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!