Blog Archives

The Right Length for a Twilight Zone: Half an Hour or an Hour? How Serling’s Answer Changed

Opinions about Twilight Zone‘s fourth season, when Rod Serling’s landmark anthology series expanded to an hour, vary widely. Some fans really enjoy it. Others? Not so much.

“I Dream of Genie”

But even the biggest cheerleaders for Season 4 will admit that Serling and his fellow scribes were much more in the Zone, shall we say, when their stories clocked in at 25 minutes, not 50.

“Ours is the perfect half-hour show,” Serling said at one of several points when talk of an hour-long version came up. “If we went to an hour, we’d have to fleshen our stories, soap-opera style. Viewers could watch 15 minutes without knowing whether they were in a Twilight Zone or Desilu Playhouse.”

There’s a little Zone-like foreshadowing. Serling’s foray into the fifth dimension soon became an hour-long jaunt, and his warning about “fleshening” would prove prophetic. You’ve heard of doing more with less; this was a case of doing less with more.

“The Incredible World of Horace Ford”

That’s not to say Season 4 didn’t have some good episodes. We got, for example, “He’s Alive” (with Dennis Hopper as a neo-Nazi being coached by Adolf Hitler’s ghost), “The New Exhibit” (Martin Balsam as the curator of some homicidal wax figures), “Printer’s Devil” (Burgess Meredith as a diabolically talented journalist), and “On Thursday We Leave for Home” (James Whitmore as the power-hungry leader of a barren space colony).

I could name others, and perhaps you could too. As Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion, wrote: “The series had not disgraced itself.”

Far from it, in fact. Still, it was wise to go back to the half-hour slot for Season 5. As Buck Houghton, TZ’s producer through its first three seasons, later pointed out, the extra length made it very tough to do the kind of surprise endings that Serling and the other Zone writers specialized in throughout most of the show’s run.

Read the rest of this entry

The Perils and Pitfalls of Social Distancing … in the Twilight Zone

“Social distancing” is a new skill for most of us. Even many introverts are finding the new norms to be a bit much.

But in the fifth dimension, it’s a different story. Keeping your neighbors at arm’s length isn’t all that unusual.

Just ask astronaut Mike Ferris. He spent most of the Twilight Zone pilot, “Where is Everybody?”, wandering around an empty town. The closest thing he found to another human being was a store mannequin.

Or how about the prisoner in “The Lonely”? Poor Corry was not only in solitary confinement, he wasn’t even on Earth. Weeks would go by before anyone showed up to bring him supplies.

Then there was Henry Bemis in “Time Enough at Last”. Nothing like a little nuclear blast to ensure you get some major “me time”. Read the rest of this entry

Spotlight on Season 4: “On Thursday We Leave For Home”

“The ideal Twilight Zone started with a really smashing idea that hit you in the first few seconds, then you played that out, and had a little flip at the end. That was the structure.” — Richard Matheson (writer of “Nick of Time”, “The Invaders”, and a dozen other TZs)

That structure worked like a charm for four of Twilight Zone’s five seasons. During Season 4, however, it went to an hour, making it virtually impossible to follow the established formula for an “ideal Twilight Zone”. Small wonder that CBS pared it back to a half-hour for the final season.

Are you sure you want less of me?

Are you sure you want less of me?

But although the move to an hour did result in some stories that were obviously padded and dramatically flat, some excellent episodes aired that season. Indeed, it showcased some of the finest writing in the entire series.

I highlighted one example last year in a post on Charles Beaumont’s “Miniature”. Now I’d like to do the same for a key scene in Rod Serling’s “On Thursday We Leave For Home”. Read the rest of this entry

The Best of Twilight Zone’s Hour-Long Season 4 Episodes

“Ours is the perfect half-hour show. If we went to an hour, we’d have to fleshen our stories, soap opera style. Viewers could watch fifteen minutes without knowing whether they were in a Twilight Zone or Desilu Playhouse.”

That was Rod Serling speaking, a couple years before The Twilight Zone spent one season as, yes, an hour-long show.

Why? Primarily because Twilight Zone was briefly off the air following Season 3, then brought back as a mid-season replacement — and the show it was replacing was 60 minutes. Besides, if the show was a hit at 30 minutes, why not expand it to 60 and give the audience twice as much show?

It soon became clear why: Fantasy stories, especially ones that depended on a twist ending, were more ideally suited to the half-hour format. In 30 minutes, they could get in, set up an intriguing premise, and then deliver the payoff. But when you double that length, the effect is ruined. The longer the expected payoff was delayed, the more the suspense and tension was dissipated.

Take “The Thirty-Fathom Grave,” for example. It’s a story about a modern Navy ship discovering a sunken World War II submarine — and hearing a mysterious tapping sound coming from inside. For the sake of those who haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin the ending, but suffice it to say that the story, despite the usual quality touches you’d expect on a TZ, is simply too padded. Several other Season 4 episodes were also stretched out a bit too long. Read the rest of this entry