying, “This is cool,” and explaining *why* it’s cool, and *why* it works – e.g., lifting up Serling’s contrast between “grain” and “shovelful.” That’s the kind of close reading that makes for better writing, and I find it too easy to skip sometimes. So a great reminder that it can’t be overlooked!

    My favorite closer is probably the wrap-up for “Eye of the Beholder.” Serling starts by voicing the shock of the audience, still reeling from the twist: “Now th e questions that come to mind…” And then he lists several, and then gives us another twist, of sorts: “The answer it, it doesn’t make any difference.” The rest is a little didactic in content, but it’s delivered with such great rhetoric : the “old saying” is repeated twice (emphasis on the verb the first time through), and there’s a nice bit of alliteration — “a hundred years hence” — and I’m sure there’s a name for the pattern Serling uses of “in this or that” (“in this year or a hundred years hence, on this planet or wherever there is human life”). And lots of the fun of the endings is in seeing how Serling will end up with the closing phrase, “…in the Twilight Zone.”

    Another really impressive post, Paul – thanks for it!

    • So glad you enjoyed it, Mike! I’m gratified to hear that my post went beyond the “that’s cool” school of analysis. :) If I’ve managed any insights, they come from hours of trying to take these wonderful stories apart and figure out why they tick. I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface, but I’m happy that you liked it!

      I wish I could name any of these critics off the top of my head. I just know that I’ve encountered a few critical voices here and there. Nothing major, of course — few people complain about them, but suffice it to say, not everyone is as impressed as you and I are. If I think of any, I’ll try to come back and list them here. Thanks!

  5. I did like the framing aspect for the most part, but had on occasion actually commented to myself, “Gee, was that outro really necessary”? Not everything writers write is 100% perfect, a 100% “on.” And, sure, maybe it was censored by the producers, and “that” wasn’t his chosen version, I don’t know, but, for the most part, I do like his comments.

    Writing for the screen is different than writing for the page; had that been done on paper, it would have been unnecessary, IMHO, because if the story had adequately been told the outro wouldn’t have been necessary, and I’m of the school that less is more. I only mention this because this POV on my part always comes into play when I watch anything on the screen (and I’ve adapted one screenplay—so am a little familiar with the writing form; don’t really like it, but “get” it). I have to constantly remind myself the two methods of writing are different…but in Herr Serling’s case, for the most part, yes, I do like the “framing” quality; it lends nice closure….

    • I think if you’re Serling, once you’ve committed to doing these outros, you’re inevitably going to run into stories that “need” them more than others … but too bad; it’s either all or none. So yes, there will be times when it seems a bit superfluous, but I think (as the above examples illustrate) that we gain a lot when Serling is “on” and the episode DOES call for some closure, as you put it. So yes, less is often more, but as an unabashed fan of “Herr Serling,” I seldom feel I’ve gotten enough! :)

  6. CardinalIron

    It’s always funny to me that Serling sold The Twilight Zone as enjoyable entertainment, that he under-played the human messages within the series. Perhaps if he didn’t do the monologues The Twilight Zone would not have revealed itself as the serious dramas they were. Then again when you’re doing episodes that name Nazi Germany by name, any viewer can see that not all of these episodes are flights of fancy. If you took away his monologues would most of these episodes play as the human dramas that they were? Maybe, perhaps in those days most of the audience would have just asked themselves what did they just watch? Serling was maybe only saying what the audience was thinking, but the way he spoke gave the episodes a bit of poetry on humanity’s darker shades.

    • “A bit of poetry on humanity’s darker shades” — that’s a good way of putting it. For me, the outros are icing on the cake. We’d enjoy the cake sans icing, perhaps, but not as much, I think. So I think the outros underscore his “human dramas” quite nicely, and in fact often strengthen them.

  1. Pingback: Is Black Mirror Truly a Modern Twilight Zone? | Shadow & Substance

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