Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “And When The Sky Was Opened”

Improve on Richard Matheson? Yeah — right, pal. Who do you think you are, Rod Serling?

You are? Well. Carry on, then.

Kidding aside, that’s what Serling did when he bought the rights to Matheson’s short story “Disappearing Act” and adapted it into The Twilight Zone episode “And When The Sky Was Opened.”

And When the Sky Was Opened10

Perhaps “improve” isn’t exactly the right word. The short story works fine as a short story (duh, it’s Richard Freaking Matheson), but as a TV episode, well … something else was needed. And few writers were ever better equipped to supply that “something else” than Rod Serling.

As you may have seen in my previous “Re-Zoning Efforts” post (on “The Four of Us Are Dying“), Serling wasn’t one to simply take a story “as is” and put it on screen. It wasn’t unusual for him to start with the basic idea and completely recast it.

“Disappearing Act,” which first appeared in the March 1953 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, definitely falls into this category. You’ll find no trio of astronauts vanishing one by one. There’s only a single protagonist, and he’s no test pilot. He’s an ordinary man named Bob, arguing with his wife about money problems, making things worse through bouts of infidelity … and noticing some strange things.

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People and places that he knows are vanishing. One day they’re here, the next they’re gone, and everyone who hears Bob insist that yes, he DID talk to that person the day before, or yes, he DID visit that place the other day … thinks he’s off his rocker. Bob, who doesn’t know what’s going on any more than WE do, can’t swear they’re wrong.

Matheson frames the story in an interesting way: It’s told first-person, through Bob’s eyes, and it begins with this intriguing introduction:

These entries are from a school notebook which was found two weeks ago in a Brooklyn candy store. Next to it on the counter was a half-finished cup of coffee. The owner of the store said no one had been there for three hours prior to the time he first noticed the book.

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Even better is the ending. The protagonist is talking to us about how everything around him is vanishing … and it ends mid-sentence. Nice.

Serling, however, had something else in mind. We couldn’t have one protagonist on TV — at least not without a voice-over, which is rarely the best way to go, and certainly not the most cinematic. So he made it a cast of three (ratcheting up the tension), who can discuss — okay, often yell about — the strange things that are happening.

“I felt that there was no rationale there,” Serling said during the Q&A of a 1975 college lecture. “When Dick Matheson first wrote the story, it had nothing to do with astronauts. At least if I’m dealing with outer space, I can say something, someone [caused the disappearances], and I’ve got a little bit more going on.”

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Matheson’s story is ideal to read. Serling’s version is ideal to watch. Each is perfectly suited to its chosen medium.

For all their differences, though, each version of the story contains the same element of horror. That word usually conjures images of crumbling, spooky mansions and dark, stormy nights, but think about it. Can such time-honored elements, however effective, compare to being And When the Sky Was Opened8simply blinked out of existence by a nameless, faceless power? To being erased so thoroughly that no one even remembers you? For my money, that’s one hell of a frightening thought.

“And When The Sky Was Opened” came early in Season 1. Soon Matheson was contributing his own scripts, many of which became fan favorites. But if you’re in the mood for some top-notch TZ, it’s hard to beat this Matheson-Serling classic.

***

You can find “Disappearing Act” in “The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories” and other Matheson anthologies, both in and out of print.

For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on TwitterFacebook or PinterestTo get email notifications of future posts, enter your address under “Subscribe” 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

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 03/17/2015, in Rod Serling, Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. It must seem like I have a keyboard shortcut that types “this is one of my favorite episodes Paul” but it is. I was always fond of the many ways Serling found for us to “disappear” and losing ones self, ones identity, that is pretty creepy when you really stop and think about it. I didn’t know that he adapted this from the earlier story (now I have to look that up) but he did a great job. Early in the ’60s, space we one our minds and in our imaginations. It was the perfect setting. The disappearance was so complete, I remember thinking about the newspapers being changed and getting lost in thoughts of how that could happen. Yeah, I need to watch this one again soon. Thanks for the new information and a great reminder Paul!

    • You’re in good company, Dan — this one is a favorite for a lot of people. And why not? Mysterious, frightening, intriguing — it’s pure TZ.

      I’m glad you enjoyed learning about the genesis of this episode. I’ve always been a big one for behind-the-scenes info. This is only the second one I’ve done in this series, and I’m really looking forward to doing more.

      Definitely watch it again soon. Might be even more fun now that you know how it came to be!

  2. I had never seen this episode until sometime last year, and it really blew me away. Even knowing the plot in advance (thanks to endless re-reads of Zicree’s “TZ Companion” as a teen), watching it was an amazing, and amazingly unsettling, experience. It’s not exactly a “cautionary tale,” really – it’s not as though the astronauts have done anything wrong to deserve such a fate… but I guess it’s a story that reminds us the Great Unknown still deserves a fair measure of respect!

    Excellent write-up, and interesting to see the comparison to Matheson’s original story, which I’ve never read. There have been anthologies of the TZ source stories, haven’t there? (As opposed to the books collecting Serling’s own “novelizations” of his episodes.)

    Your blog continues to be a model, Paul. Thanks for this!

    • That’s a sign of just how high-quality TZ really was, Mike. It’s famous for its twist endings, yet even when we know what they are, we still watch and rewatch the episodes! And you always get something more out of it each time. This one certainly does give one a greater respect for the Great Unknown. Even with all we know now, there’s still so much more to learn. If only Serling was still spinning tales today!

      I only read “Disappearing Act” myself in the last couple of years, but it was very interesting to do this comparison. There have indeed been anthologies of the TZ source stories — check the link at the end of the post, for example. I should probably do a post ON the anthologies at some juncture. Ah, there’s so much to write about, which is both exciting and daunting at the same time!

      Thanks for stopping by, Mike. I appreciate the compliments!

  3. I never read Matheson’s story. I’ll have to start reading them.

    I enjoyed your explanation of why this story works one way in print and another on screen. It takes real talent to make that transition and still have the same success. Rod Serling was able to see the potential of a great story going from the written word to the visual and what needed to be changed to make that transition successful for the viewer.

    I think Rod tapped into our fear of being alone both physically and mentally on many occasions. I often wondered if he had that same fear.

    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the post.

      You should definitely read some Matheson. Even if TZ had never existed, I’d be recommending him. “I Am Legend,” for example — tremendous book. Don’t assume you know the story if you’ve seen one of the movie versions. Even the good ones don’t capture the full flavor of Matheson’s prose. He’s got a great, readable style.

      And yes, what works as a short story doesn’t always work on TV, which is where Serling excelled. Of course, Matheson was quite talented in that area as well, as he soon proved on TZ and elsewhere.

      As for whether Serling had that fear, my guess would be he did — partly because it’s such a universal one, and partly because you can’t write what you don’t know. In any event, what a great TZ it wound up being!

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