Why CBS Finally Took a Gamble on Twilight Zone
Imagine you found yourself transported back in time to December 6, 1941. It’s the day before Japan bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
There you are, near the attack site, surrounded by people who have no idea what the next day will bring. Can you warn them without sounding crazy?
That’s the dilemma Pete Jenson faces. He’s been dreaming every night that he’s back there … only it’s not a dream, he tells his psychiatrist. He’s really going back.
Sound like a plot stolen from a Twilight Zone episode? Not exactly. I’m describing “The Time Element”, an episode of CBS’s Desilu Playhouse. It aired on November 24, 1958, the year before TZ debuted. And it was written by Rod Serling.
“The Time Element” is often called the unofficial pilot for The Twilight Zone — with good reason. Serling intended it as a pilot for the series, but CBS wasn’t convinced it would work. They bought his script, then shelved it. It wasn’t until Desilu Playhouse producer Bert Granet decided that his series needed the prestige of a Serling script that it saw the light of day.
It wasn’t easy. CBS, still dead-set against it, tried to talk Granet out of it. “The network people and the agency people didn’t like unfinished stories, like ‘The Time Element’, which left the audience hanging,” Granet said. “I can’t tell you how much they didn’t want to do it. They liked their stories neat and wrapped with a bow.”
It took Desi Arnaz’s personal support to seal the deal. So if you’re an I Love Lucy fan who also enjoys The Twilight Zone, you can thank Ricky Ricardo for enabling your fifth-dimension fix!
CBS executives may have been surprised when the show garnered high ratings and a slew of fan mail, but Twilight Zone fans won’t be. With its bewildered hero, imaginative premise, and Serling-penned dialogue, “The Time Element” plays like a dry run for the series that would follow.
Interestingly enough, the two TZs that it most readily evokes, at least when it comes to the recurring-dream motif, are “Perchance to Dream” and “Shadow Play”, both of which were written not by Serling, but by Charles Beaumont. The time-travel aspect, however, is pure Serling.
You may notice that I’m not giving more details about the story. That’s because you can watch it for yourself online and on the Blu-ray edition of The Twilight Zone‘s first season. Even if the premise is a familiar one, it’s still a good story — one that convinced CBS to give Serling’s crazy “Twilight Zone” idea a green light.
It helped that “The Time Element” was a top-notch production, filled with talented actors. William Bendix, whose many credits included Hitchcock’s 1944 movie “Lifeboat”, is Jenson. Jesse White, the future Maytag repairman, is the skeptical bartender (to be fair, everyone Jenson talks to is skeptical, and who can blame them?). Martin Balsam, who would later star in two TZs (“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” and “The New Exhibit“) and play the doomed detective Arbogast in Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, is the psychiatrist. You even see Don Keefer, several years before Anthony Fremont turned him into a jack-in-the-box on TZ’s “It’s a Good Life“.
It may seem strange that CBS would be so reluctant to air “The Time Element”. But we have to remember two things. One is that Serling had become famous for writing straight dramas — stories with considerable punch but no supernatural elements. The second is that open-ended stories with twist endings were definitely not in vogue at the time (at least on TV). As a result, CBS execs reacted to Serling’s interest in fantasy the way Ernest Hemingway’s publisher would react if he said he wanted to write a comic book.
At the end of “The Time Element”, Desi Arnaz gives the audience his own theory about the ambiguous ending, then invites viewers to do the same: “Any of you out there have any other answers? Let us know.” I don’t know what other theories they shared, but viewers made one thing clear: They liked what they saw.
So with apologies to Earl Holliman, the star of TZ’s first episode, let’s tip our hats on Pearl Harbor Day to Pete Jenson, an unheralded fifth-dimension pioneer.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!
Posted on 12/07/2015, in Rod Serling, Twilight Zone and tagged Desi Arnaz, Desilu Playhouse, Martin Balsam, Pearl Harbor, Rod Serling, The Time Element, Wiliam Bendix. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.