Serling Edit: Cutting a Scene of Larceny in Twilight Zone’s “Where is Everybody?”

October means Halloween to a lot of people — myself included — but it also makes me think of The Twilight Zone. I know, I know. I hardly need any encouragement, do I? And yet October is special because it’s the month that TZ premiered in 1959.

It was on October 2 of that year — at 10:00pm EST, if you want to be precise — that anyone turning to CBS saw the first episode, “Where is Everybody?” The story of an Air Force pilot who hallucinates himself into an empty town during isolation training was Stop #1 for those curious enough to explore Rod Serling’s “middle ground between light and shadow”.

So I thought I would share something fun today. It’s something Serling included in an early draft of the episode, but which was apparently never filmed: a scene in which pilot Mike Ferris steals from the town bank.

That’s right. Our fine, upstanding astronaut-to-be — a common thief!

According to the draft in volume one of “As Timeless as Infinity: The Twilight Zone Scripts of Rod Serling”, this scene occurs after the one in the movie theater. So, at least in the final episode, it’s close to the moment when Ferris is pulled from the isolation booth.

Not in this early version of the script, though.

In it, having fled the theater, he finds himself outside the drugstore he’d entered earlier, looking through the window at a magazine with “The Last Man on Earth” printed on it. That’s another change; as Zone fans may recall, that title is seen in the finished episode emblazoned on some paperback books in a spinning rack.

He starts walking again and spots a sign that reads “City Bank.” Laughing, he walks in and approaches a teller’s window. Pressing his face against the bars, he says to the imaginary employee:

He stuffs the money in his shirt and heads for the door. Then he sees some stacks of coins at another teller’s window. “Gotta make room for some silver,” he says, discarding some of the bills to accommodate them before stepping outside with the loot.

He sits on the curb and pulls out the money. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “Always wanted to do!” Then, using a match and a half-smoked cigar he picked up earlier, he proceeds to burn the bills (or at least some of them — the script’s not very precise on that point).

“Big deal,” he mutters as the money goes up in smoke. “So what? Big deal.” Then he looks up and spies a “Join the Air Force” sign in front of the post office. That leads into the “Hey, everybody, I’m in the Air Force!” moment that we see in the final episode — though on film it occurs before he enters the theater, prompted by the sight of a pilot on a movie poster.

It’s possible Mike’s little larcenous moment wasn’t used simply because of time limitations. Serling often wrote scripts that were on the long side, so trims weren’t uncommon. Whatever the cause, I can think of two reasons I’m glad the scene was discarded.

For one, it slows the story down. In the filmed episode, the theater scene is when the momentum really picks up. He desperately tries to see who the projectionist is, then (in one of the most visually startling shots of the entire series) runs right into a mirror in the lobby, shattering it.

That leads him to run outside, panicked, until he winds up pushing the crosswalk button … which brings us to the twist of the story. So inserting a calm, quasi-funny scene at this point would wreck the pacing.

The second reason I’m glad the scene never made it off the page: Does robbery really fit Mike’s character? I know — he’s not engaged in any real-world theft. He may not realize that this is all a hallucination, but he can sense that this world has an distinct air of unreality. It’s like a dream. So yeah, why not walk out of the bank with stacks of cash?

But it still doesn’t feel right to me. The sequence in the completed episode works perfectly, with the movie poster touching off the realization that he’s a pilot, followed by his frantic effort to see who the projectionist is and his race through the streets to the crosswalk button.

Everything ratchets up a step at a time, with no unnecessary break in the tension.

Besides, a desultory fake-robbery feels redundant after his walk through the empty town. We’ve seen enough to appreciate Serling’s set-up. No one’s around — we get it!

I find it encouraging that even a writer as naturally gifted as Serling still needed to edit himself. So if you consider him an inspiration, don’t be afraid to go back through your work and cut or fix anything that doesn’t seem to be working.

Maybe then, when you’re looking for readers, you won’t be running around wondering, “Where is everybody?”

***

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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 10/09/2020, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Howard Manheimer

    Mike Ferris keeps seeing things that make him think someone is just around the corners, if he can just FIND THEM! The jukebox playing, the coffee was recently made, the pies were baked a little while ago. Maybe the person/people could be outside. The cigar still burning. The projectionist in the movie theater that isn’t there, but then who started the film running?

    • Yeah, it’s neat how he seems to be right on the trail of that person! First-time viewers are surely expecting him to run into whoever it is, and so the actual denouement is quite a surprise. Fun stuff. :)

  2. Nice background investigation, Paul! Ever consider becoming a TZ PI? Love this stuff!

    Yes, editing is an important process in writing! As I like to say, “I ain’t married to any particular words”! I’m just looking for a specific outcome, and everything, including specific words, should target that outcome. So, yeah, I agree with you—the editing of that part was worth cutting. In a novel, sure, keep it, but it slows things down and takes you out of the needed forward momentum of the story and where the viewers’ minds should be (e.g., instead of rolling with the story, being propelled forward in the craziness, they’re now doing exactly what you mentioned: thinking retroactively: WTH? Is this in-character? Does it matter?). It takes everyone out of the flow.

    Great post!

  3. Cool information! I agree this bank robbing scene would’ve slowed the episode down. It was smart to cut it. In writing, I learned we often have to “kill our darlings” no matter how much it hurts.

    We don’t know much about his character in the beginning. He could’ve easily been a criminal. That would’ve made for another interesting plot twist. The big bad Government is using convicts for testing purposes. And to throw another twist – they’re doing early testing on them because they know something big is going to happen to the earth and they’ll have to send masses of people to live on Mars (keeping with the tone of the 50s and 60s space sci-fi). They need to see if humans can hack the trip. The ones that will be going up to start the colonies and preparation for the rest.

    Okay, it’s not fully thought out and this probably sounds like it’s turning into a Bradbury Novel. :p

    • Ha, yes, it does seem to be getting complicated! But hey, this is TZ. You can certainly be forgiven some flights of fancy!

      And yes, any writing that detracts must go, darling or not. It’s like pruning or a plant or chiseling a sculpture — only the truly vital elements should remain.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, LG!

  4. I agree with you, Paul, the episode is much better without that scene. It is amazing to look back and see how these stories evolved. I’m glad you do the heavy lifting on research like this. I get to come here and enjoy. Thanks!

    • It’s funny — when I started getting the script books, I expected (and wanted) a collection of transcripts. So it was a surprise when they turned out to be drafts that were close to the final product in some cases, but not in others. At first, I was a bit put out, but I soon realized it was much more interesting and valuable to see the scripts in development, so to speak. Anyway, glad you enjoyed the post, Dan! More to come in this vein.

      • Seeing the changes, highlights his intent. I’ve always liked the fact that he could stay “on message” but still deliver an entertaining product.

  5. Once again Paul
    I liked what you wrote AND I am a huge Twilight Zone fan I did learn something I didn’t know about the TZ…. …….you must be doing something right . 😆 Thank you for this post and BTW.
    Great name ! ( I’ve commented before )

    PAUL

  6. I assume you and others have seen this recording of a 1959 Mike Wallace interview made before Twilight Zone premiered, but I hadn’t.

    I found it interesting how Wallace seemed to pressing the idea that TZ (which he hadn’t seen) was slumming or a sell-out for Serling, though the conversation about the “censorship” limitations was also interesting. Serling seems to be saying (perhaps as tactic) that there’s since TZ is fantasy there will be little or no censorship issues, which kind of plays into Wallace’s implied charge that Serling is abandoning the battle to discuss controversial topics.

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